Those who, like Patroni, worked in this give-and-take milieu were fond of pointing out that if sales and administration departments of competing airlines had occasion to consult, their people seldom went to one another’s headquarters, but met on neutral ground. Maintenance men, in contrast, visited competitors’ premises with the assurance of a common freemasonry. At other times, if one maintenance department was in trouble, others helped as they were able.
This second kind of help had been sent, tonight, to Joe Patroni.
In the hour and a half since work began in the latest attempt to move the stranded jet from alongside runway three zero, Patroni’s complement of help had almost doubled. He had begun with the original small crew of Aéreo-Mexican, supplemented by some of his own people from TWA. Now, digging steadily with the others, were ground crews from Braniff, Pan Am, American, and Eastern.
As the various newcomers had arrived, in an assortment of airline vehicles, it became evident that news of Patroni’s problem had spread quickly on the airport grapevine, and, without waiting to be asked, other maintenance departments had pitched in. It gave Joe Patroni a good, appreciative feeling.
Despite the extra help, Patroni’s estimate of an hour’s preparatory work had already been exceeded. Digging of twin trenches, floored by heavy timbers, in front of the airliner’s main landing gear had gone ahead steadily–though slowly because of the need for all the men working to seek shelter periodically, to warm themselves. The shelter and the warmth, of a sort, were in two crew buses. As the men entered, they beat their hands and pinched their faces, numb from the biting wind still sweeping icily across the snow-covered airfield. The buses and other vehicles, including trucks, snow clearance equipment, a fuel tanker, assorted service cars, and a roaring power cart–most with beacon lights flashing–were still clustered on the taxiway close by. The whole scene was bathed by floodlights, creating a white oasis of snow-reflected light in the surrounding darkness.
The twin trenches, each six feet wide, now extended forward and upward from the big jet’s main wheels to the firmer ground onto which Patroni hoped the airplane could be moved under its own power. At the deepest level of the trenches was a mess of mud beneath snow, which had originally trapped the momentarily strayed airliner. The mud and slush now mingled, but became less viscous as both trenches angled upward. A third trench, less deep, and narrower than the other two, had been dug to allow passage of the nosewheel. Once the firmer ground was reached, the aircraft would be clear of runway three zero, over which one of its wings now extended. It could also be maneuvered with reasonable ease onto the solid surface of the adjoining taxiway.
Now the preparatory work was almost complete, the success of what came next would depend on the aircraft’s pilots, still waiting on the Boeing 707’s flight deck, high above the current activity. What they would have to judge was how much power they could safely use to propel the aircraft forward, without upending it on its nose.
Through most of the time since he arrived, Joe Patroni had wielded a shovel with the rest of the men digging. Inactivity came hard to him. Sometimes, too, he welcomed the chance to keep himself fit; even now, more than twenty years since quitting the amateur boxing ring, he was in better shape physically than most men years his junior. The airline ground crewmen enjoyed seeing Patroni’s cocky, stocky figure working with them. He led and exhorted… “Keep moving, son, or we’ll figure we’re gravediggers, and you the corpse.”… “The way you guys keep heading for that bus, looks like you’ve got a woman stashed there.”… “If you lean on that shovel any more, Jack, you’ll freeze solid like Lot’s wife.”… “Men, we want this airplane moved before it’s obsolete.”
So far, Joe Patroni had not talked with the captain and first officer, having left that to the Aéreo-Mexican foreman, Ingram, who had been in charge before Patroni’s arrival. Ingram had passed up a message on the aircraft interphone, telling the pilots what was happening below.
Now, straightening his back, and thrusting his shovel at Ingram, the maintenance chief advised, “Five minutes more should do it. When you’re ready, get the men and trucks clear.” He motioned to the snow-shrouded airplane. “When this one comes out, she’ll be like a cork from a champagne bottle.”
Ingram, huddled into his parka, still pinched and cold as he had been earlier, nodded.
“While you’re doing that,” Patroni said, “I’ll yak with the fly boys.”
The old-fashioned boarding ramp which had been trundled from the terminal several hours ago to disembark the stranded passengers was still in place near the aircraft’s nose. Joe Patroni climbed the ramp, its steps covered in deep snow, and let himself into the front passenger cabin. He went forward to the flight deck–with relief, lighting his inevitable cigar as he went.
In contrast to the cold and wind-blown snow outside, the pilots’ cockpit was snug and quiet. One of the communications radios was tuned to soft music of a commercial station. As Patroni entered, the Aéreo-Mexican first officer, in shirt-sleeves, snapped a switch and the music stopped.
“Don’t worry about doing that.” The chunky maintenance chief shook himself like a bull terrier while snow cascaded from his clothing. “Nothing wrong with taking things easy. After all, we didn’t expect you to come down and shovel.”
Only the first officer and captain were in the cockpit. Patroni remembered hearing that the flight engineer had gone with the stewardesses and passengers to the terminal.
The captain, a heavy-set, swarthy man who resembled Anthony Quinn, swiveled around in his port-side seat. He said stiffly, “We have our job to do. You have yours.” His English was precise.
“That’s right,” Patroni acknowledged. “Only trouble is, our job gets fouled up and added to. By other people.”
“If you are speaking of what has happened here,” the captain said, “Madre de Dios!–you do not suppose that I placed this airplane in the mud on purpose.”
“No, I don’t.” Patroni discarded his cigar, which was maimed from chewing, put a new one in his mouth, and lit it. “But now it’s there, I want to make sure we get it out–this next time we try. If we don’t, the airplane’ll be in a whole lot deeper; so will all of us, including you.” He nodded toward the captain’s seat. “How’d you like me to sit there and drive it out?”
The captain flushed. Few people in any airline talked as casually to four-stripers as Joe Patroni.
“No, thank you,” the captain said coldly. He might have replied even more unpleasantly, except that at the moment he was suffering acute embarrassment for having got into his present predicament at all. Tomorrow in Mexico City, he suspected, he would face an unhappy, searing session with his airline’s chief pilot. He raged inwardly: Jesucristo y por la amor de Dios!
“There’s a lotta half-frozen guys outside who’ve been busting their guts,” Patroni insisted. “Getting out now’s tricky. I’ve done it before. Maybe you should let me again.”
The Aéreo-Mexican captain bridled. “I know who you are, Mr. Patroni, and I am told that you are likely to help us move from this bad ground, where others have failed. So I have no doubt that you are licensed to taxi airplanes. But let me remind you there are two of us here who are licensed to fly them. It is what we are paid for. Therefore we shall remain at the controls.”
“Suit yourself.” Joe Patroni shrugged, then waved his cigar at the control pedestal. “Only thing is, when I give the word, open those throttles all the way. And I mean all the way, and don’t chicken out.”
As he left the cockpit, he ignored angry glares from both pilots.
Outside, digging had stopped; some of the men who had been working were warming themselves again in the crew buses. The buses and other vehicles–with the exception of the power cart, which was needed for starting engines–were being removed some distance from the airplane.
Joe Patroni closed the forward cabin door behind him and descended the ramp. The foreman, huddled deeper than ever into his parka, reported, “Everything’s set.”
Remembering his cigar was still lighted, Patroni puffed at it several times, then dropped it into the snow where it went out. He motioned to the silent jet engines. “Okay, let’s light up all four.”
Several men were returning from the crew bus. A quartet put their shoulders to the ramp beside the aircraft and shoved it clear. Two others responded to the foreman’s shout against the wind, “Ready to start engines!”
One of the second pair stationed himself at the front of the aircraft, near the power cart. He wore a telephone headset plugged into the fuselage. The second man, with flashlight signal wands, walked forward to where he could be seen by the pilots above.
Joe Patroni, with borrowed protective head pads, joined the crewman with the telephone headset. The remainder of the men were now scrambling from the sheltering buses, intent on watching what came next.
In the cockpit, the pilots completed their checklist.
On the ground below, the crewman with the telephone set began the jet starting ritual. “Clear to start engines.”
A pause. The captain’s voice. “Ready to start, and pressurize the manifold.”
From the power cart blower, a stream of forced air hit the air turbine starter of number three engine. Compressor vanes turned, spun faster, whined. At fifteen percent speed, the first officer fed in aviation kerosene. As the fuel ignited, a smoke cloud belched back and the engine took hold with a deep-throated bellow.
“Clear to start four.”
Number four engine followed three. Generators on both engines charging.
The captain’s voice. “Switching to generators. Disconnect ground power.”
Above the power cart, electric lines came down. “Disconnected. Clear to start two.”
Number two took hold. Three engines now. An encompassing roar. Snow streaming behind.
Number one fired and held.
The umbilical air hose slipped down. The foreman drove the power cart away.
Floodlights ahead of the aircraft had been moved to one side.
Patroni exchanged headsets with the crewman near the front of the fuselage. The maintenance chief now had the telephone set, and communication with the pilots.
“This’s Patroni. When you’re ready up there, let’s roll her out.”
Ahead of the aircraft nose, the crewman with the lighted wands held them up, ready to be a guide along an elliptical path beyond the trenches, also cleared at Joe Patroni’s direction. The crewman was ready to run if the 707 came out of the mud faster than expected.
Patroni crouched close to the nosewheel. If the airplane moved quickly, he, too, was vulnerable. He held a hand near the interphone plug, ready to disconnect. He watched the main landing gear intently for a sign of forward movement.
The captain’s voice. “I am opening up.”
The tempo of the jets increased. In a roar like sustained thunder, the airplane shook, the ground beneath it trembled. But the wheels remained still.