Pilots in a simulator conversed with a nearby control room, as they would on radio in the air. Within the control room, skilled operators duplicated air traffic control procedures and other flight conditions. The operators could also feed in adverse situations, without warning, to pilots. These ranged through multiple engine failure, to fire, violent weather, electrical and fuel problems, explosive decompression, instrument malfunction, and other assorted unpleasantness. Even a crash could be reproduced; sometimes simulators were used in reverse to find out what bad caused one.
Occasionally an operator would feed in several emergencies at once, causing pilots to emerge later, exhausted and sweat-drenched. Most pilots coped with such tests; the few who didn’t had the fact noted in their records, were re-examined, and afterward watched carefully. The simulator sessions continued, several times a year, through every stage of a pilot’s career until retirement.
The result was: When a real emergency occurred, airline pilots knew exactly what to do, and did it, without fumbling or loss of precious time. It was one of many factors which made travel by scheduled airlines the safest means of transportation in human history. It had also conditioned Anson Harris to instant action, directed toward the salvation of Flight Two.
In the drill for explosive decompression one rule was fundamental: the crew took care of themselves first. Vernon Demerest observed the rule; so did Anson Harris and Cy Jordan.
They must be on oxygen at once–even ahead of passengers. Then, with full mental faculties assured, decisions could be made.
Behind each pilot’s seat a quick-don oxygen mask–resembling a baseball catcher’s mask–-was hanging. As he had practiced countless times, Harris ripped off his radio headset, then reached over his shoulder for the mask. He tugged, so that a holding clip snapped open, and slapped the mask on. As well as a connection to the airplane’s oxygen supply, it contained a microphone. For listening, now his headset was removed, Harris changed a selector, actuating a speaker overhead.
Behind him, Cy Jordan, with identical swift movements, did the same.
In another reflex movement, Anson Harris took care of passengers. Cabin oxygen systems worked automatically in event of pressure failure; but as a precaution–in case they didn’t–over the pilots’ heads was an override switch. It ensured positive release of passenger masks and sent oxygen flowing into them. Harris flipped the switch.
He dropped his right hand to the throttles, pulling all four off. Thz aircraft slowed.
It must be slowed still more.
Left of the throttles was a speed brake handle. Harris pulled it fully toward him. Along the top surface of both wings, spoilers rose up, inducing drag, and causing further slowing.
Cy Jordan silenced the warning horn.
So far, all procedures had been automatic. Now, a moment for decision had arrived.
It was essential that the aircraft seek a safer altitude below. From its present height of twenty-eight thousand feet, it must descend some three and a half miles to where the air was denser so that passengers and crew could breathe and survive without supplemental oxygen.
The decision Harris had to make was–should the descent be slow, or a high-speed dive?
Until the past year or two, the instruction to pilots in event of explosive decompression was: dive immediately. Tragically, however, the instruction had resulted in at least one aircraft breaking apart when a slower descent might have saved it. Nowadays, pilots were cautioned: Check for structural damage first. If the damage is bad, a dive may worsen it, so go down slowly.
Yet that policy, too, had hazards. To Anson Harris, they were instantly apparent.
Undoubtedly Flight Two had sustained structural damage. The sudden decompression proved it, and the explosion which bad occurred just before–though still less than a minute ago–might already have done great harm. In other circumstances, Harris would have sent Cy Jordan to the rear to learn how bad the damage was, but since Demerest was gone, Jordan must stay.
But however serious the structural damage, there was another factor, perhaps more cogent. The air temperature outside the aircraft was minus fifty degrees centigrade. Judging by the near-paralyzing cold which Harris felt, the inside temperature must also be near that. In such intense cold, no one without protective clothing could survive for more than minutes.
So which was the lesser gamble–to freeze for sure, or take a cbance and go down fast?
Making a decision which only later events could prove right or wrong, Harris called on interphone to Cy Jordan, “Warn air traffic control! We’re diving!”
At the same moment, Harris banked the aircraft steeply to the right and selected landing gear “down.” Banking before the dive would have two effects: Passengers or stewardesses who were not strapped in seats, or who were standing, would be held where they were by centrifugal force; whereas, a straight dive would throw them to the ceiling. The turn would also head Flight Two away from the airway they had been using, and–hopefully–other traffic below.
Putting the landing gear down would further reduce forward speed, and make the dive steeper.
On the overhead speaker, Harris could hear Cy Jordan’s voice intoning a distress call. “Mayday, mayday. This is Trans America Two. Explosive decompression. We are diving, diving.”
Harris pushed the control yoke hard forward. Over his shoulder he shouted, “Ask for ten!”
Cy Jordan added, “Request ten thousand feet.”
Anson Harris clicked a radar transponder switch to seventy-seven–a radar S-O-S. Now, on all monitoring screens on the ground, a double blossom signal would be seen, confirming both their distress and identity.
They were going down fast, the altimeter unwinding like a clock with a wild mainspring… Passing through twenty-six thousand feet… twenty-four… twenty-three… Climb and descent meter showed eight thousand feet descent a minute… Toronto Air Route Center on the overhead speaker: “All altitudes below you are clear. Report your intentions when ready. We are standing by.”… Harris had eased out of the turn, was diving straight ahead… No time to think about the cold; if they could get low enough fast enough, there might be survival–if the aircraft held together… Already Harris was aware of trouble with rudder control and elevators; rudder movement was stiff; stabilizer trim, not responding… Twenty-one thousand feet… twenty… nineteen… From the feel of the controls, the explosion had done damage to the tail; how bad, they would discover when he tried to pull out in a minute or less from now. It would be the moment of greatest strain. If anything critical gave way, they would continue plummeting in… Harris would have been glad of some help from the right seat, but it was too late for Cy Jordan to move there. Besides, the second officer was needed where he was–shutting air inlets, throwing in all the heat they had, watching for fuel system damage or fire warnings… Eighteen thousand feet… seventeen… When they reached fourteen thousand, Harris decided, he would start pulling out of the dive, hoping to level at ten… Passing through fifteen thousand… fourteen… Begin easing out now!
Controls were heavy, but responding… Harris pulled back hard on the control yoke. The dive was flattening, control surfaces holding, the aircraft coming out… Twelve thousand feet; descending more slowly now… eleven thousand… ten, five… ten!
They were level! So far, everything had held together. Here, the normal air was breathable and would sustain life, extra oxygen not necessary. The outside air temperature gauge showed minus five centigrade–five degrees below freezing; still cold, but not the killing cold of altitudes above.
From beginning to end, the dive had taken two and a half minutes.
The overhead speakers came alive. “Trans America Two, this is Toronto Center. How are you doing?”
Cy Jordan acknowledged. Anson Harris cut in. “Level at ten thousand, returning to heading two seven zero. We have structural damage due to explosion, extent unknown. Request weather and runway information–Toronto, Detroit Metropolitan, and Lincoln.” In his mind, Harris had an instant picture of airports large enough to accommodate the Boeing 707, and with the special landing requirements he would need.
Vernon Demerest was clambering over the smashed flight deck door and other debris outside. Hurrying in, he slid into his seat on the right side.
“We missed you,” Harris said.
“Can we maintain control?”
Harris nodded. “If the tail doesn’t fall off, we may stay lucky.” He reported the impeded rudder and stabilizer trim. “Somebody let off a firecracker back there?”
“Something like that. It’s made a bloody great hole. I didn’t stop to measure.”
Their casualness, both men knew, was on the surface only. Harris was still steadying the aircraft, seeking an even altitude and course. He said considerately, “It was a good scheme, Vernon. It could have worked.”
“It could have, but it didn’t.” Demerest swung around to the second officer. “Get back in tourist. Check on damage, report by interphone. Then do all you can for the people. We’ll need to know how many are hurt, and how badly.” For the first time he permitted himself an anguished thought. “And find out about Gwen.”
The airport reports, which Anson Harris had asked for, were coming in from Toronto center: Toronto airport still closed; deep snow and drifts on all runways. Detroit Metropolitan–all runways closed to regular traffic, but plows will vacate runway three left if essential for emergency approach and landing; runway has five to six inches level snow, with ice beneath. Detroit visibility, six hundred feet in snow flurries. Lincoln International–all runways plowed and serviceable; runway three zero temporarily closed, due to obstruction. Lincoln visibility one mile; wind northwest, thirty knots, and gusting.
Anson Harris told Demerest, “I don’t intend to dump fuel.”
Demerest, understanding Harris’s reasoning, nodded agreement. Assuming they could keep the airplane under control, any landing they made would be tricky and heavy, due to the large fuel load which in other circumstances would have carried them to Rome. Yet, in their present situation, to dump unwanted fuel could be an even greater hazard. The explosion and damage at the rear might have set up electrical short circuits, or metal friction, which even now could be producing sparks. When dumping fuel in flight, a single spark could turn an aircraft into a flaming holocaust. Both captains rationalized: better to avoid the fire risk and accept the penalty of a difficult landing.
Yet the same decision meant that a landing at Detroit–the nearest large airport–could be attempted only in desperation. Because of their heavy weight, they would have to land fast, requiring every available foot of runway and the last ounce of braking power. Runway three left–Detroit Metropolitan’s longest, which they would need–had ice beneath snow, in the circumstances the worst possible combination.
There was also the unknown factor–wherever Flight Two landed–of how limited their control might be, due to rudder and stabilizer trim problems, which they already knew about, though not their extent.