The tower watch chief was tired himself, not only from the trying shift tonight, but from others which preceded it. He remembered reading somewhere recently that new air traffic systems, being readied for the mid-1970s, would halve controllers’ work loads, thereby reducing occupational fatigue and nervous breakdowns. The tower chief remained skeptical. He doubted if, in air traffic control, pressures would ever lighten; if they eased in one way, he thought, they would increase in another. It made him sympathize with those who, like Keith–still gaunt, pate, strained–had proved victims of the system.
Still in an undertone, Wayne Tevis repeated, “Do I take him off, or not?”
The tower chief shook his head. Low-voiced, he answered, “Let’s not push it. Keep Keith on, but stay close.”
It was then that Keith, observing the two with heads together, guessed that something critical was coming up. He was, after all, an old hand, familiar with signals of impending trouble.
Instinct told him, too, that the supervisors’ conversation was in part, about himself. He could understand why. Keith had no doubt he would be relieved from duty in a few minutes from now, or shifted to a less vital radar position. He found himself not caring.
It was a surprise when Tevis–without shuffling duties–began warning all watch positions of the expected arrival of Trans America Two, in distress, and its priority handling.
Departure control was cautioned: Route all departures well clear of the flight’s anticipated route in.
To Keith, Tevis expounded the runway problem–the uncertainty as to which runway was to be used, and the need to postpone a decision until the last possible moment.
“You work out your own plan, buddy boy,” Tevis instructed in his nasal Texas drawl. “And after the handover, stay with it. We’ll take everything else off your hands.”
At first, Keith nodded agreement, no more perturbed than he had been before. Automatically, he began to calculate the flight pattern he would use. Such plans were always worked out mentally. There was never time to commit them to paper; besides, the need for improvisation usually turned up.
As soon as he received the flight from Chicago Center, Keith reasoned, he would head it generally toward runway three zero, but with sufficient leeway to swing the aircraft left–though without drastic turns at low altitude–if runway two five was forced on them as the final choice.
He calculated: He would have the aircraft under approach control for approximately ten minutes. Tevis had already advised him that not until the last five, probably, would they know for sure about the runway. It was slicing things fine, and there would be sweating in the radar room, as well as in the air. But it could be managed–just. Once more, in his mind, Keith went over the planned flight path and compass headings.
By then, more definite reports had begun to filter, unofficially, through the tower. Controllers passed information to each other as work gaps permitted… The flight had had a mid-air explosion. It was limping in with structural damage and injured people… Control of the airplane was in doubt. The pilots needed the longest runway–which might or might not be available… Captain Demerest’s warning was repeated: …on two five a broken airplane and dead people… The captain had sent a savage message to the airport manager. Now, the manager was out on three zero, trying to get the runway cleared… The time available was shortening.
Even among the controllers, to whom tension was as commonplace as traffic, there was now a shared nervous anxiety.
Keith’s radar handoff man, seated alongside, passed on the news which came to him in snatches. As he did, Keith’s awareness and apprehension grew. He didn’t want this, or any part of it! There was nothing he sought to prove, or could; nothing he might retrieve, even if he handled the situation well. And if he didn’t, if he mishandled it, he might send a planeload of people to their deaths, as he had done once before already.
Across the radar room, on a direct line, Wayne Tevis took a telephone call from the tower watch chief. A few minutes ago the chief had gone one floor above, into the tower cab, to remain beside the ground controller.
Hanging up, Tevis propelled his chair alongside Keith. “The old man just had word from center. Trans America Two–three minutes from handoff.”
The supervisor moved on to departure control, checking that outward traffic was being routed clear of the approaching flight.
The man on Keith’s left reported that out on the airfield they were still trying frantically to shift the stranded jet blocking runway three zero. They had the engines running, but the airplane wouldn’t move. Keith’s brother (tbe handoff man said) had taken charge, and if the airplane wouldn’t move on its own, was going to smash it to pieces to clear the runway. But everybody was asking: was there time?
If Mel thought so, Keith reasoned, there probably was. Mel coped, he managed things; he always had. Keith couldn’t cope–at least not always, and never in the same way as Mel. It was the difference between them.
Almost two minutes had gone by.
Alongside Keith, the handoff man said quietly, “They’re coming on the scope.” On the edge of the radarscope Keith could see the double blossom radar distress signal–unmistakably Trans America Two.
Keith wanted out! He couldn’t do it! Someone else must take over; Wayne Tevis could himself. There was still time.
Keith swung away from the scope looking for Tevis. The supervisor was at departure control, his back toward Keith.
Keith opened his mouth to call. To his horror, no words came. He tried again… the same.
He realized: It was as in the dream, his nightmare; his voice had failed him… But this was no dream; this was reality! Wasn’t it?… Still struggling to articulate, panic gripped him.
On a panel above the scope, a flashing white light indicated that Chicago Center was calling. The handoff man picked up a direct line phone and instructed, “Go ahead, center.” He turned a selector, cutting in a speaker overhead so that Keith could hear.
“Lincoln, Trans America Two is thirty miles southeast of the airport. He’s on a heading of two five zero.”
“Roger, center. We have him in radar contact. Change him to our frequency.” The handoff man replaced the phone.
Center, they knew, would now be instructing the flight to change radio frequency, and probably wishing them good luck. It usually happened that way when an aircraft was in trouble; it seemed the least that anyone could do from the secure comfort of the ground. In this isolated, comfortably warm room of low-key sounds, it was difficult to accept that somewhere outside, high in the night and darkness, buffeted by wind and storm, its survival in doubt, a crippled airliner was battling home.
The east arrivals radio frequency came alive. A harsh voice, unmistakably Vernon Demerest’s; Keith hadn’t thought about that until this moment. “Lincoln approach control, this is Trans America Two, maintaining six thousand feet, heading two five zero.”
The handoff man was waiting expectantly. It was Keith’s moment to acknowledge, to take over. But he wanted out! Wayne Tevis was still turned away! Keith’s speech wouldn’t come.
“Lincoln approach control,” the voice from Trans America Two grated again, “where in hell are you?”
Where in hell…
Why wouldn’t Tevis turn?
Keith seethed with sudden rage. Damn Tevis! Damn air traffic control! Damn his dead father, Wild Blue Bakersfeld, who led his sons into a vocation Keith hadn’t wanted to begin with! Damn Mel, with his infuriating self-sufficient competence! Damn here and now! Damn everything!…
The handoff man was looking at Keith curiously. At any moment Trans America Two would call again. Keith knew that he was trapped. Wondering if his voice would work, he keyed his mike.
“Trans America Two,” Keith said, “this is Lincoln approach control. Sorry about the delay. We’re still hoping for runway three zero; we shall know in three to five minutes.”
A growled acknowledgment, “Roger, Lincoln. Keep us informed.”
Keith was concentrating now; the extra level of his mind had closed. He forgot Tevis, his father, Mel, himself. All else was excluded but the problem of Flight Two.
He radioed clearly and quietly, “Trans America Two, you are now twenty-five miles east of the outer marker. Begin descent at your discretion. Start a right turn to heading two six zero…”
ONE FLOOR above Keith, in the glass-walled tower cab, the ground controller had advised Mel Bakersfeld that handoff from Chicago Center had occurred.
Mel radioed back, “Snowplows and graders have been ordered to move, and clear the Aéreo-Mexican aircraft from the runway. Instruct Patroni to shut down all engines immediately. Tell him–if he can, get clear himself; if not, hold on tight. Stand by for advice when runway is clear.”
On a second frequency, the tower chief was already informing Joe Patroni.
EVEN BEFORE it happened, Joe Patroni knew he was running out of time.
He had deliberately not started the engines of the Aéreo-Mexican 707 until the latest possible moment, wanting the work of clearing under and around the aircraft to continue as long as it could.
When he realized that he could wait no longer, Patroni made a final inspection. What he saw gave him grave misgivings.
The landing gear was still not as clear from surrounding earth, mud, and snow as it should be. Nor were the trenches, inclining upward from the present level of the main wheels to the hard surface of the nearby taxiway, as wide or deep as he had wanted. Another fifteen minutes would have done it.
Patroni knew he didn’t have the time.
Reluctantly he ascended the boarding ramp, to make his second attempt at moving the mired aircraft, now with himself at the controls.
He shouted to Ingram, the Aérco-Mexican foreman, “Get everybody clear! We’re starting up.”
From under the aircraft, figures began to move out.
Snow was still falling, but more lightly than for several hours.
Joe Patroni called again from the boarding ramp. “I need somebody with me on the flight deck, but let’s keep the weight down. Send me a skinny guy who’s cockpit qualified.”
He let himself into the aircraft’s forward door.
Inside, through the flight deck windows, Patroni could see Mel Bakersfeld’s airport car, its bright yellow coloring reflected through the darkness. The car was parked on the runway, to the left. Near it was the line of snowplows and graders–a reminder, if he needed one, that he had only a few minutes more.
The maintenance chief had reacted with shocked disbelief when Mel announced his plan to shove the Aéreo-Mexican aircraft clear of runway three zero by force, if necessary. The reaction was natural, but was not through indifference to the safety of those aboard Trans America Flight Two. Joe Patroni lived with thoughts of aircraft safety, which was the object of his daily work, It was simply that the idea of reducing an undamaged aircraft to a pile of scrap metal, or something close to it, was near-impossible for him to grasp. In Patroni’s eyes, an aircraft–any aircraft–represented devotion, skill, engineering know-how, hours of labor, and sometimes love. Almost anything was better than its deliberate destruction. Almost anything.