“It seems to me flying isn’t a thing you’d forget,” said Baird, watching him closely.
“It’s a different kind of flying altogether. It’s — it’s like driving an articulated sixteen-wheeler truck in heavy traffic when all you’ve driven before is a fast sports job on open roads.”
“But it’s still driving,” persisted Baird. Spencer did not answer, taking a long draw on his cigarette. Baird shrugged and half turned away. “Well,” he said, “let’s hope then there’s someone else who can fly this thing — neither of these men can.” He looked down at the pilots.
The door opened and Janet came into the flight deck. She glanced inquiringly at Spencer, then back at the doctor. Her voice was flat.
“There’s no one else,” she said.
“That’s it, then,” said the doctor. He waited for Spencer to speak, but the younger man was staring forward at the row upon row of luminous dials and switches. “Mr. Spencer,” said Baird, measuring his words with deliberation, “I know nothing of flying. All I know is this. There are several people on this plane who will die within a few hours if they don’t get to hospital soon. Among those left who are physically able to fly the plane, you are the only one with any kind of qualification to do so.” He paused. “What do you suggest?”
Spencer looked from the girl to the doctor. He asked tensely, “You’re quite sure there’s no chance of either of the pilots recovering in time?”
“None at all, I’m afraid. Unless I can get them to hospital quickly I can’t even be sure of saving their lives.”
The young salesman exhaled a lungful of smoke and ground the rest of his cigarette under his heel. “It looks as if I don’t have much choice, doesn’t it?” he said.
“That’s right. Unless you’d rather we carried on until we were out of gas — probably halfway across the Pacific.”
“Don’t kid yourself this is a better way.” Spencer stepped forward to the controls and looked ahead at the white sea of cloud below them, glistening in the moonlight. “Well,” he said, “I guess I’m drafted. You’ve got yourself a new driver, Doc.” He slipped into the lefthand pilot’s seat and glanced over his shoulder at the two behind him. “If you know any good prayers you’d better start brushing up on them.”
Baird moved up to him and slapped his arm lightly. “Good man,” he said with feeling.
“What are you going to tell the people back there?” asked Spencer, running his eye over the scores of gauges in front of him and racking his memory to recall some of the lessons he had learned in a past that now seemed very far away.
“For the moment — nothing,” answered the doctor.
“Very wise,” said Spencer dryly. He studied the bewildering array of instrument dials. “Let’s have a look at this mess. The flying instruments must be in front of each pilot. That means that the center panel will probably be engines only. Ah — here we are: altitude 20,000. Level flight. Course 290. We’re on automatic pilot — we can be thankful for that. Air speed 210 knots. Throttles, pitch, trim, mixture, landing-gear controls. Flaps? There should be an indicator somewhere. Yes, here it is. Well, they’re the essentials anyway — I hope. We’ll need a check list for landing, but we can get that on the radio.”
“Can you do it?”
“1 wouldn’t know, Doc — I just wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen a setup like this before in my life. Where are we now, and where are we going?”
“From what the captain said, we’re over the Rockies,” replied Baird. “He couldn’t turn off course earlier because of fog, so we’re going through to Vancouver.”
“We’ll have to find out” Spencer looked about him in the soft glow. “Where is the radio control, anyway?”
Janet pointed to a switchbox above his head. “I know they use that to talk to the ground,” she told him, “but I don’t know which switches you have to set.”
“Ah yes, let’s see.” He peered at the box. “Those are the frequency selectors — we’d better leave them where they are. What’s this? — transmit.” He clicked over a switch, lighting up a small red bulb. “That’s it. First blood to George. Now we’re ready for business.”
Janet handed him a headset with the boom microphone attached. “I know you press the button on the mike when you speak,” she said.
Adjusting the earphones. Spencer spoke to the doctor. “You know, whatever happens I’m going to need a second pair of hands up here in front. You’ve got your patients to look after, so I think the best choice is Miss Canada here. What do you say?”
Baird nodded. “I agree. Is that all right, Janet?”
“I suppose so — but I know nothing of all this.” Janet waved helplessly at the control panels.
“Good,” said Spencer breezily, “that makes two of us. Sit down and make yourself comfortable — better strap yourself in. You must have watched the pilots quite a lot. They’ve added a lot of gimmicks since my flying days.”
Janet struggled into the first officer’s seat, taking care not to touch the control column as it swayed back and forth. There was an anxious knocking on the communication door.
“That’s for me,” said Baird. “I must get back. Good luck.”
He left quickly. Alone with the stewardess, Spencer summoned up a grin. “Okay?” he asked.
She nodded dumbly, preparing to put on a headset.
“The name’s Janet, is it? Mine’s George.” Spencer’s tone became serious. “I won’t fool you, Janet. This will be tough.”
“I know it.”
“Well, let’s see if I can send out a distress call. What’s our flight number?”
“Right. Here goes, then.” He pressed the button on his microphone. “Mayday, mayday, mayday,” he began in an even voice. It was one signal he could never forget. He had called it one murky October afternoon above the French coast, with the tail of his Spitfire all but shot off, and two Hurricanes had mercifully appeared to usher him across the channel like a pair of solicitous old aunts.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” he continued. “This is Flight 714, Maple Leaf Air Charter, in distress. Come in, anyone. Over.”
He caught his breath as a voice responded immediately over the air.
“Hullo, 714. This is Vancouver. We have been waiting to hear from you. Vancouver to all aircraft: this frequency now closed to all other traffic. Go ahead, 714.”
“Thank you, Vancouver. 714. We are in distress. Both pilots and several passengers… how many passengers, Janet?”
“It was five a few minutes ago. May be more now, though.”
“Correction. At least five passengers are suffering from food poisoning. Both pilots are unconscious and in serious condition. We have a doctor with us who says that neither pilot can be revived to fly the aircraft. If they and the passengers are not gotten to hospital quickly it may be fatal for them. Did you get that, Vancouver?”
The voice crackled back instantly, “Go ahead, 714. I’m reading you.”
Spencer took a deep breath. “Now we come to the interestmg bit. My name is Spencer, George Spencer. I am a passenger on this airplane. Correction: I was a passenger. I am now the pilot. For your information I have about a thousand hours total flying time, all of it on single-engined fighters. Also I haven’t flown an airplane for nearly thirteen years. So you’d better get someone on this radio who can give me some instructions about flying this thing. Our altitude is 20,000, course 290 magnetic, air speed 210. That’s the story. It’s your move, Vancouver. Over.”
“Vancouver to 714. Stand by.”
Spencer wiped the gathering sweat from his forehead and grinned across to Janet. “Want to bet that’s caused a bit of stir in the dovecotes down there?” She shook her head, listening intently to her earphones. In a few seconds the air was alive again, the voice as measured and impersonal as before.
“Vancouver to Flight 714. Please check with doctor on board for any possibility of either pilot recovering. This is important. Repeat, this is important. Ask him to do everything possible to revive one of them even if he has to leave the sick passengers. Over.”
Spencer pressed his transmit button. “Vancouver, this is flight 714. Your message is understood, but no go, I’m afraid. The doctor says there is no possibility whatever of pilots recovering to make the landing. He says they are critically ill and may die unless they get hospital treatment soon. Over.”
There was a slight pause. Then: “Vancouver Control to 714. Your message understood. Will you stand by, please.”
“Roger, Vancouver,” acknowledged Spencer and switched off again. He said to Janet, “We can only wait now while they think up what to do.”
His hands played nervously with the control column in front of him, following its movements, trying to gauge its responsiveness as he attempted to call up the old cunning in him, the flying skill that had once earned for him quite a reputation in the squadron: three times home on a wing and a prayer. He smiled to himself as he recalled the war-time phrase. But in the next moment, as he looked blankly at the monstrous assembly of wavering needles and the unfamiliar banks of levers and switches, he felt himself in the grip of an icy despair. What had his flying in common with this? This was like sitting in a submarine, surrounded by the meaningless dials and instruments of science fiction. One wrong or clumsy move might shatter in a second the even tenor of their flight; if it did, who was to say that he could bring the aircraft under control again? All the chances were that he couldn’t. This time there would be no comforting presence of Hurricanes to shepherd him home. He began to curse the head office which had whipped him away from Winnipeg to go trouble-shooting across to Vancouver at a moment’s notice. The prospect of a sales manager’s appointment and the lure of a house on Parkway Heights now seemed absurdly trivial and unimportant. It would be damnable to end like this, not to see Mary again, not to say to her all the things that were still unspoken. As for Bobsie and Kit, the life insurance would not take them very far. He should have done more for those poor kids, the world’s best.
A movement beside him arrested his thoughts. Janet was kneeling on her seat, looking back to where the still figures of the captain and the first officer lay on the floor.
“One of those a boy friend of yours?” he asked.
“No,” said Janet hesitantly, “not really.”
“Skip it,” said Spencer, a jagged edge to his voice. “I understand. I’m sorry, Janet.” He put a cigarette in his mouth and fumbled for matches. “I don’t suppose this is allowed, is it, but maybe the airline can stretch a point.”
In the sudden flare of the match she could see, very clearly, the fierce burning anger in his eyes.