“You’re going to give him practice approaches?” put in the controller.
“I must. Without at least two or three I wouldn’t give a red cent for his chances, not with the experience he’s got. I’ll see how he shapes up. Otherwise….” Treleaven hesitated.
Burdick dropped his cigarette to the floor and stepped on it. “Otherwise what?” he prompted.
Treleaven rounded on them. “Well, we’d better face facts,” he said. “That man up there is frightened out of his wits, and with good reason. If his nerve doesn’t hold, they may stand more chance by ditching offshore in the ocean.”
“But — the impact!” Burdick exclaimed. “And the sick people — and the aircraft. It’d be a total loss.”
“It would be a calculated risk,” said Treleaven icily, looking the rotund manager straight in the eyes. “If our friend looks like piling up all over the field, your airplane will be a write-off anyway.”
“Harry didn’t mean it like that,” broke in the controller hurriedly.
“Hell, no, I guess not,” said Burdick uncomfortably.
“With the added danger,” continued Treleaven, “that if he crashes here, fire is almost certain and we’ll be lucky to save anyone. He may even take some ground installation with him. Whereas if he puts down on the ocean he’ll break up the airplane, sure, but we stand a chance of saving some of the passengers if not the very sick ones. With this light mist and practically no wind the water will be pretty calm, reducing the impact. We’d belly-land him by radar as near as we could to rescue craft.”
“Get the Navy,” the controller ordered his assistant. “Air Force too. Air-sea rescue are already standing by. Have them put out offshore and await radio instructions.”
“I don’t want to do it,” said Treleaven, turning back to the wall map. “It would amount to abandoning the sick passengers. We’d be lucky to get them out before the plane went under. But it may be necessary.” He spoke into his headset. “Radar, are you getting anything?”
“Still nothing,” Came the even, impersonal reply. “Hold it, though. Wait a minute. This may be something coming up…. Yes, Captain. I have him now. He’s ten miles south of track. Have him turn right on to a heading of 265.”
“Nice work,” said Treleaven. He nodded to be put on the air as the switchboard operator called across, “Air Force report visual contact, sir. ETA 38 minutes.”
“Right.” He raised the microphone in front of him. “Hullo, 714. Have you carried out the reverse procedure for flaps and undercart? Over.”
“Yes, Vancouver. Over,” came the girl’s voice.
“Any trouble this time? Flying straight and level?”
“Everything all right, Vancouver. The pilot says — so far.” They heard her give a nervous little laugh.
“That’s fine, 714. We have you on radar now. You’re off course ten miles to the south. I want you to bank carefully to the right, using your throttles to maintain your present speed, and place the aircraft on a heading of 265. I’ll repeat that. 265. Is that clear? Over.”
Treleaven glanced out of the window. The darkness outside had lightened very slightly. “At least they’ll be able to see a little,” he said, “though not until the last minutes.”
“I’ll put everything on stand-by,” said the controller. He called to his assistant, “Warn the tower, Stan. Tell them to alert the fire people.” Then, to the switchboard operator, “Give me the city police.”
“And then put me on to Howard in the press room,” added Burdick. He said to Treleaven, “We’d better explain to those guys about the possibility of ditching before they start jumping to their own conclusions. No, wait!” He suddenly remembered, staring intently at the captain. “We can’t admit that would mean writing off the sick passengers. I’d be cutting my throat!”
Treleaven was not listening. He had slumped into a chair, his head bowed with a hand over his eyes, not hearing the confused murmur of voices about him. But at the first splutter as the amplifier came alive he was on his feet, reaching for the microphone.
“Hullo, Vancouver,” called Janet. “We are now on a heading of 265 as instructed. Over.”
“714. That’s fine,” said Treleaven with an assumed cheerfulness. “You’re doing splendidly. Let’s have it all again, shall we? This will be the last time before you reach the airport, George, so make it good.”
The controller was speaking with quiet urgency into his telephone. “Yes, they’ll be with us in about a half hour. Let’s get the show on the road.”
SPENCER TRIED to ease his aching legs. His whole body felt pummeled and bruised. In his anxiety and the effort of concentration he had expended almost unnecessary energy, leaving him, the moment he relaxed, utterly drained of strength. He was conscious of his hands trembling and made no attempt to check them. As he watched the unceasing movement of the instruments, a fleck of light rose constantly in front of his eyes, slowly falling again like a twist of cotton. All the time that interior voice, now every bit as real to him and as independent as the one in his earphones, kept up its insistent monologue, telling him: Whatever you do, don’t let go. If you let go, you’re finished. Remember, it was like this many a time in the war. You thought you’d reached the end then — completely bushed, with not another ounce left in you. But every time there was something left in the bag — one last reserve you never knew you had.
He looked across to Janet, willing himself to speak. “How did we make out that time?” he asked her. He knew he was very near to collapse.
She seemed to sense the purpose of his question. “We did pretty well,” she said brightly. “Anyway, I thought Captain Treleaven sounded pleased, didn’t you?”
“Hardly heard him,” he said, turning his head from side to side to relieve the muscles in his neck. “I just hope that’s the lot. How many times have we done the flap and wheel routine now — is it three? If he asks us to do it once more, I’ll…” Steady on, he admonished himself. Don’t let her see what a state you’re in. She had leaned over to him and wiped his face and forehead with a handkerchief. Come on now, get a grip. This is only nervous reaction — blue funk, if you like. Think of Treleaven: what a spot he’s in. He’s safe on the ground, sure enough, but suppose he forgot something —
“Have you noticed, the sun’s coming up,” said Janet.
“Why sure,” he lied, lifting his eyes. Even ahead to the west the carpet of cloud was tinged with pink and gold, and there too the vast canopy of sky had perceptibly lightened. To the south, on the port beam, he could see two mountain tops, isolated like islands in a tumbling ocean of cotton wool. “We won’t be long now.” He paused.
“Before we go down, have a last — I mean, another look at the pilots. We’ll probably bump a bit — you know — and we don’t want them thrown about.”
Janet flashed a grateful smile at him.
“Can you hold on there for a moment?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, I’ll yell quick enough.”
She slipped off her headset and rose from her seat. As she turned to get out, the door to the passenger deck opened and Baird looked in.
“Oh — you’re off the radio,” he observed.
“I was just going to have a look at the captain and copilot, to make sure they’re secure.”
“No need to,” he told her. “I did it a few minutes ago, when you were busy.”
“Doctor,” called Spencer, “how are things with you back there?”
“That’s why I looked in,” said Baird tersely. “We’re running out of time — but fast.”
“Is there any kind of help that we can get you on the radio?”
“I’d liked to have had a diagnostic check with a doctor down there, but I guess it’s more important to hold the air open for flying the machine. How long is it likely to be now?”
“Well under the half hour, I’d say. How does that sound?”
“I don’t know,” Baird said doubtfully. He held on to the back of Spencer’s seat, weariness apparent in every inch of his posture. He was in shirt sleeves, his tie discarded. “There are two patients in a state of complete prostration,” he went on. “How much longer they can last without treatment, I can’t say. But not long, that’s for sure. And there are several others who’ll soon be just as bad, unless I’m very wrong.”
Spencer grimaced. “Is anyone giving you a hand?”
“You bet — couldn’t possibly manage, otherwise. One feller in particular — that English character — he’s really turned out a—”
The earphones came to life. “Hullo, 714. This is Vancouver. Over.”
Spencer waved Janet back into her seat and she hurriedly donned her headset. “Well, I’ll get back,” said Baird. “Good luck, anyway.”
“Wait a minute,” said Spencer, nodding to the girl.
“714 here,” Janet acknowledged into her microphone. “We’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Doctor,” said Spencer, speaking quickly, “I don’t have to fool you. This may be rough. Just about anything in the book is liable to happen.” The doctor said nothing. “You know what I mean. They may get a bit jumpy back there. See that they’re kept in their seats, huh?”
Baird seemed to be turning words over in his mind. Then he replied in a gruff tone, “Do the best you can and leave me to take care of the rest.” He thumped the young man lightly on the shoulder and made his way aft.
“Okay,” said Spencer to the girl.
“Go ahead, Vancouver,” she called.
“Hullo, 714,” responded the clear, confident voice of Treleaven. “Now that you’ve had a breather since that last run-through, George, we’d better press on again. You should be receiving me well now. Will you check, please? Over.”
“Tell him I’ve been having a few minutes with my feet up,” said Spencer. “And tell him he’s coming in about strength niner.” Strength niner, he thought You really dug that one up.
“… a short rest,” Janet was saying, “and we hear you strength niner.”
“That’s the way, George. Our flying practice has slowed you down a bit, though that’s all to the good as it will be getting light when you come in. You are now in the holding position and ready to start losing height. First I want to speak to Janet. Are you listening, Janet?”
“Hullo, Vancouver. Yes, I hear you.”
“Janet, when we make this landing we want you to follow the emergency crash procedures for protection of passengers. Do you understand? Over.”