“Ask him about time,” said Spencer. “How much have we got?”
Janet put the question to Vancouver.
“As I said, George, you’ve got all the time in the world — but we just don’t want to waste any. You’ll be over the airport in about twelve minutes. Don’t let that bother you. There’ll be as much time as you like for further practice.” A pause. “Radar reports a course adjustment necessary, George. Change your heading five degrees to 260, please. Over.”
Treleaven switched off his microphone and spoke to the controller. “They’re well on the glide path now,” he said. “As soon as we’ve got visual contact, I’ll level them off and take them around for circuits and drills. We’ll see how they shape up after that.”
“Everything’s set here,” said the controller. He called to his assistant, “Put the entire field on alert.”
“Hullo, Vancouver,” came Janet’s voice over the amplifier. “We have now changed course to 260. Over.”
“Okay, 714.” Treleaven hitched up his trousers with one hand. “Let’s have a check on your height, please. Over.”
“Vancouver,” answered Janet after a few seconds, “our height is 2,500 feet.”
On his headset, Treleaven heard the radar operator report, “Fifteen miles from the field.”
“That’s fine, George,” he said. “You’ll be coming out of cloud any minute. As soon as you do, look for the airport beacon. Over.”
“Bad news,” Burdick told him. “The weather’s thickening. It’s starting to rain again.”
“Can’t help that now,” rapped Treleaven. “Get the tower,” he told the controller. “Tell them to light up — put on everything they’ve got. We’ll be going up there in a minute. I’ll want their radio on the same frequency as this. Spencer won’t have time to fool around changing channels.”
“Right!” said the controller, lifting a telephone.
“Hullo, 714,” Treleaven called. “You are now fifteen miles from the airport. Are you still in cloud, George? Over.”
A long pause followed. Suddenly the radio crackled into life, catching Janet in mid-sentence. She was saying excitedly, “… lifting very slightly. I thought I saw something. I’m not sure…. Yes, there it is! I see it! Do you see it, Mr. Spencer? It’s right ahead. We can see the beacon, Vancouver!”
“They’ve broken through!” Treleaven shouted it. “All right, George,” he called into the microphone, “level off now at 2,000 feet and wait for instructions. I’m moving to the control tower now, so you won’t hear from me for a few minutes. We’ll decide on the runway to use at the last minute, so you can land into wind. Before that you’ll make some dummy runs, to practice your landing approaches. Over.”
They heard Spencer’s voice say, “I’ll take this, Janet.” There was a broken snatch of conversation, then Spencer came on the air again, biting off his words.
“No dice, Vancouver. The situation up here doesn’t allow. We’re coming straight in.”
“What!” shouted Burdick. “He can’t!”
“Don’t be a fool, George,” said Treleaven urgently. “You’ve got to have some practice runs.”
“I’m holding my line of descent,” Spencer intoned deliberately, his voice shaking slightly. “There are people up here dying. Dying! Can you get that into your heads? I’ll stand as much chance on the first run-in as I will on the tenth. I’m coming straight in.”
“Let me talk to him,” appealed the controller.
“No,” said Treleaven, “there’s no time for argument.” His face was white. A vein in his temple pulsed. “We’ve got to act fast. I say we’ve no choice. By all the rules he’s in command of that airplane. I’m going to accept his decision.”
“You can’t do that,” Burdick protested. “Don’t you realize—”
“All right, George,” Treleaven called, “if that’s the way you want it. Stand by and level off. We’re going to the tower now. Good luck to us all. Listening out.” He ripped off his headset, flinging it down, and shouted to the others, “Let’s go.” The three men leaped out of the room and raced along the corridor, Burdick bringing up the rear. Ignoring the elevator, they bounded up the stairs, almost knocking over a janitor, coming down, and burst into the tower control room. An operator stood at the massive sweep of window, studying the lightening sky through night binoculars. “There he is!” he announced. Treleaven snatched up a second pair of glasses, took a quick look, then put them down.
“All right,” he said, panting. “Let’s make our decision on the runway.”
“Zero-eight,” said the operator. “It’s the longest and it’s pretty well into the wind.”
“Radar!” called the captain.
Treleaven crossed to a side table on which appeared a plan of the airport under glass. He used a thick chinagraph pencil to mark the proposed course of the aircraft.
“Here’s what we do. Right now he’s about here. We’ll turn him so he begins to make a wide left-hand circuit, and at the same time bring him down to a thousand feet. I’ll start the pre-landing check here, then we’ll take him over the sea and make a slow turn around on to final. That clear?”
“Yes, Captain,” said the operator.
Treleaven took a headset that was handed to him and put in on. “Is this hooked up to the radar room?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. Right here.”
The controller was reciting into a telephone-type microphone: “Tower to all emergency vehicles. Runway is two-four. Two-four. Airport tenders take positions numbers one and two. Civilian equipment number three. All ambulances to positions numbers four and five. I repeat that no vehicle will leave its position until the aircraft has passed it. Start now.”
Leaning down on the top of a control console, the captain nicked the switch of a desk microphone. At his elbow the spools of a tape recorder began to revolve.
“Hullo, George Spencer,” he called in a steady, even tone. “This is Paul Treleaven in Vancouver tower. Do you read me? Over.”
Janet’s voice filled the control room. “Yes, Captain. You are loud and clear. Over.”
Over the telephone, the calm voice of the radar operator reported, “Ten miles. Turn to a heading of 253.”
“All right, George. You are now ten miles from the airport. Turn to a heading of 253. Throttle back and begin to lose height to one thousand feet. Janet, put the preliminary landing procedure in hand for the passengers. Neither of you acknowledge any further transmissions unless you wish to ask a question.”
Removing his hands one at a time from the control column, Spencer flexed his fingers. He managed a grin at the girl beside him. “Okay, Janet, do your stuff,” he told her.
She unhooked a microphone from the cabin wall and pressed the stud, speaking into it. “Attention please, everyone. Attention please.” Her voice cracked. She gripped the microphone hard and cleared her throat. “Will you please resume your seats and fasten your safety belts. We shall be landing in a few minutes. Thank you.”
“Well done,” Spencer complimented her. “Just like any old landing, eh?”
She tried to smile back, biting her lower lip. “Well, not quite that,” she said.
“You’ve got plenty of what it takes,” said Spencer soberly. “I’d like you to know I couldn’t have held on this far without…” He broke off, gently moving the rudder and the ailerons, waiting to feel the response from the aircraft. “Janet,” he said, his eyes on the instruments, “we haven’t much more time. This is what we knew must happen sooner or later. But I want to make sure you understand why I must try to get her down — somehow — on the first shot.”
“Yes,” she said quietly, “I understand.” She had clipped her safety belt around her waist and now her hands were clenched together tightly in her lap.
“Well, I want to say thanks,” he went on, stumblingly. “I made no promises, right from the start, and I make none now. You know, if anyone does, just how lousy I am at this. But taking turns around the field won’t help. And some of the folk in the back are getting worse every minute. Better for them to… to take their chance quickly.”
“I told you,” she said. “You don’t have to explain.”
He shot a look of alarm at her, afraid in the passing of a moment that he stood exposed to her. She was watching the air-speed indicator; he could not see her face. He glanced away, back along the broad stretch of wing behind them. It was describing with infinite slowness the tiny segment of an arc, balancing on its tip the misty blue-gray outline of a hillside twinkling with road lamps. Sliding under the body of the aircraft, on the other quarter, were the distantly blazing lights of the airport. They seemed pathetically small and far away, like a child’s carelessly discarded string of red and amber beads.
He could feel his heart thumping as his body made its own emergency preparations, as if aware that what remained of its life could now be measured in minutes, even seconds. He looked critically at himself, a man apart, performing the movements to bring the aircraft back to level flight.
He heard himself say, “Here we go, then. This is it, Janet. I’m starting to lose height — now.”
HARRY BURDICK lowered his binoculars and handed them back to the tower controller.
From the observation balcony which girdled the tower, the two men took a last look over the field, at the gasoline tankers pulled well back from the apron and, clearly visible now in the half-light, the group of figures watching from the boarding bays. The steady throb of truck engines from the far end of the field seemed to add to the oppressive, almost unbearable air of expectancy which enveloped the whole airport.
Searching in his mind for any possible fault, Burdick reviewed Treleaven’s plan. The aircraft would arrive overhead at something below two thousand feet and carry on out over the Strait of Georgia, descending gradually on this long, downwind leg while the last cockpit check was executed. Then would follow a wide about-turn on to the final approach, giving the pilot maximum time in which to regulate his descent and settle down carefully for the run-in.
A good plan, one which would take advantage too of the slowly increasing light of dawn. It occurred to Burdick what that would mean to those of the passengers who were well enough to care. They would watch Sea Island and the airport pass beneath them, followed by the wide sweep of the bay, then the island getting shakily nearer again as their emergency pilot made his last adjustments to the controls. Burdick sensed, as if he were up there with them, the suffocating tension, the dreadful choking knowledge that they might well be staring death in the face. He shivered suddenly. In his sweat-soaked shirt, without a jacket, he felt the chill of the early-morning air like a knife.