Page 7 of Runway Zero-Eight

“The boys call me ’Otpot.”

“’Otpot?” repeated Janet incredulously.

“Yes, Lancashire ’Otpot — you know.”

“Oh!” Janet burst out laughing.

“There, that’s better. Now, where are t’cups, you say? Come on, lass, let’s get started. A fine airline this is. Gives you your dinner, then asks for it back again.”

It takes a very great deal to upset the equilibrium of a modern airport. Panic is a thing unknown in such places and would be ruthlessly stamped out if it occurred, for it can be a highly lethal activity.

The control room at Vancouver, when Dun’s emergency call began to come through, presented a scene of suppressed excitement. In front of the radio panel an operator wearing headphones transcribed Dun’s incoming message straight on to a typewriter, pausing only to reach over and punch an alarm bell on his desk. He carried on imperturbably as a second man appeared behind him, craning over his shoulder to read the words as they were pounded on to the sheet of paper in the typewriter. The newcomer, summoned by the bell, was the airport controller, a tall, lean man who had spent a lifetime in the air and knew the conditions of travel over the northern hemisphere as well as he knew his own back garden. Better, in fact, for didn’t his onions always run to seed? He got halfway through the message, then stepped sharply back, cracking an order over his shoulder to the telephone operator on the far side of the room.

“Get me Air Traffic Control quickly. Then clear the teletype circuit to Winnipeg. Priority message.” The controller picked up a phone, waited a few seconds, then said, “Vancouver controller here.” His voice was deceptively unhurried. “Maple Leaf Charter Flight 714 from Winnipeg to Vancouver reports emergency. Serious food poisoning among the passengers, and I mean serious. The first officer is down with it too. Better clear all levels below them for priority approach and landing. Can do? Good. ETA is 05.05.” The controller glanced at the wall dock; it read 02.15. “Right. We’ll keep you posted.” He pushed down the telephone cradle with his thumb, keeping it there as he barked at the teletype operator, “Got Winnipeg yet? Good. Send this message. Starts: ‘Controller Winnipeg. Urgent. Maple Leaf Charter Flight 714 reports serious food poisoning among passengers and crew believed due to fish served dinner on flight. Imperative check source and suspend all other food service originating same place. Understand source was not, repeat not, regular airline caterer.’ That’s all.” He swung round to the telephone switchboard again. “Get me the local manager of Maple Leaf Charter. Burdick’s his name. After that I want the city police — senior officer on duty.” He leaned over the radio operator’s shoulder again and finished reading the now completed message. “Acknowledge that, Greg. Tell them that all altitudes below them are being cleared and that they’ll be advised of landing instructions later. We shall want further news later of the condition of those passengers, too.”

On the floor below, an operator of the Government of Canada Western Air Traffic Control swiveled in his chair to call across the room, “What’s in Green One between here and Calgary?”

“Westbound. There’s an air force North Star at 18,000. Just reported over Penticton. Maple Leaf 714—”

“714’s in trouble. They want all altitudes below them cleared.”

“The North Star’s well ahead and there’s nothing close behind. There’s an eastbound Constellation ready for take-off.”

“Clear it, but hold any other eastbound traffic for the time being. Bring the North Star straight in when it arrives.”

Upstairs, the controller had scooped up the telephone again, holding it with one hand as the other pulled at his necktie, worrying the knot free. Irritably he threw the length of red silk on the table. “Hullo, Burdick? Controller here. Look, we’ve got an emergency on one of your flights — 714 ex Toronto and Winnipeg. Eh? No, the aircraft’s all right. The first officer and several passengers are down with food poisoning. I called Winnipeg right away. Told them to trace the source of the food. Apparently it isn’t the usual caterer. No, that’s right. See here, you’d better come over as soon as you can.” He jabbed the telephone cradle again with his thumb and nodded to the switchboard operator. “The police — got them yet? Good, put them on. Hullo, this is the controller, Vancouver Airport. Who am I speaking to, please? Look, Inspector, we have an emergency on an incoming flight. Several of the passengers and one of the crew have been taken ill with food poisoning and we need ambulances and doctors out here at the airport. Eh? Three serious, possibly others — be prepared for plenty. The flight is due in just after five o’clock local time — in about two and a half hours. Will you alert the hospitals, get the ambulances, set up a traffic control? Right. We’ll be on again as soon as we’ve got more information.”

Within five minutes Harry Burdick had arrived, puffing into the room. The local Maple Leaf manager was a portly little man with an abundant supply of body oils; inexhaustible, it seemed, for no one had ever seen him without his face streaked with runnels of perspiration. He stood in the center of the room, his jacket over his arm, gasping for breath after his hurry and swabbing the lunar-scope of his face with a great blue-spotted handkerchief.

“Where’s the message?” he grunted. He ran his eye quickly over the sheet of paper the radio operator handed to him. “How’s the weather at Calgary?” he asked the controller. “It would be quicker to go in there, wouldn’t it?”

“No good, I’m afraid. There’s fog right down to the grass everywhere east of the Rockies as far as Manitoba. They’ll have to come through.”

A clerk called across from his phone, “Passenger agent wants to know when we’ll be resuming east-bound traffic. Says should he keep the passengers downtown or bring ’em out here?”

Burdick shook a worried head. “Where’s the last position report?” he demanded. A clipboard was passed to him and he scanned it anxiously.

The controller called back to the clerk, “Tell him to keep them downtown. We don’t want a mob out here. We’ll give him lots of warning when we’re ready.”

“You say you’ve got medical help coming?” asked Burdick.

“Yes,” replied the controller. “The city police are working on that. They’ll alert the hospitals and see to the arrangements when we get the plane here.”

Burdick clicked a fat finger. “Hey! That message now. They say the first officer is down, so presumably the captain passed the message. Is he affected at all? Better ask, Controller. And while you’re about it, I should check whether there’s a doctor on board. You never know. Tell them we’re getting medical advice here in case they need it.”

The controller nodded and picked up the stand microphone from the radio desk. Before he could begin Burdick called, “Say, suppose the captain does take sick, Controller? Who’s going to—”

He left the sentence unfinished as the level gaze of the man opposite met his.

“I’m not supposing anything” said the controller. “I’m praying, that’s all. Let’s hope those poor devils up there are praying too.”

Exhaling noisily, Burdick dug in his pockets for cigarettes. “Joe,” he said to the switchboard operator, “get me Dr. Davidson, will you? You’ll find his number on the emergency list.”

FOUR

0220—0245

NEARLY FOUR MILES above the earth, the aircraft held her course.

In every direction, as far as the eye could see, stretched the undulating carpet of cloud, passing beneath the great machine so slowly as to make it appear almost stationary. It was a cold, empty, utterly lonely world, a world in which the heart-beating throb of the aircraft’s engines came rumbling back from the silver-tinted wastes.

Far below, that same powerful pulse of engines, in normal weather, would have reverberated through the desolate valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Tonight, muffled by the ground fog, the sound of her passing was not enough to disturb the scattered communities as they slept in their remote farmsteads. Had someone there chanced to hear the aircraft, he may have disregarded it as an event too commonplace to be worthy of thought. Or he may have wished himself up there, flying to some faraway place and enjoying the solicitous attentions of a crew whose primary concern was his safety and comfort. He could not have dreamed that practically everyone in the aircraft would have gladly and gratefully changed places with him.

Like a monstrous weed, fear was taking root in the minds of most of the passengers. There were some who probably still failed to realize exactly what was going on. But most of them, especially those who could hear the groans and retching of the ones who were ill, felt the presence of a terrible crisis. The doctor’s words over the public address system, once they had sunk in, had provided plenty to think about. The hubbub of dismay and conjecture following them had soon died away, to be replaced by whispers and uneasy snatches of conversation.

Baird had given Janet two pills. “Take them to the captain,” he told her in a low voice. “Tell him to drink as much water as he can. If the poison is in his system the water will help dilute it. Then he’s to take the pills. They’ll make him sick — that’s what they’re for.”

When Janet entered the flight deck Dun was completing a radio transmission. He signed off and gave her a strained grin. Neither of them was deluded by it.

“Hullo, Jan,” he said. His hand was shaking slightly. “This is becoming quite a trip. Vancouver has just been asking for more details. I thought this lot would shake them up a bit. How are things back there?”

“So far, so good,” said Janet as lightly as she could. She held out the pills. “Doctor says you’re to drink as much as you can, then take these. They’ll make you feel a bit green.”

“What a prospect.” He reached down into the deep seat pocket at his side and took out a water bottle. “Well, down the hatch.” After a long draught, he swallowed the pills, pulling a wry face. “Never could take those things — and they tasted awful.”

Janet looked anxiously down at him as he sat before the nickering panel of gauges and dials, the two control columns moving spasmodically backwards and forwards in the eerie grip of the automatic pilot. She touched his shoulder.

“How do you feel?” she asked. His pallor, the beads of perspiration on his forehead, did not escape her. She prayed to herself that it was just the strain he was undergoing.

“Me?” His tone was unnaturally hearty. “I’m fine. What about you? Had your pills yet?”

“I don’t need any. I had chops for dinner.”

“You were wise. From now on I think I’ll be a vegetarian — it’s safer that way.” He turned in his seat and looked over at the first officer, now prone on the floor, his head on a pillow. “Poor old Pete,” he murmured. “I sure hope he’s going to be all right.”

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