6:30 P.M. - 8:30 P.M. (CST)
AT HALF-PAST SIX on a Friday evening in January, Lincoln International Airport, Illinois, was functioning, though with difficulty.
The airport was reeling–as was the entire Midwestern United States–from the meanest, roughest winter storm in half a dozen years. The storm had lasted three days. Now, like pustules on a battered, weakened body, trouble spots were erupting steadily.
A United Air Lines food truck, loaded with two hundred dinners, was lost and presumably snowbound somewhere on the airport perimeter. A search for the truck–in driving snow and darkness–had so far failed to locate either the missing vehicle or its driver.
United’s Flight 111–a non-stop DC-8 for Los Angeles, which the food truck was to service–was already several hours behind schedule. The food snafu would make it later still. Similar delays, for varying reasons, were affecting at least a hundred flights of twenty other airlines using Lincoln International.
Out on the airfield, runway three zero was out of use, blocked by an Aéreo-Mexican jet–a Boeing 707–its wheels deeply mired in waterlogged ground beneath snow, near the runway’s edge. Two hours of intensive effort had failed to get the big jet moved. Now, Aéreo-Mexican, having exhausted its own local resources, had appealed to TWA for help.
Air Traffic Control, hampered by the loss of runway three zero, had instituted flow control procedures, limiting the volume of incoming traffic from adjoining air route centers at Minneapolis, Cleveland, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Denver. Despite this, twenty incoming flights were stacked up overhead, and orbiting, some nearing low fuel limits. On the ground, twice that number were readying for takeoff. But until the backlog of flights in the air could be reduced, ATC had ordered further delays of outbound traffic. Meanwhile, terminal gates, taxiways, and ground holding areas were increasingly crammed with waiting aircraft, many with engines running.
Air freight warehouses–of all airlines–were stacked to their palletized limits with shipments, their usual high speed transit impeded by the storm. Freight supervisors were nervously watching perishables–hothouse flowers from Wyoming for New England; a ton of Pennsylvania cheese for Anchorage, Alaska; frozen peas for Iceland; live lobsters–trans-shipped from the east for a polar route flight–destination Europe. The lobsters were for tomorrow’s menus in Edinburgh and Paris where they would be billed as “fresh local seafood,” and American tourists would order them unknowingly. Storm or not, contracts decreed that air freight perishables must arrive at destination fresh, and swiftly.
Causing special anxiety in American Airlines Freight was a shipment of several thousand turkey poults, hatched in incubators only hours earlier. The precise hatching-shipping schedule–like a complex order of battle–was set up weeks ago, before the turkey eggs were laid. It called for delivery of the live birds on the West Coast within forty-eight hours of birth, the limit of the tiny creatures’ existence without their first food or water. Normally, the arrangement provided a near-hundred percent survival. Significant also–if the poults were fed en route, they would stink, and so would the airplane conveying them, for days afterward. Already the poults’ schedule was out of joint by several hours. But an airplane had been diverted from passenger to freight service, and tonight the fledgling turkeys would have priority over everything else traveling, human VIPs included.
In the main passenger terminal, chaos predominated. Terminal waiting areas were jammed with thousands of passengers from delayed or canceled flights. Baggage, in piles, was everywhere. The vast main concourse had the combined appearance of a football scrimmage and Christmas Eve at Macy’s.
High on the terminal roof, the airport’s immodest slogan, LINCOLN INTERNATIONAL - AVIATION CROSSROADS OF THE WORLD, was entirely obscured by drifting snow.
The wonder was, Mel Bakersfeld reflected, that anything was continuing to operate at all.
Mel, airport general manager–lean, rangy, and a powerhouse of disciplined energy–was standing by the Snow Control Desk, high in the control tower. He peered out into the darkness. Normally, from this glass-walled room, the entire airport complex–runways, taxi strips, terminals, traffic of the ground and air–was visible like neatly aligned building blocks and models, even at night their shapes and movements well defined by lights. Only one loftier view existed–that of Air Traffic Control which occupied the two floors above.
But tonight only a faint blur of a few nearer lights penetrated the almost-opaque curtain of wind-driven snow. Mel suspected this would be a winter to be discussed at meteorologists’ conventions for years to come.
The present storm had been born five days ago in the lee of the Colorado mountains. At birth it was a tiny low pressure area, no bigger than a foothills homestead, and most forecasters on their air route weather charts had either failed to notice, or ignored it. As if in resentment, the low pressure system thereupon inflated like a giant malignancy and, still growing, swung first southeast, then north.
It crossed Kansas and Oklahoma, then paused at Arkansas, gathering assorted nastiness. Next day, fat and monstrous, it rumbled up the Mississippi Valley. Finally, over Illinois the storm unloaded, almost paralyzing the state with blizzard winds, freezing temperatures, and a ten-inch snowfall in twenty-four hours.
At the airport, the ten-inch snow had been preceded by a continuous, if somewhat lighter, fall. Now it was being followed by more snow, whipped by vicious winds which piled new drifts–at the same time that plows were clearing the old. Maintenance snow crews were nearing exhaustion. Within the past few hours several men had been ordered home, overfatigued despite their intermittent use of sleeping quarters provided at the airport for just this kind of emergency.
At the Snow Control Desk near Mel, Danny Farrow–at other times an assistant airport manager, now snow shift supervisor–was calling Maintenance Snow Center by radiophone.
“We’re losing the parking lots. I need six more Payloaders and a banjo team at Y-seventy-four.”
Danny was seated at the Snow Desk, which was not really a desk at all, but a wide, three-position console. Confronting Danny and his two assistants–one on either side–was a battery of telephones, Tel Autographs, and radios. Surrounding them were maps, charts, and bulletin boards recording the state and location of every piece of motorized snow-fighting equipment, as well as men and supervisors. There was a separate board for banjo teams–roving crews with individual snow shovels. The Snow Desk was activated only for its one seasonal purpose. At other times of year, this room remained empty and silent.
Danny’s bald pate showed sweat globules as he scratched notations on a large-scale airport grid map. He repeated his message to Maintenance, making it sound like a desperate personal plea, which perhaps it was. Up here was the snow clearance command post. Whoever ran it was supposed to view the airport as a whole, juggling demands, and deploying equipment wherever need seemed greatest. A problem though–and undoubtedly a cause of Danny’s sweating–was that those down below, fighting to keep their own operations going, seldom shared the same view of priorities.
“Sure, sure. Six more Payloaders.” An edgy voice from Maintenance, which was on the opposite side of the airfield, rattled the speakerphone. “We’ll get ‘em from Santa Claus. He ought to be around in this lot.” A pause, then more aggressively, “Any other damnfool stupid notions?”
Glancing at Danny, Mel shook his head. He recognized the speakerphone voice as belonging to a senior foreman who had probably worked continuously since the present snowfall started. Tempers wore thin at times like this, with good reason. Usually, after an arduous, snow-fighting winter, airport maintenance and management had an evening stag session together which they called “kiss-and-make-up night.” They would certainly need one this year.
Danny said reasonably, “We sent four Payloaders after that United food truck. They should be through, or almost.”
“They might be–if we could find the frigging truck.”
“You haven’t located it yet? What are you guys doing–having a supper and ladies’ night?” Danny reached out, turning down the speakerphone volume as a reply slammed back.
“Listen, do you birds in the crummy penthouse have any idea what it’s like out on the field? Maybe you should look out the windows once in a while. Anybody could be at the goddam North pole tonight and never know the difference.”
“Try blowing on your hands, Ernie,” Danny said. “It may keep ‘em warm, and it’ll stop you sounding off.”
Mentally, Mel Bakersfeld filtered out most of the exchange, though he was aware that what had been said about conditions away from the terminal was true. An hour ago, Mel had driven across the airfield. He used service roads, but although he knew the airport layout intimately, tonight he had trouble finding his way and several times came close to being lost.
Mel had gone to inspect the Maintenance Snow Center and then, as now, activity had been intensive. Where the tower Snow Control Desk was a command post, the Maintenance Snow Center was a front line headquarters. From here, weary crews and supervisors came and went, alternately sweating and freezing, the tanks of regular workers swelled by auxiliaries–carpenters, electricians, plumbers, clerks, police. The auxiliaries were pulled from their regular airport duties and paid time-and-a-half until the snow emergency was over. But they knew what was expected, having rehearsed snow maneuvers, like weekend soldiers, on runways and taxi strips during summer and fall. It sometimes amused outsiders to see snow removal groups, plow blades down, blowers roaring, on a hot, sunny day. But if any expressed surprise at the extent of preparation, Mel Bakersfeld would remind them that removing snow from the airport’s operating area was equal to clearing seven hundred miles of highway.
Like the Snow Desk in the control tower, the Maintenance Snow Center was activated for its winter function only. It was a big, cavernous room above an airport truck garage and, when in use, was presided over by a dispatcher. Judging from the present radio voice, Mel guessed that the regular dispatcher had been relieved for the time being, perhaps for some sleep in the “Blue Room,” as Airport Standing Orders–with a trace of humor–called the snow crews’ bunkhouse.
The maintenance foreman’s voice came on the radiophone again. “We’re worried about that truck too, Danny. The poor bastard of a driver could freeze out there. Though if he has any gumption, he isn’t starving.”
The UAL food truck had left the airline flight kitchen for the main terminal nearly two hours ago. Its route lay around the perimeter track, a journey which usually took fifteen minutes. But the truck had failed to arrive, and obviously the driver had lost his way and was snowbound somewhere in the airport boondocks. United flight dispatch had first sent out its own search party, without success. Now airport management had taken over.
Mel said, “That United flight finally took off, didn’t it? Without food.”
Danny Farrow answered without looking up. “I hear the captain put it to the passengers. Told them it’d take an hour to get another truck, that they had a movie and liquor aboard, and the sun was shining in California. Everybody voted to get the hell out. I would, too.”