Sometimes in the past Mel had gone out onto the airfield when he needed to think, to reason quietly and alone. He had not expected to tonight, but found himself doing so now… wondering, speculating, as he had so often in recent days, about the airport’s future and his own.
LESS THAN a lustrum ago, the airport was considered among the world’s finest and most modern. Delegations inspected it admiringly. Civic politicians were given to pointing with pride and would huff and puff about “air leadership” and “a symbol of the jet age.” Nowadays the politicians still huffed and puffed, but with less reason. What most failed to realize was that Lincoln International, like a surprising number of other major airports, was close to becoming a whited sepulcher.
Mel Bakersfeld pondered the phrase whited sepulcher while riding in darkness down runway one seven, left. It was an apt definition, he thought. The airport’s deficiencies were serious and basic, yet, since they were mostly out of public view, only insiders were aware of them.
Travelers and visitors at Lincoln International saw principally the main passenger terminal–a brightly lighted, air-conditioned Taj Mahal. Of gleaming glass and chrome, the terminal was impressively spacious, its thronged concourses adjoining elegant waiting areas. Opulent service facilities ringed the passenger area. Six specialty restaurants ranged from a gourmet dining room, with gold-edged china and matching prices, to a grab-it-and-run hot dog counter. Bars, cozily darkened or stand-up and neon lit, were plentiful as toilets. While waiting for a flight, and without ever leaving the terminal, a visitor could shop, rent a room and bed, and take a steam bath with massage, have his hair cut, suit pressed, shoes shined, or even die and have his burial arranged by Holy Ghost Memorial Gardens which maintained a sales office on the lower concourse.
Judged by its terminal alone, the airport was still spectacular. Where its deficiencies lay were in operating areas, notably runways and taxiways.
Few of the eighty thousand passengers who flew in and out each day were aware of how inadequate–and therefore hazardous–the runway system had become. Even a year previously, runways and taxiways were barely sufficient; now, they were dangerously over-taxed. In normally busy periods, on two main runways, a takeoff or landing occurred every thirty seconds. The Meadowood situation, and the consideration the airport showed to community residents, made it necessary, at peak periods, to use an alternative runway which bisected one of the other two. As a result, aircraft took off and landed on converging courses, and there were moments when air traffic controllers held their breath and prayed. Only last week Keith Bakersfeld, Mel’s brother, had predicted grimly, “Okay, so we stay on our toes in the tower, and we cope with the hairy ones, and we haven’t brought two airplanes together at that intersection yet. But someday there’ll be a second’s inattention or misjudgment, and one of us will. I hope to God it isn’t me because when it happens it’ll be the Grand Canyon all over again.”
The intersection Keith had spoken of was the one which the Conga Line had just passed over. In the cab of the Snowblast, Mel glanced to the rear. The Conga Line was well clear of the intersection now, and, through a momentary gap in the snow, airplane navigation lights were visible on the other runway, moving swiftly as a flight took off. Then, incredibly, there were more lights only a few yards behind as another flight landed, it seemed at the same instant.
The Snowblast driver had turned his head also. He whistled. “Those two were pretty close.”
Mel nodded. They had been close, exceptionally so, and for an instant his flesh had prickled with alarm. Obviously, what had happened was that an air traffic controller, instructing the pilots of both airplanes by radio, had cut tolerances exceedingly fine. As usual, the controller’s skilled judgment had proven right, though only just. The two flights were safe–one now in the air, the other on the ground. But it was the need for a multiplicity of such hairbreadth judgments which created an unceasing hazard.
Mel had pointed out the hazard frequently to the Board of Airport Commissioners and to members of City Council, who controlled airport financing, As well as immediate construction of more runways and taxiways, Mel had urged purchase of additional land around the airport for long term development. There had been plenty of discussion, and sometimes angry argument, as a result. A few Board and Council members saw things the way Mel did, but others took a strongly counter view. It was hard to convince people that a modern jetport, built in the late 1950s, could so quickly have become inadequate to the point of danger. It made no difference that the same was true of other centers–New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere; there were certain things which politicians simply did not want to see.
Mel thought: maybe Keith was right. Perhaps it would take another big disaster to arouse public awareness, just as the 1956 Grand Canyon disaster had spurred President Eisenhower and the Eighty-fourth Congress to revamp the airways. Yet, ironically, there was seldom any difficulty in getting money for non-operational improvements. A proposal to triple-deck all parking lots had won city approval without dissent. But that was something which the public–including those who had votes–could see and touch. Runways and taxiways were different. A single new runway cost several million dollars and took two years to build, yet few people other than pilots, air traffic controllers, and airport management, ever knew how good or bad a runway system was.
But at Lincoln International a showdown was coming soon. It had to. In recent weeks, Mel had sensed the signs, and when it happened the choice would be clear–between advancement on the ground, matching new achievements in the air, or impotently drifting backward. In aviation, there was never a status quo.
There was another factor.
As well as the airport’s future, Mel’s personal future was at stake. Whichever way airport policies veered, so would his own prestige advance or lessen in places where it counted most.
Only a short time ago, Mel Bakersfeld had been a national spokesman for ground logistics of aviation, had been touted as the rising young genius in aviation management. Then, abruptly, a single, calamitous event had wrought a change. Now, four years later, the future was no longer clear, and there were doubts and questioning about Mel Bakersfeld, in others’ minds as well as in his own.
The event which caused the change was the John F. Kennedy assassination.
“Here’s the end of the runway, Mr. Bakersfeld. You riding back with us, or what?” The voice of the Snowblast driver broke in on Mel’s reverie.
The man repeated his question. Ahead of them, once more, warning lights were flashing on, the Conga Line showing. Half the width of a runway was cleared at one time. Now, the Line would reverse itself and go back the way it had come, clearing the remaining portion. Allowing for stops and starts, it took forty-five minutes to an hour to plow and sand a single runway.
“No,” Mel said. “I’ll get off here.”
“Right, sir.” The driver directed a signal light at the assistant foreman’s car which promptly swung out of line. A few moments later, as Mel clambered down, his own car was waiting. From other plows and trucks, crews were descending and hurrying to the coffee wagon.
Driving back toward the terminal, Mel radioed the Snow Desk, confirming to Danny Farrow that runway one seven, left, would be usable shortly. Then, switching to ATC ground control, he turned the volume low, the subdued, level voices a background to his thoughts.
In the Snowblast cab he had been reminded of the event which, of all others he remembered, had struck with greatest impact.
It had been four years ago.
He thought, startled, was it really that long ago?–four years since the gray November afternoon when, dazedly, he had pulled the p.a. microphone across his desk toward him–the microphone, rarely used, which overrode all others in the terminal–and cutting in on a flight arrival bulletin, had announced to concourses which swiftly hushed, the shattering news which seconds earlier had flashed from Dallas.
His eyes, as he spoke then, had been on the photograph on the facing wall across his office, the photograph whose inscription read: To my friend Mel Bakersfeld, concerned, as I am, with attenuating the surly bonds of earth–John F. Kennedy.
The photograph still remained, as did many memories.
The memories began, for Mel, with a speech he had made in Washington, D.C.
At the time, as well as airport general manager, he had been president of the Airport Operators Council–the youngest leader, ever, of that small but influential body linking major airports of the world. AOC headquarters was in Washington, and Mel flew there frequently.
His speech was to a national planning congress.
Aviation, Mel Bakersfeld had pointed out, was the only truly successful international undertaking. It transcended ideological boundaries as well as the merely geographic. Because it was a means of intermingling diverse populations at ever-diminishing cost, it offered the most practical means to world understanding yet devised by man.
Even more significant was aerial commerce. Movement of freight by air, already mammoth in extent, was destined to be greater still. The new, giant jet airplanes, to be in service by the early 1970s, would be the fastest and cheapest cargo carriers in human history; within a decade, oceangoing ships might be dry-dock museum pieces, pushed out of business in the same way that passenger airplanes had clobbered the Queen Mary and Elizabeth. The effect could be a new, world-wide argosy of trade, with prosperity for now impoverished nations. Technologically, Mel reminded his audience, the airborne segment of aviation offered these things, and more, within the lifetimes of today’s middle-aged people.
Yet, he had continued, while airplane designers wove the stuff of dreams into fabrics of reality, facilities on the ground remained, for the most part, products of shortsightedness or misguided haste. Airports, runway systems, terminals, were geared to yesterday, with scant–if any–provision for tomorrow; what was lost sight of, or ignored, was the juggernaut speed of aviation’s progress. Airports were set up piecemeal, as individually as city halls, and often with as small imagination. Usually, too much was spent on showplace terminals, too little on operating areas. Coordinated, high-level planning, either national or international, was non-existent.
At local levels, where politicians were apathetic about problems of ground access to airports, the situation was as bad, or worse.
“We have broken the sound barrier,” Mel declared, “but not the ground barrier.”
He listed specific areas for study and urged intemational planning–U.S. led and presidentially inspired–for aviation on the ground.
The speech was accorded a standing ovation and was widely reported. It produced approving nods from such diverse sources as The Times of London, Pravda, and The Wall Street Journal.
The day after the speech, Mel was invited to the White House.
The meeting with the President had gone well. It had been a relaxed, good-humored session in the private study on the White House second floor. J.F.K., Mel found, shared many of his own ideas.
Subsequently, there were other sessions, some of them “brain trust” affairs involving Kennedy aides, usually when the Administration was considering aviation matters. After several such occasions, with informal aftermaths, Mel was at home in the White House, and less surprised than he had been at first to find himself there at all. As time went on, he drifted into one of those easygoing relationships which J.F.K. encouraged among those with expertise to offer him.