OVER MARTINSBURG, West Virginia–some thirty miles northwest of Washington Route Center–a private, four-place Beech Bonanza, at seven thousand feet, was leaving Airway V166 and entering Airway V44. The little Beech Bonanza, identifiable visually by its butterfly tail, was cruising at 175 mph, its destination Baltimore. It contained the Redfern family: Irving Redfern, a consulting engineer-economist, his wife Merry, and their two children–Jeremy, ten years old, and Valerie, nine.
Irving Redfern was a careful, thorough man. Today, because of favorable weather conditions, he could have flown using visual flight rules. However, he considered it more prudent to file an instrument flight plan and, since leaving his home airport of Charleston, West Virginia, had stayed on airways, remaining in touch with air traffic control. A few moments earlier, Washington Route Center had given him a new course on Airway V44. He had already turned on it and now his magnetic compass, which had been swinging slightly, was settling down nicely.
The Redferns were going to Baltimore partly for Irving Redfern’s business, and partly for pleasure, which would include a family theatre outing tonight. While their father was concentrating on his flying, the children, with Merry, were chattering about what they would have for lunch at Friendship Airport.
The Washington Center controller who had given Irving Redfern his latest instructions was George Wallace, the almost-qualified trainee still filling in for Keith Bakersfeld. George had correctly identified the Redferns’ Beechcraft on his radarscope, where it appeared as a bright green dot, though smaller and moving more slowly than most other traffic–at the moment principally airline jets. There was nothing closing up on the Beechcraft, however, which appeared to have plenty of airspace all around it. Perry Yount, the sector supervisor, had by now returned to the adjoining position. He was helping sort out the aftermath confusion now that the critical Northwest Orient 727 had been handed over safely to Washington National Airport approach control. Periodically, Perry glanced across at George and once called out, “Is everything okay?” George Wallace nodded, though he was beginning to sweat a little. Today’s heavier noontime traffic seemed to be building up earlier than usual.
Unknown to George Wallace or Perry Yount or Irving Redfern, an Air National Guard T-33 jet trainer was flying–at the moment idly in circles–a few miles north of Airway V44. The T-33 was from Martin Airport, near Baltimore, and its National Guard pilot was an automobile salesman named Hank Neel.
Lieutenant Neel, who was fulfilling his part-time military training requirements, had been sent up solo for YFR proficiency flying. Because he had been cautioned to do only local flying in an authorized area northwest of Baltimore, no flight plan had been filed; therefore, Washington Air Route Center had no knowledge that the T-33 was in the air. This would not have mattered except that Neel had become bored with his assignment and was also a careless pilot. Looking out casually, as he held the jet trainer in lazy circles, he realized he had drifted south while practicing maneuvers, though in reality he had come a good deal farther than he imagined. He was so far south that several minutes ago the National Guard jet had entered George Wallace’s radar control area and now appeared on Wallace’s screen at Leesburg as a green dot, slightly larger than the Redfern family’s Beech Bonanza. A more experienced controller would have recognized the dot instantly for what it was. George, however, still busy with other traffic, had not yet observed the extra, unidentified signal.
Lieutenant Neel, at fifteen thousand feet, decided he would finish his flying practice with some aerobatics–two loops, a couple of slow rolls–and then return to base. He swung the T-33 into a steep turn and circled again while he took the standard precaution of looking for other airplanes above and below. He was now even closer than before to Airway V44.
THE THING his wife failed to realize, Keith Bakersfeld thought, was that a man couldn’t just quit his job irresponsibly, on a whim, even if he wanted to. Especially when the man had a family to support, children to educate. Especially when the job you possessed, the skills you so patiently acquired, had fitted you for nothing else. In some branches of government service, employees could leave and utilize their proficiency elsewhere. Air Traffic controllers could not. Their work had no counterpart in private industry; no one else wanted them.
Being trapped that way–which was what it amounted to, Keith recognized–was a disillusion which came with other disillusions. Money was one. When you were young, enthusiastic, wanting to be a part of aviation, the civil service pay scale of an air traffic controller seemed adequate or better. Only later did it become clear how inadequate–in relation to the job’s awesome responsibility–that pay scale was. The two most skillful specialists involved in air traffic nowadays were pilots and controllers. Yet pilots earned thirty thousand dollars a year while a senior controller reached his ceiling at ten thousand. No one believed pilots should earn less. But even pilots, who were notoriously selfish in taking care of themselves, believed air traffic controllers should earn more.
Nor was promotion–as in most other occupations–something an air traffic controller could look forward to. Senior supervisory posts were few; only a fortunate handful ever attained them.
And yet… unless you were reckless or uncaring–which controllers, by the nature of their work, were not–there was no way out. So there would be no quitting for himself, Keith decided. He must have another talk with Natalie; it was time she accepted that for better or worse, it was too late for change. He had no intention, at this stage, of scratching inadequately for some other kind of living.
He really must go back. Glancing at his watch, he realized guiltily that it was almost fifteen minutes since he left the control room. For part of the time he had been daydreaming–something he rarely did, and it was obviously the somniferous effect of the summer’s day. Keith closed the washroom window. From the corridor outside, he hurried downward to the main control room.
HIGH OVER Frederick County, Maryland, Lieutenant Neel straightened up his National Guard T-33 and eased on forward trim. Neel had completed his somewhat casual inspection and had seen no other aircraft. Now, beginning his first loop and slow roll, he put the jet trainer into a steep dive.
ENTERING THE control room, Keith Bakersfeld was aware at once of an increased tempo. The hum of voices was louder than when he left. Other controllers were too preoccupied to glance up–as they had done earlier this morning–as he passed by them on the way to his own position. Keith scribbled a signature in the sector log and noted the time, then moved behind George Wallace, getting the picture, letting his eyes adjust to the control room semidarkness, in sharp contrast to the bright sunlight outside. George had murmured “Hi!” as Keith returned, then continued transmitting radio instructions to traffic. In a moment or two, when Keith had the picture, he would relieve George and slip into his seat. It had probably been good for George, Keith reasoned, to be on his own for a while; it would improve his confidence. From the adjoining sector console, Perry Yount had noted Keith’s return.
Keith studied the radarscope and its moving pinpoints of light–the aircraft “targets” which George had identified, then noted on small movable markers on the screen. A bright green dot without identification caught Keith’s eye. He asked George sharply, “What’s the other traffic near the Beech Bonanza 403?”
LIEUTENANT NEEL had finished his first loop and slow roll. He had climbed back to fifteen thousand feet, and was still over Frederick County, though a little farther south. He leveled the T-33 jet, then put the nose down sharply and began a dive into a second loop.
“WHAT OTHER TRAFFIC…?” George Wallace’s eyes followed Keith’s across the radarscope. He gasped; then in a strangled voice–“My God!”
With a swift, single movement, Keith ripped the radio headset from George and shouldered him aside. Keith flung a frequency switch open, snapped a transmit button down. “Beech Bonanza NC-403, this is Washington Center. There is unidentified traffic to your left. Make an immediate right turn now!”
The National Guard T-33 was at the bottom of its dive. Lieutenant Neel pulled the control column back and, with full power on, began a fast, steep climb. Immediately above was the tiny Beech Bonanza, containing Irving Redfern and his family, cruising steadily on Airway V44.
IN THE CONTROL room… breathlessly… silently… praying hard… they watched the closing, bright green dots.
The radio crackled with a burst of static. “Washington Center, this is Beech…” Abruptly the transmission stopped.
IRVING REDFERN was a consulting engineer-economist. He was a competent amateur pilot, but not a commercial one.
An airline pilot, receiving the Washington Center message, would have flung his aircraft instantly into a steep right turn. He would have caught the urgency in Keith’s voice, would have acted, without waiting to trim, or acknowledge, or–until later–question. An airline pilot would have ignored all minor consequences except the overriding urgency of escaping the nearby peril which the route center message unmistakably implied. Behind him, in the passenger cabin, scalding coffee might have spilled, meals scattered, even minor injuries resulted. Later there would have been complaints, apologies, denunciations, perhaps a Civil Aeronautics Board inquiry. But–with ordinary luck–there could have been survival. Quick action could have insured it. It would have insured it for the Redfern family, too.
Airline pilots were conditioned by training and usage, to swift, sure reflexes. Irving Redfern was not. He was a precise, scholarly man, accustomed to think before acting, and to following correct procedures. His first thought was to acknowledge the Washington Center message. Thus, he used up two or three seconds–all the time he had. The National Guard T-33, swooping upward from the bottom of its loop, struck the Redferns’ Beech Bonanza on the left side, slicing off the private aircraft’s port wing with a single screeching rip of metal. The T-33, mortally damaged itself, continued upward briefly while its forward section disintegrated. Scarcely knowing what was happening–he had caught only the briefest glimpse of the other plane–Lieutenant Neel ejected and waited for his parachute to open. Far below, out of control and spinning crazily, the Beechcraft Bonanza, with the Redfern family still inside, was plummeting to earth.
KEITH’S HANDS were trembling as he tried again. “Beech Bonanza NC-403, this is Washington Center. Do you read?”
Beside Keith, George Wallace’s lips moved silently. His face was drained of color.
As they watched in horror, the dots on the radarscope converged, blossomed suddenly, then faded.
Perry Yount, aware of something wrong, had joined them. “What is it?”
Keith’s mouth was dry. “I think we’ve had a mid-air.”
It was then it happened: the nightmarish sound which those who heard it wished that they had not, yet afterward would not be able to erase from memory.
IN THE PILOT’S SEAT of the doomed, spinning Beech Bonanza, Irving Redfern–perhaps involuntarily, perhaps as a last despairing act–pressed the transmit button of his microphone and held it down. The radio still worked.