The Boeing 707—N-731-TA-which was to have flown to the West Coast and back before its flight to Rome, was taken out of service. Operations was advised, and hastily shuffled schedules to help bridge the gap. A connecting flight was canceled and several dozen passengers transferred to competitive airlines. There was no substitute aircraft. When it came to multimilliondollar jets, airlines did not carry spares.
Operations, however, urged Maintenance to have the 707 ready for Flight Two to Rome, which was then thirty-six hours away from scheduled departure. An operations vice-president in New York personally called the Trans America base maintenance chief, and was told: “If we can get it ready for you, we will.” A topnotch foreman and a crack crew of mechanics and electricians were already on the job, all of them aware of the importince of finishing quickly. A second crew, to relieve the others through the night, was being rounded up. Both crews would work extra hours until the job was done.
Contrary to general belief, aircraft mechanics took a close interest in the operational flights of airplanes they serviced. After a complex job, or a rush one such as this, they would follow the progress of a particular airplane to learn how their work had stood up. It was a source of satisfaction to them when, as usually happened, the airplane functioned well. Months later they might say to each other, observing an airplane taxiing in, “There’s old 842. Remember that time… and the trouble we had with her. I guess we cured it.”
Through the critical day and a half following discovery of the trouble with N-731-TA, work on the airplane, though slow by its nature, continued as speedily as possible.
At length, three hours from Flight Two’s departure time, the last of the hundred-odd pairs of wires was reconnected. It took another hour to replace the engine cowlings and for an engine run-up on the ground. Then, before the airplane could be accepted for service, an air test was required. By this time, urgent calls from Operations demanded: Would N-731-TA be ready for Flight Two or not? If not, would Maintenance for Chrissake say so, so Sales could be informed of a possible long delay, and passengers notified before they left their homes.
His fingers crossed, and touching wood, the maintenance chief replied that, barring complications on the air test, the aircraft would be available on time.
It was–but only just. The chief Trans America pilot at the base, who had been standing by for just that purpose, test flew the airplane, barreling up through the storm to clearer altitudes above. He reported on return: “You guys down here’d never know it, but the moon’s still there,” then certified N-731-TA as completely airworthy. Executive pilots like that kind of assignment; it helped build up their needed flying hours without going far from their desks.
There was so little time left when the chief pilot landed, that he taxied the airplane directly to gate forty-seven of the terminal, where–as Flight Two, The Golden Argosy–it was to load.
Thus Maintenance had come through–as Maintenance did so often–but no corners had been cut.
Once the airplane was at its gate, knots of workers bustled in and around it like scurrying elves.
Food was a major item to go aboard. Seventy-five minutes before departure time, Departure Control called the caterer’s flight kitchen, ordering food for the flight, according to the number of passengers expected. Tonight the first-class section of Flight Two would have only two vacant seats; the economy section would be three quarters full. First-class, as usual, was allocated six meals extra; economy had the same number of meals as passengers. Thus, first-class passengers could have a second dinner if they asked for it; economy passengers couldn’t.
Despite the exact count, a last-minute passenger would always get a meal. Spare meals–including Kosher meals–were available in lockers near the departure gate. If an unexpected passenger went aboard as doors were closing, his food tray was passed in after him.
Liquor stocks, requiring a signed stewardess receipt, came aboard too. Liquor for first-class passengers were free; tourist passengers paid a dollar a drink (or the equivalent in foreign currency) unless they took advantage of a piece of inside information. The information was that stewardesses were issued almost no change, sometimes none, and where a stewardess could not make change, her instructions were to give the passenger his or her drinks free. Some regular travelers had drunk free for years in tourist class, merely by proffering a fifty- or twenty-dollar bill and insisting they had nothing smaller.
At the lame time that the food and liquor went aboard, other commissary supplies were checked and replenished. There were several hundred items, ranging from babies’ diapers, blankets, pillows, airsick bags, and a Gideon Bible to accessories like “Tray, beverage service, 8-hole, qty. 5.” All were expendable. At the conclusion of a flight, airlines never bothered checking inventories. Whatever was missing was replaced without question, which was why passengers who walked from an airplane with anything portable were seldom stopped.
Included in commissary supplies were magazines and newspapers. Newspapers were usually available on flights–with an exception. The Trans America commissary had a standing order: if a newspaper front page featured an air disaster, the newspapers were not to go aboard, but were thrown away. Most other airlines had the same rule.
Tonight, on Flight Two, there were plenty of newspapers. The principal news was weather–the effect, on the entire Midwest, of the three-day winter storm.
Baggage was now coming aboard Flight Two as passengers weie beginning to check in. When a passenger saw his bag disappear at the check-in counter it went, by a series of conveyor belts, to a room deep below the departure gates which baggage men privately called “the lion’s den.” It acquired that name because (so baggage men confided after several drinks) only the brave or innocent would allow a bag they cared about to enter here. Some bags–as saddened owners could testify–came into tLe lion’s den and were never seen again.
In the den, an attendant on duty watched each bag arrive. According to its destination label, he flicked a lever on a panel and, a moment later, an automatic arm reached out and grabbed the bag, setting it beside others for the same flight. From this point, and others, a crew of several men transferred all bags to the proper airplanes.
It was an excellent system–when it worked. Unfortunately, it often didn’t.
Bagage handling–airlines conceded privately–was the least efficient part of air travel. In an age where human ingenuity could place a capsule the size of a houseboat in outer space, it was a fact that an airline passenger’s bag could not be counted on to arrive safely at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, or Minneapolis-St. Paul, or even at the same time as the passenger. An astounding amount of airline baggage–at least one bag in every hundred–went to wrong destinations, was delayed, or lost entirely. Executives pointed woefully to the many opportunities for human error which existed with baggage handling. Efficiency experts periodically examined airline baggage systems, and periodically they were improved. Yet no one had come up with a system which was infallible, or even close to it. The result was that all airlines employed staffs, at every major terminal, whose job was solely to trace missing baggage. Such staffs were seldom idle.
An experienced, cagey traveler did the best he could by making sure that the tags which agents or porters put on his bags when he checked in showed his correct destination. Often they didn’t. With surprising frequency, wrong tags were slapped on in baste, and had to be changed when the error was pointed out. Even then, when the bags disappeared from sight, there was the sense of having entered a lottery, and at that point the traveler could only pray that some day, somewhere, he would be reunited with his luggage again.
Tonight, at Lincoln International–though no one knew it yet–the baggage for Flight Two was already incomplete. Two bags, which should have gone to Rome, were at this moment being loaded aboard a flight for Milwaukee.
Freight was now going aboard Flight Two in a steady stream. So was mail. Tonight there were nine thousand pounds of mail in colored nylon bags, some for Italian cities–Milan, Palermo, Vatican City, Pisa, Naples, Rome; others onward transmission to faraway places, whose names read like pages from Marco Polo… Zanzibar, Khartoum, Mombassa, Jerusalem, Athens, Rhodes, Calcutta…
The heavier-tban-usual mail load was a bonus for Trans America. A flight of British Overseas Airways Corporation scheduled to leave shortly before Trans America Flight Two, had just announced a three-hour delay. The post office ramp supervisor, who kept constant watch on schedules and delays, promptly ordered a switch of mail from the BOAC airliner to Trans America. The British airline would be unhappy because carriage of mail was highly profitable, and competition for post office business keen. All airlines kept uniformed representatives at airport post offices, their job to keep an eye on the flow of mail and insure that their own airline got a “fair share”–or more–of the outgoing volume. Post office supervisors sometimes had favorites among the airline men, and saw to it that business came their way. But in cases of delay, friendships didn’t count. At such moments there was an inflexible rule: the mail went by the faster route.
Inside thc terminal, at lower level, and a few hundred feet from the Boeing 707 aircraft which was now Flight Two, was Trans America Control Center (Lincoln International). The center was a bustling, jam-packed, noisy conglomeration of people, desks, telephones, teletypes, Tel Autographs, private line TV, and information boards. Its personnel were responsible for directing the preparation of Flight Two and all other Trans America flights. On occasions like tonight, with schedules chaotic because of the storm, the atmosphere was pandemonic, the scene resembling an old-time newspaper city room, as seen by Hollywood.
In a corner of the control center was the Load Control Desk–the desk top invisible beneath a sea of paper–occupied by a young, bearded man with the improbable name of Fred Phirmphoot. In his spare time Phirmphoot was an amateur abstract painter; recently he had taken to throwing paint on canvas, then riding over it with a child’s tricycle. He was reputed to dabble–at weekends–with LSD, and also suffered from body odor. The last was a constant annoyance to his fellow workers in the control center–hot and stuffy tonight despite the cold, bitter weather outside–and more than once Fred Phirmphoot had been told that he should take a bath more often.
Yet, paradoxically, Phirmphoot had a keen mathematician’s mind, and his superiors swore that he was one of the best load control men in the business. At the moment he was masterminding the loading of Flight Two.
An airplane (Fred Phirmphoot would occasionally explain to his bored beat friends), “She’s a bird that’s a teeter-totter, man. If you ain’t hep, that airplane chick’ll teeter or totter, maybe the twain; but me, baby, I don’t let it none.”
The trick was to distribute weight correctly through the airplane so that its fulcrum point and center of gravity were at predetermined places; hence, the aircraft would be balanced, and stable in the air. Fred Phirmphoot’s job was to calculate how much could be stowed aboard Flight Two (and other flights) and where. No mailbag, no individual piece of freight, went into any position in the aircraft hold without his say-so. At the same time, he was concerned with cramming in as much as possible. “Illinois to Rome, man,” Fred was apt to declare, “that’s long spaghetti. It don’t pay off in marmalade.”