He worked with charts, manifests, tabulations, an adding machine, last-minute messages, a walkie-talkie, three telephones–and an uncanny instinct.
The ramp supervisor had just asked, by walkie-talkie, for permission to load another three hundred pounds of mail in the forward compartment.
“Roger-dodger,” Fred Phirmphoot acknowledged. He shuffled papers, checking the passenger manifest which had lengthened in the past two hours. Airlines allowed an average weight for passengers–a hundred and seventy pounds in winter, ten pounds less in summer. The average always worked out, with one exception: when a football team was traveling. The husky ballplayers threw all calculations out of joint, and at that time load dispatchers added their own estimates, which varied according to how well they knew the team. Baseball and hockey players were no problem; being smaller they fitted the average. Tonight the manifest showed that Flight Two had only normal passengers.
“It’s okay for the mail, baby,” Fred Phirmphoot replied into the walkie-talkie, “but I want that coffin moved back to the rear compartment; from the look of the weight slip, that dead guy was a fatso. Also, there’s a packaged generator from Westinghouse. Locate that midships; the rest of the freight can fit around it.”
Phirmpboot’s problems had just been added to by an order from the crew of Flight Two that an extra two thousand pounds of fuel were to be added for taxiing and ground running, in addition to the normal reserve for that purpose. Out on the airfield tonight, all aircraft were being subjected to long delays, with engines running, before takeoff. A jet engine, operating at ground level, drank fuel like a thirsty elephant, and Captains Demerest and Harris didn’t want to waste precious gallonage which they might require on the way to Rome. At the same time, Fred Phirmphoot had to calculate that all that extra fuel, which was now being pumped into the wing tanks of N-731-TA, might not be burned before takeoff; therefore, some of it could be added to the total takeoff weight. The question was, how much?
There were safety limits for gross weights at takeoff, yet with every airline flight the objective was to carry as much as possible, to earn maximum revenue. Fred Phirmphoot’s dirty fingernails danced over his adding machine, making hasty computations. He pondered the result, fingering his beard, his body odor rather worse than usual.
The decision about extra fuel was one of many decisions which Captain Vernon Demerest had been making for the past half hour. Or rather, he had been letting Captain Anson Harris make the decisions, then–as check captain with the final responsibility–Demerest approved them. Vernon Demerest was enjoying his passive role tonight–having someone else do most of the work, yet relinquishing none of his own authority. So far Demerest had not faulted any of Anson Harris’s decisions, which was not surprising since Harris’s experience and seniority were almost as great as Demerest’s own.
Harris had been dour and huffy when they met for the second time tonight in the crew room at the Trans America hangar. Demerest noted with amusement that Anson Harris was wearing a regulation shirt, though it was on the small side, and every now and then Harris’s hand would go up to ease the collar. Captain Harris had managed to switch shirts with an obliging first officer who later related the story zestfully to his own captain.
But after a few minutes, Harris relaxed. A professional to his bushy, graying eyebrows, he was aware that no flight crew could function efficiently with hostility in the cockpit.
In the crew room both captains inspected their mail slots, and there was a pile of mail as usual, some of it company bulletins which must be read before tonight’s flight. The remainder–memos from the chief pilot, medical branch, the research department, cartographer’s office, and the rest, they would take home to go through later.
While Anson Harris inserted a couple of amendments in his flight manuals–which Demerest had announced his intention of checking–Vernon Demerest studied the Crew Schedule Board.
The Schedule Board was made up monthly. It showed the dates on which captains and first and second officers would fly, and on which routes. There was a similar board for stewardesses in their crew room down the hall.
Every pilot bid, each month, for the route he wanted to fly, and those who were most senior got first choice. Demerest invariably got what he bid for; so did Gwen Meighen, whose seniority among the stewardesses was correspondingly high. It was the bidding system which made it possible for pilots and stewardesses to make mutual layover plans much as Demerest and Gwen had done in advance of tonight.
Anson Harris had finished the hasty amending of his flight manuals.
Vernon Demerest grinned. “I guess your manuals are okay, Anson. I’ve changed my mind; I won’t inspect them.”
Captain Harris gave no sign, except a tightening around his mouth.
The second officer for the flight, a young two-striper named Cy Jordan had joined them. Jordan was flight engineer; also a qualified pilot. He was lean and angular, with a hollow-cbeeked, mournful face, and always looked as if he needed a good meal. Stewardesses heaped extra food upon him, but it never seemed to make any difference.
The first officer who usually flew as second-in-command to Demerest, tonight had been told to stay home, though under his union contract he would receive full pay for the round-trip flight. In the first officer’s absence, Demerest would do some of the first officer duties, Jordan the rest. Anson Harris would do most of the flying.
“Okay,” Demerest told the other two, “let’s get moving.”
The crew bus, snow-covered, its windows steamed inside, was waiting at the hangar door. The five stewardesses for Flight Two were already in the bus, and there was a chorus of “Good evening, Captain… good evening, Captain,” as Demerest and Anson Harris clambered in, followed by Jordan. A gust of wind, and snow flurries, accompanied the pilots. The bus driver hastily closed the door.
“Hi, girls!” Vernon Demerest waved cheerfully, and winked at Gwen. More conventionally, Anson Harris added a “Good evening.”
The wind buffeted the bus as the driver felt his way warily around the plowed perimeter track, the snowbanks high on either side. Word had filtered around the airport of the experience of the United Air Lines food truck earlier in the evening, and all vehicle drivers were being cautious as a result. As the crew bus neared its destination, the bright terminal lights were a beacon in the darkness. Farther out on the airfield a steady stream of aircraft was taking off and landing.
The bus stopped and the crew scrambled out, diving for the shelter of the nearest door. They were now in the Trans America wing of the terminal at lower level. The passenger departure gates–including gate forty-seven, where Flight Two was being readied–were above.
The stewardesses went off to complete their own preflight procedures while the three pilots headed for the Trans America international dispatch office.
The dispatcher, as always, had prepared a folder with the complex information which the flight crew would need. He spread it out on the dispatch office counter and the three pilots pored over it. Behind the counter a half-dozen clerks were assembling world-wide information on airways, airport conditions, and weather which other international flights of Trans America would require tonight. A similar dispatch room for domestic flights was down the hall.
It was at that point that Anson Harris tapped a preliminary load report with his pipestem and asked for the extra two thousand pounds of fuel for taxiing. He glanced at the second officer, Jordan, who was checking fuel consumption graphs, and Demerest. Both nodded agreemew, and the dispatcher scribbled an order which would be relayed to the ramp fueling office.
The company weather forecaster joined the other four. He was a pale young man, scholarly behind rimless glasses, who looked as if he rarely ventured out into the weather personally.
Demerest inquired, “What have the computers given us tonight, John? Something better than here, I hope.”
More and more, airline weather forecasts and flight plans were being spewed out by computers. Trans America and other airlines still maintained a personal element, with individuals liaising between computers and flight crews, but predictions were that the human weathermen would disappear soon.
The forecaster shook his head as he spread out several facsimile weather charts. “Nothing better until you’re over mid-Atlantic, I’m afraid. We have some improved weather coming in here soon, but since you’re going east you’ll catch up with what’s already left us. The storm we’re in now extends all the way from here to Newfoundland, and beyond.” He used a pencil point to trace the storm’s wide swathe. “Along your route, incidentally, Detroit Metropolitan and Toronto airports are both below limits and have closed down.”
The dispatcher scanned a teletype slip which a clerk had handed him. He interjected, “Add Ottawa; they’re closing right now.”
“Beyond mid-Atlantic,” the weatherman said, “everything looks good. There are scattered disturbances across southern Europe, as you can see, but at your altitudes they shouldn’t bother you. Rome is clear and sunny, and should stay that way for several days.”
Captain Demerest leaned over the southern Europe map. “How about Naples?”
The weatherman looked puzzled. “Your flight doesn’t go there.”
“No, but I’m interested.”
“It’s in the same high pressure system as Rome. The weather will be good.”
The young forecaster launched into a dissertation concerning temperatures, and high and low pressure areas, and winds aloft. For the portion of the flight which would be over Canada he recommended a more northerly course than usual to avoid strong headwinds which would be encountered farther south. The pilots listened attentively. Whether by computer or human calculation, choosing the best altitudes and route was like a game of chess in which intellect could triumph over nature. All pilots were trained in such matters; so were company weather forecasters, more attuned to individual airline needs than their counterparts in the U. S. Weather Bureau.
“As soon as your fuel load permits,” the Trans America forecaster said, “I’d recommend an altitude of thirty-three thousand feet.”
The second officer checked his graphs; before N-731-TA could climb that high, they would have to burn off some of their initially heavy fuel load.
After a few moments the second officer reported, “We should be able to reach thirty-three thousand around Detroit.”
Anson Harris nodded. His gold ballpoint pen was racing as he filled in a flight plan which, in a few minutes’ time, he would file with air traffic control. ATC would then tell him whether or not the altitudes he sought were available and, if not, what others he might have. Vernon Demerest, who normally would have prepared his own flight plan, glanced over the form when Captain Harris finished, then signed it.
All preparations for Flight Two, it seemed, were going well. Despite the storm, it appeared as if The Golden Argosy, pride of Trans America, would depart on time.
It was Gwen Meighen who met the three pilots as they came aboard the aircraft. She asked, “Did you hear?”