Page 49 of Airport

Tanya exploded, “Damn, damn, damn!” She remonstrated, “Didn’t I warn you she had a barrelful of tricks?”

“Yes, you did, Mrs. Livingston. I guess I…”

“Never mind that now! Get on the phone to each of our gates. Warn them to be on the lookout for an old, innocent-looking woman in black–you know the description. She’s trying for New York, but may go a roundabout way. If she’s located, the gate agent is to detain her and call here. She is not to be allowed on any flight, no matter what she says. While you’re doing that, I’ll call the other airlines.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

There were several telephones in the office. Peter Coakley took one, Tanya another.

She knew by memory the airport numbers of TWA, American, United, and Northwest; all four airlines had direct New York flights. Talking first with her opposite number in TWA, Jenny Henline, she could hear Peter Coakley saying, “Yes, very old… in black… when you see her, you won’t believe it…”

A contest of minds had developed, Tanya realized, between herself and the ingenious, slippery Ada Quonsett. Who, in the end, Tanya wondered, would outwit the other?

For the moment she had forgotten both her conversation with Customs Inspector Standish and her intention to locate the D.T.M.

ABOARD FLIGHT Two, Captain Vernon Demerest fumed, “What in hell’s the holdup?”

Engines numbers three and four, on the starboard side of aircraft N-731-TA, were running. Throughout the airplane their subdued but powerful jet thrumming could be felt.

The pilots had received ramp supervisor’s clearance by interphone, several minutes ago, to start three and four, but were still awaiting clearance to start engines one and two, which were on the boarding side and normally not activated until all doors were closed. A red panel light had winked off a minute or two earlier, indicating that the rear fuselage door was closed and secure; immediately after, the rear boarding walkway was withdrawn. But another bright red light, still glowing, showed that the forward cabin door had not been closed, and a glance backward through the cockpit windows confirmed that the front boarding walkway was still in place.

Swinging around in his right-hand seat, Captain Demerest instructed Second Officer Jordan, “Open the door.”

Cy Jordan was seated behind the other two pilots at a complex panel of instruments and engine controls. Now he half rose and, extending his long, lean figure, released the flight deck door which opened outward. Through the doorway, in the forward passenger section, they could see a half dozen figures in Trans America uniform, Gwen Meighen among them.

“Gwen!” Demerest called. As she came into the flight deck, “What the devil’s happening?”

Gwen looked worried. “The tourist passenger count won’t tally. We’ve made it twice; we still can’t agree with the manifest and tickets.”

“Is the ramp supervisor there?”

“Yes, he’s checking our count now.”

“I want to see him.”

At this stage of any airline flight there was always a problem of divided authority. Nominally the captain was already in command, but he could neither start engines nor taxi away without authorization from the ramp supervisor. Both the captain and ramp chief had the same objective–to make an on-schedule departure. However, their differing duties sometimes produced a clash.

A moment later, the uniformed ramp supervisor, a single silver stripe denoting his rank, arrived on the flight deck.

“Look, chum,” Demerest said, “I know you’ve got problems, but so have we. How much longer do we sit here?”

“I’ve just ordered a ticket recheck, captain. Tbere’s one more passenger in the tourist section than there ought to be.”

“All right,” Demerest said. “Now I’ll tell you something. Every second we sit here we’re burning fuel on three and four, which you gave the okay to start… precious fuel which we need in the air tonight. So unless this airplane leaves right now, I’m shutting everything down and we’ll send for Fueling to top off our tanks. There’s another thing you ought to know: air traffic control just told us they have a temporary gap in traffic. If we taxi out right away, we can be off the ground fast; in ten minutes from now that may have changed. Now, you make the decision. What’s it to be?”

Torn between dual responsibilities, the ramp supervisor hesitaited. He knew the captain was right about burning fuel; yet to stop engines now, and top off tanks, would mean a further half hour’s costly delay on top of the hour which Flight Two was late already. On the other hand, this was an important international flight on which the head count and ticket collection ought to agree. If there was really an unauthorized person aboard, and he was found and taken off, later the ramp supervisor could justify his decision to hold. But if the difference in tallies turned out to be a clerical error–as it might–the D.T.M. would roast him alive.

He made the obvious decision. Calling through the flight deck door, he ordered, “Cancel the ticket recheck. This flight is leaving now.”

As the flight deck door closed, a grinning Anson Harris was on the interphone to a crewman on the ground below. “Clear to start two?”

The reply rattled back, “Okay to start two.”

The forward fuselage door was closed and secured; in the cockpit, its red indicator light winked out.

Number two engine fired and held at a steady roar.

“Okay to start one?”

“Okay to start one.”

The forward boarding walkway, like a severed umbilical cord, was gliding back toward the terminal.

Vernon Demerest was calling ground control on radio for permission to taxi.

Number one engine fired and held.

In the left seat, Captain Harris, who would taxi out and fly the takeoff, had his feet braced on the rudder pedal toe brakes.

It was still snowing hard.

“Trans America Flight Two from ground control. You are clear to taxi…”

The engine tempo quickened.

Demerest thought: Rome… and Naples… here we come!

IT WAS 11 P.M., Central Standard Time.

In Concourse “D,” half running, half stumbling, a figure reached gate forty-seven.

Even if there had been breath to ask, questions were unneeded.

The boarding ramps were closed. Portable signs denoting the departure of Flight Two, The Golden Argosy, were being taken down. A taxiing aircraft was leaving the gate.

Helplessly, not knowing what she should do next, Inez Guerrero, watched the airplane’s lights recede.

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11 P.M. - 1:30 A.M. (CST)


AS ALWAYS at the beginning of a flight, Senior Stewardess Gwen Meighen experienced a sense of relief as the forward cabin door slammed closed and, a few moments later, the aircraft began moving.

An airliner in a terminal was like a dependent relative, subject to the whims and succor of its family. Such life as it had was never independent. Its identity was blurred; supply lines hobbled it; strangers, who would never join its airborne complement, moved in and out.

But when doors were sealed as the airplane prepared for takeoff, it became once more an entity. Crew members were most keenly aware of the change; they were returned to a familiar, self-contained environment in which they could function with skill and independence for which they had been trained. No one impeded them; nothing was underfoot, except what they were used to and at home with. Their tools and equipment were the finest; their resources and limitations were inventoried and known. Self-reliance returned. The camaraderie of the air–intangible, yet real to all who shared it–was theirs once more.

Even passengers–the more sensitive ones–were attuned to a mental transformation and, once in the air, awareness of the change increased. At high altitude, looking down, concerns of the everyday world seemed less important. Some, more analytical than others, saw the new perspective as a shedding of the pettiness of earth.

Gwen Meighen, occupied with pre-takeoff rituals, had no time for such analysis. While four of the five stewardesses busied themselves with housekeeping chores around the airplane, Gwen used the p.a. system to welcome passengers aboard. With her soft English voice, she did the best she could with the treacly, insincere paragraph from her stewardess manual, which the company insisted must be read on every flight.

“On behalf of Captain Demerest and your crew… our most sincere wish that your flight will be pleasant and relaxing… shortly we shall have the pleasure of serving… if there is anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable…”

Gwen wondered sometimes when airlines would realize that most passengers found such announcements, at the beginning and end of every flight, a boring intrusion.

More essential were the announcements about emergency exits, oxygen masks, and ditching. With two of the other stewardesses demonstrating, she accomplished them quickly.

They were still taxiing, Gwen observed–tonight more slowly than usual, taking longer to reach their takeoff runway. No doubt the reason was traffic and the storm. From outside she could hear an occasional splatter of wind-driven snow on windows and fuselage.

There was one more announcement to be made–that which aircrews liked least. It was required before takeoffs at Lincoln International, New York, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, and other airports with residential areas nearby.

“Shortly after takeoff you will notice a marked decrease in engine noise, due to a reduction in power. This is perfectly normal and is done as a courtesy to those who live near the airport and in the direct flight path.”

The second statement was a lie. The power reduction was neither normal nor desirable. The truth was: it was a concession–some said a mere public relations gesture–involving risk to aircraft safety and human life. Pilots fought noise abatement power restrictions bitterly. Many pilots, at risk of their careers, refused to observe them.

Gwen had heard Vernon Demerest parody, in private, the announcement she had just made… “Ladies and gentlemen, at the most critical point of takeoff, when we need our best power and have a hundred other things to do in the cockpit, we are about to throttle back drastically, then make a steep climbing turn at high gross weight and minimum speed. This is an exceedingly foolish maneuver for which a student pilot would be thrown out of flying school. However, we are doing it on orders from our airline employers and the Federal Aviation Administration because a few people down below, who built their houses long after the airport was established, are insisting that we tiptoe past. They don’t give a damn about air safety, or that we are risking your lives and ours. So hang on tight, folks! Good luck to us all, and please start praying.”

Gwen smiled, remembering. There were so many things she appreciated about Vernon. He was energetically alive; he possessed strong feelings; when something interested him, he became actively involved. Even his failings–the abrasive manner, his conceit–were masculine and interesting. He could be tender, too–and was, in lovemaking, though responding eagerly to passion as Gwen had cause to know. Of all the men she knew, there was no one whose child she would bear more gladly than Vernon Demerest’s. In the thought there was a bitter sweetness.