Page 78 of Airport


A few minutes ago, when Tanya had handed Mel her note about the explosion aboard Flight Two, and the flight’s attempt to reach Lincoln International, Mel had broken free instantly from the crowd of Meadowood residents. With Tanya beside him, he headed for the elevators which would take him to the basement garage two floors below, and his official airport car. Mel’s place now was on runway three zero, if necessary to take charge. Shouldering his way through the crowd in the main concourse, he had caught sight of the Tribune reporter and said tersely, “Come with me.” He owed Tomlinson a favor in return for the reporter’s tip-off about Elliott Freemantle–both the legal contract form and the lawyer’s mendacious statements later, which Mel had been able to repudiate. When Tomlinson hesitated, Mel snapped, “I haven’t time to waste. But I’m giving you a chance you may be sorry for not taking.” Without further questioning, Tomlinson fell in step beside him.


Now, as they drove, Mel accelerating ahead of taxiing aircraft where he could, Tanya repeated the substance of the news about Flight Two.

“Let me get this straight,” Tomlinson said. “There’s only one runway long enough, and facing the right direction?”

Mel said grimly, “That’s the way it is. Even though there should be two.” He was remembering bitterly the proposals he had made, over three successive years, for an additional runway to parallel three zero. The airport needed it. Traffic volume and aircraft safety cried out for implementation of Mel’s report, particularly since the runway would take two years to build. But other influences proved stronger. Money had not been found, the new runway had not been built. Nor had construction–despite Mel’s further pleas–yet been approved.

With a good many projects, Mel could swing the Board of Airport Commissioners his way. In the case of the proposed new runway, he had canvassed them individually and received promises of support, but later the promises were withdrawn. Theoretically, airport commissioners were independent of political pressure; in fact, they owed their appointments to the mayor and, in most cases, were political partisans themselves. If pressure was put on the mayor to delay an airport bond issue because of other projects, similarly financed and more likely to swing votes, the pressure penetrated through. In the case of the proposed new runway it not only penetrated, but three times had proved effective. Ironically, as Mel remembered earlier tonight, triple-decking of the airport’s public parking lots–less necessary, but more visible–had not been held up.

Briefly, and in plain words, which until now he had reserved for private sessions, Mel described the situation, including its political overtones.

“I’d like to use all that as coming from you.” Tomlinson’s voice held the controlled excitement of a reporter who knew he was on to a good story. “May I?”

There would be the devil to pay after it appeared in print, Mel realized; he could imagine the indignant telephone calls from City Hall on Monday morning. But someone should say it. The public ought to know how serious the situation was.

“Go ahead,” Mel said. “I guess I’m in a quoting mood.”

“That’s what I thought.” From the far side of the car the reporter regarded Mel quizzically. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you’ve been in great form tonight. Just now, and with the lawyer and those Meadowood people. More like your old self. I haven’t heard you speak out like that in a long while.”

Mel kept his eyes on the taxiway ahead, waiting to pass an Eastern DC-8, which was turning left. But he was thinking: Had his demeanor of the past year or two, the absence of his old fiery spirit, been so obvious that others had noticed it also?

Beside him, close enough so that Mel was conscious of her nearness and warmth, Tanya said softly, “Ali the time we’re talking… about runways, the public, Meadowood, other things… I’m thinking about those people on Flight Two. I wonder how they’re feeling, if they’re afraid.”

“They’re afraid, all right,” Mel said. “If they’ve any sense, and provided they know what’s happening. I’d be afraid, too.”

He was remembering his own fear when he had been trapped in the sinking Navy airplane, long ago. As if triggered by memory, he felt a surge of pain around the old wound in his foot. In the past hour’s excitement he had adjusted to ignoring it, but as always, with tiredness and overstrain, the effect forced itself on him in the end. Mel compressed his lips tightly and hoped that soon the seizure would lessen or pass.

He had been waiting for another gap in ground-to-ground radio exchanges. As one occurred, Mel depressed his mike button once more.

“Mobile one to ground control. Do you have report on how critical is the requirement of the flight in distress for runway three zero?”

“Mobile one, we understand very critical. Is that Mr. Bakersfeld?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Stand by, sir. We’re getting more information now.”

Still driving, nearing runway three zero, Mel waited. What came next would determine whether or not to follow the drastic course of action he was contemplating.

“Ground control to mobile one. Following message just received, via Chicago Center, from flight in question. Message begins. Straight-in course to Lincoln no good if ends on runway two five. Airplane heavily loaded, will be landing very fast…”

The trio in the car listened tensely to the report of Vernon Demerest’s message. At the words, “If we’re brought in on two five there’ll be a broken airplane and dead people,” Mel heard Tanya’s sharp intake of breath, felt her shudder beside him.

He was about to acknowledge when ground control transmitted again.

“Mobile one–Mr. Bakersfeld, there is an addition to previous message, personal to you, from your brotherin-law. Can you reach a phone?”

“Negative,” Mel said. “Read it now, please.”

“Mobile one”–he sensed the controller hesitate–“the language is very personal.”

The controller was aware–as Mel was–that many ears around the airport would be listening.

“Does it concern the present situation?”

“Affirmative.”

“Then read it.”

“Yes, sir. Message begins. ‘You helped make this trouble, you bastard, by not listening to me about airport flight insurance…”

Mel’s mouth tightened, but he waited to the end, then acknowledged non-committally, “Roger, out.” He was sure that Vernon had enjoyed sending the message, as much as anything could be enjoyed aboard Flight Two at present, and would be even more pleased to learn the way it was received.

The extra message was unnecessary, though. Mel had already made his decision on the basis of the first.

His car was now speeding down runway three zero. The circle of floodlights and vehicles surrounding the mired Aéreo-Mexican 707 jet were coming into sight. Mel noted approvingly that the runway was only lightly snow-covered. Despite the blockage of one portion, the remainder had been kept plowed.

He switched his radio to the frequency of airport maintenance.

“Mobile one to Snow Desk.”

“This is Snow Desk.” Danny Farrow’s voice sounded tired, which was not surprising. “Go ahead.”

“Danny,” Mel said, “break the Conga Line. Send the Oshkosh plows and heavy graders across to runway three zero. They’re to head for where the stuck airplane is, and await instructions. Get them started now, then call me back.”

“Roger, wilco.” Danny seemed about to add a question, then apparently changed his mind. A moment later, on the same frequency, the occupants of the car heard him issue orders to the Conga Line convoy leader.

The Tribune reporter leaned forward around Tanya.

“I’m still fitting pieces together,” Tomlinson said. “That bit about flight insurance… Your brother-in-law’s an Air Line Pilots Association wheel, isn’t he?”

“Yes.” Mel halted the car on the runway, a few feet short of the circle of lights around the big, stalled aircraft. There was plenty of action, he could see; beneath the aircraft fuselage, and on both sides, men were digging feverishly. The stocky form of Joe Patroni was visible directing activities. In a moment Mel would join him, after the return radio call from Danny Farrow at the Snow Desk.

The reporter said thoughtfully, “I think I heard something awhile back. Didn’t your brother-in-law make a big play to cancel insurance vending here–the way ALPA wants to–and you turned him down?”

“I didn’t turn him down. The airport board did, though I agreed with them.”

“If it isn’t an unfair question, has what’s happened tonight made you change your mind?”

Tanya protested, “Surely this isn’t the time…”

“I’ll answer that,” Mel said. “I haven’t changed my mind, at least not yet. But I’m thinking about it.”

Mel reasoned: the time for a change of heart about flight insurance–if there was to be one–was not now, in the height of emotion and the wake of tragedy. In a day or two, what had occurred tonight would be seen in better perspective. Mel’s own decision–whether to urge the airport board to revise its policy, or not–should be made then. Meanwhile, no one could deny that tonight’s events added strength to Vernon Demerest’s–and the Air Line Pilots Association–arguments.

Possibly, Mel supposed, a compromise might be worked out. An ALPA spokesman once confided to him that the pilots did not expect their anti-airport insurance campaign to be won, either outright or quickly; success would take years and “would have to be cut like bologna–a slice at a time.” One slice at Lincoln International miglit be to prohibit use of non-supervised insurance vending machines, as some airports had already done. One state–Colorado–had outlawed the machines by Legislative Act. Other states, Mel knew, were considering similar legislation, though there was nothing to stop airports, meanwhile, from acting on their own.

It was the insurance vending machine system which Mel liked least, even though D. O. Guerrero’s huge insurance policy tonight had not been bought that way. Then, if over-the-counter sales remained–for a few more years until public opinion could be molded–there would have to be more safeguards…

Even though Mel had resolved not to make a firm decision, it was obvious to himself which way his reasoning was going.

The radio, still tuned to airport maintenance frequency, had been busy with calls between vehicles. Now it announced, “Snow Desk to mobile one.”

Mel responded, “Go ahead, Danny.”

“Four plows and three graders, with convoy leader, are on their way to runway three zero as instructed. What orders, please?”

Mel chose his words carefully, aware that somewhere in an electronic maze beneath the control tower they were being recorded on tape. Later he might have to justify them. He also wanted to be sure there was no misunderstanding.

“Mobile one to Snow Desk. All plows and graders, under direction of convoy leader, will stand by near Aéreo-Mexican aircraft which is blocking runway three zero. Vehicles are not, repeat not, initially to obstruct the aircraft, which in a few minutes will attempt to move under its own power. But if that attempt fails, plows and graders will be ordered in to push the aircraft sideways, and to clear the runway. This will be done at any cost, and with all speed. Runway three zero must be open for use in approximately thirty minutes, by which time the obstructing aircraft and all vehicles must be clear. I will coordinate with air traffic control to decide at what time the plows will be ordered in, if necessary. Acknowledge, and confirm. that these instructions are understood”

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