Page 79 of Airport

Inside the car the reporter, Tomlinson, whistled softly. Tanya turned toward Mel, her eyes searching his face.

On radio there were several seconds’ silence, then Danny Farrow’s voice. “I guess I understand. But I’d better be sure.” He repeated the gist of the message, and Mel could imagine Danny sweating again, as he had been earlier.

“Roger,” Mel acknowledged. “But be clear about one thing. If those plows and graders go in, I’ll give the order; no one else.”

“It’s clear,” Danny radioed. “And better you than me. Mel, I guess you’ve figured what that equipment of ours’ll do to a 707.”

“It’ll move it,” Mel said tersely. “Right now that’s the important thing.” There was, Mel knew, other motorized equipment in Airport Maintenance, capable of the same kind of brute force clearing job; but using the Conga Line units, already on the runways, would be surer and faster. He signed off, and replaced the radio mike.

Tomlinson said incredulously, “Move it! A six-million dollar airplane shoved sideways by snowplows! My God, you’ll tear it to pieces! And afterward, the owners and insurers’ll do the same to you.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Mel said. “Of course, a lot depends on your point of view. If the owners and insurers were on that other flight coming in, they might be cheering.”

“Well,” the reporter conceded, “I’ll grant you there are some decisions take a lot of guts.”

Tanya’s hand reached down beside her and found Mel’s. She said softly, emotion in her voice, “I’m cheering–for what you’re doing now. Whatever happens after, I’ll remember.”

The plows and graders which Mel had summoned were coming into sight, traveling fast down the runway, roof beacons flashing.

“It may never happen.” Mel squeezed Tanya’s hand before releasing it, then opened the car door. “We’ve twenty minutes to hope it won’t.”

WHEN MEL Bakersfeld approached him, Joe Patroni was stomping his feet in an effort to be warm; the effort was largely unsuccessful despite the fleece-lined boots and heavy parka the TWA maintenance chief was wearing. Apart from the brief time Patroni had spent on the aircraft flight deck when the Aéreo-Mexican captain and first officer departed, he had been continuously out in the storm since his arrival on the scene more than three hours ago. As well as being cold and physically tired from his various exertions of the day and night, his failure to move the stranded jet despite two attempts so far, had made his temper ready to erupt.

It almost did, at the news of Mel’s intention.

With anyone else, Joe Patroni would have stormed and ranted. Because Mel was a close friend, Patrord removed the unlighted cigar he had been chewing, and eyed Mel unbelievingly. “Shove an undamaged airplane with snowplows! Are you out of your mind?”

“No,” Mel said. “I’m out of runways.”

Mel fell a momentary depression at the thought that no one in authority, other than himself, seemed to understand the urgency of clearing three zero, at any cost. Obviously, if he went ahead as he intended, there would be few who would support his action afterward. On the other hand, Mel had not the least doubt there would be plenty of people tomorrow with hindsight–including Aéreo-Mexican officials–who would assert he could have done this or that, or that Flight Two should have landed on runway two five after all. Obviously his decision was to be a lonely one. It did not change Mel’s conviction that it should be made.

At the sight of the assembled plows and graders, now deployed in line on the runway, to their right, Patroni dropped his cigar altogether. As he produced another he growled, “I’ll save you from your own insanity. Keep those Dinky Toys of yours out of my hair and away from this airplane. In fifteen minutes, maybe less, I’ll drive it out.”

Mel shouted to make himself heard above the wind and roaring engines of vehicles around them. “Joe, let’s be clear about one thing. When the tower tells us we’re running out of time, that’s it; there’ll be no argument. People’s lives are involved on the flight that’s coming in. If you’ve engines running, they’re to be shut down. At the same time all equipment and the men must move clear immediately. Make sure in advance that all your people understand. The plows will move on my order. If and when they do, they won’t waste time.”

Patroni nodded gloomily. Despite his outburst, Mel thought, the maintenance chief’s usual cocky self-assurance seemed abated.

Mel returned to his car. Tanya and the reporter, huddled in their coats, had been standing outside, watching the work of digging around the aircraft. They got into the car with him, grateful for the warmth inside.

Once more, Mel called ground control on radio, this time asking for the tower watch chief. After a brief pause, the tower chief’s voice came on the air.

In a few words Met explained his intention. What he sought from air traffic control now was an estimate of how long he could wait before ordering the plows and graders to move. Once they did, it would take only minutes to have the obstructing aircraft clear.

“The way it looks now,” the tower chief said, “the flight in question will be here sooner than we thought. Chicago Center expects to hand over to our approach control in twelve minutes from now. After that we’ll be controlling the flight for eight to ten minutes before landing, which would make time of touchdown, at latest, 0128.”

Mel checked his watch in the dim light from the dash. It showed 1:01 A.M.

“A choice of which runway to use,” the tower chief said, “will have to be made no later than five minutes before landing. After that, they’ll be committed; we can’t turn them.”

So what it meant, Mel calculated, was that his own final decision must be made in another seventeen minutes, perhaps less, depending on the handover time from Chicago Center to Lincoln approach control. There was even less time remaining than he had told Joe Patroai.

Mel found he, too, was beginning to sweat.

Should he warn Patroni again, informing him of the reduced time? Mel decided not. The maintenance chief was already directing operations at the fastest pace he could. Nothing would be gained by harassing him further.

“Mobile one to ground control,” Mel radioed. “I’ll need to be kept informed of exact status of the approaching flight. Can we hold this frequency clear?”

“Affirmative,” the tower chief said. “We’ve already moved regular traffic to another frequency. We’ll keep you informed.”

Mel acknowledged and signed off.

Beside him, Tanya asked, “What happens now?”

“We wait.” Mel checked his watch again.

A minute went by. Two.

Outside they could see men working, still digging feverishly near the front and on each side of the mired aircraft. With a flash of headlights, another truck arrived; men jumped down from its tailgate and hastened to join the others. Joe Patroni’s stocky figure was moving constantly, instructing and exhorting.

The plows and graders were still in line, waiting. In a way, Mel thought, like vultures.

The reporter, Tomlinson, broke the silence inside the car.

“I was just thinking. When I was a kid, which isn’t all that long ago, most of this place was fields. In summer there were cows and corn and barley. There was a grass airfield; small; nobody thought it would amount to much. If anyone traveled by air, they used the airport in the city.”

“That’s aviation,” Tanya said. She felt a momentary relief at being able to think and talk of something other than what they were waiting for. She went on, “Somebody told me once that working in aviation makes a lifetime seem longer because everything changes so often and so fast.”

Tomlinson objected, “Not everything’s fast. With airports, the changes aren’t fast enough. Isn’t it true, Mr. Bakersfeld, that within three to four years there’ll be chaos?”

“Chaos is always relative,” Mel said; the focus of his mind was still on the scene he could see through the car windshield. “In a good many ways we manage to live with it.”

“Aren’t you dodging the question?”

“Yes,” he conceded. “I suppose I am.”

It was scarcely surprising, Mel thought. He was less concerned with aviation philosophy at this moment than with the immediacy of what was happening outside. But he sensed Tanya’s need for a lessening of tension, even if illusory; his awareness of her feelings was part of the empathy they seemed increasingly to share. He reminded himself, too, that it was a Trans America flight they were waiting for, and which might land safely or might not. Tanya was a part of Trans America, had helped with the flight’s departure. In a real sense, of the three of them she had the most direct involvement.

With an effort he concentrated on what Tomlinson had said.

“It’s always been true,” Mel declared, “that in aviation, progress in the air has been ahead of progress on the ground. We sometimes think we’ll catch up; in the mid-1960s we almost did but by and large we never do. The best we can manage, it seems, is not to lag too far behind.”

The reporter persisted, “What should we do about airports? What can we do?”

“We can think more freely, with more imagination, for one thing. We should get rid of the railway station mind.”

“You believe we still have it?”

Mel nodded. “Unfortunately, in a good many places. All our early airports were imitation railway stations because designers had to draw on experience from somewhere, and railroad experience was all they had. Aftetward, the habit remained. It’s the reason, nowadays, we have so many ‘straight line’ airports, where terminals stretch on and on, and passengers must walk for miles.”

Tomlinson asked, “Isn’t some of that changing?”

“Slowly, and in just a few places.” As always, despite the pressures of the moment, Mel was warming to his theme. “A few airports are being built as circles–like doughnuts with car parking inside, instead of somewhere out beyond; with minimum distances for people to walk with aids like high-speed horizontal elevators; with airplanes brought close to passengers instead of the other way around. What it means is that airports are finally being thought of as special and distinct; also as units instead of separate components. Creative ideas, even outlandish ones, are being listened to. Los Angeles is proposing a big, offshore seadrome; Chicago, a man-made airport island in Lake Michigan; nobody’s scoffing. American Airlines has a plan for a giant hydraulic lift to stack airplanes one above the other for loading and unloading. But the changes are slow, they’re not coordinated; we build airports like an unimaginative, patchwork quilt. It’s as if phone subscribers designed and made their own telephones, then plugged them into a world-wide system.”

The radio cut abruptly across Mel’s words. “Ground control to mobile one and city twenty-five. Chicago Center now estimates hand-off of the flight in question to Lincoln approach control will be 0117.”