Page 80 of Airport

Mel’s watch showed 1:06 A.m. The message meant that Flight Two was already a minute earlier than the tower chief had forecast. A minute less for Joe Patroni to work; only eleven minutes to Mel’s own decision.

“Mobile one, is there any change in the status of runway three zero?”

“Negative; no change.”

Mel wondered: was he cutting things too fine? He was tempted to direct the snowplows and graders to move now, then restrained himself. Responsibility was a two-way street, especially when it came to ordering the near-destruction of a six-million dollar aircraft on the ground. There was still a chance that Joe Patroni might make it, though with every second the possibility was lessening. In front of the stalled 707, Mel could see, some of the floodlights and other equipment were being moved clear. But the aircraft’s engines had not yet been started.

“Those creative people,” Tomlinson queried, “the ones you were talking about. Who are they?”

With only half his mind, Mel acknowledged, “It’s hard to make a list.”

He was watching the scene outside. The remainder of the vehicles and equipment in front of the stalled Aéreo-Mexican 707 had now been moved clear, and Joe Patroni’s stocky, snow-covered figure was climbing the boarding ramp, positioned near the aircraft’s nose. Near the top, Patroni stopped, turned, and gestured; he appeared to be shouting to others below. Now Patroni opened the front fuselage door and went inside; almost at once another, slighter figure climbed the ramp and followed him. The aircraft door slammed. Others below trundled the ramp away.

Inside the car, the reporter asked again, “Mr. Bakersfeld, could you name a few of those people–the most imaginative ones about airports and the future?”

“Yes,” Tanya said, “couldn’t you?”

Mel thought: it would be like a parlor game while the house was burning. All right, he decided if Tanya wanted him to, he would play.

“I can think of some,” Mel said. “Fox of Los Angeles; Joseph Foster of Houston, now with ATA of America. Alan Boyd in government; and Thomas Sullivan, Port of New York Authority. In the airlines: Halaby of Pan Am; Herb Godfrey of United. In Canada, John C. Parkin, In Europe–Pierre Cot of Air France; Count Castell in Germany. There are others.”

“Including Mel Bakersfeld,” Tanya injected. “Aren’t you forgetting him?”

Tomlinson, who had been making notes, grunted. “I already put him down. It goes without saying.”

Mel smiled. But did it, he wondered, go without saying? Once, not long ago, the statement would have been true; but he knew that on the national scene he had slipped from view. When that happened, when you left the mainstream for whatever reason, you were apt to be forgotten quickly; and later, even if you wanted to, sometimes you never did get back. It was not that he was doing a less important job at Lincoln International, or doing it less well; as an airport general manager, Mel knew he was as good as ever, probably better. But the big contribution which he had once seemed likely to make no longer was in view. He realized that this was the second time tonight the same thought had occurred to him. Did it matter? Did he care? He decided; Yes, he did!

“Look!” Tanya cried out. “They’re starting the engines.”

The reporter’s head came up; Mel felt his own excitement sharpen.

Behind number three engine of the Aéreo-Mexican 707, a puff of white-gray smoke appeared. Briefly it intensified, then whirled away as the engine fired and held. Now snow was streaming rearward in the jet blast.

A second puff of smoke appeared behind number four engine, a moment later to be whisked away, snow following.

“Ground control to mobile one and city twenty-five.” Within the car the radio voice was so unexpected that Mel felt Tanya give a startled jump beside him. “Chicago Center advises revised handoff time of the flight in question will be… 0116 seven minutes from now.”

Flight Two, Mel realized, was still coming in faster than expected. It meant they had lost another minute.

Again Mel held his watch near the light of the dash.

On the soft ground near the opposite side of the runway from their car, Patroni now had number two engine started. Number one followed. Mel said softly, “They could still make it.” Then he remembered that all engines had been started twice before tonight, and both attempts to blast the stuck airplane free had failed.

In front of the mired 707 a solitary figure with flashlight signal wands had moved out ahead to where he could be seen from the aircraft flight deck. The man with the wands was holding them above his head, indicating “all clear.” Mel could hear and feel the jet engines’ thrum, but sensed they had not yet been advanced in power.

Six minutes left. Why hadn’t Patroni opened up?

Tanya said tensely, “I don’t think I can bear the waiting.”

The reporter shifted in his seat. “I’m sweating too.”

Joe Patroni was opening up! This was it! Mel could hear and feel the greater all-encom passing roar of engines. Behind the stalled Aéreo-Mexican jet, great gusts of snow were blowing wildly into the darkness beyond the runway lights.

“Mobile one,” the radio demanded sharply, “this is ground control. Is there any change in status of runway three zero?”

Patroni, Mel calculated by his watch, had three minutes left.

“The airplane’s still stuck.” Tanya was peering intently through the car windshield. “They’re using all the engines, but it isn’t moving.”

It was straining forward, though; that much Mel could see, even through the blowing snow. But Tanya was right. The aircraft wasn’t moving.

The snowplows and heavy graders had shifted closer together, their beacons flashing brightly.

“Hold it!” Mel said on radio. “Hold it! Don’t commit that flight coming in to runway two five. One way or the other, there’ll be a change in three zero status any moment now.”

He switched the car radio to Snow Desk frequency, ready to activate the plows.


Back to Table of Contents

Ordinarily, after midnight, pressures in air traffic control relented slightly. Tonight they hadn’t. Because of the storm, airlines at Lincoln International were continuing to dispatch and receive flights which were hours late. More often than not, their lateness was added to by the general runway and taxiway congestion still prevailing.

Most members of the earlier eight-hour watch in air traffic control had ended their shift at midnight and gone wearily home. Newcomers on duty had taken their place. A few controllers, because of staff shortage and illness of others, had been assigned a spread-over shift which would end at 2 A.M. They included the tower watch chief; Wayne Tevis, the radar supervisor; and Keith Bakersfeld.

Since the emotion-charged session with his brother, which ended abruptly and abortively an hour and a half ago, Keith had sought relief of mind by concentrating intensely on the radar screen in front of him. If he could maintain his concentration, he thought, the remaining time–the last he would ever have to fill–would pass quickly. Keith had continued handling east arrivals, working with a young assistant–a radar handoff man–seated on his left. Wayne Tevis was still supervising, riding his castor-equipped stool around the control room, propelled by his Texan boots, though less energetically, as Tevis’s own duty shift neared an end.

In one sense, Keith had succeeded in his concentration; yet in a strange way he bad not. It seemed almost as if his mind had split into two levels, like a duplex, and he was able to be in both at once. On one level he was directing east arrivals traffic–at the moment, without problems. On the other, his thoughts were personal and introspective. It was not a condition which could last, but perhaps, Keith thought, his mind was like a light bulb about to fail and, for its last few minutes, burning brightest.

The personal side of his thoughts was dispassionate now, and calmer than before; perhaps the session with Mel had achieved that, if nothing more. All things seemed ordained and settled. Keith’s duty shift would end; he would leave this place; soon after, all waiting and all anguish would be over. He had the conviction that his own life and others’ were already severed; he no longer belonged to Natalie or Mel, or Brian and Theo… or they to him. He belonged to the already dead–to the Redfems who had died together in the wreck of their Beech Bonanza; to little Valerie… her family. That was it! Why had he never thought of it that way before; realized that his own death was a debt he owed the Redferns? With continued dispassion, Keith wondered if he were insane; people who chose suicide were said to be, but either way it made no difference. His choice was between torment and peace; and before the light of morning, peace would come. Once more, as it had intermittently in the past few hours, his hand went into his pocket, fingering the key to room 224 of the O’Hagan Inn.

All the while, on the other mental level, and with traces of his old flair, he coped with east arrivals.

Awareness of the crisis with Trans America Flight Two came to Keith gradually.

Lincoln air traffic control had been advised of Flight Two’s intention to return there–almost an hour ago, and seconds after Captain Anson Harris’s decision was made known. Word had come by “hot line” telephone directly from Chicago Center supervisor to the tower watch chief, after similar notification through Cleveland and Toronto centers. Initially there had been little to do at Lincoln beyond advising the airport management, through the Snow Desk, of the flight’s request for runway three zero.

Later, when Flight Two had been taken over from Cleveland, by Chicago Center, more specific preparations were begun.

Wayne Tevis, the radar supervisor, was alerted by the tower chief, who went personally to the radar room to inform Tevis of Flight Two’s condition, its estimated arrival time, and the doubt about which runway–two five or three zero–was to be used for landing.

At the same time, ground control was notifying airport emergency services to stand by and, shortly after, to move with their vehicles onto the airfield.

A ground controller talked by radio telephone with Joe Patroni to check that Patroni had been advised of the urgent need for runway three zero. He had.

Contact was then established, on a reserve radio frequency, between the control tower and the flight deck of the Aéreo-Mexican jet which blocked the runway. The setup was to ensure that when Patroni was at the aircraft’s controls, there could be instant two-way communication, if needed.

In the radar room, when he had listened to the tower chief’s news, Wayne Tevis’s initial reaction was to glance at Keith. Unless duties were changed around, it would be Keith, in charge of east arrivals, who would accept Flight Two from Chicago Center, and monitor the flight in.

Tevis asked the tower chief quietly, “Should we take Keith off; put someone else on?”

The older man hesitated. He remembered the earlier emergency tonight involving the Air Force KC-135. He had removed Keith from duty then, on a pretext, and afterward wondered if he had been too hasty. When a man was teeter-tottering between self-assurance and the loss of it, it was easy to send the scales the wrong way without intending to. The tower chief had an uneasy feeling, too, of having blundered into something private between Keith and Mel Bakersfeld when the two of them were talking earlier in the corridor outside. He could have left them alone for a few minutes longer, but hadn’t.