On the flight deck, in the right-hand seat, Vernon Demerest checked the weight information the second officer had given him against a weight-airspeed plaque on the pilots’ instrument panel. He announced tersely, “Bug speed 150 knots.”
It was the speed at which they must pass over the airfield boundary, allowing both for weight and the jammed stabilizer.
Harris nodded. Looking glum, he reached out to set a warning pointer on his airspeed indicator. Demerest did the same.
Even on the longest runway their landing would be risky.
The speed–more than 170 miles per hour–was diabolically fast for landing. Both pilots knew that it would mean an exceptionally long run after touchdown, with slow deceleration because of their heavy weight. Thus their weight became a dual liability. Yet to approach at anything less than the speed which Demerest had just computed would be suicidal; the aircraft would stall, and plummet earthward out of control.
Demerest reached for his radio mike.
Before he could transmit, the voice of Keith Bakersfeld announced, “Trans America Two, turn right on heading two eight five. Runway three zero is open.”
“Jesus Christ!” Demerest said. “And about time!”
He keyed his mike and acknowledged.
Together, both pilots ran through a pre-landing check list.
There was a “thud” through the airplane as their landing gear went down.
“I’m going in low,” Harris said, “and we’ll touch down early. We’re still going to need every bit of real estate they have down there.”
Demerest grunted agreement. He was peering ahead, straining to penetrate cloud and darkness, to catch a glimpse of the airport lights which must be visible soon. His thoughts, despite his own outward calm, were on the damage to the plane. They still didn’t know exactly how bad it was, or how it might have worsened during the rough flight in. There was that damned great hole; then there would be the heavy, fast landing… God!– the whole tail assembly might come off… If it does, Demerest thought, at a hundred and fifty knots we’ve had it… That son-of-a-bitch who had set off the bomb! A pity he had died! Demerest would like to have his hands on him now, to personally rip out his stinking life…
Beside him, Anson Harris, making an Instrument Landing System approach, increased the rate of descent from seven hundred to eight hundred feet per minute.
Demerest wished desperately he were flying himself. With anyone else but Harris–with a younger or less senior captain–Demerest would have taken full command. As it was, he couldn’t fault Harris for a thing… He hoped the landing would be the same way… His thoughts went back to the passenger cabin. Gwen, we’re almost in! Keep on living! His conviction about their child, that he and Gwen and Sarah would work out something, was as strong as ever.
On radio, Keith Bakersfeld’s voice reported, “Trans America Two, your course and descent look fine. There is medium to light snow on runway. Wind northwest, thirty knots. You are number one to land.”
Seconds later they emerged from cloud to see runway lights dead ahead.
“Lincoln approach control,” Demerest radioed, “we have the runway in sight.”
“Roger, Flight Two.” Relief in the controller’s voice was unmistakable. “The tower clears you to land; monitor their frequency when ready. Good luck, and out.”
Vernon Demerest clicked his mike button twice–an airman’s shorthand “thank you.”
Anson Harris ordered crisply, “Landing lights on. Fifty degrees flap.”
They were coming down fast.
Harris warned, “I may need help with rudder.”
“Right.” Demerest set his feet on the rudder pedals. When speed came off, the rudder–because of the destroyed boost mechanism–would be stiff, like a car’s power steering which had failed, only more so. After landing, both pilots might need to exert force, together, to maintain directional control.
They zoomed over the airfield edge, runway lights strung ahead like strands of converging pearls. On either side were piled banks of snow; beyond them, darkness. Harris had made his approach as low as he dared; the nearness to the ground revealed their exceptional speed. To both pilots, the mile and three quarters of runway in front had never looked shorter.
Harris flared out, leveling the aircraft, and closed all four throttles. The jet thrum lessened; an urgent, shrieking wind replaced it. As they crossed the runway’s edge, Vernon Demerest had a blurred impression of clustered emergency vehicles which would, he knew, follow them down the runway. He thought: We damned well might need them! Hang on, Gwen!
They were still floating, their speed scarcely diminished.
Then the aircraft was down. Heavily. Still traveling fast.
Swiftly, Harris raised wing spoilers and slammed thrust reverse levers upward. With a roar, the jet engines reversed themselves, their force–acting as a brake–now exerted in an opposite direction to the airplane’s travel.
They had used three quarters of the runway and were slowing, but not enough.
Harris called, “Right rudder!” The aircraft was veering to the left. With Demerest and Harris shoving together, they maintained direction. But the runway’s forward limit–with piled snow and a cavern of darkness beyond–was coming up fast.
Anson Harris was applying toe brakes hard. Metal was straining, rubber screaming. Still the darkness neared. Then they were slowing… gradually… slowing more…
Flight Two came to rest three feet from the runway’s end.
BY THE RADAR room clock, Keith Bakersfeld could see that another half hour of his shift remained. He didn’t care.
He pushed back his chair from the radar console, unplugged his headset, and stood up. He looked around him, knowing it was for the last time.
“Hey!” Wayne Tevis said. “What gives?”
“Here,” Keith told him. “Take this. Somebody else may need it.” He thrust the headset at Tevis, and went out.
Keith knew he should have done it years ago.
He felt a strange lightheadedness, almost a sense of relief. In the corridor outside he wondered why.
It was not because he had guided in Flight Two; he had no illusions about that. Keith had performed competently, but anyone else on duty could have done as well, or better. Nor–as he had known in advance–did anything done tonight wipe out, or counterbalance, what had gone before.
It didn’t matter, either, that he had overcome his mental block of ten minutes ago. Keith hadn’t cared at the time; he simply wanted out. Nothing that had happened since had changed his mind.
Perhaps, he thought, there had been a purging in his own sudden anger of a few minutes ago, in the admission, never faced before even in private thoughts, of how much he hated aviation, and always had. Now, fifteen years late, he wished he had faced the fact long ago.
He entered the controllers’ locker room, with its wooden benches and cluttered notice board. Keith opened his locker and put on his outdoor clothes. There were a few personal things on the locker shelves; he ignored them. All he wanted was the color snapshot of Natalie; he peeled it carefully from the inside surface of the metal door… Natalie in a bikini; laughing; her impudent pixyish face, and freckles; her hair streaming… When he looked at it, he wanted to cry. Behind the photograph was her note he had treasured:
I’m glad we had our ration
With love and passion.
Keith pocketed both. Someone else could clear the other things out. There was nothing he wanted to remind him of this place–ever.
He stood there, realizing that without intending to, he had come to a new decision. He wasn’t sure of everything the decision involved, or how it might seem tomorrow, or even if he could live with it beyond then. If he couldn’t live with it, there was still an escape clause; a way out–the drugstore pillbox in his pocket.
For tonight, the main thing was: he was not going to the O’Hagan Inn. He was going home.
But there was one thing he knew: If there was to be a future, it must be removed from aviation. As others who had quit air traffic control before him had discovered, that could prove the hardest thing of all.
And even if that much could be overcome–face it now, Keith told himself–there would be times when he would be reminded of the past. Reminded of Lincoln International; of Leesburg; of what had happened at both places. Whatever else you escaped, if you had a whole mind, there was no escaping memory. The memory of the Redfern family who had died… of little Valerie Redfern… would never leave him.
Yet memory could adapt–couldn’t it?–to time, to circumstance, to the reality of living here and now. The Redferns were dead. The Bible said: Let the dead bury their dead. What had happened, was done.
Keith wondered if… from now on… he could remember the Redferns with sadness, but do his best to make the living–Natalie, his own children–his first concern.
He wasn’t sure if it would work. He wasn’t sure if he had the moral or the physical strength. It had been a long time since he was sure of anything. But he could try.
He took the tower elevator down.
Outside, on his way to the FAA parking lot, Keith stopped. On sudden impulse, knowing he might regret it later, he took the pillbox from his pocket and emptied its contents into the snow.
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FROM HIS CAR, which he bad parked on the nearby taxiway after quitting runway three zero, Mel Bakersfeld could see that the pilots of Trans America Flight Two were wasting no time in taxiing to the terminal. The aircraft’s lights, now halfway across the airfield, were still visible, moving fast. On his radio, switched to ground control, Mel could hear other flights being halted at taxiway and runway intersections to let the damaged airliner pass. The injured were still aboard. Flight Two had been instructed to head directly for gate forty-seven where medical help, ambulances, and company staff were waiting.
Mel watched the aircraft’s lights diminish, and merge with the galaxy of terminal lights beyond.
Airport emergency vehicles, which had not after all been required, were dispersing from the runway area.
Tanya and the Tribune reporter, Tomlinson, were both on their way back to the terminal. They were driving with Joe Patroni, who had handed over the Aéreo-Mexican 707 for someone else to taxi to the hangars.
Tanya wanted to be at gate forty-seven for the disembarking of passengers from Flight Two. It was likely she would be needed.
Before leaving, she had asked Mel quietly, “Are you still coming home?”
“If it isn’t too late,” he said, “I’d like to.”
He watched while Tanya pushed a strand of red hair back from her face. She had looked at him with her direct, clear eyes and smiled. “It’s not too late.”
They agreed to meet at the main terminal entrance in three quarters of an hour.
Tomlinson’s purpose was to interview Joe Patroni, and after that the crew of Trans America Flight Two. The crew–and Patroni, no doubt–would be heroes within a few hours. The dramatic story of the flight’s peril and survival, Mel suspected, would eclipse his own pronouncements on the more mundane subject of the airport’s problems and deficiencies.