FORTY-FIVE MINUTES before its scheduled departure time of 10 P.M., Trans America Airline Flight Two - The Golden Argosy, Captain Vernon Demerest commanding---was in the final stages of preparation for its five-thousand-mile, non-stop journey to Rome.
General preparations for the flight had been under way for months and weeks and days. Others, more immediate, had continued for the past twenty-four hours.
An airline flight from any major terminal is, in effect, like a river joining the sea. Before it reaches the sea, a river is fed by tributaries, originating far back in time and distance, each tributary joined along its length by others, either greater or smaller. At length, at the river's mouth, the river itself is the sum of everything which flowed into it. Translated into aviation terms, the river at the sea is an airliner at its moment of takeoff.
The aircraft for Flight Two was a Boeing 707-320B Intercontinental Jetliner, registered number N-731-TA. It was powered by four Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines, providing a cruising speed of six hundred and five miles per hour. The aircraft's range, at maximum weight, was six thousand miles, or the straight line distance from Iceland to Hong Kong. It carried a hundred and ninety-nine passengers and twenty-five thousand U.S. gallons of fuel---enough to fill a good-size swimming pool. The aircraft's cost to Trans America Airlines was six and a half rtillion dollars.
The day before yesterday N-731-TA had flown from D��sseldorf, Germany, and, two hours out from Lincoln International, an engine overheated. As a precaution, the captain ordered it shut down. None of the aircraft's passengers were aware that they were operating with three engines instead of four; if necessary, the aircraft could have flown on one. Nor was the flight even late arriving.
Trans America Maintenance, however, was advised by company radio. As a result, a crew of mechanics was waiting, and whisked the airplane to a hangar as soon as passengers and freight were disembarked. Even while taxiing to the hangar, diagnostic specialists were at work, seeking out the airplane's trouble, which they located quickly.
A pneumatic duct---a stainless steel pipe around the affected engine---had cracked and broken in flight. The immediate procedure was for the engine to be removed and a replacement installed. That was relatively simple. More complicated was the fact that for several minutes before the overheating engine was shut down, extremely hot air must have escaped into the engine nacelle. This heat could conceivably have damaged one hundred and eight pairs of wires from the aircraft's electrical system.
Close examination of the wires showed that while some had been heated, none apparently had suffered damage. If a similar condition had occurred within an automobile, bus, or truck, the vehicle would have been put back into service without question. But airlines took no such chances. It was decided that all one hundred and eight pairs of wires must be replaced.
The work of replacement was highly skilled, but exacting and tcdious because only two men at a time could operate in the confined space of the engine nacelle. Moreover, cach pair of wires must be identified, then connected painstakingly to Cannon plugs. A non-stop, day-and-night effort was planned, with teams of electrical mechanics relieving each other.
The entire job would cost Trans America Airlines thousands of dollars in skilled man-hours and lost revenue while the big aircraft was unproductive on the ground. But the loss was accepted without question, as all airlines accepted such losses in pursuit of high safety standards.
The Boeing 707--N-731-TA-which was to have flown to the West Coast and back before its flight to Rome, was taken out of service. Operations was advised, and hastily shuffled schedules to help bridge the gap. A connecting flight was canceled and several dozen passengers transferred to competitive airlines. There was no substitute aircraft. When it came to multimilliondollar jets, airlines did not carry spares.
Operations, however, urged Maintenance to have the 707 ready for Flight Two to Rome, which was then thirty-six hours away from scheduled departure. An operations vice-president in New York personally called the Trans America base maintenance chief, and was told: "If we can get it ready for you, we will." A topnotch foreman and a crack crew of mechanics and electricians were already on the job, all of them aware of the importince of finishing quickly. A second crew, to relieve the others through the night, was being rounded up. Both crews would work extra hours until the job was done.
Contrary to general belief, aircraft mechanics took a close interest in the operational flights of airplanes they serviced. After a complex job, or a rush one such as this, they would follow the progress of a particular airplane to learn how their work had stood up. It was a source of satisfaction to them when, as usually happened, the airplane functioned well. Months later they might say to each other, observing an airplane taxiing in, "There's old 842. Remember that time... and the trouble we had with her. I guess we cured it."
Through the critical day and a half following discovery of the trouble with N-731-TA, work on the airplane, though slow by its nature, continued as speedily as possible.
At length, three hours from Flight Two's departure time, the last of the hundred-odd pairs of wires was reconnected. It took another hour to replace the engine cowlings and for an engine run-up on the ground. Then, before the airplane could be accepted for service, an air test was required. By this time, urgent calls from Operations demanded: Would N-731-TA be ready for Flight Two or not? If not, would Maintenance for Chrissake say so, so Sales could be informed of a possible long delay, and passengers notified before they left their homes.
His fingers crossed, and touching wood, the maintenance chief replied that, barring complications on the air test, the aircraft would be available on time.
It was---but only just. The chief Trans America pilot at the base, who had been standing by for just that purpose, test flew the airplane, barreling up through the storm to clearer altitudes above. He reported on return: "You guys down here'd never know it, but the moon's still there," then certified N-731-TA as completely airworthy. Executive pilots like that kind of assignment; it helped build up their needed flying hours without going far from their desks.
There was so little time left when the chief pilot landed, that he taxied the airplane directly to gate forty-seven of the terminal, where---as Flight Two, The Golden Argosy---it was to load.
Thus Maintenance had come through---as Maintenance did so often---but no corners had been cut.
Once the airplane was at its gate, knots of workers bustled in and around it like scurrying elves.
Food was a major item to go aboard. Seventy-five minutes before departure time, Departure Control called the caterer's flight kitchen, ordering food for the flight, according to the number of passengers expected. Tonight the first-class section of Flight Two would have only two vacant seats; the economy section would be three quarters full. First-class, as usual, was allocated six meals extra; economy had the same number of meals as passengers. Thus, first-class passengers could have a second dinner if they asked for it; economy passengers couldn't.
Despite the exact count, a last-minute passenger would always get a meal. Spare meals---including Kosher meals---were available in lockers near the departure gate. If an unexpected passenger went aboard as doors were closing, his food tray was passed in after him.
Liquor stocks, requiring a signed stewardess receipt, came aboard too. Liquor for first-class passengers were free; tourist passengers paid a dollar a drink (or the equivalent in foreign currency) unless they took advantage of a piece of inside information. The information was that stewardesses were issued almost no change, sometimes none, and where a stewardess could not make change, her instructions were to give the passenger his or her drinks free. Some regular travelers had drunk free for years in tourist class, merely by proffering a fifty- or twenty-dollar bill and insisting they had nothing smaller.
At the lame time that the food and liquor went aboard, other commissary supplies were checked and replenished. There were several hundred items, ranging from babies' diapers, blankets, pillows, airsick bags, and a Gideon Bible to accessories like "Tray, beverage service, 8-hole, qty. 5." All were expendable. At the conclusion of a flight, airlines never bothered checking inventories. Whatever was missing was replaced without question, which was why passengers who walked from an airplane with anything portable were seldom stopped.
Included in commissary supplies were magazines and newspapers. Newspapers were usually available on flights---with an exception. The Trans America commissary had a standing order: if a newspaper front page featured an air disaster, the newspapers were not to go aboard, but were thrown away. Most other airlines had the same rule.
Tonight, on Flight Two, there were plenty of newspapers. The principal news was weather---the effect, on the entire Midwest, of the three-day winter storm.
Baggage was now coming aboard Flight Two as passengers weie beginning to check in. When a passenger saw his bag disappear at the check-in counter it went, by a series of conveyor belts, to a room deep below the departure gates which baggage men privately called "the lion's den." It acquired that name because (so baggage men confided after several drinks) only the brave or innocent would allow a bag they cared about to enter here. Some bags---as saddened owners could testify---came into tLe lion's den and were never seen again.
In the den, an attendant on duty watched each bag arrive. According to its destination label, he flicked a lever on a panel and, a moment later, an automatic arm reached out and grabbed the bag, setting it beside others for the same flight. From this point, and others, a crew of several men transferred all bags to the proper airplanes.
It was an excellent system---when it worked. Unfortunately, it often didn't.
Bagage handling---airlines conceded privately---was the least efficient part of air travel. In an age where human ingenuity could place a capsule the size of a houseboat in outer space, it was a fact that an airline passenger's bag could not be counted on to arrive safely at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, or Minneapolis-St. Paul, or even at the same time as the passenger. An astounding amount of airline baggage---at least one bag in every hundred---went to wrong destinations, was delayed, or lost entirely. Executives pointed woefully to the many opportunities for human error which existed with baggage handling. Efficiency experts periodically examined airline baggage systems, and periodically they were improved. Yet no one had come up with a system which was infallible, or even close to it. The result was that all airlines employed staffs, at every major terminal, whose job was solely to trace missing baggage. Such staffs were seldom idle.
An experienced, cagey traveler did the best he could by making sure that the tags which agents or porters put on his bags when he checked in showed his correct destination. Often they didn't. With surprising frequency, wrong tags were slapped on in baste, and had to be changed when the error was pointed out. Even then, when the bags disappeared from sight, there was the sense of having entered a lottery, and at that point the traveler could only pray that some day, somewhere, he would be reunited with his luggage again.
Tonight, at Lincoln International---though no one knew it yet---the baggage for Flight Two was already incomplete. Two bags, which should have gone to Rome, were at this moment being loaded aboard a flight for Milwaukee.
Freight was now going aboard Flight Two in a steady stream. So was mail. Tonight there were nine thousand pounds of mail in colored nylon bags, some for Italian cities---Milan, Palermo, Vatican City, Pisa, Naples, Rome; others onward transmission to faraway places, whose names read like pages from Marco Polo... Zanzibar, Khartoum, Mombassa, Jerusalem, Athens, Rhodes, Calcutta...
The heavier-tban-usual mail load was a bonus for Trans America. A flight of British Overseas Airways Corporation scheduled to leave shortly before Trans America Flight Two, had just announced a three-hour delay. The post office ramp supervisor, who kept constant watch on schedules and delays, promptly ordered a switch of mail from the BOAC airliner to Trans America. The British airline would be unhappy because carriage of mail was highly profitable, and competition for post office business keen. All airlines kept uniformed representatives at airport post offices, their job to keep an eye on the flow of mail and insure that their own airline got a "fair share"---or more---of the outgoing volume. Post office supervisors sometimes had favorites among the airline men, and saw to it that business came their way. But in cases of delay, friendships didn't count. At such moments there was an inflexible rule: the mail went by the faster route.
Inside thc terminal, at lower level, and a few hundred feet from the Boeing 707 aircraft which was now Flight Two, was Trans America Control Center (Lincoln International). The center was a bustling, jam-packed, noisy conglomeration of people, desks, telephones, teletypes, Tel Autographs, private line TV, and information boards. Its personnel were responsible for directing the preparation of Flight Two and all other Trans America flights. On occasions like tonight, with schedules chaotic because of the storm, the atmosphere was pandemonic, the scene resembling an old-time newspaper city room, as seen by Hollywood.
In a corner of the control center was the Load Control Desk---the desk top invisible beneath a sea of paper---occupied by a young, bearded man with the improbable name of Fred Phirmphoot. In his spare time Phirmphoot was an amateur abstract painter; recently he had taken to throwing paint on canvas, then riding over it with a child's tricycle. He was reputed to dabble---at weekends---with LSD, and also suffered from body odor. The last was a constant annoyance to his fellow workers in the control center---hot and stuffy tonight despite the cold, bitter weather outside---and more than once Fred Phirmphoot had been told that he should take a bath more often.
Yet, paradoxically, Phirmphoot had a keen mathematician's mind, and his superiors swore that he was one of the best load control men in the business. At the moment he was masterminding the loading of Flight Two.
An airplane (Fred Phirmphoot would occasionally explain to his bored beat friends), "She's a bird that's a teeter-totter, man. If you ain't hep, that airplane chick'll teeter or totter, maybe the twain; but me, baby, I don't let it none."
The trick was to distribute weight correctly through the airplane so that its fulcrum point and center of gravity were at predetermined places; hence, the aircraft would be balanced, and stable in the air. Fred Phirmphoot's job was to calculate how much could be stowed aboard Flight Two (and other flights) and where. No mailbag, no individual piece of freight, went into any position in the aircraft hold without his say-so. At the same time, he was concerned with cramming in as much as possible. "Illinois to Rome, man," Fred was apt to declare, "that's long spaghetti. It don't pay off in marmalade."
He worked with charts, manifests, tabulations, an adding machine, last-minute messages, a walkie-talkie, three telephones---and an uncanny instinct.
The ramp supervisor had just asked, by walkie-talkie, for permission to load another three hundred pounds of mail in the forward compartment.
"Roger-dodger," Fred Phirmphoot acknowledged. He shuffled papers, checking the passenger manifest which had lengthened in the past two hours. Airlines allowed an average weight for passengers---a hundred and seventy pounds in winter, ten pounds less in summer. The average always worked out, with one exception: when a football team was traveling. The husky ballplayers threw all calculations out of joint, and at that time load dispatchers added their own estimates, which varied according to how well they knew the team. Baseball and hockey players were no problem; being smaller they fitted the average. Tonight the manifest showed that Flight Two had only normal passengers.
"It's okay for the mail, baby," Fred Phirmphoot replied into the walkie-talkie, "but I want that coffin moved back to the rear compartment; from the look of the weight slip, that dead guy was a fatso. Also, there's a packaged generator from Westinghouse. Locate that midships; the rest of the freight can fit around it."
Phirmpboot's problems had just been added to by an order from the crew of Flight Two that an extra two thousand pounds of fuel were to be added for taxiing and ground running, in addition to the normal reserve for that purpose. Out on the airfield tonight, all aircraft were being subjected to long delays, with engines running, before takeoff. A jet engine, operating at ground level, drank fuel like a thirsty elephant, and Captains Demerest and Harris didn't want to waste precious gallonage which they might require on the way to Rome. At the same time, Fred Phirmphoot had to calculate that all that extra fuel, which was now being pumped into the wing tanks of N-731-TA, might not be burned before takeoff; therefore, some of it could be added to the total takeoff weight. The question was, how much?
There were safety limits for gross weights at takeoff, yet with every airline flight the objective was to carry as much as possible, to earn maximum revenue. Fred Phirmphoot's dirty fingernails danced over his adding machine, making hasty computations. He pondered the result, fingering his beard, his body odor rather worse than usual.
The decision about extra fuel was one of many decisions which Captain Vernon Demerest had been making for the past half hour. Or rather, he had been letting Captain Anson Harris make the decisions, then---as check captain with the final responsibility---Demerest approved them. Vernon Demerest was enjoying his passive role tonight---having someone else do most of the work, yet relinquishing none of his own authority. So far Demerest had not faulted any of Anson Harris's decisions, which was not surprising since Harris's experience and seniority were almost as great as Demerest's own.
Harris had been dour and huffy when they met for the second time tonight in the crew room at the Trans America hangar. Demerest noted with amusement that Anson Harris was wearing a regulation shirt, though it was on the small side, and every now and then Harris's hand would go up to ease the collar. Captain Harris had managed to switch shirts with an obliging first officer who later related the story zestfully to his own captain.
But after a few minutes, Harris relaxed. A professional to his bushy, graying eyebrows, he was aware that no flight crew could function efficiently with hostility in the cockpit.
In the crew room both captains inspected their mail slots, and there was a pile of mail as usual, some of it company bulletins which must be read before tonight's flight. The remainder---memos from the chief pilot, medical branch, the research department, cartographer's office, and the rest, they would take home to go through later.
While Anson Harris inserted a couple of amendments in his flight manuals---which Demerest had announced his intention of checking---Vernon Demerest studied the Crew Schedule Board.
The Schedule Board was made up monthly. It showed the dates on which captains and first and second officers would fly, and on which routes. There was a similar board for stewardesses in their crew room down the hall.
Every pilot bid, each month, for the route he wanted to fly, and those who were most senior got first choice. Demerest invariably got what he bid for; so did Gwen Meighen, whose seniority among the stewardesses was correspondingly high. It was the bidding system which made it possible for pilots and stewardesses to make mutual layover plans much as Demerest and Gwen had done in advance of tonight.
Anson Harris had finished the hasty amending of his flight manuals.
Vernon Demerest grinned. "I guess your manuals are okay, Anson. I've changed my mind; I won't inspect them."
Captain Harris gave no sign, except a tightening around his mouth.
The second officer for the flight, a young two-striper named Cy Jordan had joined them. Jordan was flight engineer; also a qualified pilot. He was lean and angular, with a hollow-cbeeked, mournful face, and always looked as if he needed a good meal. Stewardesses heaped extra food upon him, but it never seemed to make any difference.
The first officer who usually flew as second-in-command to Demerest, tonight had been told to stay home, though under his union contract he would receive full pay for the round-trip flight. In the first officer's absence, Demerest would do some of the first officer duties, Jordan the rest. Anson Harris would do most of the flying.
"Okay," Demerest told the other two, "let's get moving."
The crew bus, snow-covered, its windows steamed inside, was waiting at the hangar door. The five stewardesses for Flight Two were already in the bus, and there was a chorus of "Good evening, Captain... good evening, Captain," as Demerest and Anson Harris clambered in, followed by Jordan. A gust of wind, and snow flurries, accompanied the pilots. The bus driver hastily closed the door.
"Hi, girls!" Vernon Demerest waved cheerfully, and winked at Gwen. More conventionally, Anson Harris added a "Good evening."
The wind buffeted the bus as the driver felt his way warily around the plowed perimeter track, the snowbanks high on either side. Word had filtered around the airport of the experience of the United Air Lines food truck earlier in the evening, and all vehicle drivers were being cautious as a result. As the crew bus neared its destination, the bright terminal lights were a beacon in the darkness. Farther out on the airfield a steady stream of aircraft was taking off and landing.
The bus stopped and the crew scrambled out, diving for the shelter of the nearest door. They were now in the Trans America wing of the terminal at lower level. The passenger departure gates---including gate forty-seven, where Flight Two was being readied---were above.
The stewardesses went off to complete their own preflight procedures while the three pilots headed for the Trans America international dispatch office.
The dispatcher, as always, had prepared a folder with the complex information which the flight crew would need. He spread it out on the dispatch office counter and the three pilots pored over it. Behind the counter a half-dozen clerks were assembling world-wide information on airways, airport conditions, and weather which other international flights of Trans America would require tonight. A similar dispatch room for domestic flights was down the hall.
It was at that point that Anson Harris tapped a preliminary load report with his pipestem and asked for the extra two thousand pounds of fuel for taxiing. He glanced at the second officer, Jordan, who was checking fuel consumption graphs, and Demerest. Both nodded agreemew, and the dispatcher scribbled an order which would be relayed to the ramp fueling office.
The company weather forecaster joined the other four. He was a pale young man, scholarly behind rimless glasses, who looked as if he rarely ventured out into the weather personally.
Demerest inquired, "What have the computers given us tonight, John? Something better than here, I hope."
More and more, airline weather forecasts and flight plans were being spewed out by computers. Trans America and other airlines still maintained a personal element, with individuals liaising between computers and flight crews, but predictions were that the human weathermen would disappear soon.
The forecaster shook his head as he spread out several facsimile weather charts. "Nothing better until you're over mid-Atlantic, I'm afraid. We have some improved weather coming in here soon, but since you're going east you'll catch up with what's already left us. The storm we're in now extends all the way from here to Newfoundland, and beyond." He used a pencil point to trace the storm's wide swathe. "Along your route, incidentally, Detroit Metropolitan and Toronto airports are both below limits and have closed down."
The dispatcher scanned a teletype slip which a clerk had handed him. He interjected, "Add Ottawa; they're closing right now."
"Beyond mid-Atlantic," the weatherman said, "everything looks good. There are scattered disturbances across southern Europe, as you can see, but at your altitudes they shouldn't bother you. Rome is clear and sunny, and should stay that way for several days."
Captain Demerest leaned over the southern Europe map. "How about Naples?"
The weatherman looked puzzled. "Your flight doesn't go there."
"No, but I'm interested."
"It's in the same high pressure system as Rome. The weather will be good."
The young forecaster launched into a dissertation concerning temperatures, and high and low pressure areas, and winds aloft. For the portion of the flight which would be over Canada he recommended a more northerly course than usual to avoid strong headwinds which would be encountered farther south. The pilots listened attentively. Whether by computer or human calculation, choosing the best altitudes and route was like a game of chess in which intellect could triumph over nature. All pilots were trained in such matters; so were company weather forecasters, more attuned to individual airline needs than their counterparts in the U. S. Weather Bureau.
"As soon as your fuel load permits," the Trans America forecaster said, "I'd recommend an altitude of thirty-three thousand feet."
The second officer checked his graphs; before N-731-TA could climb that high, they would have to burn off some of their initially heavy fuel load.
After a few moments the second officer reported, "We should be able to reach thirty-three thousand around Detroit."
Anson Harris nodded. His gold ballpoint pen was racing as he filled in a flight plan which, in a few minutes' time, he would file with air traffic control. ATC would then tell him whether or not the altitudes he sought were available and, if not, what others he might have. Vernon Demerest, who normally would have prepared his own flight plan, glanced over the form when Captain Harris finished, then signed it.
All preparations for Flight Two, it seemed, were going well. Despite the storm, it appeared as if The Golden Argosy, pride of Trans America, would depart on time.
It was Gwen Meighen who met the three pilots as they came aboard the aircraft. She asked, "Did you hear?"
Anson Harris said, "Hear what?"
"We're delayed an hour. The gate agent just had word."
"Damn!" Vernon Demerest said. "Goddam!"
"Apparently," Gwen said, "a lot of passengers are on their way, but have been held up---I guess because of the snow. Some have phoned in, and Departure Control decided to allow them extra time."
Anson Harris asked, "Is boarding being delayed too?"
"Yes, Captain. The flight hasn't been announced. It won't be for another half-hour, at least."
Harris shrugged. "Oh, well; we might as well relax." He moved toward the flight deck.
Gwen volunteered, "I can bring you all coffee, if you like."
"I'll get coffee in the terminal," Vernon Demerest said. He nodded to Gwen. "Why don't you come with me?"
She hesitated. "Well, I could."
"Go ahead," Harris said. "One of the other girls can bring mine, and there's plenty of time."
A minute or two later, Gwen walked beside Vernon Demerest, her heels clicking as she kept pace with his strides down the Trans America departure wing. They were heading for the main terminal concourse.
Demerest was thinking: the hour's delay might not be a bad thing, after all. Until this moment, with the essential business of Flight Two to think about, he had pushed all thoughts of Gwen's pregnancy from his mind. But, over coffee and a cigarette, there would be a chance to continue the discussion they had begun earlier. Perhaps, now, the subject which he had not broached before---an abortion---could be brought into the open.