THE EXPLOSION aboard Trans America Flight Two, The Golden Argosy, was instantaneous, monstrous, and overwhelming. In the airplane's confined space it struck with the din of a hundred thunderclaps, a sheet of flame, and a blow like a giant sledge hammer.
D. O. Guerrero died instantly, his body, near the core of the explosion, disintegrating utterly. One moment he existed; the next, there were only a few small, bloody pieces of him left.
The aircraft fuselage blew open.
Gwen Meighen, who, next to Guerrero, was nearest the explosion, received its force in her face and chest.
An instant after the dynamite charge ripped the aircraft skin, the cabin decompressed. With a second roar and tornado force, air inside the aircraft---until this moment maintained at normal pressure---swept through the ruptured fuselage to dissipate in the high altitude near-vacuum outside. Through the passenger cabins a dark engulfing cloud of dust surged toward the rear. With it, like litter in a maelstrom, went every loose object, light and heavy---papers, food trays, liquor bottles, coffeepots, hand luggage, clothing, passengers' belongings---all whirling through the air as if impelled toward a cyclopean vacuum cleaner. Curtains tore away. Internal doors---flight deck, storage, and toilets---wrenched free from locks and hinges and were swept rearward with the rest.
Several passengers were struck. Others, not strapped in their seats, clung to any handhold as the wind and suction drew them inexorably toward the rear.
Throughout the aircraft, emergency compartments above each seat snapped open. Yellow oxygen masks came tumbling down, each mask connected by a short plastic tube to a central oxygen supply.
Abruptly the suction lessened. The aircraft's interior was filled with mist and a savage, biting cold. Noise from engines and wind was overwhelming.
Vernon Demerest, still in the aisle of the tourist cabin where he had held himself by instinctively seizing a seatback, roared, "Get on oxygen!" He grabbed a mask himself.
Through knowledge and training, Demerest realized what most others did not: The air inside the cabin was now as rarefied as that outside, and insufficient to support life. Only fifteen seconds of full consciousness remained to everyone, unless oxygen was used at once from the aircraft's emergency system.
Even in five seconds, without the aid of oxygen, a degree of lessened judgment would occur.
In another five seconds a state of euphoria would make many decide not to bother with oxygen at all. They would lapse into unconsciousness, not caring.
Airlines had long been urged, by those who understood the hazards of decompression, to make pre-flight announcements about oxygen equipment more definite than they were. Passengers should be told, it was argued: The instant an oxygen mask appears in front of you, grab it, stick your face into it, and ask questions after. If there is a real decompression, you haven't a single second to spare. If it's a false alarm, you can always take the mask off later; meanwhile it will do no harm.
Pilots who took decompression tests were given a simple demonstration of the effect of oxygen lack at high altitudes. In a decompression tank, with an oxygen mask on, they were told to begin writing their signatures, and part way through the exercise their masks were removed. The signatures tailed off into a scrawl, or nothingness. Before unconsciousness occurred, the masks were put back on.
The pilots found it hard to believe what they saw on the page before them.
Yet airtine managements, theorizing that more definite oxygen advice might create alarm among passengers, persisted in the use of innocuous flight announcements only. Smiling stewardesses, seeming either bored or amused, casually demonstrated the equipment while an unseen voice---hurrying to get finished before takeoff---parroted phrases like: In the unlikely event... and... Government regulations require that we inform you. No mention was ever made of urgency, should the equipment be required for use.
As a result, passengers became as indifferent to emergency oxygen facilities as airlines and their staffs appeared to be. The overhead boxes and monotonous, always-alike demonstrations were (passengers reasoned) something dreamed up by a bunch of regulation-obsessed civil servants. (Yawn!) Obviously the whole thing was largely a charade, insisted on by the same kind of people who collected income taxes and disallowed expense accounts. So what the hell!
Occasionally, on regular flights, oxygen mask housings opened accidentally, and masks dropped down in front of passengers. When this happened, most passengers stared curiously at the masks but made no attempt to put them on. Precisely that reaction---though the emergency was real---had occurred aboard Flight Two.
Vernon Demerest saw the reaction and in a flash of sudden anger remembered his own, and other pilots', criticisms of soft-pedaled oxygen announcements. But there was no time to shout another warning, nor even to think of Gwen, who might be dead or dying only a few feet away.
Only one thing mattered: somehow to get back to the flight deck, and help save the airplane if he could.
Breathing oxygen deeply, he planned his movement forward in the aircraft.
Above every seat section in the tourist cabin, four oxygen masks had dropped---one for the occupant of each seat, plus a spare to be grabbed if necessary by anyone standing in the aisle. It was one of the spares which Demerest had seized and was using.
But to reach the flight deck he must abandon this mask and use a portable one that would permit him to move forward freely.
He knew that two portable oxygen cylinders were stowed, farther forward, in an overhead rack near the first class cabin bulkhead. If be could make it to the portable cylinders, either one would sustain him for the remaining distance from the bulkhead to the flight deck.
He moved forward to the bulkhead one seat section at a time, using one spare hanging mask after another as he went. A couple of seat sections ahead, he could see that aff four masks were being used by seated passengers; the three seat occupants, including a teen-age girl, had one mask each; the fourth mask was being held by the teenager over the face of an infant on its mother's lap alongside. The girl seemed to have taken charge and was motioning to others near her what to do. Demerest swung toward the opposite side of the cabin, saw a spare mask hanging, and taking a deep breath of oxygen, he let go the one he had and reached for the other spare. He made it, and breathed deeply once again. He still had more than half the tourist cabin length to go.
He had made one more move when he felt the aircraft roll sharply to the right, then dive steeply down.
Demerest hung on. He knew that, for the moment, there was nothing he could do. What happened next was dependent on two things: how much damage the explosion had done, and the skill of Anson Harris, at the flight controls, alone.
ON THE FLIGHT deck, the events of the last few seconds had occurred with even less warning than at the rear. After the departure of Gwen Meighen and Mrs. Quonsett, followed by Vernon Demerest, the two remaining crew members---Anson Harris and Second Officer Cy Jordan---had no knowledge of what was going on in the passenger cabins behind them until the dynamite blast rocked the aircraft, followed an instant later by explosive decompression.
As in the passenger compartments, the cockpit filled with a thick, dark cloud of dust, almost immediately sucked out as the flight deck door smashed free from its lock and hinges, and flew outward. Everything loose on the flight deck was snatched up, to be carried back, joining the debris-laden whirlwind.
Under the flight engineer's table, a warning horn began blaring intermittently. Over both front seats, bright yellow lights flashed on. Both horn and lights were signals of dangerously low pressure.
A fine mist---deathly cold---replaced the cloud of dust. Anson Harris felt his eardrums tighten painfully.
But even before that, he had reacted instantly---the effect of training and experience of many years.
On the long, uphill road to airline captaincy, pilots spent arduous hours in classrooms and simulators, studying and practicing airborne situations, both normal and emergency. The objective was to instill quick, correct reactions at all times.
The simulators were located at important air bases and all major scheduled airlines had them.
From outside, a simulator looked like the nose of an aircraft, with the rest of the fuselage chopped off; inside, was everything included in a normal flight deck.
Once inside a simulator, pilots remained shut up for hours, imitating the precise conditions of a long distance flight. The effect, when the outside door was closed, was uncanny; even motion and noise were present, creating the physical effect of being airborne. All other conditions paralleled reality. A screen beyond the forward windows could conjure up airports and runways, enlarging or receding to simulate takeoff and landing. The only difference between a simulator flight deck and a genuine one was that the simulator never left the ground.
Pilots in a simulator conversed with a nearby control room, as they would on radio in the air. Within the control room, skilled operators duplicated air traffic control procedures and other flight conditions. The operators could also feed in adverse situations, without warning, to pilots. These ranged through multiple engine failure, to fire, violent weather, electrical and fuel problems, explosive decompression, instrument malfunction, and other assorted unpleasantness. Even a crash could be reproduced; sometimes simulators were used in reverse to find out what bad caused one.
Occasionally an operator would feed in several emergencies at once, causing pilots to emerge later, exhausted and sweat-drenched. Most pilots coped with such tests; the few who didn't had the fact noted in their records, were re-examined, and afterward watched carefully. The simulator sessions continued, several times a year, through every stage of a pilot's career until retirement.
The result was: When a real emergency occurred, airline pilots knew exactly what to do, and did it, without fumbling or loss of precious time. It was one of many factors which made travel by scheduled airlines the safest means of transportation in human history. It had also conditioned Anson Harris to instant action, directed toward the salvation of Flight Two.
In the drill for explosive decompression one rule was fundamental: the crew took care of themselves first. Vernon Demerest observed the rule; so did Anson Harris and Cy Jordan.
They must be on oxygen at once---even ahead of passengers. Then, with full mental faculties assured, decisions could be made.
Behind each pilot's seat a quick-don oxygen mask---resembling a baseball catcher's mask----was hanging. As he had practiced countless times, Harris ripped off his radio headset, then reached over his shoulder for the mask. He tugged, so that a holding clip snapped open, and slapped the mask on. As well as a connection to the airplane's oxygen supply, it contained a microphone. For listening, now his headset was removed, Harris changed a selector, actuating a speaker overhead.
Behind him, Cy Jordan, with identical swift movements, did the same.
In another reflex movement, Anson Harris took care of passengers. Cabin oxygen systems worked automatically in event of pressure failure; but as a precaution---in case they didn't---over the pilots' heads was an override switch. It ensured positive release of passenger masks and sent oxygen flowing into them. Harris flipped the switch.
He dropped his right hand to the throttles, pulling all four off. Thz aircraft slowed.
It must be slowed still more.
Left of the throttles was a speed brake handle. Harris pulled it fully toward him. Along the top surface of both wings, spoilers rose up, inducing drag, and causing further slowing.
Cy Jordan silenced the warning horn.
So far, all procedures had been automatic. Now, a moment for decision had arrived.
It was essential that the aircraft seek a safer altitude below. From its present height of twenty-eight thousand feet, it must descend some three and a half miles to where the air was denser so that passengers and crew could breathe and survive without supplemental oxygen.
The decision Harris had to make was---should the descent be slow, or a high-speed dive?
Until the past year or two, the instruction to pilots in event of explosive decompression was: dive immediately. Tragically, however, the instruction had resulted in at least one aircraft breaking apart when a slower descent might have saved it. Nowadays, pilots were cautioned: Check for structural damage first. If the damage is bad, a dive may worsen it, so go down slowly.
Yet that policy, too, had hazards. To Anson Harris, they were instantly apparent.
Undoubtedly Flight Two had sustained structural damage. The sudden decompression proved it, and the explosion which bad occurred just before---though still less than a minute ago---might already have done great harm. In other circumstances, Harris would have sent Cy Jordan to the rear to learn how bad the damage was, but since Demerest was gone, Jordan must stay.
But however serious the structural damage, there was another factor, perhaps more cogent. The air temperature outside the aircraft was minus fifty degrees centigrade. Judging by the near-paralyzing cold which Harris felt, the inside temperature must also be near that. In such intense cold, no one without protective clothing could survive for more than minutes.
So which was the lesser gamble---to freeze for sure, or take a cbance and go down fast?
Making a decision which only later events could prove right or wrong, Harris called on interphone to Cy Jordan, "Warn air traffic control! We're diving!"
At the same moment, Harris banked the aircraft steeply to the right and selected landing gear "down." Banking before the dive would have two effects: Passengers or stewardesses who were not strapped in seats, or who were standing, would be held where they were by centrifugal force; whereas, a straight dive would throw them to the ceiling. The turn would also head Flight Two away from the airway they had been using, and---hopefully---other traffic below.
Putting the landing gear down would further reduce forward speed, and make the dive steeper.
On the overhead speaker, Harris could hear Cy Jordan's voice intoning a distress call. "Mayday, mayday. This is Trans America Two. Explosive decompression. We are diving, diving."
Harris pushed the control yoke hard forward. Over his shoulder he shouted, "Ask for ten!"
Cy Jordan added, "Request ten thousand feet."
Anson Harris clicked a radar transponder switch to seventy-seven---a radar S-O-S. Now, on all monitoring screens on the ground, a double blossom signal would be seen, confirming both their distress and identity.
They were going down fast, the altimeter unwinding like a clock with a wild mainspring... Passing through twenty-six thousand feet... twenty-four... twenty-three... Climb and descent meter showed eight thousand feet descent a minute... Toronto Air Route Center on the overhead speaker: "All altitudes below you are clear. Report your intentions when ready. We are standing by."... Harris had eased out of the turn, was diving straight ahead... No time to think about the cold; if they could get low enough fast enough, there might be survival---if the aircraft held together... Already Harris was aware of trouble with rudder control and elevators; rudder movement was stiff; stabilizer trim, not responding... Twenty-one thousand feet... twenty... nineteen... From the feel of the controls, the explosion had done damage to the tail; how bad, they would discover when he tried to pull out in a minute or less from now. It would be the moment of greatest strain. If anything critical gave way, they would continue plummeting in... Harris would have been glad of some help from the right seat, but it was too late for Cy Jordan to move there. Besides, the second officer was needed where he was---shutting air inlets, throwing in all the heat they had, watching for fuel system damage or fire warnings... Eighteen thousand feet... seventeen... When they reached fourteen thousand, Harris decided, he would start pulling out of the dive, hoping to level at ten... Passing through fifteen thousand... fourteen... Begin easing out now!
Controls were heavy, but responding... Harris pulled back hard on the control yoke. The dive was flattening, control surfaces holding, the aircraft coming out... Twelve thousand feet; descending more slowly now... eleven thousand... ten, five... ten!
They were level! So far, everything had held together. Here, the normal air was breathable and would sustain life, extra oxygen not necessary. The outside air temperature gauge showed minus five centigrade---five degrees below freezing; still cold, but not the killing cold of altitudes above.
From beginning to end, the dive had taken two and a half minutes.
The overhead speakers came alive. "Trans America Two, this is Toronto Center. How are you doing?"
Cy Jordan acknowledged. Anson Harris cut in. "Level at ten thousand, returning to heading two seven zero. We have structural damage due to explosion, extent unknown. Request weather and runway information---Toronto, Detroit Metropolitan, and Lincoln." In his mind, Harris had an instant picture of airports large enough to accommodate the Boeing 707, and with the special landing requirements he would need.
Vernon Demerest was clambering over the smashed flight deck door and other debris outside. Hurrying in, he slid into his seat on the right side.
"We missed you," Harris said.
"Can we maintain control?"
Harris nodded. "If the tail doesn't fall off, we may stay lucky." He reported the impeded rudder and stabilizer trim. "Somebody let off a firecracker back there?"
"Something like that. It's made a bloody great hole. I didn't stop to measure."
Their casualness, both men knew, was on the surface only. Harris was still steadying the aircraft, seeking an even altitude and course. He said considerately, "It was a good scheme, Vernon. It could have worked."
"It could have, but it didn't." Demerest swung around to the second officer. "Get back in tourist. Check on damage, report by interphone. Then do all you can for the people. We'll need to know how many are hurt, and how badly." For the first time he permitted himself an anguished thought. "And find out about Gwen."
The airport reports, which Anson Harris had asked for, were coming in from Toronto center: Toronto airport still closed; deep snow and drifts on all runways. Detroit Metropolitan---all runways closed to regular traffic, but plows will vacate runway three left if essential for emergency approach and landing; runway has five to six inches level snow, with ice beneath. Detroit visibility, six hundred feet in snow flurries. Lincoln International---all runways plowed and serviceable; runway three zero temporarily closed, due to obstruction. Lincoln visibility one mile; wind northwest, thirty knots, and gusting.
Anson Harris told Demerest, "I don't intend to dump fuel."
Demerest, understanding Harris's reasoning, nodded agreement. Assuming they could keep the airplane under control, any landing they made would be tricky and heavy, due to the large fuel load which in other circumstances would have carried them to Rome. Yet, in their present situation, to dump unwanted fuel could be an even greater hazard. The explosion and damage at the rear might have set up electrical short circuits, or metal friction, which even now could be producing sparks. When dumping fuel in flight, a single spark could turn an aircraft into a flaming holocaust. Both captains rationalized: better to avoid the fire risk and accept the penalty of a difficult landing.
Yet the same decision meant that a landing at Detroit---the nearest large airport---could be attempted only in desperation. Because of their heavy weight, they would have to land fast, requiring every available foot of runway and the last ounce of braking power. Runway three left---Detroit Metropolitan's longest, which they would need---had ice beneath snow, in the circumstances the worst possible combination.
There was also the unknown factor---wherever Flight Two landed---of how limited their control might be, due to rudder and stabilizer trim problems, which they already knew about, though not their extent.
For a landing, Lincoln International offered the best chance of safety. But Lincoln was at least an hour's flying time away. Their present speed---two hundred and fifty knots---was far slower than they had been moving at the higher altitude, and Anson Harris was holding the speed down, in the hope of avoiding further structural damage. Unfortunately, even that involved a penalty. At their present low level of ten thousand feet there was considerable buffeting and turbulence from the storm, now all around them instead of far below.
The crucial question was: Could they remain in the air another hour?
Despite everything that had happened, less than five minutes had passed since the explosion and explosive decompression.
Air route control was asking again: "Trans America Two, advise your intentions."
Vernon Demerest replied, requesting a direct course for Detroit while the extent of damage was still being checked. Landing intentions, either at Detroit Metropolitan or elsewhere, would be notified within the next few minutes.
"Roger, Trans America Two. Detroit has advised they are removing snowplows from runway three left. Until informed otherwise, they will prepare for an emergency landing."
The intercom bell chimed and Demerest answered. It was Cy Jordan calling from the rear, shouting to make himself heard above a roar of wind. "Captain, there's a great hole back here, about six feet wide behind the rear door. Most else around the galley and toilets is a shambles. But as far as I can see, everything's holding together. The rudder power boost is blown to hell, but control cables look okay."
"What about control surfaces? Can you see anything?"
"It looks like the skin is bulged into the stabilizer, which is why the stabilizer's jammed. Apart from that, all I can see outside are some holes and bad dents, I guess from debris blowing back. But nothing's hanging loose---at least, that shows. Most of the blast, I'd say, went sideways."
It was this effect which D. O. Guerrero had not allowed for. He had blundered and miscalculated from the beginning. He bungled the explosion, too.
His greatest error was in failing to recognize that any explosion would be drawn outward and would largely dissipate, the moment the hull of a pressurized aircraft was pierced. Another error was in not realizing how stoutly a modern jetliner was built. In a passenger jet, structural and mechanical systems duplicated each other, so that no single malfunction or damage should result in destruction of the whole. An airliner could be destroyed by a bomb, but only if the bomb were detonated---either by plan or chance---in some vulnerable location. Guerrero made no such plan.
Demerest queried Cy Jordan, "Can we stay in the air an hour?"
"My guess is, the airplane can. I'm not sure about the passengers."
"How many are hurt?"
"I can't say yet. I checked structural damage first, the way you said. But things don't look good."
Demerest ordered, "Stay there as long as you need to. Do what you can." He hesitated, dreading what the answer to his next question might be, then asked, "Have you seen any sign of Gwen?" He still didn't know whether or not Gwen had been sucked out with the initial blast. In the past it had happened to others, including stewardesses who were near the site of an explosive decompression, unprotected. And even if that had not happened, Gwen had still been closest to the detonated bomb.
Cy Jordan answered, "Gwen's here, but in pretty bad shape, I think. We've got about three doctors, and they're working on her and the others. I'll report when I can."
Vernon Demerest replaced the interphone. Despite his last question and its answer, he was still denying himself the indulgence of private thoughts or personal emotion; there would be time for those later. Professional decisions, the safety of the airplane and its complement, came first. He repeated to Anson Harris the gist of the second officer's report.
Harris considered, weighing all factors. Vernon Demerest had still given no indication of taking over direct command, and obviously approved of Harris's decisions so far, else he would have said so. Now, Demerest appeared to be leaving the decision about where to land to Harris also.
Captain Demerest---even in utmost crisis---was behaving exactly as a check pilot should.
"We'll try for Lincoln," Harris said. The safety of the aircraft was paramount; however bad conditions might be in the passenger cabin, they would have to hope that most people could manage to hold on.
Demerest nodded acknowledgment and began notifying Toronto Center of the decision; in a few minutes, Cleveland Center would take them over. Demerest requested that Detroit Metropolitan still stand by in case of a sudden change of plan, though it wasn't likely. Lincoln International was to be alerted that Flight Two would require a straight-in emergency approach.
"Roger, Trans America Two. Detroit and Lincoln are being advised." A change of course followed. They were nearing the western shore of Lake Huron, the U.S.-Canadian border close.
On the ground, both pilots knew, Flight Two was now the center of attention. Controllers and supervisors in contiguous air route centers would be working intensely, coordinating removal of all traffic from the aircraft's path, sectors ahead warned of their approach, and airways cleared. Any request they made would be acted on with first priority.
As they crossed the border, Toronto Center signed off, adding to the final exchange, "Goodnight and good luck."
Cleveland Air Route Center responded to their call a moment later.
Glancing back toward the passenger cabins, through the gap where the flight deck door had been, Demerest could see figures moving---though indistinctly, because immediately after the door had gone, Cy Jordan had dimmed the first class cabin lights to avoid reflection on the flight deck. It appeared, though, as if passengers were being ushered forward, indicating that someone in the rear had taken charge---presumably Cy Jordan, who should be reporting again at any moment. The cold was still biting, even on the flight deck; back there it must be colder still. Once more, with a second's anguish, Demerest thought of Gwen, then ruthlessly cleared his mind, concentrating on what must be decided next.
Though only minutes had elapsed since the decision to risk another hour in the air, the time to begin planning their approach and landing at Lincoln International was now. As Harris continued flying, Vernon Demerest selected approach and runway charts and spread them on his knees.
Lincoln International was home base for both pilots, and they knew the airport---as well as runways and surrounding airspace---intimately. Safety and training, however, required that memory should be supplemented and checked.
The charts confirmed what both already knew.
For the high speed, heavy weight landing they must execute, the longest possible length of runway was required. Because of doubtful rudder control, the runway should be the widest, too. It must also be directly into wind which---the Lincoln forecast had said---was northwest at thirty knots, and gusting. Runway three zero answered all requirements.
"We need three zero," Demerest said.
Harris pointed out, "That last report said a temporary closing, due to obstruction."
"I heard," Demerest growled. "The damn runway's been blocked for hours, and all that's in the way is a stuck Mexican jet." He folded a Lincoln approach chart and clipped it to his control yoke, then exclaimed angrily, "Obstruction hell! We'll give 'em fifty more minutes to pry it loose."
As Demerest thumbed his mike button to inform air route control, Second Officer Cy Jordan---white-faced and shaken---returned to the flight deck.