EVEN BEFORE it happened, Joe Patroni knew he was running out of time.



He had deliberately not started the engines of the Aereo-Mexican 707 until the latest possible moment, wanting the work of clearing under and around the aircraft to continue as long as it could.



When he realized that he could wait no longer, Patroni made a final inspection. What he saw gave him grave misgivings.



The landing gear was still not as clear from surrounding earth, mud, and snow as it should be. Nor were the trenches, inclining upward from the present level of the main wheels to the hard surface of the nearby taxiway, as wide or deep as he had wanted. Another fifteen minutes would have done it.



Patroni knew he didn't have the time.



Reluctantly he ascended the boarding ramp, to make his second attempt at moving the mired aircraft, now with himself at the controls.



He shouted to Ingram, the Aerco-Mexican foreman, "Get everybody clear! We're starting up."



From under the aircraft, figures began to move out.



Snow was still falling, but more lightly than for several hours.



Joe Patroni called again from the boarding ramp. "I need somebody with me on the flight deck, but let's keep the weight down. Send me a skinny guy who's cockpit qualified."



He let himself into the aircraft's forward door.



Inside, through the flight deck windows, Patroni could see Mel Bakersfeld's airport car, its bright yellow coloring reflected through the darkness. The car was parked on the runway, to the left. Near it was the line of snowplows and graders---a reminder, if he needed one, that he had only a few minutes more.



The maintenance chief had reacted with shocked disbelief when Mel announced his plan to shove the Aereo-Mexican aircraft clear of runway three zero by force, if necessary. The reaction was natural, but was not through indifference to the safety of those aboard Trans America Flight Two. Joe Patroni lived with thoughts of aircraft safety, which was the object of his daily work, It was simply that the idea of reducing an undamaged aircraft to a pile of scrap metal, or something close to it, was near-impossible for him to grasp. In Patroni's eyes, an aircraft---any aircraft---represented devotion, skill, engineering know-how, hours of labor, and sometimes love. Almost anything was better than its deliberate destruction. Almost anything.



Patroni intended to save the airplane if he could.



Behind him, the fuselage door opened, and slammed closed.



A young mechanic, small and spare, came forward to the flight deck, shedding snow. Joe Patroni had already slipped off his parka and was strapping himself into the left seat.



"What's your name, son?"



"Rolling, sir."



Patroni chuckled. "That's what we're trying to get this airplane doin'. Maybe you're an omen."



As the mechanic removed his own parka and slid into the right seat, Patroni looked through the window behind his left shoulder. Outside, the boarding ramp was being trundled clear.



The interphone chimed, and Patroni answered. The foreman, Ingram, was calling from below. "Ready to start when you are."



Joe Patroni glanced sideways. "All set, son?"



The mechanic nodded.



"Number three starter switch---ground start."



The mechanic snapped a switch; Patroni ordered on interphone, "Pressurize the manifold!"



From a power cart below, air under pressure whined. The maintenance chief moved a start level to "idle"; the young mechanic, monitoring instruments, reported, "Light-up on number three." The engine note became a steady roar.



In smooth succession, engines four, two, and one followed.



On interphone, Ingram's voice was diminished by a background of wind and jet whine. "Power cart's clear. So's everything else down here."



"Okay," Patroni shouted back. "Disconnect interphone, and get the hell clear yourself."



He told his cockpit companion, "Sit tight, son, and hang on." The maintenance chief shifted his cigar, which contrary to regulations he had lighted a few minutes earlier, so that it was now jauntily in a corner of his mouth. Then, with chunky fingers spread, he eased the four main throttles forward.



With power at midpoint, the clamor of all four engines grew.



Ahead of the aircraft, in the snow, they could see a ground crewman with raised, lighted signal wands. Patroni grinned, "If we come out fast, I hope that guy's a good runner."



All brakes were off, flaps slightly down to engender lift. Tbe mechanic held the control yoke back. Patroni worked the rudder controls alternately, hoping by sideways strain to help the airplane forward.



Glancing left, he saw Mel Bakersfeld's car was still in position. From an earlier calculation, Joe Patroni knew there could be only minutes---perhaps less than a minute---left.



Now, power was past three quarters. From the high-pitched note of engines, he could tell it was more power than the Aereo-Mexican captain had used during the earlier attempt to get free. Vibration told why. Normally, at this setting, the airplane would be unimpeded, bowling fast down a runway. Because it was not, it was shaking severely, with every portion of its upper area straining forward, resisting the anchoring effect of the wheels below. The airplane's inclination to stand on its nose was unmistakable. The mechanic glanced uneasily sideways.



Patroni saw the glance and grunted. "She'd better come out now, or she's a dead duck."



But the aircraft was not moving. Obstinately, as it had for hours, and through two earlier attempts, it was remaining stuck.



In the hope of rocking the wheels free, Patroni slackened engine power, then increased it.



Still the aircraft failed to move.



Joe Patroni's cigar, moist from previous chewing, had gone out. Disgustedly, he flung it down and reached for another. His breast pocket was empty; the cigar had been his last.



He swore, and returned his right hand to the throttles. Moving them still farther forward, he snarled, "Come out! Come out, you son of a bitch!"



"Mr. Patroni!" the mechanic warned. "She won't take much more."



Abruptly, the overhead radio speakers came alive. The tower chief's voice. "Joe Patroni, aboard Aereo-Mexican. This is ground control. We have a message from Mr. Bakersfeld: 'There is no more time. Stop all engines.' Repeat---stop all engines."



Glancing out, Patroni saw the plows and graders were already moving. They wouldn't close in, he knew, until the aircraft engines were stopped. But he remembered Mel's warning: When the tower tells us we're out of time, there'll be no argument.



He thought: Who's arguing?



The radio again, urgently: "Joe Patroni, do you read? Acknowledge."



"Mr. Patroni!" the mechanic shouted. "Do you hear? We have to shut down!"



Patroni shouted back, "Can't hear a damn thing, son. Guess there's too much noise."



As any seasoned maintenance man knew, you always had a minute more than the panic-prone sales types in the front office said you had.



In the worst way, though, he needed a cigar. Suddenly Joe Patroni remembered---hours ago, Mel Bakersfeld bet him a box of cigars he couldn't get this airplane free tonight.



He called across the cockpit, "I gotta stake in this, too. Let's go for broke." In a single, swift motion he shoved the throttles forward to their limit.



The din and vibration had seemed great before; now they were overwhelming. The airplane shuddered as if it might fall apart. Joe Patroni kicked the rudder pedals hard again.



Around the cockpit, engine warning lights flashed on. Afterward, the mechanic described the effect as "like a pinball machine at Vegas."



Now, alarm in his voice, he called, "Exhaust gas temperature seven hundred."



The radio speakers were still emitting orders, including something about Patroni getting clear himself. He supposed he would have to. IFEs hand tensed to close the throttles.



Suddenly the airplane shifted forward. At first, it moved slowly. Then, with startling speed, they were hurtling toward the taxiway. The mechanic shouted a warning. As Patroni snatched back all four throttles, he commandcd, "Flaps up!" Glancing below and ahead, both men had an impression of blurred figures running.



Fifty feet from the taxiway, they were still moving fast. Unless turned promptly, the airplane would cross the hard surface and roll into piled snow on the other side. As he felt the tires reach pavement, Patroni applied left brakes hard and slammed open the two starboard throttles. Brakes and engines responded, and the aircraft swung sharply left, in a ninety-degree arc. Halfway around, he slid back the two throttles and applied all brakes together. The Aereo-Mexican 707 rolled forward briefly, then slowed and halted.



Joe Patroni grinned. They had stopped with the aircraft parked neatly, in the center of the taxiway paralleling runway three zero.



The runway, two hundred feet away, was no longer blocked.



IN MEL Bakersfeld's car, on the runway, Tanya cried, "He's done it! He's done it!"



Beside her, Mel was already radioing the Snow Desk, ordering plows and graders to get clear.



Seconds earlier, Mel had been calling angrily to the tower, demanding for the third time that Joe Patroni stop engines immediately. Mel had been assured the messages were relayed, but Patroni ignored them. The heat of Mel's anger still remained; even now, he could cause Joe Patroni serious trouble for the latter's failure to obey, or even acknowledge, an airport management order in a matter of urgency and safety. But Mel knew he wouldn't. Patroni had gotten away with it, and no one with sense quarreled with that kind of success. Also, Mel knew, after tonight there would be one more item to add to the Patroni legend.



The plows and graders were already moving.



Mel switched his radio back to tower frequency. "Mobile one to ground control. Obstructing aircraft has been moved from runway three zero. Vehicles following. I am inspecting for debris."



Mel shone a spotlight from his car over the runway surface, Tanya and the reporter, Tomlinson, peered with him. Sometimes incidents like tonight's resulted in work crews leaving tools or debris---a hazard to aircraft taking off or landing. The light showed nothing beyond an irregular surface of snow.



The last of the snowplows was turning off at the nearest intersection. Mel accelerated and followed. All three in the car were emotionally drained from tensions of the past few minutes, but aware that a greater cause for tension was still to come.



As they swung left, behind the plows, Mel reported, "Runway three zero clear and open."