It was late fall, with the brilliant colors already turning dull. The leaves of the large chestnut close by our old stone house lay on the ground, curled and brown and brittle. The sky was overcast, but without definition -- no way to identify the clouds, it was simply gray and dreary.
I looked back as I turned the car from the dirt road onto the two-lane blacktop, and waved to my wife, Jean, who was watching me go; she waved back, and after that I only looked ahead.
I felt that emptiness and sadness I always faced when leaving home and family, the nagging feeling of not having had the time for all the important things to do or say.
The country road soon reached the Delaware River; after that the roads grew bigger, and the occasional auto became many as others slid into the flow. Finally the route became the steady nose-to-tail stream of highway leading to New York City and its disheartening surroundings. As home dropped back behind me and the airport loomed, the sad feeling retreated to a quiet place in the mind's back storage, while my primary thoughts turned to the evening's task.
This night I'd fly a Boeing 747 from New York across the Atlantic to Paris, as I did four or five times a month, hauling people, mail, and cargo -- a pleasant task despite the problems that weather, crew, and airplane might toss my way. Whenever I drove to an airport the same thoughts occupied my mind, mostly about emergencies and what I would do if one occurred.
The act of flying an airplane is a daily chore and I'd long since become proficient at it, the repeated reactions and movements automatic, but emergencies almost never happen so there's no rehearsal for them except for a few hours twice a year in a simulator. And that doesn't cover all of them -- ditching the plane in mid-Atlantic, for example. So you review these things, playing mental games of how to cope if the improbable should come true, and the time spent driving to the airport gives you a good opportunity to do it.
What if an engine catches fire? Pull back the throttle, cut the start lever, call for the emergency checklist. How necessary is this review? I'd been thirty years a captain and only had one fire, on a Constellation -- a "Connie" -- taking off from Frankfurt, Germany. Just as we broke ground there came the shattering confusion of a loud bell and a bright red light. "Engine fire!" Quick action on the remembered items: throttle closed, fuel mixture off, fire extinguisher lever pulled, "Read the engine fire checklist!" All the pre-trained, well-thought-out operational actions took place, right by the book. But in the back of my mind was the thought of a wing burning off, which told me, "Get the son of a bitch back on the ground as fast as possible."
I wrapped the plane into a tight turn I had learned long ago while flying fast around pylons in small-time air races and stunt shows. "Tell the tower we're coming right back," I said. The tower operator, accustomed to orderly traffic flow procedures, tried to direct us to follow another aircraft, a normal aircraft on a normal flight. A few firm words advised the tower to get others out of the way, that we were in a hurry for terra firma.
We landed okay -- total flight time was probably five or six minutes, and the fire was out before we touched down -- but it had been a fire, caused by a complicated turbine failing and tearing things up. Those few minutes presented the contrast of carefully taught and programmed reactions versus the kind of seat-of-the-pants flying you store up during long hours of flight time -- some call it "fright time," and a pilot needs some of that in his or her dossier. The modern way is right and necessary, but periodically there are difficult and perhaps emergency situations that demand the basic stick and rudder skills of quick, intuitive action.
But now it was time to quit thinking about that day in a Connie, and to come back to the 747 I was going to fly tonight. How about a hydraulic system loss? An electrical? Instruments? I go over each one -- and the tough ones, too, like a crash landing with fire, and how to get 400 people off the plane; review your actions, think of the twelve doors, know the other crew members' responsibilities, because they're yours, too. It sounds matter-of-fact in the manual, the drawings all neat and precise, but planes generally don't crack up so neatly; it'd probably be a shambles.
My mind slides back to a noon takeoff from Paris, headed for New York with a light load of only 177 passengers. We climbed toward the Channel because our route was to go over England and north, out to sea over Northern Ireland. There was a scattering of fluffy cumulus clouds around 5,000 feet, the sky above blue, the Normandy countryside green and lush below.
"Flight eight-oh-three, Paris." It was our company radio calling. The copilot answered.
"Go ahead, Paris -- eight-oh-three."
"Eight-oh-three, we have a telephone [they never say "call"] saying there is a bomb on your flight set to explode at 1340!"
All eyes to the cockpit clocks -- that was about forty-seven minutes from now. Shit!
Scared? No -- because I didn't think it was real. The natural reaction of "This wouldn't happen to me" numbs you unless there's a real accident in progress.
Logic also said that a bomb was unlikely, as most such threats are hoaxes. But we're just off the ground with seven hours ahead of us to New York, and hoax or no hoax you have to play it for real.
A quick return -- Paris air traffic control (ATC) was cooperative when the problem was explained. "You are cleared direct Orly, number one to land." The French grasp situations quickly and act that way, too.
The purser, Buddy Ledger, an efficient old-timer, was called up front: "It's like this," I explained. "We may have to evacuate, so get 'em all ready." Cool as a cucumber, no more excitement or emotion than if I'd simply wanted a cup of fresh coffee.
We started a descent, dumping fuel as we descended, but there wasn't time to get down to landing weight before arriving; as we neared Orly there were just twelve minutes left before the big bang was scheduled, so no time for hanging around the sky. Orly's runway is long, so an overweight landing was less risky than a possible bomb.
I had briefed the passengers during our return, telling them exactly what was going on: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We've been notified there is a bomb on board set to go off in forty minutes, so we're returning to Orly. I don't think it's for real, but we cannot take the chance. We should be well on the ground before the time. Please follow the instructions of your purser and cabin team."
That was giving it to them straight. I've always believed in being truthful to passengers about problems. Let 'em have it as it is -- some might faint, but they'll know the score when we revive 'em.
Safely down, and then on the ground we were directed to a deserted area of the airport; they didn't want us to be at the terminal if we blew up.
How do you feel during all this? Annoyed, mostly, still not believing in the bomb, but playing the game. Judgments, actions, compromises all needed because of a phone call.
Out at our lonesome area on the far end of the field -- we were almost out in farm country, the terminal a couple of miles away -- I couldn't see any steps being towed out to us. To play the game right we should get out of the airplane fast: evacuate, slide all the passengers down those long chutes that inflate when the door is opened. That's a regrettable procedure, because someone always gets hurt. I look at the copilot and flight engineer; they're staring at me, expecting a decision. "Let's go!" Action: engine shut down, checklist items all done fast. I flip the switch to ring the bell that will tell the cabin team to start the evacuation, but I didn't want any misunderstandings so I also picked up the intercom. "This is it, evacuate the aircraft!"
"Go!" I said to the two crew members, and they disappeared from the cockpit. I took a minute to double-check that we'd turned all the proper things off, set the brakes, and so on. We'd been thorough, so I was mostly satisfied -- but not completely because in a big complex airplane there's always a feeling that you may have missed something; it's like leaving your house with that question of "What did I forget?" gnawing at your mind.
Last check done to the best of my ability, I rushed out of the cockpit and down the stairs expecting to see a mob of people headed for the doors, but they were already gone, the cabin empty. What a job Buddy and his gals had done. Just to be sure, I ran, circling the length of the cabin to be certain we hadn't missed anyone, and then got to the front door and its chute. Before jumping into it I hesitated a second -- gad, it looked a long way down there; well, it's almost three stories. I jumped, fanny first, feet up, into the chute and slid to the bottom.
The passengers had all been moved away from the airplane and cars and buses were racing out to get them. One man came up to me -- sensitive-looking, with eyeglasses, suit and tie, and a worried look.
"My violin, it is very valuable -- will it be safe? Please take care of it."
"If the airplane doesn't blow up, your violin is safe."
I turned to Buddy and asked, "Anybody hurt?"
"No. One gal, a dead-heading hostess [a flight attendant not working but traveling along to her next destination], turned her ankle. Everybody else okay, including an eighty-two-year-old lady with a cane."
A big sense of relief, because all the people in that airplane are your worry.
We waited a couple of hours and nothing happened. After long discussions among mechanics, airport police, and Lord knows who else, it was decided the airplane was safe. Somehow I was elected to go back on board first.
At the airplane there was a lift with a platform, and I climbed on accompanied by the commandant of the airport police, a proper Frenchman in full uniform topped by his blue kepi -- always neat and impressive. We were raised up to the front door, and in an automatic gesture...