The DC-10 thundered through the night hauling fifty tons of cargo. At thirty-five thousand feet, the air was minus forty-five Celsius. Inside it was a living room. Under the spell of darkness, jeweled cities passed beneath. No one cared. Three hours to go. But something was bothering Second Officer Kevin Hamilton. A sixth sense from years of flying kept telling him something was wrong. He glanced at Captain Joe Salvetti. He was giving his tired eyes a shot of Visene hoping to renew them. Joe was a small man, but he filled the left seat with authority and experience. Physical size didn’t matter in the left seat. There he was king. But Kevin knew that Joe had to stand on his tiptoes to get a peek inside an engine nacelle. He glanced at First officer Wendy McManus. She too was a seasoned pilot, caught in the seniority system, biding her time. Whatever was bothering Kevin was his problem.
The winter jet stream slashed their groundspeed three miles per minute. Barring a miracle, their million-dollar revenue load would be delivered late, and at the company’s expense.
Kevin saw nothing unusual as he glanced over the aircraft systems panel. He must have looked twenty times; each time was the same. The DC-10 required a crew of three; the second officer being the flight engineer, but automation left little for him to do. Three more pumps for landing. It didn’t take a genius to remember that.
After spending a lifetime strapped to an ejection seat, the DC-10 would take some getting used to. His flattened wool-covered cushion consumed his posterior and cut off his circulation while his long legs cramped under his workstation. Swiveling his chair forty-five degrees made things reasonably comfortable until one of the pilots had to get up.
Although the DC-10 was quiet compared to many airliners, there was still constant high-frequency noise from radios, gyros, and circulating air. The arid climate sucked the moisture from him. It was easier to recline his seatback and prop his feet up than strain his voice in idle conversation. With the autopilot engaged, he watched the miles click by, the pilots’ faces aglow in the instrument lighting. A perceptive crew would have noticed the tension in his face.
He managed to push aside his gut instinct that something was wrong and record the engine readings in the maintenance log. This was his first flight as a Global Cargo Express crewmember. He was lucky to be an in-flight secretary. Thousands would trade places in a heartbeat. He recorded the data and set the logbook aside. Watching the minutes tick by, he felt the tension wedge itself back into his brain. “Joe, I’m gonna stretch my legs. Anyone need anything from the back?”
Wendy shook her head, no.
Kevin passed through the narrow cockpit door into the dark five by fifteen foot cell known as the courier section. It contained a lavatory, meal locker, convection oven, crew luggage net, and two aft-facing chairs for jump seaters. Tonight the courier seats were vacant. He paused, feeling every vibration coming up through his shoes. As he fumbled for the light switch, the air-conditioning pack blasted into high gear, startling him. He stared at the ceiling outlet, wondering what kind of hazardous waste was circulating through those thirty-year-old ducts. Radioactive dust? Anthrax? He shook it off, taking everything else in. The label on the smoke screen, the leaking ice chest, a missing door panel, the draft by the door. There was nothing pretty about the plane’s interior. But then, there was no one to impress.
Behind the smoke screen was the cargo net. It was certified to restrain everything up to nine times the force of gravity. Any impact greater than that made the net a moot point. Fortunately in the company’s twenty-two year history, neither the smoke screen nor cargo net had been tested. Global wanted to keep it that way.
Kevin slid his hand over the vinyl, cool except where the vent spewed. Things are fine. Get over it. Lost in thought, he grabbed a water bottle from the cooler, turned out the lights, and returned to his seat. As he fastened his seat belt, his foot kicked the green thermos. “Coffee anyone?”
“Sure,” Joe said. “Black’s fine,”
First Officer Wendy McManus declined, busy programming a waypoint into the navigation computers. An exceptional pilot, her life’s story in Cosmo buried among breast implant advertisements and orgasm techniques led to five minutes on The View. Meeting Barbara Walters was one of her greatest moments. She had no time for coffee.
Kevin was reaching for the coffee jug when a flash on his panel spiked his eye, then disappeared. Uneasy, he checked his instruments, but saw no abnormal indications. Must’ve been a reflection. As he unscrewed the thermos, an amber Cabin Cargo Smoke detector illuminated, followed by the Master Caution light. Something bad was happening in the upper cargo area. Something was burning. Within seconds, two more amber detectors were lit.
It was impossible for Joe to miss the amber Master Caution and Summary lights staring him in the face. They were bright and threatening. The only good news was the red warning lights were still out. He looked at Kevin’s panel. Numbers seven, eight, and nine detectors were on; five and six were flickering. “Get your masks and goggles on. Wendy—you’ve got the plane—I’m working with Kevin.”
“I’ve got the plane,” she said, donning her oxygen mask and goggles. Her well-groomed blonde hair was flattened as she rotated the pressure regulator to the emergency position. Neither were a perfect fit; the high-pressure oxygen bleeding into her goggles dried her eyes. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” she said, broadcasting to everyone on frequency. The international distress signal silenced the airwaves. “
In a darkened radar surveillance room hundreds of miles away, Sam Goodall watched a radar bleep double in intensity. The sight nearly caused him to spill his coffee. It also got his supervisor’s attention. “GlobeEx 3217 Heavy,
The indefinite response could only mean they were in serious trouble. GlobeEx 3217’s bleep tracked across the green circular screen, highlighted every few seconds by the radar scan. Sam set his coffee mug aside, anxiously watching, waiting for another call. He marked the tape, should there be an investigation.
Kevin closed the vent on the cockpit door and pulled the Cabin Air Shutoff T-handle to shut off the air aft of the cockpit. Assuming everything worked, the smoke would exit through the outflow valve and keep the cockpit clear. He opened the emergency procedures handbook to Cabin Cargo Smoke and set it on the center console so Joe could follow along. Wearing goggles, it wasn’t easy to read.
“Every detector’s on now,” Joe said, his voice scratchy over the intercom.
Kevin stared at the panel. He recalled his fire-fighting training aboard aircraft carriers. His instinct was to fight the fire, but he didn’t have a crew to work with. Even if he got to the source, his hand-held fire extinguisher would barely spit on it. Their situation worsened by the minute.
“We’ll have to starve it. Wendy, take her down to twenty-five thousand.”
Joe’s command brought Kevin back. He grabbed the manual pressurization lever and rotated the wheel to equalize the cabin pressure. “Cabin’s coming up,” he said. Wendy was diving the plane to twenty-five thousand feet. The pressure in his ears confirmed the cabin altitude was rising rapidly.
“Wendy—I’ve got the radios—you keep the plane,” Joe said, struggling to clear his ears. “Center, GlobeEx 3217 Heavy, we need a vector to the nearest airfield—now.”
“Joe—we’ve got fifty-five thousand pounds. You want to dump?” Kevin asked, interrupting him. Joe raised his hand to silence him.
“GlobeEx 3217 Heavy,
Whiteman Air Force Base had twelve thousand feet of runway, emergency equipment, an on-site medical facility, and more security people than the city of
“Roger, GlobeEx 3217 Heavy, vector three-three-zero for Whiteman, descend at pilot’s discretion to four thousand. When able, contact St. Louis Approach on 127.45.”
“GlobeEx 3217 Heavy, will contact Approach on twenty-seven-forty-five, PD to four.” Joe removed his hand from the radio key, scanning Kevin’s panel. Too much fuel. An old saying came to mind. You can only have too much fuel when you’re on fire. Somehow it wasn’t funny now. He’d land overweight if he had to, but they had time to lighten the load. “Okay, Kevin—dump to the limits.”
Kevin flipped on every fuel pump switch, opened the crossfeed valves, raised the fuel dump switch, and hacked the clock. Fuel gushed from the wing dump masts at seven hundred gallons per minute. From the ground it would look like the space shuttle reentry. Would anyone notice?
Joe considered his options. The cold air was fogging his goggles. He felt Wendy’s gaze, waiting for him to make the wrong move. He knew how badly she wanted to be in command. Avoiding her eyes, he checked the aircraft’s weight. Landing took priority over starving the fire and Whiteman was getting close. “Wendy—keep her coming down.”
“You got it,” she said, her voice cold. In a single elegant move she extended the speed brakes, slats, and dropped the landing gear. The nose dropped further.
Joe saw Kevin grab the checklist as it floated off the console. Jesus! Staring into the gloom, he realized no simulator ride prepared him for this; the book no longer mattered. His heart banged inside him. Get the goddam plane on the ground! “Kevin, how’s the dump coming?”
“Forty-three thousand now.”
Three thousand ’til the limit: dump’s looking good. The pain in Joe’s ear was unbearable. The human body wasn’t designed to handle such pressure changes. A loud pop relieved the pain, but he felt a wetness in his ear. Ignore it. He switched frequencies to 127.45. “St. Louis Approach, GlobEx 3217 Heavy’s descending to four thousand.” More pain, pressure. He stretched his neck, yawned, and blew his nose at the same time. Finally his ears popped again. Liquid now. Must’ve broken an eardrum. While pondering if he’d ever fly again, Approach Control called.
“GlobeEx 3217 Heavy, St. Louis Approach, winds are calm, runway your discretion. When able, state souls on board and fuel remaining in minutes.”
Stay focused. Joe looked at the fuel totalizer. “GlobeEx 3217 has three souls, two plus hours, and dumping.” Passing eighteen thousand feet, he dialed in the local altimeter setting and turned on the exterior floodlights. More vibration as the lights extended into the slipstream. Ten minutes to go.
Having little to do, Kevin jammed some damp napkins under the door to block the smoke. For now the cockpit was clear, but it wouldn’t last. He beat the laminated checklist against his leg in frustration. His gut feeling had been right, but how'd this happen? Hell, what was he doing here? He was a goddam fill-in! Tightening his oxygen mask brought back memories of survival training. An image flashed, but was gone in an instant. Joe’s seat made the image clear. It was the Boeing 707 captain—the one that let him sit in his seat; and the seven-year-old kid found his destiny. Thousands of flying hours later, smoke billowing out the fuselage, he was diving at beaded lights against a blackened earth, the plane shuddering from the drag.
While the others worked, he thought back to his meeting Joe and Wendy tonight. Joe with his Italian good looks, calm brown eyes and olive complexion. At thirty-five or thereabouts, his skin was smooth except around the eyes, the pilot’s squint from countless horizons. Probably knew a good Italian restaurant for every logbook entry. Maybe known by his first name. Maybe he got carded, something that would please him. Good pilot. No frills, all business. And Wendy. Kevin watched her, all goggles and mask, her misty blue eyes now gray in the cockpit light. They were tight behind the goggles, constantly moving, confidently scanning the instruments, beyond the cockpit and into the night, ready for Joe’s next command. Night flying, he guessed, was taking its toll on her. But he couldn’t fault her for being here. Panel lights reflected off her goggles . . .
Retired from the Marine Corps, Kevin was the old man of the group. Not sure he fit in yet. On probation for another ten months. He watched Joe . . . everything by the book. Their preflight checks were quick and methodical, cargo doors secured, waiting for him to complete the takeoff data. No pressure—just make it fast. Joe never said it, but he could see it in Wendy’s eyes. Kevin avoided her look as he passed the data forward. He went to the back to review the hazardous materials document.
Global relied on its customers to declare anything hazardous, so there was no way to know what they were really carrying. The cargo deck was a sea of containers, a foot along the fuselage walls for a crawl space. The
Joe nodded; flipping through his binder for an approach plate he knew wasn’t there. Whiteman wasn’t a normal alternate. He would have to rely on Approach Control for frequency and guidance information. Whiteman’s bright lights in the distance were reassuring.
Wendy shallowed her descent preparing to level at four thousand feet. “Gear up,” she said.
“Let’s leave it down,” Joe said. Her stare prompted an explanation, unnecessary as it was. “No point in taking chances. It won’t hurt our airspeed and we’ll burn more fuel.” Ready to brief the approach, something caught his eye. Is that condensation or is smoke coming out of the air vents? Did the fire burn through an air conditioning duct? He checked Kevin’s panel. No manifold failure light—must be condensation. But his instruments were disappearing. “Kevin—turn off the packs and pull the ram air.”
Kevin recalled the Ram Air T-handle was located under a floor panel behind Joe’s seat. When he unstrapped and reached for the cover, his oxygen hose jerked his mask over his chin. In the time it took to swap with the observer’s mask, his eyes and throat were burning. Without the air-conditioning packs on, smoke and fumes were seeping into the cockpit. They hadn’t noticed with their masks and goggles on, but the toxic vapors reinforced their predicament. He found the T-handle and pulled, but nothing happened. Jesus— doesn’t maintenance ever check this stuff? He braced himself and yanked with all his might. Dusty air filled the cockpit, but it cleared quickly. Why did Joe want the packs off, anyway? Caught in the moment, Kevin realized he’d forgotten about his fuel dump. Thankfully the automatic shutoff worked. “The dump’s secured,” he said.
Confident that all was under control, Joe assumed aircraft control. Wendy raised her hands to confirm he was flying the jet. “Wendy—call the company. Make sure they’re sending trucks.”
Kevin was dumbfounded. With all that was going on, how could Joe be concerned with delivering freight? Kevin was beginning to wonder about him. Why have Wendy call Ops when his only job was running checklists? Kevin slid his volume lever up to monitor Wendy’s call.
“GlobeEx Operations, 3217’s diverting with an inflight emergency.” She repeated the transmission several times with no answer. “Must be out of range.”
“I’ll try while you fly,” Kevin said.
“Go ahead,” Joe said, reengaging the autopilot and autothrottles.
For the first time since the amber Master Caution light came on, the plane was under computer control, level at four thousand feet, two hundred thirty knots. Kevin tapped Joe on the shoulder. “I got in touch with flight ops. They have a plan for the freight—the safety reps are on the way.”
Joe raised a thumb, smiling under his mask. He could make out individual buildings now. Unless something else happened in the next four minutes, they had it made. “Call the field in sight.” Wendy relayed the information. Approach Control advised there was no other traffic, and passed them to Tower on 132.4. “Flaps 15.”
Wendy lowered the flaps to fifteen degrees while keying the mike. “Tower, 3217’s with you.” Her voice was steady. Hopefully no one noticed her hands shaking. She had been fine flying the plane, her hands on the controls. She expected Joe would take over, but being a spectator was difficult. The airfield was alive; every piece of emergency response equipment awaited them.
Joe glanced over his shoulder. The manual pressurization outflow valve was full open. The airplane was depressurized; they shouldn’t have any problems evacuating. He called for the Approach Checklist.
Kevin caught the tension in Joe’s voice. Now or never, do or die, hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror, all the clichés—which in flying were all the time. He’d been remarkable controlling his emotions, but was having doubts. He knew all hell would break lose once they stopped. The only thing keeping the smoke out was the flowing outside ram air. Without that, all bets were off. They weren’t safe until they were out of the aircraft and on the tarmac.
Joe briefed a visual approach to Runway 19. “We’ll stop on the runway and evacuate out the windows,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going on back there and I don’t care to find out. Kevin—if there’s time, read the Emergency Evacuation Checklist. If anyone sees something you don’t like, tell me early ’cause we’re not going around.”
Kevin tightened his lap belt and called the Approach Check complete.
Joe disconnected the autopilot and dipped the wing to turn base leg. “Flaps twenty-two, gear down,” he said.
“Gear’s still down, flaps twenty-two,” Wendy said, rechecking the three green lights on the panel, sliding the flap lever into the next detent.
Tower cleared them for landing. “Flaps thirty-five.” As the flaps lowered to thirty-five degrees, all eyes were on the runway. The vibration increased. “Flaps fifty.” Final flap setting. The plane shuddered as the air pounded the barn-door flaps. When the flaps stabilized, Kevin silently reviewed the Before Landing Checklist. Everything looked good. At a thousand feet above the ground, the computer-generated voice echoed, One thousand. “Visual approach,” Joe said. A required call; one he knew was being recorded.
Kevin tugged at his seat belt for the fifth time. It hadn’t been that tight since his last flight in a jet fighter. His seat between the pilots gave him a clear view, but was also directly behind the console. He moved his seat as far aft as possible for maximum clearance, but made sure he could still manually extend the ground spoilers in case the automatic function failed. Five hundred. “Stabilized,” Wendy said, confirming the aircraft was properly configured and on speed. “Thirty—twenty—ten.” Joe eased the throttles to idle. Raising the nose slightly resulted in a smooth touchdown. When the ground spoilers deployed, he dumped the nose and stood on the brakes, praying the anti-skid would keep the tires from blowing. The rapid deceleration locked their shoulder harnesses, limiting their movement. As the aircraft slowed to a crawl, Joe set the parking brake and secured the fuel shutoff levers, making no attempt to clear the runway. Wendy’s hand bumped Joe’s as she reached for the Fire T-handles. Once Wendy’s hand was clear, Joe turned on the Emergency Power and Thunderstorm Lights, glanced at the others, and tossed his harness aside. “We’re get outta here.”
When Joe cracked his window open, dense smoke forced its way into the cockpit, catching him by surprise. Realizing any delay would put the others in danger, he tossed the escape rope outside, took a final breath, and threw his mask on the seat. Wendy was leaving through the opposite window; Kevin was unstrapped, waiting. Time to go. Joe swung out the window, working his way to the ground hand-over-hand. He’d just reached the ground when he heard a scream and a thud. He ran to the other side and found Wendy struggling to her feet. “Are you okay?” She nodded. He guided her to a safe position in front of the aircraft as dense smoke poured out from everywhere.
Kevin’s vision was blurred. He located the battery and Emergency Power switches by their distinct features and turned them off. After the cockpit went dark, he noticed red lights dancing in the windows. He remembered his survival training and felt for reference points. Banging his shins, he found the escape rope, its stiff fibers course against his skin. Desperate for fresh air, he tossed the Hazardous Materials pouch out the window, balanced on the window frame, and began his descent. As his feet neared the ground, he felt hands on his back and recognized Joe’s voice. He relaxed. Nearly blind eyes swollen, he retrieved the yellow pouch and followed Joe to safety.
Once they joined Wendy in front of the aircraft, Joe swirled his finger in his ear, then looked at it. Moist, but no blood. Elated, he drew circles in the ground with his laser pointer. The red beam sliced through the smoke like a knife. Joe smiled. He never expected his mother’s birthday present would come in so handy.
Soon the Fire Chief approached, yelling something indiscernible. Kevin handed him the salvaged document pouch and described his cabin cargo smoke indications. The Fire Chief nodded and reached for his microphone. “All units, this is Fire One. Check the right aft section on the upper deck for possible ignition source. We need to get that cargo door open, but—Holy shit! Flames exploded though the top of the fuselage lighting the sky with fire, a tongue of flame licking the night.