Up in the AirbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
A heavy rain fell on the 747 as it was pushed back from the gate. The airliner looked dark and perversely sinister in the evening light, like some kind of misplaced prehistoric whale wallowing on wet pavement, incongruously bathed in garish yellow light that flooded the crowded ramp. Open window shades along the side of the beast dappled the tops of the wings with little amber shadows; water collecting on the wings quivered and ran down to the safe embrace of the earth below when the huge turbofans spooled up during their startup. A person in an anonymous orange rain-suit walked under the nose of the aircraft, hooked by an umbilical to the aircraft and looking about as significant as a remora trailing a whale shark's gaping mouth.
"Clear to start two," the person said.
"Starting two," Paul Overton said from his seat some forty feet above the ramp. He reached over and pushed buttons, watched pressures build on the screens in front of him while he advanced a throttle lever to the start position.
"Pressure good," Overton's first officer said, her voice full of a gravelly West Texas twang. "EGT good. EGP check."
"Clear to start three," the voice below called through rain and wind.
"Starting three," Overton repeated. He began the same sequence and watched the screens again, then moved a practiced eye to the latitude and longitude readouts on the tiny screen by his right knee to see that the aircraft's movement was registering on the navigation display. "Good inertial lock," he said when he saw the numbers change.
Another voice broke into the cockpit from the overhead speaker: "United two three heavy, clear to taxi to alpha foxtrot for runway two five left."
"Two three heavy to two five left," Overton replied to the ground traffic controller huddled somewhere far away in the darkness. He saw the red panel light blink out indicating the push back truck was disconnected, then heard the voice below calling through the storm that they were now clear to taxi. Overton waited until orange suited figure walked into view ahead and turned to face him, then, as the figure below held out a flashlight tipped with a glowing orange wand pointed to his left, he advanced the throttles for two and three with his right hand while turning the nose-wheel paddle with his left. The old girl hesitated, then began to move ever so slowly; he increased the turn radius and backed off the throttles as the speed picked up.
"EGT on three is a little high," Denise Evans, the first officer, said.
"Okay, keep an eye on it. Give me flaps seven and set V-ref for one two seven and rotate for one four three."
"Flaps seven, V-ref to one two seven and V-r to one four three."
Overton straightened out the nose gear and goosed the throttle again for just a moment, and the old girl steadied out at just under twenty miles per and rumbled along the old concrete far below. "What's the EGT now," he asked.
"Forty five percent and holding."
"Good. Go ahead and give me lights and some wiper." The taxiway ahead lit up as Evans hit a switch on the overhead panel, then the wipers burst into action and cleared the windshield.
The two pilots settled into calling out the remainder of the takeoff checklist while Overton turned onto the taxiway; about halfway out to the runway he started the two outboard engines and watched their readouts as they spooled up.
"United two three heavy, winds two four three at eighteen gusts to two five. Taxi to position and hold."
"Two three heavy," Evans said as Overton reached for the intercom.
"Flight attendants prepare for takeoff," he said as he armed the slides and doors. He caught a flicker of lightning in the clouds and flipped the weather radar from standby to active and watched a line of deep red cells form-up on the screen.
"Ooh, that's nice," Evans said. "Going to be a messy climb out tonight."
The two peered ahead into the darkness and watched as a sheet of lightning filled the sky ahead of a sudden burst of heavy rain. Overton groaned when a couple of pea-sized hail stones bounced off the windshield.
"Ah, United two three heavy, wind now one nine zero at thirty five, gusting to forty plus."
"Two three heavy received," Evans replied. She turned to Overton: "That's getting pretty close to the line." Even the huge 747 had a crosswind limit of forty five knots on takeoff, but this heavily loaded even forty would be pushing it.
Overton slowed the aircraft as they came to the end of the taxiway; he squinted through the wipers and saw the landing lights of an American 757 on final. The wings of the landing jet rocked and dipped as a gust tore across Jamaica Bay; the pilots corrected and the jet slid by outside with barely a whisper, the right wingtip seemingly inches above the runway. Overton turned his jet to the right as he stepped on the brakes and slowed to a stop; they both looked at the 757 as it flew above the runway as if hesitating, then heard it power up and climb back into the clouds.
"Shit," the two pilots said.
"United two three heavy, American 757 reports severe crosswinds; we're still showing three five knots from one ninety."
Overton spoke to the controller in the tower this time: "Ah, two three heavy, we'll give it a try."
"United two three heavy, roger, and you're clear for takeoff. Contact departure at one two seven decimal three. Good night."
"Two three heavy," Overton said as he advanced the throttles a little. Turning onto the runway he straightened out along the centerline and pushed the throttles all the way to the takeoff indent and moved his hand to the wheel. He pushed his left foot down on the rudder pedal as he felt the first gust bite into old girl, then he brought his left hand up from the nose gear steering paddle. Another gust hit and he rolled in a little left aileron. He looked at the speed momentarily, then focused on the runway and the crosswind . . .
"V-one," Evans called out a moment later, then: "Rotate!"
Overton pulled back on the stick and the nose lifted; a savage gust tore into the old girl but he corrected easily, smoothly, and he looked at the rate of climb indicator. "Okay, positive rate of climb; gear up."
Evans reached up to the front panel and pulled the gear lever out and up, then waited for the annunciater lights to indicate green before stating "gear up and locked." She reached up and turned off the bright landing lights, then switched to the departure control frequency and called in: "United two three heavy out of 500."
"Roger, two three heavy, turn left to one five zero, and you're cleared to flight level two-two zero."
"Two three heavy to one five zero and angels twenty two," Evans said as the 747 leapt from one strata of cloud before climbing up to the next.
Overton began a gentle standard rate turn just south of The Battery; he looked down and could just make out The Statue of Liberty through a tiny break in the storm below. The carpet of dappled dark cloud below was rimmed with pale light from an endless sea of city lights down in there in the rain, and as strobes on the wingtips pulsed the sensation of speed between these two layers of cloud was startling.
"Two three heavy, turn left to zero eight zero, ident 2400, and check Mode C please."
"Two three heavy to zero eight zero, 2400 Mode C confirmed."
Overton set the heading bug on the flight director then flipped on the autopilot; another onboard computer continuously calculated the most fuel efficient throttle setting and maintained this calculated speed to climb ratio, and would all the up to the final cruise altitude.
The cabin intercom chimed and Evans answered, then New York Center came on:
"United two three heavy, now clear to flight level three six. Come left to zero three zero and contact Boston Center on one three-three decimal seven.
"Two three heavy to three six on zero three zero," Overton replied while Evans fiddled with a cabin temperature setting on her overhead panel. "What's up back there?"
"Too hot back in coach."
"Well, hell, there're only three hundred twenty folks down there crammed into a space designed for two hundred." He changed the heading bug on the flight director again and the jet banked gently to the left. "Shit, just tell 'em to open a window."
Evans laughed, then her eye shot to the EGT readout for engine three again. She reached over and changed screens to focus on just that engine.
"I see it," Overton said. He reached over and retarded the throttle lever for number three until the fluctuation stabilized again. "Looks like an oil filter or pump issue. Probably be okay at seventy percent." Evans fiddled with the flight director to dial in the compensation. "Switch over to Boston, would you?"
Evans switched comm units and called Boston Center: "Boston, this is United two three heavy at eighteen climbing for three six."
"Good evening two three heavy. You're clear to three six. Only traffic at this time is at your ten o'clock descending from twenty right now, about one five miles. You're following Speedbird zero zero three, four five miles ahead at flight level two five. You are clear for St John, contact Bangor on one three four decimal one, and good night."
"Roger Boston. Contact Bangor one three four one."
"Shit," Overton said, "this is going to be a long night. I hope they gave us something other than rubber chicken salad this time. Man, I got the shits something fierce last time I had one of those things. Death bombs!"
"You want something already?"
"Hell yes!" Overton said, grinning. Evans ran her seat back on it's motorized track and opened the little crew mess kit strapped into one of the jump seats. With the new post 9/11 cockpit access restrictions in place, flight attendants could no longer bring food and drink up to the flight deck; now a refrigerated tote bag loaded with soda and sandwiches was all they had access to for the next seven plus hours.
"Dr Pepper, I assume?"
"Looks like . . . uh, chicken salad or roast beef tonight. A couple of pasta salads and some blueberry yoghurt."
"Oh barf! How 'bout the roast beef. Is it green again?"
Evens took out a sandwich, fiddled with the plastic wrap and took a tentative sniff, then peeled back the bread and held the thing up to a ceiling light. "Looks like mayo and salt and pepper. Still cool. Smells alright, I guess."
"Shit. I shoulda had something on the way in."
"You want it?"
Evans chuckled and took two sandwiches out of the case, and grabbed a can of club soda for herself before zipping the bag shut; she motored back up to the panel and handed Overton his DP, then his sandwich. She looked out to her left, toward the coast, and could just make out Portland, Maine through a break in the cloud and about sixty miles away. She looked off to her right, out into the back pit of the Atlantic, and she could just make out a couple of fishing boats flickering on the darkness below. 'Must be rough down there tonight,' she said to herself. She unwrapped her sandwich and took a bite, then wrapped it back up and tossed it into a little metal trash bin.
"Pretty fucking gross, huh?" Overton said.
"Tastes like a goddamned maxi-pad," she said, and she was gratified to hear Overton gag as he spewed Dr Pepper out his nose.
'Yeah, and I bet you've had a ton of experience chewing on those!' Overton thought. Evans didn't exactly advertise her preference, but not one male pilot asked her out on a date and lived to tell about it. Well, that was the standard line on her, anyway. But she was as good as they got, he told himself, and he always looked forward to flying with her. She had flown C-17s in the Air Force for ten years and had the reputation for being one of the toughest jet-jocks out there. She lived, so he'd heard, with a physician, a pretty but butch looking lady, somewhere up in Connecticut on a horse farm.
The night reeled by with monotonous precision: St John, St Pierre, Gander and Thule, then Shannon and Cardiff as the sun came up, followed by a straight-in approach to Heathrow. They pulled into Terminal Three just before zero eight hundred and shut down the engines as the Jetway pulled up to the First Class doorway.
"Would you do the 'Meet and Greet' thing this morning?" he asked her while he ran through the shutdown checklist. "I don't much feel like smiling this morning."
"Yeah, sure. You alright?"
"Oh, you know, Denise, I've been better, but that's another story for another day."
"Yeah, okay Paul. I'll be back up in a second." She unbolted the cockpit door and walked over to the little spiral stairway and disappeared down into the main cabin.
Soon he sat still, looking out over the instrument panel at little raindrops that fell like tears on the curved glass before running away. "Just like me," he said aloud, though he had no idea he'd spoken out loud.
"Just like you - what?" he heard Evans say.
"You said, 'Just like me.' You've sure been down all night, Paul. What's up? Want to talk?"
He shook his head and undid his harness while the seat whirred backwards, then he stuffed his Jeppesens in their case and clasped it shut. He stood, stretched and yawned. "No, no talk for me today. Anyway, been too much talk lately," he said almost in a whisper, just as a sigh might drift away. "I'm all talked out."
"You staying out here, at the Hilton?"
"No. I'm going to go into the city."
"Mind if I tag along? I've never really spent much time there. Could you show me around?" Evans felt there was something really wrong with Overton today; she had a bad feeling about him as she watched him stand. There were dark circles under his eyes and his skin looked sallow and pasty.
"I wouldn't be much fun. Why don't you just go in and take a tour?" He brushed by and squeezed through the cockpit door and made for the stairway, but stopped short when he saw one of the flight attendants talking with a woman still in her seat. Something odd about her . . . He put his case on a seat and walked back.
"Everything alright here, Patsy?" he said when he looked at the woman in the seat.
"Uh, no Captain. Miss Carpenter feels light-headed and . . ."
He bent down to look into the woman's eyes; they seemed bent, unfocused. "Ma'am, have you had any pain in your arms or legs tonight?"
The woman nodded, tried to speak, but a little stream of drool ran from the corner of her mouth.
"Oh shit, I think it's a DVT. Recline her seat and get an oxygen bottle hooked up." Overton dashed back to the cockpit, almost knocking Evans off her feet as he passed, then flipped on a radio while he reached for his headset. He checked the frequency, then called: "London ground, United two three heavy with a medical emergency!"
"United two three, go ahead."
"Two three, we have a woman up on the second level going into stroke, probable deep vein thrombosis."
"Understood, two three. Emergency Services notified."
Overton had already tossed off the headset and was out the door before the transmission ended. He got back to the woman in her seat just as the flight attendant returned with oxygen, and he put the mask on the woman's face and adjusted the flow, then pushed her seat further down. Her First Class seat was a full recliner, so he raised her legs, then looked at the woman's eyes: one pupil was a pinpoint, the other full and round, and her skin was almost waxy now. He could see frantic confusion in the woman's eyes.
"Get me a cool washrag, would you, Patsy?" He brushed a stray hair from the woman's forehead, then knelt down beside the woman and patted her head gently. "It's alright Ma'am. Paramedics will be here in a moment."
"Here you are, Paul," he heard Evans say, and he turned and took the rag from her, then folded it and put the cool cloth on the woman's forehead. A few moments later they heard footsteps running up the spiral stairway, and uniformed men came in and pushed them aside. One of the men swabbed the woman's arm and inserted a needle into a vein, then he hooked up a bottle and set the drip rate.
"Captain? We're going to need to take her out the doorway on this level."
"Right. Denise, would you go disarm the slide? Patsy, give her a hand, would you?"
Warm, wet air flooded into the compartment moments later as the doorway opened, and Overton could hear a truck moving into position below, then a ramp ascending to their level. More people flowed into the cabin, pushing Evans and Overton further back into the upper deck, back where the ceiling arced over, confining them in the cave-like space. Overton watched as a medic pushed another needle into the woman's arm and hooked another vial of clear fluid to it; the man adjusted the flow and began talking on a radio. Now the medics were lifting the woman onto a gurney.
"Good work, Paul," he heard Evans say.
"Oh, just all part of the service, Ma'am."
"Gee, Paul, when I grow up I want to be just like you." She grinned when he turned and scowled.
"Oh, go blow it out your nose!" But he laughed. It shocked him, but he laughed. The first time he'd laughed in weeks, maybe months, and it felt good. Amazingly good. He continued looking at Evans, at her frank warmth, that easy West Texas Smile, and suddenly he knew she was a friend. And friends are rare in this life, he told himself.
The medics began moving the woman down the aisle and out the doorway, and a covey of flight attendants began clearing away the dressings and wrappers the medics left behind.
"I usually go into Mayfair, to the Fleming, on Half Moon Street. Good pub down the way for breakfast."
"You want some company?" Evans said.
"Probably not a bad idea," he said, looking at her from a down-turned face. He was unaware of how quietly he spoke; his need was like a sigh, involuntary, almost silent, and now quite unmistakable.
They made their way past the packed Customs queue to the Crew passage, then down to the basement level. He bought tickets on the Heathrow Express from a little wall dispenser, then they hurried off to make the next train. They ran the last few steps as the conductor ushered on the few remaining stragglers and they piled into the First Class carriage and dumped their bags on a rack before sitting down.
Overton was quite oblivious to the stares his uniform gathered wherever he went in public, but Evans was still consciously all too aware of it. She met the frank stares and covert glances with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach; weren't women supposed to be flight attendants, the questing eyes asked accusingly, and certainly not pilots. She knew of flights where men had walked off planes when informed a woman was the pilot-in-command. She was proud of her accomplishments, knew she would soon make Captain, but sometimes the attention felt stigmatic.
The train eased from the station and moved silently to the next terminal; a few more boarded here, then the train pulled quietly away again and left the airport. Now they moved off towards London, bursting out into daylight a few minutes later as the train accelerated to an almost unbelievable speed. The industrial landscape gave way to suburbs; within a few minutes the train clattered through switches and slowed as it approached Paddington Station. It was so neat, so orderly, so completely foreign. Something like this would fall flat on its face back home; it was simply too efficient for America.
Overton led her off the train and through the madding crowds to an escalator; he bought two more passes for the Underground with practiced ease and marched off through another maze-like series of stairways and escalators, and they soon boarded yet another train. Standing among the late morning rush of commuters, Evans felt even more eyes on her than usual, and she looked up at the advertisements for plays and low-cost airfares that demarked the ceiling. The train jerked into motion and she caught herself on Overton's sleeve, and she felt him reach for her shoulder and steady her. She flexed her knees and steadied herself, smiled at Overton while she tried to hide her embarrassment. What felt an eternity later, they got off and made their way up into the light, and Paul led them off down a crowded sidewalk to Half Moon Street; there he turned away from the park across the way and walked a few more paces to a hotel; there he ducked inside. Evans followed, suddenly aware she was following him into a hotel and now quite uncertain what she should do.