Home > Airframe(2)

Author: Michael Crichton

She was pressed back into her seat as the plane descended steeply, an incredibly loud whining dive. Shoes and purses ricocheted across the cabin, clanging and banging; bodies thumped against seats, the floor.

Tim was gone. Emily turned, looking for him, and suddenly a heavy bag struck her in the head - a sudden jolt, pain, blackness, and stars. She felt dizzy and faint. The alarms continued to sound. The passengers continued to scream. The plane was still in a dive.

Emily lowered her head, clutched her infant daughter to her chest, and for the first time in her life, began to pray.


5:43 A.M.

"Socal Approach, this is Transpacific 545. We have an emergency."

In the darkened building that housed Southern California Air Traffic Approach Control, senior controller Dave Marshall heard the pilot's call and glanced at his radar screen. Trans-Pacific 545 was inbound from Hong Kong to Denver. The flight had been handed over to him from Oakland ARINC a few minutes earlier: a perfectly normal flight. Marshall touched the microphone at his cheek and said, "Go ahead, 545."

"Request priority clearance for emergency landing in Los Angeles."

The pilot sounded calm. Marshall stared at the shifting green data blocks that identified each aircraft in the air. TPA 545 was approaching the California coastline. Soon it would pass over Marina Del Rey. It was still half an hour out of LAX.

Marshall said, "Okay, 545, understand you request priority clearance to land. Say the nature of your emergency."

"We have a passenger emergency," the pilot said. "We need ambulances on the ground. I would say thirty or forty ambulances. Maybe more."

Marshall was stunned. 'TPA 545, say again. Are you asking for forty ambulances?"

"Affirmative. We encountered severe turbulence during flight. We have injuries of passengers and flight crew."

Marshall thought, Why the hell didn't you tell me this before? He spun in his chair, beckoned to his supervisor, Jane Levine, who picked up the extra headset, punched in, and listened.

Marshall said, 'Transpacific, I copy your ground request for forty ambulances."

"Jesus," Levine said, making a face. "Forty?"

The pilot was still calm as he replied, "Ah, roger, Approach. Forty."

"Do you need medical personnel, too? What is the nature of the injuries you are bringing in?"

"I am not sure."

Levine made a spinning gesture: Keep the pilot talking. Marshall said, "Can you give us an estimate?"

"I am sorry, no. An estimate is not possible."

"Is anyone unconscious?"

"No, I do not think so," the pilot answered. "But two are dead."

"Holy shit," Jane Levine said. "Nice of him to tell us. Who is this guy?"

Marshall hit a key on his panel, opening a data block in the upper corner of the screen. It listed the manifest for TPA 545. "Captain's John Chang. Senior pilot for Transpacific."

"Let's not have any more surprises," Levine said. "Is the aircraft all right?"

Marshall said, 'TPA 545, what is the condition of your aircraft?"

"We have damage to the passenger cabin," the pilot said. "Minor damage only."

"What is the condition of the flight deck?" Marshall said.

"Right deck is operational. FDAU is nominal." That was the Flight Data Acquisition Unit, which tracked faults within the aircraft. If it said the plane was okay, it probably was.

Marshall said, "I copy that, 545. What is the condition of your flight crew?"

"Captain and first officer in good condition."

"Ah, 545, you said there were injuries to the crew."

"Yes. Two stewardesses have been hurt."

"Can you specify the nature of the injuries?"

"I am sorry, no. One is not conscious. The other one, I don't know."

Marshall was shaking his head "He just told us nobody was unconscious."

"I'm not buying any of this," Levine said. She picked up the red phone. "Put a fire crew on level one alert. Get the ambulances. Order neuro and ortho teams to meet the plane and have Medical notify the Westside hospitals." She looked at her watch. "I'll call the LA FSDO. This'll make his damn day."


5:57 A.M.

Daniel Greene was the duty officer at the FAA Flight Standards District Office on Imperial Highway, half a mile from LAX. The local FSDOs - or Fizdos, as they were called -  supervised the flight operations of commercial carriers, checking everything from aircraft maintenance to pilot training. Greene had come in early to clear the paper off his desk; his secretary had quit the week before, and the office manager refused to replace her, citing orders from Washington to absorb attrition. So now Greene went to work, muttering. Congress was slashing the FAA budget, telling them to do more with less, pretending the problem was productivity and not workload. But passenger traffic was up four percent a year, and the commercial fleet wasn't getting younger. The combination made for a lot more work on the ground: Of course, the FSDOs weren't the only ones who were strapped. Even the NTSB was broke; the Safety Board only got a million dollars a year for aircraft accidents, and -

The red phone on his desk rang, the emergency line. He picked it up; it was a woman at traffic control.

"We've just been informed of an incident on an inbound foreign carrier," she said.

"Uh-huh." Greene reached for a notepad. "Incident" had a specific meaning to the FAA, referring to the lower category of flight problems that carriers were required to report. "Accidents" involved deaths or structural damage to the aircraft and were always serious, but with incidents, you never knew. "Go ahead."

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