Authors: Arthur Hailey
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Crime, #Adult, #Adventure, #Contemporary
The intersection Keith had spoken of was the one which the Conga Line had just passed over. In the cab of the Snowblast, Mel glanced to the rear. The Conga Line was well clear of the intersection now, and, through a momentary gap in the snow, airplane navigation lights were visible on the other runway, moving swiftly as a flight took off. Then, incredibly, there were more lights only a few yards behind as another flight landed, it seemed at the same instant.
The Snowblast driver had turned his head also. He whistled. “Those two were pretty close.”
Mel nodded. They
been close, exceptionally so, and for an instant his flesh had prickled with alarm. Obviously, what had happened was that an air traffic controller, instructing the pilots of both airplanes by radio, had cut tolerances exceedingly fine. As usual, the controller’s skilled judgment had proven right, though only just. The two flights were safe–one now in the air, the other on the ground. But it was the need for a multiplicity of such hairbreadth judgments which created an unceasing hazard.
Mel had pointed out the hazard frequently to the Board of Airport Commissioners and to members of City Council, who controlled airport financing, As well as immediate construction of more runways and taxiways, Mel had urged purchase of additional land around the airport for long term development. There had been plenty of discussion, and sometimes angry argument, as a result. A few Board and Council members saw things the way Mel did, but others took a strongly counter view. It was hard to convince people that a modern jetport, built in the late 1950s, could so quickly have become inadequate to the point of danger. It made no difference that the same was true of other centers–New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere; there were certain things which politicians simply did not want to see.
Mel thought: maybe Keith was right. Perhaps it would take another big disaster to arouse public awareness, just as the 1956 Grand Canyon disaster had spurred President Eisenhower and the Eighty-fourth Congress to revamp the airways. Yet, ironically, there was seldom any difficulty in getting money for non-operational improvements. A proposal to triple-deck all parking lots had won city approval without dissent. But that was something which the public–including those who had votes–could see and touch. Runways and taxiways were different. A single new runway cost several million dollars and took two years to build, yet few people other than pilots, air traffic controllers, and airport management, ever knew how good or bad a runway system was.
But at Lincoln International a showdown was coming soon. It had to. In recent weeks, Mel had sensed the signs, and when it happened the choice would be clear–between advancement on the ground, matching new achievements in the air, or impotently drifting backward. In aviation, there was never a status quo.
There was another factor.
As well as the airport’s future, Mel’s personal future was at stake. Whichever way airport policies veered, so would his own prestige advance or lessen in places where it counted most.
Only a short time ago, Mel Bakersfeld had been a national spokesman for ground logistics of aviation, had been touted as the rising young genius in aviation management. Then, abruptly, a single, calamitous event had wrought a change. Now, four years later, the future was no longer clear, and there were doubts and questioning about Mel Bakersfeld, in others’ minds as well as in his own.
The event which caused the change was the John F. Kennedy assassination.
“Here’s the end of the runway, Mr. Bakersfeld. You riding back with us, or what?” The voice of the Snowblast driver broke in on Mel’s reverie.
The man repeated his question. Ahead of them, once more, warning lights were flashing on, the Conga Line showing. Half the width of a runway was cleared at one time. Now, the Line would reverse itself and go back the way it had come, clearing the remaining portion. Allowing for stops and starts, it took forty-five minutes to an hour to plow and sand a single runway.
“No,” Mel said. “I’ll get off here.”
“Right, sir.” The driver directed a signal light at the assistant foreman’s car which promptly swung out of line. A few moments later, as Mel clambered down, his own car was waiting. From other plows and trucks, crews were descending and hurrying to the coffee wagon.
Driving back toward the terminal, Mel radioed the Snow Desk, confirming to Danny Farrow that runway one seven, left, would be usable shortly. Then, switching to ATC ground control, he turned the volume low, the subdued, level voices a background to his thoughts.
In the Snowblast cab he had been reminded of the event which, of all others he remembered, had struck with greatest impact.
It had been four years ago.
He thought, startled, was it really that long ago?–four years since the gray November afternoon when, dazedly, he had pulled the p.a. microphone across his desk toward him–the microphone, rarely used, which overrode all others in the terminal–and cutting in on a flight arrival bulletin, had announced to concourses which swiftly hushed, the shattering news which seconds earlier had flashed from Dallas.
His eyes, as he spoke then, had been on the photograph on the facing wall across his office, the photograph whose inscription read:
To my friend Mel Bakersfeld, concerned, as I am, with attenuating the surly bonds of earth–John F. Kennedy.
The photograph still remained, as did many memories.
The memories began, for Mel, with a speech he had made in Washington, D.C.
At the time, as well as airport general manager, he had been president of the Airport Operators Council–the youngest leader, ever, of that small but influential body linking major airports of the world. AOC headquarters was in Washington, and Mel flew there frequently.
His speech was to a national planning congress.
Aviation, Mel Bakersfeld had pointed out, was the only truly successful international undertaking. It transcended ideological boundaries as well as the merely geographic. Because it was a means of intermingling diverse populations at ever-diminishing cost, it offered the most practical means to world understanding yet devised by man.
Even more significant was aerial commerce. Movement of freight by air, already mammoth in extent, was destined to be greater still. The new, giant jet airplanes, to be in service by the early 1970s, would be the fastest and cheapest cargo carriers in human history; within a decade, oceangoing ships might be dry-dock museum pieces, pushed out of business in the same way that passenger airplanes had clobbered the
The effect could be a new, world-wide argosy of trade, with prosperity for now impoverished nations. Technologically, Mel reminded his audience, the airborne segment of aviation offered these things, and more, within the lifetimes of today’s middle-aged people.
Yet, he had continued, while airplane designers wove the stuff of dreams into fabrics of reality, facilities on the ground remained, for the most part, products of shortsightedness or misguided haste. Airports, runway systems, terminals, were geared to yesterday, with scant–if any–provision for tomorrow; what was lost sight of, or ignored, was the juggernaut speed of aviation’s progress. Airports were set up piecemeal, as individually as city halls, and often with as small imagination. Usually, too much was spent on showplace terminals, too little on operating areas. Coordinated, high-level planning, either national or international, was non-existent.
At local levels, where politicians were apathetic about problems of ground access to airports, the situation was as bad, or worse.
“We have broken the sound barrier,” Mel declared, “but not the ground barrier.”
He listed specific areas for study and urged intemational planning–U.S. led and presidentially inspired–for aviation on the ground.
The speech was accorded a standing ovation and was widely reported. It produced approving nods from such diverse sources as
The Wall Street Journal.
The day after the speech, Mel was invited to the White House.
The meeting with the President had gone well. It had been a relaxed, good-humored session in the private study on the White House second floor. J.F.K., Mel found, shared many of his own ideas.
Subsequently, there were other sessions, some of them “brain trust” affairs involving Kennedy aides, usually when the Administration was considering aviation matters. After several such occasions, with informal aftermaths, Mel was at home in the White House, and less surprised than he had been at first to find himself there at all. As time went on, he drifted into one of those easygoing relationships which J.F.K. encouraged among those with expertise to offer him.
It was a year or so after their first encounter that the President sounded Mel out about heading the Federal Aviation Agency. (It was an Agency then, an Administration later.) Sometime during the Kennedy second term, which everyone assumed would be automatic, the incumbent FAA Administrator, Halaby, would move on to other things. How did Mel feel about implementing, from within, some of the measures he had advocated from without? Mel had replied that he was very interested indeed. He made it clear that if an offer were made, his answer would be yes.
Word filtered out, not from Mel, but through others who had had it from the top. Met was “in”–a dues-paid member of the inner circle. His prestige, high before, went higher still. The Airport Operators Council re-elected him president. His own airport commissioners voted him a handsome raise. Barely in his late thirties, he was considered the Childe Roland of aviation management.
Six months later, John F. Kennedy made his fateful Texas journey.
Like others, Mel was first stunned, then later wept. Only later still, did it dawn on him that the assassin’s bullets had ricocheted onto the lives of others, his own among them. He discovered he was no longer “in” in Washington. Najeeb Halaby did, in fact, move on from FAA–to a senior vice-presidency of Pan American–but Mel did not succeed him. By then, power had shifted, influences waned. Mel’s name, he later learned, was not even on President Johnson’s short list for the FAA appointment.
Mel’s second tenure as AOC president ran out uneventfully and another bright young man succeeded him. Mel’s trips to Washington ceased. His public appearances became limited to local ones, and, in a way, he found the change to be a relief. His own responsibilities at Lincoln International had already increased as air traffic proliferated beyond most expectations. He became intensely occupied with planning, coupled with efforts to persuade the Board of Airport Commissioners to his own viewpoints. There was plenty to think about, including troubles at home. His days and weeks and months were full.
And yet, there was a sense that time and opportunity had passed him by. Others were aware of it. Unless something dramatic occurred, Mel surmised, his career might continue, and eventually end, precisely where he was.
“Tower to mobile one–what is your position?” The radio enjoinder broke through Mel’s thoughts, returning him abruptly to the present.
He turned up the radio volume and reported. By now, he was nearing the main passenger terminal, its lights becoming clearer, despite the still heavily falling snow. The aircraft parking areas, he observed, were as fully occupied as when he left, and there was still a line of arriving aircraft waiting for gate positions to be vacated.
“Mobile one, hold until the Lake Central Nord crosses ahead of you, then follow it in.”
“This is mobile one. Roger.”
A few minutes later, Mel eased his car into the terminal basement parking area.
Near his parking stall was a locked box with an airport telephone. He used one of his passkeys to open the box, and dialed the Snow Desk. Danny Farrow answered. Was there any fresh news, Mel inquired, about the mired Aéreo-Mexican jet?
“Negative,” Danny said. “And the tower chief said to tell you that not being able to use runway three zero is still slowing traffic fifty percent. Also, he’s getting more phone complaints from Meadowood every time there’s a takeoff over there.”
Mel said grimly, “Meadowood will have to suffer.” Community meeting or not, there was nothing he could do to eliminate overhead noise for the time being. The most important thing at the moment was to reduce the lag in operations. “Where’s Joe Patroni now?”
“Same place. Still held up.”
“Can he make it for sure?”
“TWA says so. He has a phone in his car, and they’ve been in touch.”
“As soon as Joe gets here,” Mel instructed, “I want to be notified. Wherever I am.”
“That’ll be downtown, I guess.”
Mel hesitated. There was no reason, he supposed, why he need remain at the airport any longer tonight. Yet again, unaccountably, he had the same sense of foreboding which had disturbed him on the airfield. He remembered his conversation earlier with the tower watch chief, the line of waiting aircraft on the ramp apron outside. He made a spontaneous decision.
“No, I won’t be downtown. We need that runway badly, and I’m not leaving until I know positively that Patroni is out there on the field, in charge.”
“In that case,” Danny said, “I suggest you call your wife right now. Here’s the number she’s at.”
Mel wrote it down, then depressed the receiver rest and dialed the downtown number. He asked for Cindy, and after a brief wait, heard her voice say sharply, “Mel, why aren’t you here?”
“I’m sorry, I was held up. There’ve been problems at the airport. It’s a pretty big storm…”
get down here fast!
From the fact that his wife’s voice was low, Mel deduced there were others within hearing. Just the same, she managed to convey a surprising amount of venom.
Mel sometimes tried to associate the voice of Cindy nowadays with the Cindy he remembered before their marriage fifteen years ago. She had been a gentler person then, it seemed to him. In fact, her gentleness had been one of the things which appealed to Mel when they first met in San Francisco, he on leave from the Navy and Korea. Cindy had been an actress at the time, though in a minor way because the career she had hoped for had not worked out, and clearly wasn’t going to. She had had a succession of diminishingly small parts in summer stock and television, and afterward, in a moment of frankness, admitted that marriage had been a welcome release from the whole thing.