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Authors: Arthur Hailey

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Crime, #Adult, #Adventure, #Contemporary

Airport (6 page)

BOOK: Airport
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The president sat down–while Joe Patroni lighted a cigar–and listened. Afterward, he called in his engineering vice-president who, later still, ordered a mechanical modification affecting carburetor icing in flight, which Patroni had been urging–unsuccessfully at lower level–for months.

Later, Patroni received official commendation, and the incident became one more to add to an already growing fund of Patroni stories. Soon after, Joe was promoted to senior supervisor, and a few years later was given the important post of maintenance chief at Lincoln International.

On a personal level, another report said that Joe Patroni made love to his wife, Marie, most nights, the way other men enjoyed a pre-dinner drink. This was true. In fact, he had been thus engaged when the telephone message came from the airport about the mired Aéreo-Mexican jet which TWA had been asked to help extricate.

The same rumor continued: Patroni made love the same way he did everything else–with a long, thin cigar stuck jauntily in the side of his mouth. This was untrue, at least nowadays. Marie, having coped with several pillow fires during their early years of marriage–drawing on her training as a TWA air hostess to extinguish them–had emphatically forbidden any more cigars in bed. Joe complied with the edict because he loved his wife. He had reason to. When he married her, she was probably the most popular and beautiful hostess in the entire airline system, and twelve years and three children later she could still hold her own with most successors. There were some who wondered aloud why Marie–who had been pursued ardently by captains and first officers–had ever chosen Joe Patroni at all. But Joe, even as a young maintenance foreman, which he was when they met, had a way with him, and had kept Marie satisfied–in all important ways–ever since.

Another thing about Joe Patroni was that he never panicked in emergencies. Instead, he quickly assessed each situation, deciding what priority the emergency rated, and whether or not he should complete other tasks before coping with it. In the case of the mired 707, instinct told him it was a moderate-to-acute crisis, which meant there was time to finish what he was doing, or have dinner, but not both. Accordingly, he abandoned dinner. Soon after, Marie raced to the kitchen in her robe and threw sandwiches together for Joe to eat during his twenty-five-mile drive to the airport. He nibbled on a sandwich now.

Being recalled to the airport after performing a full day’s work was not a new experience, but tonight the weather was worse than any other occasion he remembered. Accumulated effects of the three-day storm were everywhere, making driving exacting and hazardous. Huge snowpiles lined the streets and, in the darkness, more snow was falling. Both on and off freeways, traffic was moving at a crawl, or not at all. Even with mud-snow tires, which Patroni’s Buick Wildcat had, traction was poor. Windshield wipers and defrosters were barely coping with gusting snow outside and steam within, while headlight beams illuminated only short distances ahead. Stalled vehicles, some abandoned by their drivers, turned roads into obstacle courses. It was obvious that only those with good reason would be out on such a night.

Patroni checked his watch. Both his own car and the one immediately ahead had been stationary for several minutes. Farther ahead still, he could make out others, also stopped, and to his right was another halted lane of traffic. Moreover, for some time, no vehicles had come from the opposite direction, so obviously something had happened to obstruct all four lanes. If nothing more occurred in the next five minutes, he decided, he would get out of the car to investigate, though observing the slush, drifts, and still falling snow outside, he hoped he would not have to. There would be plenty of time to become cold and miserable–as he was undoubtedly going to be before the night was out–after arrival at the airport. Meanwhile, he turned up the volume of the car radio, which was tuned to a rock-and-roll station, and pulled at his cigar.

Five minutes went by. Ahead, Joe Patroni could see people getting out of cars and walking forward, and he prepared to join them. He had brought a fleece-lined parka and pulled it tightly around him, slipping the bood over his head. He reached for the heavy-duty electric lantern which he always carried. As he opened the car door, wind and snow rushed in. He eased out, closing the door quickly.

He plodded forward while other car doors slammed and voices called, “What happened?” Someone shouted, “There’s been an accident. It’s a real mess.” As he progressed, flashing lights became visible ahead, and shadows moved and separated, becoming a cluster of people. A new voice said, “I’m telling you they won’t clear that lot in a hurry. We’ll all be stuck here for hours.” A large, darker shadow loomed, partially lighted by sputtering red flares. It proved to be a massive tractor-trailer unit on its side. The cumbersome eighteen-wheeled vehicle was spread across the road, blocking all traffic movement. Part of its cargo–apparently cases of canned goods–had spewed out, and already a few opportunists were braving the snow and collecting cases, then hurrying with them to their cars.

Two state police patrol cars were at the scene. State troopers were questioning the truck driver, who appeared unhurt.

“All I did was touch the goddam brakes,” the driver protested loudly. “Then she jackknifed, and rolled over like a whore in heat.”

One of the policemen wrote in his notebook, and a woman murmured to a man beside her, “Do you think he’s putting that last bit down?”

Another woman shouted, “Lotta good that’ll do.” Her voice was shrill against the wind. “Whyn’t you cops get this thing moved?”

One of the state troopers walked across. Most of his uniform coat was already snow-covered. “If you’ll give us a hand to lift, madam, we’d be glad to oblige.”

A few people tittered, and the woman muttered, “Smart ass cops.”

A tow truck, amber roof-beacon flashing, approached, moving slowly, on the opposite side of the obstruction. The driver was using the now unoccupied lanes on what would normally be the wrong side of the road. He stopped and got out, shaking his head doubtfully as he saw the size and position of the tractor-trailer.

Joe Patroni shoved forward. He puffed on his cigar, which glowed redly in the wind, and prodded the state trooper sharply on the shoulder. “Listen, son, you’ll never move that rig with one tow truck. It’ll be like hitching a tomtit to a brick.”

The policeman turned. “Whatever it’s like, mister, there’s spilled gasoline around here. You’d better get that cigar out.”

Patroni ignored the instruction, as he ignored almost all smoking regulations. He waved the cigar toward the overturned tractor-trailer. “What’s more, son, you’d be wasting everybody’s time, including mine and yours, trying to get that hunk of junk right side up tonight. You’ll have to drag it clear so traffic can move, and to do that you need two more tow trucks–one on this side to push, two over there to pull.” He began moving around, using his electric lantern to inspect the big articulated vehicle from various angles. As always, when considering a problem, he was totally absorbed. He waved the cigar once more. “The two trucks together’ll hitch on to three points. They’ll pull the cab first, and faster. That’ll overcome the jackknifing. The other truck…”

“Hold it,” the state trooper said. He called across to one of the other officers. “Hank, there’s a guy here sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.”

Ten minutes later, working with the police officers, Joe Patroni had virtually taken charge. Two additional tow trucks, as he had suggested, were being summoned by radio. While awaiting their arrival, the driver of the first tow truck was attaching chains, under Patroni’s direction, to the axles of the capsized tractor-trailer. The situation had already assumed a proficient, get-on-with-it pattern–a trademark of any proceeding in which the energetic TWA maintenance chief became involved.

Patroni himself had remembered several times, with concern, his reason for being out at all tonight, and the fact that by now he was long overdue at the airport. But helping to clear the blocked highway, he calculated, was the fastest means of getting there. Obviously, his own car and others could not move forward until the wrecked tractor-trailer had been dragged clear from the center of the road. To go back and try an alternate route was equally impossible because traffic behind was backed up, with continuous lines of vehicles extending–so the police assured him–for miles to the rear.

He went back to his car to use the radio telephone he had installed at his employers’ suggestion, and for which they picked up the monthly bills. He called the airline’s maintenance department at the airport to report on his delay, and, in return, was informed of Mel Bakersfeld’s message about the urgent need for runway three zero to be cleared and usable.

Joe Patroni gave some instructions over the telephone, but was aware that the most important thing was to be on the airfield himself as speedily as possible.

When he left the Buick for the second time, snow was still falling heavily. Dodging drifts which had formed around the line of waiting cars, he returned to the road block at a jog trot and was relieved to see that the first of the two extra tow trucks had arrived.

 

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05

T
HE ELEVATOR
, which Mel Bakersfeld had taken after leaving Tanya, deposited him in the terminal basement. His official airport car–mustard yellow, and radio-equipped–was in a privileged parking stall close by.

Mel drove out, meeting the storm where the building exit joined an aircraft parking ramp outside. As he left the shelter of the terminal, wind and whirling snow slammed savagely against the car’s windshield. The wiper blades slapped swiftly back and forth, though barely maintaining sufficient clear space for forward vision. Through a fractionally opened window, a blast of icy air and snow rushed in. Mel closed the window hastily. The transition from the terminal’s warm snugness to the harshness of the night outside was startling.

Immediately ahead were airplanes parked at gate positions on the ramp. Through breaks in the snow, as the wind whipped and eddied around concourse buildings, Mel could see into the lighted interiors of several aircraft, which had passengers already seated. Obviously, several flights were ready to leave. These would be awaiting word from the tower to start engines, their continued delay a result of the blockage of runway three zero. Farther out on the airfield and runways, he could make out blurred shapes and navigation lights of other airplanes–recent arrivals, with engines running. These were in a holding area, which pilots called the penalty box, and would move in as gate positions became vacant. Undoubtedly, the same thing was happening in the other seven aircraft concourses grouped around the terminal.

The two-way radio in Mel’s car, tuned to ground control frequency, crackled alive.

“Tower to Eastern seventeen,” a controller intoned, “you are cleared to runway two five. Change frequency now for your airways clearance.”

A burst of static. “Eastern seventeen. Roger.”

A stronger voice rasped irritably. “Ground control from Pan Am fifty-four on outer taxiway to two five. There’s a private Cessna in front–a twin-engine tortoise. I’m standing on my brakes to keep behind.”

“Pan Am fifty-four, stand by.” The briefest pause, then the controller’s voice aqain: “Cessna seven three metro from ground control. Enter the next right intersection, hold, and let Pan American pass you.”

Unexpectedly, a pleasant woman’s voice responded. “Ground control from Cessna seven three metro. I’m turning now. Go ahead, Pan Am, you great big bully.”

A chuckle, then, “Thanks, honey. You can fix your lipstick while you wait.”

The controller’s voice rebuked. “Tower to all aircraft. Confine your messages to official business.”

The controller was edgy, Mel could tell, despite the routine, studied calmness. But who wouldn’t be tonight, with conditions and traffic the way they were? He thought uneasily again about his brother, Keith, involved with the unrelenting pressure of west arrival control.

The talk between tower and aircraft was continuous, with no gaps between transmissions. When one exchange ended, Mel snapped his own mike button down. “Ground control from mobile one. I’m at gate sixty-five, proceeding to runway three zero, site of the stuck 707.”

He listened while the controller gave taxiing instructions to two other flights which had just landed. Then: “Tower to mobile one. Roger, follow the Air Canada DC-9 pulling out of the gate ahead of you. Hold short of runway two one.”

Mel acknowledged. He could see the Air Canada flight, at this moment easing out from a terminal gate, its high graceful tail an angular silhouette.

While still in the ramp area, he drove out toward the airfield carefully, watching for ramp lice–as airport men called the proliferation of vehicles which surrounded airplanes on the ground. As well as the usual ones, tonight there were several cherry pickers–trucks with high, maneuverable platforms at the end of steel, articulated arms. On the platforms, service crews were reaching out to clear snow from aircraft wings, and spraying glycol to retard ice formation. The men themselves were snow-covered in their exposed position.

Mel braked hastily, avoiding a speeding honey wagon, on its way from the ramp area to disgorge its malodorous four-hundred gallon load of contents pumped out from aircraft toilets. The load would eject into a shredding machine in a special building which other airport employees avoided, and then be pumped to city sewers. Most times the procedure worked efficiently, except when passengers reported losses of items–dentures, purses, wallets, even shoes–dropped accidentally in aircraft toilets. It happened once or twice a day. Then loads had to be sifted, while everyone hoped the missing item could be located quickly.

Even without incidents, Mel realized, this would be a busy night for sanitary crews. Airport managements knew from experience that demands on toilet facilities, on the ground and in the air, increased as weather worsened. Mel wondered how many people were aware that airport sanitary supervisors received hourly weather forecasts and made their plans–for extra cleaning and increased supplies–accordingly.

BOOK: Airport
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