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Aboard SeaAir 122, in flight,
over the Gulf of Mexico,
180 miles southwest of Tampa, Florida
11:43 A.M. local/1643 Zulu
Karen Briant suppressed a smile as she watched Jim Olson struggle. His athletic body was stretched to its six-foot limit, his jeans just inches from her face as he stood on tiptoe and yanked again at the door of the overhead compartment. It opened at last, and she heard him unzip his carry-on bag and rummage around. He grunted with satisfaction and reclosed the bag before looking down at her.
"Good. I feel better now," he said, snapping the compartment shut.
"And what, exactly," she began as he slid back into the window seat, "were you afraid you'd forgotten, Sir?" She ruffled her shoulder-length auburn hair and looked at him with mock suspicion. "Not another self-indulgent gift from Victoria's Secret, I hope?" Another bikini would be too much. She was already feeling overexposed in the revealing sundress that he'd bought for her.
He smirked and shook his head in response as he scanned the right wing of the huge three-engine Boeing/McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 jetliner, noting the towering cumulus clouds in the distance. He turned back to her sparkling green eyes, his laugh coming easily. It was a feature of him she particularly treasured.
"Not important, young lady," he said, tuning out a routine PA announcement.
"Sure it's important!" Karen coaxed. "When I agree to spend a week in the Canary Islands with a man, I want to make sure he's got the right stuff."
"How do you mean, 'right stuff'?" Jim asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Well, you're a pilot, and pilots are supposed to pack the right stuff, right?"
"I'm an airline pilot, not Chuck Yeager."
"Maybe that's not the 'stuff' I'm talking about. You obviously have something in that bag up there you were worried about leaving."
"And now I'm not," Jim said, suppressing the urge to give her the engagement ring now as he rode the small wave of relief that he hadn't left it back in Houston.
No, he cautioned himself. It all depends on this week together.
He had to be sure.
She squeezed his hand and chuckled as Jim looked out the window, mentally calculating the distance to the line of 60,000-foot-high cumulonimbus clouds towering over the Gulf of Mexico to the north of the jetliner's course. He wondered what the pilots were seeing on radar. The small but vicious hurricane north of that line was threatening New Orleans, but they should slip safely to the south of it-according to his check of the weather map a few hours ago.
Relax, for crying out loud! Jim told himself. This isn't even your airline! Besides, we're on vacation. They can handle it just fine without me.
He squeezed Karen's hand in return, breathing in the soft hint of her perfume and letting a warm tingle of anticipation wash over him.
This was going to be a wonderful week.
Key West Naval Air Station, Florida
11:43 A.M. local/1643 Zulu
Retired Chief Master Sergeant Rafe Jones looked up from the complex instruments of the mobile test van he operated under civilian contract for the Air Force. He squinted through his sunglasses, trying to focus on the aging F-106 fighter/interceptor as it sat at the far end of the runway, its image undulating in the heat, waiting for his remote control team to start the takeoff.
Rafe took a deep breath, savoring the signature aroma of the Gulf of Mexico wafting in on a hint of fresh salt air, the heat a balmy pleasure. He double-checked the data link between the mobile control van and the aircraft, satisfied it was steady on all channels. His mouth was dry again, and not for want of water. This was the part that always unnerved him: launching a full-sized pilotless airplane over a populated area with nothing to keep it safe but a data stream of radioed commands. Sometimes the F-106 target drones his team operated carried a live Air Force safety pilot, but today only a dummy crammed full of sensors occupied the cockpit.
He glanced at Randy and Bill, the flight techs who controlled the jet.
"Rafe, what's the holding fix again?" Randy asked on the interphone.
"Fluffy intersection, about thirty miles south," Rafe answered, mentally picturing the specially created MOA-Military Operations Area.
"Isn't that awful close to Uncle Fidel's turf?"
"We know nothing," Rafe said, smiling. "We have no reason to confirm or deny our intention to irritate Havana."
"Yeah, right," Randy replied. "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more."
The tower controller cleared the F-106 team for departure. Rafe nodded to his team and watched Bill push the throttle to full power in preparation for brake release.
Aboard SeaAir 122, in flight,
230 miles south of Tampa
11:43 A.M. local/1701 Zulu
The staccato pulse of lightning from the angry clouds to the north flickered through the left-hand windows of the MD-11, riveting Karen's attention and stiffening her back. Jim could feel her left hand tighten on the armrest as she turned to look.
"We're a safe distance to the south," he reassured her, momentarily puzzled by an incongruous flash of lightning from the right side of the cabin. The MD-11 suddenly rolled sharply to the left. The bank reversed itself as quickly, and the nose came up.
Obviously he punched off the autopilot and the bird was out of trim, he thought. Jim glanced at Karen, feeling uneasy.
"Must be a buildup just ahead, Honey," he said, forcing a smile. "The flight crew was probably debating which way to go around it and changed their minds. We'd all like to be smoother on the controls."
The bank angle was past thirty degrees now, which was the normal maximum for a jetliner.
But why is it increasing?
The nose pitched up as if they were climbing, but more power would be needed to climb, and the whine of the engines hadn't increased. Another sudden roll, this time to the left, and the nose was coming down.
Jim felt himself get lighter as the flight controls were pushed forward up in the cockpit. He felt a cold chill up his spine as he tried to recall what normal maneuvers would cause such gyrations.
There were none. It wasn't normal.
Jim glanced toward the right wing, puzzled by the complete absence of clouds in that direction. There had been lightning out there.
"Jim?" Karen began, her voice tight. She sat forward in her seat, aware of the increasing slipstream as the nose continued to drop and the airspeed built.
There were voices around them now, acknowledging the shared concern, a communal rumble accompanied by alarmed glances. The MD-11 steepened its left bank, the nose dropping more, the speed rising, the huge jetliner turning sharply toward the thunderstorm to the north.
"Jim, what's he doing up there?" Karen asked, her face ashen, her hand now squeezing the blood out of his. His answer stalled in the back of his mind as he fumbled for his seat belt. "Stay here. I'm going to the cockpit."
She said nothing, letting his hand slide reluctantly from hers as he rose from the seat and pulled away, glancing back for a second, noting how beautiful she was.
The MD-11's roll had reversed back to the right. The nose was coming back up slightly, but the control movements had become jerky and excessive, as if the pilots were fighting the aircraft. Jim moved forward quickly, his eyes on the cockpit door some eighty feet away, aware that his intervention in another airline's affairs would be unwelcome. He could see two flight attendants ahead of him, their eyes betraying concern, their professional smiles trying to mask it.
The growing asymmetrical G-force was pulling him off balance, pushing him into the row of seats to the right. Jim fought to stand upright, but the cabin was heeling over like a yacht about to capsize in a gale, the MD-11's right turn obviously uncoordinated, as someone's foot pushed the left rudder pedal.
What the hell? Jim thought. There were gasps of fear around him as he struggled to keep moving forward. Something was very wrong, but it couldn't be loss of control. The flight controls were operating but being jerked in crazy directions.
He moved with urgency, supporting his weight on the seat backs, his hands brushing the heads of startled passengers. In the galley ahead he could hear plates and utensils sliding and clattering, some spilling from the service carts as a wide-eyed young blonde in a flight attendant's uniform spotted him.
"Sir!" Her hand shot out, the palm extended. "SIR! Take your seat immediately and fasten your seat belt!" She moved into the aisle to block him.
"I'm a pilot!" he said, regretting the lame response.
"I don't care, Sir . . ." she began, stopping in midsentence as the gravity went fully to zero and she floated up before his eyes toward the ceiling.
Ahead of Jim, two dozen shafts of sunlight stabbed across the first-class cabin from each window and moved vertically from low to high as the aircraft rolled to the right. He grabbed the bulkhead and propelled himself past the flight attendant like an astronaut, his peripheral vision picking up the ocean's surface through the windows.
We're inverted! The potentially fatal fact was merely a benchmark in an impossibly bizarre sequence. His entire being focused on the cockpit door less than thirty feet ahead. The door would be locked. He had to get there, get in, and stop whatever was happening!
The huge MD-11 was still rolling, coming back right side up as gravity once again claimed the occupants of the cabin, and people and service carts and flight attendants crashed to the floor. Ahead of him half the overhead compartments had popped open, spilling their contents into the air, pummeling the passengers below.
An elderly woman had floated up from her seat during the zero-G maneuver, then crashed painfully to the floor. Her body was blocking the aisle ahead as Jim tried to step over her and tripped. The G-forces increased as the scream of the high-speed airflow outside rose, forcing the nose up as they continued to roll, undoubtedly hurtling now toward the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Jim's hands clawed for a seat back, raking across a man's head in the process. There were sharp cries of fear from all around him. Once more he pulled with all his might, launching himself through the air and slamming into the back of the cockpit door with a painful thud. He pulled frantically at it and found it locked, as expected.
Time had dilated, seconds moving past like minutes, the feeling of running from a horror and getting nowhere overwhelming him. There was no way to tell if they were upside down or right side up, but they were diving, with only seconds left.
Jim braced his feet against the doorjamb and pulled.
It wouldn't budge.
He pulled again, harder, but the lock was too strong.
The airspeed increased. They couldn't be more than 10,000 feet above the surface. The whine of the slipstream was deafening. A mental snapshot of his bride-to-be alone in the cabin behind him drove him on. He tightened his grip on the door handle, willed himself beyond the limits, and heaved backward, feeling an explosion of pain in his hands as the rising, screaming sound of nearly supersonic flight washed out all other sensations.
The door broke open and he forced himself into the cockpit in time to see the windscreen fill with the sight of white caps and blue water as the MD-11 traversed the last few yards to the surface in the space of his last heartbeat.
Reprinted from Blackout by John J. Nance by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by John J. Nance. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.