For eighteen months, Dr. Ben Cole has worked to develop Skyhook, a highly advanced autopilot that can direct aircraft from the ground. On the first test run, something goes wrong over the Gulf of Alaska plunging Cole’s plane toward a supertanker at maximum speed. But moments before impact, the computer switches off, saving his life.
Seeking answers, Cole joins forces with April Rosen, whose pilot father narrowly missed his own midair collision over the same waters where Skyhook was tested. Unraveling the mystery of these near-disasters pits Cole and Rosen against shadowy forces within the Pentagon who will go to dangerous lengths to keep the public from discovering the true purpose—and the real dangers—of Skyhook.
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By John J. Nance
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 John J. Nance
All rights reserved.
MONDAY EVENING OVER THE GULF OF ALASKA, SOUTHEAST OF ANCHORAGE
"Whoa! What's this thing doing?" Captain Gene Hammond asked.
The chief test pilot's unexpected question snapped Ben Cole upright in his seat, drawing his attention from the maze of computer screens. Instinctively, he pressed the right side of his headset closer to his ear, as if trying to recapture the comment.
"I don't know," he heard the copilot respond.
Ben's eyes flickered to the forward bulkhead of the converted business jet's cabin, imagining the civilian test pilots hunched over their controls in the cockpit some thirty feet away. He felt the Gulfstream pitch down slightly, the white noise of the slipstream rising as the jet gained speed, the unexplained maneuver sharpening the isolation of being all alone in the stripped-down cabin.
"Crown, are you purposely descending us?" Hammond queried the test director by radio link. "I don't think that's the plan."
Ben felt a sparkle of chills as he forced his eyes back to the display, confirming the lowering altitude and rising airspeed.
"Negative," the voice from the Air Force AWACS replied. "Stand by."
The unseen presence of the AWACS, a huge four-engine Boeing, had been reassuring, like a protective parent hovering in the night some ten thousand feet above and several miles behind the Gulfstream. But it seemed dangerously distant. Ben knew that the cavernous interior of the AWACS was crammed full of electronics, a two-star Air Force general, two corporate officers, and a cadre of test engineers, all of them expecting a much-needed flawless performance in the eleventh hour of a top secret program that could make or break Uniwave Industries.
"We're descending at three thousand, four hundred feet per minute, on a course of zero two five degrees," Hammond said. The edge in his voice was cutting into Ben's faith that humans were really meant to fly.
Dr. Ben Cole, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Caltech, pulled his eyes away from the computer screens and glanced toward the aircraft windows on his left, all of them black portals into the void of a moonless Alaskan night. He swallowed, and the sound was suddenly deafening.
"We're working on it, Sage Ten," the test director shot back, using the typically innocuous call assigned to the Gulfstream.
"And down here we're definitely locked out," Hammond replied.
Ben fumbled for his transmit switch. "What ... what's going on up there, guys?"
There was no reply at first, the silence conspiring with the dilation of time to feed the rising apprehension clawing at his insides.
"Stand by, Ben," the copilot replied at last, his voice typically calm and flat. "Your damn program's diving us. You're not doing anything back there, are you?"
"No!" Ben replied, much too sharply. "I got all the right signals when we locked the program link. Nothing's showing wrong here."
The test director's voice was back on the radio, overriding Ben's reply.
"Sage Ten, we're not asking for that descent. The remote control column up here is commanding straight and level. You sure you're locked on our signal?"
"Trust me," Hammond shot back. "We're straight, but anything but level, and we are locked onto the telemetry. About two minutes after we turned over control to you, this started, just when you checked the speed brake. You've got the controls, Crown, and you're descending us through fourteen thousand now."
"No, we're not," another voice chimed in.
The remote test pilot was sitting in a replica of the Gulfstream's cockpit safely aboard the AWACS. The plan called for the remote pilot to fly the Gulfstream by high-speed datalink for five minutes before engaging the automatic program they were there to validate — the program Ben had labored tirelessly to perfect for the previous eighteen months of eighteen-hour days. They were down to the wire now, and the thought of a setback was unacceptable.
"If this continues," the Gulfstream pilot was saying, "we'd better abort."
"Not yet." The swift reply from the test director cut through their headsets. "Hang on, we're ... working on it."
"Ben?" Gene Hammond's voice was taking on a new level of urgency as he called his on-board test engineer, but as usual, he was trying to wrap his concern in the joking tones of a stressed airman who wasn't about to admit to the pressure he felt. "Ben, now would be a very good time to tell me what your brainchild thinks it's doing. A temper tantrum, perhaps?"
Ben mashed the interphone switch again, trying, and failing, to match the casual tone the pilot had adopted. "I don't know! If they're not commanding the descent from the AWACS, I can tell you it's sure not in the program."
"Is it thinking on its own, Ben?" the copilot added. "You know, making up some solution we don't know about? You're not some secret fan of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, are you?"
Ben felt his mind racing through an impossible tangle of technical details in search of a reassuring answer. There was none.
"Maybe we'd better disconnect."
"Crown?" the pilot transmitted without hesitation. "I'm unsafeing the kill switch down here. If we descend through eight thousand, I'm pulling the plug on Winky."
Ben suppressed a tiny flash of resentment. He hated the word the test pilots had coined to belittle the complex automatic system. Winky indeed! Pilots and engineers were always on a collision course, he'd been told, and he was realizing the truth of it as he punched the transmit switch again. "We could try a reset," he added, aware the AWACS above couldn't hear him on interphone. "They could have screwed up something back there in entering the maneuver plan. The test point altitudes, for instance."
"Crown?" Hammond was transmitting again. "We're descending through ten thousand, I'm just short of red-line speed, and your sage advice for Sage Ten would be greatly appreciated right about now."
"Uh ... stand by," the test director repeated.
There was a pause the length of a heartbeat before Hammond responded. "No ... too late. We're disconnecting."
Shit! Ben thought to himself. He sighed and sat back, feeling a cloak of disappointment enfold him. There would be corporate hell to pay for a bad test sequence. He wouldn't be the only one in the crosshairs of company dissatisfaction, of course. There were more than sixty software experts working on the top secret system. But it had been Dr. Ben Cole, the young and the bold, who'd risked his fledgling career and his fair-haired status of "wunderkind" to take the lead position at age thirty-four.
Ben felt the Gulfstream undulate through some mild turbulence. They're pulling out, he told himself, letting his mind disconnect for a few seconds, entering one of the tiny distractive mental loops that always helped him recharge.
Whatever happened, he would be employable. He could still work most anywhere he wanted to, and maybe he could even throttle some of his eternal ambition in favor of doing a little living. He'd had no life at all for the past two years in Anchorage. He'd been too busy to even have a girlfriend, although he'd dated a few local women and taken an occasional touristy side trip.
I know almost nothing about Alaska, he thought, resolving, as he had a hundred times before, to take a four-month vacation when this push was over. Maybe he could see some of Denali National Park on foot. He wasn't much of an outdoorsman like his dad had been, but the fond memories of camping and hiking the Rockies in his teens with his dad as guide were always hanging there as a Valhalla to be reexperienced. He was sure he could figure out the basics of camping. After all, pitching a tent was just an applied engineering problem.
More radio chatter caught his attention, and Ben forced his mind back to the matters at hand, expecting to hear a decision to reposition to try it again.
" ... up there? I'm getting nothing here," Hammond, the Gulfstream pilot was saying. Ben's eyes went to the screens, wondering why the altitude readout wasn't showing the level-off. They'd disengaged at eight thousand, hadn't they?
"We're trying to break the link up here, Sage Ten, but the computer's not responding."
Ben recognized the test director's voice. What did he mean, "not responding"?
He heard Gene Hammond's voice snap back an answer as he came forward in the seat, instantly reengaging. "Crown, we're dropping through four thousand at the same descent rate, same heading. Do something!"
The altitude readout on his screen showed three thousand two hundred feet, its numbers unwinding.
"Ben! Can you hear us?" Hammond was asking, his words implying a previous call Ben had missed. A rush of adrenaline filled Ben's bloodstream as he answered, his voice sounding a bit strange.
"Do something, dammit! Help us disconnect."
"Use the guarded disconnect switch," Ben replied.
"We did. It doesn't work," the pilot said as the copilot chimed in, his voice taut with tension. "One thousand five hundred. It's flying us into the water. What now, Ben?"
"The guarded switch won't work?" Ben repeated blankly, his mind in a daze. How could anyone think under such pressure? The readout in front of him was still whizzing downward as he reached forward and keyed a disconnect command into the computer, sending it just as rapidly through the telemetry link to the main processor aboard the AWACS.
"One thousand!" The copilot had dropped all pretense of calm now, his voice up a half octave.
"I'm ... pulling ... but ... I can't override," Hammond was saying through gritted teeth.
"Five hundred!" the copilot intoned. "Oh, God ..."
Ben thought of reaching for the keyboard again to try the same disconnect sequence, but something was yanking him down hard in his seat as the Gulfstream's nose came up without warning, spiking gravity and making him feel incredibly heavy before returning just as rapidly to the normality of a single G.
And suddenly they were level, the sounds of excessive speed bleeding off in the background.
"Jesus Christ, Crown!" he heard Hammond say on the radio. "It just jerked us level at —"
The copilot finished the sentence. "Fifty feet. On the radio altimeter. We're holding at fifty feet, three hundred knots."
"What's your status, Sage Ten?" the test director asked.
"Our status? We're into hyperventilation down here, if that's any clue," the pilot responded, pausing. Ben could hear a long breath. "The damn thing almost killed us! Whatever the heck is going on in that silicon psycho's little mind, it wants to fly at fifty feet, and I still can't disconnect it."
"But ... you're level?"
"Yeah ... for now. Otherwise we wouldn't be having this chat. But we're just a hiccup from the water and there's land somewhere ahead. Ben? Get this goddamned electronic octopus off my controls!"
Aboard the AWACS, Major General Mac MacAdams dared to let his breath out as he glanced quickly at the grim faces around him. All of them had been listening on small Telex headsets and unconsciously pressing in behind the pilot sitting at the remote controls as the Gulfstream had dropped toward the ocean.
The test director looked around at Mac and shook his head in shock.
"What the hell was all that about?" the general asked. He could see the test director, Jeff Kaminsky, jaw muscles working overtime as he struggled to answer.
"I don't know, General. Stand by." He triggered his transmit button again. "Sage Ten, we're going to pull the circuit boards on the computer up here and disconnect you."
"NO!" A voice from the Gulfstream cut in.
"Who's this?" Kaminsky demanded.
"Ben Cole. Don't pull any circuit boards! If your computer's doing this and you get the wrong board first, it could pitch us down."
Kaminsky glanced at the general in puzzlement as he answered. "You know what's causing this, Dr. Cole?"
"No ... but ... I'm guessing. The problem may be down here, but it may not."
"How about killing the radio links between us, then?" the test director asked.
"Wait on that, too," Ben Cole replied. "I'm working on it from here."
"Sage," Kaminsky said, "we're still showing you at fifty feet, three hundred twenty knots."
Hammond's voice growled back at them. "Yeah, and Winky is goosing my throttles to max thrust. Would someone check up there to make sure there's not an island ahead or something?"
A shout marked Ben Cole's return to the channel. "Okay! Our computer's the culprit. Go ahead and shut down the radio link."
Kaminsky mashed one of the intercom buttons and relayed the order to another engineer at a console ten feet away. "Shut it off. All right, Dr. Cole, the link is history. Are you released?"
There was a long pause before the pilot's voice returned from the Gulfstream.
"No," Hammond said. "Dammit, it's still locked up. Ben? What the hell's going on back there?"
The channel fell silent for several long seconds as one of the test engineers on the AWACS rose quickly from his position and came forward, pushing in alongside the general and Kaminsky. Mac MacAdams noticed the man first. The haunted look on his face meant a new emergency. The general put his hand on the test director's shoulder and turned him toward the worried subordinate.
"What?" Jeff Kaminsky snapped.
"There's a ... problem ahead," the test engineer said.
Kaminsky's attention was shifting slowly to the engineer as he kept one eye on his readouts. "Spill it," he said.
"Ahead, on my radar, about forty miles, there's a big ship."
Jeff Kaminsky swiveled around to look the engineer in the eye. "What do you mean, 'big ship'?"
"Sage Ten is at fifty feet," he said. "I know this part of the Gulf, and this target's big."
"He's in Sage's way? A big ship?"
"Yes, sir. Dead-on collision course. He's on a heading of one hundred twenty degrees, about a right angle to our guy."
"He's big enough to have a superstructure fifty feet above the water line?"
"If it's a supertanker out of Valdez, yes. The hull will be higher than that. If he hits, he'll broadside the hull. Even if he misses, he'll hit one of the ridges on Hitchinbrook Island twenty miles farther."
The general caught the tech's shoulder. "You're saying it's a loaded tanker?"
The man nodded. "He's a loaded thousand-foot-long supertanker southeast-bound making eleven knots on my scope, coming out of Hitchinbrook entrance to Prince William Sound. Ships like that usually stand at least seventy feet above the water when loaded," the engineer said, wondering why the general turned suddenly and disappeared.
Jeff Kaminsky sighed and nodded, then turned back to his screen. "Keep me informed," he said, regretting the utter uselessness of the remark.
"Sage Ten, Crown," Kaminsky said. "How're you doing on the disconnect?"
The chief software engineer Kaminsky had met several times replied, his voice taut, "I can't just kill the computer without knowing which channel I'm dealing with."
"Dr. Cole? Listen to me. You've got about two minutes maximum to knock that thing offline and give your pilots control again."
"I'm trying ... stand by," Cole replied. "I may need more than a couple of minutes. I'm running a critical diagnostic."
"You don't have more than that, Doctor. You may just have to yank the plug, so to speak. Reset the computer or something drastic."
"What's going on?" Hammond cut in. "Why two minutes?"
Jeff Kaminsky sighed quietly to himself as he decided how much to say. "There's ... a possibility of an obstruction ahead of you. It's imperative you either change course or climb, within ... a couple of minutes."
Some twenty feet to the rear in the AWACS cabin General MacAdams replaced a handset and pointed to a window on the communications panel as he caught the attention of a young sergeant.
"Quickly and quietly dial me up on UHF frequency three twenty-two point four."
"Yes, sir," the sergeant said, punching in the numbers and giving a thumbs-up.
Mac plugged into the console and toggled the radio to transmit.
"Shepard Five, this is Crown."
The reply was instantaneous.
"Max speed and lock him up. Inform me when you're within firing range."
The lead pilot of a flight of two F-15 fighters from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage gave a brief acknowledgment. Mac could imagine them going to afterburner, the two fighters accelerating to more than twice the speed of sound in an emergency dash across the eighty miles separating them from the slower Gulfstream.
Mac forced his mind away from the horror of the situation and focused instead on being grateful for having the foresight to launch the two fighters as a precaution against something unforeseen that might threaten civilian interests.
That "something" had occurred. One Exxon Valdez oil spill was enough.
Excerpted from Skyhook by John J. Nance. Copyright © 2003 John J. Nance. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Unlike past books, the current story is contrived and non credible. In order to promote political correctness, snotty, obnoxious women lawyers control and all men are portrayed as ineffectual. The story line is more consistent with a weak soap opera than anything resembling a factual situation. I have read every book by John Nance and this one was extremely disappointing.
A black ops operation is in effect called the Skyhook Project, a way for pilots on the ground to control military aircraft that won¿t or can¿t return to base. The system is being developed by Uniwave Industries but one of their final tests fails and the system locks in to place at fifty miles above ground. The pilots manage to regain control and another test is scheduled for Friday. When Ben Cole, the designer of the software for Skyhook, looks at the code, he sees several strings that don¿t belong. While he is trying to figure out who put the extra code in, a seaplane goes down in the same area where the military operation takes place. After the coast guard rescues the pilot and his wife, a very prejudicial FAA examiner revokes the pilot¿s license. His daughter April and her lawyer friend Grace are prepared to use any means to expose this injustice. The American government knows Skyhook is responsible for the seaplane¿s mishap and will do what is necessary to keep the real goal of the project secret. John J. Nance does for action thrillers what John Grishan has done for legal thrillers. The story line is fast paced with plenty of action scenes, but it is the characters who make this book a tremendous hit. April and Grace are two mid-twenties women willing to take a risk and fight the federal government to see justice prevail so their loved ones don¿t suffer. They make the novel though Ben is heroic in his own way. Harriet Klausner