With complete loss of hydraulic control and non-functional control surfaces, the only way I was able to keep the 747-jumbo airborne at all was by applying nuanced engine thrusts to pitch the nose up into a lurching climb and then releasing just at the stall warnings. The downward pitch of the phugoid cycle, like a ship after cresting a wave on heavy seas, was rapid and sphincter tightening. Unlike a ship, slowly plowing its way across the gentle warp of the curvature of the earth, my trajectory was inexorably descending; down, down towards the jagged peaks of the low-lying mountains which I couldn’t see but knew were there in the continents of shifting darkness below.
With its vertical stabilizer and rudder gone, the aircraft also entered into a Dutch roll, simultaneously yawing right and banking right before yawing back left and banking left in large swooping arcs like the veering flight of a gull knocked back and forth by contradictory winds. The engine thrust countermeasures I was applying only slightly improved stability and my ability to control the plane was deteriorating fast. In desperation, I lowered the landing gear. This helped dampen the phugoid cycles, but the throttle developed a mind of its own and I wrestled against its capricious movements with both hands.
I saw it to the left, a mountain-shaped shadow against the shadow of the night. I lowered the flaps 5 units via an alternative electrical system and briefly gained some altitude. Lowering the flaps another 10 units caused the plane to bank to the left, and the nose began to drop.
“Sink rate,” said the Ground Proximity Warning System in an impassive voice.
“Nose up! Not so much flap!”
“Sink rate,” repeated the GPWS as if bored.
“Power, power… flaps up!”
“Terrain,” said the GPWS with a little more urgency as an emergency beeping sound and flashing red light engaged.
“Nose up… Nose up… power… POWER!!!
“Pull up… pull up… pull up…” hollered the GPWS over a blaring alarm.
The plane was uncontrollable and as the left wing clipped the mountainside, everything outside the cockpit windows flipped upside-down and went blank.
“Simulation complete,” said a chirpy digital voice.
“Damn you,” I sighed, pulling off the headphones and running my hands through my hair. Programmed to run Japan Airlines Flight 123, to this day the worst single-aircraft accident in aviation history, it was my favorite simulation.
“Flight time: 24 minutes and 6 seconds,” replied the chirpy digital voice.
“Not even close,” I sighed again. Back in 1985 the captain of JAL 123, Masami Takahama, had kept his fully loaded 747-jumbo airborne for an insane 32 minutes and 23 seconds after its vertical stabilizer snapped off, long enough for detailed farewell messages to be found in the wreckage. I was in a pool with some fellow pilots to see if any of us could break Takahama’s 32:23 mark. So far none of us had, although I had come closest at 30:48. The virtual reality of the simulator simply couldn’t generate that adrenaline-goosed fear, fear you could smell coming off your skin like something oily burning, of being on a real plane really going down. That’s no arcade game with high scores and when I had once programmed in my Lajes flight, after crashing ten times in a row, I never ran it again.
“Run JAL 123 again,” I muttered into the cool darkness, putting my headphones back on and opening a beer (I was hiding from my daughter who had obnoxiously bet me that morning I couldn’t go a single day without drinking).
“Launching JAL 123,” said the chirpy digital voice as the console came alive with humming lights, the warm throttle vibrating gently under my grip. “Have a nice flight.”
I was staring intently at one of my father’s war pictures. He was standing in a floating fish market on the banks of the sun-stunned Mekong Delta, shirtless in the heat, battered dog tags flung across his sweaty torso. Dark aviator glasses blocked out his eyes, but his eyebrows were halfway up his forehead and, wearing an alarmed ghost mouth, he was extending a large blood-smeared steel tray towards the camera.
“What are those?” I demanded, pointing at the crowd of squatting alienesque creatures on the tray.
“Oh, not that horrible picture,” my mother almost spat as she peered over my father’s shoulder. Waving her away, he chewed on the bottom of his lip a moment and then explained they were frogs that had just been skinned alive and decapitated. He studied my face and, finding no trauma there, went on to say that they were still very much alive in the picture.
“No way!” I marveled, pushing my face closer. They were as big as a man’s fist and with their skin peeled off, beneath the shiny transparent membrane left behind, stretched tight over their athletic headless bodies like vacuum sealed plastic, you could make out their purple organs and the white steroidal muscles bulging in their hind legs. “How?”
“I have no idea. But I swear their chests were rising up and down, up and down, and they were turning this way and that as if they were having a good old chat about the weather.”
“Just after this picture was taken, they were tossed on the grill.”
“Disgusting,” drifted in my mother’s voice from the other room.
“Did you… did you eat one?”
He put his finger to his lips conspiratorially and flipped through the stack of photos. “Here,” he said, with a wink, handing me one. I squealed in delight. He had one of the frogs all the way in his mouth except for the long hopping legs which dangled from the corners like a hideous Fu Manchu moustache. Young Vietnamese boys were crowded around him grinning with oversized buck teeth.
“You are a terrible, terrible man, Tom Manson,” my mother called from upstairs.
I also caught some flack in the schoolyard for having the same family name as a psycho killer. The memories of the Manson Family murders, that searing image of “PIG” scrawled in the blood of an eight-and-a-half month pregnant Sharon Tate, were still fresh. Suburbanites across America were checking and doublechecking the locks on their doors and windows before going to bed, ensuring none of the kitchen knives were missing, their anxiety trickling down into the dreams of their children.
I sometimes wondered if I had some percentage of psycho killer in me considering what a lasting impact my father’s frogs had made upon me. Over the shrill protests of my mother, I coaxed him into taking me to Chinatown in the city to hunt for live frogs to eat. We didn’t find any but I was awestruck by the steaming bloody redness of Chinatown, the windows crammed with lynched glazed ducks and ragged pork sides dangling by the trotter on hooks, dishes filled with calves’ brains, testicles, chicken livers, pork kidneys, sheep’s ovaries; all that raw flesh and offal lacing the air with a sulfuric bite that caught in the nose.
“Pick which one you want, Paul,” said my father leaning down to peer inside the aquarium where schools of big hardy carp jostled for space. One of them appeared to be watching me out of a wide black eye on the side of its head, gills rhythmically pumping.
“That one,” I said pointing, and the cook instantly netted it up and out of the water. It landed with a thud on a wooden block and thrashed around for oxygen. The cook clobbered it over the head with a short wooden club which subdued it, but the rubbery brown lips were still working as if it were trying to speak while its tail flapped up and down. Holding it down, the cook vigorously took what looked like a windshield scraper to its sides, showers of translucent scales flying towards a large enamel sink where the water had been left running. After its scaling, the fish’s mouth was moving even faster, in outrage I imagined, and then the cook deftly slit open its belly, tugged out its stringy innards and flung them towards the sink. The fish shuddered a few times and went still even though I sensed it was still somehow watching me.
Straight from the grill, its sizzling body was slapped down in front of me, blackened soya-drizzled skin peeling off, melted eyes now turned yellow. The flung-away innards had been replaced with fried garlic, lemon slices, spiky green herbs, and anyone’s guess what else.
The power of that!
“Dig in,” said my father with a hesitant smile.
I did with a dedication that surprised him and as each mouthful of that soft delicious meat went down, I felt more and more superhuman.
Me: Do you have to call me Paul?
Me: I’m still your dad, Mel.
Melanie: btw – speaking of names, I’m changing mine.
Me: wtf?! 😳
Melanie: The papers are all submitted. I’m dropping Manson.
Me: I repeat: wtf?! 😳
Melanie: I’m legally changing my name, Paul.
Me: Why? To what? 😳 😳 😳
Melanie: What do you think? Mom’s name! 😀And I don’t think I have to answer the first question. I gotta go. Please stop texting me.
Me: Melanie, I…
I stopped tapping at my phone. She had gone offline. “Melanie Hightower… ?” I whispered just as a tired, relieved cheer rippled through the bar car. The train was finally, FINALLY underway again.
“I’m going to the lady’s room,” announced Ida through a long sigh. Everything about her was long: long arms and legs, long toes and fingers, long painted nails, long horse eyelashes, long tongue, long wringable neck, long asshole. Except her stylishly disheveled hair was cropped short, which she plucked at as she slid lazily from the plush highbacked barstool, the single non-long thing about her as far as I could tell. I watched her as she sashayed off. Whatever she was, there was no doubt she was a knockout. If she possessed one iota of the acting talent she laid claim to, she could’ve easily been a movie star.
It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday and the bar was mostly empty and quiet but for Manhattan’s hooting and hollering sporadically penetrating the green and red uterine patterns of the Art Nouveau style window panes. I drained my glass while waving at the peppy barmaid who bounced over.
“Quick, before my girlfriend gets back. Can you make it a double?”
I drank it down to approximately the level it was at when Ida left. “That’s about right,” I said, examining the glass.
The barmaid watching me quizzically over a fan of money she was counting and said, “Your girlfriend sure is gorgeous.”
I looked up at her vacantly. She had luscious soft hair tied up in a chaotic sideways ponytail and the faintest of freckles speckling the tops of her cheeks. The lenses of her funky blue-framed glasses made watery blue planets of her eyes. She was athletically built but not in a masculine way, her lithe body filling out the snug clothes she was wearing in subtle contours that excited the imagination, especially when leaning over the bar as she was now.
“You know,” I said, hearing the tiredness in my voice. “When I walk with her hand-in-hand down the street, the guys stare like you wouldn’t believe.”
“But not at her. At me.”
“I can almost hear them thinking, ‘how did a dirt bag like you bag that babe?’”
“You know what though?”
“I drink because she talks.”
This made her laugh, a musical laugh like fingers running up and down piano keys. “I’m Ally,” she said extending her hand.
“Ally?” The name of the bar was Ally’s.“You’re the…”
“Owner. Yep, that’s me.”
“Amazing! You’re so young.”
“What do you do… um…?”
“Sorry, Paul. I’m Paul. I’m a pilot.”
“Look who’s talking about being so young.”
“…cleared to land two five nine, hold short three zero,” came the instruction from JFK Control. The cold night skies over New York were more congested than usual and we had been stuck in a prolonged holding pattern circling the airport. I was holding up my phone searching for any imperfections in Ally’s boyfriend’s face.
“Come on, Paul, time to put it down,” said Gary quietly. I had already chewed him out for suggesting I was flying erratically. Or had he actually accused me of being drunk?
“Fine,” I said, putting the phone away, steepling my hands above my crotch, and gazing at One World Trade Centre. One of its eight massive glass and steel isosceles triangles, slicing all the way up through the façade from the 20th to the 102nd floor, was ablaze in blue neon lights. “Like a target,” I mumbled.
“I meant the plane. We’re cleared. Did you hear it? Two five nine, hold short three zero.”
“Please Paul,” said Gary in a pleading voice. “Please sit this one out. Let me handle it.”
“I got this, Gary,” I snarled, shoving away the hand he had placed on my shoulder. “Notify Control.”
It’s all a blank after that until I woke up on an ambulance stretcher on the runway. Surrounded by flashing emergency vehicles and scurrying EMS workers, the plane was parked at an ungodly angle and all of its evacuation slides had been deployed, their thick rubber orange tongues lolling out on the tarmac. Uninjured passengers were wandering around in a daze. Then I saw it. As though opened up by a giant can opener, there was a gaping serrated hole chewed from the bottom of the plane’s tail section, machine innards dangling from it. I hallucinated for a moment the cockpit windows were melted yellow eyes. Not far away, Gary was talking to a group of police officers and glancing over at me with that pale, doleful face of his. When I tried to get up and go to him, I realized I had been handcuffed to the stretcher’s sidebar.
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 5), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.