Books written by Ray Sullivan

Friday, 28 December 2012

Parallel Lives chapter 38

The Fokker regional transport sat on the threshold of the East Midlands Airport, both turbo prop engines idling at around 40%. The captain ran through his cabin checklist, confirming the serviceability of the various essential services. In the rear of the aircraft sat a mixture of commuting businessmen and overnight parcels being delivered for one of the newer courier companies in the United Kingdom. Hungry for success they had persuaded the airline management team to delay the flight headed for London by twenty minutes already to allow one of their contracts to be fulfilled – a project proposal needed to be delivered securely to the Capital before the day was out.
Captain Roland Smith had resented the delay but had used the time to review the weather conditions and the aircraft systems while he waited. The forecast had been full of warning about the freezing temperatures and he had exercised the anti-icing systems several times, checking his cockpit readings and getting the groundcrew to physically check the operation outside. All had worked well, and he felt confident that there was no reason to postpone the flight any longer than necessary. Due to the late hour and regional status of the airport Roland didn’t have any concerns about getting air traffic control clearance for the delayed take-off, but had pandered to the requests and requirements of the officials on duty in any case; to aggravate the land based personnel was tempting problems in Roland’s experience. His number two slid alongside of him, having just supervised the loading of the proposal – itself a minor affair compared to some of the cargo stowed on board – and more importantly had ensured that the cabin doors had been secured correctly afterwards. Last minute changes had a habit of introducing needless errors in otherwise routine activities. Roland turned to his Co-Pilot.
‘All sorted?’ he enquired, knowing the answer before he asked. Roland had flown with his partner for several years and knew he wouldn’t have sat down if there were any problems. His partner nodded, busying himself with his part of the mandatory take-off checks. Roland contacted Air Traffic, to advise them of the current status and to request permission to taxi. After a couple of interchanges the Fokker was cleared to taxi and the idling engines were exercised a couple of times while Roland awaited the push back crew who had hooked the aircraft up before leaving to undertake other duties earlier.
Within minutes the aircraft had been pushed clear of the loading apron, and was moving forward under its own power along the perimeter track which criss-crossed the main runways at several points. The route supplied by Air Traffic Control tonight crossed just one main intersection and was soon reached by the Fokker. Roland eased the throttles to idle at the intersection, awaiting further clearance to proceed. As he waited, an aging Boeing 727, wearing the livery of one of the cut price operators, accelerated past the Fokker. The Boeing’s nose wheel lifted gently as it passed, the dimmed internal lights revealing the multitude of holiday-makers bound for a winter break in some southern Mediterranean locale gazing out of their side windows for a last glimpse of home, before settling back to watch the in-flight movie. As the Boeing passed it was followed by a shower of icy rain which danced and skidded on the runway behind it, sparks of colour as the red, blue and green taxiway lights delineating the edges and centre of the runway shone through the ice melting in the wake of the jet exhaust. It was another fifty seconds before Roland was authorised to continue, allowing sufficient time for the wake of the departing aircraft to disperse.
Given clearance Roland eased the throttles again and released the brakes. The aircraft moved forward, but more sluggishly than expected, crossing the threshold much less smartly than Roland would have liked. Out of preference he would spend as little time crossing a runway, in any conditions, as he possibly could and was perturbed at the lack of response. His Co-Pilot was busily scanning the gauges and information panels for a clue to the lack-lustre performance on the taxiway while Roland continued to move the aircraft forward to clear the area. Halfway across an impatient query from Air Traffic Control served only to distract the two men, wasting a couple of seconds. In desperation to clear the area Roland pushed the throttles for both engines forward, far harder than he would have used for ground manoeuvres normally. The right hand engine speed ramped up dramatically, while the left hand one remained at virtually idle, the difference between each engines’ individual performance emphasised by the relevant gauges being aligned side by side. The Co-pilot raised his voice above the heightened engine noise to report that the number two engine was “over-temping” and he would need to shut it down. Roland was about to call Air Traffic but they raised him first.
‘Alpha-delta-three-er-niner-tango, we require you to clear the runway immediately, repeat immediately,’ barked the controller. Roland keyed his microphone.
‘Air Traffic Control be aware that we are experience taxiing and engine problems. I am attempting to clear the runway area and will require ground assistance to return to dispersal,’ replied Roland, releasing his microphone switch gently, belying the tension he now felt in his stomach.
‘Noted alpha-delta-three-er-niner-tango, we still require you to clear the runway immediately. We have an inbound passenger aircraft returning to land with severe control problems, it is unlikely that they can hold off or manage another circuit. Clear the runway any way you can.’ Roland, working feverishly throughout the message, looked to his number two, indicating he needed ideas.
‘Only way we can clear the runway is to dump onto the grassed area. Port brake unit appears to be locked on and I can only manage 20% on the port engine. I can ramp up the starboard engine, but the risk of fire will be high,’ the Co-pilot said, not looking directly at the Captain, instead constantly monitoring the gauges in front of him.
‘Do it, shut down as soon as we’re clear,’ shouted Roland, feeling for his microphone switch absently. The Co-pilot ramped up the starboard engine, feeling the aircraft slew sidewards, pivoting around the locked up brake unit. As the aircraft rolled bumpily onto the grassed area, the starboard leg beginning to sink into the soft ground while the starboard engine threw flames forward, razing the side of the fuselage as far as the front passenger door, blackening and blistering the paintwork. The small number of passengers on board, having maintained an unnatural silence in the preceding seconds, started to shout involuntarily. Roland initiated the fire suppression system while his partner shut down both engines.
As the crew were preparing to evacuate, the Boeing 727, having managed to circle the airfield nursing multiple hydraulic failures that had occurred within seconds of passing through rotation, the point where the aircraft was committed to taking off, landed two hundred and fifty metres behind the crossing point. The violently braking airliner’s port wing struck the tailplane of the Fokker, which in turn tore a slice down the Boeing’s front fuselage. Sparks lit the cold night air as the damaged aircraft slid skewed and falteringly another two hundred metres, until its starboard undercarriage, wrenched by the sideways slide, collapsed, bringing the battered tube to an eerie stop. The Fokker, spun on its axis, was also listing badly, the sinking undercarriage unit forced deeper by the collision. In a ballet like symmetry both aircraft deployed their evacuation equipment, orange inflated tubes extending outwards from the shining fuselage sides.
In less than an hour the details of the accident were being broadcast on the late night news channels, with the consensus of opinion being that the freezing rain had caused the event. Ironically the hacks, in relative ignorance, were correct in that it was the freezing rain that had locked the port brake unit on and immobilised the engine controls on the same side of the brakes, but this detail would not be determined for some days, and the reports broadcast insisted that the freezing rain had been responsible for the control problems on the Boeing aircraft. None of this was immediately important to the two passengers who died that night, one of a heart attack, the other through a combination of physical trauma and hypothermia; nor was it particularly important to the other one hundred and twenty seven passengers and crew who suffered a variety of injuries, or the remainder who were discharged by the local hospitals as officially unscathed – to a person they were glad to be alive, pleased in some cases to be able to feel the pain of the bruises and the sting of the cuts. In days to come all would wonder about the cause, consider how close to death they had been, contemplate the risks they had run for a commute to London or a late season holiday. But it was of immense interest to several people listening to the news in darkened rooms on a remote Royal Air Force base in North Yorkshire.


Copyright Ray Sullivan 2011

The characters, places and events described in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to persons, places or events, past or present, is coincidence.  All rights reserved

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