Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fate Is The Hunter - Ice II

Ernest K Gann is co-piloting a DC2 passenger flight from Nashville to New York. The plane is icing up and our heroes are in trouble :

"We're getting out of this!

Hughen pounds his feet on the rudder pedals. They are immovable. The rudder, far back on the tail of the ship, is frozen. There is, of course, absolutely nothing we can do about it. Yet by constant movement Hughen has kept the ailerons free, so a turn is still possible. He must execute the turn very slowly, taking great care not to bank more than a few degrees at a time, for at this speed and with the efficiency of the wings so damaged, a turn can be the introduction to a spin from which, under the circumstances, there can be no possible recovery.

I watch Hughen start into a slow left turn. At once the air speed slips to an agonizing one hundred and five. The ship has abandoned the easier porpoising and is bucking viciously.

Hughen is a man tiptoeing along a very tenuous wire. The wire is swaying crazily in the wind, he is being bombarded with stones, and if he loses balance for one second, we are done for. How can this all have happened so suddenly? Fifteen minutes ago all was as it should be.

"Call Nashville. Get emergency clearance at five thousand. Tell them we are returning on account of heavy ice. Accumulation fast ... clear ice."

I repeat the message into my microphone, trying to control the tendency of my voice to become a quavering falsetto. One hundred miles per hour. Altitude four thousand eight hundred feet. Still sinking. Maybe if I refuse to look the readings will go away....

There is no reassuring reply from Nashville. I can only assume they received our message and will clear all other planes from our altitude.

A sudden, terrible shudder seizes the entire aeroplane. At once Hughen shoves the throttles wide open and the nose down. The shuddering ceases. Hughen wipes the sweat from his eyes.

"She almost got away from me ! "

The incipient stall has stolen an additional three hundred feet from our altitude. We must not risk a repetition, and yet the engines cannot remain at full power for ever. But Hughen leaves the throttles where they are.

I crank the loop desperately although the hope of hearing anything is dissolved in noise. I abandon Knoxville and again experiment with Columbus, which is so much farther away. Then quite clearly I hear a new whine, distorted yet unmistakably genuine. It is interrupted by the code letters C.O. - Columbus!
At once I tune to Charleston and find it also readable.

"I have Charleston and Columbus! Fix in a minute!"

I don't know why it seems so terribly important to know where we are. What is important is our altitude, a factor we can do nothing about. If it continues to diminish, our position is of little consequence. Both Hughen and myself would be indifferent as to which of the Blue Ridge Mountains we actually hit.

I manage to take two good bearings when Hughen at last completes his turn. I plot them at once on the chart. Hughen glances at the two intersecting lines I have drawn. They show us to be approximately fifty miles to the north of Knoxville—directly over a long hump in the mountains. There is a peak somewhere in this area. Its summit is marked as four thousand one hundred and fifty feet. We are now at four thousand five hundred feet and still sinking. Even as we study the chart we are approaching or leaving the vicinity of the peak. Which it is, we cannot know until I plot another fix. There is no way to make an aeroplane wait.

"Take another shot in two minutes."

In two minutes the effort might be entirely superfluous.

Both engines suddenly begin cutting out—first one and then the other. For one awful moment they both subside together. And there is a silence which is not really a silence but a chilling diminuendo of all sound. This is the way you die. At three minutes past two in the morning.

Fate Is The Hunter - Ice I