Monday, July 14, 2008

Fate Is The Hunter - Ice I

It's the mid-30s and the regularly scheduled plane, a DC-3, is grounded for maintenance. A DC-2 is substituted for the passenger flight from Nashville to New York. Ernest K Gann is co-pilot to Captain Hughen, who's unhappy about the weather reports ahead.

I spend some five or ten minutes at my paper work. When I look for the moon again it has vanished. There is not even a glow in the sky. Instead we are wrapped in vapour which swoops round the snout of the DC-2 and whips against the windscreen. Then we must be in the front which the meteorologists had located almost exactly. They explained that it would lie nearly stagnant in a long trough extending from the Blue Ridge Mountains as far north as Baltimore.

There is a new roughness to the air and I become vaguely uneasy. Hughen is absorbed in his instruments and I soon become aware that he is paying particular heed to the outside-temperature gauge. It stands at thirty degrees.

I remember from my days at Lester's school that this temperature is supposedly ideal for icing conditions. Meteorologists are frank in confessing their inability to forecast the existence of ice in a cloud mass. They seem positive about one thing only. Any cloud holding a temperature between twenty and thirty degrees harbours the potential of ice. It might be there. Or it might not.

The air is still not rough enough to require the passenger seat-belt sign. There are jolts, but they are few and far between. Our first warning is an insistent hissing in our earphones. It builds rapidly until it becomes an abrasive squealing, the nasty and continuous scratching of fingernails along a slate. The screeching becomes a howl and the range signal of Knoxville is buried in it.
Hughen, pained at the sound and consequent lack of guidance, presses his lips tightly together.

"See if you can tune in Knoxville on the D.F."

The direction-finder is a completely separate radio installation and is controlled by a tuning dial and a small crank for turning the receiving loop. By cranking the loop a bearing may be taken on any convenient station and thus a navigational line of position established. Because of its construction the loop can often bring in signals when the regular antenna fails its purpose. I crank the loop so that its position is best for receiving Knoxville. Nothing. Only the hideous sound of those fingernails. Both of us press the head-phones hard against our ears. Nothing.

"Try Roanoke."

I retune the receiver and rock the crank back and forth a few degrees at a time. Again, nothing penetrates the screeching.

"Try Charleston."

I tune the receiver quickly and crank again. Nothing. Nothing .. . nothing.

"Give Columbus a shot."

Yet again ... nothing. There is no break or recognizable signal to be plucked from the strident discord. We are swallowed in a crazy region of utterly useless sound.

I have been so preoccupied that I have given little heed to the windscreen. Now it has become opaque. Our world ends in a grey panel approximately eighteen inches from our faces.

"Start the de-icers."

I flip the switch above my head which will activate the rubber boots, then turn on the landing lights to observe their operation.

So this is true ice. It looks more like piecrust. The rubber boots, pulsing ponderously like elongated hearts, break the piecrust off in great flakes. The rhythm is a slow one, allowing the ice to form in a thin layer before it is torn apart and spat back at the night. There is also ice forming on the rim of the engine cowling and the propeller hub. It does not seem to be more than half an inch thick. Hughen is concerned although I can see no reason for being so. This is as nothing to a thunder-storm.

Suddenly someone is throwing stones at me. There is an erratic banging upon the fuselage just behind my seat. I instinctively twist and dodge, then realize the hammering is also behind Hughen.

"Shoot some alcohol on the props! "

Of course. The propeller blades, like the wings, are accumulating ice, which is retained only until centrifugal force whirls it off. Chunks the size of baseballs are being hurled against the resounding aluminium. And since one blade retains more than another, the delicate balance of the three-hundred-and-eighty-pound propellers is disturbed. An uneven vibration seizes the entire ship. I turn a valve marked "props" and labour strenuously at a hand pump just behind me. At once the cockpit becomes pungent with the smell of alcohol. My pumping will send the liquid to the propeller blades and supposedly free them of ice.

The vibration is increasing in spite of my pumping. The racket of banging ice is becoming a fusillade. The air is still not unduly rough but unless the instruments and the seat of my trousers are lying, the ship is beginning to porpoise in an unbelievable manner. Hughen is having a very rough time with the controls. The sweat is dripping from his cheekbones and he is breathing heavily.

"' Try Knoxville again ! On the loop!"

He is afraid. His voice is controlled, but there is the constriction of fear beneath his control. The ordered words come like pistol shots.

I stop pumping, tune the D.F.'s radio to Knoxville frequency and reach for the loop crank. In doing so, my attention is caught by the air speed. One hundred and twenty miles an hour! Only a few minutes before, we were cruising at one hundred and seventy. Yet Hughen has not touched the power. A queasy sensation passes through my stomach. My hands are suddenly hot and throbbing. These I know to be the beginning signals of fear. I cannot seem to stop them. One hundred and twenty. We must not lose any more. With a load of ice this ship will cease to fly at one hundred, possibly even sooner.

What the hell is wrong with those fancy de-icer boots? They are not performing the task for which they are intended. Come! Function!

I glance furtively out of the window at my side. The leading edge of the wing is now one long, unbroken bar of ice. And it is clear ice, rumpled as if there were rocks beneath.
Yes, the de-icing boots are working. But they are expanding and contracting beneath the sheath of ice and consequently useless! The ice has accumulated too fast for them.

I try with all that is in me to hear Knoxville, allowing the squeaking to sear my brain as I listen for the treasure of a signal. I must hear it, for now a new threat is evident. I am dismayed to see that the altimeters read a mere five thousand feet. We have lost two thousand. The rate of climb shows we are sinking at a steady two hundred feet per minute. At such a rate we will descend to sea-level in twenty-five minutes.

Hughen moves the propeller controls to full low pitch. Now I realize that he has every reason to be afraid. We cannot possibly descend to sea-level or anywhere near it unless we are ready for surrender. The Blue Ridge Mountains are buried in the night below. We are already below the level of the highest peaks.

"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.