Authors: John J. Nance
"Not back here. We checked."
"Hang on a second." Annette leaned toward the forward restroom door as the 737 lurched slightly to the left, almost throwing her off balance.
The unoccupied sign was showing. She raised the handset. "He's not up here, either. Stand by and I'll call the cockpit."
It took several pushes of the call button before Wolfe's voice filled her ear.
This is Annette at the door. Can I come in?"
There was a small hesitation before he spoke, and then the voice was strange and stressed.
"Ah, I'd... rather not right now, Annette. We're... a bit crowded in here.
I decided to give our guest pilot a shot at the jumpseat."
She smiled, feeling relieved. "Good! That's what I was calling about.
His wife feels abandoned."
"He says to tell her he'll be back a little later. He's having fun."
When you're ready, what do you want to drink?" More silence. "Ken?"
"Ah, Annette, let's clear this line for now. I'm pretty busy."
Sorry about that." Annette replaced the handset with the distinct feeling that somehow she'd accidentally crossed a line and asked too much. It made no sense, but somehow she felt guilty.
Two chimes sounded from the cockpit, the signal that they were ready for takeoff. Annette sat in the folding jumpseat behind the cockpit and fastened her seat belt almost as a reflex.
Why would he take a passenger in the cockpit jumpseat without telling me?
And in the aftermath of an emergency landing.
Maybe that was the cause of the nagging discomfort.
No, she had already felt that way before the call about 18D.
A half mile distant a panicked man was spilling out the front door of the Durango Flying Service and racing up to the passenger side of an arriving pickup truck, his eyes flaring wide.
"Are you with AirBridge?" he asked the uniformed pilot who was climbing out of the truck.
"You've got to help me! My wife is on that airplane, and it's taking off without me!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Your..: your flight, that diverted in here? He's leaving. The captain asked me to run an errand, and while I was off, he started up and taxied out."
"Wait a minute, you mean Flight Ninety?"
"He's not going anywhere, sir."
"Yes he is! He's already on the runway!"
Suddenly the wave of noise from two turbojet engines at full power washed over them, the aircraft itself invisible behind the building.
The man from the truck suddenly broke away from the distraught passenger's grip and raced around the side of the building to the ramp, looking for the familiar shape of the 737.
The ramp was empty, and that made no sense. The aircraft had diverted in with a shutdown engine. No way would it be taxiing anywhere, unless to some maintenance facility on the field.
Maybe that was it! He looked to the north, his mind struggling with the fact that no maintenance shops stood on the north end. There was, however, a jetliner out there, and it was beginning to move. The tail was clearly visible now in the distance, gaining speed in what had to be a takeoff roll.
And that tail was attached to AirBridge 90.
First Officer David Gates stood in complete shock as his aircraft lifted off without him, the gear retracting on schedule, the 737 gently banking toward the west as it gained altitude.
And for a moment--for just a moment--he seriously entertained the ludicrous thought that perhaps the captain had simply forgotten that his first officer wasn't aboard.
Aboard AirBridge Flight 90. 10:44 A.M.
The call from the rear galley was a welcome interruption, and AnAnette pressed the intercom handset to her ear just as two chimes sounded, indicating they were climbing through ten thousand feet.
"Annette? You there?" Kevin was asking. "I'm here. What's up?"
"Bev and I are worried about one of our groups. The one in the front part of coach."
Annette rubbed her eyes as she tried to remember the people.
"Which group, Kevin? I recall we have a high school band aboard."
"Yeah. The band is sitting in rows thirteen through twenty, but there's another group from row eight on back, about twenty-two people.
We need to pay special attention to them. I got a chance to talk to them briefly after we landed, but with this sudden departure they're probably freaking out by now."
"Why? Why would they be freaking out?"
There was a low laugh on the other end. "Because it's a graduation flight, Annette."
"Another high school group?"
"Nope. A fear-of-flying clinic."
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "wonderful."
Annette replaced the handset and got to her feet, surveying the first class cabin. A striking young woman in the seats across the aisle from Rudy Bostich looked up at the same moment and smiled as Annette moved toward her, kneeling alongside her seat, calculating the considerable expense of the woman's elegant red suit and dangerously short miniskirt.
"Can I get anything for you before I start the service?" Annette asked.
The woman smiled again. "No, I'm fine. Just some coffee when it's convenient." She inclined her head slightly toward the coach cabin.
"I, ah, heard the boor back there bitching about everything. I'm aware you're under more than a little inordinate stress."
Annette rolled her eyes and smiled. "Comes with the job."
"I was just wondering if this happens very often?"
"You mean..." Annette indicated the coach section with a flick of her eyes.
"No, I meant the, what did the captain call it, precautionary landing?
"Oh." Annette shook her head vigorously. "First time for me, and I've been with this airline for three years, since the day it started flying, and with TWA for twenty years before that."
The woman nodded, her eyes drifting away toward the forward entry door.
Annette stood, but felt an immediate tug on her right sleeve.
"Ah, excuse me," the woman began again. "May I ask you another dumb question?"
"Actually, there are no dumb questions," Annette responded. "Ask away."
"Are there other entrances to the cockpit?" She inclined her head toward the cockpit door a few feet away.
"Yes. Hollywood always shows pilots climbing up through hatches in the floor, and I was just wondering."
"Nope. Only that door."
Annette took a step toward the galley, then turned back and knelt beside the woman again.
"Why do you ask?"
The woman tossed her head as if dismissing her own curiosity, and motioned toward the cockpit door with a chuckle. "I guess I wasn't paying attention. When we were on the ground, I saw one of the pilots leave, but I missed it when he came back. I just wondered if he came in another door."
Annette smiled at her, covering a feeling of sudden confusion. Seat 24 1C had a perfect view of the entry door, but if she'd been looking out the window, she could have missed him.
"Well," Annette said at last, "all it takes is a momentary distraction." She smiled and added, "Besides, pilots are inherently sneaky. We have to watch them every second." Annette stood up and straightened her skirt.
"You can be sure of one thing, though. It takes two pilots to fly this aircraft, so if we're airborne, he's up there."
"Oh, I'm not worried. I was just curious."
Annette moved quickly into the galley and pulled the curtain behind her. She leaned against the slightly curved surface of the right galley door and tried to focus on the fact that several unusual things had happened, and were pushing her off balance. The rhythms were wrong and it was rattling her, getting in the way of her normal sequencing.
Should she be starting the drink service now, or what? It was ridiculous to have to think about it. Her service sequence was second nature.
Annette turned her head and glanced at the cockpit door, which was visible around the corner of the galley curtain. The pilots should be almost at level-off and ready for something to drink, she decided.
She moved across to the interphone panel and pressed the captain call button, relieved that Ken Wolfe answered almost immediately. "Ready for drinks, gentlemen?" "Hold on," Ken said. The line went silent for a few seconds. "No, Annette.
Thanks, but we're just fine."
Would you open the door for a second, Ken? I'd like to come up."
More silence, and her stomach tightened with each passing second. Something was definitely not right. This wasn't like Wolfe. Why would he hesitate before opening the door?
Finally Ken's voice returned.
"Annette, ah, I'm expecting some turbulence up ahead. Why don't you take your seat, and make sure the folks in the back sit down as well."
"Okay, Captain, but please unlock the door for a second."
"Not now, Annette."
"Later, okay?" There was an edge to his voice she hadn't heard before. She tried to reply, but for some reason her voice wouldn't come, and she replaced the handset with rising apprehension.
AirBridge Airlines Dispatch Center, Colorado Springs International Airport. 10:45 A.M.
Judy Smith heard something ceramic breaking and looked up to see Verne Garcia leap to his feet and gesture to her frantically, his eyes wide. She moved quickly to his side as he covered the mouthpiece and turned to her, barely glancing at the broken cup on the floor, the blood draining from his face.
"Judy, we've got a big, big problem. Flight Ninety's gone airborne and left the first officer behind?
Judy stood in confusion for a few seconds, wondering how Garcia could have garbled his words badly enough to convey such a bizarre meaning.
"Ninety's airborne and the first officer left something behind?" she asked.
"No, no, no! The captain and the flight are airborne. What they left behind was the copilot. There was no maintenance signoff as far as we know, either. I have him on the phone here. He's on the ground in Durango and panicked."
"Which copilot? A deadheading copilot?"
"The copilot assigned to that flight. He's on the ground in Durango and on line eight. The plane is in the air without him."
"How in hell could that happen? The copilot? No way!"
"I'm not kidding, Judy. Please pick up an extension."
She lunged for the telephone on the next desk and punched the appropriate line.
"This is the director of flight control. Who's this?" "First Officer David Gates, ma'am."
"Where are you?"
"Durango. On the ground. The flight's left without me. As far as I know, the only pilot on that plane is the captain, and I don't have any idea why he'd leave unless he was forced to."
"Forced? You mean, hijacked?"
"I... I can't figure out any other explanation." The voice on the other end was anguished and tinged with panic, the young pilot's breath coming in short bursts as he ran through an explanation of his fruitless trip to the south end of the field and the utter shock of finding the airplane poised for takeoff when he'd returned.
"Wait a minute. There was no mechanic?"
"There was a mechanic; I mean, there is a maintenance facility there, but this Gus I was supposed to find died several years ago, so I wasn't able to get anyone to come look at the engine, and when I got back, Ken had left me and a passenger and was at the end of the runway." "You said a passenger was left behind, too?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'll put him on in a minute. His wife's still on the aircraft and he's very upset."
"How long ago did the airplane leave?"
"Five minutes max."
"Hold on!" Judy turned to Verne Garcia. "Get Albuquerque Center on the horn. Find out if they're working Ninety, and where he's going.
Get me the controller."
"Got it." Verne Garcia turned away and began punching numbers into his phone as Judy turned back to the conversation with a shaken David Gates.
"David, is it?"
"Yes. David Gates."
"Okay, David. Did you see any indication that someone might have slipped on board?"
"No. The plane was beginning its takeoff roll when I spotted it. But there was no security on the ramp. Anyone could have boarded. There were line boys around, but I haven't asked them."
"David, this is very important. What, exactly, makes you think he was hijacked?"
"There's no other logical explanation. No one in his right mind would fly a two person airliner without a copilot unless he was forced to do so, or it was a war and someone was shooting at him."