By Matthew Emma
(Dedicated to John Liotine, a man who showed the courage to do what few men would)
While a man many reviled did not gain heroic status on Virginia Air Flight 334, he, at least earned the empathy and respect he deserved.
That quick jaunt from Dulles to JFK started with my constitutional double Starbuck’s Latte, which I killed while sojourning through a quiet and somewhat empty Terminal Six. Curvy and voluptuous and oh so blonde Chief Flight Attendant, Eileen Shaugnessy stood adjacent to a placard which read: GATE 18D and provided waking power God only knew how many milligrams of caffeine came short of. When Eileen glimpsed up, she failed to smile, the first such occasion I recalled in our many years as colleagues.
“Everything good?” I wondered, with concern hinted in my tone.
She yanked several sheets of paper from printer and slammed documents down atop counter.
“Yeah,” she screamed, as she corralled a blue, Samsonite valise and stormed down jetway leading towards our office, which on this day was an MD-80. “Just ginger fucking peachy. Asshole’s got some fucking nerve.”
I peeked up, caught corner of First Officer Mark Smith, a husky, brown-haired forty-three-year-old’s eye and shrugged my shoulders.
“Been years since even my wife uttered that phrase,” I declared. “Knew trouble loomed when I slipped in the shower this morning.”
Mark and cabin crew members Amy Sugarman, a tall, model-thin twenty-four-year-old making only her second flight and veteran Pete Ramirez, who had grey goatee and quarter- century of experience, surrounded computer and fixated on printout punished by Eileen.
“Don’t think it’s you Cap,” Mark said, as he lifted and placed crumpled passenger manifest into my hands.
James Lawrence’s name stuck out as if were bold printed, capitalized, italicized and surrounded by gold stars. Mark and I grabbed our luggage and scuttled towards flight deck.
“She’s right,” Mark said. “After what he already did and plans to do. How could he set foot on one of our planes again?”
“Guy tried to save lives,” I retorted.
“Wrong,” Mark shouted. “He sold all of us out, without thinking how it might impact anyone else.”
“Speed breaks,” I said, ten minutes later, hoping completion of our pre-flight checklist would settle my still red-faced colleague down.
“Check,” Mark responded.
Cockpit door flew open. Both Mark and I leaped from our seats. Eileen stood at border between flight deck and cabin. My heart slowed a bit.
“Come on,” I shouted. “Know ya need to knock. Or did ya forget 9/11 protocol?”
Eileen bowed head.
“Sorry captain,” she said. “But he’s about to board, stumbling, slurring and…”
“All right,” I interrupted.
Eileen led me out. I shuffled to main cabin door and fixated on man adorning scruffy, ripped sport jacket and creased, grey slacks. Complimenting wardrobe was an unkempt head of dandruff-laden, black hair; a bushy salt and pepper beard and dirt-filled fingernails. James, drenched in perspiration, stumbled ahead carrying briefcase from which numerous papers stuck out. As James stepped off jetway and onto plane, he tripped, tumbled down and dropped case. I retrieved bag and assisted him back up.
“What’s your seat number?” I asked, as I gripped his wrist and escorted him up aisle.
James’s hands trembled while he attempted to access boarding pass protruding out jacket pocket. I snatched document, which read 28C in large, blue numbers and letters. Flight crew retreated towards front galley and stared, as did passengers. I helped James wiggle into seat, fastened his seatbelt and placed case in overhead bin.
“If you need anything, just holler,” I said.
“Only thing I want or need’s to keep my buzz going,” he snapped. “Too bad the flight’s too short for that.”
James faced window.
“Don’t have to pretend Dave,” he said.
I scurried back to cockpit. Eighteen minutes later, we taxied “Fannie” to runway 6D. Together, Mark and I pushed throttles forward and departed.
“V1,” Mark said.
“Rotate,” I replied, several seconds later, as Mark pulled back controls and we ascended Northern Virginia’s skies.
Five minutes into flight, a chime blared across frequency 112.7, radio band at which Virginia Air flight crews communicated with one another. I hit speaker button.
“This’s 631,” announced my friend and colleague, Captain Tom Starks.
“Go ahead 631.” “You’ve got 334.”
“Dave,” he began. “Have a little problem. Stabilizer switch’s jammed and we’re pitching down a bit. Tried maintenance, but you know them. Any technical people on board?”
“As a matter of fact we do,” I replied.
Mark seized my wrist and switched off speaker.
“Ya hoping they crash?”
“Knows his shit.”
I unfastened shoulder straps, arose and shuffled to door.
“You’ve got control.”
After exiting flight deck, I plodded towards James’s seat. His drunken state and foul mood were not the only reasons for my reluctance. It was tough to ask a favor of a man who had been shunned by colleagues and treated like a pariah by an industry he devoted more than two decades of service to. James reclined with closed eyes. I leaned forward.
“James?” I spoke, using soft tone.
James inched open a pair of bloodshot eyes.
“What?” he asked, with great deal of curtness.
“One of our bird’s having some troubles.” “Asked for a mechanic’s advice.”
“Good luck finding one.”
I clutched his wrist.
“Please.” “Five minutes.”
James pulled seat forward and loosened safety belt.
“Three.” “And somebody dig me up one of those little glass bottles planes are famous for.”
James and I plodded towards flight deck. The second James entered, Mark jerked head in other direction with enough force to pinch a neck nerve.
“What’s the problem?” James inquired.
James settled into jump seat. I reacquired captain’s position.
“Stabilizer won’t work,” I responded. “Think it might be a problem with the electrical switch, but don’t know for sure. Here, I’ll patch you through.”
Mark flipped speaker switch on.
“Ah 631, this’s 334,” I began. “Got a mechanic with us.”
“Go ahead 334,” Tom said.
James shuddered, perspired and dry heaved.
“Try the checklist?” James pondered.
“Twice” Tom responded.
James’s legs and hands quivered with such intensity he needed to rise and grip seat.
“If you’re pitching down,” James said, as his voice cracked. “Maintain present altitude, don’t attempt to ascend or shimmy switch. That could further weaken the controls.”
Long pause followed.
“Hello?” James said.
Another respite ensued.
“Sounds like Lawrence’s voice,” Tom stated, with a significant degree of emphasis. “Won’t take any advice from the likes of him.”
James punched jump seat’s back.
“Suckass Starks” James said, in an authoritative voice which no longer cracked. “I’ll help anyone else but.”
Before I turned around, James had bolted. That moment was a tough time for James to learn Tom had just been elected union representative. Mark switched off speaker.
“Could’ve predicted that outcome,” Mark declared. “In a small minority my friend.”
I inched head left and glared at Mark.
“Jammed stabilizer ain’t anything to fool around with,” I declared. “He’s the best this company’s ever had and that quail’s gonna need him before she ever again finds a nest…Guaranteed.”
Mark reactivated speaker.
“631?” I asked. “Status please.”
“In much worse shape now” Tom answered, sounding more urgent than during exchange with James. “Nose’s pitching down more. Scottie, call Kennedy tower and tell them we’re gonna need a block altitude.”
Troubling aspect of Tom’s words was his use of term block altitude, which signals controllers to keep air traffic away from a specific plane and often indicates flight crew is struggling with problem they fear might lead to loss of control. Good news was Scottie, more formally known as Scott Moore, served as 631’s First Officer. The beloved forty-year-old was soon to be promoted to Captain, was close friend to James and one of the few people in our company who supported him. With that in mind, I decided to try and lure James back.
“No,” James shouted, the second I neared his seat.
The two other passengers seated in James’s row sensed tension, unfastened safety belts and arose.
“We’ll give you privacy,” said a middle-aged, heavyset woman.
She and a lanky man with brown-grey hair, whom I imagined to be her husband, sidled into and down aisle. I seized James’s wrist. He did not attempt to elude my grip, but refused to face me.
“Think that plane’s in jeopardy,” I declared.
“Their problem,” he snarled. “Not mine anymore…Or ever again.”
“You’re the best this airline’s ever had,” I said, in a tone which suggested more begging than flattery.
James laughed. Comprehending any further compliments, or even conversations were futile, I struck zinger.
“Scottie’s on that flight,” I announced, as I pounced up and pranced back towards cockpit.
“Wait,” James shouted, as he tracked me down by flight deck’s door. “All right.”
He settled onto jump seat. I remained standing.
“Any new developments?” James asked.
“Pitching down more and requested block altitude,” I responded.
James thwacked hand against door.
“Hope they declared emergency” he proclaimed. “This ain’t no electrical switching problem. If it were, things might not have improved, but wouldn’t have worsened either.”
Static screeched through speakers.
“Victor Irving Roger 334?” wondered male voice. “This’s New York Center.”
In all the commotion, I neglected to realize we were a mere fifteen minutes from JFK.
“We’re placing you in a hold,” the controller continued on. “Proceed to heading to 268 and descend to flight level 180.”
“Roger,” replied Mark.
While we circled above Manhattan, I adjusted radio’s frequency back to 112.7.
“631 come in,” I said. “What’s the latest?”
Silence followed. I glanced back at James and we eyed one another for several more seconds.
“631?” I inquired, in a more audible tone. “Please come in.”
“Sorry,” Tom said. “Really fighting it up here. Baby’s slumping down more than an impotent, ninety-year-old man’s cock.”
“Got mechanic back on line,” I countered.
“Fuck him,” Tom screamed.
James pounced up.
“Scottie,” he shouted. “Listen. Hold on to those elevators like you’re cradling a newborn baby in a minefield. It’s no doubt mechanical and could get much worse. Suggest you try and land. Stat.”
“I’m the captain of this fucking flight and we’ll continue to troubleshoot,” Tom yelled.
Speaker cut out on 631’s end. Mark attempted to reconnect.
“Holy shit,” bellowed Tom.
“631 come in,” I wailed. “631?”
Mark leaped from seat and pointed outward.
“My God,” Mark shrieked. “Look.”
James and I poked our heads out and glanced down. Six-three-one entered corkscrew dive and plunged towards Hudson at a rate of several thousand feet per second.
“631?” I shouted, as a pair of trembling hands adjusted an earpiece which had almost fallen off my head.
No response. The three of us transfixed on 631’s apparent demise.
“Come on,” James yelled. “Pull up. Pull up.”
About ten seconds later, 631 pulled out of dive and levelled. Mark, James and I applauded and high-fived. James then froze and turned white.
“Oh crap,” he declared.
“What?” I wondered.
James raced out, returned in less than a minute toting briefcase, unzipped and tore through a bunch of files.
“Shit,” he shouted, while rummaging through and tossing files on floor.
He came to file labeled: “NTSB Testimony: Virginia Air MD-80 Fleet,” inched open and dropped folder in lap, then sighed and rubbed eyes several times.
“What?” I wondered, resigned to knowledge it was something terrible and related to 631’s current plight.
“Jackscrew inside that plane’s stabilizer’s needed repair for years,” he said, as he reclaimed and slammed folder against wall. “Warned them to ground it. Fuck.”
“If it pops, they’ll lose all control, plummet and crash,” Mark exclaimed, in voice which increased in volume with each passing word.
“What other flight numbers maintenance records rubberstamped?” wondered Mark, as he shook his head.
James reclaimed files from floor.
“Seven-two-three, eight-four-nine,” he began. “Twelve-Fourteen.”
Both Mark and I pounced up.
“Twelve-Fourteen?” we both simultaneously shouted.
Mark paced. I knew he realized that flight number was the D.C. to Tampa run…Also known as the plane we were in control of at that moment. James deciphered Mark’s apprehension as well and snared Mark’s shoulders.
“Only worry’s 631,” he said. “Let’s do whatever we can to help them get to the gate.”
Static screamed through speakers.
“Kennedy tower, this’s 631,” Tom s cracking voice echoed through speaker. “We can no longer maintain altitude and are declaring emergency.
James, Mark and I glanced at one another. James lunged forward and ripped headset off my balding top.
“Tom listen,” James pleaded. “It’s the jackscrew. Hold onto those elevators and try to lose speed as you…”
“I’ll fly this plane you drunken sot,” yelled Tom.
“He’s right Tom,” countered Mark. “I’ve seen the evidence. Don’t…”
Radio cut out. Quiet dominated again.
“Attention all in-bound Kennedy traffic,” an Air Traffic Controller with heavy Brooklyn accident said, about four minutes later. “Please standby for alternate landing instructions.”
Mark, James and I again eyed one another. My hands quaked and a sudden feeling of nausea conquered my gastrointestinal tract.
“Okay?” wondered Mark.
Single tear skied down my face.
“No,” I replied. “Think I need to be relieved for a second. You have control.”
Mark assumed control. I inched up and trudged to cockpit door. As I was about to exit, James seized my wrist.
“We don’t know that instruction means the worst happened,” he said, in as reassuring a tone he could direct his voice. “Runway likely closed down to accommodate emergency service vehicles.”
Truth was, I did not believe James and feared, more like was certain I had lost colleagues and friends. After taking several breaths, I returned to captain’s seat.
“Been given LaGuardia,” Mark informed, the second I fastened shoulder strap. “I’ve changed the headings. Okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Better rile up the New Yorkers.”
I gripped yoke and flipped public address system on.
“Ladies and gentleman,” I began. “This’s your captain speaking.”
I paused, not because I needed time to orchestrate fib to keep passengers at ease, but to compose myself enough to make such a pronouncement when I knew otherwise.
“Due to an unexpected problem at Kennedy, we’ve been diverted to LaGuardia,” I said, right before gagging on mouthful of burning stomach acid.
Expected outbursts of “damn it” and “ah come on” rang out.
“We apologize for the inconvenience and will do all we can to help you transfer to Kennedy upon arrival. Thank you for flying Virginia Air, hope this flight was decent and assure you the next one will be better.”
Ten minutes between communication with passengers and arrival at Gate 21 was completed in complete silence and we remained in cockpit after passengers departed.
I contacted tower.
“Any word on 631?” I posed, wanting and not wanting to know.
“Suggest you find a news station,” said female controller.
My quivering hands activated radio.
“What’re New York’s AM stations? I posed to Mark, native Long Islander.
“880 and 1010,” he replied.
Noticing my display of nerves, Mark tuned dial to 880 and activated speaker. James arose and paced.
“Welcome back to News Radio 880,” said male anchor with deep voice. “We continue to follow breaking news. Virginia Air Flight 631, which departed Miami and was scheduled to land at Kennedy is facing extreme difficulties.”
James placed hand on my shoulder.
“Facing difficulties means not debris in Hudson,” James muttered.
My trembling improved and pulse slowed to rate which I had the mental capacity to count.
“Our traffic copters have been following the plight of this troubled jet,” reporter rambled on. “Having already made one failed landing attempt…
James pounded hand against wall.
“Shit,” he shouted.
“Flight’s crew’s on approach again,” continued reporter. “Pilot reported to area controllers they were dealing with some kind of control problem, but we’ve not been given specifics.”
James grabbed microphone.
“But I know all of them,” James shouted. “Get 631 on the line.”
Mark and I observed each other.
“Now,” James bellowed. “I worked on that plane. If anyone can will it down, it should be me.”
Mark and I still hesitated.
“They’re lucky to have gotten a second approach,” James yelled. “If they don’t do this to the letter, they’re next year’s season premiere of Discovery Channel’s Air Disasters. I mean it. Another two minutes and Greg Feith will be writing their obituary.”
Mark pounced up, removed headset, presented it to James and extended hand.
“Bring ‘em down,” Mark instructed, as his voice broke up.
James and Mark shared firm handshake.
“Not fun living through what’s been my worst nightmare for the last couple years,” James said.
James occupied Mark’s seat and changed radio’s frequency to 112.7.
“Come in 631,” he shouted. “Please come in. This’s 334. Status if possible.”
“It’s really wanting to pitch down,” Scottie screamed, breaking several seconds of silence.“Don’t know how we’re gonna slow up for landing?”
“By activating speed brakes and getting that landing gear down,” James interjected.
“Don’t tell me how to fly this plane asshole,” Tom barked.
“Just do it,” James countered. “That stabilizer’s so frail, it’ll break apart if you have to make another run. Comprehending the brevity yet?”
Silence again reigned.
“631?” James bellowed. “631?”
Mark surrendered to his knees. I gripped console’s pickle switch, while attempting to hold down another clump of acid rocketing up my esophagus.
“631?” James inquired with greater emphasis.
“Suggestion’s working,” Tom said. “Slowing a bit.”
“Estimated time to touchdown?” James wondered.
“Five minutes,” Tom replied.
“Speed?” James asked.
“One-ninety,” Tom replied.
James, Mark and I viewed one another, realizing that was too fast an approach rate and that they had no time to employ any other speed reducing methods.
“Okay,” said Tom. “See runway now. Signing off. Thanks for your help.”
“See you at the gate,” James replied.
James changed frequency and muted radio’s volume.
Mark, James and I retired to floor, grasped hands and muttered in silent prayer for about thirty seconds. A minute or so later, James glimpsed at watch and nodded.
“Who wants to do it?” I inquired, too nervous to rise and tune radio back on News Radio 880 myself.
“I will,” James said, as he edged up, trembled to console, adjusted dial and increased volume.
“We’re watching this remarkable scene unfold on our monitors,” reporter stated. “Plane has touched down…Oh my goodness, it now bounces up and lands again.”
Mark, James and I recaptured ground and grasped hands again.
“It’s attempting to slow down now,” reporter said.
Another brief period of agonizing silence followed.
“It has stopped at runway’s edge…And appears to be intact.”
The three of us leaped up, clapped and embraced. After full minute of jubilation, James broke our group hug, lunged towards console, changed radio frequency to 112.7 and snared headset.
“631?” James said. “Status?”
“On the ground and in one piece,” replied Tom, a second or so later.
Tom laughed. Mark and I joined in his joy.
“Passengers?” James pressed on.
“A few minor injuries,” Tom answered. “However, they should all walk off…Without assistance.”
James leaned back, exhaled and released cool burst of air.
“Thank God,” James said, as he dropped head in hands and entered sobbing fit.
“No,” Tom said. “Thank you. See you at gate?”
“Yes,” James replied.
About the Author
Matthew H Emma is a freelance writer currently pursuing his dream of becoming a full-time creative writer. He has written four feature-length screenplays and countless short stories, twenty of which have been published.facebook (facebook.com/matthew.h.emma) and fan page (facebook.com/mattemmafanpage.com).