THURSDAY: The Hero

BY LINDA O’CONNOR

Copyright is held by the author.

JAY BALAN yawned and shifted in his seat. He should’ve brought a book to read. Usually the one-hour flight between Anak Lake and Preston flew by. Ha. He smiled to himself. Very funny.

He looked out the window at the blue sky and white clouds. At least when he arrived home, Celia would still be up. The image of her waving good-bye, her hand on her belly as if protecting the baby inside, swam in his head. That was six weeks ago. They managed to text despite the sketchy Internet at base camp and apparently the baby was kicking now. That blew his mind. Daddy. Holy shit. Scary stuff.

A wave of guilt squeezed his chest. Celia hadn’t been too happy with him accepting the job. He’d had a chance to stay closer to home, but the money was good and with a baby on the way, how could he say no? He sighed.

Ah well. Moot point. He’d done it. Was finished and he’d stick closer to home and Celia. Especially now. Life was changing.

He yawned again and shook himself. It was mid-day, he chided himself. He looked around at the other dozen or so passengers. A lot of them were dozing off, but the thought of taking a nap made him feel old.

He unbuckled his seatbelt and stood up to go to the can. The only advantage of sitting in the last row of seats was the proximity to the john and knowing when they were free.

He stepped inside the cramped space and slid the lock into place. Bracing himself as the plane dipped, he turned to the sink and pressed the tap. With the other hand, he splashed cold water on his face. Ah. Felt good. He shook his head to clear his eyes, and grabbed a towel. He looked at himself in the mirror for the first time in six weeks.

Definitely a little worse for wear. Between the full beard, scruffy hair, and the tan, he looked like he’d been living on the street. He snorted. Close enough. They weren’t going to use precious water for shaving, and long hair was warmer. Plus, Carl, Chris, and Jeff, the permanent scientists there, were a lot more concerned about his seismic expertise than they were about his appearance.

Now Celia might have something to say about it. She wasn’t really keen on facial hair. Didn’t like the razor burn. His body stirred. He’d shave for her.

He threw the towel in the trash and reached to unlock the door. The airplane jerked, and Jay banged his shoulder on the wall. He put a hand out to steady himself, and his heart skipped a beat. Turbulence. The only thing he didn’t like about small planes.

When he stepped out of the washroom, he held onto the opposite wall briefly and then staggered the two steps to his seat. He sat down and buckled the seatbelt, pulling it snugly across his hips.

What was going on? He looked out the window. Nothing unusual in the blue sky, but it seemed early for the descent. His ears popped, and he pushed against the seat in an effort to sit back. The guy to his right stirred restlessly in his sleep, and the other passengers dozed. Wasn’t anyone else worried? He glanced up the aisle toward the cockpit.

The pilot was slumped in his chair, his head down at an awkward angle.

His heart pounding, Jay unbuckled his seatbelt and headed toward the front of the plane. The angle of the plane propelled him forward, and he banged against the seats as the plane jerked.

In the door of the cockpit, he stopped, frozen, and stared. “Hey, pilot,” he shouted.

The pilot didn’t move. The seatbelt held his body in place, but his head bobbed when the airplane jerked, and his arms dangled at his sides.

Jay stepped closer. Was the guy dead? Bile rose in the back of his throat. He watched the pilot’s chest rise and fall and then pressed shaky fingers to the pilot’s neck. Was that a pulse? Or his own trembling? He leaned closer to the pilot’s ear and shook his shoulder. “Hey, Captain. Wake up.”

The pilot shifted and slumped closer to the controls.

Jay’s vision greyed. Pull it together. There was no blood, no bruising that he could see. Heart attack? No. Too young. And flushed, not blue.

Sweat gathered on Jay’s forehead and he felt nausea claw in his stomach. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. He sat down heavily in the co-pilot’s seat and put his head between his knees. Think of Celia. Do something. He lifted his head and searched the dash for a radio.

He hesitated, afraid to push the button. And then looked at the wisps of cloud rushing past the window. Couldn’t get much worse.

He pushed the button. “Can anyone hear me?”

The roar of the engines buzzed in his ears. A set of headphones dangled on a hook to his right so he slipped them on and adjusted the microphone. “Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me?”

“This is Captain Del Sanger on Flight 584.”

“I’m on a flight from Anak Lake to Preston and the pilot’s unconscious. We’re going to crash.”

“Copy that. What about the co-pilot?”

“No co-pilot. It’s a small plane”

“What’s your flight number?”

“I don’t know. We left at 12:30.”

“Copy that. I’ll notify the nearest controller.” Jay could hear him speaking over the headset. “Mayday. Mayday. Pilot down on a flight from Anak Lake en route to Preston. Needs immediate assistance.”

The radio crackled and a faint voice spoke in his headset. “This is the control tower at Preston. What’s your status?”

“Status? We’re fucked. The pilot’s passed out and most of the cabin is unconscious,” Jay said, his voice rising. He swayed and fought to stay awake.

“How many on board?” The voice seemed distant.

“About twelve,” he said, his speech slurring.

“What’s your name?”

“Jay Balan. I don’t feel well. What’s going on?

“There’s an oxygen mask to your right above your head. Put it on.”

Jay lifted his arm above his head and groaned with the effort. He reached past it and then grabbed it and tugged it toward him. Holding it to his face, he gulped in three quick shallow breaths and then forced himself to slow down.

“Jay, ever flown a plane?”

Jay’s heart skipped and raced. “No.”

Silence. “What kind of plane is it?”

“I don’t know. Small.”

“How many engines?”

“Two?”

A deeper voice came over the radio. “Jay, this is Hank Farmer. I’m a bush pilot, flown all kinds of small planes. I’m going to talk you through this.”

“Talk me through what?”

“You’re going to bring the plane in for a landing.”

Jay closed his eyes and swallowed. He didn’t want to die.

“Jay?”

Emergency landing 101. “What? I’m going to crash the plane,” he said, his voice rising.

“No, You’re not. We’re going to get you down. You’re in a Palent TCR-6 Signatory. You’re close enough to Preston to land there. First thing, you need to get the plane level. The steering wheel in front of you is called a yoke. I want you to pull back slowly on the yoke until the nose of the plane is level with the horizon.”

“Okay.” Barely breathing, Jay pulled back and felt the plane lift. He looked out the windscreen. All blue. “How can I tell if I’m level? How far do I pull?”

“There’s a dial on the panel in front of you called a turn and bank indicator. It’s got a horizontal and vertical line intersecting.”

Jay scanned the dials. “Like a cross?”

“Yes. Use that as your guide. You want to keep the plane across the horizontal line.”

“Right.”

“You’ll also see an altimeter beside it. It’s got one horizontal line bisecting the middle and numbers around the periphery.”

Don’t they all, Jay thought in a panic. “What’s happening out there?”

“Just focus on the dials, Jay. One step at time. Get the plane straight and level.”

Jay thought about Celia and the baby. He’d never see his son. He gritted his teeth and scanned the dashboard of the plane. “Okay, I see it. The arrow is at the eight on a clock.”

“That’s the one. You can move the yoke to get that arrow on the horizontal. To the nine.”

Jay pushed aside the panicked voice in his head. “Okay. Okay. I think it’s level.”

“Good job, Jay. You’re doing great. Next thing I want you to find the radio compass. It will be on the left hand side of the dash.”

“Radio compass. Radio compass,” Jay murmured and took a deep breath. “I think I’ve found it.”

“Turn the dial to 38 degrees. You’ll pick up a radio signal that’ll lead you to Preston Airport.”

And when I get there? His heart rate picked up. “Done.”

“Okay, Jay. That’s great. We’ve got you on radar. Now if you look out, you’ll see the airport to your right. You’ll be in sight of the runway in approximately one minute.”

Jay felt sweat drip down his back. His will had no mention of the baby.

“You’re going to descend into the airport using the runway landing lights as your guide. And you’ll adjust the speed and height of the plane with the throttle and flaps. The throttle is a plunger on your left, close to the middle of the dash.”

Jay took a deep breath of oxygen and let it out slowly. His stomach churned. “I see it.”

“The flap lever is on the left hand side of the seat and should say ‘Flaps’.”

Jay looked down to this left. “Yeah. I got it.”

“You see the lights lining the runway?”

Jay wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Yeah, two white.”

“You’re going to approach the runway descending at an angle so that you always see one white light on top and one red on the bottom. Two white means you’re too high and too fast.”

Jay stared ahead without seeing. You think?

“Jay?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m listening.”

“Pull the throttle back by pulling the plunger toward you.”

“Nothing’s changed,” he shouted.

“Apply the flaps. Pull the lever back to half flap and then push the yoke or the control column forward until you see one white and one red light.”

With his hands shaking, Jay adjusted the lever and pushed on the yoke until the bottom light became red. He let out a breath. “Okay. I see it. One white, one red.”

“Good. Try to keep it steady with one white and one red.”

“I only see red.”

“You’re too low. Pull the yoke back a bit.”

“Okay. Okay. I got it.”

“Next, you’re going to line up the runway using the rudder pedals at your feet.”

“I’m too far to the left.”

“Use the right rudder pedal and line it up.”

Jay thought he saw a reflection of movement behind him in the windscreen and glanced over his shoulder. Nothing. The passengers were asleep, rosy-cheeked like the pilot and slumped in their seats. Twelve lives.

He checked the dials. The plane was level and straight. One white light. One red light.

“Jay, as you get closer to the ground, you’ll need to slow the plane down and keep the nose down. And then just before you touchdown, you’re going to pull back on the yoke and flare the plane.”

“What?”

“Just before touchdown, you want to pull back on the yoke to lift the nose slightly. You’ll no longer hold lift, and the plane will . . . stall.”

“Stall?”

“Yes.” There was a pause. “Ideally close to the ground.”

Jay pressed his lips together. “Can you tell my wife I love her?”

“We will. But you’re going to tell her yourself. You’re doing great. Steer with your heel on the rudder pedal.” Silence. “Good. Good. Try to slow it down to sixty to seventy knots.”

“What about the landing gear?” Jay shouted as the plane dropped lower. He saw red and blue lights flashing on a row of emergency vehicles lining the runway.

“It’s fixed. It’s out already. Just hold it steady. Good. Try to stay lined up with the runway. Okay, Jay, pull back.”

Jay pulled on the column and sent up a silent prayer. The plane banged the ground, and Jay jolted in his seat.

“Press the foot brakes. The top of the rudder pedals with your toes.”

Jay barely heard the crackle as the noise in the plane escalated. It sounded like metal on metal as the plane screeched along the runway and skidded to a stop.

In his headphones he heard clapping. “Well done, Jay. Well done.”

Three fire trucks raced toward him with their sirens wailing. Jay looked at them. He needed to do something, but it all felt too surreal. Too foggy.

He lifted the oxygen mask and removed the headphones. Except for a hissing, the silence in the cabin was eerie. He stood on shaky legs and had to pause, his head bent, for the nausea to settle. Bracing himself against the wall as he moved, he made his way over to the door.

He lifted the flap and moved the lever and the door unlocked. He tried to push it, but it seemed enormously heavy. He bent over at the waist and tried to catch his breath.

A loud bang and a searing pain was the last thing he remembered.

***

Cal Tenet shifted restlessly and tried to stay awake. What had he eaten? He usually had an iron stomach, but ever since takeoff the nausea had been miserable. He rubbed the centre of his chest trying to ease the discomfort. The dinky plane didn’t help any, either. God, he hated flying these little rattraps. Rather spend six hours in a car, but it wasn’t an option so far north.

It’s only an hour and a bit. Relax. He sunk back and thought about his next assignment. They didn’t waste any time throwing him into something new. He’d hit the ground running as soon as they landed. The Agency debrief would be quick and he’d be right back into the thick of things.

When the guy beside him got up to pee, Cal stretched out his legs and tried to get comfortable. Maybe he should stop for an antacid on his way.

He looked out the window. Try to focus on the blue skies.

Cal was shaken awake when the plane shook violently. He banged against the arm of the seat and frowned. Turbulence. He tightened his seatbelt and looked out the window, relieved they were starting their descent. Closing his eyes, he tried to quell the nausea.

When the bloke beside him stood up again, Cal opened his eyes. Rough-looking character. Male. Six-two. A hundred and eighty pounds. Dark hair. Scruffy. Caucasian? Hard to tell. His eyes narrowed as he watched the male head to the front of the plane. With all the turbulence, why was he out of his seat? When the guy stopped and looked like he shouted into the cockpit, Cal went on red alert.

Cal reached under his seat and removed his revolver from his carry-on bag. Fighting back nausea and a wave of fatigue, he loaded the gun and removed the safety. No air marshals on these small planes. Something else he didn’t like. Especially knowing what he did about Anak Lake. He shifted to the aisle seat and watched.

The guy bent over the pilot, said something to him, and then sat down in the co-pilot’s seat.

The pilot slumped forward, his head at an awkward angle, his hands dangling by his side.

Cal pulled out his phone and fired off a text: Hijacker on board flight 626.

He forced himself to think clearly.

The plane continued its descent. Holding onto the backs of the seats, and staying low, Cal moved to the front of the plane and crouched down outside the cockpit. The other passengers were unconscious. Poisoned?

“What? I’m going to crash this plane.” The guy sounded hysterical.

Cal tensed. The guy was talking to someone. Would they talk him down? Negotiate with him? Cal struggled to stay awake. A wave of fatigue had him leaning against the wall. He fell back as the plane leveled off.

He could hear the guy talking in a low voice, but it wasn’t clear.

“Like a cross?”

Silence. Some sort of double cross? What did he want?

“Right.”

“What’s happening out there?”

Cal heard the tension in the guy’s voice. Was he waiting for an exchange? Cal tried to hold on and listen to the one-way conversation, but he slipped in and out of consciousness.

“Done.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m listening.”

“Nothing’s changed,” the guy shouted.

Cal shook himself awake and tried to sit up.

“I only see red.”

“I’m too far . . . left.”

He’s too far into it? There’s not much time left? Cal checked his phone to see if there were any instructions from headquarters. Nothing. He shifted to get a better look in the cockpit but was too weak to stand.

“What?”

“Stall?”

Cal held his gun out and leaned toward the cockpit, straining to hear. The guy sounded angry. The stall tactic wasn’t working.

“Can you tell my wife I love her?”

That sounded ominous. A suicide mission. Cal wiped his brow as the nausea swelled. When he boarded the plane, he thought the most dangerous part of the covert operation was behind him.

“What about the landing gear?”

The plane hit the ground with a bang. Cal was thrown toward the first row of seats and reached out to brace himself against the wall. The noise in the plane escalated with the sound of metal on metal as the plane screeched along the runway and skidded to a stop.

Cal pushed himself up and crouched near the front seat.

The terrorist staggered out of the cockpit. He moved to the door, lifted a flap and pulled a lever, but didn’t open it.

Cal held completely still.

Twelve passengers poisoned and the pilot killed. Thirteen deaths. Escalating to a hostage situation.

Cal raised his gun, aimed, and fired. The guy crumpled, and Cal slumped back against the wall as his phone vibrated.

Not a hijacker. Pilot’s down with possible CO poisoning. Bird strike with damage to firewall and exhaust-fed cabin heater manifold. EMT activated. Guy’s a hero.

10 comments

  1. Michael Joll

    On the whole I would have preferred to see the stories run parallel rather than sequentially. We would still have the two takes on the situation, but I think by running parallel the tension might have been greater and yet still provide for the twist at the end.

    And I think the canvas needs to be substantially larger to entice Liam Neeson, and the dollars he would expect. A good story nonetheless. I look forward to reading more by you.

  2. Georgia Dayley

    Great story — but I find it a little farfetched that our hero could just walk into the cockpit like that. I know it’s a small plane, but surely there would have been a co-pilot or at least a flight attendant? Throughout, there seems to be no other flight staff.

  3. Michael Joll

    I agree, Georgia. Even the nine passenger Georgian Air flights from Kingston to Toronto have a co-pilot. However, there is only a curtain separating the cockpit from the passenger compartment, a curtain often left open so that a front seat passenger can see the instrument panel and the dials. On such a small plane, access to the cockpit (I hesitate to call it a flight deck) is virtually unobstructed. However, smuggling a loaded handgun through even minimal security is a bit far-fetched. And as for sky marshals…? But I still enjoyed the story, even if told in two halves.

  4. Bev Bachmann

    This is a fantastic story. The ending took me completely by surprise! Highly entertaining and told extremely well. Good stuff!

  5. George Eastwood

    What a thrilling read! And so well paced! Part 1 is a well-crafted short story unto itself, leaving you basically satisfied, but wishing it hadn’t ended quite so soon, wanting just a little bit more. And then — Bam! A whole new perspective and more than you could have imagined. Please write more stories as enjoyable as this one!

  6. Walter Giersbach

    Wonderful story for its gripping tension. I understand the counterpoint of Cal shooting the “hijacker” but it somehow detracted from the purity of Jay’s heroism. The irony may have been misplaced, for this story anyway.

  7. Pingback: Looking for a Short Story? - Linda O'Connor

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