This time we flew directly toward the clouds that consisted entirely of white fiery smoke. The clouds were visible at a great distance. Their mushroom shapes had disappeared. The tops of the larger ones had joined to form a horizontal shelf supported by several pillars. Near the ground the picture was equally frightening. Layers of smoke extended from the base of these clouds, spreading like fingers over the surrounding area. Harry shuddered.
The silence on board was interrupted when the call came from Calgary tower, requesting us to service Abbotsford. "Vancouver has become unusable because of violent wind currents, some in excess of two-hundred knots," said the tower.
Harry and I were both familiar with Abbotsford airport. It was well known to both of us, as to everyone in the region, for its annual air show. Also, it served as an emergency backup for the Vancouver International Airport. We both knew it consisted of nothing but a big runway surrounded by fields with a few small buildings on one side. It offered no ground support, no security services, and no large-scale boarding facilities. We would be on our own in a wasteland of panic. Without saying a word Harry executed the required course correction and initiated our descent into the smoke filled Fraser Valley.
From a technical standpoint, I knew we could service Abbotsford. The runway was long enough. We certainly didn't need any special facilities. We required nothing, not even fuel. We had been refueled for a full round trip. The lack of security bothered me. The prospects of having no one to back us up were frightening.
Harry shook his head as we approached. "The runway's down in there," he said, pointing to a bank of dense smoke that lay over the Fraser River valley and the surrounding hills. Carefully we descended through layers and layers of smoke, fog, and muck, into a valley with a low ceiling over dark haze. A faint line of lights appeared beneath us, the headlights of countless cars. Their trail marked out the highway into the mountains, the same mountains we had seen from above, being also covered with smoke from the mushroom clouds.
Looking at the endless string of cars, I wondered how soon all the gas stations would be pumped dry and the traffic become stalled, turning that desperate escape into a trap. It seemed impossible for anyone to reverse direction in such an armada of cars.
The people at the airfield appeared to have realized the hopelessness of driving to safety. They had turned to the only other escape there was open in the valley. The fields surrounding the runways were littered with cars, and the airfield itself was crawling with people, so such so, that we had to abort the first landing approach and come around for a second attempt. Even then, we had barely slowed and entered the taxiway when they came at us with ladders. Who knows where they got them from? We were forced to stop hard in order not to run anyone down.
Harry and Ken, both volunteered to man the door, and of course the telephone. We needed to be in constant communication in order to end the loading once the plane was full and before a riot broke out. Jennie stayed with me at the flight deck. She manned the PA phone, telling people to double up on each seat and stow the children in the luggage racks. I also needed her to watch the proceedings on the ground while I remained in the cockpit monitoring the engines. She said it was a marvel the ladders didn't break and that no one got sucked into the engines. I didn't dare turn the engines off. We had to be able to roll at a moment's notice, whereby to stop the loading when the plane was full. We couldn't exceed the floor-loading limit, although that seemed not likely to happen if our last run was an indication. Our biggest problem would be to persuade those fighting for their life to voluntarily remove the ladders. Would they comply and step back without me somehow having to force the issue? The image of the burning DC10 at Vancouver was still vividly in my mind.
I stood up in my seat, telephone in hand, looking at the sea of humanity. They were desperate to get out. Some had a chance now. But was there any hope for humanity as a whole? How long would it be before the whole Earth was a burnt out cinder? Would they really be safer where we would take them? Would anyone be safe? Still, taking them out this hell was the only imperative for now that ruled the day, and the only human gesture we could extend to them in this grossly inhuman place that our world had become.
It was clear that they could force their way into the airplane much more easily than we could stop them. The initiative to end the boarding had to come from the people themselves. This seemed unlikely to happen.
"Is the plane full yet?" I asked Harry.
"No, maybe another hundred."
"A hundred is nothing," I called back and increased the speed of the engines, to signal the crowd to back off. Since the doors couldn't be closed with the ladders still in place, and I couldn't see us pushing the ladders over with people still hanging on them, I did the only thing that made any sense at all. I put on power, making a racket. But it was to no avail. So, I increased the speed of the engines again.
I stood up, opened the flight deck hatch, and watched the proceedings. The increased noise still didn't deter them. When Harry's call came to stop the boarding, the only solution I could think of was to increase the speed of the engines still more. This time I remained seated. With the breaks full on, I increased power again.
The noise of the engines, which must have been painful before, should now have become unbearable. The shrill shriek of the blades, the bearings, the thunder of the exhaust, all merged into a thundering scream of frightening intensity.
I called to Jennie.
"They're still on the ladders," Jennie informed me.
I increased the power again to 25% below the red line. The drone became deafening, even in the cockpit it became loud now. I could see from the flight deck window that some people had backed off now. But the ladders were still in place and the people still held on. Struggling to get on board, they pushed and yelled while those inside moved deeper into the plane.
My heart went out to them. The people were fighting for their life, but so were we now.
"We're too full! Do something!" Harry shouted into the phone.
"Try to shut the door, then!" I yelled back into the phone. It was hard to understand anything on the phone anymore.
"I can't!" he shouted back. "I can't get near it!"
Reluctantly I increased power to 90%. All four engine heat gages were already beyond the red line. Even with the brakes fully secured, it became uncertain at this point whether I could keep the plane from creeping forward. Rarely is this power level ever used, not even for takeoffs on short runways. The whole aircraft shook and twisted under the force of its engines, as if flying amidst a thunderstorm. With the ladders not too stable on the ground, boarding, now, became a dangerous affair. The engine intakes were also too close. The suction created turbulence at this power-level that could pull a hat of a person.
Fortunately sanity prevailed. The people responded.
The moment the last person had stepped off, the ladders were taken away. "All secured! Doors are closed! Go!" Harry called.
|| - page index -
|| - chapter index -
|| - Exit -