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Airstar 21: Destination Chaos
By: Wayne Brown
Captain Rick Hardy laid the weather statement printout for Los Angeles International Airport in the tray at the back of the center control console of the Boeing 737-800. There was nothing special about the weather today…skies clear, temp 70 degrees with light and variable winds off the Pacific, a typical southern California day he thought as he moved his attention to other cockpit chores. First Officer and co-pilot, Jim Tracy was already setting things up for the push-back, engine start, and before taxi checklist. Both men worked methodically but also with precise detail in their checklist tasks. It was a discipline learned from many hours of flying the line and many hours logged in the 737 type aircraft.
AirStar Flight 21 was originating its Friday daily run from Los Angeles to Dallas, TX. Final destination for the flight would be the DFW International Airport. The Dallas area was also home to Rick, Jim and the Dallas-based flight attendants on board. Everyone on board including most of the passengers was headed home from a busy week of work. This was a frequent and familiar run for Rick and Jim who were crewed together regularly in the cockpit of the 737 aircraft. Friday was Rick’s favorite day to make this run and wrap the week.
Rick had been a captain in command with AirStar now for over ten years and had a total of twenty years of service with the airline. He was nearing his 45th birthday later this year and was starting to feel like an “old head” around the system with all the new pilots the airline had hired. He still got the same thrill from flying as the day he started and dreaded the fact that one day he would be forced to retire from the cockpit due to his age. That would not shut down his ability to fly but it would take away the satisfaction of operating on a precise schedule and dealing with all the avenues of endearing AirStar to the flying public. It was a part of the job he truly enjoyed.
Jim Tracy broke the cockpit silence with a question, “Did you see that news story on the television this morning of the street fighting going on in downtown Los Angeles?” Jim asked. “That was just east of the airport according to the newscaster. Things seem to be heating up with these demonstrators,” Jim added.
“Yes, I saw it,” replied Rick, “I’ll admit that it concerns me greatly in that it seems this thing is growing by the minute and no one in government is doing much to deal with it. Someone, like say, the President, needs to make an effort to diffuse the conflicts and take things in another direction. Sometimes I feel like this administration is happier with people fighting in the streets than with peace and quiet. That is a poor perspective on my part but there sure seems to be a lot of things pointing in that direction these days,” Rick added.
Jim Tracy nodded his head in agreement and continued working on checklist items. Rick glanced at his watch and realized it was time to button up the doors and get things moving. The flight coordinator entered the cockpit with the final manifest for Rick to sign. In the back, Rick could hear the flight attendants announce the closing of the doors over the PA system. As soon as the flight coordinator deplaned, they cabin would be secured and ready to go. Once Rick received the call that the passenger cabin was secure, he gave a hand signal to the ramp chief to cut the external power and begin the push back procedure.
As the aircraft slowly pushed back from the gate, First Officer Tracy initiated the Start Engines Checklist to get both of the engines on line before shutting down the on-board APU located in the tail-section of the aircraft. Rick could hear the APU spinning down very lightly in the background noise of his headset. Once the engines were on line and the push-back tractor pulled clear, the ramp chief gave the “clear to taxi” signal by hand to Rick. Jim Tracy got clearance to taxi from ground control and AirStar Flight 21 was headed for the runway to begin the journey to Dallas, Texas.
Rick controlled the aircraft and put it through the designated paces to get to the active runway for the departure takeoff. Jim Tracy was busy all the while completing the Before Takeoff Checklist so that time could be minimized when the aircraft reached the position to take the runway. As he taxied the aircraft, Rick went over the all too familiar emergency procedures which he wanted executed if certain things took place on takeoff roll or on the climb out. It was information that Jim had heard over and over from Rick but out of his own discipline as a pilot, he listened intently and echoed his understating back to Jim. Both pilots had a deep respect for each other’s abilities and were true professionals in the cockpit ever-mindful of the lives that were responsible for each time the aircraft took to the skies under their control.
“AirStar 21 is cleared into position and hold, runway 22 right,” spoke the voice from the LAX tower controller.
“Roger, position and hold 22 right, for AirStar 21” replied Jim Tracy over the command radio.
“AirStar 21 is cleared for takeoff runway 22 right. Squawk 2235 on your transponder. Execute your roll ASAP, 21. Climb on runway heading and maintain 5,000 ft. Contact Los Angeles Departure on 139.30, 21,” the tower controller immediately responded as the aircraft braked into position on the active runway.
“Roger tower, AirStar 21 is rolling, runway heading and maintain 5,000. Squawk 2235 and contact departure control on 139.30...good day LAX” Jim Tracy said as he glanced down to shift the radio frequency to departure and reset the transponder from standby position with the new id code.
Rick advanced the throttles of the 737-800 carefully monitoring the engine gauges with one eye and watching as the aircraft began its roll. Jim Tracy slipped his hand behind Rick’s to back him up on the throttle and made the slight adjustments necessary to get the proper inlet temps and thrust for the takeoff. Rick now concentrated his vision outside and down the runway anticipating the visual takeoff. Tracy called off the speed numbers notifying Rick that the aircraft had past rejection speed which committed any new emergencies arising to being airborne ones. There was not enough runway left to stop if the takeoff was aborted at this point. The aircraft reached rotation speed and Jim Tracy called out “rotate” signaling Rick to pull back the yoke and set the angle of attack for climb off the runway. The aircraft lifted off and began the miracle of flight. As soon as Rick saw an indication of a positive climb rate and an airspeed within tolerance, he signaled to Jim to raise the landing gear and prepared to accelerate to climb out speed. Jim Tracy then waited for Rick to signal for flap and slat retraction cleaning up the wings for the cruise profile. The takeoff had been normal and without incident which is what every pilot prayed for thought Jim Tracy for a split second.
“Departure Control, AirStar 21 with you climbing through 2500 feet on runway heading for 5,000” Jim Tracey said as he initiated contact with the departure controller.
“AirStar 21, radar contact, continue your climb to 5,000 then execute a right turn to reverse course on a heading of zero-four-zero vectors to Riverside VOR. Upon reaching Riverside, you are cleared to climb and maintain your cruise altitude of flight level three-three-zero. Cleared as filed to the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Contact Los Angeles Center now on 127.50, Two-One,” the departure controller instructed.
“Roger, runway heading to 5,000 then right to zero-four-zero direct to Riverside. LA Center on 127.50 and cleared to climb to flight lever three-three-zero after Riverside, “Jim Tracy responded.
“Roger, AirStar 21, read back correct, have a good trip,” the departure controller replied.
“LA Center, AirStar 21 is with you leveling at 5,000 feet and now executing a right turn to a heading of zero-four-zero to proceed inbound to Riverside. We have clearance instructions for a climb to flight level three-three-zero after Riverside and as filed on route for the flight plan,” Tracy broadcasted after changing to the designated center radio frequency.
“Roger, AirStar 21, read back is correct, continue as instructed,” responded LA Center.
Rick looked over at Jim and grinned, he knew that the radio could get a bit hectic especially in airspace like that around LAX. Luckily this was not the busiest hour of the day so it had not been too bad. Still, he could tell that Jim was glad to be through with the preliminaries and all the changes.
Both Rick and Jim got busy glancing around for any rogue aircraft in their airspace. It was a constant fear in congested airspace. Most of the commercial aircraft were now equipped with transponders which painted on the other aircrafts horizontal orientation display in the glass high tech cockpits. Still, there was the constant danger of an inexperience general aviation flyer that mistakenly ends up at the wrong altitude and collides with an airliner. That reality had come to past over LAX in the late eighties killing everyone on both aircraft. Those were the incidents that were never far from any pilot's mind. Keeping an eye out for other traffic was simply instinctive if one wanted to live a long life.
“We are swinging the needle on Riverside” Jim Tracy pointed out. “Take her on up to FL Three-Three as cleared,” He added.
Captain Hardy nodded and set the throttles to climb power glad to be getting up out of the turbulence caused by the winds drafting of the mountains to the north.
As Captain Hardy approached the cruise altitude and leveled off, he set the throttles for optimum cruise speed in order to preserve the amount of high-dollar fuel burning through the big jet engines on the 737. Although safety was always the number one concern, fuel efficiency management and on-time service were a close second and third and any captain who did not understand those priorities was not long to occupy the left seat. Each year a larger portion of Rick’s paid hinged on satisfying those factors. He had no real problem with that as he felt it was the duty of the captain and crew to operate safely and efficiently along with providing a high level of customer service. Any way you looked at it, he was just doing his job.
Jim Tracy had busied himself gathering data on the winds at altitude and verifying a new estimated time of arrival in Dallas. He would pass this information on the company flight monitor at the AirStar Operations Center in Dallas via the onboard computer link. The link allowed information to be passed between the Operations Center and the aircraft via satellite on a secure path. Messages could also be received in the cockpit from operations. Technology had provided some truly wonderful aids to commercial pilots in the past few years, Jim thought, as he worked the keyboard to pass the information through the uplink.
Captain Hardy switched to the PA system in the cabin and made his level cruise announcement as the company required him to do in the interest of keeping the passengers informed.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Hardy on the flight deck of AirStar Flight 21. On behalf of our Dallas-based flight crew, I would like to welcome you aboard for our journey to Dallas this fine day and thank you for choosing AirStar to take you there. We are currently level at our cruising altitude of thirty-three thousand feet and cruising at an airspeed of 300 knots. With the favorable tailwinds we are getting at this altitude, the aircraft is moving over the ground at 510 miles per hour. Our flying time to DFW today is 2 hours and 46 minutes putting us at the gate at DFW about 12:15 according to our onboard computer system. We invite to sit back and enjoy the ride. Our flight attendants are there to provide service and comfort for all of you along with assuring your safety while in our care. Don’t hesitate to call on any of us if you require assistance. Thank you again for flying AirStar. We will be talking with you again prior to landing in Dallas. Have a great flight.” With that Hardy switched off the PA connection.
“Another wonderful speech, boss” Jim Tracy said grinning at the captain knowing it was a speech that Hardy could deliver in his sleep. Still Jim knew that everything the captain had said was true and heartfelt. Hardy was just that kind of guy.
“Jim, are you packing heat today?” Hardy inquired.
“I certainly am,” Tracy replied. “Just like normal, my 9-mm Glock is in the front compartment of my flight case beside my seat here. I unlocked the case and took of the trigger guard off right after I did my walk around this morning right by the book,” Tracy added holding up his left hand with his thumb and index digits shaping out a pistol. “Kapow!” Tracy laughed firing his imaginary gun through the front wind screen of the aircraft.
“You know, it concerns me that they picked someone as unstable as you to be armed on the aircraft,” Hardy shot back and laughed. Jim laughed along with him knowing that Hardy was simply kidding again.
Hardy switched the radio and called the front flight attendant station phone then waited for an answer.
“Hello, this is Sarah” a voice spoke coming quickly on to the line.
“Sarah, Rick Hardy, can you come on the flight deck and sit in for me with Jim while I visit the restroom, tour the cabin and get some coffee?”
“Certainly, Captain” Sarah replied, “I’ll be right there.”
Rick turned off the station link and moved out of his seat to open the cabin door. Procedure called for at least one pilot and one crewmember on the flight deck at all times. It was a “safety policy” but Rick understood that it really was a deterrent to someone doing something suicidal as had happened on a flight a few years back with an international airline crew. Sarah knocked on the secure flight deck door and Rick opened it to let her in. She quickly shifted around to get into the left seat and Rick exited the flight deck and stepped into the passenger cabin. It was a full boat today and he could see all the shining faces looking up the aisle at him. He wondered if it made them nervous to see the captain out of his seat.
Rick made a quick stop in the restroom and then worked his way down the aisle greeting passengers along the way. This was part of his personal ritual on flights. He tried to get close to the passengers if the weather was good and he was able to get out of the seat. He grabbed a fresh cup of coffee from the rear flight attendant station and spoke briefly with the two flight attendants working there then headed back up the aisle toward the flight deck.
“Captain, may I speak with you?” spoke a voice from behind Rick.
Rick turned to see a man in a baseball cap wearing a brown leather jacket and blue jeans. The man motioned for Rick to come closer as if what he had to say was either embarrassing or a secret. As Rick stepped closer to the man, the man stepped toward him and quickly produced a gun from beneath the leather jacket pointing the muzzle at Rick.
“Captain, if you say a word, I shoot and probably blow your head off at this range,” the man warned. “Now turn around and walk slowly up the aisle like normal to the pilot cabin. I will be right behind you following closely. Remember no funny stuff and no one gets hurt.” Rick nodded and turned to head up the aisle with the man closely following. If any of the passengers noticed the exchange, it was not apparent, at least not from Rick’s vantage point. High-jacking aircraft had become a thing of the past with increased security measures. Other than the events of 9-11, there had not been one in years Rick thought as he neared the flight deck door and knocked.
Sarah opened the door and Rick stepped in immediately stating, “I have invited this gentleman in for a tour”
Sarah immediately began to protest as Jim Tracy turned to look back at the man. “Captain, I don’t mean to correct you but you know what the procedures say about bringing passengers into the cockpit. It’s a violation of security,” Sarah blurted out.
“I know Sarah but I am exercising my discretion as Captain. Now run along and take care of the other passengers,” Rick shot back giving Sarah a stern look.
Hardy then quickly glanced at Jim Tracy and nodded slightly adding a wink. Rick moved to the left seat and buckled into his belts. The man unfolded the jump seat and pulled the plastic gun from his jacket. As the man began to rotate his arm to point the gun at Hardy’s head, Jim Tracy swung round in a surprise move with the 9-mm Glock and fired a rubber bullet dead center into the man’s chest. The rubber bullet slammed the man against the flight deck door knocking him unconscious in the process. Everything happened in a split second but not fast enough to keep the man from actuating the trigger of the plastic pistol firing a .45 caliber slug through the roof of the flight deck. The bullet ripped through the overhead circuit breaker panel and multiple warning lights illuminated on the panels indicating system shutdowns. The slug burst through the aircraft skin exiting into blue sky. The perforation immediately set off a rapid decompression of the cabin and smoke filled the cockpit.
Both pilots grabbed for their oxygen masks and donned them quickly. Hardy retarded the throttles and pushed the aircraft nose over into a steep dive beyond the scope of anything he would ever think of doing with the aircraft with passengers on board.
“Albuquerque Center, AirStar 21 has an emergency, rapid decompression. We are in rapid descent out of FL three-three to 10,000 feet. Please clear our path for the descent,” Jim Tracy broadcast on the radio frequency for the control center.
“Roger AirStar 21, understand you have suffered a rapid decompression. You are cleared to descend at your discretion. Are you declaring an emergency at this time? If so, please state you fuel status, souls on board and intentions,” replied the Albuquerque Center controller.
“We are declaring an emergency at this time Albuquerque. I’ll call you later with the information. For now, we have our hands full flying the aircraft. We’ll try to stay with this heading,” Jim Tracy replied.
“Copy that, AirStar 21, emergency declared. Continue emergency descent on this heading. We will standby for information,” replied the center controller.
“Jim, get on the yoke with me and help me hold the downward pressure. We must have lost something on the control trim in the upper panel. I am getting a lot more back pressure from the yoke...,much more than I would anticipate. That may mean that pulling out of this dive will be just as hard. Watch the airspeed, I don’t want to rip the tail or wings off this ship and kill us all in the process of trying to save our necks. Let’s try the boards and slow her down a bit now,” Hardy directed as he motioned for Tracy to actuate the speed brakes.
Tracy moved the lever to raise the flat slats on each upper wing surface. Extending these would disrupt the airflow and create resistance which would slow the aircraft. As he moved the lever to the second position, he began to feel the g-loading effect of the speed brakes on the aircraft. The air speed needle began to drop indicating the brakes were working effectively. Once the speed had dropped to an acceptable level, Jim lowered the slats to the first level keeping some braking on the aircraft in the steep descent and helping to manage the speed.
Rick Hardy prayed that the oxygen system in the passenger cabin had functioned properly and dropped the overhead emergency masks for the passengers. He couldn’t take his hands off the yoke to switch the radio in order to check on the cabin. These were things that would have to wait for now. The aircraft had just passed 20,000 feet and was still in the death dive to get below 13,000 where the atmosphere was at least good enough to sustain human oxygen requirements. He planned to start pulling out of the dive at 13,000 and hoped to be level by 10,000 feet. He could then evaluate his options more closely.
A quick glance at the uninvited flight deck guest suggested that he was still not conscious. At the range the rubber bullet had hit him he could be dead. That was fine with Rick. He didn’t need a fight on his hands on the flight deck of a crippled aircraft at this point.
“13,000 feet,” called out Jim Tracy as he watched the altimeter clicking off their sharp dive.
“Let’s start pulling her out of it, Jim. Pull with me and let’s try to get her level at 10,000. Set the throttle to hold 220 knots and lower the boards,” Rick instructed as he began the pull back on the yoke to shallow the dive. Other than the trim control tab, the aircraft seemed to be responding to the control inputs. Rick was hoping he could sustain that condition until he could get the 737 on the ground.
“Steady at 10,000 feet and 220 knots,” Jim Tracy advised.
“Okay, Albuquerque is behind us; Clovis, New Mexico is straight ahead and Lubbock is a bit further off the nose to the right,” Rick said looking at his horizontal display. Jim, call Center and give them the emergency information. Tell them we would like to go into Clovis if we can get either runway zero four or two-two. That’s 6200 feet which should be enough if we can dump about 5,000 pounds of this precious fuel we have on board. Get the okay for the dump and where they want it. If we can’t get that runway at Clovis, then we are committed for Lubbock,” Hardy stated.
Jim Tracy nodded his understanding and proceeded with the call to Center.
Albuquerque Center placed Tracy on standby while the controller checked the weather, winds, and runway in use at Clovis. In the meantime, Jim and Rick began checking circuit breakers and doing resets to get some of the systems back on line which had been lost. Rick was now able to establish contact with the passenger cabin. He called the front station.
“Sarah here, what’s happening up there Captain? We heard gunshots and the aircraft headed down. Oxygen mask deployed. I was convinced we were crashing,” Sarah quickly stated.
“I think we have it under control now, Sarah. According to the manifest, there is an air marshal in seat 16D. Get him up here to deal with this guy. He may be dead but I had rather have him hand-cuffed if he is not. Also, have him look around a bit before he comes forward. We need to be sure there are not any others on board,” Hardy instructed.
“I’ll get right on it Captain. We will knock on the door when we are ready,” replied Sarah and hung up the phone.
Rick Hardy switched to the PA system and addressed the passengers. “Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Hardy here, we have had a turn of events here in the cockpit which has caused us some difficulties and unfortunately has changed our plans for arrival in Dallas. We had an unexpected visitor to the cockpit who had plans for us. We thwarted that attempt but lost our cabin pressurization in the process. As a result, we will be landing in Clovis New Mexico in order to get the aircraft on the ground quickly and getting you safely on your way to your destination. We are currently awaiting information from the controller so that we can dump some of our fuel load in order to get light enough for the landing at Clovis. Please stay in your seats and keep those seatbelts buckled and snug. We will talk with you again on the ground.”
“AirStar 21, Albuquerque Center,” the controller’s voice crackled over the radio.
“Roger Center, 21 here” Jim Tracy replied.
“AirStar 21, we can clear you to dump fuel if necessary but advise against your request to land at Clovis Municipal as the airport is not equipped to handle commercial emergencies. I can give you vectors to Cannon Air Force Base, near Clovis. Runway Zero-Four is currently in use with ILS capability and 10,000 feet of runway. Fire equipment is standing by. Please advise your intentions 21.”
Jim Tracy glanced at Captain Hardy who nodded his approval of the plan. “Tell them to forget the fuel dump, Jim, 10,000 feet of runway should be plenty even at this weight. Get us vectors to the ILS and we’ll take it from there,” Hardy added.
Jim Tracy nodded his understanding and made the radio call back to center.
“Roger AirStar 21, turn right heading Zero-Six-Zero vectors to the initial approach point for an ILS to Zero-Four. Descend and maintain 8,000 feet. Continue squawking emergency and contact Cannon Approach on 127.62”
“Right to zero-six-zero, squawking emergency, down to 8,000 and Cannon Approach on 127.62, thanks for the help Albuquerque,” Tracy replied.
“Roger, you are quite welcome 21 and glad you have things working in your favor.”
“Cannon Approach, AirStar 21, is with you in emergency mode flying a zero-six-zero vector for the ILS to Runway Zero-Four. Descending to 8,000 feet out of 10,000; 189 passengers and six crew members on board, 20,000 lbs. of fuel.”
“AirStar 21, Cannon Approach, radar contact, continue your descent to 7,000 feet, upon reaching the initial approach point, you are cleared to fly the ILS to Runway Zero-Four. Cannon reporting broken clouds at 7,000 feet. Winds Zero-Six-Zero at 13 knots. Altimeter 29.97. Contact Cannon Tower at the outer marker on 117.35.”
Jim Tracy acknowledged the clearance and reset his altimeter as Captain Hardy began the process of getting aligned with the ILS approach. The captain would follow the cross-hairs which would guide his direction and rate of descent down to the visual point of picking up the runway.
“Okay Jim, let’s run the ‘Before Landing” checklist and get configured for this approach.” Jim Tracy nodded his understanding and went to work on the checklist. Hardy began slowing to approach speed and Tracy adjusted the flaps and slats to configure the wings for the slower speed and to hold the proper angle of attack on the approach.
A quick knock came at the flight deck door and Jim Tracy turned in his seat to actuate the lock. The air marshal stepped through the door shoving the unconscious man across the floor with the door. He checked his pulse quickly.
“He’s still alive, Captain. I’ll get him hand-cuffed and tethered to the jump-seat frame. I don’t think he is going to be causing any more trouble for a while,” stated the air marshal.
“Good deal,” Hardy responded. “Better to keep him here than drag him back in the cabin. I’ll leave it to you to notify the authorities once we are on the ground,” he added.
The air marshal nodded agreement and closed the flight deck door securing the pilots in their compartment.
“Gear Down,” called Rick Hardy.
“Gear is down and in the green for all three” replied the co-pilot.
“Cannon Tower, AirStar 21 is at the outer marker, ILS Runway Zero-Four inbound,” Tracy transmitted.
“Roger, AirStar 21, emergency equipment standing by. Winds zero-six-zero at 10 knots, altimeter 29.97. Cleared to land.”
“AirStar 21” acknowledged Tracy.
The 737-800 lightly touched on the threshold markers as Rick Hardy made one of his finest landings ever in the aircraft. Both pilots made a quick scan of the engine instruments and then the thrust reversers and brakes were applied. Fire equipment raced down the taxiways running in parallel with the slowing aircraft. Hardy quickly taxied the aircraft behind a “follow-me” vehicle which led the crippled bird to an open ramp area where the passengers would deplane onto the tarmac.
As Rick and Jim shut down the engines, and cleared the final checklists, Hardy looked at Jim Tracy and said, “You know Jim, this is one time that I really am glad that I am not in your shoes.”
“How’s that Rick? I though you adored me and always wanted to be me,” Tracy shot back.
“Not today, my friend. You see, you got a lot of questions to answer about shooting this poor ol’ boy back here who just came up for a cockpit tour,” Rick laughed.
“Hell, you’re the one that let him in. I just shot ‘em,” Tracy shot back with a grin.
“Looks like neither one of us will be drinking a beer today, huh Dead-Eye?” Rick said smiling down at the still unconscious high-jacker.
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