IT WAS 1993
by James Strauss
It was 1993, and Arch was flying a King Air over the island of Kauai. Cyn was laying across the unconscious pilot to help guide the plane while Arch tried to accustom himself to the controls (like figure out where they were), and keep the plane flying at a reasonable altitude and in some semblance of the proper direction. The plane was no doubt visible on whatever flight control scope handled Lihue traffic. Arch couldn’t remember encountering air traffic control in his previous experience aloft over the island years earlier. Maybe there was only a tower controller working on visual. He could hope. Any scope would show erratic enough flying to warrant some kind of alert. It was common for private planes to fly strange paths at strange altitudes, though, commercial air was an entirely different matter altogether. He banked the Beechcraft to the starboard, figuring they were out from the coastline and over the ocean. The rudder pedals were extremely sensitive and he over-corrected. The forgiving King Air bounced through the air, flapping its wings a bit, but then centered on to its new course.
“Okay, I’m getting the hang of it,” Arch said to Cyn. “I’m going to gently bank to the port and give you a bird’s eye view. See if you can spot the runway ahead. There’s more than one strip at the airport but I don’t remember the numbers. We’ll need the numbers printed at the bases of those strips. I didn’t see any flight plan laying around here to help.”
“Getting the hang of it?” Cyn replied, her voice tinged with sarcasm. “You’re starting to scare me. Atlantis and Harpo are sick in the back and there’s no bags.”
Arch glanced over at her briefly, before gently banking the plane, wondering whether Cyn was aware of the absurdity of what she was talking about. Like sickness bags would make any difference if Arch crashed the plane.
“Got you on visual Sky,” he heard faintly through the earphones hanging around his neck. Arch fumbled to get them back over his ears, trying to adjust the small microphone tube near his mouth with one hand and guide the plane with the other.
“Roger,” Arch replied, hoping “Dorothy” wasn’t too attentive to his voice, which was not nearly as deep as Doug’s.
“You’re cleared for twenty-one, no traffic, commuter gate,” came right back.
“Roger,” he said again, feeling like an idiot. There was no reply to that, and Arch was relieved except for the fact that he didn’t know where runway twenty-one was.
“Well?” He whispered over at Cyn, pulling the phones off again with his right hand so he wouldn’t inadvertently transmit on the voice-operated mic over the air.
“I see it,” Cyn gushed with near childish enthusiasm. “Twenty-One is in big numbers just ahead. The other one’s seventeen, just over to the left.” She pointed ahead and down with her finger.
Arch used both hands to push the control wheel forward, the wonderfully responsive aircraft reacting by dipping its nose, allowing him to see Lihue’s airport directly ahead. The move also increased the craft’s airspeed. Instead of pulling the throttles further back, Arch reached down with his left hand and pushed the control lever for the wheels. The instrument panel went red and the landing gear light blinked madly. The plane’s speed was too high. Arch eased the dual flap levers down gently until the dash returned to its normal color and the light changed from blinking red to solid green. The plane shuddered and their speed dropped below a hundred and fifty knots, according to the dashboard instrument.
They were falling out of the sky. Arch didn’t know whether to increase airspeed or simply ride the glide scope in. He’d never landed a King Air before and wasn’t sure about the brakes or where the propeller reverse button was located. If the brakes for the main wheels were standard, it would be okay. Generally, in fixed wing aircraft, when on the ground, depressing both rudder pedals caused the disc brakes to engage. Arch presumed the stall speed of the King Air to be about a hundred knots or maybe a bit less. Letting down the wheels had caused the plane’s airspeed to drop to below a hundred and forty. He didn’t want to mess with their air speed. There was stuff printed near the throttles, like ‘beta’ and ‘fine ground’ that he didn’t understand. Reversing the props was out. Although Lihue’s longest strip, twenty-one (the one they were headed down onto) was about a mile long, Arch wanted to pull up as short as possible and turn to the right into the private air hangars near the end of the tarmac. He didn’t want to encounter the terminal or terminal traffic. That Lihue wasn’t a busy airport was both good and bad. Good because there were fewer other aircraft to run into, but bad because whatever he did with the King Air would stick out and be noticed. That was presuming they didn’t get noticed a whole lot more for dying when they crashed into the asphalt at the end of the runway.
“I’m just going to put her down as smoothly as possible,” he said to Cyn. “Get in the back and belt in. I haven’t done this in, well, awhile.”
“Ya think?” came from Atlantis behind him, her tone expressing her usual disdain for just about everything Arch did.
“I’m just glad Doug’s not the one flying us,” Cyn observed dryly, before moving off of the pilot’s slumping form, and climbing out of the cockpit.
Arch moved the flap levers very gently. Nothing could totally screw up stable flight like adjusting flaps too aggressively. Except for maybe setting the throttles too far back and falling out of the sky at the very last second, Arch reflected, still thinking about retarding the throttles a bit. He put his left hand back on the wheel instead, and gripped both of its levers firmly. They were committed.
The King Air’s nose headed straight for the big numbers printed in bright white at the very end of the runway. The plane was going too fast but Arch was done making adjustments. He didn’t care about damaging the wheels, tires or brakes, so his plan was simple. They’d come in at about sixty miles an hour faster than they should. He’d feather the props before contact, get ready to deal with the ‘bounce’ they’d take from encountering ground effect, luff down, and then stand on the brakes for all he was worth at first contact until they slowed enough to turn from the main runway.
“You watching your glide scope, Sky?” came dimly through his earphones.
Arch ignored Dorothy’s comment. Obviously there was some sort of radar active in Lihue because the controller could see that the King Air was too shallow in its approach, and coming in too fast. The glide scope was right in front of Arch on the dash. He knew where the instrument was, but he was too panicked and way too focused on just getting wheels on asphalt without dying in the process, to look. The glide scope didn’t matter because there were no obstacles to drop in over or avoid when landing. Arch was bringing the King Air in right above the waves, too low and too fast to be considered anything other than a barely controlled crash.
There was nothing to tell Arch exactly where the wheels were located under the belly of the King Air. Touching down gently, as close to the end of the tarmac as possible, was vital because of the plane’s high speed. If it touched too sharply then the tires, even though it was a Beechcraft and the rubber quality would be the best, might blow. At a hundred and sixty miles an hour that would likely mean a ground spin into a fiery death for all of them. There was probably a way Arch could have dumped fuel, since Doug had the craft loaded to the gills, but Arch didn’t have the knowledge or the time left to give it a try.
Lihue’s strip 21 was over five thousand feet long. Long enough to accommodate big jet airliners. But the smaller King Air needed to get down and off into the nearby private hangar buildings just as fast as it could, without drawing attention. Arch did the only thing he could do. He guessed. Just before the water ended and the runway began, he feathered both props. Feathering didn’t mean shutting them down. The props dropped to around a thousand revolutions a minute, just enough to act like huge speed brakes. The plane sunk downward, as if it’d run into a giant invisible cotton ball. Arch waited for the upward thrust that entering ground effect created. When it came he pushed the wheel forward.
“Jesus Christ,” Doug gasped out next to Arch, surging forward in his seat.
The King Air put its wheels down perfectly on the huge 21 painted not far from the end of the runway. Ground effect, magnified by oncoming wind, pushed the plane back into the air. Arch reacted by pushing the wheel fully forward with all of his weight and strength.
“What’s wrong?” both women in the back yelled at the same time, as the King Air slammed back down on the tarmac and bounced twice. Harpo tumbled through the air between Doug and Arch, as Arch jammed both feet down as hard as they would go, on the rudder pedals. The King Air skidded down the runway, its wheels finally in full contact with the asphalt. Harpo rebounded from the dash and sprang back between the seats, letting out small yelp.
“Where are we?” Doug asked, rubbing his face with both hands.
Arch didn’t answer, too busy steering the plane with its single nose wheel, shoving the propellers to just above idle and getting the feel for what was left of the brakes. Arch breathed deeply in and out with a brief smile. He (phony pilot that he was) had somehow brought a small commercial airliner down to earth safely, thereby saving everyone from being killed by the real pilot, who was just waking up.
Arch was having a good deal of difficulty attempting to steer the King Air off the runway. The plane seemed to slew every which way with the slightest touch on the wheel.
“Ease the throttles up a notch and put your feet on the brakes,” Doug said, bringing his hands down from his face, but making no attempt to take control of the aircraft he was supposed to be piloting.
“The bearings on the nose wheel are shot so you gotta put some downward pressure on them to engage.”
Arch pushed lightly on the rudder pedals while easing the throttles marginally forward, bringing the revolutions up to twelve hundred. Thankfully the King Air began to steer smoothly.
“Where you heading?” Doug asked, realizing that the plane was obviously not going toward the main terminal.
“One of the hangars,” Arch replied. “We’ve got to get off the field as fast as possible. They might be waiting for us at the terminal. We’re getting out of the airport as fast as we can and heading over to the marine terminal where the Independence is docked.”
“Steer toward the first hangar, and then come around the far corner,” Doug said, pointing to a big white hangar. All three hangars had closed doors facing the runway side. “You won’t be able to get inside any of them, but you’ll give the impression that the plane needs some sort of maintenance which might buy you some time. These old King Air’s are great but they are old, and everyone knows that.”
“Except for the passengers,” Arch stated, more to himself than Doug.
“Seemed to work for you,” Doug shot back, starting to regain his snappy devil-may-care attitude.
“Atlantis thinks you might want to go with us,” Arch responded.
“Well, I can’t be found in this condition or I’m done,” the pilot replied after a brief moment. “And being a pilot is all I have left. I can’t go back to being a bartender. Drinking bartenders don’t last long, as I proved last time.”
“I’m trying to get to Oahu and I’ve already got two women and a dingo along,” Arch said, with evident frustration in his voice.
Harpo nuzzled his shoulder, as if understanding that he was being consigned by Arch to the role of unwanted baggage.
“Thanks a lot,” Atlantis said from the back seat, her acid tone carrying over the drone of the dual turbines.
“How do you plan to get to the port?” Doug asked. “You can’t exactly walk into one of the car rental shacks or pony up to the front of the taxi line at the terminal.”
“There’s that,” Arch answered, knowing that he’d been putting off thinking about the next step in their vague plan as long as he could. And adding a fourth person, one who’s just a bit inebriated and in an obvious uniform, wasn’t going to make it any easier.
Arch pulled the King Air around the edge of the building, eased the throttles all the way back and then hit the kill switch on the wheel. The turbines began to spool down.
“Well, the other three don’t own that Dodge van over there,” Doug said, pointing across the cockpit and toward Arch’s window. Visible through the center of the window was a boxy blue vehicle covered with mud and dust, sitting not twenty yards away.
With an instant Arch added a fifth mixed-up member to their unfortunate, untrained, but totally willing team of misfits that had somehow formed around him since he’d found the top secret file. Doug, the drunken pilot, not to mention bartender, was providing heaven sent transportation out of the Lihue airport to the docked Independence. Getting aboard the cruise ship, and dealing with wherever it was going was a problem they would have to deal with, but not until they got to the ship. Doug’s blue van was just sitting there. Arch stared at it. By its looks alone he worried they might not be going anywhere.
Reading Arch’s expression, Doug said “Don’t worry, it’ll start.”
The pilot threw some switches on the dash to complete the King Air’s shutdown. “It always starts. It looks bad, but it runs great and looking bad has a side benefit. I call her the great blue hemorrhoid.”
“That’s just awful,” Cyn said, from the back seat, moving to exit the aircraft, as the hatch of the King Air slowly swung open and the small stairs unfolded.
“Side benefit?” Arch asked, climbing between the seats to join Cyn, Atlantis and Harpo on the tarmac. Arch realized he was elated, with adrenalin pumping through his system he felt fully alive. How close they had come to death was beyond describing, and Arch wasn’t going to bring that fact up to anyone. He had no business flying anything without a medical certificate; active pilot’s license or clearance; and training on the specific aircraft. Period. While coming down the steps, and then finally standing in the sun and wind, he promised himself he wasn’t going to ever end up on the kind of aluminum terror-tube flight he’d just survived.
“Yeah,” Doug answered, coming down the steps to stand by Arch. Harpo licked Arch’s hand, which for some reason made Arch feel like the dingo was cheating by making Arch like him when Arch didn’t really need or want another companion who needed to be taken care of.
“Nobody gives a damn on this island about an old blue van or anybody riding in it.”