"I didn't do anything and people want me dead. It's wrong. Why do people do the wrong thing?"
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This chapter is my personal favorite, but that's probably because I've been over the story so many times that nothing surprises me anymore. No doubt first-time readers will find the surprises in other chapters make them their favorites.
One of my most persistent critics on Amazon, who misses no chance to criticize me and my book as you will see, did write this about Chapter 22:
The transatlantic flight scene was so tense and exciting that I'm almost positive someone else wrote it. For once in the entire book, the situation was completely out of Theresa's hands. Her powers, which were her primary crutch, misfire and put the lives of a hundred or so people in her hands. She had to deal with the situation knowing that she didn't have Hal to save her if she failed. It was the only time she was truly vulnerable to harm, and it played out beautifully.
I truly believe that this was a fantastic part of the book, and will swear my word to that effect.
Actually, there are several situations in which Theresa's life is in danger and she can't use HAL to bail her out.
This is the only chapter which reads like an 'action story', a James Bond or Mission Impossible story let's say, and my critic uses this to hint I didn't write it. Well, I did write it. Empress Theresa is a character study story, not an 'action story', but there are jaw-dropping scenes.
Chapter 22 is unique in several ways:
--- it contains a complete story in itself
--- Theresa is alone
--- for once, she has no use of her powers. Getting through this episode must be done solely through her ingenuity and courage.
--- it shares some elements of an old Hollywood movie storyline, but it adds a few new twists
--- more than any other chapter, it shows her thinking processes to work through many problems of a complicated situation in a short time
Theresa is nineteen.
The day came when Steve and I had to say good by to the Parkers. It was an emotional occasion. So much had happened in the last year it seemed like we’d been in the house most of our lives. Now the reality that we were leaving was very hard to bear.
We were all packed and the luggage had been sent ahead of us. Also, all the plywood and mat boards that I used to control HAL had been put in crates. They would be transported by the British navy under close guard. I couldn’t let them fall in the wrong hands. They were as dangerous as a shipment of plutonium.
Steve went down first and asked Arthur to join him in the family room out of sight of the Parkers.
“Arthur, Theresa says you helped us a lot and she wants to reward you. Here’s ten million dollars. Don’t refuse to take it. It’s nothing to Theresa. She wouldn’t pick it up off the ground.”
He showed Arthur a large suitcase full of hundred dollar bills. Arthur was deeply moved. “Thank you, sir.”
“I guess you’ll hire your own butler now?” Steve joked.
“No, sir. You have made this house a shrine to the human spirit. I will never leave.”
Steve returned to me and we took one last look around at the bedroom, and my work room where so much good had been done.
We went downstairs to say good by. The entire Parker family and Arthur waited in the living room wearing brave smiles to cover their sorrow.
I went up to Edmund Parker to shake his hand. “Good by, Mr. Parker. Thanks for everything.”
“Farewell, my dear. You will write?”
Steve shook Parker’s hand too. I went on to Mrs. Parker.
“Thank you for the use of your lovely home.”
“You made it a true palace, Theresa.”
Next was the 17 year old son John, and 13 year old Stephanie who could barely keep her eyes dry, and 11 year old Jennifer who was crying like she was losing everything she valued.
Most painful of all was saying good by to Arthur standing a respectful ten feet away. I walked up to him and shook my head side to side with a teary smile.
“I’ll miss you most of all, Arthur.”
I wrapped my arms around his neck in a tight hug. The normally imperturbable man came close to losing control. He could say nothing.
I walked away quickly. The Parkers and Arthur were left in mournful silence. Empress Theresa, the humble world saver and conqueror, the right hand of God, was no longer in their lives.
Colonel James gave us a ride in an unmarked car. Plane tickets had been arranged secretly thanks to Prime Minister Blair. The media knew we were planning to get home on July 1 but didn’t know how we’d travel. When we got to Heathrow Airport we were rushed through staff doors and halls and loaded onto a Boeing 747 before anybody knew it. We were first on the plane. Other passengers came later and were surprised to see us. The ever present security men had the seats in front and in back of us to act as a buffer zone from the curious. People waved and shouted ‘hi’ to us but we ignored it. This was the way it had to be and if people didn’t like it, too bad!
I’d never been in a 747 before and couldn’t believe how big it was. Could this thing get off the ground? Well, it did. We took off. The plane crossed England and headed out over the Atlantic towards New York City.
There were two aisles. Stewardesses were coming down both aisles with their snack carts. One stewardess stood ahead of a cart and the other stood behind. We all watched them intently because we were like helpless children waiting for treats. The plane was so big there were several more sets of carts far behind us. Two carts were in front of us.
All four stewardesses fell to the floor.
Everybody else collapsed in their seats.
Steve was unconscious too.
I felt his carotid and found no pulse. I was terrified that he was dead, but a slight hope kept me from panicking.
They’d once thought I was dead for two weeks. I was in what we were calling ’deep sleep’.
Could Steve only be in deep sleep? This thought kept me from losing it. But I was still scared for him.
Now was a time to think clearly if there ever was. Why would HAL be putting everybody into deep sleep? I was in a plane. I’d made several plane flights around Europe and nothing happened. What made this flight different? The size of the plane, maybe?
I was flying over the Atlantic! My government kidnappers put me in a plane and flew out with me to the carrier in the South Atlantic. This flight was getting HAL to rummage through his repertoire of reflexes. His mindless logic said something had to be done about this situation. There were four things to go after: the carrier, the Atlantic, the plane, and my kidnappers including Steve. HAL saw no carrier. He couldn’t eliminate the Atlantic Ocean. The plane might be a part of me. The only thing left was eliminating my kidnappers. But I had never killed anybody and neither had HAL. He had put me into deep sleep last year. He put my kidnappers into deep sleep now.
Who was flying the plane?
I stepped into the aisle that was blocked by the snack cart. But they couldn’t block both aisles at the same time. The center seat section had crossing aisles to use to get from one aisle to the other without crawling over four people. The carts were staggered in front and in back of these crossing aisles so that anybody could go to the front or back of the plane anytime. I went through a crossing aisle to the left and walked forward. The journey seemed like several miles.
The Boeing 747 had a circular staircase leading up to a lounge. Finally, I got to the cockpit, or flight cabin, whatever it was called now. The pilot, co-pilot and navigator were in deep sleep, I hoped. The pilot wore earphones. I didn’t want to disturb those and carefully put them on a kind of shelf to his left. I pulled him out of his seat and lay him down on the floor. I assumed his seat and put on the earphones. They were silent. There were no adjusting knobs on them or anything like that. I looked over the control panel. Some lights were on. Some weren’t. There were four computer monitors stacked two by two. They must be for displaying all kinds of data. They were all blank. The plane’s electronics were dead.
I looked up at Heaven with an accusing look. Couldn’t God give me a break once in a while? I mean really! This was going too far.
In a few seconds I remembered there had to be hundreds of cell phones on the plane. I could use them to communicate with the ground.
I went back downstairs to the passenger cabin. Virtually everybody in this plane had to have a cell phone. I quickly found one in a woman’s handbag. It was dead. I found two more phones in men’s shirt pockets but they were dead too. Why? I remembered something Steve said a few months back. He was talking about the deep sleep HAL put me in. “He put dark matter in you to hold your atom nuclei in place by gravity. But this wouldn’t work if electrons could move around. You would turn to soup. There was enough dark matter to keep the electrons from wandering around.”
I knew a little about physics. Computer chips used very low voltages. It wouldn’t take much to interfere with the electrons. But electric lights and things like that used voltages ten thousand times higher. The sophisticated electronics I needed to learn how to fly this thing were dead. But this was not enough to bring down the plane. The earliest planes couldn’t have had any electronics. They were all electrical. This plane had to have all kinds of backup systems, enough to let the pilot fly no matter what, if he knew how a plane works. I didn’t.
I made an accusing look up to Heaven again, much longer this time to show Him how mad I was. I had reached the end of my patience and let Him have it.
“What’s the purpose of this trial? Does it have a point? Didn’t I prove my courage in the South Atlantic last year? What more do you want from me?”
I’d seen an old movie about a stewardess having to take over a plane. But she at least had some knowledge about flying and she had radio communication. I had neither. I think she flew an old fashioned propeller plane. I had this damn flying movie theatre to deal with.
There was nothing to do but go back upstairs. By the time I got up there I realized I needed to find manuals for how to fly the plane. There had to be some. There were storage lockers in the flight control cabin. I searched them and found a bunch of technical manuals. I pulled the co-pilot out to the floor too so I could use his seat for the manuals. I sat in the captain’s seat and checked my watch. We were scheduled to land in New York in six and a quarter hours. I had that long to learn how to fly a Boeing 747. Real pilots probably took longer.
The technical manuals were about as useful as most of these things were. They were written for people who already knew everything. There was no “Flying For Dummies”. Every page was filled with jargon that was defined in pilot’s school back home. It was a mess. There was no way I could fly this damn thing.
It’s a terrible thing to be alone and not have anybody to talk to about a serious problem. It would have been nice just to give up, lie down and forget everything. It was tempting. But something kept me going.
I allowed myself to luxuriate in this misery for a short while. It wasn’t like losing valuable time. I couldn’t concentrate on the manuals until my mood changed.
I saw a plane miles away. It was going in the same direction. Over several minutes it got closer. I wondered if they were aware of my plane. But they had to be. These big planes all had radar. They couldn’t fly around without it.
The plane moved up to only a couple hundred yards away from us on my right and stayed in that position. It was a jet fighter. I understood. When my plane went off the air the airports must have noticed immediately. There must have been a lot of panic. ‘Theresa Hartley’s plane is missing!!!!!’ Panicked calls were made to Prime Minister Blair who hustled his jet fighters out to find the Hartley plane. And there they were. They were checking us out. I bet the pilot was looking at me with binoculars. The world was finding out something happened to everybody else and I was flying the plane. They had to know I didn’t know how to fly a kite. There must have been pandemonium at the airport. The media would go nuts over this.
His binoculars should be able to see my depressed attitude. ‘Theresa is giving up. Theresa has lost hope. Theresa wants to go back downstairs and wait for the end.’
The airport must have been screaming at him to stay with me. ‘Don’t let her quit. Keep her trying. Show her there’s hope.’
They understood me better than I did myself. If it weren’t for Steve I might have already given up. But I believed in something. And because I believed I didn’t have the luxury of giving up. I couldn’t abandon hope.
I waved to the plane and went back to the technical manuals.
I read for a while and learned a few things. I found the compass. It was scaled with two digit numbers. It currently was set on 23. What was that? I’d seen enough movies to know planes and ships used degrees for directions. Zero degrees was north. A hundred and eighty degrees was south. Two hundred and seventy degrees was west. 23 on the compass had to mean 230 degrees, or southwest, which made sense since we were going to New York and Europe was way up there level with Canada. There was one way to prove it. Change direction.
I did know there was something called the autopilot and with a little more research in the manual I found out how to turn the autopilot off and on. The steering wheel was a rectangular shaped thing. I turned off the autopilot and moved the wheel counterclockwise. The compass changed down to 21, 19, 17. That jived with the counterclockwise direction I was turning . That confirmed it. I returned the compass to 23 and let the autopilot take over.
The jet fighter was gone and replaced by a commercial airliner. That made sense too. Jet fighters were fast but couldn’t carry enough fuel to cross the ocean.
I learned many things from the manuals. How to operate the speed of the jet engines which would also control altitude. How to use the rudder to turn the plane without using the wheel to lean the plane to the side. How to use the two large brake pedals. How to lower and raise the landing gear. Over the next four hours I did small experiments with all things except for the brakes and landing gear. I thought lowering the landing gear at these altitudes might cause damage. Anyways I wasn’t willing to take the chance. My little experiments caused small changes in the plane’s position. The other plane stayed right next to us all the time.
I took a break and remembered that dramatic scene in the movie where Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris and two hundred thousand people pushed down the fences to run to his plane. It was known that what Lindbergh was trying was possible. It was only a question of whether Lindbergh would be the first or kill himself trying. Could I pull this off? The world must be wondering. There would be a lot of people at the airport!
Hours later a small business jet approached from the direction of the United States. It made a wide turn and came up directly in front of us at a distance of several hundred yards. It clearly intended that I follow it. The other commercial airliner backed away until I lost sight of it.
In a few minutes the business jet dropped altitude by a hundred or so feet. I pulled back on the engine control lever to lower myself down to his level. He went down again at much lower altitude. I matched him again. A third time he went down and I followed him, staying as directly behind him as possible. We were communicating. I was telling him I would follow his movements which was what he wanted. I also was telling him I could maneuver the plane. The people on the ground must have stopped stampeding in circles. I might pull this off after all!
He moved slightly to the left. I understood he was doing a slight turn. I followed him. Now the compass arrow was on 22. It had been a ten degree course correction. I knew trans-Atlantic air traffic was crowded and planes had to be put into slots. One of these slots might not be a straight line all the way across the ocean. A plane might have to zigzag left and right all the way to stay away from other planes.
I found the phrase ‘mechanical altimeter’ in a technical manual and located it among the instruments. It said 29,000 feet. It did not depend on electronics and it worked. That was one more thing in my repertoire.
According to my watch we were eighty minutes from New York. There was a lot of cloud cover below and I wanted to see something. I turned off the autopilot and pulled back on the engine speed control lever gently. We started going down. The business jet ahead of me followed me down. We went down at a leisurely pace and in a few minutes reached the clouds at fifteen thousand feet. The cloud layer was a few thousand feet thick. We got under it at twelve thousand feet and I stopped there. The business jet was to my right. He repositioned in front of me and seemed satisfied with the altitude. He didn’t try to make me change it.
Soon another small plane came towards us. It was a two engine propeller plane. It maneuvered over close the business jet. Suddenly the jet veered off to the left leaving the two propeller plane as my guide.
You can see a long distance at twelve thousand feet. The horizon was probably four hundred miles away. Well, over two hundred anyways. I looked for land. A while later I could see some. I had a map of the New York airport at my right hand and also a map of the coast around New York. Long Island stuck out 118 miles from the city. Could I be looking at Long Island?
There was a large ship down there, and although at this altitude I couldn’t see details, I could see from its shadow it was high above the water. It could only be a cruise ship with two or three thousand people on board. Where were they going? They had to be wondering the same thing about me. They could not fail to know those two planes overhead were my lead plane and my own plane. Safe on their ship, most of them must have pitied me and my fellow passengers. But maybe a few of them were envious. When their cruise was over what would be worth remembering about it other than seeing me fly overhead? An owner of a popular magazine had recently died. He was a bon vivant who had had many interesting experiences besides his magazine. The next issue showed a picture of him on one of his adventures. The caption read, “While alive, he lived!” I’ll bet there were people on that ship who would gladly trade places with me now even if it meant this was their last day.
“Sorry, folks. I wouldn’t trade with you.”
My lead plane had directed me to a compass heading of 27, due west. In a while I could see land on the right side. This had to be Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island. New Jersey would still be further away. A few minutes later I could see roughness over a small portion of the horizon. This was the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
The lead plane started lowering its altitude and I followed. We descended to three thousand feet and stayed there for a while.
I was starting to see pleasure boats far below. The tip of Long Island was no longer an amorphous blur, but I could see features, or rather, differences in how land was used, some green areas and some developed areas. It was still too far to see buildings and streets from my angle.
The lead plane led me down to eighteen hundred feet. They had some reason for this. I guessed that they wanted to see how I handled the plane at lower speeds or denser air. At this height I could clearly see the pleasure boats and people on board waving enthusiastically at me. We reached the tip of Long Island and I noticed something. Many hundreds of pleasure boats were going around the tip but all in a southward direction. They were trying to get to New York City to greet me, but they were too far away to make it in time.
As the next minutes passed I saw thousands of more boats heading for New York. This seemed odd. I was supposed to land at the airport and immediately fly out to West Point by helicopter. They would never see me. Then I realized they must know exactly where I was. The media would be informing them. They just wanted to see me flying over which was likely to be the closest they could get to me.
We were about twenty miles from New York and now the ocean seemed covered with pleasure boats. They spread out as far as I could see. How many of them were there? A half million? A million? I didn’t know there were this many boats in the whole world.
My lead plane prompted me to go down to nine hundred feet. At this height the noise from my plane’s engines had to be bursting the eardrums of the people on the boats. This was not a normal airplane approach. I thought they didn’t want me to come down too quickly when we reached the airport. They were reducing the challenge of one of the three dimensions I had to worry about.
I had a map of New York and the airport in my right hand. The runway was two miles long and pointed straight at the Empire State Building. I would have no problem finding the runway even without the lead plane.
I lowered the landing gear. Lights indicated they were locked in place. Everything was set. But then my lead plane lowered its landing gear and immediately raised it again. What did that mean? The lead plane did it two more times. He lowered the wheels and raised them up. I got the hint and raised my landing gear too.
He now turned left and I followed. New York City was to my right. We were getting away from it! What the hell….?
He lowered his altitude and I followed him down to five hundred feet. The ocean was really covered with boats around here, millions of them it looked like. Then I saw a clear space ahead. Two rows of ships were lined up in parallel and between them there wasn’t a single boat. The clear water was a rectangle something like two miles long and we were going right down the middle of it.
They wanted me to land on water!
I nearly panicked but rallied. I had to make a decision. Something you saw in the news about once a year was a plane landing without its nose landing gear down. The plane would land with the nose scrapping the ground in a cloud of sparks. I’d seen this several times. What I had never heard of was a pilot deliberately landing on water.
The lead plane was going down closer to the water. I went down a little but not as far as him. We reached the beginning of the clear rectangle. He went down to just a few feet above water. I chickened out. I couldn’t do it. I kept three or four hundred feet up. It took less than a minute to reach the end of the clear water and the lead plane suddenly turned off to the left much more sharply than the 747 could do. He abandoned me. I was on my own.
My heart must have been beating two hundred times a minute. What happened? What was wrong with landing at the airport? No pilot ever landed on water if he had a choice. It must be very dangerous. Why did they want me to do it?
I developed a theory. They didn’t know how skillful I was at controlling the plane. Any mistake on my part would not be forgiven by the hard runway. The water might give me some slack.
Yeah, well, I’d been manipulating this plane for hours and I thought I was doing pretty good.
“I’m going to the airport! They can go to hell!”
I made a long slow turn to the left until I was finally pointed to New York. I kept checking the map of New York and the relationship of the beginning of the runway with the contour of the shoreline before it. Then I positioned the plane towards where the runway should be, and sure enough there it was in the distance. I lowered the landing gear. Lights indicated they were locked in place. I moved the plane some distance to the right and aimed it straight down the runway’s throat. I stayed down at four hundred feet.
The little two propeller plane was positioned on my right to keep an eye on me. I went down to 250 feet. I felt sorry for the boaters below.
I was half a mile from the runway when I saw something. There were trucks parked on the runway. In twenty seconds I reached the beginning. There were hundreds of trucks on the runway blocking my way. I kept moving down the runway. It was the same the entire length, buses, fire engines, and trucks, trucks, and more trucks, large vehicles that I couldn’t miss seeing.
The runway’s end was in sight. I pushed forward on the engine speed lever. The plane started climbing slowly. Too slowly. The Empire State Building was straight ahead. I pushed the lever further forward. The plane climbed. There was something I wasn’t doing right. The plane wasn’t climbing fast enough. We were over developed areas. The altimeter read 340 feet. It had to be hell on the ground, storefront windows being blown out, people being knocked off their feet. I was getting to the end of Queens. The East River was coming up. I could see I wasn’t going to get over the Empire State Building. I turned the wheel slightly to the left. Just to the left of the Empire State was a few hundred yards of buildings only a few hundred feet tall. Then the skyscrapers covered the rest of Manhattan. I aimed for this narrow gap of lower buildings. Seconds later I reached the eastern edge of Manhattan.
The plane passed a few hundred feet above the buildings in this gap but it was still far below the top of the Empire State Building which was not very far to my right, and below the tops of buildings to my left. For what seemed like an eternity I passed over the buildings of Manhattan, probably blowing out a million windows, and all the time I thought what a disaster it would be if I crashed this gigantic plane among those buildings. It would be worse than 9/11. It would take months to clean the mess.
Finally I arrived over the river and into New Jersey which did not have buildings here.
I screamed and shook my head. Then I broke down and cried. The unfairness and hopelessness of this situation! Even if I didn’t crash this thing Steve might already be dead. It was too much. I cried and cried.
The little two propeller plane was at my side again. It must have been there all along to document my crash into Manhattan killing forty thousand people. They had to have seen my breakdown. Well, what did they expect!
I stopped crying out loud and sniffled my way into calmness. There was still this colossal community coffin to land.
I made a U-turn and climbed higher as I went over Staten Island. The damned Atlantic Ocean was ahead.
The little two engine propeller plane stayed at my side but didn’t try to lead me. They were leaving me alone. They didn’t want to spook me anymore. But what did they want me to do?
I tried to think calmly. Pilots didn’t want to land on water if they could avoid it. It must be dangerous. They were afraid to let me use the runway. Or were they? Might they have changed their minds?
I could imagine a bunch of people in a room reviewing the video of my aborted landing at the airport. “She didn’t bob the nose up or down or side to side. She didn’t lean the plane side to side. She didn’t wander off the runway. She kept the plane at the same height. She has fair control. The landing gear looks good. I vote we let her land on the runway.”
“I agree.” “I agree.” “I agree.” “I agree.” “I agree.” “I agree.”
That’s what could be happening. Or not.
I reached the ocean. The rectangle was still clear of boats. They hadn’t blocked it to force me back to the runway but neither did the lead plane get in front of me to choose a landing for me. Or else, they still wanted me to use the water. Or else, they didn’t want me to use the water but were afraid to block the rectangle because it might throw me into total panic. Or else, they wanted me to look for another airport where I wouldn’t crash into skyscrapers. They hoped I’d figure out what they really wanted. There was only one way to find out.
I made another long U-turn and used the map to zero in on the runway as before and lowered the plane to seven hundred feet. The runway was in sight. From a distance it looked clear.
I got close to it and it was clear! There wasn’t a Matchbox toy on it anywhere. Whether they preferred me to land there or not they were leaving it up to me.
I noticed an enormous crowd a few hundred yards off the northern side of the runaway. I’d seen the crowd at Red Sox games. This one must have been a hundred times as big. There had to be two million people down there. Maybe three million. Aw, heck, everybody in North America was here. This situation had never happened before and would never happen again. It was the Hindenburg disaster multiplied a hundred times. They wanted to tell their grandchildren they were here.
“The restroom line must reach to Philadelphia.”
I didn’t go down. This high off the ground I felt safe to lean the plane slightly to the left to turn around again while pushing the engine control speed levers forward to increase altitude a little. The people on the ground had to be going nuts wondering what I’d do next.
I circled around over the bay, far back out to sea, then turned back to New York while lowering the altitude to two hundred feet. I wanted to simplify the landing. Already being barely off the ground, it would be easy to cut the engines a little and drop down. God help the thousands of boats below me! People were probably being knocked overboard.
The airport was in sight. The runway was still clear. I was only hundreds of yards from the runway. I pulled the levers back slightly until I thought I was very close to the ground.
I’d found that a big plane didn’t react instantly. Just five seconds before reaching the beginning of the runway I pulled the engine speed control lever most of the way back. The landing gear hit the pavement hard and the plane bounced. I had anticipated this possibility and knew there was no changing my mind now. I pulled the engine speed control lever all the way back. The plane hit the pavement again but didn’t bounce. We were rolling. I pushed down on the two large brake pedals. The plane was going towards the left of the runway. I turned the wheel right. The plane went slightly to the right. I turned the wheel slightly to the left. I’d gotten to know the feel of the wheel.
We were still rolling at high speed. I could hear the brakes screeching but we weren’t slowing down much. What the hell was wrong now? I’d used up a third of the runway and still we were going over a hundred miles an hour. I released the brakes for one second. The screeching stopped in that second so the brakes were working. I pressed down again. I could see the end of the runway because emergency vehicles were parked near it. We were still whizzing by vehicles on the side of the runway at high speed. What would happen if I ran out of runway? Finally, I could see that the plane was slowing down. The runway was only half a mile away. The plane kept slowing down. And slowing down. And slowing down. The end of the runway was maybe two hundred yards away when the plane stopped.
I released the brakes but the plane started creeping forward again. I pushed back down on the brakes.
I was exhausted. This was worse than falling from the jet fighter. At least then there was only one outcome to worry about. Tears streamed from my eyes. I was relieved but also very shaken up.
I got to thinking. The plane was safely on the ground with nobody at the wheel but a nineteen year old kid who knew nothing about flying. I could see people rushing towards the plane. “I can do anything!” I said out loud to myself. A few hours earlier I was ready to give up and wait for death.
All kinds of vehicles were surrounding the plane. They were all blasting their horns and sirens in celebration of my latest miracle. I noticed one of the fire trucks getting in place at my left. It wasn’t a city fire truck but some kind of airport vehicle, but it did have a ladder. They extended the ladder towards the side of the plane.
In a minute I heard somebody coming up the stairs. He entered the cockpit. “I can’t let go of the brakes” I told him.
He reached up to play with some switches on the ceiling panel. After a few seconds he said, “Now you can.”
That was good enough for me. I jumped up leaving it all to him and went downstairs.
The passenger entrance door was open and airport workers poured through the door to scatter around the plane.
“What happened?” one of them asked.
“I hope HAL only put them to sleep, but I don’t know.”
I worked my way down the left aisle and across to the right to re-join Steve. He had a heartbeat! He was alive. Thank God!
In a moment he started breathing and slowly regained conscious. He saw me and the commotion in the cabin.
“HAL put everybody to sleep except me. We were over the Atlantic.”
He understood. “Don’t tell me you landed the plane!”
“Yup. Not bad for a math major, hunh?”
“Not bad” he grinned proudly.
All doors were now open allowing sounds from outside to come in. The nearby vehicles were still blaring their horns and sirens. An immense crowd of people was cheering. And from the nearby water thousands and thousands of boats were tooting their horns. How many millions of people had waited here to see me arrive?
The rest of the passengers and crew were awake. Some order was restored. Steve and I waited patiently until the powers that be told people to move out.
The captain, co-pilot, and three stewardesses came over to meet us. The captain said, “They told me you landed the plane without using the flaps and reverse thrusters. Do you know how amazing that is?”
“Not really. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You made history. They’ll be talking about it for years.”
I told Steve, “When I found out I had to land the plane without help I got angry with God. I asked Him what the heck the point of this was.”
“What did He say?”
“He said, ‘Look what you’ve done. You can do anything. Don’t let people down.’”
The plane was inspected and towed to a terminal after the difficult task of clearing vehicles and crowds out of the way. We disembarked and were met by airport officials. They needed information to write reports to the National Transportation Safety Board. Why did everybody on the plane go to sleep? How much did I know about flying? What did I do with my time during the crossing over the Atlantic? Why did I refuse to land on water? Why did I try to land at the airport a second time?
When they had all the information they needed for reports nobody would read one of the officials said, “You left a real mess in Queens and Manhattan. The Boeing 747 generates a lot of energy and it has to be absorbed by something.”
“What kind of mess?” Steve asked.
“Thousands of windows broken, some people injured.”
“Who’s going to be responsible? Not Theresa?”
“No. She can’t be held responsible. I don’t know who will take the fall. Nobody looks responsible.”
I added, “If there had been a simple written procedure for how to fly the plane, things might have been different. All I had was a pile of technical manuals. They don’t explain anything if you don’t already know everything.”
“I think the NTSB will consider that.”
There was one more thing I wanted clarified. “What if I had gone straight to the airport?”
“Without knowing about the water landing option?”
“President Stinson would have ordered the runway cleared. She couldn’t risk putting you in a panic.”
We went out into the public area to get away and were surrounded by hundreds of reporters sticking microphones and cameras at us. Dozens of them were shouting questions all at the same time. Each reporter was desperate to get a response from me. It would make his career. When we got to the main room of the terminal it was wall to wall people cheering wildly. They wanted to be part of history. We would have been crushed to death if not for the team of government security people pushing outwards at this mob.
It had been decided to take us to West Point by car rather than helicopter as originally planned. We finally made it to a limousine and took off.