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"You'll be all right.”


He moved back to row seventeen, the seat immediately behind Holly.


She was loath to lose sight of him. He helped her confidence just by being within view.


For twenty-six years, Captain Sleighton Delbaugh had earned his living in the cockpits of commercial airliners, the last eighteen as a pilot.


He had encountered and successfully dealt with a daunting variety of problems, a few of them serious enough to be called crises, and he had benefited from United's rigorous program of continuous instruction and periodic recertification. He felt he was prepared for anything that could happen in a modern aircraft, but he found it difficult to believe what had happened to Flight 246.


After engine number two failed, the bird went into an unplanned descent, and the controls stiffened. They managed to correct its attitude, however, and dramatically slow its descent. But losing eleven thousand feet of altitude was the least of their problems.


"We're turning right," Bob Anilov said. He was Delbaugh's first officer forty-three, and an excellent pilot. "Still turning right.


It's locking up, Slay.”


"We've got partial hydraulic failure," said Chris Lodden, their flight engineer. He was the youngest of the three and a favorite of virtually every female flight attendant who met him, partly because he was good-looking in a fresh-faced farmboy way, but largely because he was a little shy, which made him a novelty among the cocksure men on most flight crews. Chris was seated behind Anilov and in charge of monitoring the mechanical systems.


"It's going harder right," Anilov said.


Already Delbaugh was pulling the yoke full aft, left wheel. "Damn.”


Anilov said, "No response.”


"It's worse than a partial loss," Chris Lodden said, tapping and adjusting his instruments as if he was having trouble believing what they were telling him. "How can this be right?" The DC-10 had three hydraulic systems, well-designed backup. They couldn't have lost everything. But they had.


Pete Yankowski-a balding, red-mustached flight instructor from the company's training facility in Denver was riding with the crew on his way to visit his brother in Chicago. As an OMC--observing member of the crew-he was in the fold-down jumpseat immediately behind Delbaugh, virtually peering over the captain's shoulder. He said, "I'll go have a look at the tail, assess the damage.”


As Yankowski left, Lodden said, "The only control we've got is engine thrust.”


Captain Delbaugh had already begun to use it, cutting the power to the engine on the right, increasing it to the other-the port---engine in order to pull them to the left and out of their unwanted turn. When they began to swing too far to the left, he would have to increase the power to the starboard engine again and bring them around that way a little.


With the flight engineer's assistance, Delbaugh determined that the outboard and inboard elevators on the tail were gone, dead, useless. The inboard ailerons on the wings were dead. The outboard ailerons were dead.


Same for the flaps and spoilers.


The DC-10 had a wingspan of over one hundred and fifty-five feet.


Its fuselage was a hundred and seventy feet long. It was more than just an airplane. It was literally a ship that sailed the sky, the very definition of a "jumbo jet," and virtually the only way they now had to steer it was with the two General Electric/Pratt & Whitney engines.


Which was only a little better than a driver trying to steer a runaway automobile by leaning to one side and then to the other, desperately struggling to influence its course with his shifting weight.


A few minutes had passed since the tail engine exploded, and they were still aloft.


Holly believed in a god, not due to any life-altering spiritual experience, but largely because the alternative to belief was simply too grim. Although she had been raised a Methodist and for a while toyed with the idea of conversion to Catholicism, she had never made up her mind what sort of god she preferred, whether one of the gray-suited Protestant varieties or the more passionate Catholic divinity or something else altogether. In her daily life she did not turn to heaven for help with her problems, and she only said grace before meals when she was visiting her parents in Philadelphia. She would have felt like a hypocrite if she had fallen into prayer now, but she nevertheless hoped that God was in a merciful mood and watching over the DC-10, whatever His or Her gender might be and regardless of His or Her preference in worshipers.


Christine was reading one of the pop-up storybooks with Casey, adding her own amusing commentary to the adventures of the animal characters, trying to distract her daughter from the memory of the muffled explosion and subsequent plunge. The intensity of her focus on the child was a giveaway of her true inner feelings: she was scared, and she knew that the worst had not yet passed.


Minute by minute, Holly slipped deeper into a state of denial, unwilling to accept what Jim Ironheart had told her. It was not her own survival, or his, or that of the Dubroveks that she doubted. He had proven himself to be singularly successful when he entered combat with fate; and she was reasonably confident that their lives were secure in the forward section of the economy-class seats, as he had promised. What she wanted to deny, had to deny, was that so many others on the flight were going to die. It was intolerable to think that the old and young, men and women, innocent and guilty, moral and immoral, the kind and the mean-spirited were going to die in the same event, compacted together against some rocky escarpment or on a field of wildflowers set afire by burning jet fuel, with no favor given to those who had led their lives with dignity and respect for others.


Over Iowa, Flight 246 passed out of Minneapolis Center, the air-traffic control jurisdiction after Denver Center, and now responded only to Chicago Center. Unable to regain hydraulics, Captain Delbaugh requested and received permission from United's dispatcher and from Chicago to divert from O'Hare to the nearest major airport, which was Dubuque, Iowa. He relinquished control of the plane to Anilov, so he and Chris Lodden would be able to concentrate on finding a way through their crisis As a first step, Delbaugh radioed System Aircraft Maintenance (SAM) at San Francisco International Airport. SAM was United's central maintenance base, an enormous state-of the-art complex with a staff of over ten thousand.


"We have a situation here," Delbaugh told them calmly. "complete hydraulic failure. We can stay up awhile, but we can't maneuver.”


At SAM, in addition to United's own employees, experts were also on duty twenty-four hours a day from suppliers of every model of aircraft currently in operation by the airline-including a man from General Electric , where the CF-6 engines had been built, and another from McDonald Douglas, which had designed and manufactured the DC-10. Many books, and a massive amount of computer-accessible data about each plane type was available to staff at SAM, in addition to an exhaustive detailed maintenance history of every craft in the United fleet. They could tell Delbaugh and Lodden about every mechanical problem their particular plane had experienced during its lifetime, exactly what had been done to it during its most recently scheduled maintenance, and even when upholstery damage had been repaired-virtually everything except how much loose change had fallen into its seats from passengers' pockets and been left behind during the past twelve months.


Delbaugh also hoped they could tell him how the hell he was supposed to fly an aircraft as large as an apartment building without the aid of elevators, rudders, ailerons, and other equipment that allowed him to maneuver. Even the best flight training programs were structured under the assumption that a pilot would retain some degree of control in a catastrophic incident, thanks to redundant systems provided by the designers.


Initially, the people at SAM had trouble accepting that he had lost all hydraulics, assuming he meant he'd had a fractional loss. He finally had to snap at them to make them understand, which he deeply regretted not only because he wanted to uphold the tradition of quiet professionalism that pilots before him had established in dire circumstances, but also because he was seriously spooked by the sound of his own angry voice and thereafter found it more difficult to deceive himself that he actually felt as calm as he was pretending to be.


Pete Yankowski, the flight instructor from Denver, returned from his trip to the rear of the plane and reported that through a window he had spotted an eighteen-inch hole in the horizontal part of the tail.


"There's probably more damage I couldn't see. Figure shrapnel ripped up the rear section behind the aft bulkhead, where all the hydraulic systems pass through. At least we didn't depressurize.”


Dismayed at the rippling sensation that quivered through his bowels, achingly aware that two hundred and fifty-three passengers and ten other crew members were depending on him to bring them home alive, Delbaugh conveyed Yankowski's information to SAM. Then he asked for assistance in determining how to fly the severely disabled aircraft. He was ùnot surprised when, after an urgent consultation, the experts in San Francisco could come up with no recommendations. He was asking them to do the impossible, tell him how to remain the master of this behemoth with no substantial controls other than the throttles-the same unfair request that God was making of him.


He stayed in touch with United's dispatcher office, as well, which tracked the progress of all the company's hardware in the air. In addition both channels-the dispatcher and SAM-were patched in to United's headquarters near O'Hare International in Chicago. A lot of interested and anxious people were tied to Delbaugh by radio, but they were all as much at a loss for good suggestions as were the experts in San Francisco.


To Yankowski, Delbaugh said, "Ask Evelyn to find that guy from McDonnell Douglas she told us about. Get him up here quick.”


As Pete left the flight deck again, and as Anilov struggled with his control wheel in a determined if vain attempt to get at least some response from the craft, Delbaugh told the shift manager at SAM that a McDonnell Douglas engineer was aboard. "He warned us something was wrong with the tail engine just before it exploded. He could tell from the sound of it, I guess, so we'll get him in here, see if he can help.”


At SAM, the General Electric expert on CF-6 turbofan engines came back at him: "What do you mean, he could tell by the sound? How could he tell by the sound? What did it sound like?" "I don't know," Delbaugh replied. "We didn't notice any unusual noises or unexpected changes in pitch, and neither did the flight attendants.”


The voice in Delbaugh's headset crackled in response: "That doesn't make sense.”


McDonnell Douglas's DC-10 specialist at SAM sounded equally baffled: "What's this guy's name?" "We'll find out. All we know right now is his first name," Sleighton Delbaugh said. "It's Jim.”


As the captain announced to the passengers that they would be landing in Dubuque as a result of mechanical problems, Jim watched Evelyn approach him along the port aisle, weaving because the plane was no longer as steady as it had been. He wished she would not ask him what he knew she had to ask.


". and it might be a little rough," the captain concluded.


As the pilots reduced power to one engine and increased it to the other, the wings wobbled, and the plane wallowed like a boat in a swelling sea Each time it happened, they recovered quickly, but between those desperate course corrections, when they were unlucky enough to hit air turbulence, the DC-10 did not ride through it as confidently as it had done all the way out from LAX.


"Captain Delbaugh would like you to come forward if you could," Evelyn said when she reached him, soft-voiced and smiling as if delivering an invitation to a pleasant little luncheon of tea and finger sandwiches.


He wanted to refuse. He was not entirely sure that Christine and Casey -or Holly, for that matter-would live through the crash and its immediate aftermath without him at their side. He knew that on impact a ten-row chunk of the fuselage aft of first-class would crack loose from the rest of the plane, and that less damage would be done to it than to the forward and rear sections. Before he had intervened in the fate of Flight 246, all of the passengers in those favored seats had been destined to come out of the crash with comparatively minor injuries or no injuries at all. He was sure that all of those marked for life were still going to live, but he was not certain that merely moving the Dubroveks into the middle of the safety zone was sufficient to alter their fate and insure their survival. Perhaps, after impact, he would have to be there to get them through the fire and out of the wreckage-which he could not do if he was with the flight crew.


Besides, he had no idea whether the crew was going to survive. If he was with them in the cockpit on impact. . .


He went with Evelyn anyway. He had no choice-at least not since Holly Thorne had insisted that he might be able to do more than save one woman and one child, might thwart fate on a large scale instead of a small one. He remembered too clearly the dying man in the station wagon out on the Mojave Desert and the three murdered innocents in the Atlanta convenience store last May, people who could have been spared along with others if he had been allowed to arrive in time to save them.


As he went by row sixteen, he checked out the Dubroveks, who were huddled over a storybook, then he met Holly's eyes. Her anxiety was palpable.


Following Evelyn forward, Jim was aware of the passengers looking at him speculatively. He was one of their own, elevated to special status by their predicament, which they were beginning to suspect was worse than they were being told. They were clearly wondering what special knowledge he possessed that made his presence in the cockpit desirable.


If only they knew.


The plane was wallowing again.


Jim picked up a trick from Evelyn. She did not just weave where the tilting deck forced her to go, but attempted to anticipate its movement and lean in the opposite direction, shifting her point of gravity to maintain her balance.


A couple of the passengers were discreetly puking into air-sickness bags.


Many others, though able to control their nausea, were gray-faced.


When Jim entered the cramped, instrument-packed cockpit, he was appalled by what he saw. The flight engineer was paging through a manual, a look of quiet desperation on his face. The two pilots-Delbaugh and First officer Anilov, according to the flight attendant who had not entered with Jim-were struggling with the controls, trying to wrench the right-tending jumbo jet back onto course. To free them to concentrate on that task, a red-haired balding man was on his knees between the two pilots, operating the throttles at the captain's direction, using the thrust of the remaining two engines to provide what steering they had.


Anilov said, "We're losing altitude again.”


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