James L. Thomas always kept his cool--one of the reasons he got the job as manager of the Miami International Airport in the first place--dealing with missing children, lost luggage, petty theft, maintenance issues, keeping airlines on time, scheduling flights in and out and coordinating runways was the exception rather than the rule. Overall, this monumental task influenced his predecessor into early retirement. The job was a bitch. Monday worst of all, at any time, but this one, immediately following a holiday, was set up to produce the biggest headache of them all. Jim flexed his muscles to prime himself and to get ready to pump.
Jim took a hearty gulp of his long-gone-cold coffee and squared his shoulders. He couldn't let the stress get the best of him. During his tenure of four years, he'd only faced one major crisis when a twin-engine plane force-landed inbound from Cuba. The crew and two passengers received political asylum in the country and life went back to normal.
"Morning, Mr. Thomas."
Jim swung around and grimaced at his assistant, Jessica Collins. Beautiful, blonde, and forever perky--even on a Monday. He scanned the radar blips on the massive console below the tower windows that held a view which stretched for miles just before breaking onto the hazy blue horizon of water and sky that melded together like a Dahli painting in the late summer heat. For a moment he even fumbled about in his pockets in search of an elusive cigarette. Regrettably he remembered he gave the nasty habit up in a fit of health consciousness that left him with a lean waist and a case of raw nerves on mornings like these. He took another sip of his coffee. Thank God he hadn't given that up--completely anyway.
The movement in the tower indicated the hectic pace set for the day. Muscles in Jim's neck tensed. He kept himself fit, and prepared for the pace of his job with two-mile runs every morning and vitamins for breakfast. Only one person could always match his pace--Jessica. She was always on top of things. When Thomas arrived at his desk, she was right behind, discussing the issues at hand.
"Here's the updated copy of the flights for today, but we have a bump," Jessica continued, ignoring her boss's mid-morning fog.
"Wouldn't be a Monday otherwise. What is it?"
"The sleeve 27-B is out of service. Maintenance is working on it, but they claim it will not work properly until noon, and there's only one flight out to Panama this morning."
"So what is the problem? Can't we relocate one plane to another sleeve?"
"Not unless you delay other flights since runways are busy all day. We have a tight schedule with all of those flights and charters after the holiday. If a plane misses its window, it'll be here until tomorrow. I suggest we take people out the back door on a bus and drive them to the plane where they can get in with the stair," Jessica said.
"Who pays for the bus?"
"We do. Airline is not responsible for our problem with the sleeve."
Jim frowned and considered the options. "Okay, go ahead with it. Anything else?"
"Not right now." Jessica turned and walked out of the office.
"Hey, Jessica! It's gonna look like a bunch of politicians climbing up that stairway, huh?" He grinned at the thought of that.
Jim settled in his chair and started going through the papers Jessica left for his review. One of them was a report from Maintenance explaining in detail the problem with the sleeve. The memo--really more of a note--simply said:
Can't figure it out. Won't be ready before lunch. Time consuming.
Jim grimaced. He despised 'time consuming'.
Mike Smith hated to stand in lines, especially long ones. After thirty-five minutes waiting to check in for his flight to Miami, he was too tired and upset to behave in his normally condescending way, so instead, he picked rude. That would work just fine for him that day, he thought as he approached the counter.
"Smoking section, sir?"
"Do you see me smoking? I know your next question. Make it a window seat." Mike saw the expression on the face of the desk attendant and guessed that several things must have passed through her mind. He couldn't care less if she thought him a sack of garbage; he was a paying customer at Inter State Airlines.
She finished tagging the luggage and returned the ticket along with the boarding pass to Smith. He grabbed it out of her hand and left without even thanking her.
Mike walked all the way to the gate and just barely made it on time. They were already boarding the plane. Damn lines. Smith was the last one to board the ISA Flight 912 from Dallas to Miami. The flight attendant directed him to seat 3B. It dawned on him that the counter lady had given him an upgrade. He placed his handbag in the overhead bin and chuckled over his luck. The last of his remorse went away as he settled down on the big plush seat.
Roger Simmons, seated in the back part of the 727 three-hundred-passenger plane, stretched in anxiety, already tired of waiting for take off. He wanted to be on the way. This vacation, taking his wife and two daughters to the various theme parks in Florida, took a lot of planning, and if it didn't get underway quickly, he thought he might go crazy. The only reason for this layover was because he wanted to stop by Miami to spend a couple of days in the sun before driving a rental car to Orlando.
He planned the entire vacation well in advance. Six months before, he made the hotel reservations, and as in every other aspect of his life, all was working out perfectly. His only miscalculation came at having two daughters instead of the sons he'd wished for. That was the past, though, and the little girls quickly became the apples of his eyes. Besides, it was not too late. His wife Mary was only thirty-four, although she claimed to be only thirty. Either age was still acceptable to have another child.
It was Mary's first trip to Orlando, and her excitement could be felt from where she sat beside him. She planned to take as many pictures of that lovely mouse as she possibly could. Her camera already hanging from her neck brought a momentary smile and relief from the anxiety of waiting. He closed his eyes and thought of the exact time they told the girls, Jill and Sandy. The look on their face had been priceless. Roger was not sure what thrilled them the most, making the trip or skipping classes.
As most parents did, he thought his girls were the prettiest of them all, and the smartest, too. He assumed they would be able to catch up quick enough to make decent grades for the finals. As a modern parent, he did not push his kids to make straight-A grades. He simply encouraged them to give it their best shot. If their best was a B+, well, he could live with that.
Finally, the engines rumbled and the captain switched on the seat belt and no-smoking signs. His voice filled the air with laconic announcements. "Welcome aboard ISA flight nine-one-two to Miami. We're advised we have clear weather all the way to our destination. We'll be taxiing out shortly. Please remain seated during take off and follow the attendants' instructions."
Three flight attendants took positions in the front, middle and the rear of the plane. They started their ritual about the safety regulations--how to put on the life vest and how to use the oxygen mask in case of lost air pressure. Although a law for quite some time now and boring to frequent flyers, it was exciting to the people flying for the first time. This procedure, however, made Roger edgy. As an accountant for a major insurance company and familiar with the statistics of crashed airplanes, highway accidents and so forth, it didn't rate high on his list of fun things to do. He knew his numbers and believed it was safer in the air than on the ground. The statistics, however, did not completely quiet his fear of flying. He turned to see his wife and daughters, and took comfort in the excitement he saw in their faces.
Bill Porter's nerves sent frayed messages to his brain. His plan should work, yet being alone provided hazards. He caught himself again thinking about his chances. If it worked, it would be one of the major bluffs in history. A good bluff must seem realistic to be believable. The real part of his bluff--getting his handgun and the two grenades on board--was easy enough. One just had to know how to do it. Having authentic flying credentials was indeed a point in his favor. Bill used his pilot credentials to avoid security checks. As deference to him, the stewardess let him on with two handbags.
The plane taxied and started climbing up to thirty-five thousand feet before turning east to Miami. The flight went smoothly, with no air bumps at all. It would be a shame to ruin it, Bill thought. Then again, if his plan worked out there was a chance that the passengers would not notice a thing.
The Fasten Your Seat Belts sign went off, along with the No Smoking sign. Porter could hear the flight attendants busy in the galley. He lit a cigarette and decided to begin his job right after a good smoke. He stood up and opened the overhead compartment, grabbed one of his handbags and unzipped it. Reaching inside, he pulled out a medium size manila envelope. He placed the envelope under his arm and managed to zip his bag and shut the compartment without dropping the package. He sat down and enjoyed his smoke.
The flight attendants served the front rows, moving slowly since the plane was full. Bill picked the flight carefully. He knew his business well. He was right and congratulated himself for it. After the flight attendant passed by his seat, he stood up and introduced himself to her as a pilot from another airline. He told her he wanted to pay a courtesy visit to the cockpit, if possible.
He endured her glance inspecting him from head to toe, then the flight attendant directed him to the front of the plane with a smile. "I think you know your way around this bird. When you reach the galley, ask Kelly to knock on the cockpit for you. Regulations, you understand."
"No Problem. Thanks." Bill walked towards the front. All he needed now was in the manila envelope in his right hand. While walking down the aisle, he switched the package to his left hand. He held it from the downside and placed it in a way that the opening flap was pointing to the front. The envelope was not sealed but the flap did not permit seeing inside. Nobody was curious about a man walking with a letter sized manila envelope in his hand. That part of the plan worked, too. He finally reached the galley and asked for Kelly.
"That would be me," a tall shorthaired blond girl in a tight uniform replied. She carried a tray with three cups of coffee. She could not be more than twenty-two.
"Hi. My name is Lance Harper," Bill lied. "I'm a pilot from the Eagle and I want to say hello to Captain Cromwell in the cockpit. Do you think they'd mind?"
"I don't see why not, but let me go ask them, okay?"
"Hmm. I'd prefer to surprise old Bob." Bill winked at her.
The attendant frowned, made up her mind, and nodded in agreement. She took the two steps that separated the galley from the cockpit door.
Kelly knocked. "I have coffee for the crew." She spoke loud enough to be heard. Security features made the door so that it could only open from the inside. Porter was sure she could not see him reaching inside the envelope.
When Kelly entered the cockpit there was a collective cheer. Porter knew they were welcoming the coffee more than the girl. Suddenly Bill pushed her forward and she lost balance of the tray, spilling the three coffee mugs on the floor. From that moment on, everything happened fast.
Porter forced himself into the crowded cockpit and closed the door behind him. As he raised his hand, the crew saw a revolver, but only for a brief second. Bill struck the flight engineer hard with the butt of the gun. He left his victim unconscious, limp in his seat.
"Now listen up!" he began. "I know you're not gonna like this, but now I'm the captain of this fucking plane. Is that clear?" Bill pointed the gun directly at Kelly, but moved it slowly to the right and left to cover the pilot and co-pilot as well. Bill despised profanity but in certain circumstances it was useful as intimidation.
The expression on the captain's face changed from surprise to worry. "Sir, I don't know your intentions, but the people on the ground are not going--"
"Relax, we're not going to Cuba," shouted Bill, figuring that would be the pilot's assumption.
"I hope Nicaragua isn't your destination either," said the co-pilot under his breath before he could restrain himself.
Bill heard him anyway. "Not really, but close." He paused and looked the captain straight in the eye. "I'm only interested in the money I'll get to let this plane land. I don't like hurting people. Look, here's the deal. I'm charging the Miami International Airport a fee to let you land this plane. Think of it as a one-time tax." Bill spoke in a calm monotone voice. "Just sit tight and fly the plane. Maintain your course and speed. We don't want to get in to Miami late, do we?"
Hesitating a moment, both the pilot and co-pilot turned to face the instruments. The pilot looked thoughtful to Bill. Cromwell ordered the autopilot off, but the co-pilot was too nervous to understand. Bill was carefully watching the whole exchange. He guessed it was the first time both men had met the business end of a firearm. He leaned over the console to turn one of the many switches off. Bill's knowledge was rewarded when he felt the usual bump of the plane changing back to manual control; at the same time he heard Kelly scream.
Blood streamed down the engineer's face. Bill hadn't realized how hard he hit the poor bastard. His only goal was to knock him out. He didn't expect blood. Bill heard a discreet sob behind him and as he turned, he no longer blocked Kelly's view of the engineer. She screamed again.
"Shut up!" ordered Bill. "Stop crying like a baby and help him."
Kelly resumed sobbing, but managed to move from between the pilots' seats to the unconscious man. The professional flight attendant took charge and moved to check the wound. The blood came from above the ear. Head wounds always looked worse than they really were.
Porter reached for the First-Aid box stored on the other side of the cabin and handed it to her. Kelly cleaned the wound, then bandaged it as best she could.
"You're probably wondering what I'm carrying in this bag, right?" Silence told Bill they did not really want to know. "I'm telling you anyway. It's a remote control detonator. You know what that is. You screw with me and your cargo area will be a lot more spacious. Got it?"
Bill smiled when he saw the light of understanding on all of the conscious faces in the cabin. They got it...loud and clear.
The Fasten Seat Belts sign went on. Roger Simmons's fear of planes kicked into high gear. There had been hardly any turbulence and there was still at least another hour to go before Miami. Why had the light gone on? he quietly wondered.
"Why did you turn that on, captain?" Bill pointed the gun at the sign.
"Standard operational procedure in a hostage situation," responded the captain calmly.
"You know, in all the years I've been flying I've never heard of that standard procedure. You're lying. Don't lie to me again! I can fly this thing without you."
A drop of sweat ran down Captain Robert Cromwell's back. He understood the meaning of the last sentence. The quiet pride that told him he was necessary, at least until the plane landed, crumbled in that simple statement. This guy did not need him to land or to fly the plane; he could do it by himself! That meant this terrorist was a pilot and not just some crazy bastard who managed to get a weapon aboard. Cromwell realized he could not fool this guy, so he told him the real reason why he turned on the light.
"I don't want any accidents on my plane. I did it so the passengers do not stand in your way. Let's keep it cool, okay?"
"You see? There's no need to lie. What you did was thoughtful. You're a good captain. Now stick to your main job and get me Miami on the radio."
The captain played with his radio dials for a minute and transmitted: "This is Captain Robert Cromwell of ISA flight number nine-twelve. We have an emergency."
Bill cut him off and shot two fast sentences into his ear. "Please get me the senior officer at the airport. We have a hostage situation. I repeat--this is for real. We have a hostage situation. Over!"
Miami received the transmission and all hell broke loose. The air traffic controller hit the panic button and searched for the most senior officer in the tower.
"ISA 912, this is Miami approach. We copied your last transmission loud and clear. Please stand by. Over."
The most senior person in the Miami tower at that moment was the head of security, performing a random inspection. Lt. Frank Cocker was new to this kind of situation. He looked shaken upon briefing. He went to the radio console and asked the operator to patch him through. In a second, he was on line with the plane.
"This is Lieutenant Frank Cocker of Miami International Airport Security. What seems to be the problem?" Lt. Cocker tried to keep a calm voice.
"Well, from up here it seems like a guy is pointing a fucking gun at my head. What kind of a stupid question is that?" asked the voice in the speaker.
"Please identify yourself." Good. Keep it cool, Cocker. Don't let him get to you. Show him that you are in control.
"Again? Goddamn it! I just did that a minute ago! This is Captain Robert Cromwell of ISA flight 912, inbound from Dallas!" The answer burst through the speaker again.
"I think this guy is losing it," Cocker said to the person next to him, and then to the operator said, "Get me the FBI on the phone. But before that I want all the information we have on this plane--flight plan, passenger manifest, names of the crew, I mean everything!"
"This is special agent Jason Hayes. How may I help you?"
"I'm Frank Cocker, head of security at Miami International. We have a plane reporting a hostage situation, and I think that's your turf."
Hayes jumped from his seat and blinked so hard tears ran down his cheek. Being alone in the room right then left him awkwardly relieved. After a full five seconds he said, "You're right. That is a federal crime. Where's the plane now?"
"In the air, flying from Dallas. Hey man, the pilot sounds like he's losing it."
"Okay. I'm sending a psychologist ahead of the rest. Have you confirmed the story?"
"I tried to, but as I told you, the guy is not good. He tried to bite my head off."
Hayes closed his fist hard until the knuckles turned white. There were literally thousands of calls every year from people claiming they put bombs on planes or in buildings and saying that they had helped Lee Harvey Oswald kill Kennedy and so forth. Most of them were only prank calls.
"Hold on a minute. Are you sure it is for real?" he asked Cocker.
"I did some cross checking. The plane on my radar matches the one this guy claims to be on. The flight information checks out, name of pilot, and so on. I can't be sure, but it feels real," concluded Cocker.
"Yeah, okay, but can't you get that info just looking at any board in the main lobby?"
"Not the name of the captain, you don't. You can only see flight number, boarding gate and E.T.D. on the board. For security reasons we don't advertise the name of the pilots. Only the traffic control and the airline management know in advance--and we use a scrambled radio freq," said Frank.
Within thirty minutes the control tower was packed. Jim Thomas, the airport manager, arrived, to the relief of Cocker.
The psychologist on call from the FBI was a good-looking woman named Rita Thomas--unrelated to James. Many of the people in the control room thought because of her looks, it was obvious there was no relation. It came as a surprise for both Thomases when they met each other.
"Okay, what do we have here?" Rita asked, after introductions.
"We have a plane coming from Dallas with the captain saying it's been hijacked; no ransom demand yet. We think it might be an insider, or at least someone who knows his way around planes."
Rita interrupted Jim. "In other words, the only thing you know for sure is that a voice is coming through the speaker claiming to be the captain of a plane, and you're falling for it."
Jim stood his ground. "Listen, lady, I thought you were here to help, not to criticize our work. We have our methods. We have radio frequencies that are not easy to break into. We have radar equipment that's worth a thousand times what you make a year, and that equipment says that the plane is where he claims to be. I know the pilot myself. He's not a joker; not with something like this."
"Okay, I'm sorry. I only want to have a clear picture before I talk to the guy. You said you know him. That might come in handy. Let me talk to him and you tell me what you think. Do we have a deal?"
Jim nodded in agreement. They walked over to the operator desk where Captain Cromwell made the first contact. The operator raised the volume on the radio. When the captain responded, the operator gave an extra headset to Ms. Thomas. Jim plugged in his headset and listened.
"Captain Cromwell, this is Rita Thomas from the FBI. I'm here to help you. You say someone aboard your plane has taken control of it. Is he listening to this conversation?"
"No," was the reply.
"Good, so maybe we can have a little privacy. I'm only going to ask you Yes and No questions. Try to tell me as much as you can without making known what you are doing. Okay?"
"Now, is he armed?"
Another voice came through the speaker: "I have a 357 Magnum. I also have a couple of grenades in my pocket, and please, Captain, don't forget the large amount of explosives in the luggage compartment. Yes, I'm armed and dangerous; but no, Rita, I don't want to hurt anybody. This is a straight business deal. You want me to let the captain land his plane in Miami, and I will. But I'm charging you five million dollars for it."