Monday, July 4, 1985--11:00 a.m. Over the Pacific Ocean
Exactly an hour and fifteen minutes after taking off from Los Angeles International Airport, First Officer Reg Humboldt felt the strange vibration. For a split second, a tremor of fear clutched at him, tightened his gut. The DC-6 was heading to Honolulu at 25,000 feet and the last thing he wanted to think about was trouble.
He scanned every instrument. Scanned them again. No, everything looked fine. So what the hell was the sensation that had spooked him? Did he imagine it? DC-6's vibrated a lot, even at best. He glanced at the captain, then at the engineer-cum-navigator. Neither showed concern. He forced himself to relax. It was probably nothing.
Cary Johnson was not only a helluva nice guy, but a damned fine engineer. If anything was wrong, he'd be the first to sense it. Cary'd been flying these old babies since 1954, and there wasn't anything about them he didn't know.
There. Reg felt the vibration again. He glanced back at Cary, just closing his books after taking a navigational fix.
"Whatsa matter?" Cary asked, "you still scared I'm gonna get you lost out here?"
"Hell, no. Who needs a navigator to get to Hawaii in daylight? All I have to do is follow all those jet contrails."
"Damn, you broke the code. So what's that shimmy I felt?"
"You noticed it too? Shit. I hoped I just imagined it." Andy Peel, the captain, pushed himself upright in the left seat and looked about the panel. "Don't worry about it. You'd creak a little too, if you were as old as this baby. Besides, I just had her in to the corner gas station for a lube and oil last week and I happen to know she's fit as a fiddle." Andy owned Conestoga Charters and its fleet of vintage planes.
"But you did feel it?" Reg asked him.
"Yeah, I felt something once or twice, but I think it's all those artists in the back. They're probably dancing in the aisle celebrating the Fourth. I hope they don't have fireworks, 'cause Patty and the girls will have them pretty well liquored up by now."
"Yeah," Andy said. "You know, people who sit around smearing oil on canvas. They're putting on a show in Honolulu somewhere."
Cary grinned. "They must be doing all right if they can afford to go to Hawaii just to show their art work."
"I guess, although the guy who hired us--Frank Battenburg; he's the promoter or whatever--really pissed and moaned about the price." Andy stretched around for a routine inspection of the two engines visible through his side window.
"Don't feel sorry for art show promoters," Reg said. "My sister sells her pottery at those weekend arts and crafts shows. She says the promoters make a bundle, and drive bigger cars than airline captains, if you can believe that."
"What are you charging 'em, Andy?" Cary asked.
"Six hundred round trip. Plus another hundred for their gear."
"You mean their luggage? You are a bandit."
"Not just luggage, you idiot, pictures. Crates of pictures. Sculpture and junk."
"Well," Cary said, "even if they don't sell much, they get a pretty good vacation. And it's probably deductible."
Reg slapped his forehead. "A deductible trip to Hawaii; now why didn't I think of that?"
His laughter was cut short by a sudden more noticeable vibration, which stopped almost as soon as it started.
"Cary, what the fuck is that?" Andy demanded. Without waiting for a reply, he added, "Go see what the hell's happening in the cabin and take a peek out at the wings."
"I'll go." Reg was already unbuckling his seat belt. "I have to take a leak anyway." Cary extricated himself from his seat just behind the two pilots so Reg could slide out.
As Andy and Cary scanned the engine instruments, looking for clues to the trouble, Reg straightened his tie and donned his jacket in preparation for going aft.
"How about bringing back a black with one sugar?" Andy called after him. "Want anything, Cary?" If Andy was at all worried about his airplane or his ass, he hid it well.
"A Coke, if you can find one."
Reg glanced approvingly at himself in the mirror on the cockpit door, gave himself a flamboyant salute. As he left the cockpit, he called out, "Don't mess with any buttons."
After relieving himself in the blue room a few moments later, he moved back among the passengers. The cabin was less noisy than he expected. Chartered flights were known for lots of talking, laughing and hi-jinks; after all, everyone knew everybody else and they were usually holiday or convention bound. This group seemed sluggish; several people actually slept and it was not yet noon. Here and there a small knot of people had gathered, but they weren't anything like the raucous crowds they had ferried in the past. He remembered one trip from Hawaii a few years ago when six women peeled off their clothes, put on grass skirts and did a two-hour hula in the aisle. Now that was a charter!
His attention zeroed in on a blonde seated next to an old guy with a greying beard. Young, pretty, good body, far as he could tell. Maybe, when they landed in Honolulu, he'd ask her to have a drink with him. After all, it was a holiday even if he was working. He smiled to himself, kept walking down the aisle.
Behind the pretty blonde sat a man and woman, not much older than teenagers, and across the aisle a middle-aged couple. And everyone looked normal. You sure couldn't identify any of these folks as artists; they didn't look different from any other group of passengers.
He stopped over the wings, his aim being to inspect the engines and flaps visible out the cabin windows. Not wanting to alarm anyone, though, he made small talk with the passengers seated nearby.
Finding nothing more ominous than some oil streaks over the wing inboard of number two, he made his way to the galley to pour coffee. Patty was mixing a drink with one hand and holding a clipboard with the other.
"Hi, sweetheart, what's cookin'?"
"Hi yourself." Patty looked up. "Just trying to make sense of this list of passengers they handed me."
"Yeah, I noticed more empty seats than I expected."
"I guess some canceled out at the last minute. Look at this mess." She showed him a piece of paper with names crossed out and others pencilled in at the bottom.
"Who'd want to cancel out on a trip to Hawaii?"
"Beats me." She put the clipboard down and picked up her tray. "And I've got one dame who's been in the john practically the whole time."
"I don't think so. At least she keeps telling me she's okay. It's not like we've got a lot of turbulence." She frowned. "But I did feel something funny a while ago and now I saw you looking outside. What's going on? You can tell me."
"Aw, I don't know, nothing serious, I guess. At least I can't see anything back here, and we sure as hell don't see anything up front. Andy says it's just old age creeping up on his ship. Don't worry your pretty head about it."
"Easy for you to say. We've got six hours to go yet and I don't swim that well. Besides, old age crept up on this bucket years ago. I'm surprised Andy manages to keep it certified."
"Maybe he uses magic." Reg put sugar in Andy's coffee and picked up a Coke for Cary. "Look at all the work I'm saving you just so you'll be rested up when we get there."
"Thanks a bunch."
Reg laughed and left the galley. As he passed the wing, a young man sitting next to the window on the left side of the aisle called out to him. "Excuse me, could you tell me what that black spray is out near the engine? It started a minute ago."
Reg glanced out. Jesus Christ on a cross! He didn't answer, just dashed forward, dropping the coffee as he ran.
He reached the cockpit just as Cary shouted, "Andy! Number two is showing out of oil!" At the same time, a red light beneath the number two oil pressure gauge winked on.
Reg leaped past Cary into his seat, not taking time to buckle in. "I saw it from the cabin; number two is throwing oil like a gusher!"
Andy spun around to look out his window. When he turned back, two deep creases marred his forehead. "Shut it down, Reg, now!" He pulled the number two throttle back to idle, simultaneously pushing the mixture control to the floor.
Reg watched the pointer on the gauge fall into the red zone. Damn! Damn! Damn! He reached for the number two feathering switch and shoved it in, then yanked out the firewall shut-off lever to cut off fluids to the engine.
"Goddam, Andy! It's not losing RPM!"
"The fucking feathering line must've ruptured," Cary said. "That's probably where we lost the oil in the first place."
"It'll be dry in seconds--"
"Shit." Andy voice was tense. "We can't keep the son-of-a-bitch from windmilling, as long as the prop isn't feathered."
No oil and 2400 RPM! It was bound to seize. If it didn't melt first. Reg was sweating now, his mind sorting the alternatives, but Andy sounded calm, in control as usual.
"We'd better get this crate down to where there's some oxygen," Andy said, "and then depressurize. If that prop comes off when the engine seizes, it could slice a hole in the fuselage. We'd pop like a balloon. Cary, radio L.A. our position. Then get Patty on the cabin interphone. Tell her what's happening. Have her move the passengers out of line with the props. Get 'em all aft and strapped in tight."
"Right!" Cary, still out of his seat, leaned over to pick up the handset. He reached out to press the cabin call button, but that's as far as he got.
A tremendous shock lurched the plane to the left. A monster force tore at their eardrums, sucked the air from their lungs. Everything that wasn't bolted to the plane, including passengers and crew, disappeared instantly, gone through a seven-foot hole in the forward cabin.
In seconds, a trail of debris stretched through space behind the stricken aircraft like a great torn ribbon.