JetHead, the Novel: Chapter 3
Chapters 1 and 2 are posted below. Here’s chapter 3:
Beaver held up the waxy paper message. “Want me to pass this back to Dixie?”
“Hell no,” Taylor snapped, a little more stridently than he meant to. “She’d poke your eyes out for that.”
No sense stirring up a hornets nest, at least not right now. They still had another two hours to fly. Keep things peaceful, then ease the bad news to the rest of the crew. He glanced down at the message. Fuck.
Monument Valley slid below the nose, a furious brick-red in the late noon sun, creased with ice-blue Lake Powell meandering south and west. This was a peaceful, rugged expanse, sacred, really, for a thousand years as Valley of the Gods. Taylor never tired of this place, the view, and the privilege of gliding eight miles above it, especially in what was an exceptionally glassy-smooth blue sky. He looked forward to the day that he and Darling Bride would drive their way across this stretch, maybe to the north rim of The Big Ditch. Road trip, the busman’s holiday. No airports, no security hassles or frantic crowds or chaotic boarding–just the two of them, at meandering, roadway speed rather than eight tenths of the speed of sound. No schedule, no demands–they even brought their own Keurig when they did their backroad safaris. The cabin chime killed the dream. He grabbed the handset from the pedestal console.
“Mark?” That was Barry’s voice from the cabin.
“Have you heard anything from DFW?”
Taylor let that hang in the air, but it was no use. “‘Fraid so, Barry,” he answered after a moment. Tornadoes, baseball-sized hail, airport closed. Northeast of Dallas, the report said. He lived well southwest of the airport, so at least there wasn’t that worry.
“Passengers are saying there’s been some severe weather.” Damned inflight Internet–passengers knew any bad news instantaneously. Used to be, they asked for ball game scores in flight. Now, you make a PA with scores and instantly the flight attendants are on the interphone, saying, shut up, the passengers are watching the game live.
“Yeah, Barry. We’re kinda screwed.”
They went way back, Barry, Taylor and Missuz Taylor, having flown together often “back in the day.” Once Barry had asked The Missuz, “Would it rock Mark’s world if he found out I’m gay?” She’d just laughed–as if anyone didn’t know. They were both fond of Barry, one of the best friends a person could hope to have.
“I was afraid of that.” Airport closed? Cancelled return flight. Shipwrecked in Seattle. “Is Bill on reserve?” Meaning, the copilot.
“Bob,” Taylor said, although over beers he’d have told Barry, The Beaver. Bill, Bob, typical pilot names, flight attendants saw pilots mostly as carbon copies. The interchangeable pilot man, Taylor always said: dress alike, talk alike, boring as hell, mostly. “Yeah, he’s on reserve.”
“So is Kelly,” Barry said. “But this is going to cost the rest of us.”
Barry understood. The Seattle turn was a big, eight-and-a-half hour bite at the ninety hour total most crew flew every month. With delays and overfly, that made for a ten day month. Now, they’d get minimum pay for today–five hours–and minimum for tomorrow. So ten hours in two days instead of eight and a half, maybe nine, in one? The month was getting longer, and who knew what Crew Tracking would cook up for them tomorrow, given the wreck the schedule would be in after all the cancellations. Reserve crews, like Kelly and The Beav, were just along for the ride. But for lineholders, particularly turnaround holders, this sucked.
Taylor was the type who went to his car after a trip and immediately upon getting in, never thought about the job at all, until it was time to go again. He knew many pilots whose identity was inextricably linked to his title–one guy’s wife referred to him as “Captain Mason” in casual conversation–but that wasn’t him. So maybe; no, definitely, he’d be missing essential layover survival gear in the Rollaboard he’d seldom opened.
Many; most of his seniority peers were flying the heavy metal to Europe, Asia and South America. But that was its own kind of beating, with at least one all-night leg, two for Deep South to Buenos Aires and the like. That aged a pilot fast but worse, it meant fourteen to sixteen days away from home. For Taylor, it was all about home and family, and maybe not getting older any faster than he already was. “You don’t use power tools after a trip,” one old squadron bud explained to him the mind-numbing jet lag that went with the body clock flip flop.
A goddam layover. He began to think of all the important stuff he should have put into his overnight bag, meant to put in and would now wish he had. But leaving the airport, all thoughts of the job vanished.
“It’s Kelly’s birthday,” Barry said. “Twenty-four. Guess she’ll have to celebrate it in Seattle.”
“Could be so much worse. Think Des Moines.”
Barry laughed. “I’m not saying a word to Dixie. That’s your job.”
Get your head back in the game, Taylor admonished himself. A glance at a fuel flow gauge showed what a half hour burn would be; double it, divide into time remaining, see how that matches the planned arrival fuel–or doesn’t. It’s a living algorithm playing in his head the entire flight. A good visual sweep will land experienced eyes on exactly what’s wrong, too. You just have to keep looking, letting the fuel algorithm and the visual sweep run in the background.
“I can ask for direct Coaldale,” Beaver suggested, holding the hand mic at the ready. We’ll never get that, Taylor knew from experience, not mid-afternoon with Area 51 and the Nellis military airspace hot with restricted activity. Beaver just didn’t have the big picture yet, and the air traffic controller would wonder why we were even wasting our time and his asking.
“Sure,” Taylor said. Why not? Let him learn. When he was an FO, Taylor hated overbearing captains. No harm in Beav asking, plus, as a captain it’s smart to only say “no” when absolutely necessary. In fact, he seldom said “no” but rather, “I’m not comfortable with that or “that’s probably not a good idea.” Like the old guys he flew FO for did and the subtle hint was enough to steer the crew without being heavy-handed. Give the FO some breathing room.
“Unable,” the air traffic controller snapped as soon as the Beaver requested the shortcut. Taylor yawned, feigned indifference.
“Well I don’t know why,” Taylor lied, “we can’t go over the top of their restricted airspace at 40,000 feet.” But he did know, he’d punched through the top of military airspace in afterburner, just screwing around. Nose up to the vertical, let ‘er fly. That’d get you up through 50,000 feet, asshole puckered about flameouts on the tail slide. The sky went to real dark blue, that high up.
Beautiful, it was.
“You wanna go back?” Taylor asked, changing the subject. A good halfway point, although on a normal turn, they’d be almost halfway home. Now, halfway to god knows where. Stop being such a pussy, he told himself.
“I’m good,” Beav piped up immediately. Seriously? Everything has to be about big balls, hacking the mission, never have to take a leak? Your urologist, Taylor figured, will be waiting for you in a few years, billing for the cumulative damage. If you don’t die of deep vein thrombosis first. The airline lost a few every year from that, sitting on their ass for too many long flight hours.
Beav made a dramatic grab for his quick-don O2 mask.
“It’ll be a minute,” Taylor said. “They’ll have to set this up.” A cart, someone to wait in the cockpit–bathroom monitor–to open the door afterward. God help Beav if Dixie was roped into babysitting him during Taylor’s absence. Please, sweet baby Jesus, let me get out of here without him briefing me–
“I’ve got the radios, the aircraft, autopilot-autothrottle on …”
Too late. The cabin chime.
“Taylor,” he stated, hoping maybe the call would silence the Beav.
“Feeding main tanks,” Beaver continued. When did you become such an assbag, Taylor asked himself. You get on the van, go to the hotel ….
“We’re ready, Mav.” That was Dixie being cute with a Top Gun reference. You check in, shuck the polyester, drag on some Levis …
“Going direct Wilson Creek,” Beav continued his recitation.
Fuck. He’s probably going to want to go have a beer wherever they’re shipwrecked tonight. How did the Skipper do it, always having Gilligan dogging his heels? He flashed back to his own DC-10 engineer days, turning on all the fuel boost pumps, announcing to the grizzled old captain hunched in the left seat, “All pumps on, stepping back.” A hand wave, probably annoyed. He finally got it.
“And the cabin pressure is good,” Beav confirmed. I just want to piss, Taylor thought silently. We really don’t need a change of command ceremony for that.
He slid his seat back along the rails. “Awright. Want anything from the back?” Coffee? A Valium? Anything to calm you down? “Smiling Jack” Jackson, a DC-10 captain from back in his FO days used to ask, “Can I get you a tissue, a sanitary napkin?” And Taylor would laugh. He didn’t think Beav would get it.
“Be right back.” Taylor stepped out of the cockpit, and Holly slipped in to take his place.
Bob smelled her before he saw her out of the corner of his eye, slipping past Lurch as he stepped out of the cockpit. She smelled good: hair stuff? Cologne? Whatever it was, she smelled amazingly good. And she seemed not to even notice him.
“What a view,” she annunciated each word, staring out the forward cockpit windows.
Could he take off the oxygen mask? Regs said when a pilot was alone on the flight deck, above 25,000 feet–
“Where are we,” she breathed, still rapt, her eyes looking down on the rugged sunlit stonescape of northern Idaho.
Lurch was in the can, so who’d know? He whipped off the mask. “The Green River is the only River in the west that flows north,” the words stuttered out of his mouth and he immediately wanted them back. Idiot! What a stupid thing to say!
She turned to him, amused. “What?”
“So,” he tried to recover. “You’re Based in New York?” Stupid! Stupid! Of course, it says so right on the crew list.
“Yeah,” she answered, turning back to the grand view slipping silently under the nose. Dixie’s voice whispered in his head, “Is your wife a flight attendant?” As they’d all met, then boarded, she’d asked that.
Holly sat down behind the empty captain’s seat. “And you guys are Dallas.”
How did she mean that? Dallas crews were known to be arrogant, not very popular in the crew world. Or maybe, she was just letting him off the hook, following his lame conversational lead. Damn she smelled good. Why didn’t his wife smell like that, the question formed itself and immediately, daggers of duty and guilt began to take form over his head. “Well if your first wife isn’t,” Dixie’s echo in his head continued, “Your second wife will be!”
“I’m on reserve,” she offered. “Had birthday plans in the city tonight, but …”
He nodded. “I’m on reserve too. Can’t make any plans either.”
“Well if we’re really laying over in Seattle,” she chirped, “You can help me celebrate my birthday.”
“Okay,” he answered too quickly, he knew. So lame. And what was is it, this huge contrast between flight attendants and what–military wives? Couldn’t military or more accurately, ex-military wives like his be so lively and stylish and at ease in all situations and oh god, the daggers of guilt again suspended over his head by the merest thread.
She looked at him, as if seeing him for the first time. Then she turned back to the rugged tapestry scrolling by below, taking on the slanted shadows of late afternoon.
“Okay,” she echoed, but idly, it seemed to him. He’d have to make an impression somehow, maybe in Seattle. “I’ve never laid over downtown in Seattle.”
He hadn’t either. “I have,” the words spilled out of his mouth. Well, in the military he’d stayed at McChord AFB in Tacoma. They rented a car and drove around Seattle.
“Good,” she said, still staring out the window where the view seemed to stretch to the very curve of the Earth. “You can play tour guide.”
Taylor stepped out of the cockpit, pushing the door securely closed as as Holly stepped in. Dixie stood in the galley, hands on hips. “Let me guess.”
He held up a hand. “If you don’t say it, maybe it won’t be true.”
No crew connections, according to the message. Dead in the water in Seattle.
The jet rumbled through a washboard of turbulence, the floor swayed. Dixie poured a cup of coffee, black, without spilling a drop. Taylor wondered if she could pour on the ground, without the deck pitching as it did in flight.
“We did this turn yesterday,” Dixie said, handing him the coffee. “Got home two hours late.”
He laughed. “At least you got home. Now you get to chaperone Holly at Chucky Cheese in Seattle.”
“Not a chance in hell,” she said without a nanosecond of hesitation. “Flying high time, I don’t think I’ve gotten more than five hours of sleep in six months. I’ll be slam-clicking as soon as I can.”
“Don’t look at me,” Taylor said. “They’re on their own.”
Slam click: step into your hotel room, slam the door behind you, click the lock. Dixie, maybe. Taylor, should be. But they both knew that was a lie.
Next: Chapter 4–coming soon.