Prologue: The Collection
October 31, 2001
Due to a tour boat's fishing net fouled propellers, I missed my flight and found myself stuck in the middle of nowhere with only what I happened to be carrying with me. This particular 'middle of nowhere' must be the tiniest so-called 'International Airport' in the world. Although the one short narrow runway is paved, I had seen bigger and more elaborate private, secondary, and even tertiary civil airfields in the U.S. Not only that, but the government of this 'middle of nowhere' did not like gringos... officially anyway. Luckily, the local people, even the 'officially unfriendly' local government officials and employees, were not so unfriendly.
Most things, such as food and a fairly decent place to stay, were very inexpensive, and good old US dollars were very welcomed. A good thing since I was carrying a little less then two hundred dollars in cash, and unfortunately I had no way to get any more since everything, except my passport and a couple useless credit cards, was in my luggage. Which of course did not miss the flight. Most of the others who also missed the flight were in worse shape then me as far as available cash was concerned, and it looks like we're going to be stuck here for almost two days before the next scheduled flight to any less isolated destination.
Even though we were 'officially' unwelcome visitors, we had no trouble leaving the airport to take the boat tour, nor did we have any trouble out in town looking for something to eat and a place to stay after we missed our flight. Before the dozen other now-stranded passengers who took the same 'short' boat tour I did, plus a couple who missed the flight for other reasons, could find a place to stay, runners from the local area's US Embassy representative found us. The messengers informed us the local Embassy representative knew of our problem and was eager to assist us in any way possible. I was not the only one surprised by this speedy and unsolicited offer of assistance, which kicked my normal level of paranoia a couple of notches higher.
While I did not think we would have any trouble from the local government if we waited for the scheduled flight, the local US Consulate representative, a Mr. O'Neel, had other ideas. He agreed that we would probably have no trouble if we waited for the next scheduled flight, but he said he could not be sure and thought it would be best if we stayed in the rather small Embassy compound until the next flight. I suspected Mr. O'Neel knew more then he was telling us about the current local situation, so I decided it would not hurt to be a guest of old Uncle Sam for a day or two. Besides, it was 'free' room & board.
Before we could get settled into the rather crowded spartan accommodations, Mr. O'Neel announced he just learned of a chartered flight which was due to land in the next hour or two. Since it was a US based charter company, he said he could use special 'Emergency Evacuation Authorization' to reserved seats for all stranded US citizens. Mr. O'Neel struck me as being fairly new at his current assignment and, unlike the burned out bureaucrats who usually get stuck in these out of the way places, he seemed to actually want to do a good job. This can be good or bad, depending on who you are, what you are doing, and how zealous the 'helpful' bureaucrat is about enforcing some of the more asinine regulations the vacuum brains at the State Department are constantly coming up with.
Well, anyway, Mr. O'Neel was worried some of the 'hotheads' in the local government might try to involve innocent US citizens in an 'incident' just to embarrass America. I thought he was worried over nothing, since such 'hotheads' can always find some poor sucker to be the fall guy if they really wanted to take the risk of pissing off 'the powers that be', but I was impressed about his apparent concern. I was even more surprised, impressed, and suspicious of his willingness to spend US Taxpayer money to protect US citizens without any news reporters around to record the event.
Did I happen to mention I normally have little use for most US Government overseas bureaucrats, or bureaucrats in general? This is an opinion arrived at through many encounters with self-important, self-righteous bureaucratic grafters, the kind who considers a foreign posting to any of the poorer so-called third-world countries as a form of exile or as an opportunity to increase their personal wealth. Of course, I will admit I may be a little biased, since my work as a 'freelance general trouble-shooter and problem-solver' brings me into contact with the less reputable bureaucrats stationed in any given country. But, every once in a while I will run into someone like Mr. O'Neel, a bureaucrat who is actually trying to do his job, and while this can cause me some problems in my line of work, it is still nice to know there are some good ones around.
Everyone was happy to accept Mr. O'Neel's offer of free transportation and since none of us had any luggage we did not have any trouble about leaving with such short notice. Within a few minutes, everyone had piled into the two Consulate cars and a taxi Mr. O'Neel provided, and we were heading back out to the airport. I was not the only one who liked the idea of a free ride home and thought it was about time we got something directly useful in return for the taxes we pay for a change.
Personally, I was not at all upset that I would not have to take passage on the next scheduled flight. I figured the charter flight had to be better, and a lot safer then the third-rate local puddle-jumper airline that was scheduled. I do a lot of flying, mostly around South-East Asia and South America, and I always try flying with one of the major international airlines. This is because I have found, with a few notable exceptions, that many third-world local airlines have much poorer safety records. So, whenever I have had to fly with a small or foreign airline I made a point of finding out everything I could about them. As a result of chatting with the few ground support personnel that I could find, I determined the local airline sounded like it had a really terrible safety record, with in-flight service that really sucked too, and I was actually warned to not even think of eating or drinking anything not served in a sealed container. It may sound like I'm joking, but the only good thing I heard about the local airline is they do not allow livestock in the passenger compartment.
So when Mr. O'Neel assured me that while the chartered flight would be on a newly refurbished aircraft owned by a small newly registered US airline, Alpha Omega General Transports, I was quite pleased to accept a seat on it. I would have still have liked to have been able to do a little checking of AOGT's safety record, but I assumed it had to be better then the alternative.
Given the very short and narrow runway of this 'wannabe' International Airport, I expected the AOGT charter would be one of the smaller, newer, wide bodied aircraft designed to safely operate off short runways. To say I was surprised to see a huge red and blue trimmed brushed aluminum 747 dropping through the cloud cover would be a major understatement. I was sure the pilot must have been given the wrong information about the length of the runway he was trying to set such a huge heavy aircraft down on.
As I watched, I kept expecting the pilot to abort the landing and pull up. It was obvious such a huge aircraft could not land on such a tiny runway. Instead of pulling up, the huge plane lightly touched down, and braked to a stop well short of the short runway's end. It had not crashed at the end of the runway as any normal aircraft half its size should have done. The pilot did not seem to have any problem with a nasty cross wind, the short narrow runway, or maneuvering around and moving along an even narrower taxi-way intended for much smaller aircraft. The huge 747 airliner came to a stop only a few yards from the small building that served as the Passenger Terminal and Air Control Tower, which seemed tiny in comparison to the huge aircraft.
I'm no aeronautical expert, but I could tell the 747 was basically one of the older extended bodied 747-400 with a longer upper 'first class' deck, but the wings and engines appeared to have undergone extensive modifications. The aircraft appeared to be well maintained. At least, the plane's exterior and interior was as neat and clean as any other commercial passenger airliner I had seen. Based on the perfect landing under what should have been impossible conditions for such a huge aircraft, as well as the aircraft's general appearance, I was not too worried about something major going wrong, like an engine falling off in mid-flight.
When the ground crew rolled out the boarding stairs, they discovered it was way too short to reach any of the boarding hatches. Not too surprising, I'm sure no one ever expected such a huge aircraft would ever be landing here. After a lot of shouting and arm waving, the ground crew managed to rig up a boarding ramp from the roof of the terminal building to one of the 747's boarding hatches.
I was pleased to see the young pilot would not allow anyone to use the jerry-rigged ramp until he was satisfied about its safety, even though I'm pretty sure he really was not responsible for the safety of the boarding equipment. The rest of the flight crew and attendants, male and female, were all polite and neatly dressed in blue-trimmed dove-gray uniforms matching the color scheme of the plane's interior. The conscientious pilot and the attendants, at least the ones I spoke to and overheard talking, seemed to be American, English, or Australian, so they all spoke the same language, more or less. I have been on flights where it seemed as if none of the flight attendants spoke the same language, which could be a disaster if there was any real trouble. Fortunately this is not very common.
I took the time for a little walk through the plane before going to my assigned seat, which was way up front near the stairs to the upper deck and fairly close to the boarding hatch. I noticed the seating arrangement was different from what I have seen on other passenger airliners in that they had narrow coach-class and wider business class seats in each row of seats, with no first class or premium section. It looked like there were more seats then usual for what seemed to be a normal width extended length 747 fuselage. Two-thirds to three-fourths of the available seats were empty, and the way the relatively few passengers were scattered throughout the huge cabin struck me as a little odd. Although it made no sense to do so, I got the impression someone had gone to the trouble of seating the passengers as far apart from each other as possible. This probably coincidental oddity caused me take even more interest in my fellow passengers then I usually do.
I believe I have mentioned I do a lot of flying. Well, to pass the time of long flights and waiting for connecting flights, I study my fellow passengers. I enjoy guessing where they are from, where they are going, what they do for a living, and in general, what 'kind' of people they are. I'm just guessing of course, but they are educated guesses based on my traveling companions' appearance, how they act, and on several years of dealing face to face with people from all over the world. On the relatively few occasions I have had to compare my guesses with reality, I have been surprised how close my guesses usually were. Although, I have noticed when my guesses are wrong, they are usually very wrong, but I have learned it is never a good idea to ignore any 'negative' feelings I may have about someone just because I might be wrong. Then there are always a few 'mystery' passengers who do not seem to fit into any category.
As a result of my people watching game, I noticed a few odd things about my fellow passengers as I made my way through the plane before going to my seat. First of all, there seems to be at least three female passengers for each male passenger. Secondly, nearly all of my fellow passengers seems to be in their late twenties to late thirties. There was less then a dozen passengers noticeably older then the majority, and there were no children aboard. The oldest people I saw were four older couples seated up front close to where I was seated. They seemed to have very little in common with the younger passengers. Two of these couples were in their late sixties or seventies, while the other two were fifteen to twenty years younger, and all four couples seemed to be married. I also did not think there were any married couples among the younger passengers, at least none who acted married and sat together. It seemed obvious that few if any of the passengers knew each other, a fact most of them did not seem to be interested in changing. There were a few exceptions of course, of two or three people sitting close together in quiet conversation, but not very many.
Except for the four older couples, and the dozen or so people who boarded the plane with me, most of the other passengers struck me as being preoccupied and looked rather depressed, like they was going to a funeral. I mean most seemed to be... well, I'm not sure what it is, but they all had something in common despite being a fairly good cross-section of physical and racial types. Something struck me as most unusual and unnatural about my fellow passengers, as if someone had gone to the trouble of gathering together a group of people with something in common which had me totally stumped. Well, it was a charted fight after all, and I would expect the passengers to have something in common. Just wished I could figure out what it was.
A few minutes after I finally took my seat, four or five dozen additional passengers came aboard. I studied these new passengers with interest and much more success as they filed by my seat and headed up the spiral staircase to the first class upper deck. Six of the older men, were obviously the 'leaders' of this group of passengers and plainly had their 'pecking order' all worked out. About two dozen younger people in their late twenties to mid fifties seemed to be what I think of as academic follower types, the 'yes-men' of the group leaders. The rest of the group, from a mid sixty year old man to a young woman, who I'm sure was less then eighteen, seemed to be a mixed bag of other academic types.
After the last of this new group climbed the stairs to the upper deck, I called a passing flight attendant over and asked, “Excuse me ma'am. Some of the passengers who just came aboard seemed familiar. Could you tell me who they are, please?”
She shrugged and replied with a typical flight attendant smile, "I am sorry sir, I don't know much about them. I believe they are scientists of some kind, but I do know they are the reason we landed here."
Just after I finished talking to the flight attendant someone on the other side of the plane called out excitedly, “Hey! Look at that! There is a really big airplane landing, and it looks like it's on fire!”
There was a general rush to the windows on the other side of the plane, but not nearly as many as I would have expected. Since I was seated close to one of the transverse aisles, I managed to snag a window seat in time to see a large STOL military transport, A USAF military transport, taxiing off the runway to the taxi-way. I didn't think it was on fire, but one of its four engines was blowing out a thin streamer of black smoke, and the propellers of two others were not turning. I was about to return to my seat when a second transport landed. This one was not visibly smoking when it touched down, but two of its turboprop engines were shut down also. There was a large burst of black and gray smoke from its right engine shortly after the transport applied reverse thrust to slow down, which caused the plane to abruptly veer to the left and run off the runway before it could stop. Luckily that initial burst of reverse thrust did most of the work of slowing the transport, and the pilot was probably cutting back on the thrust, otherwise the results would have been a lot more spectacular. I could see white puffs of fire retardent shooting out both ends of the smoking engine which seemed to put out any fire. At least it stopped the black smoke that had started billowing out the back end.
The transports were about a third the size of the 747, still much bigger then the runway was intended to service, but these were military transports designed to land and take off from short unpaved runways under combat conditions. This was a good thing considering both of them apparently suffered severe engine damage, probably from bird strikes. Must have been some very big birds since I'm sure modern military jet engines are designed to stand up to such damage from most birds. From the number of people I could see evacuating the aircraft, it was obvious the transports were set up to transport personnel, and from the non-military colors of the clothing most of the people were wearing, it looked like they might not be military personnel. When no other transports landed, and it appeared any engine fires had been extinguished, I returned to my seat.
Mr. O'Neel came back aboard about a half hour after the transports landed, and insisted on talking to the pilot. As he waited for the pilot at the foot of the upper deck stairs Mr. O'Neel seemed worried and annoyed or harassed. Since I was seated only a short distance from where Mr. O'Neel waited, I had little trouble over-hearing him and the pilot talking. The pilot looked well under thirty years old, wore his hair in a military style buzz-cut and had an unmistakable military bearing. He also wore his blue trimmed gray AOGT uniform as sharply as a military uniform. It was pretty obvious he was an ex-military pilot, and I doubted he had been out of the service more then a few months at most.
Unsmiling, and ignoring O'Neel's offered hand, the pilot spoke first, “I understand you wish to speak to me Mr. O'Neel.” The pilot was all business, and not nearly as friendly toward O'Neel as he was toward his crew and passengers.
Mr. O'Neel gave the pilot a friendly smile and said, “Yes First Pilot, I do. I wish to thank you again for accepting the stranded American civilians. The local government is proving... difficult, so it is a relief to see them safely out of the area.”
Still unsmiling, the pilot nodded and said, “Although I would have accepted them anyway, you did not give me much choice about the matter. Alpha Omega General Transports is a US registered airline, so you had the legal right to demand passage for distressed US citizens in a potentially hostile country, but I did not care for the way you seemed to assume we would deny passage to those American citizens. So your thanks is not needed, or desired. Now, if that is all, I have duties I must attend to before departure.”
As the pilot started to turn away Mr. O'Neel said, “I can only say in my defense that many other US companies are not as eager to help their fellow citizens as you say AOGT would be. So I sincerely apologize if you feel I insulted you or your employer, as that was not my intention.”
The pilot sighed and said, “Yes, I guess that is true, unfortunately. But, the conduct of US government officials toward US companies operating overseas has a lot to do with that attitude.”
O'Neel just nodded and said, “I understand this is a privately chartered flight, and you will be flying directly to Miami Florida, is this correct?”
The pilot showed a small tight unfriendly smile as he replied, “Yes, that is correct. You did not seem to care about this before you 'forced' me to accept your 'civilian' passengers. Why does this interest the US Consulate now?”
O'Neel answered, “First Pilot Folson, I'm sure you noticed the two transports aircraft which made emergency landings a half hour ago?”
Folson nodded and replied, sounding suspicious, “Yes.”
O'Neel explained, "The aircraft sucked birds or something into their engines and damaged three engines on both transports. Both aircraft had to shut down two engines and severely limit the load on the damaged engine. They were lucky to be able to reach this airfield and make safe landings with only one good engine. Luckily they are military transports designed to absorb battle damage and keep flying. The fact they were just carrying passengers, a fairly light load made a big difference too. In any case, the aircraft will be grounded for at least a week until replacement engines can be flown in and repairs made."
Folson sighed and asked, “So, I assume you have more passengers you wish to arrange passage for?”
O'Neel gave a wry smile and said, “Ahh, yeah... a few. Since these are military personnel and dependants, I am authorized to pay compensation of 150% of the present average non-discounted first class fare per passenger. I understand that would be a little less then a thousand dollars. I believe I could round that figure up to an even thousand per passenger. Would this be acceptable?”
Folson sighed again and said, “Yes, that is very... generous. Not that I'd have much choice if it wasn't, would I?”
O'Neel shrugged and said, “No, not really. I know you've heard it before, but I'm only doing my job. I really don't wish to cause you or your employers any unnecessary inconvenience, but I will do what I have to do, to do my job. How many vacant seats do you have?”
The pilot looked toward an attendant standing nearby, a young Korean woman I was surprised I recognized. She made a quick check of a clipboard, then replied, “We have 264 open seats on the main deck, plus another 11 on the upper deck, 275 total, First Pilot.”
I noticed a momentary look of surprise flash across her face when the flight attendant happened to glance my way. I gave her a smile and a nod, and was rewarded by a smile and nod in return, before she turned her attention to the pilot and O'Neel as Mr. O'Neel exclaimed, "Excellent! Perfect, better then I hoped for!"
Mr. O'Neel filled the amount on a US government cash voucher, gave it to the pilot, and had him sign a receipt for it. The pilot stared at the voucher, before asking, “Are you... Just how many passengers is this check for?”
Mr. O'Neel replied with a big smile, “Two Hundred Seventy Two, U.S. military personnel, and dependents. It is so convenient you have enough seats for everyone.”
Folson scowled and asked, “This is what you call a 'few' passengers?” O'Neel just smiled as the pilot continued, “With that many additional passengers I will have to take on additional fuel.” He pulled a small calculator from his shirt pocket, and begin making entries as he asked, “I assume they have at least the minimum luggage allowance. How much would that be? Fifty pounds? Seventy-five pounds? Humm... with dependents, I better assume at least 100 pounds per passenger.”
Folson stared at the results, shook his head, then made a couple more calculations which left him frowning. Giving O'Neel a nasty look, he said, “Okay, there is enough runway, just enough, to lift off on, assuming there is no tail wind.” This surprised me, since I was pretty sure most aircraft required more room, usually a lot more room, for takeoffs then landings, so I was pretty sure the pilot would be telling Mr. O'Neel he would have to find other transportation for most of his passengers.
Folson was obviously not happy as he told O'Neel, “Mr. O'Neel, I had not planned on taking on fuel here, because regardless of what the officially posted fuel quality may be, I do not trust the quality of fuel they have here. Now I have no choice about taking on fuel. I am not at all happy about this, and if I could cite a single valid reason, other then my personal opinions, I would not accept your additional passengers. Now I warn you, I have explicit, inflexible instructions regarding my latest possible departure time. If for any reason, it appears I may not be able to make my latest departure time, I will abort fueling, order your passengers off my aircraft, and take off. I will be happy to let AOGT legal department settle things with the State Department. Is this clear, Mr. O'Neel.?
O'Neel frowned, but nodded and said, “Yes, I understand, First Pilot Folson. I will make sure you get your fuel as quickly as the local facilities can provide it, and I'll expedite your departure in any way I can.”
The pilot shrugged and said, “Very well, as long I leave on time. How long will it take you to get all your people onboard?”
Mr. O'Neel replied, “I assume no longer then it takes them to transfer their personal belongings from the damaged transports to your plane.”
“I will have my engineer supervise the loading of the cargo containers. I must warn you again, I will be departing on time. Anyone who is not aboard before the boarding hatch is closed one hour from now, will left behind. If I have not received the fuel I require no later then twenty minutes before my scheduled departure time I will order your people to disembark. I will not delay my departure one minute for any reason.” Folson said then turned away with a air of obvious annoyance.
As the pilot started to return to the cockpit, an older man who I guess was the boss scientist of those who went up to the first class deck, met him on the stairs. The white-haired sixty year old patriarchal looking 'gentleman' had observed some of the exchange between the pilot and Mr. O'Neel. It seems he did not like what he overheard, and he did not hesitate to make his displeasure known.
They were just a little too far away for me to clearly hear what the old guy said, but it must have been something nasty from the way the First Pilot reacted. I had no trouble hearing his reply, “May I point out, sir. This flight was NOT chartered by you, or your people. Neither you, nor any of your people have paid a cent toward your passage. As I understand the arrangement, your passage is provided as a courtesy, a courtesy you are not forced to accept. You are quite free to disembark, or return to your seat, as you may decide, sir.”
The boss scientist struck me as being a rather unpleasant self-centered old sourpuss, and someone not at all use to being addressed in such a way by someone less then half his age. He looked like he'd just tasted something really unpleasant at the pilot's response to whatever he said. I have to admit I rather enjoyed how the scientist turned red and glared after the pilot as he pushed past him, and two of his companions, to continue on up to the cockpit. I guess my enjoyment of his discomfort must have been pretty obvious, because when he glanced around the cabin he paused to glare at me too, before he stormed up the stairs.
Less then five minutes later, the first of the new passengers began filing on board. The first to board were three to four dozen women and children. Then, neatly dressed young men and women, obviously military personnel even though they wore casual civilian clothes, began boarding the plane along with the civilian dependents. As more people boarded the plane, the proportion of civilian to military shifted until the last three or four dozen to board were all obviously military.
I noticed the last of the military personnel to board the plane, about three dozen or so, seemed different from the other military personnel. They were much more alert and watchful of their surroundings, but gave the impression of being more relaxed than the other military personnel. I have met such military types before, so it was not hard to guess they were elite troops of some kind, possibly Ranger, or Special Forces, or maybe even SEALS.
It took just under an hour for the last of the military personnel and dependents to board. The military personnel and their dependents, including the dozens of children were quite and courteous. It was pretty obvious they were very different from the original group of passengers who seemed to be rather uncomfortable as the newcomers literally surrounded them.
As the last civilian dressed troops boarded the hatch was shut. A few minutes after that, the 'fasten seat belts' and 'no smoking' signs came on, and the plane began to taxi out to the runway for takeoff.
I'm no expert, certainly no pilot, but I have done a lot of flying in all kinds of passenger jets. I believe I have mentioned this once or twice. Anyway, this included 747s, so I know how things are normal suppose to go during a flight, and this flight was different from the beginning. As the plane began its run down the runway, it had more acceleration, a lot more acceleration then any other 747, or any other passenger jet I have flown on. The only thing I have flown on which came close was a STOL transport up in Alaska, but that plane was only a tenth as big and more lightly loaded than this fully loaded 747. I assume this was due to the short runway, as well as the different and obviously more powerful engines installed on this particular 747. The engines sounded notably different, they had a much lower pitched turbine whine, and low almost subsonic whooshing roar very different from any other jet engine I've heard.
Once it actually lifted off the runway, the plane pulled up to a much steeper angle, much steeper then any non-military flight I've ever been on. The plane maintained the steep angle and high rate of climb until the pilot announced we were approaching the assigned cruising altitude of 40,000 feet, and began leveling off, which did not seem to take much time at all. From the expressions of the military people gave each other, I assume they also realized this was no ordinary 747.
After the plane leveled off, the flight attendants began serving non-alcoholic drinks. I saw the young woman I recognized earlier, serving drinks now. I fly JAL fairly frequently when I have to travel around Southeast Asia, and I had gotten to know Senior Flight Attendant May Parker pretty well.
I gave her a big smile as she approached and said, “It's been a couple of months since I've seen my favorite flight attendant. How are you doing, May?”
May smiled, and replied, “Ahh, Mr. Smith, or is it Mr. Jones this time? I am doing very well. How are you enjoying the flight so far?” as she gave me a glass of ice and a can of Coca-Cola without needing to ask what I wanted.
I replied with a smile, “Ohh, I was very impressed with the takeoff. How long have you worked for AOGT? I thought you were quite happy with JAL.”
She shook her head as she said, “I am still employed by JAL. I am just standing in for a friend. She twisted her ankle just before the flight began, I was free at the time, and I owe her a favor, so...”
She paused to give a young woman seated across the aisle a drink before continuing, “Yes, I have noticed this aircraft does have a lot of... excess power, and First Pilot Folson is not at all shy about using it. He is quite skilled, but young and new, and does not yet realize how such... displays can upset some passengers.”
I chuckled at this and asked before she moved on, “If you're free in Miami, maybe we could get together for dinner, or something.”
She paused to say, “Now, Mr. Smith, you know JAL frowns on flight attendants dating passengers.”
I winked and smiled as I replied, “Well, you would not be dating a JAL passenger, this time. Now, would you?” She just smiled and winked in return before she went on to the next row of passengers.
As May returned to work, I noticed the pilot making the rounds of the cabin, introducing himself to the passengers, and saying a few words to many of them. This was not standard procedures followed on other airlines, where the pilot more or less stayed in the pilot's cabin isolated from his passengers. I thought it was a nice friendly touch, as long as everything was going okay, and the copilot, or second pilot is competent.
When the pilot obviously met a couple of old buddies who happened to be setting only a couple rows away, I learned he was ex-USMC fighter pilot Major Folson as of only couple months ago. He did not mention why he was an ex-fighter pilot, and his buddies did not ask. They did ask about the 'souped up truck' he was flying now.
Pilot Folson smiled and said, “Well, she's no F16, but she'll fly rings around anything a quarter of her size, and pull more G's then anything short of a fighter. You'd have to see it to believe it but this baby can pull a 5G barrel roll without a single shudder.”
One buddy laughed and said, “Oh, yeah. I can just see ya doin' something like that with three or four hundred passengers aboard.”
Folson laughed and replied, “Of course I would not do anything like that with passengers onboard, but it's a great comfort to know I have more then enough power to get out trouble that would not be at all pretty if it happened to any other airliner. You guys know how I feel about always having an edge, just in case you might need it someday. Well, this sweet little-big baby gives me all kinds of edges over ANY other commercial aircraft.”
According to what I overheard Folson telling his old buddies, Alpha Omega General Transport is planning on buying up old 747s, in good condition, then doing some extensive upgrades and modifications. Resulting in an extremely efficient, and safe, aircraft at less then a third of the cost of a new one. Pilot Folson made AOGT sound as they could really shake up the air transport industry. In fact, I decided to check them out with the idea of possibly investing in AOGT stock.
In talking to several of the flight attendants, I discovered all of them were fresh out of one or another Flight Attendant Schools. Of the six attendants I spoke to, this flight was the first for three of them, the second flight for two, and the third flight for one who claimed to be AOGT's senior attendant. None of them, except for May, had worked for any other airline or had much experience, and May was not really a AOGT employee. I knew May was rated as a senior flight attendant by JAL and had been with them for over five years, but it seemed that everything else about AOGT was new, pilots, attendants, even the plane if you did not include the airframe. The engines were certainly a new design.
About two hours into the flight, I had to piss, which was not unusual. I was also having a hard time staying awake, which was a bit unusual.
As I got up to go to the nearest restroom, I noticed most of the passengers seated nearby were already asleep, or seemed ready to drop off at any moment. Even the two flight attendants making the rounds of the cabin seemed about ready to fall asleep on their feet. Making my way to the rest rooms I noticed most of the passengers I could see were asleep, or in the process of dozing off. I even found two flight attendants sound asleep in seats next to the galley, and returning from the rest rooms I found a third attendant asleep beside the other two.
By this time, I could barely keep my eyes open, and as I made my way back to my seat I realized I seemed to be the only person still awake. No one was out of their seats. Everyone seemed to be sound asleep. All I could hear was the low rumble of the engines, and a few soft and not so soft sounds of snoring.
It suddenly got through my lethargic consciousness that something was very, very wrong. Abruptly I realized it was not normal, not at all normal for an entire plane full of people to be sleeping less then two hours after takeoff. I still felt very sleepy, which alarmed me enough to help keep me awake, and alert enough to really take a good look around.
Yelling as loud as I could I called, “HEEYY! Is anyone awake!? If anyone can hear me say something... wave, do something, anything!”
Except for causing a few nearby passengers to stir a bit in their sleep, I got no response. I tried shaking a few of the sleeping passengers awake. Only one passenger responded, without really waking up, and she only muttered, “Go away!”
I was more then just alarmed now, and I was still very sleepy. Whatever was causing my drowsiness felt more like excess CO2 than oxygen starvation, but either could easily be lethal. I knew the first aid kits usually stored in the galley on most passenger airliners contained small emergency oxygen bottles.
I found the first aid box I expected to find and three oxygen bottles. I also found the large first aid kit had a fairly potent stimulant, which I was tempted to use despite the possible danger. I decided to see if the oxygen would be enough to keep me awake, but I took the stimulant and a couple of extra syringes just in case the oxygen was not enough. The oxygen did seem to help some at first, but I still felt very drowsy. Using the galley intercom to call the cockpit got no reply to my call. If the flight crew was also asleep, then we were in a whole lot of trouble.
I found May sleeping in a seat near the stairs up in first class as I made my way to the cockpit. I paused long enough to try waking her. I put an extra oxygen bottle on her, then tried waking her up. I was rough and probably gave her a few nasty bruises, but I was barely able to rouse her enough to mumble, “Sorry sir. How may I help you?”
Everyone in first class was sound asleep, just like everyone else. It also seemed everyone in the cockpit was also asleep. Pushing the intercom buzzer and pounding on the locked cockpit door got no response. Even if I was not about to pass out, I could not have forced the reinforced cockpit door open with my bare hands.
When I suddenly stumbled and slumped against the cockpit door, I realized the oxygen was not going to keep me awake much longer. I managed to give myself an injection of the stimulant. Luckily I filled the syringe with a more or less safe dose before I left the galley. The stimulant did not seem to have any immediate effect, and I found I just could not seem to force myself to get up, or hold my eyes open. I felt an odd tingling sensation in my lips, ears and fingers as I guess the stimulant was starting to have some effect. I was not actually asleep, or unconscious, but I could not move or even force my eyes open.
I just lay, slumped against the cockpit door, for what seemed like a long time, seemingly as unconscious as everyone else. Then someone forced the cockpit door open. I was totally helpless and unable to react in any way as someone picked me up from the floor like a small child and gently strapped me into an empty seat. I tried as hard as I could, without success, to open at least one eye a crack to get a glimpse of whoever was still awake.
While I could not seem to move a muscle there was nothing wrong with my ears. I heard a man's voice speaking with an odd accent, “Sub-phase four of collection schedule completed within acceptable parameters. Two-hundred-thirty-six of 241 pre-selected subjects accounted for. An additional 286 non-authorized subjects inadvertently collected... Yes, 286... Do you wish to proceed with sub-phase one of retrieval procedures?” After a long pause he said, "Understood, transmitting full passenger list."
I could not hear the person he was talking to, but I did not like what I could hear at all. After a very long pause after asking about proceeding, the oddly accented voice said, “Very well, initiating sub-phase one of retrieval procedures. . . now.”
I heard a sound like a turbine winding up and felt an odd sensation of 'pressure' building up as the pitch of the sound climbed higher. The sound or the building pressure caused a sharp pain in my ears and behind my eyes until suddenly there was a. . .
> > POP < <
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