BANGKOK — Tuesday 03:00
Air Cargo International Flight 103 began its takeoff roll at 03:00 local time. Duncan was pleased; there had been only a slight delay from his target of 02:45, the time given to the bribed Thai ground handlers.
Duncan leaned back and surveyed his surroundings as the aircraft gathered speed. There may not have been preparation time to provide amenities for the rest of Mr. Li's family, but this igloo was well appointed, and, with only five people in it including Duncan, could even be called spacious.
Besides Mr. Li and Duncan, there were Li's personal assistant, his bodyguard, and his nurse-wife. Each was in a seat-belted easy chair bolted to the igloo floor. A cot was alongside the old man's chair on the wall opposite the igloo's entrance. Duncan's chair was just inside the door, convenient for his leaving and entering the igloo.
The igloo occupied the number two position, directly underneath the aft part of the upper deck. Its position prevented it from being seen through the small window in the back wall of that deck. Duncan could come and go without fear of being seen by a crewmember moving about in the area aft of the cockpit.
Outside the igloo's door was the retractable ladder used by the crew to ascend from the main deck to the cockpit. The ladder folded upward into the main deck ceiling—the upper deck floor—and was then covered by a door. Unless a crewmember wanted to descend to the main deck in flight, an unlikely event, the ladder was left up until arrival at the destination. Duncan had had a small retractable bolt installed on the main deck ceiling which, when thrown, would make it impossible to open the covering door from the upper deck.
A removable floor panel outside the igloo door allowed access to the aircraft's lower deck. Removing it exposed ladder rungs leading down into the aircraft's electrical and electronics bay. In the bay Duncan, Richard, and a bribed electronics technician had installed wiring to permit Duncan to monitor all cockpit conversation and radio traffic. He could, if necessary, also override all radio transmissions.
After the igloo had been locked into place, a hole had been drilled through its floor and then through the main deck floor. A cable bundle connecting to the rewiring below was brought up into an old patched‑up communications console mounted on the igloo wall alongside Duncan's chair. Another bundle from the console snaked along the underside of a guide rail to the back of the airplane, where it descended through another drilled hole to the aft belly compartment. It allowed communication with the six men confined there.
The loading of the aircraft had not happened as Duncan had planned. He had envisioned the family and himself surreptitiously entering the igloos in an airport cargo warehouse and then enduring a jolting forklift ride to the airplane, but Mr. Li's power, money, and influence allowed a more genteel departure. The igloos, empty of passengers, were loaded in the usual manner. Then, after the crew was aboard and the ladder to the upper deck was retracted and bolted, the family boarded. Mr. Li approached the airplane last, and several Thais left limousines near the tail of the aircraft to bid him a warm farewell at the foot of the airstairs. Duncan was amazed to see that the group included a General in full uniform.
Duncan felt the aircraft nose come up, felt the nose gear leave the runway. The deck angle increased to ten degrees. The plane ran along on the main gear for a short distance and was airborne. The deck angle increased further. At this weight, if the flying pilot did it by the book, Duncan knew the deck angle would go to fourteen degrees.
Duncan's contribution to the interior of the igloo was a small whiteboard he had bolted to the wall where all could see. It already had the words ETA NOVATO written on a first line and SUNSET 1843 on a second line. He reached up and completed the first line, writing 1324 with a thick-lined ink marker. Sitting down, he plugged his headset into the patched‑up communications console.
HONG KONG — Tuesday 06:45
First was the thunderstorm over Stonecutter's Island at the western entrance to Hong Kong Harbor. A southeast wind had conjured the storm up out of the South China Sea, and instead of moving through the area, it parked over Stonecutter's.
The wind direction and speed forced the use of runway 13, the instrument landing system for which was the only one of its kind in the world. If a pilot followed it to the ground, he would arrive, not at the runway, but at an impact point at the base of a two thousand foot ridge. The approved procedure was to track the system down to an altitude of 675 feet and then turn right 47 degrees to line up with the runway 2. 2 miles away. If the pilot saw the runway lead in lights when he started to turn, he landed. If he didn't see the lights, he went around.
The lingering storm over Stonecutter's had reduced the altitude of the cloud cover. Hong Kong Tower was reporting a 700-foot ceiling directly over the airport. The net effect was that some aircraft landed on the first try, some went around, and all were delayed. Air Cargo International's Flight 703 orbited in a holding pattern for one hour and ten minutes before receiving clearance to begin the approach. The crew spent the time talking about Hong Kong's new Chek Lap Kok airport, scheduled to open in a few months, and wishing silently that it was already open, knowing that a 700-foot ceiling would present no problem there with its standard 200-foot minimums.
The aircraft captain, known as Captain Goddammit behind his back, was an old hand. He'd had to punch through thunderstorms before to land at Hong Kong. You did things to get into Kai Tak Airport that you didn't do elsewhere. His nicotine fix complete, he punched out his cigarette in the ash tray to his left and tightened his seat belt.
It was the first officer's leg, and the captain considered taking the aircraft for the approach and landing, but the kid—he thought of all his first officers as kids—was competent. Besides, he thought, it might be the kid's only opportunity to fly this legendary approach. When the new airport opened, Kai Tak's runway 13 IGS approach would pass into aviation folklore. Those who had flown it would regale those who hadn't with their stories, thus marking the former as truly experienced airmen. Goddammit decided to let the F. O. continue, but he moved his left hand closer to the yoke, ready to take the aircraft if things got sticky. Fuel was beginning to be a problem. He didn't want to have to go around, and he knew the next crew would appreciate avoiding further delay. If need be he'd would cheat a little to get in.
The first officer had recently upgraded from the flight engineer position, it was his leg, his first time into Hong Kong on this approach, and he was sweating, silently wishing the Captain had taken the aircraft for the approach and landing. The din of heavy rain striking the windshield made it hard to concentrate, and being shoved into his seat one moment and then thrown against his seat belt and shoulder harness the next made it hard to smoothly control the aircraft. He was operating at the upper limits of his abilities.
A particularly severe gust jolted the aircraft. The topmost contents of the Captain's ashtray flew into the air, then just as quickly were propelled onto his lap.
“Goddammit!” he shouted, and hurriedly swiped the spent cigarette butt and ashes from his lap with his right hand, unconsciously keeping his left near the control yoke. The first officer's knuckles grew whiter in their grasp on the control column.
The flight engineer handed forward a landing data card with the latest Hong Kong weather report and the speed schedule for configuring the aircraft for landing. He and the Captain had difficulty getting their hands in proximate positions to pass the card.
“Latest weather, ceiling 700, visibility 1 and 1/2 in heavy rain, wind 140 degrees 25 knots, gusting 40 knots,” he said from memory, his voice raised but broken by the forces acting on his body.
“Goddammit!” said the Captain.
“Okay, bump the speeds up 20 knots and select auto brakes medium,” the first officer shouted and licked his lips.
“Those speeds already have the 20 knots, and auto brakes are going to medium.” The noise of rain joined with hail had made it necessary to shout to be heard. The flight engineer reached up to the overhead panel above the Captain, but had trouble getting his hand on the rotary auto brake switch, succeeding only when the Captain helped steady his elbow. The Engineer moved it clockwise two clicks to medium.
The extra speed, the maximum allowed by the book, would protect against stalling in the turbulence, but would be a liability once the aircraft was on the runway.
The approach progressed with shouting, difficulty moving switches, and a stop-and-go running of the checklists. The Captain, as the non-flying pilot, handled the communications, the first officer flew the airplane, and the flight engineer monitored the actions of both pilots. The turbulence changed in frequency as they descended, becoming a continuous series of short, hard shocks, making the instruments hard to read with eyes that weren't as rigid as the aircraft structure. The Captain was down to ten seconds between goddammits.
“One hundred to minimums, on speed, stay in the cockpit, I'm outside,” said the Captain, alerting the first officer to their altitude of 775 feet and the aircraft being at the correct speed given the airspeed indicator's gust-induced fluctuations. The call also told the first officer he was to keep his attention totally in the cockpit, to fly the aircraft solely by reference to the instruments, and not to look outside until commanded to do so.
The Captain focused his attention outside to pick up ground contact as soon as possible. There was nothing to see. The windshield was a featureless, homogeneous gray mass, revealing no hint of movement either from the aircraft's speed or the turbulence.
“Minimums, continue, standard rate right turn,” was the Captain's next call. He was cheating a little. It took a few seconds to descend another 75 feet. It was enough. “Go visual, lead in lights dead ahead, runway end lights visible at one o'clock - barely.”
The first officer moved his focus outside to follow the lead in lights. His peripheral vision picked up the high-rise buildings frighteningly close to the lowered right wing. He wasn't conscious of the slight back pressure he exerted on the control column to arrest their sink toward the rising structures.
“No, keep the nose down, ignore the buildings, don't get high,” the Captain admonished immediately.
The first officer corrected, but he had put them 50 feet high, and they arrived over the runway threshold with the extra altitude and with the extra 20 knots of airspeed. A moment later they went into the front side of a gust. The airplane floated, refusing to touch down.
“My airplane,” shouted the Captain. He grabbed the controls, lowered the nose to force the airplane on, and started the engines into reverse even though the main landing gear was still not on the runway. The action violated standard procedures for the airplane, but now was the time for what would work.
The aircraft settled onto the runway. As soon as the main gear sensors showed them on the ground, the speed brakes automatically deployed. The engines were already spooling up in reverse. They were down and they were slowing, but not as much as they should.
“Hydroplaning?”The flight engineer voiced what all three were thinking.
“Auto brakes maximum!” was the Captain's call.
The flight engineer had anticipated the call. His hand was on the switch, and he moved it one click clockwise. All 3000 pounds of pressure from the number four hydraulic system was immediately modulated to the brakes by the anti-skid system. All felt the increased deceleration forces. They would stop before the end of the runway.
“Anti-skid failure!” shouted the flight engineer when the amber light glowed on the captain's annunciator panel.
“Right body gear, left rear wheel!” said the flight engineer after he turned to his panel to look at the detailed fault lights.
“Ignore it. We're okay. We're stopping. Goddammit!”
A moment later came the muffled report of an exploding tire. The anti-skid failure had allowed the left rear wheel of the right body gear to stop spinning, skidding on a film of water. It took only seconds to vaporize the rubber and blow the tire. All three crew members had heard the sound before and knew what it was.
“Anybody hear or feel any parts of it puncturing the belly?” asked the Captain.
“No, but I'm not sure we would hear that,” replied the flight engineer.
“Depends on how big a hole it makes. Goddammit!”
The Captain turned the aircraft onto the taxi way at runway's end.
“Start checking the brake temps. We may lose more tires,” he said to the flight engineer. It took time for the brakes to heat the sensors, and when they heated the sensors, they heated the tires, filled with nitrogen to a pressure, when cold, of 225 psi. The pressure was building from the heat.
“All brake temps except the one are in the yellow and climbing. You'll get the warning light soon,” was the flight engineer's response. The one brake temp that was okay was the brake on the blown tire.
There was a fuse plug in each wheel. Each plug would blow at a pressure less than that which would explode the tire. The question in the Captain's mind was whether the brakes had heated enough to cause one or more of the plugs to blow. When a plug blew, it came out the side of a wheel and was a lethal projectile to anyone close, and the Hong Kong ramp was tight. There was also the small possibility of a brake fire.
“The brake overheat light just came on,” reported the flight engineer. The light was triggered by any brake temperature going into the red range on the individual temperature gauge.
“How fast are the needles moving?” asked the Captain.
“They're marching right up there. I think some will go to the top.”
“Goddammit! Okay, tell ground control we've blown one tire, we've got hot brakes, and we may lose some fuse plugs,” he said to the first officer.
Ground control responded with an order to taxi onto taxiway Charlie 1 and shutdown. They ordered a fire truck to the aircraft as a precaution. After shutting down, the Captain called the company's ground crew and ordered a tug and blowers to cool the brakes. He warned them to approach the wheels from the front or the rear, not from the side, and started rehearsing what he was going to say to the Chief Pilot.
There was a report much like the sound of a shotgun blast from beneath the aircraft.
Except for Duncan, everyone in Mr. Li's igloo had gotten sick. Mr. Li himself had been the first to vomit, and he had only partly hit the sick sack. The nurse-wife had hurried to clean up the mess and that had been too much for her. The odor of vomit wafted through the confines of the igloo and triggered a chain reaction. Li's personal assistant was the next to go. The bodyguard held out until shortly before touchdown.
When the airplane came to a stop, Duncan had difficulty getting Mr. Li's attention. The old man was continuously regurgitating. Duncan handed him a second sick sack and relieved the distressed man of the nearly full one in his hand. Duncan knew they had stopped on a taxiway. That would give them the time they would need.
“Richard, speak to me as soon as you can. I'm sending some people out of the igloos for a bit. Don't let the crew near the main deck view window. We're still out on the taxiway, right?”
Richard's disembodied voice came back. “I'm out of the cockpit now, in back. Crew is staying in the cockpit. Yeah, we're on the taxiway. Jesus, that was a ride.”
“Yeah, and the extra twenty knots they carried was really an extra twenty-five at our real weight. That was part of the problem. Shit happens. Early morning thunderstorms aren't that frequent here.
Duncan turned back to Mr. Li. Gently he pulled the sick sack a few inches away from the old man's face. Mr. Li looked up in his misery.
“We need to get Li Wah to do all he can to get this airplane back in the air as fast as possible,” Duncan said, concern in his voice, kindness in his eyes.
The old man nodded and pointed toward his personal assistant. The young man's skin color was approaching that of a Caucasian, and vomit had run down his suit, but he was opening a cellular phone. He dialed a number from memory and spoke rapidly into the instrument. More vomit dribbled from his mouth as he spoke, spreading over the phone below his lips.
Duncan turned to the body guard. Tell the other igloos that they must stop vomiting. They must be quiet, and they have to clean up any spilled puke so it doesn't smell.”
The man appeared uncertain. “Puke?”
“Puke, vomit.” Duncan took the sick sack from the man's hand, opened it, and pointed to the contents. “This is puke, vomit. It has to be kept in the sick sacks and the sacks have to be closed. The smell will give us away.”
The man nodded and left the igloo. Duncan closed up the sick sack and set it aside. He put the headset back on to monitor the cockpit activity and close out the excited voice of Li's assistant shouting into the phone. Reaching up to the whiteboard, he erased the 1330.
ACI's Hong Kong station manager was at a loss as to how best to proceed. Flight 103's brakes had been cooled with blowers, and the plane towed to its gate. It had three blown tires, one had burst on the runway when the aircraft's anti‑skid system failed and two had deflated when their red-hot brakes had overheated the tires and the fuse plugs had blown. The tire that had blown on the runway had disintegrated and punched two holes in the aircraft's undersurface. The holes were small, but they had to be fixed.
He knew he was looking at eight to twelve hours downtime, and that was assuming he could find two additional tires and the necessary mechanics. The station contracted all maintenance, and there was only one spare for the occasional blown tire. He would have to borrow tires from another airline. That would be hard. ACI was notorious for having to be pestered to replace what it borrowed and the company took months to pay it's maintenance bills.
He had phoned Houston and was waiting for them to return the call with authorization to write checks to buy the tires that he most certainly knew the other airlines would refuse to loan. As he waited, he wondered if they would accept the checks or make him get cash.
Two Chinese men dressed in three-piece business suits walked through the door.
“You are Air Cargo International's station manager?” one asked politely.
“We represent the freight forwarder chartering your Flight 103. We understand there were some problems with the landing.”
God, the customer, he thought. “Ah, yes, ah, but we're doing all we can to get the airplane fixed, but I have to tell you, it's going to be several hours.”
“We understand your problem. However, it is most important to us that there be as little delay as possible. We have made arrangements to have the airplane fixed.” With that, the Chinese turned and left.
The ACI manager walked to the window overlooking the ramp. He could see the insignias of four different airlines on the army of maintenance vehicles surrounding the disabled airplane. Tires were being rolled into position.
Richard, acting as Duncan's eyes and ears, reported that the crew was leaving the airplane. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the igloo and Richard's voice came through the fiberglass.“Open up. We have visitors, friends.”
Duncan opened the igloo door. Richard stood aside to permit Li Wah, assisted by the young man who had acted as an interpreter when Duncan had talked to him in their restaurant, to enter the igloo. Duncan quickly stepped out to give more room.
As Li Wah reached the door, he detected the odor of vomit. He smiled, nodded, and turned his head back toward Duncan and said, in perfect English, “Did my brother tell you he does not travel well?” Without waiting for a reply, the old man entered the igloo. In a moment, the interpreter and all others except the two Li brothers left the igloo. The igloo door swung shut.
Duncan and Richard moved off to the side. Numbers of Chinese were entering through the one open aircraft door, fanning out to the igloos. There was no longer any need for quietness.
The interpreter was standing near Duncan and Richard. Duncan addressed Richard with enough volume for the interpreter to hear. “I could have sworn I was told Li Wah understood but didn't speak English. Do you remember that?”
The interpreter smiled and replied before Richard could. “All part of the act. It allows him to observe the reaction of the person he's speaking to. Mr. Li said to treat you as family. That's why Li Wah spoke to you directly. You're the only gwailo I know who's been accorded that honor.” With that the interpreter moved off toward the other igloos.
Richard edged closer to Duncan. “If you're now a member of the family, what's my status?”
“Nancy said you fall into the category of a distant relative corrupted by Western decadence,” Duncan said, deciding both of them needed some light-hearted distraction. “Actually, I think she said Western immorality.” Duncan was smiling. He put his right arm around Richard's shoulders. “Does the term tsi fat gwai ring any bells?“ Richard looked up quickly. Duncan walked away laughing.
The bodyguard found him and reported that Mr. Li's igloo had been the only one seriously affected by motion sickness. The women and children, sedated by opium, had been unaware of anything unusual. The men had not been bothered, had succeeded in suppressing the nausea, or had been careful to contain the contents of their stomachs in the sick sacks.
Shortly before mechanics finished patching the holes in the underside of the aircraft, the Hong Kong contingent of Mr. Li's family was brought aboard, and five more igloos, empty, were loaded into the forward lower hold, avoiding the appearance of a Hong Kong stop solely for fuel.
What might have taken twelve hours and should have taken five was completed in three. Air Cargo 103 lifted off Hong Kong at 11:04 local time. Duncan reached up and wrote 1546 on the whiteboard.
The handling in Hong Kong had been superb even to the point of Duncan having a copy of ACI's computer generated flight plan to the New Chitose Airport near Sapporo, Japan. Forecast weather for Chitose, Anchorage, and San Francisco had been included. Duncan turned to the now recovered Mr. Li.
“ETA Novato is 15:46. The weather is forecast to be good for the rest of the flight. High pressure is building on the U.S. West Coast. It'll be sunny, warm afternoon in Novato.”
Duncan didn't voice the rest of his thoughts. High pressure in the Bay Area could mean low stratus, maybe even fog, over the ocean beaches south of the city, maybe over San Francisco itself. If there wasn't enough of a ceiling over the city, Oakland and Berkeley, westward across San Francisco Bay, would be the dump sites. They would be in the clear.
The other problem was the alternate landing site of which Duncan had told no one, not even Mr. Li. If the alternate was under low stratus, that could be handled. If it was fogged in, a landing would still be possible but extremely dangerous, but that didn't matter. The ballots and drugs will have been dumped. The world will know what the DEA did to his wife and to his father. From that point on, he thought, all will be expendable.