[previous chapter]    [next chapter]


ABEAM PORTLAND — Tuesday 14:10

“They won't be out there much longer,” Duncan said, referring to the F-15s gathered around the 747. “They're operating at the limit of their range.” He looked at an obviously worried Richard and grinned. “So if they're going to shoot us down, it'll happen in the next five minutes.”

“Why are you so sure they're not going to do that?” Richard asked, completely missing the humor in Duncan's manner.

“I'm not,” Duncan replied, “but the odds are against it. Back in the '80s the DEA proposed shooting down light aircraft suspected of running drugs. The proposal was knocked down ... decisively.[REF3301] We're a large aircraft, innocent crewmembers are aboard, and they know we're carrying civilians, including women and children. If they shoot us down, everybody aboard dies. Those pilots know that.” Duncan nodded out the windshield. “The people controlling them know that. Besides, not one of the ships the Coast Guard has intercepted carrying refugees has been fired on. Precedent, my young friend, precedent.”

ABEAM ELKO — Tuesday 14:20

“Our best analysis is that he can't drop the packages from the airplane. You can't just open a door on a jetliner and throw things out. The people I'm talking to say that's impossible, not a million packets,” the Director of the DEA said over the phone. “Harris is planning on distributing the packets on the ground. Maybe the Chinese will give them out as payment to him for setting up the trip.”

Greg heard, but he didn't agree, and ACI Flight 103 would be over San Francisco in less than an hour. “Sir, we are underestimating him. We should give him one more chance to follow the interceptors. If he doesn't, we should order the aircraft shot down.”

“Absolutely not, we've been over that. The Air Force has already said that's not an option. Damn it, Greg, we aren't sure he's at the controls. We can't even prove the airplane has been hijacked yet.”

“Sir, we know it has.”

“Knowing it and proving it are two different things.”

Greg decided to try his last ploy. “Sir, if this airplane were thought to have terrorists aboard and those terrorists were believed to have a nuclear weapon, would the Air Force still refuse to shoot it down?”

The silence at the other end told Greg that the Director was considering the possibility of the suggested ruse, but when the silence ended, the Director's manner had changed.

“The Director of the ATF had to resign when his agents tried to cover improprieties at Waco. A shootdown would be followed by intense scrutiny. I wouldn't last five minutes. Handle the problem on the ground, Greg. Goodbye.”

Greg slumped. Duncan would airdrop the packets. Of that, Greg was certain. He pushed the button connecting him to the pilot. “What'd you find out?”

“ATC says ACI 103 will land at San Francisco ten minutes before we do.”

“Yeah, well, you tell ATC that the bastard isn't going to land at San Francisco. He's going to land at Hamilton ... after he's dumped a million god damn drug samples. I want you to follow him. We'll land right behind him. I want to see him taken away in chains.”

“Sir, we can't do that. They'll be blocking out the airspace since they can't communicate with him.”

“Get our tracking clearance. As of this moment we are a drug surveillance aircraft.”

There was a short silence. “But, sir, our fuel ...”

Greg cut him off. “Don't give me that. You're required to have at least a forty-five minute fuel reserve, and I don't care if you land this thing on fumes. You will follow that aircraft.”


The Air Force had closed Hamilton Air Force Base. It sat unused for years and was finally turned over to the city of San Rafael for use as a civilian airport, but local pilots still thought of it as Hamilton Air Force Base. The base sat on the western edge of San Pablo Bay, which, though it carried a different name, could be considered the northern half of San Francisco Bay. A ship sailing into the Golden Gate and turning right would be in San Francisco Bay. The same ship turning left would be bound for San Pablo Bay.

Greg Ballentine had identified Hamilton as the likely destination of ACI Flight 103 and had ordered the hastily formed joint DEA/INS/Customs force concentrated there. Matt >Laforce, a U.S. Customs field supervisor of long experience had been appointed the commander. Having talked three times in the past hour with the airborne Ballentine, Laforce agreed with his evaluation, but was not comfortable concentrating all his forces at Hamilton.

The base was in the northwest corner of the San Francisco Bay area. The city of Hayward lay in the southeast corner and its airport, Hayward Field, also met Ballentine's criteria, a long runway and no scheduled air carrier operations. If Hayward were the landing site, the government forces would be unable to respond.

An aide pointed out that Buchanan Field in Concord, thirty air miles west of Hamilton also met the criteria, and Santa Rosa, thirty air miles north of Hamilton as well except for having a few commuter aircraft operations. There were airports all over the place.

How long a runway did a landing 747 need? Laforce needed to know, but his inquiries revealed that airline operators thought in takeoff terms. If you could takeoff from a runway, you could land on it. Finally, a 747 captain reached on the phone gave a disquieting opinion: “Hell,” he had said, “if you don't have to worry about taking off, you could put a light seven-four down on any paved runway around here.”

Laforce decided to cover his ass, sending alert units of one or two men to every airport with a paved runway within a hundred air miles of San Francisco. Airports with control towers got two men, uncontrolled airports got one. The alert units contacted local authorities, advising them to standby.

Concord and Santa Rosa each got a half dozen agents. Twenty were sent to Hayward. At each of those sites, local authorities contributed as many men as they could spare.

The remaining force and members of the media concealed themselves at Hamilton. If the base was to be the landing point, they could expect the imminent arrival of a clandestine ground support group for the incoming aircraft.

ABEAM FORT BRAGG — Tuesday 15:00

It was time.

Duncan swiveled his head right to look at the flight engineer's panel. The panel was visible but not reachable from the Captain's position. Together he and Richard had labeled the switches with white tape that would be used during the remainder of the flight. Letters, numbers, or both were written on the tag end of each tape. Richard Lee sat in the flight engineer's chair, ready to move whatever switches Duncan commanded. As a backup, Duncan had brought a one-meter long measuring stick for pointing.

“Bottom center of the panel, switches R1 and R2, rotate them to the vertical position,” Duncan ordered.

Richard located the switches, putting his right hand on each in turn and pausing — giving Duncan time to correct him if it was the wrong one—before moving the switch. Duncan watched a blue light above each switch come on momentarily and then extinguish. Fuel had started to move from reserve tanks in each wingtip to tanks from which it could be used.

“The P switch, center of the panel, rotate it clockwise until the right side of the window above it reads 1000 feet.” Duncan felt the small pressurization change in his ears.

At Duncan's command other switches were set. More would be set in a like manner as the flight progressed.

Duncan believed this would be his last time at the controls of a 747, and he intended to enjoy it. His right hand dropped down to the electrical seat adjustment controls and moved the seat forward. When he had put on his seat belt and shoulder harness, he was ready.

His left thumb pressed the autopilot disengage button once. There was the barest perception of a change in aircraft attitude—only a pilot would notice it—and the autopilot warning horn sounded. A second press of the same button silenced the horn.

His right hand went to the four power levers, bringing them slowly back to idle. He allowed the nose of the airplane to pitch down. The descent had started.

On the control column, his left index finger pressed the transmit button, energizing the mike on his headset. “We've started our descent.” He had set his communications switches to send his words to Richard's headset, into Mr. Li's igloo, and to Li Cheng, the leader of the six men in the aft belly. “Cheng, you on?”

“Yes. Cheng is on.”

“Remove the screens. Let me know when you're finished,” Duncan ordered.

Li Cheng and his five companions had been busy since the takeoff from Anchorage reconfiguring the igloos containing the ballot packets. Before they had been filled in the Bangkok warehouse, the igloos had been modified. The igloo now sitting in the forwardmost position had had its rear-facing lengthwise wall removed, cut into pieces, and then reinstalled piece by piece, the sections held in place by metal clips. The other igloo, immediately behind it, had had both lengthwise walls cutout and then reinstalled in the same manner.

After takeoff, three strips of plywood had been taped over the one-inch floor and side gaps between the igloos. The clips had then been released and the walls removed. The result was one large container with its aftmost wall gone. The packets were allowed to slump into the upsweep of the tail cone, known as the bulk cargo compartment. A heavy fabric wall closed off the compartment from the last reaches of the tail cone, the location of the outflow valves. The Chiu >chau men had removed the canvas wall. The screens over the outflow valves were now all that would keep loose items that came near them from being sucked out.

Cheng looped the loose end of a climbing rope around his waist and tied it securely. A companion did the same. Each of the two outflow valves could open to twelve inches by thirty-six inches, big enough to allow them to be sucked out. The ropes had been cut to length, just enough to allow them to move to the screens. Both men moved to the two side-by-side screens and removed bolts holding them in place.

With the engines at idle and the pressurization system requiring the maximum amount of air to compensate for the high altitude, the air exiting through the screens was at a minimum. Even so, it took each man's maximum effort to oppose its rush and remove his screen. Had they not had their ears protected, Cheng with a heavy, noise-canceling headset and the other man with ear guards, the decibel level would have approached the threshold of pain.

Duncan tuned the number one navigation radio to the instrument landing system for runway two-eight right at San Francisco. Though he was flying the airplane by hand, he maintained course by following the flight director display. He tuned the number two navigational radio to the Point Reyes facility, switched the flight director to that radio, and headed straight at Point Reyes.

The three inertial navigation systems were now free. He placed them in hold and entered the latitude and longitude of Point Reyes into all three INS units. They were old , and they became more inaccurate as the flight progressed, accumulating positional errors of as much as two nautical miles per hour of flight. He needed them to be accurate. When they passed over Point Reyes, he would release the hold, updating them to the correct position.

Lastly, he entered eight waypoints into the INS memories. The first was a position five miles north of >Gnoss Field at Novato, the second that of five miles south. The other six he hoped he wouldn't have to use. They would take him to the alternate of which only he and one other person knew.

ACI Flight 103 passed over Point Reyes descending through 17,000 feet. Duncan released the hold function on the INSs and turned left to a heading of 144 degrees. Out the forward windshield, San Francisco Bay shimmered in hazy sun. Straight ahead he could see coastal stratus bunching up against the ridges in back of the ocean beaches hidden under the fog. That was not good. Out the left windshield, in his eight o'clock position, was Novato, but he couldn't spot it in the haze.

Duncan selected an unused frequency at the extreme high end of the communications spectrum on the number one communications radio. He made sure Richard was listening and then keyed his mike. “Leather Man, are you on frequency?” he queried, using the agreed upon call sign for Larry Tanner.

“Leather Man here, orbiting rendezvous one. How goes it?”

“Proceed to rendezvous three. Somebody figured out we've got passengers, but I don't know if they have our destination. We're proceeding as planned, but be ready for a possible pickup at the alternate. That could be tricky. The coastal fog looks bad from here.”

“No problem. The guy flying this crate knows what he's doing. We'll be right behind you wherever you land.”

“I'm counting on it. Straight Man out.”

SAN FRANCISCO — Tuesday 15:20

Final approach into the San Francisco airport brought an overwhelming anticipation of landing even though the family had been told they would not actually land. The adults, who mostly had been born and raised in Hong Kong before being forced to Bangkok, were looking forward to once again living next to the sea. They left the igloos and crowded around the windows to peered out at a harbor much different than the one of their birth. Gone were the steep mountainsides descending directly to the water's edge. Gone, too, was the massive amount of traffic running to and fro. San Francisco Bay was larger, less confined, and, to the eyes of those accustomed to Hong Kong's bustle, nothing was happening on the water's surface.

The latter observation astonished them. Those with faces pressed to a window kept up a running commentary of what they saw for those who couldn't see. When those who couldn't see heard of the lack of water traffic, they didn't believe it, and insisted on getting to a window to see for themselves. Many climbed up on their comrades and, braced by the aircraft wall on one side and an igloo on the other, wound up laying on heads forced askew by the weight of the bodies they were supporting, with every head trying to worm its way to a window edge.

A middle-aged adult stared out a window on the left side of the airplane, looking at the Bayshore Freeway running through San Mateo. Hillsborough and the ridgeline of the Montara Mountains loomed beyond. He had never seen a freeway. Bangkok had none and Hong Kong's short expressway was nothing like the long ribbon he now saw. The thought came quickly to him, who needs sampans to get about when you have roads like that.

The familiar sight of Runway 28R through the windshield profoundly affected Duncan. He knew he was not going to land, knew Cheng and his crew were set to act, knew he had gone too far not to carry through with the plan, but the runway beckoned him. He wanted to land. He wanted to do what would be normal. He wanted to go home to Ellie. The thought, the desire, was orgasmic in strength, and it persisted. “No! Ellie is gone. This I must do, this I will do.” The words, spoken clearly, loudly, deliberately, restored his resolve.

“You okay?” Richard asked.

“I'm okay,” Duncan replied. “The M switch, center of the panel, slightly left.” He fought back the tearing in his eyes and glanced right, making sure Richard had the correct knob. “One click clockwise. Do it.” The pressurization system was switched to the manual mode.

“Now, the switches V1 and V2, three inches right and down a little.”

“ Got'em.”

“They're spring loaded to the neutral position. Hold them both in the up position for 30 seconds.”

Richard did as instructed. The switches controlled the movement of the outflow valves in the manual mode. The up position was the open position. The valves started moving to their full open position, dumping what little pressurization was left, increasing the cabin altitude by a few feet.

In the aft belly, Cheng saw the outflow valves moving, and the water of San Francisco Bay became visible through the openings. The aircraft now had six square feet of unobstructed opening in its aft belly. All three air conditioning packs were pumping air into the airplane and out those holes. Cheng was glad for the rope and the noise attenuating headset.

Duncan commanded, “Flaps 20,” talking to himself since there was no first officer. He moved the flap selector one more position rearward, sending the wing's trailing edge flaps to an angle of 20 degrees with the rest of the wing. Two more steps would put the airplane in the landing configuration: lowering the landing gear and extending the flaps to 25 degrees. But there was no point now, the charade was about to end.

Jim Weatherly was a former military controller who had come to work for the FAA during the controller's strike of the early '80s. He had been rushed through the FAA Academy as quickly as possible, put on the line, and, thanks to his previous military experience and an excellent aptitude for the job, had moved up quickly, finally being offered a management job. He turned it down, preferring to work aircraft.

Switching from the way military controllers are taught to control aircraft to the FAA's procedures had been irksome to him; he preferred the military way. He followed FAA procedures, but as a personal protest against FAA shortsightedness, he always checked with binoculars to see if a landing aircraft had its landing gear extended. The military required controllers to do that and to confirm with the pilots that the gear was extended. The FAA didn't, a fact that contributed to a few gear-up landings each year, usually by smaller aircraft lacking the full-blown warning systems of larger aircraft. The 747 on final still had its landing gear retracted.

Weatherly kept his binoculars trained on the aircraft. There was no reason not to; it was the only aircraft on the approach. Per FAA regulations, any aircraft operating on an instrument flight plan but with which all radio communication had been lost was given a large block of clear airspace, even greater than that given to the President's plane. San Francisco International Airport was at a standstill, waiting for ACI Flight 103 to land.

Weatherly lowered his binoculars for a moment and looked along the length of 28R. The taxiway parallel to the runway was lined with emergency equipment and law enforcement vehicles. He raised his binoculars, looked, and sighed. ACI Flight 103 still had it's wheels up.

“Are you sure he's going to land here?” Weatherly said loud enough for any one of the crowd of federal officers behind him to hear. The San Francisco airport control tower was full. A dozen FAA, DEA, INS, FBI, and Customs management types anxious to be in on a newsworthy bust had joined the four working controllers.

“Why, what's wrong?” a nervous, disembodied voice replied from behind.

“He's inside two miles and his wheels are up.” Weatherly had a thought. “Is this guy desperate?” he asked.

There was silence for a bit. “Well ... his wife and his father were killed a few weeks back.”

Weatherly keyed his mike. Sometimes a no‑radio aircraft could receive but not send. “ACI 103, your landing gear is still retracted. I say again. Your landing gear is still retracted,” he transmitted and then addressed the ground controller rapidly, “Pat, if he sets that thing down with the wheels up and it slides off to either side, it's going to kill a lot of people.”

The ground controller keyed his mike, barking out an order to all vehicles to pull back from the runway.

Weatherly kept his binoculars trained on the aircraft while speaking to the tower chief, standing beside him. “What do you think, boss?”

“I don't know. He's got to have a gear horn going off, but if he really does have electrical problems, maybe the horn wouldn't go off.”

“I don't think he intends to land. His flaps aren't in landing position. It's hard to tell, but I don't think they're down as far as they should be.”

With ACI 103 one mile from the runway, its wake turbulence starting to disturb the calm water of the bay, Weatherly decided. He keyed his mike again. “ACI 103, go around. Go around.” Without waiting for a possible reply, he pulled the light gun down from its overhead mount, centered the 747 in its sight, and sent ACI 103 a steady red light.

ACI Flight 103 broke radio silence.

“I was wondering when you were going to get around to giving me a light.”

“ACI 103, what are your intentions?” Weatherly asked, the standard phrase when an air traffic controller had to admit that, after all, the pilot was the one controlling the aircraft.

“I intend to buzz the tower. After that there'll be a tour of downtown San Francisco. After that ... well, if you're in contact with a fellow named Greg Ballentine, tell him I'll try to surprise him.”


[previous chapter]    [next chapter]


[REF3301] “The legislation was considered in 1990, H. R. 5301. Short title, ‘Airborne Drug Trafficking Deterrence Act.’” Compuserve message of 03-Jun-94 from Richard J. Baum [73361,1051]. Baum is the guy who drafted the legislation.


[previous chapter]    [next chapter]