SAN FRANCISCO — Tuesday 15:25
In the final few seconds before ACI 103 passed directly over the San Francisco International Airport tower, the assembled law enforcement hierarchy unceremoniously scrambled for that part of the floor they hoped might provide some small measure of protection from a 747 captain bent on suicide.
Jim Weatherly didn't budge. He enjoyed it. Years of controlling had given him the ability to accurately judge an aircraft's altitude. It was simple. All you did was look at the distant horizon. If the aircraft was above it, it was above you, and he could see a bare sliver of blue sky below the oncoming mass.
It was a great buzz job, as good as he had ever experienced, maybe the best ever. The sheer bulk of the approaching 747 was an awesome sight. The noise of the four engines—each with an air intake in which a man could stand upright—was palpable, and for a moment, when the aircraft's turbulence shook the windows far harder than any wind gust ever had, Weatherly covered his eyes in case the glass shattered. But he didn't duck. There wasn't a pilot in this world who could make him duck, never had been, never would be.
He looked down at the assemblage of bodies on the floor and decided that any pilot who could make this many officers grovel couldn't be all bad. Weatherly was an enlisted man at heart.
Duncan had a practical reason for flying directly over the tower. He wanted to turn left to follow the small section of freeway connecting the Bayshore Freeway with Interstate 280 running along the ridge top to the west. The tower was on the way.
Duncan needed to stay as low as possible to remain under the stratus, and he wanted to approach his aiming point on Market Street from higher ground. Interstate 280 provided the perfect route. Duncan pulled lightly on the control column. It didn't take much. He had his speed up, and with two hundred thousand pounds of thrust available for a four hundred thousand pound airplane, the aircraft's performance was phenomenal. The 747 easily matched the rising terrain. Duncan turned down the right lane of Interstate 280 northbound toward the city center. To his right, the sun shone brightly on San Francisco Bay. To his left, the grayness of the fog obscured the Peninsula's backbone ridge. He pushed on the control column, pulled the power back. Go a little lower, go a little slower. There are no obstructions on this freeway. Hug the ground.
There were a number of freeway accidents, mostly of the fender bender variety. The southbound drivers saw the approaching 747 and immediately convinced themselves it was crash-landing on the freeway, probably on them. Most tried for the ditch. A few, caught on elevated portions of the roadway, elected to try and become airborne off the freeway. Fortunately, concrete side guards kept them from succeeding. One individual left the freeway, accelerated down a long, steep embankment, and drove completely through a house. No one was home.
Northbound drivers were assaulted first by a loud, rumbling noise. Veteran Bay Area drivers that they were, they assumed an earthquake and started slowing. A second or two later the 747's underside filled their windshields. This typically produced a start on the part of the drivers and a total lapse of attention as to their vehicle's direction.
Duncan remembered the story his father had told him that Market Street had been laid out by a drunken sailor returning to his ship from the top of the hills. When he started, he couldn't walk straight, but by the time he reached the base of the hills, he had sobered and proceeded straight to his ship. Duncan was looking for the place the sailor sobered up, where Market Street went straight, the intersection of Castro and Market. His specific aiming point was a block south, the heart of The Castro.
Duncan keyed his mike, transmitting on the helicopter frequency, “This is Air Cargo 103 to all helicopter traffic over the city. I'm a 747. I'm going to be making multiple passes over the city center and Golden Gate Park at less than 500 AGL. If you're on the ground, stay there. If you're airborne, land immediately or exit the area to the north. I say again, this is ...” and he repeated the message.
Todd Rimley heard the message as he lifted his SA56 off the PG&E Building at the foot of Market Street. “Jesus H. Christ, some asshole is playing games on the frequency again,” he said to his co-pilot. “If I could find the fucker, I'd ...”
“Land! Now!” his co-pilot interrupted him with a shout, eyes fixed on the 747 in a low right turn between the Twin Peaks towers.
“Cheng, you ready?” said Duncan.
“Ten seconds to go.” Duncan's right hand brought the power levers all the way back; his left hand pushed the nose down. The aircraft matched the drop in the terrain. Duncan saw Castro and Market straight ahead and about to disappear under the nose. Five, four, three, two, one. Start dumping!” he shouted as he brought the power levers up and ran the flap selector lever to 20 degrees down. The increased engine power sent additional air to the outflow valves, and as the flaps extended, countering their drag required more power.
With the torrent of high-speed air exiting the aircraft tugging at their clothing, Cheng and his companion pulled back the netting restraining the loose packets. The rush of air sucked the packets to the outflow valves.
The dump had started slightly after 15:28 on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in early October. But for the coastal stratus, the weather gods had smiled on the operation.
In the cockpit, Richard Lee leaned forward, a huge smile on his face. “We're going to go down in history.”
Mark Turrillian had just bought his first bhang pipe from one of the few remaining head shops in the Castro district. He stepped from the shop into the sunshine just in time to be shaken by the most incredible sound he had ever heard. The two hundred and twenty-five feet of the 747's fuselage passed over him, blotting out the sun for seven eighths of a second. He never even looked up, just stood there and thought, “What the hell was that?”Others were leaving buildings or poking heads out windows and doors with the same thought.
Two bags landed in front of him, one at his two o'clock position four feet away, the second dead ahead at ten feet, almost in the street. He turned slightly right, took two steps, and looked down. Then he looked up. Then he looked to the right and to the left. Then he twisted to check behind him. Finally, he stooped, picked up the bag, shoved it in his pocket, and started for the second bag. It, however, was spoken for.
The old lady wore a baggy, navy blue dress. Leaning heavily on her cane, she slowly bent her frail body to get her hand to the ground, but she reached the limit of her flexibility before reaching the bag
“Would you like me to get it for you, ma'am?” Mark said, fearing she would shortly topple.
The old lady hesitated. Would he grab it and run, or would he give it to her? It was a moot point. She knew she couldn't reach it without falling.
“Yes, thank you, young man.”
Mark stooped, retrieved the bag, and handed it to her.
She accepted it, looking at it past her cataracts. She had no personal interest in the little bags of white powder, but she knew she could sell that. The other, well, if it were what she thought it was, it would alleviate her glaucoma, maybe even her arthritis and rheumatism.
The two of them looked at the frantic activity around them, hearing the shrieks of disbelief, the exclamations of surprise, and when bags were recovered, the shouts of achievement. They were an island of calm in the midst of a sea of confusion. They had theirs.
“Well, it is a nice day, is it not, young man?”
“Yeah, it is. Ah, I have to go. I have to do something.”
“Of course, young man, myself as well.” They left each other in opposite directions, Mark hurriedly, the old lady slowly, but with an anticipation she had not possessed earlier.
“We should have shot him down,” Greg Ballentine said, slowly shaking his head. “My god, a million drug packets. A million leaflets calling for legalization.”
“Not really, sir, all it calls for is decriminalization ...” he trailed off as Greg stared him down.
“At least I've got my retirement ... and I'll watch them put Dunk Harris away for the rest of his natural life. There is satisfaction in that.” Greg turned back to the window in time to see the 747, 8000 feet below, come out from the under the stratus over Golden Gate Park and head back toward the city center ... again. The beach end of the park was in the fog, the city end in the sun. Greg contemplated the scene, leaning against the window, his chin in a palm, the supporting elbow on the chair arm. “He's over Haight-Ashbury again. Fucking hippies.”
GNOSS FIELD - NOVATO — Tuesday 15:40
Edgar “Pop” Barlow decided he should walk some; the stiffness would set in if he didn't. He got out of the car, his own car—the DEA deployment had exhausted all available agency vehicles—and walked southward along the small airport's parking area. This was ridiculous, he thought, a waste of his time. He should be at Hamilton ... or at least at one of the other airfields. Only an idiot would send people to every airport with a paved runway. Any damn fool could see that a 747 couldn't land here.
He wouldn't have to put up with idiots and damn fools much longer. The last day of the month would be the last day of his civil service career, and it couldn't arrive soon enough. He passed in front of a parked car, momentarily made eye contact with the single, smiling occupant, and moved on.
They hadn't even given him a radio or a cellular phone; they had run out of those as well. Laforce had said to use a pay phone. It didn't make any difference; there wasn't going to be anything to report. Some agents supplied their own cellular phones. Damn fools, the government would never equip them properly if they did that.
He stopped and looked toward the line of light aircraft on the ramp. The sun was warm. It was a beautiful fall day. He resumed walking. A car pulled into a parking space two slots in front of him, another single, smiling occupant come to watch student pilots shooting touch and goes.
The airport was obviously a popular place; the cars were closer together as he walked. Another car pulled in to the single unoccupied space in the direction he was walking, and another drove past, looking for a space back in the direction from which Pop had come.
He passed a few more parking spaces, all occupied ... and he started to panic. The realization had come slowly, but now he knew. Every vehicle he could see had a single male occupant behind the wheel, and every one of them was Chinese. He forced himself to slow down. There were still at least fifteen cars to pass before he would reach the airport office and the payphone in front of it.
As he reached for the phone, two pickups drove slowly by, each pulling an airline airstairs. His hand shook as he dialed the number.
HAMILTON AIR FORCE BASE — Tuesday 15:45
Andy Laforce looked at the men around him. None were offering any suggestions in response to the words patched into their radio net from the phone booth at Novato. Could he believe what he was hearing? He had sent Pop Barlow to Novato to get him out of the way as much as to cover the place; the man was getting senile. But Novato? That was impossible.
“Pop, look again. Are you sure?” Laforce asked.
“Damn it, I'm surrounded. There's at least fifty of them here, one to a car ... Christ, another one just drove in.”
“Pop, this is really hard to swallow.”
“Don't believe me, then. Do what you want. I can't stay in this phone booth. Some of them are getting out of their cars. I'll go in the office. I'll call from there.”
The click of the phone came over the radio.
“Maybe they're in the wrong place?” someone said. All looked at him. “Maybe the Chinese are in the wrong place. Maybe they were supposed to come here, but somebody got the directions wrong, and they're over there. It's only about five miles,” he said, pointing northwest. “Look, some people still think this is an Air Force base. The Chinese could've gotten confused.”
“Crap,” Laforce swore. “Alright, we split, half of us here, half there.”
SAN FRANCISCO — Tuesday 15:50
The last of the packets swept through the outflow valves. Cheng notified Duncan, who then ordered the family to enter their igloos and brace themselves. He turned the airplane toward San Pablo Bay.
Li Quan, sitting in the jumpseat behind Duncan, had established contact with the ground support group at Gnoss Field. “There's a light wind from the north,” he reported. “No planes are landing or taking off.”
Duncan nodded. The lack of traffic removed the need to order light aircraft out of the way.
On the INS console he selected the navigation waypoint he had set to a position five miles south and on the extended centerline of Novato's single runway. He toggled the resulting course information to the flight director, adjusted the heading to match the command bars, and climbed to 1500 feet to better see and to approximate a normal glide path from the waypoint to the end of the runway.
The most difficult piloting task lay ahead, but Duncan was relaxed. He had succeeded in all that mattered. His wife and father would not be buried in meaningless DEA statistics.
A half mile before the waypoint, he turned the airplane to line up with the runway, clicked off the flight director, and dropped the wheels. When the gear down light showed green, he moved the auto‑brake switch to maximum.
“It's ... that little black mark out there?That's the runway?” Richard asked.
“That's it,” Duncan replied.
“Looks ... small ... very small.”
“It is. Got your shoulder harness on?”Duncan didn't want to take his eyes off the runway, and he couldn't see Richard without turning.
“It's on. I've turned my seat to face forward. Done everything you said.”
Duncan didn't reply. They were two miles from touchdown, almost stabilized. Duncan's right hand worked the four power levers ever so slightly, his mind anticipating, staying ahead of the airplane.
One mile from touchdown. No more power changes. Control touchdown point with the elevator. Accept minor airspeed fluctuations. Concentration ... total.
Almost there. Why is Li Quan on the phone? Drop the nose a tad. Another few seconds ...
“DEA! DEA! DEA there! Many men! Many weapons!” Li Quan shouted into Duncan's ear. Altitude was fifty feet.
Duncan reacted. His left hand pulled on the control column, bringing the nose up. His right hand slammed the power levers against the forward stops. The airplane was sluggish. Duncan, wanting to ensure the shortest possible ground roll, had deliberately slowed to ten knots less than the recommended approach speed for that weight. The body gear, farther back than the wing gear, touched down ... then the two hundred thousand pounds of thrust came on line. They became airborne again without the wing gear touching down.
Andy Laforce heard the engines spool up. He cried out in frustration, “They're going around. Stop them.” A moment later he sighed, “Too late, too late.”
An agent that had transferred in from Phoenix heard only the order to stop them. Watching nightly runs of drug aircraft come in from Mexico—often with DEA aircraft right behind them—to airdrop their load and then fly back into Mexico had made him an angry man. His wife having left him because of his profession had made him angrier still. Civilian aircraft were not to be fired on in flight, that was Government policy, but this aircraft had wheels on the ground. His assault rifle was in auto-cyclic. He centered on the 747's number one engine and emptied the clip. He had wanted to shoot at an airplane for a long time.
The reaction was predictable. When one man fired, others followed suite. Laforce's shouts of “Cease fire! Cease fire!” were lost in the din. The firing continued until the airplane was out of range, arcing into a low right turn.
Duncan had never been busier in a cockpit. Immediately after slamming the power levers forward, he moved the flap selector lever from the full down position, thirty degrees, up to twenty. He knew the engines would overtemp with the power levers all the way forward, but without a flight engineer to accurately set maximum allowable power, he decided to live with the overtemp. And he wanted that extra thrust.
He felt rather than heard groundfire striking the aircraft. It had been twenty years since he'd felt that, but it was not something you forgot.
As soon as the aircraft broke its short contact with the runway, he leaned forward and to the right, pulled the gear handle out of the down detent, raised it, and pushed it into the up position. While leaning back, he felt the aircraft sway left. He countered with heavy right rudder as the fire warning bell went off. The red fire warning light in the number one engine fire handle glowed. Things were getting sticky.
With no crew to help, Duncan concentrated on the essentials. His left hand moved the control column forward, dropping the nose to level flight, while he punched the button that silenced the fire bell with his right. Speed was now essential, and they were rapidly getting it even with one engine out thanks to the lightness of the aircraft. He leaned toward the power quadrant and selected flaps 10. Bringing his right hand back, he brought the number one engine fuel lever down to the cut off position, pulled its fire handle, and pressed the fire bottle discharge switch.
Before he had brought his hand down, the fire bell sounded again. This time the number two engine fire warning light glowed. Let it burn, he thought, it's still producing power, but he knew it wouldn't for long. He moved the flap switch to flaps 5 and trimmed in a bunch of right rudder. Things were definitely getting sticky.
“Call Larry,” he shouted to Richard. “We're going to the alternate.” Duncan selected flaps 1. He had the needed speed. He brought the power levers back from their overtemp positions and put the aircraft into a right turn back to the bay.
“ Quan!” Duncan called Mr. Li's assistant behind him.
“The alternate is south of San Francisco. Block the Golden Gate Bridge. Both directions. The DEA'll be trapped where they are. They'll get air transport, but that will take ...” The number two engine gave out with a bang heard and felt in the cockpit. The aircraft again swayed left. Duncan stopped in mid-sentence, put the right rudder to the floor, brought the number two fuel selector lever to cutoff, pulled the number two fire handle, pushed the fire bottle discharge switch, and rolled in full right trim ... all in four seconds. Slowly he increased the power on the two remaining engines, getting as much thrust as possible without overtemping. If things got any worse, he knew they wouldn't stay in the air.
They were over San Pablo Bay at an altitude of 200 feet in a very sick airplane. Duncan concluded the number two engine, which he couldn't see from the cockpit, had probably blown-up, maybe even departed the aircraft. Whatever the cause, there was more drag out there than he had experienced in simulators in this configuration. With engines three and four at max allowable thrust, they could maintain the minimum flaps 1 speed and level flight, but they couldn't climb or accelerate.
Not being able to climb was the worst problem. The alternate was Half Moon Bay, thirty miles south of the Golden Gate and on the ocean side of the Peninsula, and there was no way to get there at an altitude of two hundred feet except through the entrance to San Francisco Bay. There was an obstacle there, the Golden Gate Bridge, the same bridge he had ordered blocked a minute ago.
Duncan decided. It had never been done in a 747, but he knew he could do it ... and it was outrageous.