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THE GOLDEN GATE — Tuesday 16:05

The Golden Gate Bridge lay dead ahead, and they couldn't climb above it. Duncan stared at the rectangle formed by the bridge's two support towers, the roadway between them, and the water surface below. The rectangle's width allowed ample clearance, but its height ... that was the question.

“Richard, they bring battleships and carriers in under the Golden Gate Bridge, don't they?” Duncan asked.

“Yeah, but they had to wait for low tide when one of the battleships came through, and they had to lower some of its antennae ... oh, shit, you're not going to ....”

“It's our only way out of the bay. Sitting on the ground, our tail height is sixty-three feet. If we drop to thirty feet over the water we should be able to make it. The roadway span has be more than a hundred feet off the water.[REF3501] We can do it ... even if it's high tide.”

He didn't tell Richard that timing would be critical. Descending from their two hundred feet of altitude would give them extra speed, which could be converted back to altitude, at least some of it. If they went down, stayed low, and the speed bled off, they might not be able to regain the altitude needed for a landing at the Half Moon Bay airport.

Duncan considered the view through the 747's left front windshield. Ahead, fog shrouded the tops of the bridge's two towers, but the roadway below was in the clear. A fishing boat lay between them and the bridge, slightly to their right, its telltale wake revealing an outbound course. Duncan decided it wasn't a problem, though they would pass damned close. Centered between the towers but on the far side, he saw a ship but couldn't yet judge its direction of travel or distance from the bridge. To avoid the ship, he would turn the aircraft left—towards Half Moon Bay—as soon as they passed under the bridge, but he'd have to climb it enough to avoid catching the left wing in the waves when he banked it for the turn. Duncan smiled. It was a helluva last flight, a proper way to close out a career.

Duncan pointed to the ground proximity warning system's circuit breaker with the meter stick and had Richard pull it, disabling the irritatingly loud “PULL UP, PULL UP“ recording that blared from cockpit speakers if the aircraft descended when close to the ground with the landing gear up. When he heard the pop from the pulled breaker, he pushed on the control column, his eyes rapidly scanning between the bridge, the aircraft's artificial horizon instrument, and the radar altimeter. They descended from their two hundred feet of altitude; airspeed increased.

When the radar altimeter read one hundred feet, Duncan judged the airplane was closing with the bridge too rapidly for their rate of descent. He pushed the nose farther down, accelerating the descent. At sixty feet he brought the nose back up a little, at forty-five feet a little more.

“Jesus.” Richard said, reacting to a seemingly certain watery impact.

The 747 flashed under the Golden Gate Bridge at a radar altimeter altitude of thirty feet, its nose on the horizon, moving above it. Again Duncan put the thrust levers to the forward stops, again pushing the two remaining engines into overtemp to gain the altitude needed to bank the airplane, turn, and avoid the freighter. He did the math in his head as he pulled on the control column, Wingspan 195 feet 8 inches, use 200 feet, half of that for one wing 100 feet, angle of bank needed 45 degrees, that's the square root of two, 1.414, divide into the 100 feet, we need 70 something feet, use 80 feet as the absolute minimum, better if you can get 100 feet. The airplane responded, gaining altitude, but the airspeed gained in the descent bled off quickly. Duncan settled for ninety-five feet on the radar altimeter, brought the nose down to keep from sacrificing more airspeed to the climb, and rolled the airplane smoothly into a forty-five degree left bank. The airspeed continued decreasing, the cause now being the energy used turning the aircraft.

Careful, he thought to himself, don't put the wing in the water.

The airplane turned, maddeningly slow, and held altitude. After fifteen degrees of heading change, the freighter no longer loomed directly ahead, but Duncan continued the turn, losing airspeed, until the stick shaker warned of an impending stall. Quickly but still smoothly, he rolled the airplane level—stopping the stick shaker's clatter and vibration—waited for the airspeed indicator to edge upward, and then pulled the two engines back slowly until the overtemp lights extinguished.

More altitude and more left turn, both were needed to position the aircraft for the landing at Half Moon Bay. Incrementally, Duncan let the airspeed increase until it stabilized, then traded it alternately for altitude and heading change.

“Mr. Ballentine, I remind you that I am the captain of this aircraft. Our fuel situation requires that we land. We are proceeding to San Francisco International.” The DEA pilot had used the p. a. system to inform Greg Ballentine that he would no longer try to track the 747 that had disappeared under the stratus below.

Greg didn't respond. He remained with his face was pressed against the window, staring down at the twin towers of the Golden Gate Bridge thrusting upward through the fog. A fireball, thought Greg, I want to see a fireball, but when no fiery brightness showed through the stratus, he knew Duncan had done it. The son-of-a-bitch flew under the bridge. He shook his head while reaching for a legal-sized pad of paper provided for ever seat in the aircraft. He opened the seat's retractable table and centered the pad on it. Greg sighed and looked at the ceiling. Composing the exact wording of a memo calling for the immediate arrest of all DEA agents involved in the deaths of Ellie and Tom Harris would have to be done carefully.

The 747 stabilized at one hundred and seventy-five feet using maximum allowable continuous thrust on it's two working engines. Duncan glanced back at the flight engineer's panel. Both engines were showing decreased oil pressure and elevated oil temperature. He was working them too hard, Duncan knew, but he had no choice. They would have to last another eight minutes.

Duncan took two sheets of folded paper from his breast pocket and extended them back over his shoulder toward Li Quan. “These are instructions I prepared in case this should happen. Get them down to Mr. Li.”

His right leg, tired from holding full right rudder to keep the aircraft straight, started quivering. He brought his unoccupied left leg back around the control column, shifted a few inches to the right in his seat, and used both legs to keep the right rudder fully forward against it's stop.

From each end of the Golden Gate Bridge a group of three cars approached, moving into a side by side formation of one car for each lane. A fourth car was in front. As a group the cars came to a halt at mid-bridge. The driver of each car exited and locked his vehicle and hurriedly entered the fourth car to a cacophony of honking horns. The fourth car on each side sped off the bridge over empty lanes.

The DEA forces were choked off. What would have been a thirty-minute dash to Half Moon Bay became a two-hour marathon.

“Leather Man to Straight Man.” Duncan heard Larry's transmission in his earset.

“Straight Man here. We're three minutes out. Where are you?”

“Over the beach south of the runway. You're in luck, old man. You've got a light wind out of the south. You can come straight in. Ceiling's about three hundred feet. Everybody else is staying on the ground.”

“What about the trucks?”

“They're in the parking lot ready to roll. They'll go through the gate when you touch down.”

“As soon as I'm sure everybody's out, the two of us will be on the runway,” Duncan said, referring to Richard and himself.

“We'll be waiting for you.”

“Tell your friend to watch out for our wake turbulence. Straight Man out.”

Duncan grabbed the meter stick. “Richard, we need to pull more circuit breakers.”

The Half Moon Bay Airport was one of many built by the military during World War II and turned over to local governments after the war. It became a recreational strip, busy on the weekends, deserted on weekdays. The single north-south runway was five thousand feet long and paralleled the coast highway, still a two-lane affair. Aside from a few aircraft hangars and utility buildings, the only facility was a small cafe that survived more off highway motorists than airport customers. On weekdays, one cook and one waitress staffed the restaurant.

On bad weather days, like this day, business was slow. The cook and the waitress were without customers when two tractor-trailer combinations arrived. The waitress hoped the drivers would be the source of her first tips in over two hours. Her last customer, some kind of federal cop, had received a message over his radio that sent him hurrying from the restaurant fifteen minutes earlier. He hadn't left a tip.

The waitress was disappointed. The drivers remained in their trucks, engines running. Her hopes raised when one left his truck, but he walked to the locked gate that opened onto the ramp. She watched him fiddle with the lock. That didn't bother her; trucks often pulled onto the ramp to off-load aircraft, except previously they had always been small trucks.

Then she perked up. The driver walked toward the restaurant. She quickly stubbed out a freshly lit cigarette in the ashtray hidden behind the counter.

The driver entered while talking on a cellular phone, which was strange because he went to the pay phone at the end of the dining area, picked it up, listened for a moment, hung up, and then spoke into the hand-held unit, “There's a dial tone.” He continued listening to the cellular phone for a few seconds and then again picked up the pay phone, listened, hung up, and then said into his hand-held, “You've done it.”

The driver closed the cellular phone as he left the restaurant. The waitress lamented having wasted a perfectly good cigarette.

Duncan knew that when he extended the landing gear and flaps, the airplane wouldn't hold altitude even with the two engines at full power. He wanted all the altitude he could get. By the time the INS read five miles to the runway end, Duncan had coaxed the airplane to two hundred and fifty feet. Runway elevation at Half Moon Bay was sixty-seven feet. That left one hundred eighty-three feet to play with.

Duncan keyed his mike. “Straight man here. Roll the trucks.”

The driver got out of his truck again, but the waitress decided against wasting another cigarette. The man was unpredictable.

She had guessed right. He ran to the gate, threw its latch, and pushed hard. The second truck, already moving, rolled through the entrance before the gate had completely opened, swerving slightly to avoid hitting it.

Duncan couldn't see the end of runway, but the INS told him it was a mile and three tenths ahead, and he recognized the surrounding terrain. Smoothly he advanced the power levers to their forward stops, asking one last maximum effort from the overworked engines, and moved the gear lever to the down position. The vertical speed indicator moved downward off zero.

When the gear completed its cycle, the green gear down light didn't illuminate, but the red gear warning light did. Duncan ignored them. The last circuit breakers he'd had Richard pull had disabled the body gear extension mechanism. He would land with the body gear retracted, setting down on the wing and the nose gear. At their weight, the only undesirable consequence would be that he had reduced the braking power by one half, but this runway was twice as long as the airplane's minimum ground roll, and there was a one thousand foot overrun area at the end. He knew it would work.

Duncan was flying by the seat of his pants now, aided by his innate judgement, thousands of hours in a 747, and a lot of playing around in simulators. The end of the runway became visible. He paused until he felt the moment right and then moved the flap lever to the full down position.

Duncan chopped the power when the radar altimeter was a needle width from zero. ACI Flight 103 slammed onto the runway. The wing gear wheels spun up, and three thousand psi of hydraulic pressure went to the brakes.

The waitress was reading a tabloid spread on a table facing the window looking out at the runway, her cigarette dangling from her mouth. Her peripheral vision first alerted her. She looked up to see the largest airplane she had ever seen at the small airport. It was moving down the runway, it's bulk belying its speed, glowing red rings on its wheels. Her mouth opened and the cigarette, bereft of its upper support, dropped onto the tabloid. She was watching the 747's tail begin to tilt down when smoke from the burning paper reached her nostrils.

Duncan knew that without the body gear extended, the airplane would sit on it's tail, pivoting like a seesaw about the wing gear. He wanted that when they stopped, but until then he needed directional control. He got it by shoving forward on the control column, using the elevator to keep the steerable nose gear on the runway.;

They were two thirds of the way down the runway when, despite his forward pressure on the control column, the nose started to rise, the elevator having lost effect as the airspeed decreased. Using what was left of rudder effectiveness, engine power changes both in forward and reverse, and differential braking, Duncan fought to keep the airplane on the runway. Finally, with a slight left drift, the airplane rolled slowly into the overrun and stopped, its tail resting on the lip at the end of the runway.

The alternate recovery crew lacked an airstairs. Without one, there would have been no way the family could evacuate, without injuries and delay, from the main deck's usual three-story height. But with the tail resting on the runway, the floor of the main deck at the cargo door was only a few feet off the ground.

“Everybody out!” Duncan ordered, releasing his seat belt and shoulder harness and sliding the seat back. Li Quan, Richard, and Duncan, in that order, descended the ladder to the main deck. Duncan went to the igloo where the crew was imprisoned, lifted the latch, and opened the door. Three frightened faces greeted him. “Get the hell out. Forget your bags. You can get them later if the airplane doesn't burn.”

The ACI crew rushed toward the still closed forward entry door. “No,” shouted Duncan. “Go aft to the cargo door. I put the tail on the ground. You'll be able to step right onto a truck bed.”

The crew changed direction and hurried aft. Duncan followed, walking down the fuselage center between the igloo rows, and taking time to check that each igloo was empty. A captain should be last off. That was the rule. It was a good rule.

He felt the aircraft shudder. The first of the two trucks had backed into the side of the airplane at the cargo door with its rear doors open. People poured from the eleven-foot wide cargo door into the truck. By the time half of them were off, the second truck had backed its open end up to the first truck's open side doors, making the first a bridge to the second. Evacuation was completed in less than five minutes.

The ACI crew stepped first onto the truck bed and then was helped down to the ground. They saw the flame and smoke welling from the wing gear and distanced themselves from the airplane, deciding to not go back for their bags.

Duncan stepped onto the truck bed. Mr. Li was standing, waiting for him, supported by two of his sons.

“A thousand apologies. Somehow our security was breached,” he said. “You have more than fulfilled your part of the bargain. We are in your debt.” The old man extended a frail hand.

“You're not out of the woods yet. You've got a twenty-minute drive to the freeway, but your chances are good. Communications have been cut; there's not a working phone within ten miles of here.” Duncan smiled and gently shook the hand. “The local cops are investigating a complaint about a large party of Stanford co-eds using cocaine and running around naked on the beach. All of that was Larry Tanner's work.”

“I will thank him personally at a later time. Please, Duncan, wherever you go in the world, if the Chiu-chau are there, call upon us.”

Duncan jumped from the truck and looked toward the airplane. Fire flared from both main wing gear. He couldn't tell if the brakes had first started burning or if their heat had first ignited the dry grass around the wheels. It didn't matter; the tires and brake assemblies were engulfed in flame. Thick, black smoke boiled up over the wing roots into the air. Two nearly concurrent small, sharp explosions sounded—thermal plugs blowing.

He turned away—Duncan disliked watching airplanes burn—and ran toward the small Cessna 206 waiting fifty yards down the runway with the engine running. Richard Lee was already sitting in the front with the pilot. Larry Tanner was in the back, holding the rear door open for him. Duncan clambered in.

“Welcome, Straight Man. Next stop, Mexico”


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[REF3501] According to a plaque outside the visitor center at the Golden Gate Bridge, the maximum distance from the bridge to the water is 220 feet. The center span is 4200 feet.


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