TWENTY SIX ACROSS
Posted: 12 September 2014
Word Count: 2033
Summary: SOMETIMES IT TAKES A CRISIS TO SOLVE A PROBLEM
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
For three years we operated into the war zone of Helmand Province, carrying everything from newspapers to high explosives. The danger to a civilian freighter was not from Taliban ground fire, but from our own side and of course the weather...
He crossed out an ‘18’. Eighteen down had been a pig, denying him its secret for hours. Twenty-six across was the next challenge. It looked a bitch.
That was all. Five letters. An ‘E’ in fourth place. He glanced up from the cryptic crossword puzzle, trying to stretch in the limited space available. Behind him, the engineer was leaning back, appearing relaxed, although he knew it was just a front. Frankie, a tall phlegmatic Irishman, was probably just as stumped as he was. Silly really, the rivalry between them. But they took it seriously. Had to, since they’d started betting on the outcome. There was now £300 in the pot, built up over the last six months. Each session cost a fiver, and there was a time limit. Checking that his junior colleague was awake and minding the shop, he eased his seat back and closed his eyes.
As his mind roamed and relaxed, his thought patterns assumed a familiar drifting pattern, in tune with the usual noises made by men and their machines.
Here we are surrounded by the wonders of modern technology, and worrying about how to make a simple puzzle resolve itself in the time left…if Frankie gets lucky I’m three hundred in the hole, could take weeks to win it back again…
His chin collapsing onto his chest awoke him. He’d fallen asleep without knowing it. But this job was tiring. They’d been going for eleven hours, and home was several continents away.
“How many have you got left?” It was Frankie who asked as he stood and stretched, and he debated whether or not to tell him.
“Me too. One’s a right bastard.”
“It is.” Neither was surprised. When men shared the same cramped quarters, working together hour after hour and for years on end, they soon started to think alike.
The requests were one tea and one coffee. Frankie resumed his seat as he moved rearwards into the small and grimy space which held a malodorous campers’ toilet and a battered galley. As he stood there, waiting for the urn to boil, he drew on a small Havana, wondering about twenty-six across, the course they were steering, what the next two hours would bring. Sometimes he thought it was wrong, the boss making coffee for the other two members of the crew. But it was something he always did, whether or not it was appreciated. Back up front, he distributed the beverages, glancing out of the small windows as he did so. There was nothing at all remarkable out there, just sunlight trying to penetrate an opaque haze. As the others punched buttons and fingered switches, he returned to twenty-six across.
It was no good, his mind felt blocked. And the tea was crap as usual. You needed a full hundred degrees centigrade for a proper flavour. Up here, water boiled at much lower temperatures as the pressure decreased, and Brooke Bond’s product couldn’t really deliver. He glanced across at his younger colleague, a baby-faced blond fish head from Reykjavik. .
He looks shagged out, probably didn’t sleep in his own bed last night…
Funny how it took youth so little time to master technicalities, but years to adjust to loss of sleep. After three decades in the game, he knew how to sleep with one eye open, ever ready for the crisis which could happen at any second. He reached over and tapped Phil's shoulder.
“Take some time out. Close your eyes.”
“Thanks boss. Don’t mind if I do.” Phillip Siggurdsson removed his headset, reclining his seat, and appearing to immediately fall into a doze. Meanwhile he reached for a clipboard, fingered switches, talking occasionally on the VHF radio, the niggle of twenty-six across in his mind. And so the hours passed.
H- I- J- K- L- M- N- O…
He glanced at his watch. Around twenty minutes to landing which was the cut-off point, and only afew left to solve. Maybe it was going to work out after all.
And maybe not.
God, it was getting to him. He’d never seen a clue like it. There was nothing to give a hint, and the only guide he had was that ‘E’. Reluctantly, he folded up the paper and stashed it outside his black briefcase in a small rectangular compartment designed for the purpose. Phil, awake for the past ten minutes and raring to go, was pointing downwards.
“We’re cleared for descent.”
He reduced power smoothly, first on the outer engines and then on the inners, so that the tired pneumatic systems which drove the pressurization wouldn’t give up through the sudden drop in airflow. The radio was crackling, the accent American.
“FLASH 216 heavy, squawk ident. You are cleared to one five thousand on QNH one zero zero niner. Descent at your discretion, and monitor this frequency.”
Against the background ritual of challenge and response, he felt his mind sharpening, as it always did with the start of the return to earth. The approach and landing phases were crucial. They were when the majority of accidents occurred.
The radio squawked and chattered, with Phil writing furiously on his clipboard. “Sunray says we’re released to Bulldog, their weather’s just coming in….”
Camp Bulldog was the coalition airhead deep in the hostile sands of Helmand Province. ‘Sunray’ was the codename for the controlling authority. His eyes, scanning the instrument panel, narrowed. The TCAS showed a blue diamond intruder somewhere ahead in their airspace, hopefully not in their flight path.
“OK, here’s the weather report. It’s…”
The synthesized voice warning sounded, cutting him off in mid-speech and galvanizing everyone, as the blue diamond on the TCAS changed to a yellow disc. It indicated traffic just ahead and below, descending, and within one thousand feet of their level. He held his course but slowed the descent. Perversely, the intruder did the same. The face of the TCAS, the Terminal Collision Avoidance System, blazed red.
He firewalled the throttles and hauled back on the controls. The big jet stopped descending and powered into a climb.
“ADJUST CLIMB! ADJUST CLIMB!”
That meant the immediate danger was past. He closed the throttles, resuming the descent.
“Anybody see what it was?”
“Negative. Probably a UAV.”
UAV’s, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, were the curse of this area. Launched from the nearby base, they were actually flown by an Air Force technician in an underground silo somewhere in Arizona, via a satellite. With no pilot on board they went where they pleased with a sublime indifference to other users of the airspace. A midair collision would be interesting. Their heavy jet transport would probably win, they weighed over a hundred times what the drones did, but if it was an MQ-1 predator carrying live Hellfire air to ground missiles…
He reined in his imagination. This was no time to get distracted, with the TCAS screen filling with half a dozen blue diamonds.
They’re well below, probably a wing of American Cobras…
H I J K L M N O…
His eyes on the TCAS, he watched as another blue diamond turned yellow. Previously harmless traffic was now an intruder, right on the nose and coming in the opposite direction.
He’d reconnected the autopilot since the previous near collision, but now he snapped it out, flying manually, ready for another evasive manoeuvre. The solid yellow circle showed the intruder two hundred feet above, and diving straight at them. Then it turned red.
This time he slammed the throttles shut, pushing forward on the control column, jerked upwards hard against the seatbelt as the jet went into a steep dive.
It was Phil, his voice urgent. Their rate of descent was four thousand feet per minute, with airspeed increasing rapidly and the ground only five thousand feet below.
“ADJUST DESCENT! ADJUST DESCENT!”
He eased up the nose as the overspeed warning triggered, its machine-gun like clacking, adding to the racket. Fifteen hundred feet above the uncharted sands of Helmand they came out of the dive, nursing the ship back up to where the altimeter indicated five thousand.
Five letters and the fourth is E. H to O. H2O
“Captain, I just got Bulldog weather. Wind’s gusting to twenty knots, with visibility dropping rapidly. It’s down to one thousand metres in the sandstorm.”
One thousand metres and dropping rapidly. He had a short and narrow piece of tarmac to find, at one hundred and seventy miles per hour, with under half a mile visibility and no landing aids, except a GPS which was unapproved for instrument approaches.
He glanced around the flight deck. Fourteen hours now, since they’d taken off out of RAF Lyneham. It was three forty-five am UK time, and the bright sunlight was cruel. It burned his eyes and showed up the scuffed and battered cockpit, where the years and thousands of hands and feet had worn the paint from the control surfaces. The McDonnel Douglas DC-8, onetime queen of the skies, had been built back in sixty-eight, when he’d been in the fifth form. She was an old lady, the last of her era and a classic, attracting photographers and aviation buffs wherever she went. Contempt, also.
The young, modern pilots think computers are everything. The Civil Aviation Authorities don’t like these old airplanes, they say they’re unsafe. But they’re built solid. Their bloody tails don’t fall off in thunderstorms. She’s an old lady, but still a weapon good enough for this war. Apart from the mail and the medical supplies we’re carrying thirty-four tonnes of 7.62 millimetre, two hundred to a belt, four ball one tracer, to feed the guns…
Suddenly he was laughing, aware of Phil staring at him uncertainly, as his mind returned to the present. He felt good. Twenty-six across was his, and possibly three hundred quid, if he survived to spend it. As for the rising sand at Bulldog, well.
They’d encountered headwinds en route between Dalaman and Sharjeah, losing both time and fuel. Karachi, the alternate was one hour and forty minutes away. They might have fuel for it following an unsuccessful approach and go-around, and they might not
“ Approach checklist."
"Flash 216 you are cleared to final runway 0ne eight. Call field in sight”
A glance through the windshield revealed a brown haze, with bits of desert visible below.
Call field in sight, you must be fucking joking...
"Flap ten selected, and indicating."
The GPS showed them within half a mile of centre line, and he banked to line up with the flashing pixel that was his only landing aid.
"Flap twenty selected, and indicating."
Coming up to six miles, and fifteen hundred feet above the surface on the radio altimeter.
"Approaching final descent point, gear down, landing checklist."
"Gear down, landing checklist."
"Three greens, spoliers are armed."
They were low down now, prior to commencing final approach and the thermals coming up off the desert were making the airframe buck and judder like a fairground ride.
"Leaving fifteen hundred. Flap thirty-five."
"Flap thirty-five selected, indicating." Phill his co-pilot dutufully repeated each command, to show that he was still conscious and that the relevant checklist item had been understood and actioned.
"Flap fifty. Selected and indicating.".
They were configured to land, and approaching their minimum break - off height.
"One thousand to minimum."
Phill's voice sounded calm.
He was head down, eyes glued to the instruments, to the approach course that might or might not be correct.
"Phill! Go head up, spot me that fucking runway."
Phill Sigurdsson leaned forward, looking, looking hard, monitoring their altitude as he continued his routine calls.
"Five hundred to minimum."
He inched the throttles forward to kill the sink rate.
"Minimum, no runway."
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