Excerpt: Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds

2:09 TO IMPACT. The Brasilia was at thirty-four hundredfeet, falling thirty feet per second, too fast.
For seven minutes, Captain Ed Gannaway had been focused on cockpit settings, numbers, levers, lights, and screens. He’d been responding to chimes and synthesized warnings, his eyes fixed on airspeed, pitch and altitude.

Now, for the first time, he peered over his left shoulder.

Out on his left wing, he saw the mad jumble of metal parts that once was an engine and four propeller blades.

“Engine’s exploded,” he told his first officer, Matt Warmerdam.

Gannaway had never seen anything like it. “It’s just hanging out there.”

He did not describe it beyond that. Gannaway’s instruments had not told him the full story. His eyes did. The Brasilia had not experienced a simple engine failure. This was structural damage so extensive a pilot of his experience – nearly ten thousand hours in the cockpit – would know the bad news: Questions that begged for answers had no answers. He saw junk wrapped around his wing’s leading edge. The smooth stream of air necessary for flight had become a jumble of turbulence. His Brasilia was a wounded bird struggling to stay aloft and failing in the struggle. Of all the emergency checklists, there was none on how to fly with one wing. He had trained for emergencies, had practiced responses to a myriad of simulated disasters. Yet all of that preparation, and all his skill and courage, meant nothing now. There is no way to fly with one wing.

Turning back in his seat, silent, the captain heard an air traffic controller give Warmerdam a heading to West Georgia Regional: “ASe 529, roger. Expect localizer runway three-four approach and, uh, could you fly heading one-eight-zero – uh, no, sorry, one-six-zero?”

“Yeah, we can do that,” Warmerdam confirmed.

In the first officer’s right-side seat, Warmerdam could not see the structural damage and assess for himself its significance. He knew only what the captain told him, and Gannaway told him only the bare facts: an exploded engine, just hanging out there. For thirty seconds after describing the damage, Gannaway said nothing. Could he now, as he had once told his wife, bring the Brasilia down safely in a field? Now, in an emergency descent through clouds, could he even see an open space with time enough to get to it? With a field beneath him, could he then put down a 24,000-pound plane at 150 miles per hour on that land with its inevitable imperfections? Would anyone survive such a thing?

Pilots wouldn’t be pilots if they answered such questions with anything but affirmatives. Gannaway had inherited a family legacy of World War II pilots. At the top of the ziggurat pyramid of fighter pilots, Tom Wolfe wrote, stood those with the moxie, reflexes, experience, and cool to land a brick on a skillet, “one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff.” For Gannaway, this moment was not about his manhood. It was about his machinery. Would moxie, reflexes, and experience be enough with this dying plane?

Now, hearing Warmerdam confirm a route that would take them several miles south prior to a turn toward the West Georgia runway, the captain spoke for the first time since seeing the engine splayed against the wing’s edge. On one engine, yes, they could fly that route; but not on one wing. They needed a runway and they needed it quickly. So Gannaway told his first officer, “We can get in on a visual. Just give us the vectors.”

He was asking for directions that would put him within sight of that country airport. He would go straight in. He would try to land that brick on that skillet.

Voices filled the west Georgia skies, from LaGrange north to Rome, voices speaking in the aviator’s clipped vernacular.

Radar controllers had protected the surrounding airspace for Flight 529 to make an emergency retreat to Atlanta.

Atlanta Center governs much of the airspace across the Southeast from its headquarters in Hampton, Georgia, twenty miles south of Atlanta’s airport. Typically eleven thousand feet is the base of its airspace, and the point at which it turns over communications, but its air traffic controller had continued to direct Flight 529 for seven minutes more.

Only when Flight 529 fell to forty-five hundred feet did communications change over to Atlanta Approach, which monitors planes within a much narrower space: a forty-mile arc around the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, an area that includes West Georgia Regional.

A radar controller at Atlanta Approach had been closely tracking Flight 529. At one moment, the altitude indicator on his display screen read “100,” which meant the Brasilia, circling about fifty miles southwest of Atlanta, was at ten thousand feet and descending.

About four minutes later the plane’s altitude read “045” (forty-five hundred feet) and then “XXX.” His computer couldn’t keep up with the Brasilia’s rapid descent.

Even so, the controller wasn’t alarmed enough to activate on his screen Map 1, the emergency map. The map depicts roads, lakes, and hospitals near the West Georgia Regional Airport, including Highway 316, which was in the northeast flight plan of Flight 529. With that map, the air traffic controller could have advised Gannaway and Warmerdam of the emergency-landing possibilities, in case they couldn’t make it to the small airfield. But the controller figured that, even with one engine out, the Brasilia ought to be controllable for at least twenty miles. Besides, he never sensed distress or panic in Warmerdam’s voice. Of course, the air traffic controller had not received a key piece of information from the pilots – an explicit description of the damage on the left wing.

More than five minutes had passed since the first officer had declared an emergency with Atlanta Center and called for fire trucks and emergency crews.

But with the changeover of air traffic controllers, from Atlanta Center to Atlanta Approach, there had been a slip-up. No one had notified members of the Carroll County Fire Department that a plane was falling through the sky toward them.

As soon as the flight attendant, Robin Fech, made it to Row 8, the young engineer David Schneider blurted, “I know how to do it.” He meant the emergency door beside his seat, the only one in the back half of the plane. It would be his job to open it.

Schneider had been concentrating on his responsibility, a massive one as he saw it. He looked at the handle a dozen times. What if it gets stuck and I can’t open it? He read the emergency card a dozen times. If there are any women behind me, I’ll let them out first. He saw two women near him, in Row 10: Sonya Fetterman and Ludie Burton.

Now Robin Fech stood before him. “I know I’m supposed to pull this handle right here,” he said, pointing to the emergency exit. Schneider said it with such confidence, such total command, Fech felt appreciative.

She had someone to count on.

But then her eyes met David Schneider’s and she sensed that Schneider knew: She was afraid.

On the left side of the cabin, Fech saw passengers inching up their window shades.

David Schneider had already decided that, on this day, he was immune to death. What he felt approached invincibility: It was the arrogance of youth. You know when you are going to die, and I am not going to die. The twenty-eight-year-old Schneider believed it. This is not going to happen to me today.

It was that simple. Schneider felt the plane dropping, but it wasn’t as if the descent was so severe that his stomach rose into his throat. The plane was flying well enough, he thought, and they still had their landing gear.

He’d also heard the flight attendant say several times that they could fly on one engine. He had no reason to think he would die.

Besides, Schneider had other plans. He had a good job, a good marriage. He liked his life. He was an engineer, and each time he changed jobs his new boss told him, or at least implied, that he was a rising star. His salary was proof of that, growing handsomely, and every year 16 percent of it went toward his 401(k). He was charging hard into the future, planning to get his MBA, with every expectation of becoming vice president of operations by the age of forty. By fifty, who knew? Maybe he’d already be retired, traveling the world, doing volunteer work.

From seat 8C, Schneider looked several rows ahead to 5A, the man in the blue knit shirt and blue-jean shorts: Jim Kennedy. They’d never met, yet Schneider felt a connection to Kennedy. They were en route to Gulfport as colleagues. Schneider felt a need to keep track of Kennedy. It made him feel less alone.

He also reached out to his faith. Schneider prayed a form of the rosary: an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be, ending with: “. . . as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

 

1:28 TO IMPACT. Stepping past David Schneider to the U-shape formed by Rows 8, 9 and 10, Robin Fech noticed Ludie Burton standing beside her husband, Lonnie, in the aisle by her back-row seat.

“What are you doo-ing?” Fech asked, sharply, stretching out the syllables. “You’ve got to sit down now.” Lonnie Burton reached to help his wife. When Ludie Burton was introduced at his retirement dinner eleven months earlier, he had sat with her at the head table, clasping his hands and shaking them back and forth in a silent cheer for her. Then he’d pushed together his palms, prayerfully, to give thanks not only for the years they’d spent together, but also for their shared years ahead. Now, Lonnie Burton helped fasten the seat belt around his wife of forty-three years.

Just then Robin Fech noticed that something had changed. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but she felt the need to hurry to the front of the cabin.

She turned and head back up the aisle, arms raised, hands against the overhead compartment on both sides of the aisle. As she went, Fech looked left, then right, left and then right, checking on passengers. She made it to the first row in twelve strides. She turned once more to look back at her twenty-six passengers.

Something had changed.

The light inside the cabin.

It was brighter now, as if a window curtain had been opened.

Passengers were looking outside. Fech looked, too, over Mary Jean Adair’s shoulder in 1C.

The plane had descended beneath the clouds. Fech saw a rural mosaic: fields, pines, and scattered houses.

She’d landed in Atlanta a thousand times. This was not Atlanta.

 

In flight, everything is done by checklist, and in emergencies, sometimes more than one checklist. The procedure is to be followed strictly. So when his Brasilia came through the clouds, Gannaway thought to move on to his next list even as his voice betrayed the emotion of the moment.

Never a stutterer, he said, “Sing . . . single . . . single-engine checklist, please.”

“Where . . . is it?”Warmerdam said. In the Quick Reference Handbook,
the single-engine checklist was among the hardest to find.

\Atlanta Approach interrupted again:”ASe 529, say altitude leaving.”

Warmerdam: “We’re out at nineteen hundred at this time.”

The thick treelines of Carroll County were beneath them now, stands of Georgia pines separated by open fields.

“We’re below the clouds,”Gannaway told his first officer. “Tell ‘em.”

Warmerdam didn’t have a chance.

“You’re out at nineteen hundred now?” came the reply. The altitude surprised the air traffic controller. Flight 529 had been at thirty-four hundred feet only one minute earlier: nineteen hundred didn’t seem right. The descent was too much, too fast.

Warmerdam reported that they were coming in on a visual: “Give us a vector to the airport.”

“AS2 529,” the controller said. “Turn, left, uh, fly heading zero-four-zero. Bear – the, uh, airport’s at your about ten o’clock and six miles, sir. Radar contact lost at this time.”

Now Flight 529 was gone from the radar screen, not unusual at such a low altitude. The controller at Atlanta Approach might have been alarmed by the rapid descent, but when he heard Warmerdam confirm, “Zero four zero, ASe 529” without elaborating, he thought the plane was under control. He thought Flight 529 was about to land and that all was right. He would not hear from 529 again.