"Life asked Death: ’Death, why does everyone love me, but hate you? ' Death replied: 'Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth. “— Anonymous
I heard the echo of footsteps in my head, distant as the echoes in a gothic cathedral. My eyes were flooded by flashes of white light which gradually shaped into more defined images and sounds. I was on a wheelchair, squeaking along so loudly that I was surprised I hadn’t waken up sooner.
We were crossing an open field. I wasn’t alone. The fresh air and the distant chirping of birds refreshed me. The scent of fresh grass permeated my senses after all those days in the ambulatory. It was a wonderful feeling!
With my eyes blindfolded I couldn’t see anything at all, but I could smell the aircraft’s engine, the kerosene smell, likely not far from where we were.
An helicopter flew by, its engine distant, muffled by the other sounds that surrounded me. Then a fighter jet and another one soon after. This was clearly an airfield, a military airfield.
A few seconds later, my wheelchair stopped. Somebody adjusted my blindfold and helped me standing up. I was asked if I could hear and understand what was said to me. I nodded back. Two persons helped me stepping forward and we went up the aluminium boarding stairs of the aircraft.
I immediately felt the plastic carpet smell of the aircraft’s cockpit, something a pilot can sense immediately, followed by the plane’s distinctive enviroment, the air conditioning system humming along and the closing and opening of the provision cabinets.
They sat me on a chair and I was asked to wait. A few minutes past and another person arrived to remove my blindfold. For a minute I did not see much at all, blinded by flashes of white light. I put my hands over my eyes and felt a slashing headache hitting me. I must have looked pretty miserable because I was asked several times if I was ok. I didn’t reply. The headache got worse. I was actually feeling sick. Very sick.
I heard the voice of a woman. She took my pulse and looked into my eyes with a small torch. I heard her murmuring that the medication was waining off slowly. I retched a couple of times. The nurse hurried to get a small bag which she placed under my mouth.
The medication must have sat badly with me. Fine pilot I was going to be! What shit they had given me and why? Two weeks in that ambulatory and it looked nobody checked what meds I was adversed to. My head was spinning wildly. I wanted to put myself together and tried to stand up but my legs went wobbly. I tried a second time. I took a big deep breath and pushed myself up. The same woman who was still standing next me, took me by the hand and guided me to the cockpit.
We reached the end of the aisle. She entered the security code and opened the cockpit door.
I was the first to arrive there, into that wonderful modified 737 control deck, an absolute beauty as I remembered it from previous missions. An old plane no doubt but still state of the art. My head was getting clearer. I had to do this. I had to be fit for this. There was no going back. The nurse arrived with two pills and a cup of water. I gushed both down. She also gave me an energy tablet to chew.
I sat on the pilot’s leather seat. To the right, the plane’s pedestal with its fuel and oil readers; the fuel distribution readers and the status on the refilling. A gentle voice pulled me out of my spell. It was the first hostess. She extended the Master Flight book to me with a kind a gentle smile. She introduced herself and told me that she was very glad to fly with me. The lady who had helped me, checked my pulse quickly and after confirming it was all ok, left the control deck.
I felt a little embarrassed there, not knowing quite what to do; alone with this young woman and still a little inarticulate. I introduced myself as Sergeant Albert Grobius and, after clearing my throat, I announced I would start a quick pre-flight briefing in order to establish everyone’s duties, as soon as the other members of crew would join us.
As an airforce pilot, my preference was for fewer words, especially when it came to meet new people. Right there and then, the door opened up and the figure of a rather young pilot and a much older nurse, appeared. The two quickly extended hands introducing themselves as Ben and Sandra.
I remembered an unspoken and strange synchronicity amongst the four of us at that point, as if we had rehearsed that moment for a long time. I was eager to take this 85 odd tonnes baby into the air.
Soon after I logged in fuel and oil readings in the Flight Mater book. When the refilling was finished, I switched on the pumps and checked the distribution of the fuel across the plane which checked perfectly normal.
The voice of flight control appeared on the speaker and we were given the go ahead for pushback. I disconnected external power supply and, as the plane began to taxi, we waited impatiently for the destination co-ordinates to arrive.
In front of us, the clear runaway and the open blue skies behind. We sat there for while, waiting. I noticed a line of jeeps, armed personnel and a few tanks around the perimeter of the airport.
We got the signal. The destination co-ordinates hit our screen. It was time to go!
I pushed the throttle of the engines and the handle bar forward as the beast started to pick up speed down that runaway. The twin CFM motors roared like four angry lions as the speed of the aircraft increased effortlessly. After a few seconds the machine gently lifted off.
We were airborne!
A gorgeous sunset awaited. The beautiful orange hues over the evening sky, gave me a rather nostalgic feeling. As soon as we were on air, the devastation below us, become apparent. The territory looked like a war zone with multiple fires scattered around. Some were indeed very large, one of which, South-South West, must have certainly been a forest fire of large proportions.
With the corner of my eye, I saw my second officer intensely observing the horror below. We were five hours to destination, and three hours off the Pacific coast! I pushed the aircraft to turn gently West to adjust our trajectory according to the computer data. I switched off the seat belt sign and ordered the crew to attend to the passengers.
The sun was still giving out its last rays of light and my melancholy somehow started to grow. I was glad to be up ther, free from the pain and the chaos, but I felt so deeply disconnected all at the same time.
The lowering evening light had always brought me feelings of departure, rapture, loss. This evening was indeed all of those things combined. I had taken that job with my two hands, out of sense of duty perhaps or out of selfishness, not to die forgotten in those mountains, either of hunger or madness.
For a long minute I drifted away while my hands - quite experienced after some ten hundred thousand hours of flight - were gently manouvering that beast of steel, through valleys of steam.
During that unforgettable take-off, we saw road pickets and some heavy artillery guns depleted along the motorway. We also saw several tanks, some of which were abandoned on the fields. Clear signs of heavy fight were especially visible from the air. One bridge down the motorway, seemed to have collapsed. A few miles to the West, a large explosion blasted from the centre of the city. This happened in front of our very eyes. The puff of debris must have been 50 metres high or more, with an important shock wave blast to follow, which was registered by the aircraft computer, soon after.
I turned to my first officer. We started to talk, not much. He seemed reserved, indecisive, hesitant. What can you do when you get stuck in an adventure you didn't quite want?
From the accent I assumed he was from the North. I felt a strange sense of distrust in him. He was a fine pilot though, this is something I could tell from a man after two minutes handling the wheel.
The plane itself was a fine machine, a bespoked military version of the Boeing 737 with a total range of 6,500 kilometres and cruising speed of up to 850 Km an hour. This 737 also featured its own radar and telecom system as well as a fully operational in-flight refuelling dock. I had myself flown a few of these machines and in one occasion during long range missions. Over Greenland, in my early cadet days, I witnessed a high risk operation over an Artic storm involving a double in-flight servicing mission with a Boeing Sentinel.
In those days one couldn’t think of a better job than being a pilot. The industry was booming and jobs could be found everywhere you looked. I came from a military family so the airforce was my first choice. I soon became my father’s pride and joy and, either by luck or coincidence, I was stationed in his same regiment. He had cut his teeth in the South East, alongside the border where in multiple occasions military personnel, both airforce and marines, where involved in the fight against the narcos. He got wounded more than twice in such clashes and came home, after thirty five years of service, with three medals to his name. He was a fine man and a fine pilot. I kept thinking of him during that first night of flight, wondering what he would have done in my boots, in my position, with nothing in his pocket except for a ticket of no return.
Again I gently pulled the rudder to correct the aircraft’s course by performing a 45 degree turn South-South East. Ben, checked the new flight co-ordinates. Our destination would require a five hour flight approximately, which at our cruising speed meant some 5.800 Km to arrival. Benny recalled the GPS map on screen and pointed at a location over the North Pacific Ocean, somewhere between New Zealand and the Solomon Islands.
I took another look through the window. The land was now way below us and any sign of destruction was almost indistinct at our altitude. Roads and land points formed neat luminous lines as the last sun rays wained in the horizon. The same old earth, the same planet. Different humanity, different history. But at that altitude, it really seemed just like another day.
Then quite suddenly, the door of the cockpit slammed open and the second hostess, Anne, came rushing in. In the background a lady passenger was screaming profusely. She asked me to come. I removed my safety belt and followed Anne into the cabin. This was the first time I met the passengers in person and indeed the first time I saw, with fresh eyes, the cabin itself. The first thing that I noticed was that certain details in the decor of the cabin had been modified, giving the whole an air of luxury. These were just subtle changes here and there, certain materials that one wouldn’t expect, like the upholstery on the chairs or the very elegant bar in the middle of the aisle. It vaguely reminded me of some private jets I had flown for rich congress men and oil tycoons. I thought the army must have made a great effort to make this plane pretty and comfortable for all, considering the stern and brush style of these machines.
There must have been no more than twelve passengers in the cabin, which in an airplane as ample as the 737, meant a lot of comfort for everybody. The average age would have been around fifty years of age, I would have thought. All seats had full leg room, medium size screens and a small fridge for snacks and beverages. All of this was beautifully decorated with some comfort blueish lighting everywhere you looked. There was also a small lounge area comprising three couches around a tiny cocktail table.
The hostess took me to see the lady. She was sitting there, her head in her hands, weeping with an almost desperate groan. I sat next to her and introduced myself as the captain. She didn’t even notice me. I tried again and said I would be glad if I could be of any assistance. I held her hand and asked her gently to tell me what was the matter.
She looked me staright in the eyes and weeped some more, her hand now sank in my chest. I let her unwind for a few minutes as I noticed my second hostess arriving with a large gin tonic from the bar area. The lady received well the drink, which she gulped down, and slowly recovered her strengths as her sighs and sobbing stopped.
I asked her again to share with me her troubles. Her eyes, a rather deep green I remember, with a combination of desperation and guilt, seemed to want to be pardoned from whatever she had going on.
A decided I would give her a few more minutes and ordered the hostess to inform me if anything changed with her condition. I went back to my cockpit while the two hostesses helped the old lady lay more comfortably on her ample seat.
I entered the cockpit and found Ben busy at the panels, checking weather reports and coordinates. He was a rather obtuse sort of guy, reserved and on the edge, the kind of guy that never has a good word for anybody but that sometimes, can display moments of kindness, rare ones, here and there, but genuine ones neverthless.
I went back to my control panel. We were almost at cruising altitude. Ben warned of a very large area of low pressure, with a very turbulent core, coming up. I asked him to calculate a route around it without losing much our trajectory. The system was non-responsive. The plane route had been hard programmed and left us with very little room to maneuver. It looked like we had to go through it. I saw a big drop of sweat coming down Ben's forehead. He was the nervous type.
Then, as we were clearing our heads to prepare for that monster turbulence system, we heard several shouts and screams coming from the cabin. Anne rushed out and after a few moments, came back in to request my presence. I left the controls, undid my seatbelt and asked Ben to make sure that, under no ciscunstance, he would let me stay more than ten minutes away from the controls.