Approximately six or seven passengers had gathered in front of the rear toilet. I run down the aisle as fast as I could and found in fact the door locked from the inside. Someone explained that the woman had shut herself in with some cutlery and hadn’t replied since.
I went round the toilet aisle, and accessed the the controls cabinet behind it. From there, I fired up the computing system and manually unlocked the door which immediately jolted open. I heard some screams and as I rushed back I saw the lady bleeding to death on the toilet floor, her neck slit open and her throat gargling the last bit of life off her chest.
We pulled her out. I touched her neck. She still had a very weak pulse. She was going and she was going quick! I asked the nurse to bring me a strong piece of cloth and the emergency kit. The hostess took longer than I would have hoped. I could see the woman quickly dying in front of me. I held her hand to comfort her pain as her eyes rolled back in while she suffocated in her own blood. The hostess finally arrived with the cloth. I tamponed her wounds the best I could in the manner of a compact bondage. But the old lady, in her destructive way, had accurately aimed at the jugular and there was no way of stopping the haemorrhage. It looked like she had perforated the vein with the fork, lacerating her neck, which by that time, was turning black due to the number of broken capillaries coagulating. She shook briefly a few times, each time more gently. Her back arched and her pulse grew fainter and fainter. After a minute she was cold, her heart stopped and her body tense like a bow. I lowered her eye lids and lay her fat old body flat on the floor.
We found some large zip bags used for the laundry in which we enclosed the old tragic woman. These are made of tough recycled cotton and can take a good load. I ordered the hostess to find out if the plane had some kind of storage area with the idea of possibly keeping the body away from the passengers during the flight.
Two passengers helped me to lift the tragic lady and carefully put her in the bag. We dragged her to the end of the aisle where we managed to lift her heavy body into the service cabinet which is normally reserved for cleaning fluids, utensils and the like. For all I knew about decomposition, I didn’t want the body to be leaking anywhere near the living areas. We still had a good six hours to landing which in decomposing times, is enough to go through several process that may be unpleasant.
At that point I felt the aircraft shaking violently as if hit by something. I came back to the cockpit and asked Benny what the hell was going on. He explained we were entering a storm system and it would be a bit bumpy. I asked him why hadn’t we flown around it and Benny quickly replied that we wouldn’t have enough fuel to allow for the extra millage. This was the same bloody storm we had seen an hour prior and knew about! I was going to enter an argument with him about the stupidity of that decision but the plane started to jolt extremely hard. I fastened my belt and ordered everybody to do the same over the telecom system.
It was a hell of a storm, not just some turbulence. Benny and I checked all systems especially the external wind control which determines the speed at which the plane flies relative to the surrounding winds. The readings began to go wild and the plane started to lose control. I increased the thrust of the engines to try to harness that plane. The fuselage convulsed violently throwing any loose object around the cockpit. I grabbed hold of that wheel with all my strength. I could see the worse of the rain hitting against the glass and I thought it was very odd to have rain at such altitude. The wind was ferocious tossing and throwing that aircraft as it pleased. This plane design was about to be tested by nature itself.
Our first hostesses, Anne, was a brave soul, she really was. More than once I saw her putting herself at risk for others and I still remember her with great affection. This was the first time I saw her doing something that I would have considered absolutely insane. Wonderful and brave as she was, while Benny and I were struggling to keep the plane on course, Anne unfastened her seat belt and went, god knows how, back in the cabin to assist the passengers. It must have been close to eleven as the lightings illuminated the interior of the cabin with a magnificent electric spectacle all around us. By the co-ordinates I knew we were one hour already over the ocean. Benny set up the satellite imagery and read out a count of five electrical discharges a second in the area. Chances of being hit by one lightening were, frankly, rather high. Anne, in the meantime, was in the cabin and, to my horror, found out that one overhead locker door had opened. A heavy piece of luggage had flown out and hit violently a passenger on the head who was now bleeding unconsciously in his seat.
I saw Anne back there from the corner of my eye, in that dark cabin illuminated by thunder and lightning in what looked like a disaster film with a really bad ending.
In front of me, for a brief moment, a lightning illuminated what looked like a gigantic mass, indeed a monstrous cumulonimbus cloud, possible six kilometres high, with a core bright with electricity, shining like the centre of a galaxy. I shivered and shook my head briefly in encouragement. Benny checked again the readings from our radar and quickly recalculated our trajectory 2 degrees left of that huge column of cold vapour. This meant that we would cross higher winds but less electrical discharge. A fine gamble but a worthy one nonetheless. I grabbed the aircraft wheel with care and determination and saw that Benny was looking at me with a religious consternation. With a quick neck movement, I check on Anne back in the cabin, who was next to that poor devil, trying to stabilise his head with a pillow and her own stewardess coat. The man had a very bad greyish look about him. The engines rumbled ferociously. Lightning and thunder were all around us.
CHAPTER 6: THE STORM
“Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempest.”
The plane wobbled like jelly for a few seconds. Then, as we entered the left side of the dreaded cloud, the cabin was hit by a sideway force so strong that my headset went flying out against the glass and the wheel rocked out of my grip. I heard Benny screaming we had lost the external wind reader. We were blind flying effectively. I reasoned to myself to say clam, breathe deep in. External readers can rarely die out temporarily due to the potential extreme drop in temperature inside a storm. I knew it was a matter of time before it would come back operative, but I also knew that our chances of survival would diminish exponentially with each passing minute. Pushing the speed too much would risk clashing against opposite winds and risking fuselage damage. On the other hand, losing speed would mean loss of altitude and any strong winds grabbing hold of the plane. All I could do was to keep the aircraft at the same speed and count each second before the reader would come back to life.
How was Anne doing back there? I knew she was looking after that passenger with no seat belt to secure herself. She was thin and strong, rather light, and blessed with the determination of a mule. A real southern spirit she was. But in spite of her gigantic spirit, my worries were that the shudder was so violent she could fly down the aisle any second. We couldn’t do without her, not at this stage in the flight.
And then my thoughts went to my vintage pipe. Oh I missed my pipe! Perhaps the need of comfort in a moment of peril made me seek for the soft and silky touch of her polished oak. The delicate and creamy wooden vapours carrying a fine blend of whiskey flavoured southern tobaccos, something I had discovered in an old shop only in recent times, had made my last year as a smoker, a real delight. Such pleasures had me banned and red listed from almost every event at the military base, all because of the ‘stench’ of my gentle vice. I don’t think I have ever met a non-smoker who doesn’t utterly hate the smell of pipe. Perhaps this bad reputation is only second to the infamous stench of cigar. Frankly, my heart is on the side of the non smoker and every time I am asked to stay at a distance or to extinguish my pipe, I am ready to do so in no uncertain terms. I can only imagine how it must feel to be engulfed in a thick puff of toxic tar which can instantly give the most revolting of migraines.
As my thoughts briefly meandered amongst memories of my smoking pleasures of old, the cockpit was sunken in a bright light which blinded us all for a few seconds, followed by a deafening bang which shook the aircraft as if hit by a meteorite. I knew this was lightning. Benny checked the fuel valves while I controlled generators and power feeders. I suspected the lightning would hit the nose of the fuselage and probably exit through the tail of the aircraft. Most vital parts of the plane should be well isolated against lightning in a plane like this, but damage to minor electrical distribution systems is very possible.
While my dreams of a fine rested tobacco blend, had popped like a bubble of soap, I soon perceived another type of odour, a subtle but thick stench of burnt plastic which was spreading from the aisle. I turned to Benny who looked at me in panic. I read his mind. I shouted to our second hostess, a middle age woman with no qualities of her own other than to disappear when she was most needed, to check the fire system immediately.
The woman went behind my back, opened the computing cabinet with her security strap on, and turned to me with a rather phlegmatic tone, only to say that the fire detectors had been deactivated early in the storm. At that point the smoke was visible and the idea of having two serious problems instead of one, began to hit my head like a sledgehammer.
I turned again to Benny and asked him to take control of the aircraft. His eyes popped open wide and his jaw came out of position to take a long thick gulp.
Looking at the fire report system I noticed there had been a ‘raising temperature’ note coming from the electric panel at the rear end of the plane, adjacent to the kitchen.
I grabbed the hostess by the arm and we proceeded to walk towards the back of the aisle. We carefully moved one step at the time securing every movement with extreme care.
We must have advanced no more than three metres when a second much bigger bang was heard after which the plane suddenly lost altitude performing a violent dip so sudden, I briefly felt my feet lifting off the ground. I grabbed the hostess with all my strength. The plane was crashing down at enormous speed making a dreadful noise which sounded like a low range whistle, reminding me of an old steam locomotive falling off a cliff. The noise of the engines under extreme stress, choked by the sudden loss of altitude and the inclement weather, all put the aircraft under extreme conditions. The fuselage shook so intensely that some of the plastic window protectors which normally are in direct contact with the passengers, started to crack.