This story is by George Shaddock and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I had finished my work in Martinsville, Virginia, when my boss called and directed me to grab the next flight to Washington National Airport in DC. He was excited. A supplier of production machinery wanted to show us a new unit they were offering.
I looked forward to this daytime trip from Martinsville, to DC. The Company had air-travel rules against flying during business hours so this had to be something important.
I selected the seat all the way forward on the starboard side. The plane, a Convair 440 twin-engine prop-driven model, looked like new.
I finished fastening my seat belt when a well-dressed passenger spoke to me.
“Mind if I join you,” he said, pointing to the empty aisle seat.
“Not at all,” I replied.
“Isn’t this a beautiful day to die?” he said.
“Say what?” I said, looking up.
“I said, isn’t this a beautiful day to fly?” he repeated. “Have you flown on this airline before?” he asked in a cultured Virginia drawl.
“No,” I said. “This is a first.”
“You’re in luck,” he continued. “I take this flight every week. I consult on estate planning. Name’s John Forrester,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, John.” He appeared to be a well-groomed country gentleman.
“My name is George Shaddock.”
“You have a northern accent,” he said. “What brought you to Martinsville?”
“Right,” I said. “I’m a New Yorker. I work for Continental Can. I’ve been working at Gair’s, Martinsville plant. Are you familiar with it?”
“No,” he said. “What do you do for Continental Can?”
“I’m a troubleshooter.”
“Which means what?”
“Continental purchased all Robert Gair’s box plants. We’re modifying Gair’s accounting reports to fit Continental’s system,” I said, returning his smile.
John began to talk about the fine points of the airline. He described their excellent service, cleanliness, and promptness.
The engines fired up on schedule, as John predicted. I realized my window seat would give me a wonderful view of the scenery.
“Right on time,” John shouted.
I smiled in acknowledgment.
As we entered the runway, three majestic poplar trees, about a third of a mile beyond the runway’s end, caught my eye. When I mentioned my concern to John, he shrugged.
The Captain increased speed, then accelerated to full power. The Convair leaped forward.
We gained speed until we were more than halfway down the runway. A series of knocks and muffled explosions occurred outside my window. I stared at the starboard engine in horror as it coughed a final black puff of smoke and stopped. The three-blade propeller lost power and now ticked over from not being feathered.
Those tall poplars I had noticed took on a grave significance. We were too far along and moving too fast to abort takeoff. It’ll all be over in a matter of seconds, I thought. I was praying for the engine restart, when John leaned over my shoulder and shouted, “Isn’t this great?”
As the plane began to rise, everything appeared to be happening in slow motion. While my eyes stayed on John’s face, my mind raced, attempting to compute our rate of climb, speed and distance to those trees. The unexpected engine failure left no time for fear, only a sinking thought of finality.
This is it, I thought, as I continued to stare at John’s smiling face.
The flash of a dark shadow under the wing signaled our passing.
I looked back at the other passengers. All talking had stopped, but there was no panic.
“Isn’t this great?” John repeated the question.
I stared at him, trying to make sense of his words. His obvious enjoyment made me doubt what I was experiencing.
The Pilot coaxed the ship up to fifteen hundred feet with wings shaking and tail swinging from side to side. I realized we faced a possible catastrophic stall. We climbed no higher. The shaking and tail swinging eased up, and we continued this way for about thirty minutes before the Captain spoke over the intercom.
“Our aircraft has a complete power failure in the starboard engine,” he said. “We’ve been too busy keeping us in the air, to talk about it. We’ve trimmed the ship for our present condition, and we should be okay. Richmond has an emergency so we’re continuing straight to Washington National. We should be there in less than 20 minutes.”
When he finished, my partner leaped to his feet in the aisle, turned around, and with eyes rolling, shouted to all the passengers, “My God! Which is the starboard engine?”
He looked down at me for an answer. I pointed to the engine right outside our window, its propeller now feathered and motionless.
John’s outburst freed me from holding my breath, but left him shattered.
“Sit down, John,” I said. “We need to trust the Captain.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, sit down,” I shouted.
“Okay…but the engine?” he hesitated. “I’ve lost engines before, but only during combat. I didn’t expect this. I flew a Fortress in the big war. Thirty-eight missions over Germany and not a scratch. Now the VA tells me I’ve got a memory problem. Whatever I’ve got, it has a Z in it. Could you stay with me until my daughter comes?”
“Certainly,” I answered.
“What did you say?”
“I said yes. Does she know your coming?” I shouted.
“Can’t remember if I called her.”
“What about consulting?” I questioned.
“Hell, I made that up. People give more respect when I mention consulting. There’s no consulting. I’m hard of hearing, even with these hearing aids I wear. I removed the damn things when I sat down.”
He leaned back in his seat and fell asleep.
As we approached Washington National, our Captain again spoke in a loud voice for all to hear. “We haven’t been able retract the nose wheel during the flight. We must have caught a few branches from the trees at the end of the runway. Our instruments show green lights on all landing gear, so we’re confident the gear will hold. We’re cleared for a straight-in approach. We’ll make two descending turns to pick up speed for better control. Don’t worry about the emergency equipment beside the runway. We won’t need them today.”
John had awakened the moment the Captain started talking. He looked down at the Washington Monument. “Look at the flags down there. Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Yes,” I said, as I helped him fasten his seat belt.
“I never tire of flying into DC.”
The maneuvers described by the Captain were immediately implemented and, to my relief, we touched down. The landing gear held. We arrived without further incident, noted only by applause for the flight crew.
While taxiing to the Airport, our Stewardess spoke over the loudspeaker. “We advised customer service of our change in destination,” she said. “They rerouted all passengers whose destination was Richmond. No one should experience more than an hour’s delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.” She then walked forward ‘til she reached our row.
“Mr. Shaddock,” she said. “Thank you for taking care of John. Everyone in Martinsville knows and loves him. He’s a good friend to all of us. He received the Air Medal for his service in WWII. Will you be able to help him to the gate?”
Her stress-free smile and confident attitude were impressive. “Certainly,” I said.
“Mr. Forrester,” she shouted. “You should be okay now.”
She advised me in a normal voice, “A customer service rep will meet you at the door. She will call John’s daughter and care for John until she arrives.” The Stewardess turned and headed for the exit, passing everyone in line.
John looked at me and said, “I try not to embarrass myself. Hell, at the VA, they told me I’d live to be a hundred, and die in bed… if I could remember where it was.” He laughed at the thought.
We headed down the aisle to deplane. John appeared different from my earlier observation. He looked older and more vulnerable.
We were the last in line to leave. As John approached the crew, now receiving kudos from passengers, someone shouted, “Ten Hut!”
The Captain, Co Pilot, and Stewardess snapped to attention and saluted. John straightened up, faced them, and returned their salute. “At ease,” he said. “Well done, Captain. You brought her in safely. My compliments to you and the crew. I’d suggest you report the problem to maintenance.”
“Yes Sir, Thank you Sir,” said the Captain. “I’ll take care of that right away, Sir.”
Everybody but me saluted. I just stood there, dumbfounded by the scene. John turned smartly and passed them as he continued toward the exit. The Stewardess touched my arm and smiled as she said, “Don’t let it throw you. His dementia comes and goes. We’re all ex Air Force. John loves this little ceremony as much as we do.”
I turned and rushed to follow John. “Hey,” I shouted. “You’re right about this airline. It’s a flight I’ll never forget.”