Vira settled her five foot two frame into the pilot seat and plugged her headset's wires into the jacks. She was a petite woman but lithe. She brushed back her shoulder-length chestnut brown hair behind her ears before sliding her headphones on. It often bleached blonde if she spent more than a few hours a day outside but faithfully returned to its original color. Her copper-grey eyes glanced around the cockpit. They changed depending on what outfit she wore and what mood she was in. Thin brown arching eyebrows accented her eyes and animated her conversations.
She looked up at the overhead LCD panel. She pulled out her laminated checklist, as per procedure. She flipped to one side the hard-plastic overing and then depressed the on side of the battery switch and felt a hum as the 858's generators turned on. To the left of this button was the auto-power toggle. She flipped it, commanding the on flight computer to draw power from the generators first and batteries second.
The next series of switches controlled the engines, electricity flow and hydraulics: electrical engine control: on. Bus Tie: on. Generator control: on. Hydraulic demand: off. Engine hydraulic pump: on. She waited thirty seconds as the computer ran diagnostics on itself and then shone a series of green lights.
The external power light came on, indicating the power umbilical cord was still attached to her craft. She waved down the attention of a ramp rat and motioned to stand by to decouple the umbilical cord, once her generators fully recharged the batteries.
"Hello, captain," a voice behind her politely acknowledged her. She turned around, smiled at her head flight attendant.
"Hi, Dan, how are you?"
"Great. Can we get some lighting, please?"
"Sure," she toggled the utility lighting. Behind her along the ceiling and floor of the aisle soft blue LED lighting glowed on, bathing the interior in a relaxing aura.
"Make it a nice flight," he said over his shoulder. He walked over to the external hatch and radioed inside to the boarding area that passengers could begin seating for Flight 85.
She looked back at her control panel and decided to fiddle with her lighting. For now, dealing with the airport glare, she was fine. Once getting up to 45,000 feet and flying through thunderstorms, however, it was sure to get dark fast. She twisted the knob to maximum LCD backlighting and contrast, and dialed in the brightest button-lighting possible. She armed the emergency lighting if needed.
The battery indicators glowed a crisp green, denoting each row held a full charge. She gave the "break" hand motion to the runway rat. He nodded. Her craft swayed slightly as the umbilical detached and retracted back.
All control surfaces, flats, slats, ailerons, and empennage, were neutral. She double-checked the setting, looked through the plas-screen cams to visually check and spooled up her internal navigational system's gyroscopes.
Her four gyros took five minutes to get to operational rotational speeds. While she waited, she punched in her GPS coordinates to the independent navigational computer and watched them synch up. It was always satisfying to see the precise red lines overlap and mark her position on Terra to within a half-meter resolution.
Next was the fuel. The overhead panel to her right was where most of the fuel-specific controls were kept. She double checked no engine-feed lights were on before priming the cross-feed switch to draw from both wing tanks simultaneously but left the pumps off for now. Since she'd be flying in icing conditions, now was the time to prime them both. The nacelle de-icing and window heating elements came on now; the leading-wing edge would come later, as she was taxing.
She quickly turned on the next few systems, watching for each to display a system approval before moving on the next one: Yaw and pitch dampers. Auxiliary fuel pump unit, generator one and two. Internal climate control system: pressurization, humidity and temperature.
These turned on and running, she began to program in her flight parameters and route into the autopilot nav computer. She always took off, landed and piloted herself when under 10,000 feet but above that saw little need to have hands-on the control column.
Center stack and communications array time. Automated aborted takeoff system, activated. Traffic collision avoidance system, on. ATC and tower frequencies along route, programmed.
Satisfied, she turned her attention to the overhead panel. In sequence, she selected fuel: on, main: on, overhead: on. Flicking on the rotating beacon lights, she also engaged the hydraulic pump for electrical start. Auxiliary power unit feed idle, continuous ignition on, all throttles idle. . She spun her finger around to warn the ramp rat she was spooling up the engine and then hit the ignition.
She had about fifteen seconds to complete these next steps. She pulled the engine start selector 4 rod and watched its RPM increase on the LCD display as the APU forced external air across the turbines to start the engine. As it spooled up she waited until the RPM indicator nudged over the 14% line and then switched the fuel control for engine 4 from idle to run. Blue exhaust choked out as the fuel streaming into the engine lit. She heard the satisfying whine of turbofans compress to life.
She quickly repeated the same steps for engines 1, then 2 and 3. A quick glance told her that the main engines powered the electrical, pneumatic and hydraulic systems. She shut down her now unnecessary APU and returned the hydraulic pump to auto. She monitored for a minute to make sure no warning lights lit up before calling the tower for permission to taxi.
Upon receipt of permission, she lowered her flaps 20 degrees, turned her taxi lights on and released the taxi break. The ramp rap released the chocks and using his car pushed her out of her parking spot. As she continued to taxi, she turned on the landing and strobe lights.
She stopped at the hold short line, awaiting approval for takeoff.
"Speed bird 85, tower, you are cleared on runway 25 right. Climb and maintain 10,000, right turns. Contact departure at 175.43 advise you have zulu. Be aware, reported heavy turbulence through 5,500."
"Tower, Speed bird 85, cleared 25 right contact zulu."
She turned onto the runway and slowly swung the wide jet out onto the concrete. She looked down it with a giddy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Now was when she felt most alive: ready to slip free the cloying bonds of Terra and willing to risk her life to do so. She moved the four engine throttles to 70% while stepping on the brakes, feeling the strain of hundreds of tons of thrust wanting to leave her. She felt the airplane skid forward, skidding on rubber tires and knew it was time to go.
She released and was instantly pressed into her seat's back by a massive hand. The runway began to be eaten up at a faster and faster rate.
V-one, she heard the autopilot tell her: she was committed to take off. The speed was too fast to stop with the remainder of the runway.
V-two, she heard, rotate, and pulled back on her yoke, feeling the not-so-gentle force push her down into her chair. Her cheeks sagged a bit as she climbed out steeper than was necessary.
The ground and structures began to miniaturize beneath her. 500 feet. 1,500 feet. Gear retract.
"Speed bird, tower, have a good flight."
She felt a pocket of turbulence shake the craft as she pinkied the mic key back.
"Tower, Speed bird, going to departure. G'nite."
She thumbed the radio frequency cycle once to departure's programmed setting.
"Departure, speed bird 85 climbing through 1,900 on heading zero-niner-zero."
"Speedbird, departure, maintain current heading through 10,000. Be aware, traffic at your three o'clock low."
"Departure, traffic at my three, roge."
She felt the night's turbulent airflow through her control column like a driver feeling the road driving down a backwoods dirt road. It felt good to have something to compete against for control instead of the silk-smooth flights she normally flew. A sharp gust tipped the craft and rolled it to the right. She smoothly righted it again, tracing an imaginary figure-eight in the air with her control column. Probably would be some sick passengers tonight. Ew. She was glad Dan was on staff for this leg, he was dependable, courteous and helpful even with the emotionally disturbed passengers.
She listened to the air traffic control chatter as other airplanes were vectored around her in the night. She waited for a break in the conversation.
"Departure, speedbird 85, I want to report some heavy turbulence climbing through 3,000." Her voice dipped in the middle as the airplane bumped up and down.
"Speedbird, departure, affirmative on turbulence."
A smattering of rain drenched the windows. After the drops sloughed off to either side, she saw a cloud bank's shelf ahead of her loom closer and closer. Her nav lights blinked off of it for the split second before her craft dove into it, slicing upwards.
The airplane vibrated as it climbed through the cloud with the storm's updrafts and internal air currents. She felt the craft begin to slowly bounce up and down as the wingtips began to flex. She knew from the pilot operating handbook that they could flex as much as 9 meters before snapping: 3 down and 6 up. No problem at all for now.
Her LCD's artificial compass and horizontal attitude glowed against the FLIR's plas-screen of what was ahead of her. She saw the screen background darken as a fork of lighting off in the distance caused the sensor to auto-dim to protect itself.
"Speedbird 85, departure, contact local control at 388.9. See you on Friday."
"Depature, speedbird control at 388.9. Thank you."
She cycled the next radio preset frequency and picked up the chatter of local control. The controller acknowledged her soon.
"Speedbird 85, EU control, climb to 30,000 on heading 085. Proceed with filed flight plan."
"EU, speedbird 85, 30,000 on 085 and original plan."
She banked the plane gently, feeling the currents swishing around rock her plane back and forth. Rain suddenly lashed against the windshield, turning the Plexiglas into a frothy grey white of raindrops exploding at several hundred knots an hour. She drove a bike to and from work and knew what rain at 72 knots felt like. Even in a leather cocoon it stung and caused your skin underneath to go numb if you stayed out in it too long. She wouldn't be surprised if the windshield wasn't there that'd she'd quickly be covered in bruises; or probably drown.
Rock, rattle and roll.
She climbed out of the atmospheric pea soup at 20,000 feet. Stars shone against a velvet sky brightly as below her muddied cloud surface was lit internally by lighting flashes. She turned off the passenger seatbelt sign and addressed the cabin, letting them know that they'd arrive in Beijing earlier yesterday morning because of the time differences. She relaxed and let the auto-nav take over to its climb to 37,000 feet.
It was about three hours into the flight, over Russian airspace, when it happened. She saw St. Elmo's fire, a pinkish-purple discharge of static electricity in a ball flickering at her windshield, dancing around and lighting her cockpit with an eerie offworld glow. While creepy as hell she knew it massive danger to her electrical systems and was an observed weather phenomenon as far back as sailing ship days. Masts of ships before a bad storm would glow at the tips, discharging flickers from one to the next.
She turned on the fasten seatbelt sign and double checked her engine de-icing.
She noticed the cabin air was getting hazy, like smoke. She checked all her LCD readouts: nothing wrong, everything nominal. She saw a flicker out of the side of her eye and turned to look out the right side window. Craning her neck she could see the engines glowing red light: the light was internal, flickering as the fanblades whirred past creating a hypnotizing effect. It couldn't be an engine fire, everything was reporting itself to be fine.
Engine one began to surge, its revs whining eerily high. It flamed out. She performed the emergency engine shut-down drill from memory, her heart racing uncannily at the utter absurdity of it. She'd trained but never performed it before in an emergency. At least she had three other engines; the 858 was designed to fly on one engine in emergencies. It's glide ratio as a rock was about 20:1: for every vertical kilometer it sunk, it glided 20 horizontally.
No need to alarm the passengers, so no announcement.
Less than thirty seconds later all three other engines flamed and failed. A soft bonging noise sounded, one she'd never ever heard before in training. She stared in disbelief for a split-second at her displays before performing the engines' emergency shut-down drills.
Now was time to announce this to the cabin. She keyed the mike, briefly and heard the electronic chime politely ring out.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captian speaking: we have a slight problem as our four engines have stopped. I'll do my best to get them restarted but I trust you'll remain calm as I do so."
Now, work to do.
"Russia control, this is Speedbird 85 declaring an emergency, all four engines have flamed out."
"Speedbird 85, Russia control. Say again, please."
"Russia, I've lost all four engines vector me to nearest airport, please."
"Ah, roger, Speedbird, affirmative on all four engines. Your nearest airport is Kemerovo International, 10 kilometers, I'm uploading nav schematics now. Speedbird, please contact me on 231.94 for dedicated tranmission."
She set the pitch for the best glide ratio, slowly turned the softening nose towards Kemerovo and began to run through engine restart drills. The pilot's handbook for the 858 suggested restarting below 28,000 feet because of an oxygen rich environment but she'd be damned if she was going to wait while she fell 9,000 feet.
"Russia control, what runway is active for Kemerovo?"
"21 left, Speedbird 85."
Her nav computer calculated she would easily make it if she glided. She sighed, relaxed for the first time, and announced to the passengers that they had an equal chance at living tonight.
For the next few minutes, she tried to restart the engines without any luck. They'd already flown, or fallen, half of the distance to the airport. She decided to commit to a dead-stick landing.
She pulled up the emergency procedures on her LCD screen and followed them step by step. Soon, she could see the lights of Kemerovo off in the distance but barely and only as massive light-blobs. Her windshield was completely opaque. She glanced over at her FLIR: completely fucked, too.
"Russia control, I can see Kemerovo's lights. Switching to Kemerovo tower now."
"Speedbird 85, good luck."
"Speedbird 85, this is Kemerovo tower. Heard you are having problem, you may use our airport if you wish. Wind from 230 at 10kts, visibility 20 miles. Emergency crews standing by."
She lowered flaps, gears and felt the airplane nose up; she gently placed it back down onto the proper glide-slope. The aircraft was eerily quiet except for the windstream slipping past like a banshee on metal. A passenger in the back gave a muffled sob of terror. She heard Dan's muffled baritone as he comforted her.
She quickly turned on the cabin communication system again, "Flight attendants prepare for rough landing."
She saw in her head Dan giving the passenger a friendly squeeze and heard him head back to his bucket seat behind her door. He rapped on the pilot door with his knuckles and softly said under his breath,"Good luck, Vi. I'll buy you a drink if you keep me alive."
"Kemerovo, I'm committed."
Through the windscreen she saw blue and red blurs at the top of a white blur. Must be the emergency vehicles at the end of the runway.
She gave up trying to see out the window and flew based on the LCD ILS. She guided a small icon through purple boxes of the glide slope and felt the corresponding rolls as she stove to keep in-line with the runway. Drifting to the right, drifting to the left, sinking. Too high. Too fuckin high. Goddammit, she was going too high and would completely overshoot the runway and land in the city of Kemerovo itself...
She tipped the nose over. The ground warning collision alarm trilled suddenly. Using all her strength, she pulled back and flared. She felt the right rear tire grip runway and felt it float for a second before touching down on her left rear tire. The nose stayed in the air for an impossible infinity before it, too, touched down. She stood on the brake pedals, using every ounce of her 140 pound frame to will the aircraft to stop.
She heard an explosion and felt the aircraft's nose pop in the air and then collapse down on its nose: she'd blown out the nose tires. Sparks flew and showered on either side as it skid on the hard asphalt. Miraculously, it slowed to a stop.
She sat back as she hear the sirens wail down the runway, the blurs getting larger on her windscreen. Dan opened up the cockpit door and grabbed her, undoing her straps. She helped him, grabbing her pilot's log and then the two scampered into the cabin to help passengers down the inflatable slides.
Within thirty seconds, everyone was out except for Dan and her. They walked up and down the aisle and checked both bathrooms to see that everyone was out. No-one was left. A firefighter appeared at the hatch, his heat resistant metallic suit crinkly-loud as he walked towards them. He spoke in Russian, his voice muffled by his oxygen mask. Vira shook her head and shrugged. He curled his bicep towards his body, international body-language for follow me. They did so.
They slid down the inflatable slide into the cold air and human chaos that awaited them. Several passengers had sprained their ankles on landing on the tarmac; they were being treated by EMS off to one side. One woman was unconscious. The airplane's nose and wings had disappeared under a mountain of foam by eager firefighters. The rest of the passengers were milling about several hundred yards away, in a huddled mass being handed blankets by EMS and airport security. White steam from sweat and breath rose off of the group. As they saw Dan and Vira approaching, escorted by the Russian firefighter, they began to clap and cheer loudly. She felt her skin prickle into goose bumps and felt light-headed. Dan's arm snaked over her shoulders to keep her steady. She rested her ear against his arm and gave a friendly wave of acknowledgement to their admiration. The firefighter got a blanket, draped it over her shoulders and hustled Dan and her off to an ambulance.
They were safe.