01 Feb I was an Airline Pilot for thirty years, and I have some stories to tell Part 2
2 – The Accursed Airmen
I won’t be surprised to find that many who read these passages may curse Captain Dunkirk and myself for not doing more for the noble apes stuck on their mysterious island. If that is the case, then I agree with you, as the decision not to return for them was reprehensible, and I would feel remorseful for making it for three miserable years. Captain Dunkirk, on the other hand, would live to regret the decision for the rest of his.
During the rest of that golden afternoon over the mid-Atlantic on May 7th, 1982, Jeff Dunkirk tightly gripped the Tristar’s controls, squinting as the glimmering sunset reflected in the blue water below. We flew toward the Azores proper now, and the yoke swayed as Dunkirk stayed our course. I studied him as we floated over the sparse clouds below, wondering if his mind ran as wild as my own. At one point, he scratched his head, at another, he smoked a long cigar. But he said nothing. As our battered ship rolled out cleanly and effortlessly on a final approach to Runway 1-8, he still said nothing. And even after the chirp of the tires, the swarm of emergency vehicles, the flickering emergency lights, the clapping passengers, and the flashing bulbs of various cameras, he remained quiet. Straight-faced and expressionless, there was simply no monkey business to be had with Captain Dunkirk, at least not that afternoon.
“When did the leak develop?” the fed would ask us, his eyes fixed on mine, smelling my unease as we sat across from him in a dirty room lit with a single incandescent bulb. He was a miserable man with a thin face and an even thinner nose. Sporting a dark navy suit, I could count the few remaining strands of his hair on a single hand. Two days had passed since the unplanned trip to the Azores and we were now the subjects of an intense investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Just passed the halfway mark,” the Captain replied.
“And the cross-flow system? You immediately followed the proper procedure, did you not?”
“He did, ye-”
“Why don’t we let the kid answer for himself, Captain?” The fed’s gaze flashed to Dunkirk for a moment, then fixed again on me. I could now feel the sweat from my brow glistening on my face.
“I did,” I said.
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“I did, I said again, louder.
“Did what?” he replied.
“I followed the proper procedure as the Captain said.”
“And what is the proper procedure, First Officer Mackenzie? Just so we’re clear for the recording,” he asked, crossing his arms.
“You disable the logic of the transfer pumps by disengaging automatic mode. That inhibits the auto balanc-”
“A little closer to the recorder, son,” he interrupted.
“What?” I asked.
“A little closer to the recorder for the folks in Oklahoma City,” he repeated.
“Right… Well, that inhibits the auto-balancing of fuel and prevents additional losses if you’re leaking fuel,” I said.
There was a pause as the fed pursed his thin lips and compulsively tapped the end of his pen on the desk in front of him. Then he turned to the Captain.
“What about the cockpit recorder? Are you not aware that you have to pull the recorder’s circuit breaker to ensure the recording isn’t overwritten in events like these?”
“It slipped my mind,” Dunkirk replied.
“How does that slip your mind?” He asked. “It’s printed right on the checklist.”
The Captain only shrugged.
“Did loading the proper fuel type in Atlanta also slip your mind?”
“I suppose it must have,” he said, rubbing his chin.
“It’s quite a feat to inadvertently take on 2500 or so gallons of ancient, nearly no-good piston gas, don’t you think Captain? In fact, I’m not even sure where you found something like that.”
The Captain thought for a moment, then lifted his head and winked at me before continuing. “Well, maybe you should tell the fuelers in Atlanta to stop monkeying around.”
As I heard it, I bit down on my lip as hard as I could. I told myself to keep it together, but it was no use, and a chuckle broke through. The fed heard it and snapped toward me, slapping his hand on the tabletop. The sound startled me, and a wave of warm anger welled up in my stomach.
“First Officer Mackenzie, in your experience, does Captain Dunkirk frequently have lapses in memory or judgment? Does he often seem confused and disoriented?”
I looked at Jeff whose hand now covered a smile.
“Are you asking if I think the Captain ever acts… Apish?” I asked. “He doesn’t.”
The Captain snorted, and the fed simply ignored what was going on.
“Do you believe that his fitness for flight should be reevaluated by a flight doctor in light of these apparent lapses in judgment?” The fed asked.
“I don’t,” I replied.
“Are you both aware that perjury in an ongoing incident investigation is not only bounds for permanent certificate revocation but also potentially criminal charges?”
We both nodded.
And we would continue to nod and nod, then nod some more, until the fed had had his fill of poking and prodding us. A few days later, we would be released for duty. Without the evidence from the cockpit recordings, no witnesses, and no radar data, the FAA had nothing but our word. That being as worthless then as it is now, the lack of evidence forced them to drop the investigation altogether. So, we moved on.
For all his faults, I trusted Captain A-Ham. Personally, I agreed that we should keep quiet. Had we tried to explain to anyone what we’d seen they likely would have called us insane. And even if, by some off-chance, they believed us, they’d never find the island, anyway. Yes, better to stay silent. That way we could keep our jobs, our families, and our credibility. Or so we thought.
Despite our attempts at pretending the events along the 47th meridian never occurred, our lives had since inarguably changed for the worse. Like an orbit forever shifted by a rogue astronomical force, things were now off kilter. In retrospect, the change may have been the byproduct of cognitive dissonance, being otherwise trustworthy people with a secret to keep, or perhaps it was the work of an omniscient force hell-bent on balancing karma, I cannot say. What I can say, however, was that I would later experience first-hand what I believe killed Captain Dunkirk.
A few months after Jeff and I parted ways he phoned me in the middle of the night, hysterical. Weeping over the phone while sitting in a dingy hotel room in Cali, Colombia, he explained that his life was falling apart. His son, who had since developed leukemia, had just passed away and within the same week, his wife had been unfaithful. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst thing happening to Jeff Dunkirk. It started with the dreams; he told me, that had now progressed into full-blown delusions. Things he couldn’t explain were happening at a rate he couldn’t manage. The apes we met were one thing, and no doubt, they required him to reassess his view of the world. But now, there was more all the time. It was taking its toll. UFOs over the Pacific, and calls in the middle of the night with nothing but long, steady breaths. Madness and paranoia. The man was losing it and was inching ever closer to the void’s edge. Not knowing then the little I do now, I could not console him. That being said, even had I found the words, I doubt I could have stopped what happened next.
A few weeks later, Captain Dunkirk, well beyond the proverbial point of no return, checked out of Bogota’s Hotel Oceania, and placed most of his clothing in a garbage can near the hotel’s entrance. Then, wearing only the yellowed undershirt on his back, he purchased three bushels of fresh bananas from a street vendor a few blocks away, and walked into the Amazon Rainforest at the edge of town, never to be seen or heard from again. Search parties were formed, but a body was never recovered.
On the anniversary of his disappearance, in a quiet Catholic cathedral in downtown Peoria, Illinois, Jeff Dunkirk’s empty coffin sat before an assembly of long faces. His wife sat with her arms across her lap as the priest read his solemn sermon. Her remaining son, who was in his twenties, fidgeted by her side. It had been the second funeral the two had attended that year. As the day progressed, prayers were said, hugs were given, and condolences made. The group then huddled around a hole on that sunny afternoon and proceeded to see that the coffin was properly buried. As, again, Captain Dunkirk’s body was never found, his golden aviator wings, Captain’s hat, and a few of his prized possessions were the only things contained within it. Among them was a model P-38 Lightning built for him by his father, who flew one in WWII, inspiring him to fly. Another was a book – The Phantom Tollbooth. Next to the book, resting softly in its protective case on top of the Captain’s leather flight jacket was a 1952 Topps – Mickey Mantle baseball card. My ears perked up when Martha, the Captain’s wife, mentioned the card on the phone, as it was worth a fortune even then. Having been the only party aware of that fact, and had I been there myself, I would have likely needed time alone at the site, just to pay my respects to a fellow aviator. I’m sure you understand. Unfortunately, I could not attend the Captain’s funeral, as my life, shortly after the Captain’s disappearance, fell apart as well.
My own nightmares started only a small while after the Captain had called. The first, I can recall, started with a normal day at home. I’d been out in the yard tending to my garden until my wife called me in for dinner. I remember feeling excited as I gazed down at a beautifully glazed chicken. As we sat down together in our dining room, everything was normal and the conversation unremarkable. However, about halfway through my meal, I choked. Grasping wildly at my throat, I tried reaching out for my wife. But she only stared at me, blankly. My vision tunneled and panic took hold. I stood and ran to her for help, but as I did, she ran from me. Things went on like this as I chased her through the halls of our home until I finally could go no further, collapsing in the bedroom. As my vision faded completely, I recalled seeing my own reflection in the bedroom mirror which was unusual for a dream. Attempting to drink in the last of my vision before my apparent death, my stomach turned circles. Staring back in the mirror were two round brown eyes, a pair of large ears, and a flat, flared nose.
Other dreams soon followed, not all of which featured primates. In one, I was a garbage man, dutifully collecting the cans on my street. House after house, I would grab the bin, then place the lip over the rear of the truck. This way, I could simply lift from the bottom and the contents would spill into the compactor. Approaching the last house on the street, I walked across the drive and tugged on the green plastic can. It wouldn’t budge. With both hands, I finally heaved it to the truck and, harnessing all of my strength, tipped the thing over. As I did, something heavy tumbled into the compactor and I looked, curious what it might be. Staring wildly with both eyes and mouth wide open, I saw myself. As I reached out, screaming for help, the teeth of the compactor then did what they do best. Compact.
Needless to say, I was troubled by the rise in the frequency of my nightmares. I had always had them, but none had ever been so intense or recurring. Chalking it up to the loss of a friend, perhaps, I kept myself busy by taking on more flying. I would clear my mind by soaring above the clouds and conquering the skies, just as I’d done in the past.
On December 5th, 1982, I intended to have a normal day at work. In fact, I was particularly excited, as I had been lucky enough to bid for a flight from Atlanta to St. Thomas. With a little over two hours en route, our crew then had thirty hours free from duty in the British Virgin Islands. It was quite the score, and because we would only fly those two hours, the company would pay us the minimum daily rate, four and a half hours of credit. It was money for nothing and the hotel for free. It would also be a stepping stone for me, as it would be the first international route I would fly since May the 7th. Since then, I had refused to fly over water entirely. And not only that but refused to get anywhere near 47 degrees of west longitude.
Captain Meyers and I had flown together in the past. He was tall for a pilot, with red hair, and a nose so large that it nearly hid his neatly trimmed mustache. He was quiet, but not shy. And most importantly, he was likely the most intelligent and observant pilot I ever met. Instead of rules of thumb for altitude calculations, this Captain did mental trigonometry. Instead of asking for a fix to the nearest airport in the event of an emergency, he simply consulted the underside of his tie on which he had cleverly written the navigational frequencies of his most commonly used beacons. My point is that Brady Meyers did not make mistakes, nor did he often find himself in trouble. When threats presented themselves, Captain Meyers always had a plan. However, what he didn’t know was that his First Officer had somehow become a lightning rod for the odd and out of place.
I had been at the controls, monitoring our progress as the autopilot worked its magic. Homing directly toward St. Thomas, thick blankets of cloud encased us from all sides. Meyers was at the radios, effortlessly plotting our course, time en route, estimated fuel remaining, and surely a few other things, while also whizzing through his Sudoku book.
“What are you showing on time to-go?” I asked him.
“An hour and seven,” he replied without looking up.
“Wanna put the coals to her, maybe save a few minutes?”
The Captain laid down his pen and glanced up at me, smirking.
“Keep her steady, Mackenzie, your margarita isn’t going anywhere.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
I was now eager to get off the water, and thoughts of fuel leaks plagued my mind. Every few minutes, I obsessed over our remaining fuel. Had I not been watching those levels so closely, I would have perhaps noticed our compasses spin, and our directional gyros backing them up, drift off course. A few moments later, there was a triple chime which meant the autopilot had disconnected because of a malfunction.
“The course is gone,” Meyer said seconds later. “We’ve lost our navigation.”
“Let’s tune a fix then. We’ll just home from the beacon,” I said.
Meyers flipped his tie and quickly scanned the frequencies for a nearby station. Identifying a suitable station, he fiddled with the knobs on the Tristar’s radios and carefully watched the indicator on our instruments responsible for conveying signal acquisition. A few moments later, he huffed and tried another, then another, but to no avail.
“Ask the Miami controller for a radar vector and tell them we’ve lost navigation ability, I can’t get this working,” he finally said.
I queued my mic and transmitted our last known position along with our request for assistance, but there was no reply, only static. At this, Meyers laid down his book and sat up straight in his chair.
“Try again,” he said.
And I did, but again there was nothing. We sat in silence for a few minutes only staring at the gray soup dancing across our windscreen and listening to the roar of the airstream pass by.
“I hate to say this, but I’m… I’m not sure what to do,” he said. “We can’t see through the clouds, we can’t navigate, and we can’t communicate.”
“What if we try to break out?” I asked.
“Break out?” he echoed back.
“I mean to say, we should descend into visual conditions, between the ceiling and the deck, so we can make our way by landmarks.”
“And what if the clouds extend to the water, what then?” he asked.
“We’ll just ease her down slowly. Our altimeters should still be true, so if we get below fifty feet and haven’t broken out, we’ll try something else,” I said, not sure what something else might be.
And so, with the care of a surgeon working on a human heart, I let the Tristar’s nose sink below the horizon. The altimeter unwound steadily. As we watched, Captain Meyer counted off our height.
“That’s 10,000,” he said. Then a while later, “5,000.”
The hands of the altimeter were a clock in reverse, and I thought of Captain Dunkirk and the trip to Ape Island as the sound of Captain Meyer’s calls lulled me into a daze in the dark cockpit. We should have saved them. Then maybe Dunkirk would be ali-
“1,000, Mackenzie, ease her down now. We’re close.”
My eyes snapped back to the windscreen, straining to see something. Anything.
“There’s 300 feet.”
At 230 feet, in less than a second, rays of sunlight burst through my side window, revealing the whitecaps on the ocean below. I looked to Meyer, who now pried his face from the window. Then, he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“Well, I can’t say I’ve ever cruised this low,” he said.
We flew like that for an hour, intensely looking for a landmark. Our direction was arbitrary as we had no navigation, and I looked to the sun for some direction. Attempting to fly northwest, back to land, I put the setting sun just in front of my port wing. As we cruised along, Meyer fretted about our fuel. Whereas I tried not to panic about it. We were running low now, due to the altitude. Meyer’s pen danced across his scratch paper before he gave me the news. In an hour and a half, we would be gliding down. This time, there would be no island to save us.
“We should be closer in now,” the Captain said. “Try to hail someone.”
“Miami Center, this is flight 2-3-7, how do you read?” There was static. I tried again. Then again. Until finally, an eternity later, something.
“Flight 2-3-7, Miami Center, how do you read?”
“Coming in broken and barely readable, Miami, but we have you,” I replied.
“You’ve just popped up on the radar,” the controller said, “Are you out there 200 feet off the water, what the hell are you doing?”
Captain Meyer queued his mic.
“Total navigation failure, Miami, we need guidance back in,” the Captain said.
“All right, well I show you flying east now… It looks like if you do a U-ey you’ll head right for Miami.”
I looked toward the Captain who now furrowed his brow while glancing over his shoulder and out his side window. A moment later, he turned.
“How can we be headed east?” He asked. “The sun is setting and it‘s about 45 degrees off our left side. We’re going west or northwest.”
I nodded, not sure what to say. The Captain queued his mic.
“Are you sure about that heading Miami? You must be confused,” he said.
“Yeah, ya’ll are still flying away from me, no doubt about it,” they replied.
“Listen to the man, I guess,” Captain Meyer shrugged.
Not feeling much like arguing the matter, I smoothly entered a left bank and brought the Tristar’s nose sharply around. At 30 degrees of bank, while traveling 250 nautical miles per hour, it takes about a minute to turn 180 degrees. Without a working compass, my only option was to count off the seconds on my watch.
“That should be about 180,” I said.
“The sun is behind us, this makes no sen-” The radio interrupted the captain.
“I show you tracking toward Miami, Flight 2-3-7, keep it up,” the controller said.
The Captain was right. It didn’t make sense, but radar doesn’t lie, not as our compasses had. Continuing on this new heading, our compasses spun and whirred, and the ocean swelled below us. Captain Meyer informed the passengers we’d be diverting to Miami, and he went back to calculating our fuel. It would be close, but if the position Miami gave was correct, we’d just make Florida. Flying this low was refreshing, something I hadn’t done since my early days in a Cessna, and had almost been lulled me into a false sense of security when I saw the Avengers.
Off our starboard side, only a few hundred feet away, and at the same altitude, five Grumman TBM Avengers crept toward us in formation. For those unaware, the Grumman TBM Avenger was used as a strategic torpedo bomber in WWII. The Navy had not used them for over forty years, and so to see one flying, let alone five, was simply unbelievable.
“Do you see them?” Captain Meyer said.
I looked over at him and nodded.
“Don’t say anything. I know you’re thinking it,” he said.
“You think it’s them? How could it be?” I asked.
“Just don’t,” he said. “They‘ll listen to these tapes.”
The long wires of their AM radio antennas trailed behind them. It was a technology we had on board but rarely used. I clicked my audio control panel, engaging AM monitoring, then cycled the frequency until I found them.
“Does anyone read us, anyone, at all? This is Navy Flight 19. We have 5-0 minutes of fuel remaining and will ditch into the sea if we cannot see land soon. Repeat: Cannot see land. Lost at sea.”
“Turn it off, Mackenzie, forget about it. That’s an order,” Meyer said. “It can’t be real.”
And so I did.
A little while later we entered a cloud bank that extended down entirely to the water. Careful not to turn, we climbed back up to a safer altitude. As we broke through the other side, South Beach emerged below us, and the sun shown through the palm trees below.
Just as Captain Dunkirk had, Captain Meyer said nothing about the experience. And just as before, neither did I. It was just another peculiarity, of which there would be many, that would whittle away at the little sanity I had left, leading me to later make a grave decision. And while I would prove to endure them more successfully than Captain Dunkirk, these experiences would pile up, little by little, over the next three years, until I was a Captain myself. Only then would I finally return to 47 degrees west of the prime meridian, and back to where things started.