NEAR THE AIRPORT'S floodlighted main entrance, the flashing red beacon of the state police patrol car died. The patrol car, which had preceded Joe Patroni from the site of the wrecked tractor-trailer, slowed, and the state trooper at the wheel pulled over to the curb, waving the TWA maintenance chief past. Patroni accelerated. As his Buick Wildcat swept by, Patroni waved his cigar in salutation and honked his horn twice.
Although the last stage of Joe Patroni's journey had been accomplished with speed, over-all it had taken more than three hours to cover a distance---from his home to the airport---which normally took forty minutes. Now, he hoped, he could make good some of the lost time.
Fighting the snow and slippery road surface, he cut swiftly through the stream of terminal-bound traffic and swung onto a side road to the airport's hangar area. At a sign, "TWA Maintenance," he wheeled the Buick sharply right. A few hundred yards farther on, the airline's maintenance hangar loomed towering and massive. The main doors were open; he drove directly in.
Inside the hangar a radio-equipped pickup truck, with driver, was waiting; it would take Patroni onto the airfield---to the mired Aereo-Mexican jet, still obstructing runway three zero. Stepping from his car, the maintenance chief paused only long enough to relight his cigar---ignoring "no smoking" regulations---then hoisted his stocky figure into the truck cab. He instructed the driver, "Okay, son, push that needle round the dial."
The truck raced away, Patroni obtaining radio clearance from the tower as they went. Once away from the lighted hangar area, the driver stayed close to taxi lights, the only guide---in the white-tinted gloom---to where paved surfaces began and ended. On instructions from the tower they halted briefly near a runway while a DC-9 of Delta Air Lines landed in a flurry of snow and rolled by with a thunder of reversed jet thrust. The ground controller cleared them across the runway, then added, "Is that Joe Patroni?"
There was an interval while the controller dealt with other traffic, then: "Ground control to Patroni. We have a message from the airport manager's office. Do you read?"
"This's Patroni. Go ahead."
"Message begins: Joe, I'll bet you a box of cigars against a pair of ball tickets that you can't get that stuck airplane clear of three zero tonight, and I'd like you to win. Signed, Mel Bakersfeld. End of message."
Joe Patroni chuckled as he depressed the transmit button. "Patroni to ground control. Tell him he's on."
Replacing the radio mike, he urged the truck driver, "Keep her moving, son. Now I got me an incentive."
At the blocked intersection of runway three zero, the Aereo-Mexican maintenance foreman, Ingram---whom Mel Bakersfeld had talked with earlier---approached the pickup as it stopped. The foreman was still huddled into a parka, shielding his face as best he could from the biting wind and snow.
Joe Patroni bit off the end of a fresh cigar, though this time without lighting it, and descended from the truck cab. On the way out from the hangar he had changed from the overshoes he had been wearing into heavy fleece-lined boots; high as the boots were, the deep snow came over them.
Patroni pulled his own parka around him and nodded to Ingram. The two men knew each other slightly.
"Okay," Patroni said; he had to shout to make himself heard above the wind. "Gimme the poop."
As Ingram made his report, the wings and fuselage of the stalled Boeing 707 loomed above them both, like an immense ghostly albatross. Beneath the big jet's belly a red hazard light still winked rhythmically, and the collection of trucks and service vehicles, including a crew bus and roaring power cart, remained clustered on the taxiway side of the aircraft.
The Aereo-Mexican maintenance foreman summarized what had been done already: the removal of passengers, and the first abortive attempt to get the airplane moving under its own power. Afterward, he informed Joe Patroni, as much weight had been taken off as possible---freight, mail, baggage, with most of the fuel load being sucked out by tankers. Then there had been a second attempt to blast the airplane out, again with its own jets, which also ended in failure.
Chewing his cigar instead of smoking it---one of Patroni's rare concessions to fire precaution, since the smell of aviation kerosene was strong---the TWA maintenance chief moved closer to the aircraft. Ingram followed, and the two were joined by several ground crewmen who emerged from the shelter of the crew bus. As Patroni surveyed the scene, one of the crewmen switched on portable floodlights which were rigged in a semicircle in front of the airplane's nose. The lights revealed that the main landing gear was partially out of sight, embedded in a covering of black mud beneath snow. The aircraft had stuck in an area which was normally grass-covered, a few yards off runway three zero, near an intersecting taxiway---the taxiway which the Aereo-Mexican pilot had missed in the dark and swirling snow. It was sheer bad luck, Patroni realized, that at that point the ground must have been so waterlogged that not even three days of snow and freezing temperatures had been sufficient to harden it. As a result, the two attempts to blast the airplane free with its own power had merely succeeded in settling it deeper. Now, nacelles of the four jet engines beneath the wings were uncomfortably close to ground level.
Ignoring the snow, which swirled about him like a scene from South with Scott, Patroni considered, calculating the possibilities of success.
There was still a worthwhile chance, he decided, of getting the airplane out by use of its own engine power. It would be the fastest way, if it could be done. If not, they would have to employ giant lifting bags---eleven altogether, made of nylon fabric---placed under wings and fuselage, and inflated by pneumatic blowers. When the bags were in place, heavy-duty jacks would be used to raise the aircraft's wheels, then a solid floor built under them. But the process would be long, difficult, and wearying. Joe Patroni hoped it could be avoided.
He announced, "We gotta dig deep and wide in front of the gear. I want two six-foot-wide trenches down to where the wheels are now. Coming forward from the wheels, we'll level the trenches at first, then slope 'em up gradually." He swung to Ingram. "That's a lot of digging."
The foreman nodded. "Sure is."
"When we've finished that part, we'll start the engines and pull full power with all four." Patroni motioned to the stalled, silent aircraft. "That should get her moving forward. When she's rolling. and up the slope of the trenches, we'll swing her this way." Stomping with the heavy boots he had put on in the truck, he traced an elliptical path through the snow between the soft ground and the taxiway paved surface. "Another thing---let's lay big timbers, as many as we can, in front of the wheels. You got any at all?"
"Some," Ingram said. "In one of the trucks."
"Unload 'em, and send your driver around the airport to round up as many as he can. Try all the airlines, and airport maintenance."
The ground crewmen nearest Patroni and Ingram hailed others, who began scrambling from the crew bus. Two of the men rolled back a snow-covered tarpaulin on a truck containing tools and shovels. The shovels were passed around among figures, moving and shadowy outside the semicircle of bright lights. The blowing snow, at times, made it difficult for the men to see each other. They waited for orders to begin.
A boarding ramp, leading to the forward cabin door of the 707, had been left in place. Patroni pointed to it. "Are the flyboys still aboard?"
Ingram grunted. "They're aboard. The goddarn captain and first officer."
Patroni looked at him sharply. "They been giving you trouble?"
"It wasn't what they gave me," Ingram said sourly, "it's what they wouldn't. When I got here, I wanted 'em to pull full power, the way you just said. If they'd done it the first time. I reckon she'd have come out; but they didn't have the guts, which is why we got in deeper. The captain's made one big screwup tonight, and knows it. Now he's scared stiff of standing the ship on its nose."
Joe Patroni grinned. "If I were him, I might feel the same way." He had chewed his cigar to shreds; he threw it into the snow and reached inside his parka for another. "I'll talk to the captain later. Is the interphone rigged?"
"Call the flight deck, then. Tell 'em we're working, and I'll be up there soon."
"Right." As he moved closer to the aircraft, Ingram called to the twenty or so assembled ground crewmen, "Okay, you guys; let's get digging!"
Joe Patroni seized a shovel himself and, within minutes, the group was shifting mud, earth, and snow.
When he had used the fuselage interphone to speak to the pilots in their cockpit high above, Ingram---with the aid of a mechanic---began groping through icy mud, with cold numbed hands, to lay the first of the timbers in front of the aircraft's wheels.
Across the airfield occasionally, as the snow gusted and limits of visibility changed, the lights of aircraft taking off and landing could be seen, and the whine-pitched roar of jet engines was carried on the wind to the ears of the men working. But close alongside, runway three zero remained silent and deserted.
Joe Patroni calculated: It would probably be an hour before the digging would be complete and the Boeing 707's engines could be started in an attempt to taxi the big airliner out. Meanwhile, the men now excavating the twin trenches, which were beginning to take shape, would have to be relieved in shifts, to warm themselves in the crew bus, still parked on the taxiway.
It was ten-thirty now. With luck, he thought, he might be home in bed---with Marie---soon after midnight.
To bring the prospect nearer, also to keep warm, Patroni threw himself even harder into shoveling.