TRANS AMERICA Flight Two, The Golden Argosy, was ten miles out, in cloud, at ftfteen hundred feet.
Anson Harris, after another brief respite, had resumed flying.
The Lincoln International approach controller---with a voice vaguely familiar to Vernon Demerest, though he hadn't stopped to think about it---had guided them thus far on a series of courses, with gentle turns as they descended.
They had been, both pilots realized, skillfully positioned so that a final commitment toward either of the two possible runways could be made without major maneuvering. But the commitment would have to be made at any moment.
Tension of the pilots grew as that moment approached.
A few minutes earlier, Second Officer Cy Jordan had returned to the flight deck, on Demerest's orders, to prepare an estimate of gross landing weight, allowing for the fuel they had used, and that remaining. Now, having done everything else necessary at his flight engineer's position, Jordan had gone back to his emergency landing station in the forward passenger compartment.
Anson Harris, aided by Demerest, had already gone through emergency trim procedures in preparation for landing with their jammed stabilizer.
As they finished, Dr. Compagno appeared briefly behind them. "I thought you'd like to know---your stewardess, Miss Meighen, is holding her own. If we can get her to a hospital soon, I'm fairly sure she'll come through."
Demerest, finding it hard to conceal his sudden emotion, had resorted to not speaking. It was Anson Harris who half-turned and acknowledged, "Thank you, Doctor. We've only a few minutes to go."
In both passenger cabins, all precautions which could be taken were complete. The injured, with the exception of Gwen Meighen, had been strapped in seats. Two of the doctors had stationed themselves on either side of Gwen, ready to support her as they landed. Other passengers had been shown how to brace themselves for what might prove an exceptionally heavy landing, with unknown consequences.
The old lady stowaway, Mrs. Quonsett, a little frightened at last, was tightly clutching the hand of her oboe player friend. Weariness, too, was creeping over her from the exertions of an exceedingly full day.
A short time earlier her spirits had been buoyed by a brief message from Captain Demerest, relayed through a stewardess. The captain thanked her, the stewardess said, for what she had done to help; since Mrs. Quonsett had kept her part of their bargain, after they landed Captain Demerest would keep his by arranging passage for her to New York. How wonderful of that dear man, Ada Ouonsett thought, to remember that when he had so much else to think of!... But now she wondered: would she be around to make the trip at all?
Judy, the niece of Customs Inspector Standish, had once more been holding the baby whose parents were in the seats beside her. Now she passed the child back to its mother. The baby---least concerned of anyone aboard the airplane---was asleep.
On the flight deck, in the right-hand seat, Vernon Demerest checked the weight information the second officer had given him against a weight-airspeed plaque on the pilots' instrument panel. He announced tersely, "Bug speed 150 knots."
It was the speed at which they must pass over the airfield boundary, allowing both for weight and the jammed stabilizer.
Harris nodded. Looking glum, he reached out to set a warning pointer on his airspeed indicator. Demerest did the same.
Even on the longest runway their landing would be risky.
The speed---more than 170 miles per hour---was diabolically fast for landing. Both pilots knew that it would mean an exceptionally long run after touchdown, with slow deceleration because of their heavy weight. Thus their weight became a dual liability. Yet to approach at anything less than the speed which Demerest had just computed would be suicidal; the aircraft would stall, and plummet earthward out of control.
Demerest reached for his radio mike.
Before he could transmit, the voice of Keith Bakersfeld announced, "Trans America Two, turn right on heading two eight five. Runway three zero is open."
"Jesus Christ!" Demerest said. "And about time!"
He keyed his mike and acknowledged.
Together, both pilots ran through a pre-landing check list.
There was a "thud" through the airplane as their landing gear went down.
"I'm going in low," Harris said, "and we'll touch down early. We're still going to need every bit of real estate they have down there."
Demerest grunted agreement. He was peering ahead, straining to penetrate cloud and darkness, to catch a glimpse of the airport lights which must be visible soon. His thoughts, despite his own outward calm, were on the damage to the plane. They still didn't know exactly how bad it was, or how it might have worsened during the rough flight in. There was that damned great hole; then there would be the heavy, fast landing... God!--- the whole tail assembly might come off... If it does, Demerest thought, at a hundred and fifty knots we've had it... That son-of-a-bitch who had set off the bomb! A pity he had died! Demerest would like to have his hands on him now, to personally rip out his stinking life...
Beside him, Anson Harris, making an Instrument Landing System approach, increased the rate of descent from seven hundred to eight hundred feet per minute.
Demerest wished desperately he were flying himself. With anyone else but Harris---with a younger or less senior captain---Demerest would have taken full command. As it was, he couldn't fault Harris for a thing... He hoped the landing would be the same way... His thoughts went back to the passenger cabin. Gwen, we're almost in! Keep on living! His conviction about their child, that he and Gwen and Sarah would work out something, was as strong as ever.
On radio, Keith Bakersfeld's voice reported, "Trans America Two, your course and descent look fine. There is medium to light snow on runway. Wind northwest, thirty knots. You are number one to land."
Seconds later they emerged from cloud to see runway lights dead ahead.
"Lincoln approach control," Demerest radioed, "we have the runway in sight."
"Roger, Flight Two." Relief in the controller's voice was unmistakable. "The tower clears you to land; monitor their frequency when ready. Good luck, and out."
Vernon Demerest clicked his mike button twice---an airman's shorthand "thank you."
Anson Harris ordered crisply, "Landing lights on. Fifty degrees flap."
They were coming down fast.
Harris warned, "I may need help with rudder."
"Right." Demerest set his feet on the rudder pedals. When speed came off, the rudder---because of the destroyed boost mechanism---would be stiff, like a car's power steering which had failed, only more so. After landing, both pilots might need to exert force, together, to maintain directional control.
They zoomed over the airfield edge, runway lights strung ahead like strands of converging pearls. On either side were piled banks of snow; beyond them, darkness. Harris had made his approach as low as he dared; the nearness to the ground revealed their exceptional speed. To both pilots, the mile and three quarters of runway in front had never looked shorter.
Harris flared out, leveling the aircraft, and closed all four throttles. The jet thrum lessened; an urgent, shrieking wind replaced it. As they crossed the runway's edge, Vernon Demerest had a blurred impression of clustered emergency vehicles which would, he knew, follow them down the runway. He thought: We damned well might need them! Hang on, Gwen!
They were still floating, their speed scarcely diminished.
Then the aircraft was down. Heavily. Still traveling fast.
Swiftly, Harris raised wing spoilers and slammed thrust reverse levers upward. With a roar, the jet engines reversed themselves, their force---acting as a brake---now exerted in an opposite direction to the airplane's travel.
They had used three quarters of the runway and were slowing, but not enough.
Harris called, "Right rudder!" The aircraft was veering to the left. With Demerest and Harris shoving together, they maintained direction. But the runway's forward limit---with piled snow and a cavern of darkness beyond---was coming up fast.
Anson Harris was applying toe brakes hard. Metal was straining, rubber screaming. Still the darkness neared. Then they were slowing... gradually... slowing more...
Flight Two came to rest three feet from the runway's end.