Two recent offerings in the field of aviation explore the special problems associated with supersonic transports.
"Mayday" by Thomas H. Block, an airline captain and contributing editor to Flying magazine, has raised the ugly but not impossible prospect of a misguided missile launched by the military punching a gaping hole in the fuselage of a commercial SST transport dubbed the "Straton 797." At 62,000 feet -- the normal cruising altitude of the Straton -- human life has little chance without the presence of pressurized air. After an explosive decompression, the only survivors are those who happened to be in the toilets at the time, where the pressure decreased somewhat more slowly. All others aboard the ship are either dead or zombies as a result of oxygen deprivation to their brains.
One of these survivors, a business-man-pilot of light airplanes, takes control of the situation after a fashion, and with the aid of a very wise auto-pilot and a shapely flight attendant turns back toward the mainland in hopes of reaching San Francisco. To complicate the hero's plight, he can communicate with the airlines' headquarters only by teleprinter since the regular radios have been disabled by the collision; the Navy, learning that it has hit the wrong target, tries to finish it off to avoid some embarrassing evidence, and one of the airline's executives conspires with its insurance carrier to make sure that the wounded bird crashes into the sea. It seems that the probable lawsuits by two or three hundred passengers who have been reduced to vegetable status through oxygen starvation would bankrupt everyone involved, and we can't have that.
Block, whose technical side cannot be faulted and who writes well through most of the book, maintains a strong and electric pace with his narrative. His characters are reasonably well-developed, and his story is fascinating, if somewhat grossly morbid. Few of us who have flown in the Concorde have been willing to comfront what would actually happen if a window blew out. "Mayday" gives us an unpleasant but worthwhile look.
"Control Tower" by Robert P. Davis, who distinguished himself several years ago with a novel about an alcoholic airline captain called "The Pilot," gives us yet another SST in trouble -- this one with a light plane wrapped around its nosewheel as a result of a midair collision. The theme of the story relates to the very real plight of the frenzied air-traffic controllers who fight everyone in sight just to try to maintain some marginal safety on the airways. Replacing their delicate and highly intelligent function with a computer is the issue, and the hero -- the chief of Miami's control tower -- is fighting the bureaucracy to maintain human judgment in the system. He vilifies the FAA on television, resigns, and is then attacked by a burntout controller who is fanatically dedicated to seeing the computer prevail. The midair collision between the Concorde on final approach and the plane is the computer's mistake, and the point is made.
From here we are taken to the land of fantasy. With minutes of fuel remaining, military airplanes are desperately trying to transfer tools and equipment -- air-to-air -- to the Concorde so that the offending airplane can be cut away. The ultimate landing is an event that is better read in the author's words than in a reviewer's description, but I think the term "highly unusual" would be fair.
The book moves well, but for a researcher who is usually quite thorough, Davis has some startling bloopers. He gives a Lear jet bearing the FAA administrator and the secretary of transportation a heading for final approach in very poor conditions that is exactly opposite to the course he should be flying. When the Concorde loses some of its pressurization we have air "whooshing" in when it should be "whooshing" out. In the midst of a white-hot crisis our secretary of transportation is found saying to the tower cheif, "You know, Jeff, what you taught me today?" And than there is a maudlin coversation between husband and wife in a battered light plane being dragged through the air at 170 m.p.h. Davis, who lives in Miami, must never have been in a hurricane.
Noneless, and despite the fact that I doubt the likelihood that a Concorde could fly at all with a nosewheel full of light airplane, the book is a good read. The points relating to air-traffic control are valid and fairly well explained. A commendable degree of tension and forward movement is maintained throughout, and the writing is for the most part quite good. Airplane buffs will have a ball with this one.