Across the street from the Hirshhorn Museum, the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a communications center it claims is "superior to anything the Pentagon has." On the tenth floor of the bureaucratic-Gothic building ,a three-person FAA team monitors all air emergencies - and waits for a skyjacking.
The communications system is impressive. The push of a button provides instant contact with the White House Situation Room, the FBI, the Secret Service, the State Department and other FAA twenty-four crisis centers around the nation.
"Let me show you what we can do here," a specially-trained air traffic controller boasts. He picks up the telephone. "Alaska, how do you read me?"
There is no static, and not even a second's delay: "I read you loud and clear, Washington,"
He pushes anohter button. "How's the weather out there?"
"hello, Washington. This is Los Angeles. Awfully sorry about you people having that cold weather. It's seventy-five degrees out here."
The replies arrive so quickly and with such perfect fidelity that they seem to come from ten feet away.
It is a positive sign of the times that these men are bored. "I can remember when we had three skyjackings going on at the same time," muses the shirt-sleeved duty officer over this third cup of coffee at 3 a.m. "I used to work on weekends, and could count on at least one skyjacking a day."
Should a skyjacking occur, the FAA calls in a wide variety of occicials and experts, ranging from the Secretary of Transportation to a psychiatrist whose specialty is terrorism.
"You should see it here during a skyjacking," an official says. "There are about thirty people all doing their jobs, and most of them refuse to leave until the skyjacking is over, no matter how long it takes.
"The smell is really something. It's not the gymnasium smell of athletes. It's a tired human being smell, the kind that comes from smart, super-grade bureaucrats. It's an interesting kind of thing."