There was cursing in the cockpit on that dark and fateful evening. Captain Lindhart was calling into question the competence of an army of people, switching languages as he shouted into his headset and at his co-pilot interchangeably. They were stuck on firm ground with 116 passengers ageing by the minute and the Captain was upset on behalf of them all. Entire vacations were at risk if they missed connecting flights and, in his mind, he saw a bride in tears at her own solemn wedding dinner with as many empty chairs as there were passengers in his aircraft.
Luckily for the unfortunate souls on board this flight, the door to the flight deck was closed which spared them from most of the shouting while the whipping rain and general murmur drowned out the rest of it. But that same door which was shielding them from the full colour of the Captain’s rage locked the co-pilot in together with it. Whatever confidence he may once have displayed now seemed as distant as their departure time. To the Captain, he was as culpable as the rest of them, and he was hearing about it now. The passion with which the Captain carried out his occupation simply did not permit that kind of negligence to go unpunished. Only the passengers were being spared his fury, since no reasonable shepherd would blame his sheep for what befalls them.
In seat 23B however, Levi was not experiencing any of the discomfort that the Captain was internalising on behalf of the travellers. Just like everyone else onboard, he had been sitting still on the tarmac for the last two hours but had done so chatting and joking with his fellow passengers, about all kinds of useless things. He ate his complementary sandwich with more appetite than grace and showed a good part of it, stuck between his teeth, when he smiled at the joke his neighbour told about the airline. The delay was indeed an obvious conversation starter, but Levi himself spoke without spite or agitation.
He was sitting in the middle seat, boxed in between two men who seemingly detested any kind of physical activity but who were now sweating profusely in the cabin’s recycled atmosphere. Levi had originally been assigned another seat, next to a pretty blonde, but had given it up so that her boyfriend could move up from where he now sat, and he had not minded. Levi minded very few things in fact.
Many of the other passengers were however understandably upset about the delay, and there was a steady soar of sighs and inquiries to which the cabin crew gave the same kind of answers. The youngest flight attendant, whom Levi eyed appreciatingly, was running back and forth, assuring passengers left and right that they would be moving as soon as it was possible. Due to the stress and her inexperience, she never noticed how the passengers around Levi appeared less upset than the others. It was as if his relaxed disposition, a form of contagious apathy, was calming those around him as well.
For he was not a man to get upset easily. He himself couldn’t remember a single time since adolescence when he’d lost his cool like our captain had. This held true tonight as well, and since he was not a man who liked to make elaborate plans, the delay did not affect him much. It was a Sunday evening and Levi did not have to be there until tomorrow morning. He would get there in due course and there was no reason to get worked up about a delay which he could not influence. Everything would take exactly as long as it had to, and everything would turn out just as it was intended. That was the source of Levi’s calm; the fact that he rarely liked to upset the course of things, once in motion. So it happened thus, as Levi bent himself to the winds of circumstance, that the speakers whined into life and announced that they would be moving shortly.
In the cockpit the Captain ruled with another frame of mind entirely. He was not an enemy anyone would like to make but neither was he a bad man by any standards, he simply saw himself as fighting for the passengers when they could not. Captain Lindhart was indeed a man of many virtues; he was meticulous and took his responsibilities seriously like few others. But should something get in the way of him being able to carry out these responsibilities, like now in the case of their belated take-off time, his vices would be made apparent to each and all. He would fight with tooth and nail to get his way, since to him there was only one way to do things and that was the way he did them. The same dutifulness with which he carried out his tasks was therefore also a source of great frustration for him, should he not be able to exercise it. Whenever he would see another plane in the sky, he’d feel a sting of regret knowing that another, less able, pilot held the lives of the passengers in his hands. He’d drive taxis from the backseat too, and coach football teams from the comfort of his own sofa. He surely would have been happier behind the wheel or on the field himself, if only that gave him more control of the outcome, for better or for worse. And now that control was finally being granted: the tower announced that they could recommence their taxi out to the runway for an easterly take-off.
The plane jerked into motion with a revving of the engines and a creak of metal. With this, the Captain exchanged information with his co-pilot about the flight route and weather conditions and he breathed deeply to steady his heart rate. He was calm now, and evidently pleased to be on the move, but the memory of the recent event, and the imbeciles who’d caused it, lay fresh in his mind. His fingers tingled with frustration when he handed the controls over to the co-pilot who was being groomed for captainship and would fly the aircraft this evening, under Lindhart’s watchful gaze.
In the cabin, too, the previous mood was contrasted with one of relief as the passengers stowed away their tray tables and fastened their seatbelts. Levi observed the security demonstration with vague interest and stole the odd glance out the window when the plane finally sped up and then took to the air. Being strapped to a chair that was bolted to the floor of a 40 tonne metal canister which was now soaring the skies was not by any means a trivial experience, but Levi was not afraid of flying because it would do him no good. He let others, better educated and better suited, worry about the exact physics behind this seemingly magical cloud odyssey that would take him to his destination. Instead, he carried out the only duty which was his in the face of his current helplessness; to endure the trip and stay just as uninvolved as his position as a mere passenger demanded. The knowledge that they were well underway, in good hands and that he could and should do nothing from now until their arrival, eventually lulled the man to sleep.
At first, the trip proceeded without any further incidents. The night was calm and there was no turbulence at all. The cabin lights had been dimmed and the passengers had quieted down, many of whom were now asleep.
They had just been cleared for landing and were descending through the clouds. The lights of the city were beginning to appear at the horizon when the unthinkable happened.
Coming across a flock of birds, flying just below the cloud cover, the plane hit them head on. The shock and noise of the impacts made both pilots jump in their seats and the force made the windshield crack and almost break in several places. More impacts followed and violent thuds could even be heard in the cabin as the hull buckled under the blows. The co-pilot had let go of the controls and was holding on to the armrests of his chair, expecting the windshield to break at any second and to be pierced by tiny pieces of glass coming at him at sub-sonic speed. But Lindhart was quick to regain his wits and started barking orders, shouting to make himself heard. He had just taken over the controls when several alarms went off in the cockpit, adding to the cacophony of screams coming from the cabin and the hissing sound of air intruding through tiny holes in the fractured glass. They were slowly losing cabin pressure and the cockpit was going cold.
The plane was not steering properly, hardly responding to the Captain’s efforts, as he radioed in the news of the bird strike along with their position, speed and diminishing altitude. Finally, having overcome his initial reluctance, he finished his transmissions by repeating the words “Mayday” into the microphone. The co-pilot, alerted by those very same words, snapped out of his senseless state and came to. His training kicked in and he inspected the instruments, flipped a few switches without being able to silent the alarm, then grimly reported double engine failure with an expression of vulnerability and confusion.
Levi woke up in seat 23B to the nightmarish inferno which was raging on both sides of the plane. He instinctively tried to stand up, but the seatbelt violently held him back and he remembered where he was. The panicked screams in the cabin nearly deafened him and he could feel the heat coming through the window closest to him, just behind the starboard engine which was now engulfed in flames. He saw the faces of horror all around him and found himself unable to do anything, even to scream. Then the plane shuddered, and the nose dipped.
With both engines out of action, they were losing altitude fast and were still far away from the runway. The extent of the imminent catastrophe began to dawn on the Captain, but he pushed this realisation to the back of his mind. He would not accept that which his subconscious was proposing and he would not give up without a fight.
They would have to set the plane down somewhere else and, if only it would steer properly, he could try to find a field somewhere, far away from residential areas. But the rudders would hardly obey him, and the plane only seemed to go in one foreboding direction. The suburbs of the city were about to come up below them and the co-pilot, who had been inspecting maps and speaking to the control tower, announced that their best option under the circumstances was to try and make it to the airfield. The Captain flinched. They were not going to make it there, and he would not risk bringing the plane down over a densely packed population centre on the way to it, where people were fast asleep in their beds. Instead, he scoured the terrain below. Down on the ground, there were some dark patches appearing among the lights from the buildings, probably parks or small lakes. He singled out one of them, almost directly ahead and steered as well as he could towards it. His will fought against that of the plane with all its might and he was not responding to the co-pilots panicked questions as he took aim. He shouldered his duty and responsibility with a grim face and fury in his eyes. A defiant scream, a war cry of sorts, filled the cockpit.
The plane suddenly started diving steeply and Levi understood what was about to happen. He racked his brains for something to do or something to say but could think of absolutely nothing. Of course he was afraid, almost scared senseless, but even in his confused state it seemed like the best course of action would be to take no action at all. There was simply nothing he could do to improve the situation and true to his way of life, he remained passive. At this point he was the only one in the cabin who was not crying, scream or praying to the heavens. As the ground approached he waited for the inevitable, closed his eyes and filled his lungs with one last deep inhale.