Part One. Chapter 1
The flight should have been routine, but events added to Kipp’s unease. The Boeing 777-300ER with 348 passengers on board soared effortlessly through the rarefied troposphere at 35,000 feet. A quick scan of the instruments gave him a reassuring indication that at least the aeroplane was behaving as it should. But then, it would, wouldn’t it? The plane’s automation generally did what it was told to do. No questions asked.
A plane can suffer from fatigue, stress and lack of maintenance. So can a pilot. But a plane doesn’t have the emotions which can generate unpredictable behaviour. If the result is catastrophic, the media swarm all over the event screaming pilot error. The aviation gurus dig deeper and can uncover grave mental instability. This they ordinarily categorise under the umbrella of human factors.
Kipp stole a sideways glance at his co-pilot, trying to figure out what was going on in the guy’s head. Petr blinked twice rapidly but continued to gaze ahead into the starry night, caught up in a world of his own. They were both immaculately dressed in regulation white shirts, clip-on navy ties with thin red and white diagonal stripes, and navy trousers, but there all similarities ended. Petr was gaunt but beginning to spout a belly, and a bald crown topped a puffy face which masked handsome features.
Petr had almost 15,000 flying hours under his belt, including 6,000 on this type of aircraft. Kipp had similar experience, yet he’d been a Captain for over three years. He had an inkling why Petr had been passed over for command and remained as first officer. It made him edgy. Kipp found he couldn’t relax either and watched the man like a hawk.
The aircraft sped over the northern tip of the Arabian Gulf, into the first glimmers of dawn. Kipp became mesmerised as the fiery red and orange crescent burst upon the horizon. A bunch of rays, held as it were by some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold.
Absentmindedly, Kipp reached for the coffee cup and put it to his lips, but found it empty. He snapped out of the stupor and massaged the corners of his eyes, aware that pilots are prone to dozing off during a dawn eastbound cruise with a highly automated flight deck. Stifling a yawn, he observed the small green numbers on the map display in front, counting down the distance to their next waypoint. Another screen on the central pedestal gave an estimated time of arrival in Dubai of 7:07 a.m., which was in about an hour and a half.
“Did you get the latest weather?” Kipp asked, already aware of potential problems ahead. He didn’t relish the thought of having to divert to Muscat, especially since he knew he was approaching his duty time limitations.
“Ah, not yet.” Petr reached forward to check the automated weather service for Dubai.
A buzzer sounded, and an access request light illuminated. Kipp looked at a camera screen and observed the purser waiting outside the flight deck. He pressed a switch which allowed her access. Since the September 11 terror attacks, flight deck doors were impregnable and always locked during flight, with access controlled from the cockpit.
The purser bounced in, clutching some paperwork, preceded by a tingle of unauthorised scent. Although she’d only been with Air MidEast a couple of years, she’d soared through the ranks powered by wit and aplomb, developing into a highly efficient crew member.
Kipp twisted around to face her. “Hi Beth,” he said cheerfully, buoyed by her presence. “How’s it going back there?”
“Hey, Cap. Hey, Petr,” Beth said with a lipstick smile. She stared at the first officer’s bald pate and waited expectantly for a response. When it wasn’t forthcoming, she sighed and turned to Kipp.
Kipp shrugged. “You know Beth,” he said with a straight face, “you could get into a lot of trouble for wearing fragrance on duty.”
Beth beamed and leant forward, pretending to admire his handsome, rugged features. “But Captain,” she said flirtatiously, “I put it on especially for you.” She reached forward to touch his shoulder. “You wouldn’t report me now, would you?"
Kipp held up a hand and conceded early, knowing he was no match for her cajolery. Although she was happily married with two kids, two dogs and two cars, she maintained a playful amorousness that beat even the most awkward passengers into submission.
They’d been in the air for almost five hours. Apart from the one small coffee, Kipp had refrained from taking on board any more liquid. Despite this, he found he needed to use the lavatory although he felt hesitant about leaving Petr alone. Airline policy stipulated that if a pilot vacated the flight deck for operational or physiological reasons, then another member of the crew should take their place until the pilot returns.
“Beth, I need to go. I’m bursting here.”
“Sure Cap, I’ll hang around.”
Kipp scanned the instruments again as he released his five-point harness. He looked across at his first officer. “You have the radios, Petr,” he said reluctantly. “I won’t be long.”
Beth sat down on the jump seat at the rear of the flight deck. She buckled herself in using only the lap-strap. Kipp pressed a button, and his electric seat slid back. Broad shouldered, he rose carefully and squeezed past the central pedestal. “See you in a minute,” he said, passing Beth.
Petr released the door, and full of relief, Kipp stooped into the lavatory just outside the cockpit. Balancing in the compact cubicle, he suddenly felt the pitch of the plane change as it started to descend, accompanied by an almost imperceptible reduction in noise as the engines went idle. With plenty of time before top of descent into Dubai, alarm bells rang in his mind.
Within seconds, he was outside the cockpit and pressed the buzzer to gain entry. A red denied light illuminated on the door control panel. He keyed in the emergency access code. Again, a denied light illuminated and the panel became disabled. Petr had locked him out of the cockpit.
The horrific images of a crash in which a first officer deliberately slammed a plane into the ground a few years ago flashed through his mind. All 144 passengers and six crewmembers were killed that day.