Pilot in Command

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When former fighter pilot Paul Allison is hired by start-up airline AST, he expects to fly with the same professionals as he did in the military. But things are not the same at AST—some captains are good, others not. One day, he is paired with Captain Donald Kallstadt on a trip with the promise of easy flying and pleasant layovers. But the trip turns into a nightmare, a series of near disasters that climaxes in a life-and-death situation at the Washington National Airport. Allison can either mutiny or die, taking 132 passengers and crew into the Potomac River with him. His decision leads to a riveting courtroom drama that focuses the nation’s attention on an issue as pertinent to an airliner cockpit as it is the Oval Office: when do you relieve a dangerous, incompetent leader of command?

Drama / Adventure
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Day One: PIT Crew Room

At 06:35 A.M. on the first day of the four-day trip, Paul Allison strode through the deserted Pittsburgh International Airport at a brisk, ex-military 120 paces per minute, the salt-corroded wheels of his aircrew suitcase squealing like distressed chipmunks in his wake. The high-pitched racket gave way to abrupt silence as Allison stopped in front of a nondescript steel-grey door marked by a tailfin-shaped decal with the three-letter identifier of his employer: AST.

Paul punched the security code into the five-button lockset, opened the door, then hoisted his suitcase and made his way down the stairs, the sound of shoe leather on concrete echoing in the dark stairwell. At ramp level, a second door opened into a dimly lit, low-ceilinged space about the size of an elementary school classroom, with the musty, overripe odor of a high school boy’s locker room. This was Atlantic Seaboard Transit’s crew room.

A hodgepodge of worn couches and shabby armchairs filled the room, most occupied by sleeping commuters cloaked in threadbare blankets. Against the far wall, a long, narrow table sagged under the weight of three obsolete computer terminals and a geriatric dot-matrix printer. A second table supported boxes of company forms, a paper cutter, and a copy machine. On the opposite wall, under grimy, opaque windows, waist-high racks of hanging file folders served as employee mailboxes.

A dozen pilots and flight attendants milled around in varying degrees of consciousness. Some checked mail, others read the bulletin board, known as “the wailing wall,” while a few chatted by the vending machines. One captain sat in an armchair staring vacantly into space, while a pair of yawning three-stripers constructed “trip sheets” for their crews. An atmosphere of quiet malaise permeated the air, mostly due to the early hour and a shortage of caffeine; the vending machine that dispensed coffee had been broken for weeks.

At precisely 0640 hours, Paul sat down at an unoccupied computer terminal. He worked through a log-on script and signed in, letting a scheduler at the AST Operations Center know he had arrived. Typing in the trip number, the four-day pairing sprang to life on the screen. Trip #12589 was unlike any Allison had ever flown at AST. It was almost too good to be true.

On the first day, the trip flew from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Philly to West Palm Beach, West Palm to Baltimore, and then terminated at New York’s LaGuardia airport, arriving at 5:40 P.M. Only four legs, no long sits, a mere twelve-hour duty day.


On day two, they departed LaGuardia at 6:40 A.M., bound for AST’s main hub, Pittsburgh. A short 45 minutes turn on the ground at PIT, and then a long non-stop to Los Angeles. AST had begun service to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco only a few months before. They arrived in LAX at 1:40 P.M. local, ending an easy ten-hour day. Then came the best part of the trip: a 22-hour layover on the West Coast!

For the first time since he’d joined AST, Paul felt like a real airline pilot—a flight across the Rockies, a layover in L.A. with time to burn. Hopefully, he’d have an adventurous crew and they’d do something fun together, like go to the beach, see a movie, or head down to the Santa Monica Pier.

The third day they flew from L.A. to Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio. That was it, only two legs, a 6+34 duty day, the shortest he had ever seen on an AST pairing. The layover at Columbus was ten hours, with an early wake-up for a 7:00 A.M. departure.

Day four wasn’t bad, either: Columbus to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh to Hartford, Hartford to Washington, D.C., then home to “the Burgh” by 3:00 P.M. A major league trip!

Paul noted the captain’s name under the pairing: C/O Donald von Kallstadt. An odd name for a pilot; it sounded more like an eighteenth-century baron.

Below the captain’s name was his own, then the names of four flight attendants. Paul was delighted to see that the lead flight attendant was Rachel Park—now Rachel Park-Owens.

He hadn’t seen Rachel since June, when she and her then-fiancé, Blake Owens, came to his house for a backyard barbeque. Blake, a check airman, had given Paul his IOE—Initial Operating Experience—line training on the Boeing 737-300 in January.

He and Blake hit it off, sharing common military flying backgrounds and the coincidence of wedding dates set only a day apart in August.

Judging from her hyphenated last name, Rachel and Blake had wed in August as planned. As for him and Cathy, he anticipated an awkward moment when Rachel asked him about their derailed engagement.

Things were improving, though; since returning from his three-month “temporary duty” at AST’s new LaGuardia base, Cathy had begun allowing him visits with their daughter, Samantha. She had even fixed him up with a plate of leftover turkey dinner when he got back from his Thanksgiving trip—a hopeful sign that they could still work things out.

Paul scanned the names of the other flight attendants: Dawn Foote, Frances Delarossa, and Gary Wurst. Paul was sure he had flown with Dawn. He didn’t recognize Delarosa’s name, and was positive he had never flown with Wurst—who would be the first male flight attendant he had flown with at AST.

Paul tabbed over to the PRINT field and hit Enter, holding his breath that the unreliable printer would pick up the job. Just as he heard the printer’s reassuring staccato, two pleasantly warm and feminine hands covered his eyes. “Guess who?” a sultry voice flirted.

“Hmmm, let me see. That sounds like the voice of the fairest flight attendant of them all, a sky goddess extraordinaire, the woman of my dreams . . .”

“Nice try, buster, but you’re not getting any extra food.” Rachel Park-Owens uncovered Paul’s eyes. He rose from his chair, pushed it aside and turned to face her, blustering with feigned shock, “Rachel, I didn’t know it was you.”

“Like hell you didn’t!”

They hugged.

As they separated, Rachel took Paul’s hands and looked at him with mournful eyes. “I heard about you and Cathy. I’m so sorry, Paul.”

Paul didn’t try to hide his remorse. He shrugged. “Well, she’s letting me spend time with Sam now, and we’re talking at the door, so all is not lost.”

Rachel squeezed Paul’s hands. “Well, Blake and I think you two make a great couple. I hope it works out and you get back together soon.”

“Me too.”

Looking like she wanted to ask more but knowing this was not the time, Rachel released Paul’s hands. “So how did a junior birdman like you rate a sweet four-day like this?”

“A little birdie told me you were on the trip, so I kneecapped the first officer,” Paul deadpanned.

“Unlucky for him . . . lucky for me,” Rachel said with a wry grin. “Especially since you’re my favorite co-pilot in the whole airline. Blake will be happy to know you’re on the trip.”

Paul faked a cough. “Now who’s flattering?”

Rachel shook her head. “I mean it, Paul. Blake thinks you’re the best, too.”

Covering his embarrassment, Paul blew on his nails and drawled in his best John Wayne imitation, “Well, little lady, I just try to keep the painted side up and the shiny side down. Or is it the shiny side up and the painted side down? Hmmm . . . I always get that part confused.”

Rachel smiled, exposing perfect teeth. For the first of what he knew would be a hundred times this trip, Paul admired the striking woman. Her jet-black hair was braided and pinned in a knot behind her head. She had an exceptional face: high cheekbones, fashion model features and expressive hazel-green eyes that made even casual conversation feel intimate.

The dot-matrix printer rattled to a halt. Tearing off the printout Paul asked, “You know everyone?”

Rachel nodded. “Well, everyone but the captain. But I’ve heard about him.” She rolled her eyes. “They call him Captain Krunch, or The Terminator . . . among other things.”

“Why is that?”

“The first for his landings, or Captain Crunch of the cereal—take your pick; ‘The Terminator’ because he sounds like Arnold—” Rachel flinched. Looking past him, she muttered under her breath, “You’ll find out soon enough. He’s walking this way.”

Paul turned around to see Captain von Kallstadt for the first time. He walked with a rolling gait and forward-leaning posture that made his approach seem vaguely combative. He was of average height, with a barrel chest and substantial belly. He had a rugged, bulldoggish face. A thin layer of sandy-blond hair swept in a combover over his balding head.

Allison stiffened and extended his arm. “Captain Kallstadt?” he said as they grasped hands.

The captain gave a friendly yet pugnacious smile. “You can call me Captain K,” he said, holding fast to Paul’s hand with a powerful grip, sizing him up.

“Doing your arts and crafts, making trip sheets?” he said cordially, nodding at the printout in Paul’s left hand while he continued to pump his right.

His bearing and demeanor struck Paul as former military; or if not that, then a glad-handing politician.

“Just about to.”

Kallstadt finally let Paul’s hand go. He stepped in, close enough for Paul to smell his tobacco breath as he said in a conspiratorial tone, “Make them extra-large for me.” He tapped the glasses hanging from his neck. “Zee old peepers are not what they used to be.”

Paul found it hard not to like the man. He smiled. “I’ll be glad to.” He turned to Rachel. “Captain K, this is your lead, Rachel Park-Owens.”

Kallstadt looked Rachel up and down, his eyes raking her superbly proportioned figure. “What is it with American girls and two names? Why can’t you be satisfied with one?” He stuck out his hand.

Rachel smiled thinly and accepted the captain’s hand. Paul couldn’t help but marvel at the similarity of Kallstadt’s accent and cadence of speech to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the famous Austrian bodybuilder and movie star. Now he understood why they called him ‘The Terminator.’

“Are you former military, Captain K?” he asked.

“Austrian Air Force,” Kallstadt said. “I married an American girl. After ten years she still couldn’t spell my name, so I divorce her.” He winked at Rachel and laughed alone.

Paul felt the tension flow from Rachel. Trying to restore an amicable mood he said, “Years ago, I visited the Military Academy at Wiener Neustadt. We even stayed in the dorms. I came to love Austria.”

Kallstadt raised a brow. “What were you doing at Wiener Neustadt?”

“A summer field trip, when I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy.”

“Ah, maybe you sleep in my bed,” Kallstadt said.

“So you went there?” Paul asked.

“Yah, I spent my time there. At Maria Theresa’s, they make good officers and honest men—all except me.” Captain K laughed at his own joke.

Paul took in Rachel’s flat expression and then glanced at his watch. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, Sir, I’ll get started on the trip sheets.”

“Remember, extra-large,” Captain K said with a friendly wink. He pulled a cigar from his jacket and clamped it jauntily between his molars. “Time for breakfast. I see you at the plane.” He chortled and added, “Don’t leave without me.”

“Not likely.”

Paul returned to his ‘arts and crafts,’ thinking that Captain K might have rubbed Rachel the wrong way, but all-in-all, he seemed like an OK guy.

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