Spirit of The Airways

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Mike is flying a late night charter and he's over Central Australia. What should be a routine radio call to Air Traffic Control has a totally unexpected, bizarre and near-fatal outcome.

Spirit of The Airways

“Brisbane Radio, Brisbane Radio, Golf Uniform Delta position on 5643”. The static from the High Frequency radio crackled in his headset. After about fifteen seconds the Air Traffic Controller responded. 

“Golf Uniform Delta, Brisbane go ahead”.

“Brisbane, Golf Uniform Delta was PULOL at 0043, flight level 260, Alice Springs 0124”.

“Golf Uniform Delta roger, at time 0055 contact Darwin Radio on 3477”.

Using HF irritated him. Being so far from the busy east coast airways, contacting ATC on VHF, with its ‘line of sight’ limitations was out of the question. And Alice ATC had gone off watch three hours earlier. He reached over and turned down the volume on the HF radio and reduced the ‘squelch’. Unlike the big jets he didn’t have SELCAL in the Turbo Commander and the static from electrical interference was annoying to listen to. He closed his eyes for a few seconds and tried to envisage the radio waves bouncing around the world. With about 40 lighting strikes per second globally it was no wonder the radio waves that got picked up by his HF set were ‘lacerated’ or staticky.

Like he did every couple of minutes he ran his eyes over the array of instruments and gauges on the panel before him. The most important ones were the Attitude Indicator, Airspeed Indicator and the Horizontal Situation Indicator. In next order of importance were the ALT, VSI and Turn & Slip. Then he ran his eyes over the engine gauges making sure that the powerful Garrett turbine engines were operating normally. Finally a quick check to ensure that the autopilot was still engaged in the correct modes. It was, the little green annunciator lights stared blindly back at him. He looked back into the cabin. The ton of medical supplies were strapped down behind the cargo net just behind him. 

He was the only one in the aircraft. That didn’t bother him - after all it was the nature of the job. It was almost 1am. He closed his eyes and thought back over the events of the last twelve or so hours. Flight Operations had called him early afternoon to advise him that his standby had changed. He was to fly a load of urgent medical supplies to Broome. The town had been cutoff by extensive flooding from Cyclone Rona and was reliant on everything been flown in. 

He’d given Gail a call at work to let her know about the trip and that he’d be overnighting in Broome and wouldn’t be home for dinner. He’d tried to get a couple of hours sleep but hammering noise from a nearby house construction had kept him awake. After about an hour he’d got up and had a workout on the home gym. He’d taken out some of his frustration about the noise on the punching bag. Then he’d showered, changed into his pilots uniform and driven the thirty kilometres from North Lakes to Brisbane Airport. 

Now here he was at 26,000 feet over the middle of Australia. Far below him dingoes would be sleeping after having chased down and consumed their evening meal, stockmen would be snoring in their drunken stupors and a million reptiles would be on the move. 

There was no moon tonight. Nor was there any light pollution - discounting the faint glow of Alice Springs in the far distance. He leaned his head over the glare shield and looked out onto a fairy-land of stars and galaxies. At this altitude, and with no visible horizon, the stars stretched above, around and almost below him. It was a breath taking sight. The small Magellanic Cloud was clearly visible. He thought about its distance from him, 200,000 light years, and a feeling of complete awe rolled over him. It was like he was soaring through the infinite vastness of space. In a way he was.

He could gaze at the stars all night but there was work to be done. He glanced at his watch, it was 0054. He reached over to the HF radio mounted on the far side of the instrument panel and tuned it to 3477. Well he thought he did. In the early hours of the morning when the brain should be in deep sleep mode he got it wrong. He inadvertently dialed in 3777. An easy mistake to make in the middle of the day. A far easier one to make at an hour past midnight. He pushed the button marked ‘Tune’. He heard the big transceiver hum as the electronics and crystals reset to the new frequency. Then he pushed the transmit button on his control column. 

“Darwin Radio, Darwin Radio, Golf Uniform Delta on 3477”. 

The electromagnetic waves from the aircrafts HF aerial poured out in 50 meter long pulses at the speed of light. They shot up to, and hit, the ionosphere then bounced off it and back to earth. From there they bounced back and forth between the edge of the cold, dark vacuum of space and the sleeping earth below. They skipped on and on into the endless night until they ran out of steam. 

Thirty seconds went by with no response. 

“Darwin Radio, Darwin Radio, Golf Uniform Delta on 3477”. 

“Mike how you going?” 

He wondered who it could be. Every once in a while a fellow pilot would say a quick hello on the area frequency. He didn’t know anyone who worked in Darwin ATC so it might be one of his former workmates on a late night charter somewhere else over Australia. It was really unusual to get a personal hello on HF though. Potentially a lot of people could hear. It was more common on VHF. Even then most pilots went to the ‘numbers’, 123.45mhz, the international pilot chat frequency, for a ‘discreet’ conversation.

“G’day, yeh I’m good. You’re up late. Who’s that?”. 

The static crackled in his headset. Several seconds passed. No reply. He was just about to hit the transmit button again.

“Mike how you going, its me, Warren”. 

Warren, he didn’t have any current friends called Warren. Then it hit him. He thought it must be Warren Daniels. They’d trained together at Bankstown Flying School six years ago. They hadn’t kept in touch though.

He hit the transmit button. “Is that Warren Daniels. How are you mate? Long time”. Normally he wouldn’t chat on HF. But it was in the early hours of the morning and there wasn’t any other aircraft on frequency. Darwin wouldn’t mind. A few seconds passed.

“No its your brother. Warren! You do remember me don’t ya?”. This was some sort of bizarre joke. Warren had been dead for two years. 

“Yeh pull the other one! Who is this?”.

It wouldn’t be the first time in history that some clown with a HF radio had decided to talk with a pilot flying the airways. It was illegal and dangerous - thats why some of them did it - it gave them a cheap thrill. 

He thought he’d try Darwin again. He should be able to raise them - after all he was obviously on the right frequency. 

“Darwin Radio, Darwin Radio, Golf Uniform Delta on 3477”. 

“Mike you’re not gonna get em”. 

“Listen I don’t know who you are, I don’t know how you know my name, but I need to tell you that what you’re doing is illegal. If the authorities catch you, at the minimum you’ll loose your radio set and get a hefty fine. At the worst you’ll serve some time. So I suggest you get off this frequency, now”. 

It felt good acting like a bit of an airborne enforcer. ‘That should get rid of him’ he thought. 

“Mike I know it’s hard for you to accept. But this IS Warren. 

One thing Mike did not believe in was the after-life. 

“Right I’m going to make an official report about this when I land buddy. Are you in Australia?”

Mike suddenly realised that wasn’t such a bright question as this guy had an Australian accent.

“Alright Freddo ask me a question that only you and I would know the answer to?”. He was reaching over to change frequency when he realised he’d entered the wrong one to start with. He made a note of it on his navigation log. He dialled in 3477. 

He made contact with Darwin on the first try. They’d been trying to call him. He apologised and gave his level. He sat back and was running through his instrument scan and checks when it suddenly hit him like a kick in the nuts. This Warren, or whoever the hell he was, had called him Freddo - and on a non-designated frequency. Freddo had been his nickname as a kid and he hated it. His two elder brothers had given it to him because of his huge appetite for Freddo Frogs, a frog shaped dairy milk chocolate. As a young kid he’d thought the Freddo painting on the wrapper was totally cool. Then he’d got hooked on the chocolate. 

The realisation stunned him. His oldest brother Brett was the only one who used the name these days and he didn’t see much of him because he was living in Poland. So how the hell could this guy on the end of the HAM radio know his nickname? He tried to force the bizarre encounter from his mind. But he couldn’t. WHO THE HELL WAS THAT? He could see the glow of lights from Alice Springs slowly increasing in intensity on the horizon. He wouldn’t need to talk to Darwin for another few minutes until he was overhead Alice. He had to know.

He reached over and set 3777. 

Nervously he thumbed the transmit button.

“This is the pilot of Golf Uniform Delta. Are you still there whoever you are?”. The only thing that answered back was the static. Ten seconds went by. Had he imagined it? 

“Freddo, there’s a very good reason why we’re talking right now”.

“Yeh whats that?” Mike still didn’t really believe it was his dead brothers spirit but he wanted to play along with whoever it was for a while. See what came of it.

“A Pan Australian 747 had a double flame out about ten minutes ago. They can’t maintain 41,000 feet and are descending. They’re enroute from Singapore to Melbourne and on the same airway as you but opposite direction. They’re going to be descending through your level in about two minutes. If you maintain your present heading and altitude you’ll hit them”.

“Yeah sure, right. You’ve obviously been watching too many episodes of Black Box”. 

“Mike I really need you to believe me. Do you remember the time that bully spat on you and pushed you off your bike when you were in Grade 3?”.

How could he forget. It had been humiliating and degrading. There was probably only four people in the world who knew the answer to that question. He’d told Warren and Brett but was too ashamed to tell anyone else.

“Yeh of course I do”.

“Does the name Dean Mathews mean anything to you”. 

The name hit him like the recoil from an elephant gun. He was absolutely stunned. Dean Mathews had given him hell until Brett sorted him out one day. 

“Mike you need to believe what I’m saying. If you don’t take evasive action in the next thirty seconds you and the 235 people on the 747 will die”. 

“They’ll have me on TCAS, they’ll probably be taking avoiding action as we speak”. 

“Their TCAS failed the same time as both engines flamed out”.

That got Mike’s undivided attention. He looked out across the glareshield at the vast blackness beyond. Nothing but empty sky and stars. 

Then he saw it. 'Holy fucking Christ’! First he saw the flashing strobe lights, then both navigation lights. Then the huge black mass of the aircraft blotting out the stars beyond. It was slightly above, descending slowly and hurtling straight towards him. It couldn’t be more than 300 hundred metres away. He wrenched the control column hard right and pitched down. He risked over-stressing the aircraft by the violent control deflection but he had no choice. Would he make it? The Aero Commander had a quick turn rate but they were closing at a combined speed of about 800 miles an hour.

He was banked over at about 80 degrees. The ‘G’ forces were pushing him down into the seat. He was bracing for the impact, that sudden blinding flash as both aircraft disintegrated in a massive fireball. It would have been impossible for him to see the 747 at the angle of bank he was holding. But he heard it. Just a sudden rushing roar of 300 tons of aluminium, jet fuel and innocent people hurtling through the cold, night sky. It must have passed less than 50 metres from him. 

Realising he was clear of danger he swung the control column to the left and pitched up. The turboprop quickly rolled back to a straight and level attitude. He was shaking and sweating - shocked and stunned by what had just happened. He’d escaped death by mere seconds and metres. He selected direct to Alice on the GPS and then reengaged the autopilot.

He thumbed the transmit button. 

“That was FUCKING close! How did you know that?”. 

He was still shaking from the adrenalin and fear. That cold, clammy fear that still clung to him like a soggy overcoat. 

There was no response - just the irritating static that crackled incessantly like a stuck record. 

“Warren. Warren are you there?”. Nothing. He checked that the HF was still on - it was. Volume still half way up, squelch set at a reasonable level, the same frequency. 

“Warren can you hear me?”. 

He sat there in a sort of numbed out shock for what seemed like seconds but was actually minutes. He’d avoided death by the narrowest of margins and all due to a bizarre conversation with his dead brother. He just couldn’t believe that it had really happened. Surely he’d gone mad. Then suddenly a rush of questions.

How in God’s name could a spirit tune into high frequency radio waves? 

Why had it happened on 3777?

What was so special about that frequency?

How did he come to mistune the radio in the first place?

What caused the engines on the 747 to fail?

What knocked out their TCAS?

How the hell could Warren have known all that?

Was he dreaming?

Had he gone mad?

He felt his head spinning from thinking about the whole bizarre deal. 

He suddenly thought to check his position. The GPS showed he’d passed Alice. A quick glance at the VOR and DME confirmed it. He looked out the side window. Just behind the port wing he could see the bright glow of lights from the city. Darwin would be expecting his position report. 

He quickly dialed in 3477, hit the tune button and once the crystals had reset thumbed the transmit button. 

“Darwin Radio, Darwin Radio, Golf Uniform Delta, position on 3477”.

An immediate response. He thought he could detect a sense of relief in the controllers voice.

“Golf Uniform Delta, Darwin, we’ve been trying to call you. A Pan Australian Boeing 747 lost two of its four engines and was forced to descend to flight level 130. It was conflicting traffic for you. Time of passing was estimated as 1313. We instructed the 747 to stop descent at FL270 but it never responded. We’re still trying to establish contact with it. We suspect solar flares may be interfering with HF signals. Can you confirm a visual sighting of the aircraft?”

For reasons he didn’t understand he decided to hide the truth. 

“Golf Uniform Delta negative sighting. Golf Uniform Delta was Alice at 0125, flight level 260, PIXOT at 0215”.

“Roger Darwin, primary 3477, secondary 5643”.

He changed back to 3777 and hit the tune button. The crystals reset once again. He thumbed the transmit button.

“Warren are you there?”. 

Nothing.

“Warren. Warren are you there?”.

Lightning was belching from the hundreds of thunderstorms of Cyclone Rona and from the thousands of storms elsewhere on the planet. His radio waves plowed through the storms but came out the other end electrically battered and bruised. Once again the only answer was the incessant static. 

As the Aero Commander sped on through the inky blackness, the stars twinkling above, countless other radio waves bounced between the ionosphere and earth - all unseen.

 

 

 

© Murray Salisbury 2021

 


Submitted: October 01, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Murray Salisbury. All rights reserved.

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