The following is an excerpt from my upcoming thriller, “Dare to Breathe”, to be released February 2021.
Though struggling to maintain control of the airplane, Captain Jason Samuels focused on the swerving line of concrete wall some two thousand feet below him. Meandering across the open fields like a miniature version of the Great Wall of China, this out-of-place, single masonry structure was leading him toward his crash sight. He had been here before, as had many Americans. It was an open patch of Pennsylvania farmland, cleared of any sign of civilization, except for the odd structure below the wings.
When the Boeing 737 passenger liner had first been hit–Samuels assumed it was some kind of bomb that had disabled engines one and four–he knew he only had seconds to decide where he was going to crash, for crashing was his only option. With no power going to the rear stabilons and–for all he knew–part of the rear fuselage missing, the plane was descending very quickly. They had gone from thirty-thousand feet to just under ten thousand in less than a minute. Alarms screeched all over the cockpit and the odour of burning electronics filled his nostrils. After the initial shock had pervaded his every sense, his training and professionalism kicked in. Samuels had managed to get some semblance of control back and had slowed the descent somewhat, but it was unmistakingly still a degrading one. His first thoughts were that he could find a place that was both remote enough to not harm those on the ground, but close enough to civilization for a quick rescue. No doubt, upon impact, the remaining fuel in the wings would ignite and passengers would have only moments to escape before fires erupted everywhere. He couldn’t release the fuel because: 1) he didn’t have enough time, and 2) he was travelling over populated areas.
Samuels had crashed a plane before; an F-117A Nighthawk fighter in Afghanistan during the second Desert Storm. He only had one passenger that time, his co-pilot, Lieutenant Franklin Dandovich. They had been hit by a SAM and went down quickly. Samuels had managed to keep the nose up just before impact but when the rear empennage slammed into the sandy ground, the plane had lurched and centrifugal force had immediately powered the nose into the ground at over a hundred and fifty miles and hour. They had slid a couple of hundred feet or so but essentially came to a dead stop very quickly. Dandovich’s head had been bounced around the cockpit hitting something hard. Samuels knew from the amount of blood coming from the wound and his mouth that his co-pilot was dead. He had managed to brace himself enough that although he had also bounced around substantially, he hadn’t hit anything solid. The harnesses had kept him tight to his seat.
Images of that last bounce played in Samuel’s mind as he fought to keep Flight N106 nose high while it continued to descend. In the seconds after the explosions–and the realization that he was going down much too quickly– he pondered trying to reach a nearby airport but he only knew the major airports and none were nearby. If there was regional or private strip within twenty miles, he didn’t know of them, and therefore didn’t have time to prepare. Even if he did, any strip would be too short for a jet this size.
He then thought of a highway but knew that in this region just south of the Allegheny Mountains, there were only two major highways and they were farther to the West; he wouldn’t make it. Other roads, he knew, were framed by heavy forest. Any attempted landing would result in the dense trees shearing off the wings prior to touching ground, spewing fuel over the forest and distorting the final seconds of descent.
No, that option was out.
That’s when he remembered his geography and recalled the long, cleared, relatively flat land he was aiming for now. Though slightly rolling hills continued as far as the eye could see, he knew one infamous pilot had ended a flight here. That experience had not been a good one, and to the best of his knowledge, no one had been at the controls during the final seconds of flight. All aboard had died instantly. Samuels was determined to have a different outcome this time. His co-pilot was watching instruments and reading out numbers steadily. Samuels focused on the scene directly in front of him and felt the knot tighten in his stomach as the windshield filled with more green than blue. He was intent on steering the huge airliner toward the one long field he recalled. It was at the end of this slowly approaching wall. Like a line in the ground, it meandered, he knew, for just under 300 feet, ending in a flattened field that should accommodate the huge airplane. He would have to try to keep the nose up for as long as he could. He feared that tragic first bounce more than anything, slamming the nose into the ground and bringing the huge machine to a dead stop within a few hundred yards. If he could manage to keep the nose raised up, or the fuselage level at best, then the plane would glide roughly along the ground for a while, slowing it down so that when the nose did finally dip and drive itself into the ground, they would be going much slower and the final halt wouldn’t be as drastic. The passengers would only have minutes to escape at that point but Samuels knew there would be help within minutes also. He had radioed his distress and although the controller at Frederick Municipal Airport had been devastated to hear Samuel’s plan, he quickly assured the Captain that there would be people there to physically assist in deplaning survivors. He would be sending appropriate fire and rescue teams from nearby towns to the site immediately.
At less than five hundred feet now, the plane was relatively level but losing about ten feet per second.
Captain Samuels assumed some of his one hundred and eighty-four passengers would die; it all depended upon how level the plane was, and the airspeed at impact. He knew that this time, he would likely not survive himself though. This wasn’t a Nighthawk with combat-strength outer shell and multiple safety and impact harnesses. It was a passenger liner. No matter how much he tried to brace for impact, he would be shot out of his seat as soon as the nose hit the ground. In fact, the seat itself would likely break loose on impact and send him slamming into the instrument panel at whatever airspeed they were doing. He hadn’t really thought about it, just resigned himself to the conclusion as being inevitable. His main thoughts were that he needed to stay in control of ailerons and other controls for as long as he could in order to keep the plane level when it hit the ground. Only then would his passengers have a chance.
The instruments told him he was now only a hundred feet above the ground. He couldn’t see forward but knew there was nothing but open field for about a mile. The wall had ended several hundred yards back. He turned his head to peer out of the co-pilot window and saw the familiar odd-shaped and massive concrete building pass the window, the structure so out of place in this environment of rolling hills and farmland.
As Captain Samuels turned back to the instruments for the last time, he grinned. He had seen people–a hundred, maybe more–running down the side of the hill, away from the structure, following the path of the jet. Just before returning his focus to his final task, he had caught a glimpse of the large lettering on the side of the building: “Flight 93 Memorial Centre”.