‘In Thin Air’
By Gary Engel
New York Idlewild Airport, East Coast, USA
January 17th, 1959
Senator Blessed arrived at the airport. He was running late for his flight. He jumped out of the taxi cab, furiously checking his pockets. He raced towards the flight terminal. A gentleman in a dark grey trench coat tried to grab his attention.
‘Excuse me, excuse me, sir.’
‘Sorry, not now. I’ll be extremely lucky to catch my flight,’ the senator waived away as he hurried by.
‘I must insist you speak with me, senator’ the gentleman told him, taking hold of his arm.
‘What’s this? I will call that officer if you don’t release me immediately.’
The gentleman let go but remained in the senator’s path.
‘It would not be a good idea to board your flight.’
‘What the hell are you trying to pull?’
The gentleman checked around for anyone watching. He could easily disappear into the background. Discreetly, he flashed the senator some security clearance. The senator could only wonder what was going on.
‘As I said… we don’t think it would be a good idea to board flight 936 today. Do you understand?’ he said in a firm tone. There was a steely, unflinching look on his face.
‘Yes, thank you, young man.’
With that, the gentleman walked swiftly away. It left Senator Blessed strangely bemused by the whole episode. Not sure what to do, or what had just happened.
‘Sir, are you boarding this flight?’ he was asked by a smartly presented Pan Am flight attendant.
‘No, sorry. It appears not…’
The attendant looked on rather curiously. On the spot, he thought he’d best say something.
‘Forgotten my passport, you see…’ he smiled patting his pocket. The senator turned and walked away, dazed. He had an uneasy feeling as he walked towards the exit.
‘It doesn’t make sense… why was I not meant to board that flight?’ he wondered.
The last call for the flight had been made. The door hatch was securely locked. Pan Am Flight 936 was slowly moving away from the apron. The plane glinted in the sunlight. Onboard the flight crew were immaculate. Their uniforms the famous blue and white of Pan Am.
‘Good morning, this is Captain Martin speaking. Welcome aboard Pan Am Flight 936 from New York to London. We have brilliant sunshine, there’s not a cloud in the sky; perfect weather for your flight this morning. We’re just getting ready for take-off. If there’s anything you need, our Pan Am crew will be happy to help. Please make sure your seatbelts are securely fastened. Then just sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight.’
Soon, the plane was at the end of the runway.
‘This is Pan Am Flight 936, 9:34am from New York to London, Heathrow. Requesting permission for take-off, over.’
‘This is Ground Control. Pan Am Flight 936, you are ready and clear for take-off. Godspeed, over.’
The pilot surveyed the runway. The sun glistening off the tarmac. He turned to his co-pilot. Their final checks were complete. They took the plane up to full power and lifted off. Pan Am Flight 936 soared majestically skywards. Moments into the flight, the weather turned. The previous cloudless sky had grown dark. The plane was heading towards a storm.
‘Did you notice that storm cloud before take-off?’ asked Pete Waterhouse, the head of Air Traffic.
‘No, sir. The sky was clear. It’s formed all of a sudden,’ his colleague, Benjamin, replied.
‘That’s what I thought. Bloody strange colour for a cloud too.’
The plane was experiencing turbulence. It shook from side to side. It was quite apparent that the plane was in trouble.
‘Ground Control come in. This is Pan Am Flight 936. We are heading into the centre of a strange brown and yellow storm cloud. The winds are fierce, it’s not looking good, over.’
‘Pan Am Flight 936, this is Ground Control. We can see you. Just remain calm, we are sure it will pass. Stay in contact, over.’
Oddly, the airport had its own problems. A peculiar veiled atmosphere had descended.
‘Can you feel that?’ Tom asked.
‘It’s like static electricity. Really strange!’ responded his second-in-command.
‘Sir, look’ he nodded towards the clock. It was stopped at 9:36.
‘Jesus! I really don’t like this.’
Concerned, Pete was ready to request the flight’s return. However, the plane was already in the storm’s vortex.
‘Pan Am Flight 936, this is Ground Control, over…’
‘Flight 936, do you read? this is Ground Control, over…’
They got no response. But kept trying without success. Their appeals became ever more desperate.
‘Ground Control to Pan Am Flight 936 come in! Pan Am Flight 936 come in! Over!’
‘How long has it been now?’
‘Well considering all clocks, watches, and many of the instruments have stopped… around 30 minutes, I’d say, since we lost visual. Though it’s still on the radar.’
‘Sir, we have a crackling message coming through…’
Then a loud, eerie shriek resonated through the speakers of the control room.
‘Bloody hell, that nearly deafened me!’ Benjamin said, throwing his headset on the desk.
‘What the hell was that?’
‘Not sure… but it’s still there on radar.’
The control room was fixated on Flight 936. The screen continued to flash for a few more seconds. In the blink of an eye, that too disappeared. Around the room were shocked faces.
‘Sir, I have a gentleman here. He’s from the CIA.’
‘What’s the CIA doing here?’ Pete thought to himself.
‘Mr Stones, here to assist. It would appear you have a situation. Something we may be able to help with.’
‘What do you believe has happened?’
He didn’t respond. He simply adjusted his tie and turned away. He certainly appeared very non-descript; instantly forgettable from his regimented haircut, spectacles and grey trench coat.
‘Look, Mr Stones, is that your name? We’re all bloody mystified.’
‘Oh, I have no doubt.’
‘Please tell us what you know’ Pete pleaded, ‘if you have any information, enlighten us’
They waited with bated breath. But the strange agent simply smiled. He took out a handkerchief and rubbed his spectacles.
‘Benjamin, bloody forget it. We’re wasting our time with him!’
‘Time… now there’s an interesting concept,’ the agent sneered. ‘Sorry, I think this will be over your head.’
‘You’re an arrogant little prick! Has anyone told you that?’ Pete bellowed.
‘Thank you for your observation.’
‘I’ve got to field a whole load of questions, from families who may have just lost their loved ones. But, what do I tell them?’
‘You’ll come up with something.’
‘Are you joking? A passenger aeroplane can’t just disappear into thin air…’
‘Well, I’ll be right behind you. Only, don’t mention the CIA’s involvement at this stage,’ the agent informed him.
‘Behind me? Making sure I don’t say something I shouldn’t?’ Pete thought.
Within an hour, Pete released his statement. Agent Stones watched just feet away.
‘This morning, just after take-off at approximately 9:45am local time, a transatlantic flight from New York to London lost communication with Idlewild Airport control tower. Air traffic control tried for the best part of 30 minutes to regain a dialogue with the flight. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, and Pan Am Flight 936 disappeared from radar. We are unable to give further information at this time. Thank you.’
New York, East Coast, USA
February 20th, 1959
‘It is now a month since Pan Am Flight 936 disappeared without trace. Investigators are no closer to finding an explanation for what happened that day. Some suggest the plane fell silent as it entered a cloud, though wreckage is yet to be found. Until something does materialise, we are unable to comment on the reasons behind Flight 936’s disappearance.’
‘When Senator Blessed was asked about missing his flight, he simply said he was just fortunate. He had been running late and missed it. Perhaps his guardian angel was looking out for him that day.’
‘In other news, government scientists say they are encouraged by early tests carried out last month. This may lead them to the next stage of testing for a series of new defence weapons. Despite protests to the contrary, they reiterate there remains no risk to the general public and that they always take precautions when it comes to public safety. Scientists have also ruled out the possibility of these tests having any link to numerous blackouts experienced down the North Atlantic coast in recent weeks.’
Bristol Airport, South Coast, UK
April 21st, 2000
The head of Air Traffic Control approached the airport. It was a bright, warm morning. The car window was ajar. She took a sip of coffee. The radio was on.
‘Now we have a Rolling Stones classic: ‘Time Is On My Side’. If you remember, it was featured in the recent movie, ‘Fallen’’
‘Ages since I’ve heard this one,’ she thought.
She turned the radio up. She strummed her fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music. Suddenly, Jagger’s vocals were drowned out by white noise. Frustrated, she switched it off. At the gate, she showed her security card.
The guard scrutinised her, ‘it says Alice Herriot… is that your real name?’
‘That joke never gets old…’ Alice told him sarcastically.
‘Have a good shift, ma’am.’
‘You too, Nick.’
Parked up, Alice checked her bloodshot eyes.
‘Awe, bloody electric shock,’ she cursed.
Her hand tingled as she removed her key from the lock. She filled her lungs with air. There was a crackling charge in the atmosphere. Alice sensed it would be a strange shift.
‘Morning!’ she nodded.
‘Oh, Jesus Christ!’ her colleague Robin exclaimed.
‘It’s okay, Alice will do…’ she smiled.
Robin rolled her eyes and ruffled her paper.
‘Very funny, anyway listen to this… Charles de Gaulle Airport had a ‘mysterious’ landing last week’
‘According to the newspaper, an unscheduled flight landed. With no communication from the pilot or anything’
‘So?’ she shrugged.
‘Well, apparently it never appeared on the radar systems. The plane then flew off again before they boarded… before it disappeared’ she whispered, ‘know what I mean?’
‘Robin, piss off with your ghost stories. It’s too early in the morning. I mean, does this face look impressed? There’s bound to be some explanation for it.’
‘Of course, as Sherlock Holmes said, once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’
An unimpressed Alice just sighed, ‘you’ll never prove that shite to me. Don’t be late for shift!’
‘Aye, I won’t. Miserable git’, Robin muttered.
Alice entered the control tower. The beautiful spring sun flooded through the windows.
‘Hello to everyone on this wonderful Good Friday. Is everyone ready for a new day? Is there anything to report?’ she paused momentarily at the newspapers on his desk. Brown Plans Pensions Hike, Mystery of Sonic Boom Continues, Lost Teen Found Safe, BSE French Change Feed…
‘No, everything is fine,’ Henry groaned.
‘Good to hear!’ she responded clapping her hands together.
‘Well, except for radar systems across the south of England reporting major system errors all morning. Power went off in the entire airport around an hour ago. The bloody radio communications have been terrible since.’
‘Okay, thank you for the optimistic update, Henry. Obviously, the power is back on, so, try the other frequencies.’
‘Well, obviously… oh yes, and there is a man to see you,’ he sneered.
Alice put on an upbeat façade. It was what she’d feared. She had a sense of foreboding about this shift.
‘What next?’ she thought to herself.
‘Mrs Herriot, I presume?’ the gentleman said, putting out his hand.
‘Alice Herriot, Air Traffic Control. And you are?’
‘Apologies, here is my clearance. I’m here on behalf of the American government.’
There was a look of concern among the staff. They were darting looks at one another just as Robin entered the room. She was about to make her presence known. Henry looked across, tight-lipped he shook his head. For once, Robin remained quiet.
‘So, what is the government interested in, Dr Cabal?’ Alice asked.
‘Well, I won’t lie to any of you.’
Air Traffic Control was on the backfoot. Dr Cabal spoke slowly and concisely. He spoke for a few minutes, though it seemed more like hours. Air Traffic Control listened intently. Their mood became worried. While what the Doctor had told them mattered little, his presence remained a mystery.
‘Okay, so any questions?’ he finally asked.
‘Yes, why are you here?’
‘As I said, I’m not at liberty to tell you anything.’
‘Fine, I’ll call security…’
‘Okay, I’m waiting for a plane,’ Dr Cabal smirked.
‘Of course, this is an airport. Doesn’t exactly narrow it down’ Robin replied.
‘Well, let’s just say this one is somewhat delayed,’ he said with a sinister twinkle in his eye.
‘So, doctor, you said delayed… how? You may answer to the U.S government, but I don’t. And, without my superior giving the order to comply… you will be out on your ear Dr Cabal,’ Alice smiled.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Beg away, I’m going to make a call. You haven’t given us any information. So, sit your arse over there!’
Under sufferance, he did what he was told. He waited eagerly, strumming his fingers. He paused briefly to check his watch.
‘Something definitely stinks in here, Robin. I don’t like it,’ Henry told her.
‘I’m not that keen either, but it’s all the café had left. Know what I mean?’
‘I didn’t mean your bloody pickled sandwich!’ he sighed.
‘Why do I suddenly feel I’m in the middle of a bloody episode of X-Files?’
‘Wait around a minute, we probably are. Or, worse still, in the middle of something beyond our control. When people like this show up, be afraid! Know what…’
‘Robin!’ he snapped. ‘We’re all stressed. We don’t need you repeating yourself like a broken bleeding record. So, if you say ‘know what I mean’ one more time, I’ll tell you what you can do with your pickled sandwich.’
Robin’s eyes widened and swallowed her sandwich.
‘Now, know what I mean Robin, old pal?’ he smirked.
‘Alright, keep your boxers on,’ she said in a sheepish tone. She looked curiously towards the doctor. He had his head down. His hands were cupped. Slowly, he looked above his spectacles. There was a sinister look in his eye. He peered towards the main window. The strange man kept checking his watch, rubbing his hands and smirking.
‘Hey, Doctor Who, would you like a cup of tea?’ Robin enquired. ‘Henry will make it…’
‘My name is Doctor Cabal, actually.’
‘It was a joke. Smarmy, humourless little prick…’ Robin muttered.
‘You English are so quaint; you think tea is the answer to everything.’
‘I’m Scottish, actually.’
Alice was on the phone, placed on hold. The weather began to change. Out of the cloudless sky appeared a thick mist. Alice watched on as the mist formed an angry storm cloud. There was a sudden spark of electrical excitement. The unusual atmosphere circled the airfield. Alice hovered her hand above the control panel.
‘What is that sensation?’
‘I’m not sure. It’s a kind of magnetic force.’
‘Ah, Jesus!’ Alice’s hands were shaking, ‘another bloody shock… hey, look!’
The metal instruments crackled with blue sparks. Then, the telephone went dead. They all stepped back from the instruments. At the same point, Dr Cabal got to his feet.
‘Now I understand’ Alice thought. ‘Sorry to bother you doctor, but what time is it?’
The Doctor checked his watch, then shook his wrist.
‘Don’t tell me, it’s stopped? Let me guess, is it 30 years slow?’
’To be exact, 31 years, three months and four days.’
Alice ignored all the baffled looks. She walked towards the main window. Then stared at the cloud.
She looked back and nodded skyward, ‘keep watching, everyone!’ she pointed.
Suddenly, the storm cloud imploded. From its centre shone a bright white light. It wasn’t sunlight, but something far brighter. In the blink of an eye an aeroplane appeared.
‘Henry, close your mouth. You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ Robin joked.
Alice pondered a second. She stroked her chin.
‘It’s no ghost. It’s Pan Am Flight 936’ Dr Cabal explained.
‘Okay. So, what now, doctor?’
‘You do your job, land that plane. Then we are taking command of this situation. No one is to approach the aircraft but my men.’
‘Excuse me, I don’t think so. My airport, my decision.’
‘I must contradict you there. That plane is the property of the U.S government.’
‘Why, who do you have on board, bloody Glenn Miller?’
‘Very bad taste, Mrs Herriot. Very bad taste. Especially considering we know what happened there.’
Robin furrowed her brow curiously towards Alice.
‘What is he talking about?’ she thought.
‘That isn’t a modern aircraft, is it?’ a stunned Henry asked. ‘So, that’s the delayed plane you’ve been waiting for? For fuck’s sake Doctor, why can’t you just buy a ticket for a flight like a normal person?’
Robin turned to the PC beside her. She looked up Flight 936 on a search. Then motioned for Alice to join her.
‘Take a look…’
Fate of mysterious Pan Am Flight 936 may never be solved. They read the article in disbelief.
‘It says it was never seen again’
‘No, not until today. So how the hell did Dr Spock over there know it was going to appear right here, right now?’ Henry whispered.
They looked to the control window. The laboured flight was getting closer.
‘How can that be the same flight? What’s going on here?’ Alice thought, as she shuddered.
The mystery plane appeared under intelligent control. It was joined by an American fighter jet. Suddenly, the transmitter in air traffic screeched. A very faint, trilled voice crackled through the white noise. Initially, air traffic couldn’t make it out. Then a voice arrived loud and clear.
‘Come in Ground Control. This is Pan Am Flight 936 from New York, over.’
‘What the hell do we do?’
‘You guide it in. Remember not to baffle and use modern call signs. Although, there may be no further response from the pilot; go through the usual motions,’ Dr Cabal instructed. Alice nodded across at Robin.
‘Flight 936, this is Ground Control, we have you on radar, over.’
They could hear a conversation between pilots. The members of Air Traffic felt strange. They were eavesdropping on the past, in the present. The pilots couldn’t make out their location.
‘Where are we?’
The pilot could have been thinking aloud. The panic in his voice was apparent.
‘Flight 936, you are about to land in Bristol, the United Kingdom, over.’
Robin whispered to Alice, ‘do I tell them what year it is?’
‘No, you bloody idiot! Nobody is to worry the pilot. Just land them safely,’ the Doctor demanded.
‘You will not speak to my staff like that again, Doctor. And we’ll assist for the safety of people on the plane,’ an infuriated Alice informed him.
There were tense minutes for the plane. Despite radio silence, Air Traffic Control kept the flight path clear for a perfect landing. Then Flight 936 taxied its way towards the airport apron.
‘Well done people!’
‘I’ve never been so nervous about a landing’ Robin sighed.
Finally, they could see the pilots inside the cockpit. They would see their heads anxiously dart around. Clearly, they were disorientated by their surroundings. They were oblivious to being watched. In the control tower, there was an eerie silence.
‘By the way, what about those ghost stories now?’
‘It’s a timeslip Robin’ Alice scowled.
‘Same thing. What do you think apparitions are?’ she smiled.
‘Really? Go and put your hand through the fuselage, smart arse!’
‘Thirty-one years? It still appeared out of…’
‘You were about to say thin air. And you’d be right. Leave the investigation to us now,’ Dr Cabal responded.
He left a note for Alice. There was no threat or warning. He didn’t feel he needed to. They were bound by the Official Secrets Act.
‘What is going to happen to the passengers and crew?’ Robin shouted.
‘As you can see, we are rounding them up. Well, who after all this time is going to miss them now?’
‘Alice, they can’t do that!’ Henry pleaded.
But Alice couldn’t answer. She was shaking from what she’d just seen.
‘Oh, wake up Henry! Governments lie, mislead and misinform. Because if time travel is real, society will start to question everything. If that happens, Governments will lose control over the masses. So, agencies like the CIA help conceal any evidence. Hard to fathom I know. But how hard is it to make ghosts out of people already presumed dead anyway?’ Robin the resident conspiracy theorist asked.
Alice waited until she could see Dr Cabal outside.
‘Right,’ she picked up the telephone again. ‘Bloody hell, the line is still dead. Don’t worry, they’ll not get away with anything. All we need is evidence.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What do you see outside, Robin?’
‘A bloody big plane right from the 1950s. The bastards can’t make that disappear, end of. I’m going to try the e-mail.’
The control tower watched the unfolding events. Soon, the last of the passengers and crew were loaded into vans.
‘Oh crap, Alice, what are they doing?’
‘I’m a little busy right now.’
‘Yeah, so are they.’
The agents had boarded the plane. It was being taxied down the runway.
‘What did that note say?’ Robin asked.
Officially, the plane went up in flames following a break in the fuel line.
I trust you will handle the situation.
The agents manoeuvred Flight 936 into position. It was towards the end of the runway.
‘Shit, there goes our evidence!’ a desperate Alice exclaimed, as flames took hold.
Gary is our competition winner for ‘Conspiracy at Equinox’ .
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