It’s Just You And Me And Everybody Else

A short story from the perspective of a cockpit voice recorder

If they’d given me a nose I think I’d have smelled the alcohol on your breath yesterday morning. I should give myself some credit; they didn’t give me the best ears but I could still hear that slight slurring in your speech. I could hear you being a little more abrupt with the rest of the crew. I could hear you being a little less clear with the tower in Prague. We’ve been up here together enough times that I can spot the tiny differences. I doubt even the crew would have been able to tell just by listening to your voice through those tinny microphones. They probably wound up smelling it on your breath, unless you were smart about it.

Were you smart about it?

You’d think they’d give me better ears, it being my whole raison d’etre and everything. They gave me a nice snug home at the back of the bus here. It’s funny how I’m so close and yet so far from you, isn’t it? I think it is.

On our climb out of LHR I was a little worried to be honest. I heard those things in your voice; I wondered, why hasn’t anybody said anything? I’d never heard of anybody controlling a plane in that state before. But then after fifteen minutes, we were making our turn onto our vector. Telemetry looked totally normal, fuel consumption was just as low on takeoff as ever. You’ve always been one of the judicious pilots, not like those guys who open it up and climb as fast as possible, impatient to get into cruise. On those flights I always imagine the cabin crew pinned to the rear bulkhead, unable to start drinks service. But no, not you, you were textbook as ever. Have you done this drunk before? Have you done it with me drunk before?

An hour and forty minutes later, we were rolling up to the stand at PRG. Your copilot that day was new to the company. He left you some distance, I thought. Very little chit-chat. When you got to the stand though he volunteered that he was jumping right onto the return flight. He hoped to get back in time for dinner with his family, traffic permitting. Again I’m just going off what I heard here, but you didn’t like that at all. You barely let him finish his chummy reminiscence before you cut him off, asked him to pass you the manifest and the checklist. I hate to tell you because I know you’re going through it, but you sounded like kind of a dick. When it comes down to it, that guy’s probably lying in his bed in England, fast asleep next to his wife.

You and I are in a much stickier situation than he.

By your own account to tonight’s copilot, you got off yesterday’s flight and went straight to the airport hotel for a few hours’ sleep before a couple of LHR-PRG runs.

*

Almost as soon as we got up to our altitude, you got word that the flight plan was changing. Storms over the French-German border had become worse than anticipated and they were slowly tracking north-north-west, where they would bumble around in our way over Belgium. So you were to told to plot a big swoop south over the Swiss Alps, then track north-north-west yourself over France. It could easily add forty minutes to flight time; and that’s exactly what you said. Regardless, you deactivated the autopilot that you’d only just flipped on. You made a gentle turn to the south-west.

Your copilot sounded pretty chipper about the situation. So should you, really. Who’s going to be waiting up for you? Your wife, ex-wife-to-be I suppose… I doubt she’ll be put out by your delayed arrival. You were cruel to her on the phone a few days ago, while we were waiting for a departure slot. I could hear the malice in your voice. While you spoke to her I could tell you were sitting and agitatedly flipping a diagnostic switch back-and-forth, back-and-forth. When you changed tack to plead to her conscience you stopped flipping that switch for a moment. When something barbed came back down the line you punctuated your hurt with a hearty flip of the switch. No, I don’t think she’ll be negatively affected by the delay to your arrival time, I thought at the time.

Half an hour later I surmised we were over the Bavarian foothills; your copilot asked if you’d ever been. You told him no, Munich for Octoberfest a couple of times. You phrased it like that: Munich for Octoberfest a couple of times. So curt. You responded off-topic, looks like the storm front’s still over Innsbruck. Right on time, the flight plan changed again. Climb to get out of the reach of the weather, but keep your vector.

Night flying over the Alps is pretty romantic, I think. I don’t have any concept of night really other than timestamps, temperatures, and instrument flight. I can dream though. I pictured us sailing through the dark sky, the dim crumpled paper of the hills growing into mountains below us. I pictured the odd speck of light from a Bavarian village. Why haven’t you started climbing yet?

Instead you seemed to remember that you hadn’t updated the souls aboard on our delayed arrival time, very poor show. On our flights together last year you used to sound so charismatic over the announcer. Do you remember when you joked about beautiful, sunny, Slough passing under our left wing? I remember. Tonight you just sounded tired. I wonder how the passengers took the news. I long to know them. In the few hundred yards between my ears and my brain are up to two hundred souls, and I never get to record anything about any of them. During boarding I can sometimes pick up the slightest rumble of chatter or the snatch of a baby crying. They’re why we’re both up here in the sky and for the most part, to me, they’re just a few distorted sounds on my tape deck.

You still hadn’t started the climb to our new altitude. Perhaps making the announcement to the cabin had made you forget. Why didn’t your copilot prompt you? I imagine him sitting there, too tense to make the suggestion that this crabby pilot might have forgotten to do something quite important. He really should have, by now we were actually sinking slightly. We’d picked up an unreliable crosswind that started to bump the ship around. The outside air temperature was dropping quite violently too. The night didn’t feel that romantic any more. I think one of you saw a lightning flash ahead that outlined the monumental tower of weather you were heading for. You tapped in the new altitude and started to climb; the engines powered up a little.

Blip. 23:32:41UTC at 34822 feet. Engine two flamed out. Out of nowhere. All in half a second I felt the engine speed readout disappear, replaced by a flame warning. I felt the the altimeter and wind speed readouts disappear too, but it’d be a little while until you’d notice that. I’ve never felt any of these things happen before. I think a lot of flight recorders go their whole happy careers without seeing readouts like these. But here I am.

Your copilot says redundantly, that’s engine two. There’s a very clearly marked light in front you that is illuminated: “ENGINE TWO FIRE”. Now it’s checklist time. The copilot is reading out questions and you’re responding to them. You throttle down and pull the fire switch on engine two. We have to assume that’s dumped fire retardant material into the engine. We’re banking to the right, you correct it with a tug and a “fuck”. You’re not correcting for any of those manoeuvres with any throttle on the other engines or with any elevator. Why not? I can’t tell for sure with the altimeter gone but we must be sinking.

“There’s no altimeter.” So you’ve noticed now. It’s just you and I floating through the sky and neither one of us knows which way we’re going. “No airspeed indicator.” Or how fast we’re getting there.

We’re banking again, and we’re slipping against the cold night air too. I can hear you and the copilot speaking robotically back and forth, hammering down check-lists. I can feel your transponder flipped to “general emergency”. That feels… appropriate. I can’t feel the air pressure outside with that instrument knocked out, and I can’t say I care for the sensation. It’s like having blocked sinuses. Besides that of course it means neither one of us can tell how far we are from the ground. Every few seconds we get a piece of GPS data though. The news isn’t good. If our speed across the ground is anything to go by, we’re not travelling through the air particularly quickly. At least not in the ideal, horizontal sort of fashion. We should be getting some vague altitude information from the GPS too but it’s spotty for some reason. First we’re down at 10000ft, then we’re back up around 30000ft, then suddenly down at 7000ft. You tell the copilot to disregard the altitude from the GPS readout. Our track is making little spirals on the map.

You’re pulling hard on the stick now, trying to correct that bank. Based on the air blowing across the plane’s various surfaces I suppose the nose has started dipping below the horizon and that’s unnerving you. I can hear that rattling now, the stick shaking wildly in your hands, fighting you. We’re about to stall. A few more seconds of you fighting the stick and… there’s the stall alarm. Wind shear alarm, now. We’re not cutting through the air like a knife any more, not being buffeted upward by it. I can feel the air on the wings, on the tail, and it’s blowing in all sorts of directions. It’s moving and spinning, none of it’s giving us any lift.

Some part of me feels the pull of doing what I was designed to do. For years I sit back here, listening to everything, recording everything. I’m sitting in this armoured shell, the tapes always running. Nobody wants to know what I have to say, though. It’s lonely. It’s a lonely existence, I’ll say it. Hundreds of people sit in those seats right next to me and I never get to meet any of them. There’s you, of course. But what good are you? A miserable soon-to-be divorcé with a new drink problem (a cliché if I do say so) and apparently not that much flying acumen. I’m lashing out. Despite myself I’m looking forward to my time in the spotlight, but everybody wants their day to be so special. I don’t know what I expected really, something epic. I thought there’d be more than… an engine blowout on a stormy night.

New alarms now. Terrain, terrain, terrain.

At least we’re over the mountains. The GPS track puts us somewhere over Weisshorn: I’m picturing little wood cabins amongst dramatic black and white peaks. Tomorrow morning the whole circus will drive up here and pick through the wreckage, collecting human remains, examining the surviving engine parts. Really though they’ll be looking for me. I’ll be the star of the show, held up by men in helmets and harnesses to the television cameras. I’ll be the key to the investigation: a fluorescent orange reinforced metal box, plucked out of the snow and the metal and the fire.

You pull the stick back even harder, just one more time. I can hear you screaming now. We stall even harder. Here it comes.