He glanced at Randy and Bill, the flight techs who controlled the jet.
"Rafe, what's the holding fix again?" Randy asked on the interphone.
"Fluffy intersection, about thirty miles south," Rafe answered, mentally picturing the specially created MOA-Military Operations Area.
"Isn't that awful close to Uncle Fidel's turf?"
"We know nothing," Rafe said, smiling. "We have no reason to confirm or deny our intention to irritate Havana."
"Yeah, right," Randy replied. "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more."
The tower controller cleared the F-106 team for departure. Rafe nodded to his team and watched Bill push the throttle to full power in preparation for brake release.
Aboard SeaAir 122, in flight, 230 miles south of Tampa 11:43 A.M. local/1701 Zulu
The staccato pulse of lightning from the angry clouds to the north flickered through the left-hand windows of the MD-11, riveting Karen's attention and stiffening her back. Jim could feel her left hand tighten on the armrest as she turned to look.
"We're a safe distance to the south," he reassured her, momentarily puzzled by an incongruous flash of lightning from the right side of the cabin. The MD-11 suddenly rolled sharply to the left. The bank reversed itself as quickly, and the nose came up.
Obviously he punched off the autopilot and the bird was out of trim, he thought. Jim glanced at Karen, feeling uneasy.
"Must be a buildup just ahead, Honey," he said, forcing a smile. "The flight crew was probably debating which way to go around it and changed their minds. We'd all like to be smoother on the controls."
The bank angle was past thirty degrees now, which was the normal maximum for a jetliner.
But why is it increasing?
The nose pitched up as if they were climbing, but more power would be needed to climb, and the whine of the engines hadn't increased. Another sudden roll, this time to the left, and the nose was coming down.
Jim felt himself get lighter as the flight controls were pushed forward up in the cockpit. He felt a cold chill up his spine as he tried to recall what normal maneuvers would cause such gyrations.
There were none. It wasn't normal.
Jim glanced toward the right wing, puzzled by the complete absence of clouds in that direction. There had been lightning out there.
"Jim?" Karen began, her voice tight. She sat forward in her seat, aware of the increasing slipstream as the nose continued to drop and the airspeed built.
There were voices around them now, acknowledging the shared concern, a communal rumble accompanied by alarmed glances. The MD-11 steepened its left bank, the nose dropping more, the speed rising, the huge jetliner turning sharply toward the thunderstorm to the north.
"Jim, what's he doing up there?" Karen asked, her face ashen, her hand now squeezing the blood out of his. His answer stalled in the back of his mind as he fumbled for his seat belt. "Stay here. I'm going to the cockpit."
She said nothing, letting his hand slide reluctantly from hers as he rose from the seat and pulled away, glancing back for a second, noting how beautiful she was.
The MD-11's roll had reversed back to the right. The nose was coming back up slightly, but the control movements had become jerky and excessive, as if the pilots were fighting the aircraft. Jim moved forward quickly, his eyes on the cockpit door some eighty feet away, aware that his intervention in another airline's affairs would be unwelcome. He could see two flight attendants ahead of him, their eyes betraying concern, their professional smiles trying to mask it.
The growing asymmetrical G-force was pulling him off balance, pushing him into the row of seats to the right. Jim fought to stand upright, but the cabin was heeling over like a yacht about to capsize in a gale, the MD-11's right turn obviously uncoordinated, as someone's foot pushed the left rudder pedal.
Reprinted from Blackout by John J. Nance by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by John J. Nance. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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