12. In Plain Air (IV)

I circled the wreckage once in pursuit of the figures but only met disheartening barricades of plane, cargo and fire. People shrank through the smoke when I tried to approach them despite seeming desperate to find other passengers and safety. At other times I fancied I could see a sole survivor look straight at me, holding my gaze, before turning and running back into the flames. With my circuit complete I again stood looking at the hill where I had first watched this catastrophe unfold.

I was frustrated with my lack of success and unsettled being near the plane at all. There was a quality in the sounds it made, a bleating of heated metal and aching joints, that paired with its dangerous position on the hill made it impossible for me to believe that it was not malevolent.

I pulled out my phone with the objective of calling for help. No signal, then one flickering bar as I left the valley. Emergency calls only. I dialled three nines and heard it ring, but an automated operator answered before I had a chance to speak:

We understand from your location that you wish to report the plane crash. Don’t worry, we are aware of the problem, and special teams have been dispatched to assist you shortly. Thank you for your concern.

I had to talk to another human being, one close to me, and strode to higher ground in an effort to gain more phone signal. As the air cleared again I heard a familiar whispered cry to my left.

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11. In Plain Air (III)

It came to a halt close enough that I could see a door pop off and a yellow tongue unroll towards the ground. The plane was mostly intact. Several massive tears were present across its nose and a handful of small fires enveloped the wreckage in an ochre shroud. I jogged as figures leapt from the emergency exit and assembled nearby, trembling with their arms crossed. None came from the back door and nowhere near enough were gathered to account for all the passengers.

As the survivors began to look my way I noticed just how precariously the plane was positioned. Its tail section was almost completely shredded, and what remained balanced on the crest of a hill. The mid section was suspended above ground and looked ready to spill passengers and debris like a bloated artery. The fuselage already showed a noticeable buckle and was capped with white stress marks that spread like make-up on a clown’s grin.

The air was thick this close, and the chaos leagues from the tranquillity of my earlier vantage point on the hill. Pieces of jet, cargo and passenger were scattered across the landscape, obfuscated by clouds of black smoke and the constant orange hum of fire.

I called to survivors but they would only shuffle amongst the wreckage, hidden by the fumes, never close enough that I could see their faces.

10. In Plain Air (II)

The plane that hit the ground before me followed this pattern. It approached through the cloudless sky as gracefully as a bumblebee, until its left wing clipped the hillside and broke the spell.

I was out walking through the countryside when it happened. The air was an azure blue bleached with bright, hot light from the sun directly overhead. At first I could only see a glint bobbing delicately above the horizon. It was framed by tapered streaks of glare in such a way that the mystery object appeared like a dancing Star of Bethlehem. In time the glare receded and from it came a cockpit, fuselage and wings that listed from side to side as if swimming a gentle front crawl.

I couldn’t see any smoke or visual signs of a problem aside from this exaggerated roll, but the plane was clearly on the descent. It was also almost completely silent. I considered it could be engine failure, or the pilot shutting them off in preparation for an emergency landing, but these were assumptions. All I knew was that this aircraft was quickly falling to earth.

Now I could see its shape more clearly: a large jet, the type used for international flight. It pulled away from a copse of trees a few miles ahead of where I stood and changed it’s path so I could once again see it straight on. Now I could see the the British Airways insignia on its flank, and for the first time fear flushed my thoughts.

But I was slow to react. As the urgency of my condition dawned the behemoth’s wing clipped a hillside, barely five kilometres away, and what grace it had managed to retain fled instantly. In another heartbeat the sound of torn metal resonated through the landscape as the plane hit the ground. Joints and materials, rubber and earth, screamed in different pitches as they were stretched, thumped and cut past their limits.

It came to a halt close enough that I could see a door pop off and a yellow tongue unroll towards the ground.