Nothing could match the deep blue of the sky, the pristine white of a few, isolated clouds…or the stark silence as the single-engine aircraft glided inevitably toward the ground, its propeller frozen uselessly in place.
Jeff had already tried twice to restart the engine, without success. In the right-hand seat, Bob sweated as he fumbled through the pages of the aircraft’s operating handbook looking for the emergency checklist labeled “Forced Landings.”
Until five minutes earlier, this trip down south had been a relaxing break from the day-to-day stress of working at the Pentagon. The airplane’s fuel tanks were full. There was no apparent reason for the engine to quit. Jeff suspected sabotage.
“Atlanta Center, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! This is Cessna 5303Charlie declaring an emergency! Our engine has quit and we need vectors to the nearest airport.” Jeff spoke calmly but with a sense of urgency into his radio headset microphone.
After a pause of several seconds, a calm, languid voice drifted onto the radio frequency. “This is Atlanta Center. We have you on radar, Cessna 5303Charlie. You are 12 miles north of Chattanooga. Runway Two-Zero is 7,400 feet in length. Would you like vectors to Chattanooga?”
“Affirmative, Atlanta,” Jeff responded.
“5303Charlie turn right heading two-zero-zero. You are now eight miles from Runway Two-Zero. Say souls on board.”
“Two souls on board, Center.” Jeff turned the small plane to the new heading as the steady descent continued.
“03Charlie do you want Chattanooga to roll the equipment?”
Jeff knew that “the equipment” typically referred to the placement of fire trucks on the runway’s edge, just in case…”Affirmative,” Jeff said tersely into his headset mic.
“There’s the runway!” Bob shouted as he pointed to a strip of pavement five miles in the distance. Two huge, black sport utility vehicles were lining up on either side of the runway.
“Seat belts secure, Bob!” Jeff shouted. “This is it!”
Time seemed to stretch taut and slow down as they neared the runway. Bob held his breath as the airplane scraped across the asphalt pad in front of the threshold and the tires scuffed roughly against the asphalt once, then twice, before rolling out smoothly onto the runway. The black SUVs closed in behind and followed them down the runway.
“No worries, eh?” smiled Jeff as he braked gently to a stop. Bob’s answering grin abruptly dissolved into a look of horror as he saw three men and one woman wearing trim, blue uniforms and black ties sprinting toward the aircraft doors. They were wearing latex gloves, waiving hand-held metal detectors and shouting something about shoes…
“We’ve been set up!” Bob gasped.
Each of the uniformed individuals wore a large gold badge engraved with the words, “Transportation Security Administration” …