6:30 P. M. – 8:30 P. M. (CST)
AT HALF-PAST SIX on a Friday evening in January, Lincoln International Airport, Illinois, was functioning, though with difficulty.
The airport was reeling – – as was the entire Midwestern United States – – from the meanest, roughest winter storm in half a dozen years. The storm had lasted three days. Now, like pustules on a battered, weakened body, trouble spots were erupting steadily.
A United Air Lines food truck, loaded with two hundred dinners, was lost and presumably snowbound somewhere on the airport perimeter. A search for the truck – – in driving snow and darkness – – had so far failed to locate either the missing vehicle or its driver.
United’s Flight 111 – – a non-stop DC-8 for Los Angeles, which the food truck was to service – – was already several hours behind schedule. The food snafu would make it later still. Similar delays, for varying reasons, were affecting at least a hundred flights of twenty other airlines using Lincoln International.
Out on the airfield, runway three zero was out of use, blocked by an A
Air Traffic Control, hampered by the loss of runway three zero, had instituted flow control procedures, limiting the volume of incoming traffic from adjoining air route centers at Minneapolis, Cleveland, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Denver. Despite this, twenty incoming flights were stacked up overhead, and orbiting, some nearing low fuel limits. On the ground, twice that number were readying for takeoff. But until the backlog of flights in the air could be reduced, ATC had ordered further delays of outbound traffic. Meanwhile, terminal gates, taxiways, and ground holding areas were increasingly crammed with waiting aircraft, many with engines running.
Air freight warehouses – – of all airlines – – were stacked to their palletized
limits with shipments, their usual high speed transit impeded by the storm. Freight supervisors were nervously watching perishables – – hothouse flowers from Wyoming for New England; a ton of Pennsylvania cheese for Anchorage, Alaska; frozen peas for Iceland; live lobsters – – trans-shipped from the east for a polar route flight – – destination Europe. The lobsters were for tomorrow’s menus in Edinburgh and Paris where they would be billed as “fresh local seafood,” and American tourists would order them unknowingly. Storm or not, contracts decreed that air freight perishables must arrive at destination fresh, and swiftly.
Causing special anxiety in American Airlines Freight was a shipment of several thousand turkey poults, hatched in incubators only hours earlier. The precise hatching-shipping schedule – – like a complex order of battle – – was set up weeks ago, before the turkey eggs were laid. It called for delivery of the live birds on the West Coast within forty-eight hours of birth, the limit of the tiny creatures’ existence without their first food or water. Normally, the arrangement provided a near-hundred percent survival. Significant also – – if the poults were fed en route, they would stink, and so would the airplane conveying them, for days afterward. Already the poults’ schedule was out of joint by several hours. But an airplane had been diverted from passenger to freight service, and tonight the fledgling turkeys would have priority over everything else traveling, human VIPs included.
In the main passenger terminal, chaos predominated. Terminal waiting areas were jammed with thousands of passengers from delayed or canceled flights.