Chapter 15
One privilege I have enjoyed over the years is working with bright, insightful people. Kevin is all of that. And a bit mystical. I told him about my encounter with Eastern Flight 375. He listened intently. "God is an iron," he said.
The story I told Kevin dates back to October 4, 1960 while I was in my final weeks as a consultant to the FAA at the National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center (NAFEC) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I spent a lot of time travelling around giving papers at technical conferences, mostly on computer-driven display systems.  To illustrate the principles, I used our project at NAFEC, a huge man-machine simulator, which included traffic control and aircraft workstations.
One occasion during that period sets the stage for this chapter and gives meaning to Kevin's riddle. 

At MIT, I addressed a professional/technical group of the Institute of Radio Engineers (I.R.E.), which since merged with the AIEE to form the IEEE (are we on the same page here?). 

The seminar was appropriately titled "Track-While-Scan." Naturally, military applications dominated the technical sessions. It was there that I first went public with the altitude-reporting transponder.

"Reliance on human perfection makes 'crowded skies' a threat to those who fly in them and live under them," I said in my opening statement. "Airborne telemetry in cooperation with ground-based computer systems can eliminate mid-air collisions." 

The idea caught on quickly in the technical community. Still, another five years would precede even a primitive version of the transponder in the sky. Today, more than four decades later, every airplane in the sky has a transponder.  Nevertheless, despite an explosion of technological progress, the instrument has changed little from the one described that day at MIT.

I threw my overnight bag across the back seat of the taxicab that afternoon. "Logan Airport, please," I told the cabbie. "Eastern terminal."

The tunnel was jammed. I pulled out my ticket to check the time: Eastern flight 375 to Charlotte with a stop in Philadelphia, which was my destination, would be departing in 45 minutes. Cutting it close. All at once, I remembered Alice.

Damn! I'll bet she forgot.

Airline reservations were not then computerized. Each passenger was required to call 24 hours before flight time to 're-confirm' his or her reservation. More than a nuisance in the days before direct distance dialing -- and if you had Alice for a secretary. 

Maybe 40, maybe more, Alice muddled through the clerical work for all seven members of our research team at NAFEC. If being conscientious could replace competence, Alice would have won secretarial awards. She tried earnestly to please us, but -- well, there was this one habit she had: Alice would occasionally leave a word out of typed reports. 

For mine it was the word 'not.' I explained to Alice, probably unkindly, that such editing can modify the meaning of a sentence. "It is fair to say," I said, "that for any sentence in which it appears, 'not' is the most important word!"

She would excuse herself and later return to her typewriter, dabbing at her eyes. To make amends to me, Alice once repeated a whole paragraph that appeared at the bottom of one page onto the top of the next. I decided to leave it that way. Nobody noticed.

Sure enough. Arriving at the gate, puffing hard, I learned that I no longer held a reservation for Eastern 375, the last flight of the day. Alice had let me down. I was given number 8 on the waiting list. Tears or not, Alice will hear about this.

Number 9 was a moustachioed man with Brylcreemed hair, wearing a checkered, three-piece suit. He sat down beside me on a bench. The ticket agent announced a delay in departure, pronouncing it "de-paah-tiah."

The man sighed. "Ya c'n sure tell we're in Boston, cain't ya."

"And I can tell, your destination is Charlotte," said I.

Through the early sixties, as many as four out of five Americans had never flown. The passengers you met in those days were invariably interesting, often cheerful conversationalists. It was not uncommon to begin lasting business or personal relationships aboard airliners or in waiting rooms.

The man saluted me with a grin and held out a package of Salems. "Where you hail from?"

"California," I replied, declining the offer. "We don't have accents in California." I went on to say that living in the East for the past year had sharpened my ear for local dialects. "All I need anymore is one word."

The clerk called out the number 3. Someone in the waiting room cheered, grabbed up a briefcase, and dashed for the door. Number 9 looked at me and shrugged.

"Whut word?"

" 'Water'," I said solemnly. "Here in Boston, it is pronounced in the back of the throat, 'waah-tah'. In Philadelphia, it's up forward, 'woo-ter'."

It was not the first time I had used the material. His rejoinder, though, was extemporaneous.

"In Charlotte," said Number 9, "we say, 'Hey, boy!' " He exploded into a laugh that ended in a coughing fit.

Readers are invited to withold judgment of the man's remark, which is reported here as a reminder of the times and as an element of this chapter made unforgettable by subsequent events.

Over the loudspeaker came another announcement and the number 4. The plane was about to leave. "At this rate," I said, "they will never get to number 5 -- let alone 8." I stood up.

"Givin' up?"

With a gesture of exasperation to the man bound for Charlotte, I turned and strolled away toward the cab stand.

After checking back in at the Statler Hilton, I called my friend, Larry Stark, an MD with a fascination for computers. He had recently moved his research -- a physiometric study of the human "pupil-size servo" -- from Yale to MIT. After dinner in the hotel restaurant, Larry took me on a tour of his lab. We stayed up all hours in his cramped office, talking about our two projects.

Mine was at a crucial stage. The transponder could mean the end of mid-air collisions for ever. "The whole air traffic control system is running on luck," I told Larry.  "Luck and the dedication of people with tormented minds."

"You're a goddam idealist," said Dr. Stark. "Quit carrying around all the world's problems."

I confided to Larry that I had received a couple of sensational offers. One was from American Airlines to take technical responsibility for Saber, their massive and ultimately ubiquitous reservation system. Among my interviewers in American's headquarters at 99 Park Avenue had been C.R. Smith himself. Hah! I would have a hand in putting an end to this "re-confirm" shit. The other offer was from a small company in California. There was a sizable stock option involved.

"My work in air traffic control is not done, Larry. There's the transponder, there's track-while-scan, and -- well, I just want to make a contribution."

"That's your ego talking, my friend." Larry stirred coffee in a waxed-paper cup; styrofoam was a decade away. "Look, if transponders are all that good, they will happen."

"Yeah, but when?"

"Probably a dozen years," he said. "Remember you are dealing with the Federal Government." Larry Stark leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. "You want to do good? First you must do well."

"Somehow," I said with exaggerated sadness, "one might expect less cynicism from the halls of academe."  Dr. Stark, as it turned out, was off by a factor of two.

Next morning, the cabbie mentioned the crash. I had not yet seen a paper.

"Collision?" I asked. He didn't know.

The feeling in the terminal building was haunting. The same, I imagined, as the atmosphere of that afternoon in Chicago and Kansas City on June 30, 1956, the day of the Grand Canyon collision.  A bleakness was to be felt as much as seen in the faces of passengers, ticket agents, baggage handlers. No squeals of recognition, no jokes of greeting. Only muted pleasantries.

Now, four years later at Logan Airport, the headline in the Boston Globe shouted in inch-high type, "Electra Crashes on Take-Off."  Sixty-two people died.  A tabloid on the adjacent newsstand had a three-column picture. It was gruesome.

Two passengers, still strapped to their seats, sat upright in the marshy waters of Logan Bay. Aircraft wreckage all around. Arms limp at their sides, they could have been asleep. One was a black man wearing a sweater, with his shoes torn off. The other was a moustachioed man in a checkered, three-piece suit.

The official investigation disclosed that it was a collision: The Lockheed L-88A had ingested starlings in three of its four turboprop engines. Transponders would not have helped.  I took the job with stock-options in California.

Oh, and I never mentioned the incident to Alice.

“If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton and a person who commits a felony is a felon," Kevin explained,"then God is an iron.” 

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Irony...and something else.
Tue, 28 Jan 2003 05:39:31

Your story more than caught my eye. 

I was also destined for that same flight and at the last minute begged my grandmother to let me stay in Boston for a few more days before returning to Philadelphia. As a 10-year-old, even I understood the magnitude of electing not to take that flight. 

We are strangers but share something very very large. 
Jim Bailey

Mon, 8 Sep 2003 11:47:36 -0400

Dear Sir, 

I have been researching the crash of October 4, 1960, because NBC mentioned it in a story this week and it caught my eye.  My dad told me about this crash for a very special reason: He  was supposed to be on it!  He worked for Whitin Machine Works in Atlanta.  Their home office was in  Massachusetts.  My dad was paged in the airport by his office telling him not to get on the  plane because the office in Charlotte was not ready for him.  Several of his coworkers did get on the plane.  The reason for my dad telling me this story is that I was born in October of 1961!

Obviously, I wouldn't be here if he had gotten on that plane. 

I loved your comments about the accents, because my dad was from Maine, my mom from Georgia, and I grew up in Charlotte.

Thanks for your insight!

Anne Henderson Lafferty

Lawrence Stark, MD is today (2002) Professor of Physiological Optics,
University of California, Berkeley. {Return}