You Are Flying Me Nuts

The Doctor came in early this morning. He appeared quite sober and even cheerful. He checked, probed and tested those portions of my anatomy that had been seriously damaged.

“It will take another 4 months of traction and about 8 of rehabilitation. You’ll be able to move your neck again. Lucky we were able to remove the metal and plastic parts and even the chips we found imbedded all over your head, neck and shoulders.”

So that was it. It was going to take me a year to get my health back, with maybe one or two fragments of some electronic gismo still in my body. 12 months cancelled just like that. Who would have thought…?

I boarded the Global Air flight going from LAX to West Palm Beach on a lovely and typically mild California day. I was looking forward to a new job and a new life in Florida. My computer experience had been thoroughly evaluated and was satisfactory enough to land me the job of Computer Services Manager at the Florida Fruits and Nuts Corporation.

I carried my laptop computer with me in a business case made of imitation Vuiton fabric. The other bags were checked to WPB. As I settled in a wide and comfortable Business Class seat without anyone in the adjoining seat, I became aware of two things. One I had packed away Michener’s latest soporiferous book which was supposed to render me unconscious for a couple of hours during the flight, and had nothing to read. And two, the masses of traveling humanity in the back of the plane who had been carefully compressed into a meager number of cubic feet, and who observed me with a mixture of disgust, envy and looks that translated as “hope you get diarrhea in your wide seat”.

After the usual delays and, what is worse, the litany of announcements made in perverse grammar by purses and stews, we finally took to the air and headed east.

One hour later I decided to write a few notes on the laptop and proceeded to get it out of its glamorous case and lap topped it (placed it in my lap).

As I entered into the familiar sequences, I noticed some strange reactions from the small screen, amid some unknown fluttering and strange number combinations.

“It musi t be some form of magnetic field in the plane”

First thought that came to my mind. However, this explanation reeked of mental expediency; a worn cliché like that did not erase the concern of a privileged mind like mine. So I spent the next hour reviewing possible causes for the alteration of my normally placid screen. Battery checks. Power switch; peripheral ports (see if anything is stuck in there), floppy and CD slots OK, system id’s fine, etc. etc. Then, I went into the environmental check. Air conditioning, light circuits, maybe the sound system, cabling overhead, etc.
I even asked the attendant if she had ever known of PC computers misbehaving in flight.

“Nope. Only case remotely similar involved a man and his pacemaker. But the cause was the other stew on the flight. You see, her frontal property came into full view every time she leaned to set down anything on the passenger trays. The pacemaker sort of flipped … and we had to oxygenate the old gent.”

So I went back to playing with the keys while she brought along a fairly edible meal on a tray that she set down on the empty seat next to me.

After two cups of coffee I went back to the keyboard. The situation was the same so I decided to take the initiative, remembering what my first computer teacher used to say:

“Computers are like horses. They are all stupid, but if you know how to handle them they get you there … just remember that the stupid things don’t think by themselves so you have to lead them. Firmly”

I waited until a sequence of numbers and letters flashed on the screen and quickly punched an ID, linked to an outgoing triple path with the hopes of capturing whatever pulse was causing my laptop to act like a laptop with hiccups. After a few milliseconds the numbers and letters stabilized into what appeared to be flight data; course, altitude, radio frequencies, distances, plane loads, air speed, fuel consumption rates, pressures of various kinds, etc. etc.

I sat there for a moment trying to figure out how that type of data was pouring into my laptop. At last I gathered that the inertial navigation set up, which utilizes an on-board computer feeding on incoming satellite transponder inputs, was probably leaking into my unit that, for some strange reason was acting as a receiver.

Next I decided to check if I could alter the data or issue my own commands. I could not suppress a mental picture of me and my laptop ordering around all those tons of steel, plastic, aluminum and human shapes.

Let me start with the chosen course. It read 103 degrees, or slightly east, southeast. I was by then most anxious to verify whether the airplane’s computer obeyed my orders.

I overwrote a command. 160 degrees. Almost at once I felt the plane bank to the right and begin a gentle course correction. Coincidence? No way to know except that a moment later the plane banked left and its course on the screen again showed 103 degrees. Either the plane’s computer or an alert pilot had made the correction and, worse, made me wonder and prompted me to try again. Ah! Mastery of the airways…

This time -filled with excitement and anticipation- I changed course and altitude. Let us swing south and come down to an altitude where I couldii see the white of their snow capped mountains. I typed 165 degrees. Aiming at Mexico City even though I had no map and could only guesstimate a proper coordinate from the illustrations of the Airline Magazine.

And I wanted to go down to 10,000 feet!

Again, the plane’s reaction was swift. It banked a little more steeply and at the same time it began to drop. You sure could feel both maneuvers. But again the alert pilot intervened and returned the bundle to its tube in the sky.

For the next three hours I kept changing course, altitude and occasionally air speed. I also looked at fuel consumption and some of the other numbers. I really had not had that much fun since the time I joined de YWCA by mistake.

The pilot and copilot could almost be seen through the screen of my laptop. In addition to their quick reflexes, it did not take more than three seconds for them to correct my instructions; they appeared to be trying to block my input through some system changes. No dice. I was firmly locked into their computer and could act at will.

I began to notice their concern when the attendants were called into the cockpit almost continuously. I guessed they were being instructed about what to say when and if the rest of the passengers realized that something was wrong. But no announcement was made.

The continuous changes of course, altitude and the occasional variations in turbine whining that meant changes in various settings, eventually attracted the attention of a few enlightened passengers. I saw attendant lights flashing and the stews rushing to answer questions whose nature I could well imagine. But still no announcement from the cockpit.

By then I had steered the plane towards half a dozen locations at several altitudes and, in each case cheerfully noted the rapid corrections made in the flight deck. I could almost see the officers in the cockpit frantically trying to explain things to an alarmed Operations Chief and several Air Control Centers somewhere between Los Angeles and Miami and anxiously waiting for the next move in the great chess game being played in the sky.

They even tried switching to manual control, but their efforts to override the computer were quickly cancelled by my own retaining commands. And I began to laugh every time I went left and a second later they pushed it back to the right. Or up and then down or vice versa.

I had placed my laptop at an angle and sat with my back to the aisle so it was difficult for the passing stews to see clearly what I was doing. And just to make sure, I had a Global blanket around my shoulders and half covered the lappie.

Finally, the announcement came. I had been curious to hear the captain’s explanations. It was what I expected. A brave combination of mumbo-jumbo and a plea for patience and fortitude. I particularly liked the lines about “temporary technical malfunctions of some inboard systems … No need to be concerned … the matter is under control … Just in case, we are now preparing to land in St. Louis … Will try to stay on the ground as briefly as possible and don’t worry about connecting flights…”

But I would not let them. The captain’s tone was somewhat irritating; it smacked of High Priest pronouncements laced with a bit of “you lucky idiots, I am here to take you to your destination, just leave it in my hands…” So I ordered the computer to bring the plane down to 1,000 feet.

The nose went down at once. A few overhead racks flopped open and discharges the usual collection of imitation leather coats, Bullock’s plastic bags, and assorted sports bags, toys and shapeless hats.

Before the passengers receiving these objects could emit their distress signals, the captain had quickly brought the plane back to its original altitude. So I ordered another descent to 1,000 feet. Again, quick action in the cockpit and the nose went up again. But I wasn’t going to let go that easy. Another order and another sudden nose drop; I think this time I caught them unawares. The plane did go down several thousand feet before the correction was made. It seemed to me with some effort. I chuckled.

This time the announcement had another flavor. There was just a whiff of concern. I enjoyed that. Some humility would not hurt our smug captain and his cohorts in the cockpit. It might help them in the future to treat plane, systems, passengers and cargo with a little more consideration.

A quick look around and I was suddenly impregnated by the raw terror emitted by several pairs of eyes that locked briefly into mine. I decided to quit the exercise, but continued watching the screen as the flight crew readjusted their mistreated flight plan and, I assumed, advised their ground controllers that the problem had sorted itself out.

After about ten minutes of normal flight, the Captain came on the PA system to announce that the problem was being resolved and that the flight would continue as scheduled. No landing in Saint Louis. Please relax and drinks are on the house!

Gradually, things went back to normal. My screen told me so. I managed to suppress the desire to fiddle a bit more; the mere thought of my fingers touching a few keys and provoking an instant response by that flying metallic mastodon, brought upon me waves of almost sensual excitement.

And then I made my first mistake. The moments of euphoria resulting from the furtive exercise of power turned to unaccustomed arrogance on my part. I decided to “teach them a lesson”, that is, to force the Captain to recite a string of apologies in behalf of all the airlines that cloud the skies. To do this all I had to do was to switch to a straight message mode from my laptop.

I looked out the window and composed a rather incisive and, if I may say so, exquisite statement finely woven with wisdom, literary style and piercing sarcasm. Unfortunately, I can not reproduce it now word by word as subsequent events affected my memory and my efforts at recollection are no longer accurate. I vaguely remember some parts of the message. It included sharp comments about Airline tax gimmicks, poor security, false promotions, mythical driver abstention and reliability, cattle runs, overbooking, insolent counter clerks, snotty stews, morgue meals, shoddy maintenance, etc. etc. But I also included veiled references to the value of the service and the genuine efforts by some airlines to provide first rate performance. So I set up the laptop and began to send the message, insisting to the Captain that the message was to be announced over the PA system.

As it came out in the inquiry, while I was still unconscious, the Captain suddenly realized that someone was feeding the message into the on-board computer in the airplane. His fellow officers claimed that he was suddenly possessed of uncontrollable rage and that he left his seat without unbuckling his seat belt, such was the level of fury and excitement he was in.

The rest of the story is still not clear. The stews claim that he barged into the cabin in a state of total exaltation, missing only the traditional white foam dripping down his chin. He looked around and finally settled on a passenger who had a blanket around his shoulders and who throughout the flight appeared to have been busy with a portable computer and who occasionally smiled and laughed to himself.

The passenger in the row behind only remembered that this mad conductor of the airlines suddenly appeared, threw the blanket that covered the young man in the seat in the row ahead and grabbed a small machine and furiously attacked the young man’s head and shoulders with it. His violence was accompanied by unintelligible shouts and he appeared to be trying to feed the computer to the young man through his ears and the bleeding cuts on his head…

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