The 40,000ft Deal

Reading Time: 5.5 minutes

The Airbus A320 surged through the darkness. It was flying the red-eye from Chicago’s O’Hare to Charlotte Douglas. ETA was a few minutes after midnight Friday morning. Inside the cabin, the smell of black coffee lingered with an accompanying background of humming jet engines. Nothing unusual.

Amanda’s face was illuminated by her brightened laptop screen as she stared thoughtfully at the latest advice from MercurySays. She was wanting to craft an email reply that would change her life forever. This Friday she’d be back home for the weekend (the first time this month). It was the end of her busiest week negotiating the biggest deal of her career. It would financially set up her and her family for a long, long time. 

“I’ve got to send this email before we land,” she thought to herself. It’ll be in their inbox before they wake, and, if they accept this final offer, the deal will be done and dusted before my weekend even starts. She imagined celebrating at Stagioni, her favourite Italian restaurant on Providence Road, and she might indulge in the Truffle Farro Verde with walnuts and peach salad. Some people said it was the greatest “secondi” ever. She would be able to afford it. In anticipation, she smiled to herself.

Then, the plane violently bumped and lurched to one side, breaking her train of thought. Just a bit of turbulence. After flying hundreds of times, it did not worry her. Over the years, she’d experienced the worst storms down in Florida and even witnessed the odd lightning strike outside her window. And, of course, there was the bird strike just after take-off from Kansas City. Nothing to worry about. But, that was not how they saw it in the cockpit. The captain and co-pilot knew that something was seriously wrong.

The dull ‘ding’ of the seat belt sign lit up on the ceiling in front of her. An announcement crackled: “Passengers and cabin crew, please be seated. Fasten your seat belts.” Amanda buckled up and refocused on her laptop.

Up front, in the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot studied the weather radar with more than usual intensity. They’d got no warning. Nor was such a jolt normal this time in the morning. They radioed back and forth to air traffic control to share the information with aircraft coming in behind them. And, then they started to discuss which alternate route would be smoother for their passengers. Charlotte Douglas International was home. But, somewhere nearby might be just as good, if necessary. The plane started to descend very gently.

In her window seat, Amanda’s fingers were aggressively tapping away on her laptop. Her work was nearly done when the plane suddenly pitched wildly upwards. She hissed an expletive through her teeth. Luckily, no-one heard. She was in business-class and had the entire row to herself. The late flight was like that.

She held tight to her laptop so it didn’t slide into the footwell. She didn’t think for a moment that she was flying into a nightmare at 511mph. 

All air traffic control facilities within range had given the Airbus A320 landing priority. In the cockpit, the captain’s expression showed that something made no sense at all. For a second time, he started the descent towards Charlotte Douglas International but the plane did not respond. He tried again. Nothing. Without a second thought, the co-pilot set the transponder to the emergency squawk. It was like the plane had … refused.

The captain said: “You try.”

The co-pilot took over manual control and pitched the nose 3 degrees downwards and reduced engine power. The jet dipped down to 39,500 feet, before immediately levelling out by itself, and then climbing back to 40,000 feet, precisely. They flew on at that altitude. Both pilots experienced a curious feeling. It was like being weightless.

There was plenty of talk between them and air traffic control but there were no technical errors reported on any of the plane’s systems. The co-pilot flipped through their emergency checklist as fast as the ring binder could cope. Were they actually stuck at their cruising altitude? How was that possible?

Unknown to the pilots, warning alarms had beeped loudly inside an office at the National Space Agency for the last hour or so. In fact, the first threat-analysis papers had been published by scientists four years ago but, back then, no-one took them too seriously.

When weird bursts of magnetism were detected penetrating our galaxy, everyone began to take notice. When they were seen slicing through two small galaxies nearby, Canis Major Dwarf and Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical, the top brass started to move. These were the largest magnetic force-fields ever recorded. Satellites were launched last year to measure any changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. When the results came in, they were immediately classified “top secret.”

A narrow, violent but invisible storm of magnetic fury was silently pointed like a pencil beam towards the surface of the earth. And, at the moment, it was directly above Charlotte, North Carolina. Three dedicated satellites were orbiting about 145 miles above the earth’s surface. They had detected the burst first and triggered the alarm.

Now, the Airbus A320 was caught in the heart of the most powerful magnetic storm the world had ever known. The passengers and crew were effectively glued to the sky.

Amanda’s laptop screen flickered on and off then went blank. “Oh. NO!” She panicked. Was it the battery? Wasn’t it full? I charged it before we left. That message I wrote was perfect. If my email didn’t autosave I’m going to die. I have to send it right now. 

The National Space Agency had immediately warned all airports of the problem, and the news had finally reached the pilots. The captain of the A320 began describing the situation over the intercom to the passengers. One laughed out loud: “April Fool’s Day has come and gone.” Someone with less sense of humor twisted in her seat: “Is it terrorists?”

The captain continued his steady explanation. He didn’t believe his own words.

Someone yelled out: “Stuck!? How can we be stuck?” A guy down the back joined in: “Impossible.”

When the captain finished, the co-pilot, following standard cockpit protocols, had no trouble in making his point of view clear to his colleague. “This plane is mostly aluminium-based alloys and composites like carbon fibre. They’re not magnetic. So, this is impossible.”

The captain thought for a few seconds. “We’ve got 8 tonnes of steel-frame connectors on board for those new hangers in Charlotte. Maybe that’s it. We got them because we have the lightest passenger load.

“Wish we could dump them.”

The captain shot a scathing glance at his co-pilot. “How?”

Clearly, there was no answer.

After a few seconds of silence, the captain barked. “How much fuel is left?”

There had been 4.5 hours’ worth at departure. The co-pilot did the calculation. “One hour and forty-seven minutes.”

“Okay. We circle and hope this force moves away or we find a gap. Something.”

Without speaking a word aloud, the co-pilot thought of a question that he wished he hadn’t: “What will we do then?”

The captain guessed what he was thinking and said quietly: “After that …” He shrugged. It was -63° outside. When the fuel was finished, the oxygen and heat would stop. The captain’s nervous anxiety made him want to say more. “Everyone will be working on this. From the FAA down.” 

Amanda had heard enough from the intercom and from the panicked passengers in front and behind. She refocused on her computer and … her job. It meant everything to her family: financial security, above all.

The urgency grabbed her stomach in a tightening grip. She was breathlessly talking to herself: “Let’s finalize this. Send the email. Close the deal. Even if I don’t make it, my family will still be financially secure.”

She said a quick prayer and spoke directly to her laptop. “Please reconnect. I need you to link up. We all need this. I beg you.” She squeezed her eyes shut and touched the power button to reboot.

A moment or two later, the laptop chimed and immediately began restoring her previously open tabs and links. A wave of relief swept through every cell in her body. MercurySays flickered back into life. Her email was running normally. She did a final quick check of the text and hit the Send button. It was a perfect reply. Her client simply had to say “Yes.”

No matter what happened next, her family would be secure. It was a done deal.  At 40,000 feet and … holding.