|Part One: Zulu
|The flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh takes 55 minutes, barely enough time to serve passengers a round of drinks.
Capt. Peter Germano and First Officer Charles B. Emmett III turned on the auto-pilot and let the plane fly itself. USAir preferred that crews use the autopilot because it's smoother and more fuel-efficient than human pilots.
The pilots asked the flight attendants for soft drinks. Emmett cursed at a stubborn computer. Near Pittsburgh, they switched on the seat belt sign, but Emmett realized he hadn't told the passengers to prepare for landing.
"Ooops, I didn't kiss 'em bye. What was the temperature, 'member?"
"Seventy-five," said Germano.
"Folks, from the flight deck, we should be on the ground in 'bout 10 more minutes," Emmett said over the PA system. "Uh, sunny skies, little hazy. Temperature's, temperature's 75 degrees. Wind's out of the west around 10 miles per hour. Certainly appreciate you choosing USAir for your travel needs this evening, hope you've enjoyed the flight. Hope you come back and travel with us again. This time we'd like to ask our flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for arrival. Ask you to check the security of your seat belts. Thank you."
The pilots, nearing the end of three days of traveling together, were relaxed and happy.
"That sun is gonna be just like it was takin' off in Cleveland yesterday, too. I'm just gonna close my eyes," Emmett said, laughing. "You holler when it looks like we're close."
An air traffic controller told them a Jetstream commuter plane had just taken off from Pittsburgh and was climbing in front of them. The pilots dialed in a new heading to put the USAir plane into a gentle left turn.
"Oh yeah," Emmett said, mocking a slight French accent. "I see zuh Jetstream."
"Sheeez," said Germano.
"Zuh," said Emmett.
The plane's wings rolled suddenly to the left.
To the passengers, it felt like routine turbulence, but it quickly became clear the plane was in trouble.
"Whoa," said Germano. The wings started to level off, but then the left wing dipped down again.
"Hang on, hang on," Germano said. They clicked off the autopilot. That triggered the whoop-whoop-whoop of the autopilot warning horn.
The plane kept rolling left and the nose plunged toward the ground.
"Oh shiiit," Emmett said with his slight Texas twang.
To passengers, it would have felt as if they had reached the top of a roller coaster and were starting the first, huge drop.
"What the hell is this?" Germano said.
The pilots pulled back on the control wheel, trying to get the plane's nose up. But it kept diving, picking up speed.
The pilots' control columns began rattling like jackhammers, warning that the plane was stalling. The autopilot alert continued blaring whoop-whoop-whoop. The plane's traffic computer spotted the commuter plane a few miles away and its electronic voice shouted "TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!"
"Oh God! Oh God!" cried Germano.
The USAir plane was diving toward the Green Garden Plaza shopping center at 250 mph and gaining speed. As the plane corkscrewed down, the passengers would have been driven back in their seats by centrifugal force so strong it would have been hard to lift their hands off their laps. The plane shook violently.
In the cockpit, the dials and gauges spun like clocks rushing forward in time. Germano pressed a button to talk to controllers. "Four-twenty-seven emergency!"
In a darkened room at the Pittsburgh airport, air traffic controller Richard Fuga heard their shouts and saw the plane's altitude reading change to "XXX" on his radar screen. The plane was falling so fast that his computer could not keep up.
The plane was diving at 280 mph now, gaining speed.
"Oh shit!" shouted Emmett.
"Pulllllllll!" screamed Germano.
"God!" said Emmett.
It had been only 28 seconds since the first inkling of trouble.
Just before impact, Emmett sounded resigned, almost pleading, as he said, "Noooo."
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