Jon Methven’s comedic new novel, This Is Your Captain Speaking, out today from Simon & Schuster, takes up the lives of plane passengers who survive a miraculous Captain Sully-type landing in the Hudson River only to find themselves in the midst of a massive conspiracy. Here’s how everything starts.
Air Wanderlust Flight 2921 crested the skyline that separated New York City from the heavens then banked a soft right into a raspberry sun. It climbed against an insatiable gravity and skipped toward an archipelago of pinkish clouds, a flat stone across a blessed sea. The captain tipped a left wing to the drifting metropolis. The passengers on that side, first class and coach and the man who had snuck on standby, lifted their chins toward the city, apex of human ingenuity, and snapped pictures on their cellular phones despite having been told to holster them until landing. Passengers blind to the city squinted in the other direction at the almighty orb, celestial and stunning, off the eastern wing, and they pointed devices at the wistful sun warming and lighting the earth, and tugging it about the universe.
They were a gorgeous cargo, more attractive than the average flight, which made the morning ascent pleasant. Peaceful, syrupy, with the passengers content to know they would have their breakfast once the plane reached 30,000 feet. They would sip coffee and watch television monitors attached to the seats in front of them, and bask in the understanding that they were part of a connected and well-informed citizenry, everything as it should be, healthy plumes erupting from the plane’s gills.
Then a startling explosion. It stuttered the plane; several passengers gasped and the man in Seat 26F hid his cell phone beneath his leg—as if his attempt at sending a sunrise photograph back to earthlings had somehow interfered with the mechanics.
The captain overhead, “Ladies and gent—”, but that was all he got out before a second explosion choked the other engine.
Silence; 160,000 pounds of metal and fuel floating on a cool breeze; everyone waiting for the conclusive boom. In the cockpit a mad dash of knobs as some knucklehead at LaGuardia inquired what sort of mess they found themselves in that Monday morning.
“Twenty-nine-twenty-one this is control trouble reading.”
“Bird strike bird brain,” the captain said. “Lost thrust in both engines. Turning back home, hoss.”
“Copy that.” A long pause, copilots shuffling through the engine restart manual. “Twenty-nine-twenty-one take runway one-six. That’s one-six.”
“One-six. Copy.” And then, “Can’t do it. We’ll be in . . .”
“We’ll be in the Hudson.” He picked up the cabin radio. “This is Captain Hank Swagger.” It had been only seventeen seconds since his last dispatch, but to the flock behind him the silence seemed eternal. “Brace for impact, folks.”
They did their best bracing, which mostly involved squealing, fervent prayer, eyes hidden so they would not catch the gory parts. They spoke to God, to their fellow passengers, remnants of internal dialogue that were shouted tenderly:
Woman, Seat 17C: “HailMaryfullofgracetheLordiswiththeeblessed . . .”
Elderly man, Seat 19D: “Terrorists! What’d I tell you? Terrorists!”
“Just my luck,” came a man with a FRANK RIP tattoo on his forearm,
Seat 50B, forehead against Seat 49B: “Just my fucking luck.”
Second Officer, cockpit: “I’m feeling odd.”
Flight attendant: “Just like we practiced, just like we practiced.”
Man, Seat 22E: “I see smoke! Everyone, smoke!”
Teenager, Seat 23A: “Of course there’s smoke. We’re crashing, dipshit.”
Undercover sky marshal, Seat 9A, a giant man filling in a Sudoku puzzle.
“Screw it,” said a woman with a burlap sack covering her left arm past the elbow, Seat 3B.
“Might as well bury me with it.”
And then an epic plummet as the plane’s innards responded to the massive nothingness emanating from the engines. Captain Swagger banked the metal lug a hard left until it hung 7,000 feet over the Bronx, a patchwork of green and mostly brown twisting there in the basement for anyone with the mettle to glance. The trick was not in the landing. With gravity’s counsel, planes always landed, just not in ideal locations. No, the trick was to steer an unpowered Airbus into the water without striking bridges or toppling buildings.
“What do we got?” Swagger asked the copilots. Over the bridge, the water coming to meet them, the copilots remained intrigued with the restart manual, not quite set on the captain’s decision to baptize them in the Hudson and hoping for miraculous elevation. They shrugged collectively. “Come on, fellas, just say anything.”
First Officer David Miles turned to Second Officer Peter Wrinkles; Wrinkles seized violently, slumping sideways in his seat.
“Wrinkles, sir. I think he’s dead.”
Captain Swagger glanced sideways. “Wrinkles, knock that off!”
First Officer Miles shoved into the unconscious man’s shoulder. “He’s not waking up, sir.”
“Stay with me, Wrinkles!” Swagger glared into the control panel. “All right, you sonofabitch, one more time.”
The aircraft cleared the George Washington Bridge at 4,400 feet and Swagger steered it toward the center of the river, narrower and rougher than he had anticipated. The white folds suggested one- to two-foot swells; he had been counting on a slick, black mirror, and was impatient with the wind for being such a bastard on a Monday morning. There was little congestion in the way of ferries and tugboats, no cruise ships, floating cities that would have provided a wily game of chicken. He guided the avalanche gently. The center was where he wanted to be and he opened up a smooth path as he dropped elevation, the metropolis gliding past his left. There were no boats in his eye line as he settled on a patch a quarter-mile ahead. The sun had crested the city skyline, and the bright shaft of light across the dark water shone like a satin carpet. Second Officer Wrinkles groaned.
“Attaboy!” the captain encouraged.
It occurred to the passengers just before they ditched—a simultaneous occurrence, one they failed to discuss aloud, the colossal trepidation of all congealing into a single, phantom thought—and it went something like this: That in all those buildings tearing past, in all those square windows and lofty verandas where the smokers of the world had been segregated, how many dozens of hundreds of people at that very instant were pulling out cameras and cell phones and emailing and texting and tweeting and abusing other communication technologies that may have been invented in the three minutes since Flight AW2921 departed LaGuardia—and were homing in on the steel thunder just outside their dwelling? How many would enjoy their morning cup while gathered around the office television, watching police boats pull fuselage and severed limbs from the tainted drink, whispering awful, just awful to one another, unable to look away from the morning intrigue? They would be the evening news, the YouTube sensation of the week, and somewhere on dry land someone would get the clever idea of building a memorial and stocking it with fresh flowers on the anniversary two, three, twelve years in a row before that got tiresome and the city parks department would argue with the city highway department as to whose responsibility it was to weedwhack around it. How sad that their last thoughts, as they drifted adjacent to the morning sunrise, were not of family, love, better days spent, but of infamy, a complex and surreal infamy?
Three hundred feet and Captain Swagger lifted his chin now, cracking the bones in his hot neck. When the plane hit water it bounced for an instant before transforming into a pillowy plow, displacing thousands of gallons that resulted in a dwarfed and nearly touchable rainbow just outside the cabin windshield. There were shrieks from the rear followed by a marvelous whoooaaaahhhhh as the plane caught mysterious elevation then more water then more air then sploosh! It sank instantly, emerged, sank some more, an indecisive buoyancy. A moment later it popped like a fishing bobber to a roaring applause. Then Flight AW2921 floated to the surface, reflecting a gleaming city off its wet bow.
And so erupts our story, passengers, a piece of Americana—a bona fide miracle, a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind halle-fucking-lujah. As the plane sinks and the helicopters scurry; as the rescue boats embark and those with the wherewithal grope for the exits—we pause momentarily and call your attention to the puffy white contrails, forgotten and distant across the morning descent, where the jet exhaust and humidity combine into violent bursts blossoming in the morning blue.
From the ground we have always admired those tortured tails as another anxious tribe sets sail on a new adventure. We like to believe they are the exhaust of the passengers’ dreams and heroes and hopes and miracles and faiths and secrets, all distilled through gravity’s filter, pushed back where they belong toward this earth of ours, happily littering our heavens. We could stare at those fresh crests of fuel excrement all day, wondering reverently on their meaning. But some lady in 19 busted her ankle. And Second Officer Wrinkles’s heart is attacking him on the cockpit floor. And Captain Swagger must rescue 162 people in the next seventeen minutes to clinch this miracle.
Cue Monday morning.
From This Is Your Captain Speaking by Jon Methven. © 2012 by Jon Methven. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Jon Methven writes this site’s Analytically Speaking column. This Is Your Captain Speaking can be ordered here. He can be reached here, or follow him on Twitter @jonmethven.