FLIGHT PATH

EXCERPTS FROM FLIGHT PATH

BellAir’s founder Charlie Bell, visiting the cockpit on a red-eye flight from the west coast.

The dim flight deck, air whooshing past the cockpit, the up-and-down, side-by-side motion… it was hypnotic to Bell. He closed his eyes and his mind drifted back in time.

Travel Air…our first plane, in ’36, it was. Found it in Missouri, two more outside Chicago. Took some fancy footwork to pay for them. Mail was it, at the start. The passengers didn’t come until I started collecting Tri-Motors. That Ford was a real step up, bought eight of them, all told. He chuckled. Never did pay them off.  By the time we got close, the DC-3 had come along. First plane I ever bought new…finally started making some money. About time, my investors said. Honey of an airplane…liked it so well we pretty much went with Douglas from then on. The Four, the Six, the Seven. Though we came close on the Electra.

Then our first jet. He smiled, recalling the takeoff from Boeing Field on that demo flight. Unbelievable airplane, the 707, then that long-range one for international.  Stayed with Boeing after that except for the ’Ten, of course. 727, 737, this big bird, more coming down the line. They get better all the time…

“Will you look at that!”

Bell snapped out of his reverie. He looked ahead…how beautiful can it get.  Forty years of sunrises. I will never tire of this.

At all levels, the sky was filled with clouds backlit by the dawn. He leaned forward against the captain’s seat back, resting his chin on his arms. I am not a religious man. I do not like Sundays. This is my church. It has always been my church. If there is a God, he’ll know I tried, I did the best I could.  His eyes became moist.

Please let Dee be all right. Please God. Let her be all right.


Up to no good in a neighbor’s garage.

Against the back wall a workbench was mounted, an oak plank chipped and stained from decades of home improvement and car repair. A cobwebbed bulb hanging from the ceiling threw a weak, shadowless light. Squeezed in the confine between the bench and the car, a man worked intently, an athletic bag draped over a vise at his elbow. His tools were spread across the bench – needle-nose pliers, screwdrivers of several types and sizes, insulated wire, a pocket knife, a soldering iron – defining his workspace and, from the absorption he brought to the task, his entire being.

Periodically the man bent forward and stared at a creased piece of paper, photocopied from a technical manual of some sort. His eyes narrowed, darting from the drawing to the bench and back again. Each time, after a moment he nodded, his face relaxed, and he forged ahead. Gradually his construction was taking shape. …

He snipped a length of wire and stripped the yellow insulation from the end. In a smooth motion he reached for the spool of solder and the iron, careful to avoid its hot tip sticking out over the edge of the bench. Drop of metal, press the wire in to set the connection. Good old clock, he thought sadly, had it for years. Got me up for a lot of early shifts. Sorry to see you go. Would’ve used one of those fancy electronic timers, but better you stick to what you know. Be different if I was an avionics type, but all I am’s a dumb dogface mechanic. All I ever been…

He stared at the packet of plastic explosive nesting in its bed of towels. Unbelievable, something that small, what it can do.  How much it cost. What I had to go through to get it.

He smiled grimly. This fucker goes right to the edge. Bastards never gave me a chance. I’ll show them what I can do but I can’t let nothing go wrong. Christ, I don’t want nobody to get hurt. He swallowed hard. Whatever I am, I’m not…that.


Philip Hartley prepares to attend a charity event with his wife and mingle with the rich and famous.

Hartley ran his eye down the acceptance list. “Say, Arthur Winston’s on here! I’ve been wanting a chance to get him aside.”

At forty-three, Philip Hartley’s ascent in BellAir, one of the nations largest and oldest airlines, had been unusually rapid. In his previous position as an assistant vice-president with Salomon Brothers, Hartley had had passing contact with the BellAir account. But it wasn’t until 1977, while serving as the airline’s advisor during the acquisition of a failing smaller carrier, that BellAir’s senior management became aware of him. Hartley’s acumen and boardroom demeanor so impressed Charlie Bell that he started calling on him for advice, bypassing senior members of the Salomon team and causing some unpleasantness for Hartley in the firm. After an off-again, on-again courtship, Bell prevailed on Hartley to sign on as his special assistant, and within six months the chairman made good on his promise and named Hartley the airline’s chief financial officer with the rank of senior vice-president. Clearly, Philip Hartley was one of the favorites on Charlie Bell’s fast track.

“Philip, remind me, what is Arthur Winston’s position on your board?”

“Vice-chairman.” Hartley nodded. “Head of the executive committee too. That’s the only important job Charlie hasn’t kept for himself. … I have a good feeling about Arthur, the kind of interest he’s taking in my career.”


Facing competitive threats, Frank Delgado, President of Monterey Bay Airlines, struggles to maintain control of his company. 

Frank Delgado’s roots were in Salinas, over the hills from Monterey, up the broad coastal valley. Home from Korea with his sergeant’s stripes and a dream, Delgado set about nursing his fledgling operation from a flight-instructing, charter-flying, crop-dusting, do-anything-for-a-buck outfit into a thriving company with three hundred employees and a fleet of eight-passenger, twin-engine Cessnas. Most of his people were based in Monterey, with the rest scattered across a modest network stretching from Santa Rosa to the state capital and down to Bakersfield at the foot of the San Joaquin Valley. …

However the onset of deregulation represented a serious threat to Bay’s prospects, like those of the other commuter airlines. Freed of many governmental restraints, the large carriers were eagerly grasping new markets, though to their dismay, a crop of low-fare, no-frills airlines had sprung up, and were busily undercutting fares, upsetting the established order, brashly challenging traditional niceties.

No corner of the country was too remote to be untouched by the landmark deregulation law and no airline too small to escape its reach, certainly not Bay with its profitable little niche. Frank Delgado’s years developing and swerving his markets would offer him no immunity from the revolution sweeping the industry. Attempting to keep up, Delgado had reluctantly concluded that his old Cessnas simply weren’t big or fast enough anymore. If he didn’t exploit the emerging opportunities he knew somebody else would. Grow or die. It was as simple as that.


Backed by Arthur Winston, Hartley challenges Charlie Bell on the takeover of a hotel chain. Bell recalls his wife Dee’s warnings about Hartley.

As a rule, Hartley wasn’t reluctant to approach Charlie Bell with unsettling news, particularly when the problem could be laid at somebody else’s door, but this one was different. It was his alone. For tactical reasons, Bell had been kept in the dark, but now, several weeks after the Park View meeting, Hartley sat quietly on the boss’s couch, his briefing completed, waiting for Bell’s reaction. After a long silence, Bell rose from his chair and started pacing next to his corner window. To Hartley this was a good sign. Charlie did this when he was thinking hard. At least he’s coming to grips with the idea. Finally, Bell stopped.

“You may not know this,” Bell began matter-of-factly, “but hotels are not a new idea around here. I probably never told you, but I had a feeler from Eddie Carlson about Western Hotels years ago, before he linked up with United.” Bell chuckled. “As far as Harold’s concerned, I even had a few talks with that rummy, but they never amounted to anything, and you know why? It never made any sense!” Now Bell was standing directly in front of Hartley. “So tell me, what is it that makes it so good this time? Can you answer me that?”

Hartley placed his hands on his knees and looked up. “There’s a huge difference. For the first time ever, we have the tools to make it work! With our computer tie-ins, we’ll be able to sell each other like we could never do before. It’s got terrific revenue potential, and that’s not even counting the tax benefits…”

“Tax benefits, you say! Tax benefits! Good god, where have you been? Who needs a shelter if there ain’t no rain!” …

Hartley said coldly. “If I didn’t think it would improve our position, I wouldn’t be recommending it! … Don’t ignore this, Charlie. It’s not going away.”

Bell frowned. He looked over the reading glasses he had just slipped on. “And what does that mean? It’s not going away.”

“Arthur’s on board!  And we’re going to the executive committee next week.”  Hartley pointed to the red envelope.  “It’ll be best for all concerned if you take this seriously.”

Bell’s eyes narrowed. “Arthur’s on board. Is that so? And who else is ‘on board,’ may I ask? His lackey Horn? Who else, goddammit! Who else!” Bell’s palms were flattened on the desk…the veins in his temples were bulging. Never had Hartley seen him this angry. …

“You told me to use my judgment, that’s what I’m doing! And I’ll tell you something else. I will sell it to the board! Read the damn report!”

Speechless, Bell stared at his protégé…but it wasn’t Hartley he saw standing there, it was Dee. Dee and her angry warnings. A great sadness came over him.

“Get your ass out of here,” he said softly. “We have nothing more to say to each other.”

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