THE PHANTOM CESSNA

Sam blinked and looked again. His heart was racing, and he felt distinctly damp underarm. He was trained to handle stress but had never felt so drained. A Cessna 152 had materialized out of nowhere and was heading for the runway on which Sam was directing incoming Air France from Paris to land.  The Cessna, with its distinctive red markings and G-BRNE written along the cabin made no response to radio contact. Sam deduced that it must be an idiotic training flight gone amiss. Until the Cessna had appeared the Air France landing was textbook; aircraft flying eastward, the runway west-east, gentle wind from the east, sun setting in the west. Her pilots François Flagel and Claude Canty were veterans they had landed on this runway many times. Sam yelled,

“Runway obstruction, abort, abort!”

“Merdre! Impossible!” came François’s astonishingly calm voice.

Sam continued watching even as he put out an emergency alert. He stared, still in disbelief. The Cessna missed the runway and landed on the grass beside it. The small plane shuddered, wobbled to a standstill and disappeared. Sam blinked; it was gone as though it had never been. Sam returned his attention to Air France. It made a perfect landing. He alerted emergency responders that his alert was a mistake – he murmured a vague apologetic comment about birds. When Air France was safely at a gate with jetways attached, Sam could relax for this was the last flight of his shift. Although he looked forward to his time off, he did not immediately jump up and head out. Instead he leaned back in his chair and breathed deeply to relax his body. He absent-mindedly reached up and pushed a strand of his still blond hair from his forehead. At fifty he was beginning to bald, but he nurtured his wrap-over locks, like the one he now pushed aside, with the mistaken belief that they concealed the truth. Now he was faced with a new truth. He decided that the Cessna must have been a delusion. Perhaps a reflection off the mirrored glazing being installed in the new airport hotel under construction.

During his short drive home, Sam attempted to sort out a plan of action for himself. He knew ATCO (Air Traffic Controller) standards to be high. Too many lives were at stake. If anyone knew about his near miss and the phantom Cessna, they would put him on leave and, at fifty would probably insist that he skip waiting until fifty-five to take his mandatory retirement. On the other hand, he needed to discuss what he thought that he had seen. He needed assurance that he was not going crazy, that he was not hallucinating, and that he was still alert and fit enough, to be an ATCO. He instinctively knew that even Davis his closest ATCO buddy would not understand, so his confidant had to be his wife.

Sandra, Sam’s wife agreed that the Cessna sighting must have been a freak illusion reflected off the new hotel’s glazing. They lay together in bed and stared at reflections of objects in the room which appeared to be reproduced in the space outside their bedroom window. The simple explanation soothed, and they slept.

A month later Sam heard Davis yell,

“Abort, abort.”

 There was a slight gap in airport activity freeing Sam to walk over and stand behind Davis’ chair.  His body froze, Davis’ situation was worse, a Cessna 152 was taking off in the path of an incoming flight. For a split-second Davis turned to look at Sam.

“No radio contact” he gasped.

“What the hell?” Sam’s body shook in this moment of shared pain with Davis.

The two men watched, helpless as the incoming flight collided with the Cessna and continued on down in an uninterrupted perfect landing sequence. The air where the collision must have occurred was undisturbed. The Cessna had disappeared.

The two men put in an urgent request for a meeting with their superiors. They discovered, to their amazement, that there had been several other similar incidents at other airports. In one incident there had been two identical Cessnas involved.  A Cessna manhunt was put in motion. The FAA working with the FBI researched records of all 7,584 Cessnas which were manufactured between 1977 and 1985. The few which were still flight worthy had good records and none had been near the airports where the sightings had taken place. Most were now dedicated for training purposes rather like the Cessna modules offered in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.

Sam’s son, Sammy Jr, was an avid Flight Simulator player. Initially, he was drawn to the game because his father was an ATCO.  As Microsoft developed new modules he was drawn, as were most of the game’s participants, by the game’s pledge of realism which kept getting better. Sam enthusiastically bought Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 when it came out. He told his dad that the advertising hype that scenery, airports, weather conditions and aircraft would be closer than ever to reality was true. He added that third party vendors were contributing enhancing add-ons to enable a player to sit in front of a computer and experience flying in conditions closer and closer to reality. The only problem with the Flight Simulator world was that it was static. Each scene was physically accurate in its depiction of runways, scenery, and buildings but lacked the realism of real time people, vehicles, and aircraft.

One evening Jr., invited his dad to join him for a flight. He told Sam that he was about to see his ATCO work from a different perspective. Jr was excited because he was intending to use the beta version of a recently launched program enhancement known as the “Jordan-holo.” The “Jordan holo” was developed and marketed by Jordan, a brilliant young programmer. His program combined hologram and global positioning technology to enable the Flight Simulator player to project a hologram of his plane into space. Jordan hoped that one day he would be able to create a continuous hologram of each flight showing the aircraft from take-off to landing.  His beta version could only project holograms in the vicinity of buildings on the ground such as those in airports. That evening when Sam watched over Jr’s shoulder, he realized the root of the ATCO problem. The phantom Cessnas were Microsoft Flight Simulator holograms!

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