THE COLD WAR
The Cold War lasted from the end of the hot war in 1945 until the death of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. Its tentacles spread to parts of the globe previously considered too remote for conflict, such as the USA’s largest and most thinly populated state, Alaska. If a nuclear missile had left its launch pad in the evil empire, the first indication of the free world’s impending doom would have been its Distant Early Warning, DEW Line, constructed at vast expense across the arctic regions. This would have given Uncle Sam enough time to retaliate, either with Strategic Air Command bombers, continuously airborne on retribution patrol, or its own armoury of missiles. MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction achieved.
In spite of some close shaves, miraculously this suicide scenario never came to pass and by the 1980s the paranoia was abating. Or so it was hoped.
Until September 1983, when Korean Air 007 left Anchorage in Alaska for Seoul and immediately started drifting north of track. No one noticed this error, which became progressively greater, until they were hundreds of miles adrift over the Kamchatka Peninsula, a highly sensitive military area of the Soviet Union. The Boeing 747 pressed on, ever further into Russian airspace, until it was 390 nautical miles off course over Sakhalin Island, where it was shot down by a Soviet SU15 fighter. All 269 souls on board perished.
Fortunately for mankind, paranoia had simmered down sufficiently for the fallout to be warfare by words rather than missiles. But tensions remained.
The end came with unexpected suddenness, first with the breach of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, then the collapse of the Soviet Empire two years later. The fifteen republics of this unlikely enterprise went their own way, leaving everyone wondering what would happen to Mother Russia herself, now presided over by a vodka-loving bear of a man called Boris Yeltsin.
The Yeltsin era rapidly turned to chaos, as inflation wrecked savings and production plummeted. Although the green shoots of a market economy were soon sprouting, this was gangster capitalism, where the unscrupulous practised interesting new ways of creating wealth. Our story starts at this time, at the front line of the old cold war: Alaska.
SUMMER 1992, ALASKA
On most trips the captain kicked off by flying the first sector, no rhyme or reason for this beyond habit, but on this occasion Captain Abbott said, “You do this one,” muttering an aside about a party last night, which had left him less than razor-sharp. So First Officer Greg Wilton was ‘in command under supervision’, a situation that occurs a million times a year in the world of commercial aviation.
Weather over the arctic regions had been spectacular, the oil-rich North Slope beginning to cast off its winter white, after that the peaks of the Brooks Range, still topped with snow.
“Looks like McKinley’s about to get socked in,” said Greg, pointing ahead at North America’s highest mountain, disappearing before their eyes under some evil-looking clouds.
“Nowadays they call it Denali, not to upset the natives,” said the captain, adding: “A taste of what’s to come, because here’s the latest Anchorage actual: best get your wellies out.”
Greg glanced at the slip of paper, which told him that their destination was blowing a gale and bucketing with rain. The North Pacific coast is notoriously wet. They registered the fact that their official funk-hole of Fairbanks was in fine fettle just behind them. Not that they expected any problems at Anchorage, but the flying game is all about looking ahead; anticipation. You never knew.
There were no problems at Anchorage. It was June, so the low pressure brought blustery rain rather than the driving snow of January; that would have been a challenge. Greg Wilton guided the 747 down, an increasingly bumpy ride as they descended into the murk, while the skipper did the co-piloting from the left-hand seat. They had done this sort of thing umpteen times before.
After a very acceptable landing, Greg handed control back to the captain as they approached their stand, because pier guidance lights are calibrated for the left-hand seat. They agreed an engine shut down time of 2126 and wrote this in their log books, together with the trip time of eight hours, thirty-five minutes. Alaska is nine hours behind British time, so they had arrived before leaving London, the polar route being the only one where subsonic aircraft can manage this feat. Bedtime in Britain was lunchtime in Alaska.
They had a quick discussion with the crew who were taking the flight on to Tokyo, then enjoyed a mercifully efficient transit through the airport to their hotel in downtown Anchorage.
“See you in the bar around six?” suggested the captain.
Greg nodded; the boss down the back gave a thumbs up; and a blonde stewardess returned a hopeful smile. No one took any of this as a promise, because evening in Anchorage was well into tomorrow for their bodies. Everyone had their own way of trying to cope with jetlag and most tended to sleep when they could. The trick was to be as fit as possible when duty next called, which in this instance was two days hence.
Forty-eight hours was a better than average recovery time. BWA would have loved to cut it to the legal minimum, but their daily Tokyo service was split three a week through Moscow/Siberia and four a week via Anchorage’s polar route, so longer layovers were unavoidable. The crew’s tryst in the bar that first evening may have been optional, but everyone would be on parade, bright eyed and bushy tailed, when BWA’s next flight arrived from London. That was for sure.
Sometimes ‘for sure’ isn’t. They tried his room. Hunted high and low throughout the hotel. Even phoned the local knocking shop. No luck. In the end Captain Abbott had to admit defeat. Greg Wilton, his first officer, had vanished.