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We are all hostages when the wheels go up

There had always been something a little weird about the pilot.

Whenever the subject of Captain Abbott came up, many people mentioned the male anorexia thing. “There’s gotta be something weird about a man who runs all those triathlons,” they’d say, and they’d speculate about self-punishment. There would usually be (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) some talk about Catholic schoolboys being told to have a cold shower whenever they had “impure” thoughts.

You had to admit; the obsessive running was a pointer to something. Whenever they had to stay over at the end of a long flight, most of the male pilots (which was most of them – let’s face it, it’s a very male culture and airline pilots are the ski instructors of the sky) headed down to the hotel bar, where the, ah, female company was – but not Captain Abbott. He was always out there in lycra, pounding the pavement. When you passed him in the hotel corridor he’d be smelling of sweat and glowing self-righteously. And then there was his close friendship with that controversial priest, Cardinal Pell. The man was positively creepy.

These weirdnesses came up (and more besides) within 24 hours of Air Australia Flight AA370 going missing. What made the mystery more poignant, more compelling, was that the actual aircraft was named Spirit of Australia.

The first news bulletins had AA370 dropping off the radar in the middle of the night, somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam. Perhaps there was a sudden rupture of the cabin wall, with the plane dropping into the Gulf of Thailand, lost with all souls. But then strange facts kept piling up – no sign of wreckage, no floating debris, a phantom oil slick.

Little by little, more anomalies trickled out. If there had been a catastrophic event all the various systems by which the Spirit of Australia would normally have been traced across the globe would have dropped out at once. But they were deliberately shut down one by one, until only the most obscure little automated hourly handshakes between the plane and the ground were still identifiable. That could only have happened if the crew – or maybe a hijacker in the know – had shut them down. And that’s when Captain Abbott’s co-workers started looking anew at all those weirdnesses that previously had them only shaking their heads and trotting out in-jokes about the need for more rigorous psychological profiling of airline pilots.

The shocking thing was: the gradual shutdown couldn’t have happened without the cockpit crew noticing, so they must have gone along with it, even the co-pilot, Joseph (Jolly Joe) Hockey. They must have actually believed in Tony.

As the days passed and evidence grew that Australia had flown on for some hours after the communications thingies were taken off-line, and had probably headed west over the Indian Ocean, the investigation was put in the hands of company spokesman Scott Morrison (on the grounds that the search area had shifted to the Indian Ocean and that the incident might be something to do with Muslims or asylum seekers, or maybe both). Morrison stonewalled the media, saying the disappearance and the search were “operational matters”. In the absence of anything hard, the spotlight turned on Captain Abbott. Stories about him began leaking out of co-workers, old enemies and one-time friends.

“He wasn’t what you’d call a modern flyer,” another pilot, speaking anonymously, told ABC radio. “He could go through the motions – run through the pre-flight checklist and that sort of thing, but one time I flew co-pilot with him he started talking about faith and the old days when a man flew by the seat of his pants – when he really flew the plane, the plane didn’t fly him. And then he laughed and started shutting down the electronic navigation and communication stuff. He even turned off the moral compass, the bullshit detector and the radar. And he said something like: ‘Now we’ll fly like Smithy did in the old days. I’m gonna fly by faith and you’ve gotta trust me, people’.

“It was like he was dead serious. The others on the flight deck laughed, but nervously. Anyway after about five minutes I said, ‘To hell with faith, Tony, turn the stuff back on. If anybody finds out, we’ll all be working as fucking baristas’. Fortunately, nobody back in the cabin knew what had gone on.”

The media only whispered about the fact that Captain Abbott was a particular favourite of Air Australia’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch. “People had misgivings about him, but you could talk yourself into a lot of career problems by criticising Abbott. Rupe thought Tony was a pilot’s pilot,” a company insider said. “In hindsight he was a mystical nutter, and we should all have spoken up. I can see it now. He just went into one of his long-distance runner highs, and all those silly bastards on the flight deck had faith in him because they thought he was a ‘natural pilot’; that he had The Right Stuff. And he just kept flying, away from the sunrise, into the darkness, until the fuel ran out.”

*With apologies to Dr Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe.

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