Airplane Mode
Jason Arias


This story is over 5 years old.


Airplane Mode

In a world perpetually on the brink of nuclear destruction, there can only be so many false alarms—right?

Today, thanks to the escalating threats by the nuclear armed nations of North Korea and the United States, the Bulletin of Atomic scientists set the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight—"the symbolic hour of the apocalypse"—marking a world perilously close to annihilation. With that in mind, we turn to today's story, by defense tech writer Kelsey Atherton, pondering one such outcome of those tensions. Behold. -the Ed.


Harper McKenzie’s short film “38 Minutes in Hawaii” was set to premiere on March 24th, 2036, at the Kenburnsingman Documentary Festival in Los Angeles.

Three days before the coming debut, her brother Jayden untied his shoes before placing them in the plastic tub, next to his laptop. He slid the tub into the open maw of the x-ray machine, behind his backpack. Still holding onto his tickets and driver’s license, Jayden stepped into the bodyscanner, then raised his hands over his head. Scan complete, he stepped out, retrieved his belongings, tied his shoes, and made his way to the gate.

United 1820 always left from the same concourse at Seattle-Tacoma, and University of Washington sophomore Jayden navigated it seamlessly. Skip the first two restrooms, fill his empty water bottle by the third, snag a sandwich right after, and then put his headphones in to avoid whatever hell CNN was screaming at the concerned business travelers and weary tourists.

“…the director of the Missile Defense Agency assures us that the system stands ready in the event..”

Headphones in, news out. Jayden flew home after every semester, but this was his first time skipping town for spring break. The March crowd was different than the families traveling for winter vacation or the groups of late teens and twenty-something that flitted about in pods before scattering at the boarding call: Here were the khaki’d captains of industry, so many that Jayden made a game of guessing which generic polo went with which company. A soft-orange Ralph Lauren screamed Amazon middle-management. Black with swampy-green lettering could have been a programmer for any number of midrange apps, begrudgingly donning the uniform necessary for a sales pitch in some aggressively extroverted convention center. The azure-blue with mismatched blue pants and the too-tight haircut was clearly former Air Force, likely off to try and sell a new jet to some out of state representative. Mr. high-and-tight seemed genuinely interested in whatever was on CNN, at least until his phone rang and he joined the indistinct crowd, simply waiting to no longer be at the terminal.


“How was security?” came the text from Harper.

“Uneventful,” Jayden replied, “now just killing time.”

“You watching the news?” “Not really. Anything big?”

“Might be a rocket test. Did you get a window?”

“Pacific side, no less.”

“Cool. Well, you might be able to see it. When’s the flight get in?”

“With luck, a little after 10, but there’s a layover in the Bay.” “Text from the layover, and I’ll see you at baggage claim.”

“See you then,” Jayden replied, “I think we’re finally boarding. Going into airplane mode.”

Jayden filed into his seat. Deep in the back, by a window, where with any luck he wouldn’t have to share his space with the combative elbows of a stranger. As the plane slowly filled, it was clear that there’d at least be some empty seats, but then a toddler climbed into his row and Jayden downgraded his dreams of an uncontested armrest to successfully tricking a tiny human into surrender. The toddler was joined by his mother, who strapped him in and then handed him a tablet.

And with that, Jayden was off into the sky, ready to yawn his way through two hours and fourteen minutes of mind-numbingly routine travel. He leaned against the window, letting the gradual march towards sunset lull him into a half-awake state.


In LA, Harper caught the tail end of the news report her brother had just tuned out. Despite finishing her documentary weeks ago, she was still fully plugged in to the world of false alarms. That meant streaming an unhealthy amount of CNN, and it meant unmuting any time the word “missile defense” crossed the screen. The news report was a press conference with Air Force Lieutenant General Peyton Thornton III, the director of the Missile Defense Agency.


“After thirty years of work,” Thornton III told the assembled press corps, “we now have a single interceptor, a kind of kinetic kill vehicle, that has a 98 percent chance of stopping an ICBM. We have further confidence that with two or more interceptors, these interceptors can guarantee complete protection from any single missile fired at the United States.”

As Harper watched, Thornton III deflected questions about cost, saying nothing compares to the unknowable price of safety. When he was asked when the system would be operational, Thornton III said that the public could expect a test of the system tonight.

In the past, all intercept tests were against dummy targets, and took place in May, well after the joint United States and South Korean military exercises. This was different, a possible test set to precede the exercise. Surprise missile tests paired with military exercises historically brought about two kinds of scenarios: Lucky accidents, where the missiles malfunctioned before they could register as an attack, and there was lucky hesitation, where the person responsible for a counter-attack decided to wait. Harper was fascinated with the latter, and in making her documentary about the first great 21st century false alarm, she snuck in a tribute to Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet officer whose skepticism of his sensors prevented a nuclear war in 1983.

Everything about this new test screamed danger to Harper, even if Kim Jong-un had mellowed into his middle age. Besides, after years of only showcasing conventional weapons, all indications were that Kim had something big planned to celebrate his nearly 25 years in power. When the rapid progress of the 2010s stalled out in the 2020s, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea left one milestone on the table: an atmospheric test of a thermonuclear device. If Thornton’s interceptor test needed a non-dummy target, this was the clearest opportunity he was going to get.


Harper drafted a text to her brother. “Let me know if you saw anything on the flight. That rocket test looks hard to miss.” It was almost two more hours before Jayden could even get the texts, and he’d be the first to let her know if he saw anything. Besides, they’d both lived through enough false alarms at this point that the technical details were more distracting than helpful. Instead, she typed “Be safe out there,” and sent it. The message waited in the void, unable to find Jayden’s offline phone.


Ninety-eight minutes of flight United 1820 passed uneventfully. In space, while the plane was somewhere in the vast, nondescript stretch between the south of Eugene and the north of the Bay, a kinetic kill vehicle intercepted a North Korean Hwasong-14. The dusky sky suddenly lit up with the exo-atmospheric collision, a spectacular sort of light that looked improbably like the brightest firework anyone had ever seen.

“What the fuck,” Jayden muttered, before glancing shamefully at the toddler next to him. His concern about loose profanity was lost in the widespread din of the cabin. At most, one in six passengers saw whatever that was, and despite all the cameras on board, the moment was so sudden no one captured a picture.

“What did you see?” Jayden’s row-mate asked, her toddler’s hand wrapped tight around a couple of her fingers and squeezing hard.

“I…I think it was a rocket?,” Jayden replied, “maybe a couple of rockets. They might have hit each other.”


“That was bright for a couple rockets,” she said. “Yeah.” The cabin buzzed with such queries. And further grumbles, when anyone signing on to the in-flight wifi found that, after trying to pay $15 for internet access, the internet connection was down. The in-flight intercom flicked on. “Greetings, United passengers, this is First Mate Joan Johnson. I know you’re all probably wondering what that bright flash was. We checked with traffic controllers and they assured us it merely a special satellite decommissioning, coming a little faster over the ocean than normal. That’s all the information we have for now, and we ask you to stay calm and enjoy the remaining half hour of travel as we descend into San Francisco.”

Jayden’s companions were busy discussing rockets and satellites. None of the explanation matched what he had seen, but he wasn’t about to interrupt a mother's answer to argue, especially since there was no good common-sense explanation for why a tiny bit of the sky had exploded. Jayden looked out the window, scanning the horizon for anything unusual before returning to his half-awake state. Wasn’t anything he could learn about what happened until he got back to cell service on the ground, anyway.


It was the blurry photo of a night sky that convinced Harper to unmute CNN. “…the intercept took place at 300 miles above the ground, at roughly 40 minutes into the target’s flight time. The target appears to have been an older missile, of a variety stockpiled in the 2010s, and it is unclear at this moment as to why North Korea fired that kind of missile, and what sort of payload it was carrying…”


Harper dashed out the text: “Looks like a missile intercept. I have friends in the East Bay if they start canceling flights, let me know ok?”

Harper would never receive a response.


Eighty minutes after North Korea launched the Hwasong-14, and nearly forty minutes after the kinetic kill vehicle intercepted it in space, the lights went out in California. On the ground, millions were already dead, or would soon be dead, but that wasn’t anything Jayden could tell from his window seat. What he saw below was a smattering of lights, a bright flash, and then no lights.

Jayden rubbed his eyes, then looked out again. He’d flown the 1820 a half-dozen times before, and knew it fairly well. There is not a lot of light, generally, south of Portland until the plane gets to the northern edge of the Bay Area. Sparse lights was not no lights, though, and Jayden was certain on his second look that this was no lights.

Well, not quite no lights. The plane was still lit and functioning, safety standards built to protect against lightning strikes durable in the face of widespread sudden blackouts on the ground.

“Oh NOOOOOOOooooooo,” shouted one of the passengers on the eastern side of the plane, interrupting everyone, “no no no no no no no no no no.”

“What?” shouted back a passenger from somewhere in the front. The first passenger kept repeating “no,” but another window-seater clarified. “It’s on fire. It’s all on fire. It wasn’t, and now it is. There was a flash, and now there is fire.” Next to Jayden, the toddler started crying from all the shouting. The toddler’s mother put her hand on his head and held him as close as the seats would allow, but she couldn’t quite form words that would help. Her son was too young to understand rockets and satellites; what could possibly explain second-order effects from a nuclear blast? “This is First Mate Joan Johnson,” came the intercom over the panicked cacophony, “letting you know of a change in the flight path, since there is an apparent blackout throughout the entire Bay Area. We have more than enough fuel to continue flying until we reach a suitable alternative landing site. We will update you all as soon as we know what airport that is.”


The announcement did little to stop the panic. What did change was how the passengers perceived the world below. This was not a conflagration everyone was flying into, this was a nightmare they were flying over. So long as the passengers remained on the plane, the apocalypse was an observed phenomena, not a felt one.


Lieutenant General Peyton Thornton III received news of the successful intercept in the back of his car on the way to Fort Belvoir. He was delighted. After years of work in a backwater bureau he had outmaneuvered the knuckle-draggers that wanted a preemptive strike, and he had cruised past the ancient Secretary of State, whose words of caution were an archaic throwback to a simpler, less technologically sophisticated era. He promised his aides they’d break out the celebration desk scotch once back in the office, but the bottle would remain unopened until a blast wave shattered it, milliseconds before it shattered Thornton III.

Thornton’s demise was still thirty minutes away when he got the call from Strategic Command. Russian early warning radars detected the kill vehicle on its interception course, which was expected. Thornton’s team knew that Russia would see the missiles, and felt confident that if Russia also saw the missile being intercepted, then it would make for a curious radar study but nothing out of the ordinary.

However, those same Russian radars, an aging system from the early 2000s, failed to detect the Hwasong-14. And while the Pentagon’s official line was that it only took one interceptor to stop the Hwasong-14, the actual interception used four modern interceptors, and a full eighteen older-model kill vehicles. When drafting the order, Thornton III knew that to get the new system online, he needed to clear existing silos, and among the available options, decided to go all-in on guaranteeing the success of this showcase interception.

Except that instead of seeing a missile launch and an interceptor response, Russia’s radar picked up twenty-two incoming missiles, launched without warning from the United States. This time, there would be no Stanislav Petrov, and a seventy-five-year-old retaliatory mechanism triggered at every stage. Three hundred ICBMs, carrying between them over a thousand warheads, descended upon the United States.


First Mate Johnson become increasingly despondent as Flight 1820 continued south, relaying to her captive audience the official line as she received updates in a flatter, drier tone. And then, when she stopped receiving any further official lines, she simply took to describing the airports below that could not respond or, in the rare case that traffic control still existed, could not handle the traffic of orphaned planes looking to escape the sky. Still full of fuel, 1820 carried on until it absolutely couldn’t anymore, and Jayden grimly wondered if the captain and first mate even still intended to land. When ocean again appeared out his window, Jayden grew tense, knowing the sea could swallow the plane whole. Instead, he felt the familiar relief of wheels on runway.

Flight 1820 finally landed in San Felipe International Airport, on the western coast of the Gulf of California. No one clapped when the plane touched ground. In a normal universe, Jayden would have delighted at the novelty. Now, it was just a funereal air over a funereal runway. What could be said that would mean anything?

Sitting on the concourse, Jayden watched as his fellow passengers grimly tried to talk to the exhausted and overwhelmed travel agents. Who knew if cell service still worked? Out of curiosity as much as out of habit, Jayden turned his phone off airplane mode. It buzzed.

“Be safe out there.”