Thirteen-year old Brian Robeson, the sole passenger on a small plane from Hampton, New York to the north woods of Canada, boards the aircraft excited at the notion of flying in a single-engine plane. After the novelty of the experience passes, Brian returns to his thoughts of his parents' recent divorce. Brian recalls the fights between his parents and his hatred for the lawyers who attempt to cheerfully explain to him how the divorce will affect his life. What Brian calls "The Secret" also enters his consciousness, and at this point we do not know to what "The Secret" refers. Brian feels the burn of tears come to his eyes, but does not cry, making certain to guard his eyes from the pilot, whose name Brian cannot exactly remember. He suspects it is Jim or Jake, a man in his mid-forties who has been virtually silent during the ride. Seeing Brian marvel at the complexity of the control panel in front of him, the pilot offers him a chance to fly the plane himself. Initially reluctant, Brian declines the offer. Upon the pilot's insistence, he takes the wheel and for a few minutes has complete control of the plane.
The pilot remarks on some pain in his shoulder as Brian once again recalls the details of the divorce. Brian's father knows that his mother wants a divorce, but his father has no idea why nor does he favor the split. The court has decided that Brian will live with his mother during the school year and with his father during the summer. The plane jerks, awakening Brian from his thoughts. He notices the smell of body gas in the plane and assumes the pilot had a stomachache. He also seems to be experiencing increasing pains in his shoulder and arm. The divorce one month behind him, Brian is heading north to visit his father and to bring him some special equipment from New York. A mechanical engineer, his father has perfected a new drill bit for oil drilling. Brian recalls the long ride from the city to Hampton to meet the plane, during which Brian's mother had tried to convince him to tell her what was wrong, but he felt he could not tell her that he knew "the secret." When they had arrived in Hampton, his mother gave him a hatchet to use in the woods during the summer. Sensing that his mother felt particularly vulnerable, Brian had humored her by attaching the hatchet to his belt, where remained for the duration of the plane ride. Returning to the present to see the pilot jerk in his seat, Brian suddenly realizes the gravity of the situation. A jolt of pain barring his efforts to use the radio, the pilot jerks and flails in his seat while it becomes apparent to Brian that he is having a heart attack. Once the attack has ended and a frightening silence emerges, it takes many tense seconds for Brian to actually grasp what had happened. Seeing the whites of his eyes, Brian tries to comprehend the pilot's likely death, and to determine what action he must take, alone in a plane thousands of feet in the air.
Brian feels immobile after the pilot's heart attack, due to his state of shock at the events of the plane ride. The plane has continued without any assistance from Brian or the pilot, and Brian suddenly realizes he must take control of the plane. Confused by the numerous dashboard controls, Brian seeks the controls for the radio. Reaching over the pilot to remove his headset, he bumps the wheel and must make a serious of corrections to right it again. He tries to use the radio to no avail, as he loses the signal before he can convey any useful information. Every ten minutes for the rest of the ride Brian again attempts and fails to establish contact. Attempting to envision a successful landing of the plane, Brian finds he has insufficient time to prepare. The plane engine dies suddenly, forcing him to land earlier than he had expected. He points the plane's nose down and vomits.
Seeing only trees rather than lakes directly in front of him, Brian becomes convinced he will not survive the plane's descent. Finally he spots an L-shaped lake, uncertain whether he has enough speed to reach it. At that instant the plane hits the trees, shooting through them and landing on the lake. Water rushes over Brian, who screams and vomits during the descent, but he succeeds in unbuckling his seatbelt and swimming up to the surface. When he finally reaches the shore, Brian passes out from pain and exhaustion.
The opening chapters of this novel introduce several elements of content, style, and theme that persist throughout the story. Paulsen's heavy use of foreshadowing, as well as his emphasis on certain significant words and phrases, give the reader a sense of suspense and inform him of Brian's perspective.
A prevalent technique in Hatchet, foreshadowing appears from the first chapters of the book, when Paulsen gives the reader hints and warnings of the events to come. The pilot's pains in his shoulder, arm, and stomach seem insignificant at the start of the book, but they later grow more serious when it becomes clear they signal an imminent heart attack. In addition, Brian's brief turn at the wheel of the plane foreshadows his subsequent need to operate the plane himself following the pilot's death. The pilot's following comment to Brian also foreshadows this circumstance; he says, "All of flying is easy. Just takes learning. Like everything else. Like everything else." This remark not only foreshadows Brian's later flying adventure, but also has relevance to his subsequent struggle for survival alone in the woods. There he learns he must be patient, observant, and astute; he must learn from his mistakes and use his knowledge to improve his situation. Lastly, the pilot briefly mentions the presence of the survival pack in the plane. The reader may find the presence of the survival park insignificant at that point in the plot, but later learns that it contains a transmitter that eventual leads to Brian's rescue.
These first chapters also introduce stylistic trends in the book. The narrative shifts back and forth between past and present, between the events on the plane ride and Brian's thoughts on the past. Through these shifts the reader gains an intimate knowledge of Brian's thoughts and feelings, and experiences the plane ride as he would. In addition, Paulsen isolates certain significant words in order to convey to the reader their import to Brian's consciousness. He often begins paragraphs with sentences containing only one word or a few words, and at times his paragraphs contain only one word. For example, Paulsen writes of Brian's thoughts: "The words. Always the words. Divorce. The Secret. Fights. Split." Paulsen also repeats these select words and phrases to sustain an element of suspense and rhythm during Brian's adventures. During Brian's negotiation of the plane's descent, Paulsen employs this type of repetition particularly often, with phrases such as, "Easy say, hard do" and "Gonna die." It realistically reflects the tendency toward a frantic and urgent thought process in a time of emergency.
Lastly, Paulsen introduces the theme of survival early on in the novel. Brian's solitary adventure in the Canadian north woods provides the central struggle for survival in the book. However, his struggle to survive begins even before his time in the wilderness, with his effort to land the plane and emerge alive. He must demonstrate clear-headedness, bravery, and perseverance during the descent of the plane, qualities that only become more essential as the story unfolds.