In his twenty years with the NTSB Frank had walked plenty of these crash sites and to the untrained eye they all looked the same – unbelievable carnage on a massive scale.
Only a well-trained ‘tin kicker’ could pick through a burnt out wreckage of tangled wires and twisted metal and come up with a definitive answer as to why and how a plane had gone down.
The more he went over the facts of Flight 404’s crash, the more he felt something wasn’t ‘hinkey’. His years of experience were telling him that this was no accident. That this was an intentional downing!
Flight 404’s crash had the same eerie feeling as the Iowa crash.
Some crashes, he thought, just peak your curiosity. You get hooked on solving it, even though you’re not the investigator of record or for that matter have anything whatsoever to do with the investigation. It’s almost an obsession. You can’t rest and you can’t put it down until you find out what went wrong.
The Iowa crash was like that. After watching it over and over on the evening news, thinking for a few moments that the pilot was going to pull off a miracle, and only seconds later to witness that fiery ball consume almost everyone aboard. No, he wasn’t going to leave it alone.
He owed his present circumstances to that crash. He’d poked his nose in a little too deep that time and had garnered the ire of several heavy hitters with the FAA, the Iowa airport, as well as the higher ups within the NTSB.
The official report stated that the pilot’s hydraulics had gone out, and that the plane could only fly straight ahead or turn to the right. The report never stated a cause for the hydraulic failure, other than that they had found a crack in the hydraulic line. According to the final crash report, every scrap of material left at the crash site had been given a thorough going over. The lead investigator reported finding nothing of any significance.
He’d suggested, in a follow-up report, that the investigation, in his opinion, had not been thorough enough. To him, there was sufficient cause to suspect that someone had gotten to the plane. Clearly, the crash was the result of sabotage. It was evident, to him, that someone had purposely crippled the plane’s on-board computer driven hydraulic system.
No one at Headquarters agreed with him. Their perspective on the case was that it was quite impossible for anyone to tamper with the plane because of airport security.
According to the major airports, no unauthorized person or person are allowed access to planes while they’re sitting on the tarmac. Therefore, no act of sabotage could have taken place. He had countered, saying no one had access except, the grounds crew.
He had suggested that the major airports install surveillance cameras in order to watch the grounds crew. The FAA had promptly vetoed the idea saying it was too costly and was an invasion of the grounds crew’s privacy. Besides, each and every man and woman on the tarmac had already undergone extensive physiological testing and FBI background checks.
So, he had taken it upon himself to fly out of New York, where the flight originated and test how easy it was to gain access to a plane sitting on the tarmac.
He landed at LaGuardia at nine-thirty that morning and sat for a while pretending to read a magazine while watching the grounds crew move about. Immediately, he saw two problems – to get onto the tarmac, he’d need a uniform. To get a uniform he’d need access to the locker rooms – that required a key card. He sat for a while longer, knowing that somehow, someone had done just that. He watched as a couple of kids played with a paper airplane while waiting for their flight.
“What if someone made themselves a uniform? How difficult was it to make one of those things,” he wondered. If a person had the ability and time to make such a uniform, then they could have strolled right past the gate attendant onto the plane or the tarmac. That was the key, it had to be. He’d pursue it further back at his office and grabbed the very next flight back to Baltimore.
His new boss at the NTSB was waiting for him, in his office, when he got in that morning from LaGuardia.
“So, Frank what did you think you were going to accomplish by going to New York?”
Agent Sandoval Sanchez had recently come to the NTSB after serving in the FBI for ten years. He’d parlayed a sterling set of credentials into a posting at the NTSB. In no time at all, he was handling the high profile cases. Iowa was his baby.
Sanchez was seated at Frank’s desk twirling a pencil, a habit he had whenever he was extremely angry. Frank decided it might be wiser not to tell Sanchez about the uniforms.
“It was a little trip. What! I’m not allowed to leave the state?”
“You can leave anytime you want, Frank.”
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you Sanchez.”
“Frank you were the one who messed up this department. You were the one who gave us the black eye with your follow-up report. Your unwarranted investigation into another agent’s credible work has been a complete waste of this department’s time and of the taxpayer’s money.”
“Someone had to follow-up – someone had to get it right”
“Who the hell asked you to follow-up on anything?”
“Someone had to. You were too busy kissing up to the bosses to get off your ass and actually investigate the crash.”
Sanchez snapped the pencil in half and slammed both pieces onto the top of Frank’s desk. He moved towards Frank with a menacing look on his face.
“I’m warning you Frank, don’t step on my toes again.”
Back to the job at hand, he chided himself, because no amount of whining was going to change things. If his gut feeling about this crash proved right – and this was one of those crashes – one without a clear-cut cause – then he had to find a way of proving that sabotage had taken place. There was no way he could submit his real conclusions regarding the crash without some creditable evidence. He knew exactly what the consequences would be if he tried.
Agent Sanchez would use his report as a means of getting rid of him. He saw himself being escorted out of the building carrying what amounted to twenty years of his life in an eight and half by eleven-inch cardboard box!
Looking at the devastation at his feet, there was no way, he was going to write this one up as pilot error. The media would have a field day digging up every dubious thing Captain Nolan had done in his lifetime. Not only would the Captain’s family have to deal with his death, but also the media’s portrayal of him as an inept pilot. Years of good loyal service, not to mention, a man’s good name would be destroyed.
Pilot error would also open up both the Airline and the Captain’s family to probable lawsuits. Every lawyer within two hundred miles would line up to get his or her share of the civil suits. Lawyers on both sides would use his report as evidence against the airline and the family.
Sweat was beginning to form in the hollows of his armpits and his collar was growing tighter by the minute. Damn, he could use a drink right about now to calm his nerves. His hand unconsciously reached for the flash he carried in his inside jacket pocket. A flash filled with Dewar’s Scotch. But just as his fingers touched the cold silvery metal of the flask, he heard Agent Schlade yell, “Watch out Frank, you’re about to step on someone”. His hand fell away from the flask and he muttered an apology. He’d been absent mindedly making his way across the field. They didn’t need him for this part – body removal. He was going back to his motel and get cleaned up before making his report. He’d leave Agent Schlade here. The damn kid looked like he was finally having some fun. Some people are more alive around the presence of death, the thought.
Since drinking was out of the question, he lit up a cigarette in spite of the jet fuel that saturated the ground. He needed something to calm himself before getting back in that damn helicopter for the return flight to the airport hanger where the NTSB would reassemble the wreckage. He took a long deep drag on the unfiltered cigarette for a quick burst of nicotine. A seventh sense told him the results from this crash site would mimic those of the Iowa crash. No evidence of a bomb, no engine failure, and worst yet, no viable reason why the landing gear failed to deploy.
He would have a better idea of how to slant the report once the plane was reassembled and the results of the autopsies on the pilot and co-pilot were in. They would need the autopsies to rule out drug use by either man.
As he stood there watching the paramedics and police officers trampling evidence in an attempt to locate any living thing, he came to the conclusion that there was something else he could use as the reason for the crash, and it had been there all along. He could use the weather conditions to his advantage. Since it was a particularly cold and rainy Halloween night, his report would state that the pilot lost control of the airplane due to severe ‘icing on the plane’s wings’. An act of God. No one ever questioned that. The airline would be happy and Captain Nolan’s family would be relieved, but most of all it was a conclusion he could live with.
He took one long final drag off his cigarette, threw it on the ground, crushing it into the fuel and blood soaked earth with his right foot. As he turned and strode the last few paces to the waiting helicopter, their voices called out to him, but he no longer listened. He climbed aboard the helicopter and gave the pilot the go-ahead signal to return to the set-up area.