Bathed in the red rotating lights of ten un-needed (EMS) Emergency Medical Services units and various state and local police cars, Frank Roberts and Ronald Schlade walked the length of Flight 404’s crash site for a third time.
Although, neither his face nor his actions reflected it, Frank had already, made up his mind about what he’d put in his part of the crash investigation report by the end of the first walk through.
The second time had been to double-check those findings, and the third, he chuckled to himself, had been just so he could torture Agent Schlade. Admittedly, he was getting quite a bit of enjoyment out of watching his younger colleague’s growing discomfort. Schlade, he thought was on his way to becoming another Sanchez. Agent Sandoval Sanchez, the new head of his department was in his opinion an uptight pretentious son of a bitch.
It was dark and it was cold! Icy rain pellets falling from the Indiana night sky were slipping down the gap between Agent Schlade’s neck and his coat collar. Their icy sting, he imagined, were comparable to the sting of those Australian jelly fish he read about in National Geographic. He could feel his neck and shoulder muscles getting tighter and tighter. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other in an effort to keep warm. He was seriously considering leaving Frank, i.e., the old guy, standing out here by himself in this dark deserted field.
What the hell were they doing out here he couldn’t figure. The action was some fifty feet away where Flight 404 had gone down.
“Damn it, he thought, this was going to be a real news maker. Not like those crop duster accidents, he’d cut his training teeth on. He wanted to be over there were the real action was, not here checking ruts. He wanted his face on the news so his family could see him and be proud. Plus, the agents investigating the real crash site had hot coffee and sandwiches. Damn it, he was cold and his stomach was keeping up a constant rumbling reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since earlier that morning.
It was time he stopped humoring Frank, just because of his age, and get the both of them back to where things were happening.
“Frank! Frank!” he yelled, Will you please explain, what the hell you’re looking for out here?
“I’m looking for the end of the rainbow and the pot of Gold. But I suppose, I’d settle for a golden nugget.”
“Seriously, Frank what are you, no let me correct that, what are we still doing out here?”
“We’re investigating.” “That’s what we do, isn’t it. Didn’t they teach you anything in the army?”
“Yeah, they taught me to investigate the crash site, he said, putting extra emphasize on crash site.” “Which I point out is about fifty feet over there in that direction.”
“Well, let me be perfectly clear then, You’re wrong! Flight 404 didn’t come down fifty feet away. This is where Flight 404 came down. This, young Agent Schlade, is the actual crash site. That over there is the after effect of what happened here.”
“I say we’re going to find out why Captain Nolan decided to land a perfectly good plane in the middle of nowhere and what made him try doing it without landing gear, and finally what caused the plane to explode.”
Frank called the younger agent over to where he was kneeling alongside a deep and fairly wide crater, looking at some rocks.
“If this track measures thirteen feet or more, this is where Captain Nolan first touched down. The plane exploded over there, he said pointing in the direction of the crash, but it landed here first and skidded to that point, where, again it exploded.
“Here,” he said while simultaneously pressing the button unspooling a metal tape measure he’d learned over the years to always have with him, take your end and walk across to the other side.
Agent Schlade looked skeptical, but decided the quicker he went along with Frank, the quicker he could get back to where he wanted to be. Aiming his flashlight at the ground, he started across the crater with Frank’s tape measure in the other hand. ‘Shit,” he yelped as he almost fell.
“Careful of the rocks,” called Frank.
“OK, I’m on the other side.”
“What’s the reading?”
“Thirteen feet”, yelled Schlade.
“The width of your average Boeing 737.”
“Flight 404 was a Boeing 737.”
“It’s conclusive, then. No bomb! We have to look for another reason why Flight 404 went down.”
“What do you mean no bomb? Frank, didn’t you see the crash site?”
From the helicopter, they’d rode in on, the Indiana farm field looked like a trash dump with bits of white, yellow, and black paper thrown about. From the ground, it was much worse. The bits of white paper were pieces of the plane, the yellow ones were the haz-mat team’s protective suits, and the black ones were body bags.
“Yes, I saw the way the debris was scattered closely around the plane, and not back here where we are. This rut as you call it, proves the plane was intact when it came down.”
“How can you be sure of that?”
“If the plane had exploded first, there would be debris everywhere. We would have found bits and pieces strewn all over the field and not concentrated in one area.”
Granted, I see your point about the debris, but how do you know that Captain Nolan didn’t land the plane because he knew there was a bomb on board.”
“Would you have attempted to land a plane, with no landing gear, if you knew you had a bomb on board?”
“No landing gear?”
“Agent Schlade, look around you. Do you see any wheel marks in that rut?”
Agent Schlade looked down at his feet and gradually raised his flashlight to examine the ground ahead. “No.”
“That’s right. No wheel marks and no broken off parts from the landing gear. Flight 404 was a belly landing!”
“It was a controlled landing that went horribly wrong.” If you were having an onboard problem, Agent Schlade, and needed to land your plane, this field looks like an ideal spot. It’s the right length for landing a big plane and there are very few trees.”
It’s what Captain Nolan couldn’t see from up there that caused the explosion, explained Frank.”
Kicking the steel reinforced toe of his work boot into the soil, a grayish white round rock popped up out of the soil. “Rocks!” “This field is covered with rocks just below the surface dirt. Big old fuselage ripping rocks.”
“This field was probably a bog at some point. The owner must have had it filled with rocks and then covered over with topsoil.”
It was becoming clear where Frank was heading. Flight 404 came in for a belly landing on what Captain Nolan thought was nice flat land. The rocks, underneath the surface must have ripped a hole in the fuel tanks. One spark did the rest.
Agent Schlade dropped his end of the tap measure in the black Indiana soil. “Cause and effect,” said Frank as he started reeling in the tape measure while walking towards the younger man. “Cause and effect, Agent Schlade. We know the effect. Now we need to find the cause.”
What, Frank thought, had caused the downing of Flight 404 in the first place? And why hadn’t Captain Nolan lowered the landing gear?
“Hopefully, the flight data box and the cockpit voice recorder will answer those questions,” said Frank. That is, if Captain Nolan was the kind of man who met Death gracefully. If not, the only thing on those tapes will be the usual exclamations and screaming.
“Come on, let’s go join the others and find out what other clues the late Captain Nolan left for us. If he was a lucky man, we won’t have to go back and tell his widow that he killed himself and a hundred twenty-nine other people out of sheer stupidity,” said Frank.
“I wouldn’t exactly call him lucky, Frank.”
“That’s because you’re young, and haven’t developed a conscious yet.”
Crash site investigation never got any easier thought Frank. The tangled parts, the blood, the stench of burnt flesh mingled with jet fuel, the noise, or sometimes the lack thereof, always pulled at his gut and it took sheer willpower not to retch.