Read Hard Fall Online

Authors: Ridley Pearson

Hard Fall (30 page)

It was at this moment, as the elevator doors closed in the FAA building at nine-thirty on a hot and muggy night in mid-September, that he realized Carrie had been right all along: She needed more of him; Duncan needed more of him; he needed more of himself. He had hoped and prayed for a chance to bring to justice the people responsible for 1023. Now that he had earned such a chance, he felt crushed by the weight of responsibility.

The elevator hummed and belched; the doors growled open like jaws and the two stepped into the quiet brightness of a hallway. The doors gobbled shut behind.

“I meant to apologize for Carrie's behavior,” he said.

Lynn said, “What bothers me is that if we're going to be condemned like that, regardless of our actions, well … If you're going to be hanged for the offense, then you might as well have committed the crime.” She seized his arms, drew him to her, and kissed his mouth. He felt the kiss clear through him, and returned it with no intention of doing so. Down the hall, they heard a door hinge squeak. Lynn slipped away from him, grinning as a sickly-looking short man appeared in the hall and called out, “We're in here.” He had almost no hair, and sagging, discolored skin beneath his eyes. His posture was tired. When they reached him, he offered Daggett a limp handshake as Lynn introduced him as George Hammett. “As in Dashiell,” he said proudly.

They followed Hammett into a sparely furnished lab room. Electronic equipment dominated the walls. Lynn found her way into an empty chair. Daggett remained standing. One of the chairs was occupied by a middle-aged woman with a stenographer's notebook open in her lap. She was introduced as Mrs. Blake. She had graying hair and a sour expression, and was wearing a blue suit. Mickey Tompkins, the lab engineer, reminded Daggett of a math teacher he had once had: disheveled but energetic. Howard Cole, the Duhning Aerospace representative, wore an expensive suit and new shoes. He was about forty-five with sparse hair and a nervous right foot. The remaining man, Don Smith, bright-eyed with gray-flecked hair, was introduced to both of them as a representative of AmAirXpress. Smith had a southern accent. They all took their seats and Hammett explained, “Don's here to help us identify who's talking, in case we pick up something on the CAM that's not on one of the other channels.”

Lynn whispered, “Cockpit area microphone—”

Hammett overheard her and said, “Yes, Mickey, why don't you explain exactly what we'll be listening to.”

Mickey Tompkins directed his explanation to Daggett. “The CVR is a thirty-minute loop of Mylar that records four channels simultaneously.” He pointed to four different VU meters on his console. “Channel one is the pilot's voice, two is the copilot, three is the CAM—an open microphone in the cockpit—and four is the incoming radio traffic.

“We're going to hear the pilot and copilot running through the usual procedures. We'll hear the pre-start checklist, the engine-start checklist, the after-start checklist. The copilot will then request ground control clearance to taxi. We'll get the taxi checklist. The captain will taxi the plane to position and the copilot will switch to tower control. They'll be cleared and they'll run a lineup checklist. The copilot will call for the captain to execute takeoff roll. Listen for those words. I'll signal you. Then we'll hear the copilot say the following: ‘Paver set? … Air speed alive … ninety knots cross-check … V-1 … Rotate.'
Rotate
is what we're waiting for. That's the command to lift the nose ten degrees. When we hear ‘Positive rate,' the plane is aloft. After that, we'll see what happens. We all know there's a fire on board. We've all heard the tower tape. The question is whether the CAM or anything on here will give us a better look at exactly what happened on the flight deck
after
they noticed the fire. The tower tape stops right at the moment the copilot calls out the cockpit fire. Hopefully this one goes further.

“Over here,” Tompkins continued, pointing to another console, “is the DFDR—the flight data recorder. I've set it up so that the two recorders will playback in sync, for the sake of comparison. It's digital, and has a twenty-five-hour repeat interval. It gives us stats on engine performance, acceleration, ground speed, airspeed, heading, altitude, landing gear, rudder—really anything we need.” He glanced at Hammett, who gave the nod to begin.

“We'll just listen the first time, if that's all right,” Hammett cautioned. “Then we'll have some discussion and take another run with some narration. All right,” he said, nodding. Tompkins depressed a button. Daggett marveled at the technology as flight 64 came back to life. The voices were calm and professional. Smith identified the voice of the copilot so they knew who was speaking. Then they listened.

To Daggett, the voices of the pilot and copilot sounded as if they were sitting in the next chairs. He realized that because of the crash, these tapes and this data would be stored permanently by the FAA. For the few, brief final seconds of their lives, these two men were now immortal.

Daggett closed his eyes in an effort to concentrate.

He is the victim again. The man behind the wheel. Not a pilot or a copilot, but a man behind a wheel going about his job. It's hot on the ground and he's anxious to get the bird moving. He says so to the copilot, who ignores the comment and continues running down his lists. The pilot echoes a response. Switches are thrown. Numbers are read. There is boredom in his voice. The haze of Los Angeles spreads out before him across the flat plain of the airfield. He taxis the plane to the line of a dozen or so aircraft waiting to take off. He comments to his partner that it isn't getting any better out here. They'll need to expand the entire airport pretty soon. The copilot switches to tower control and introduces them as 64 Bravo.

Bravo
. It hardly seems to suit the performance of the next ninety seconds.

The line of waiting planes shrinks and AmAirXpress 64 Bravo is cleared for takeoff.

The engines race. Daggett can feel the plane accelerate down the runway as it begins to shudder.

      
COPILOT:
   
Ninety knots cross-check … V-1 … Rotate … Positive rate
.

      
CAPTAIN:
   
Gear up … Flaps to ten
.

      
TOWER:
   
Contact departure now
.

      
COPILOT:
   
Roger. Bill, flap retraction speed. You have speed
.

      
CAPTAIN:
   
Flaps up
.

The two men run the takeoff checklist. The sound is good enough to hear the switches being thrown. Each tick of sound is demonstrated by Tompkins, who is pointing to the graph printout from the DFDR.

      
RADIO:
    
Sixty-four Bravo … turn left to three-five-two. Climb and maintain to one-six thousand
.

      
COPILOT:
    
Roger
—
three-five-two. One-six thousand
. A cough. To Daggett it sounds like a quick cough.

      
CAPTAIN:
    
We've got a fire on the flight deck. Pete, under your seat
.

      
COPILOT:
    
The extinguisher. Fuckin' A!

      
CAPTAIN:
    
Taking evasive action. Request emergency landing
…

Silence, except for the whine of the engines and a loud hissing.

The screaming of the engines and the wind continues as the plane roars toward the ground in an uncontrolled fall.

Daggett watched the DFDR's graph paper mapping out the various on-board instruments. Two of the lines changed radically, and he took these to be altitude and air speed. A moment later, as all the graph lines straighten simultaneously, the tape offers a replay of the horrible impact. Followed by silence.

The plane is down, two men dead. The cargo is spread out on the field. There is fire everywhere. Daggett can remember this much:
Hard Fall
, on his pager.

Those in the small laboratory room of the FAA were silent as well. But their faces registered nothing and Daggett was tempted to scream. Both Lynn Greene and Don Smith were clearly affected by the tape. But the others had faces of stone. Mrs. Blake stopped her transcribing. She studied the end of her ballpoint pen and pulled a piece of lint from its tip.

Hammett rose and fingered the graph paper, studying lines. “Well,” he said, breaking the hard silence. “Let's hear it again.”

Tompkins prepared the equipment and they listened again. After the third time through Hammett said, “Okay, Mickey. Let's hold off a minute.” He got himself comfortable in the chair. “Well?” he asked the others.

Don Smith, the man from AmAirXpress Corp., said, “Not much different than what we got from flight control.”

Lynn jumped in. “Mickey, would you please replay just the CAM track for a moment? Just the last few seconds is good enough; right as they notice the fire.”

Tompkins looked to Hammett for approval, and getting it, rewound the tape and singled out the one track. Daggett heard it differently, with the voices pushed into the background and the engine noise brought more immediately to the foreground. The cough—or was it a pop?—seemed more definite.

“Anybody have an explanation for that sound?” Lynn asked.

Hammett asked, “Familiar to you, Mickey?”

“No, it isn't. I assume it's something in the controls catching fire.”

“Agreed.”

Tompkins added, “There's nothing to support that, however, on the DFDR. Instruments appear normal.”

Lynn said boldly, “If it's not on the DFDR, Mickey, then the possibility exists, doesn't it, that the source of the fire is
external
from the instruments and flight control panels? Something inside the cockpit but not something connected directly to the flight of the aircraft, and therefore the DFDR?”

“I'd say that's
more
than possible,” Tompkins replied.

Hammett tensed. He faced the nervous man from Duhning. “And you, Mr. Cole? Is that a familiar cockpit sound to you?”

“No. If I had to make a quick guess, I would say that maybe one of the pieces of cargo blew. Something back in the hold.” He sounded asthmatic.

“It's too present for that,” Tompkins corrected. “Audibly speaking. A noise from the hold wouldn't sound that clear on the CAM. Whatever the source, it's no more than three to five feet from the CAM.”

“Let's listen again,” Hammett suggested. “From the start. One line at a time, or whatever you feel appropriate, Mickey. Comments would be appreciated, people.” Tompkins worked the machinery. He stopped the playback after each line.

      
RADIO:
    
Six-four Bravo, you're cleared for taxi
.

      
COPILOT:
    
Roger. Thanks fellas
.

Cole, the Duhning man with the nervous foot, explained, “These first few exchanges are between copilot and pilot. The crew has been cleared to taxi. They run the taxi checklist for the next few minutes as they taxi to the end of the runway.”

Smith added in his southern accent, “That voice is Peter's. The copilot.”

Hammett asked, “Any need to hear the checklist?”

Cole answered, “No, sir, there is not. We've already listened to the lists three times. There is nothing out of the ordinary there.”

Tompkins fast-forwarded the tape through the checklist. No one laughed at the chipmunk sound of the voices.

As the tape began at speed again, Cole said, “Okay, what you just heard at the end there was the crew being switched over from ground to tower control.

      
COPILOT:
    
Tower, this is sixty-four Bravo. We're ready for takeoff down here, gentlemen
.

      
RADIO:
    
Roger, sixty-four Bravo. Proceed to runway one-six. You are cleared for takeoff
.

      
COPILOT:
    
One-six, tower?

      
RADIO:
    
Affirmative. One-six
.

      
COPILOT:
    
Roger
.

Cole explained the lineup checklist. The pilot and copilot ran a dozen more checks, repeating each other's words. Distinct clicks were heard as adjustments and settings were crosschecked by the team. “Rewind just that last part, please. Just the last command. What we'll hear now is the copilot call out to execute the takeoff roll. At this point the plane starts to move.”

      
COPILOT:
    
Execute takeoff roll
.

“And he'll continue to run through the necessary crosschecks.”

      
COPILOT:
    
Power set … Airspeed alive … Ninety knots cross-check
…

Hammett said, “That's the airspeed indicator. They're ready to go.”

Daggett could hear the plane shudder as it roared down the runway. He felt himself pushing back in his seat—the sound was that real.

      
COPILOT:
    
V-1
…
Rotate
…

“That's the call for takeoff decision. The captain pulls the nose up at this point.”

The sound changed dramatically as Daggett pictured the wheels lifting off the safety of the tarmac. The plane was clearly aloft. He could feel it in the pit of his stomach—like the queasy flutter in an elevator.

      
COPILOT:
    
Positive rate
…

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