Airframe Chapter 16

Marder said, "You explain it, Casey."

Casey had been appalled by Marder's explosion. Marder was famously bad tempered, but it was a major tactical error to blow up in front of a reporter. And now, still red faced and huffing behind his desk, Marder said, "You explain it, Casey."

She turned to face Malone.

"Ms. Malone," Casey said, "I think everyone here is deeply committed to flight safety." She hoped that would explain Marder's outburst. "We're committed to product safety, and the N-22 has an excellent safety record. And if something does go wrong with one of our planes - "

"Something did go wrong," Malone said, looking evenly at Casey.

"Yes," Casey said. "And we're investigating that incident now. I'm on the team conducting that investigation, and we are working around the clock to understand what happened."

"You mean why the slats extended? But you must know. It's happened so many times before."

Casey said, "At this point - "

"Listen," Marder said, breaking in, "it wasn't the damn slats. Frederick Barker is a hopeless alcoholic and a paid liar who works for a sleazebag lawyer. No one in his right mind would listen to him."

Casey bit her lip. She couldn't contradict Marder in front of the reporter, but -

Malone said, "If it wasn't the slats - "

"It wasn't the slats," Marder said firmly. "We'll issue a preliminary report in the next twenty-four hours that will conclusively demonstrate that."

Casey thought: What? What was he saying? There was no such thing as a preliminary report.

"Really," Malone said, softly.

"That's right," Marder said. "Casey Singleton's the press liaison on the IRT. We'll be getting back to you, Ms. Malone."

Malone seemed to realize that Marder was terminating the interview. She said, "But there's much more, we need to go over, Mr. Marder. There is also the Miami rotor burst. And union opposition to the China sale - "

"Oh, come on," Marder said.

"Given the seriousness of these charges," she continued, "I think that you may want to consider our offer to give your president, Mr. Edgarton, an opportunity to respond."

"That's not going to happen," Marder said.

"It's for your own benefit," Malone said. "If we have to say that the president refused to talk to us, that sounds - "

"Look," Marder said. "Let's cut the crap. Without Trans-Pacific, you have no story. And we are going to issue a preliminary report on Transpacific tomorrow. You'll be informed when. That's all we have for the moment, Ms. Malone. Thank you for coming by."

The interview was over.


12:43 P.M.

"I can't believe that woman," Marder said, after Malone had gone. "She isn't interested in the facts. She isn't interested in the FAA. She isn't interested in how we build airplanes. She's just doing a hatchet job. Is she working for Airbus? That's what I want to know."

"John," Casey said, "about the preliminary finding - " "Forget it," Marder snapped. "I'll deal with it. You go back to work. I'll talk to the tenth floor, get some input, arrange a few things. We'll talk later today." "But John," Casey said, "you told her it wasn't the slats." "It's my problem," Marder said. "You go back to work."

When Casey was gone, Marder called Edgarton.

"My flight's in an hour," Edgarton said. "I'm going to Hong Kong to show my concern for the families of the deceased by personally visiting them. Talk to the carrier, express my sympathies to the relatives."

"Good idea, Hal," Marder said.

"Where are we on this press thing?"

"Well, it's as I suspected," Marder said. "Newsline is putting together a story that's extremely critical of the N-22."

"Can you stop it?'

"Absolutely. No question," Marder said.

"How?" Edgarton said.

"We'll issue a preliminary report that it wasn't slats. Our preliminary will say the accident was caused by a counterfeit cowl on the thrust reversers."

"Is there a bad cowl on the plane?"

"Yes. But it didn't cause the accident"

"That's fine," Edgarton said. "A bad part is fine. Just so it's not a Norton problem."

"Right," Marder said.

"And the girl's going to say that?"

"Yes," Marder said.

"She better," Edgarton said. "Because it can be tricky talking to these pricks."

"Reardon," Marder said. "It's Marty Reardon."

"Whatever. She knows what to say?"


"You've briefed her?"

"Yes. And I'll go over it with her again later."

"Okay," Edgarton said. "I also want her to see that media training woman."

"I don't know, Hal, do you really think - "

"Yes, I do," Edgarton said, cutting in. "And so do you. Singleton should be fully prepared for the interview."

"Okay," Marder said.

"Just remember," Edgarton said. "You fuck this up, you're dead."

He hung up.


1:04 P.M.

Outside the Administration building, Jennifer Malone got into her car, more distressed than she cared to admit. She now felt it was unlikely the company would produce the president. And she was worried - she had the feeling - that they might make Singleton their spokesperson.

That could alter the emotional tenor of the segment. The audience wanted to see beefy, arrogant captains of industry get their just deserts. An intelligent, earnest, attractive woman wouldn't play nearly as well. Were they smart enough to know that?

And, of course, Marty would attack her.

That wouldn't look so good, either.

Just imagining the two of them together gave Jennifer the shivers. Singleton was bright, with an appealing, open quality. Marty'd be attacking motherhood and apple pie. And you couldn't hold Marty back. He'd go for the throat.

But beyond that, Jennifer was starting to worry that the entire segment was weak. Barker had been so convincing when she interviewed him; she had felt elated afterward. But if these ADs were for real, then the company was on solid ground. And she worried about Barker's record. If the FAA had the goods on him, then his credibility was shot. They'd look foolish giving him airtime.

The reporter, Jack Whatshisname, was disappointing. He didn't play well on camera, and his material was thin. Because in the end, nobody gave a damn about drugs on the factory floor. Every company in America had drug problems. That wasn't news. And it didn't prove the airplane was bad - which was what she needed. She needed vivid, persuasive visuals to demonstrate that airplane was a deathtrap.

She didn't have them.

So far, all she had was the CNN tape, which was old news, and the Miami rotor burst, which was not very compelling visually. Smoke coming out from a wing.

Big deal.

Worst of all, if the company really was going to issue a preliminary finding that contradicted Barker -

Her cell phone rang.

"Speak to me," Dick Shenk said.

"Hi, Dick," she said.

"So? Where are we?" Shenk said. "I'm looking at the board right now. Marty finishes with Bill Gates in two hours."

Some part of her wanted to say, Forget it. The story's flaky. It isn't coming together. I was dumb to think I could nail it in two days.

"Jennifer? Do I send him, or not?"

But she couldn't say no. She couldn't admit she had been wrong. He'd kill her if she backed off the story now. Everything about the way she had made her proposal, and the cool way she had walked out of his office, forced her hand now. There was only one possible answer.

"Yes, Dick. I want him."

"You'll have the piece for Saturday?"

"Yes, Dick."

"And it's not a parts story?"

"No, Dick."

"Because I don't want sloppy seconds on 60 Minutes, Jennifer. It better not be a parts story."

"It's not, Dick."

"I don't hear confidence," he said.

"I'm confident, Dick. I'm just tired."

"Okay. Marty leaves Seattle at four. He'll be at the hotel about eight. Have the shoot schedule ready when he arrives and fax me a copy at home. You've got him all tomorrow."

"Okay, Dick."

"Nail it, babe," he said, and hung up.

She flipped the phone shut, and sighed.

She turned on the ignition, and put the car in reverse.

Casey saw Malone backing out of the parking lot. She was driving a black Lexus, the same car Jim drove. Malone didn't see her, which was just as well. Casey had a lot on her mind.

She was still trying to figure out what Marder was doing. He had blown up at the reporter, told her it wasn't a slats incident, and told her there was going to be a preliminary finding from the IRT. How could he say that? Marder had bravado to spare, but this time he was digging a hole. She didn't understand how his behavior could do anything but damage the company - and himself.

And John Marder, she knew, never damaged himself.



Norma listened to Casey for several minutes without interruption. Finally she said, "And what's your question?'

"I think Marder's going to make me the spokesman for the company."

"Par for the course," Norma said. "The big guys always run for cover. Edgarton will never do it. And Marder won't, either. You're the press liaison for the IRT. And you're a vice-president of Norton Aircraft. That's what it will say at the bottom of the screen."

Casey was silent.

Norma looked at her. "What's your question?" she said again.

"Marder told the reporter that TPA 545 wasn't a slats problem," she said, "and that we were going to have a preliminary report by tomorrow."


"It's not true."


"Why is Marder doing this?" Casey said. "Why did he set me up for this?"

"Saving his skin," Norma said. "Probably avoiding a problem he knows about, and you don't."

"What problem?"

Norma shook her head. "My guess is something about the plane. Marder was program manager on the N-22. He knows more about that aircraft than any other person in the company. There may be something he doesn't want to come out."

"So he announces a phony finding?"

"That's my guess."

"And I'm the one carrying the water?"

"Looks like it," Norma said.

Casey was silent. "What should I do?'

"Figure it out," Norma said, squinting through the smoke of her cigarette.

"There's no time..."

Norma shrugged. "Find out what happened to that flight. Because your tail is on the line, honey. That's how Marder's set it up."

Walking down the hall, she saw Richman.

"Well, hi - "

"Later," she said.

She went into her office and shut the door. She picked up a photograph of her daughter and stared at it In the picture, Allison had just emerged from a neighbor's swimming pool. She stood with another girl her age, both of them in swimming suits, dripping water. Sleek young bodies, smiling gap-toothed faces, carefree and innocent.

Casey pushed the picture aside, turned to a large box on her desk; opening it, she removed a black portable CD player, with a neoprene sling. There were wires that ran to a strange pair of goggles. They were oversize, and looked like safety goggles, except they didn't wrap around. And there was a funny coating on the inside of the lenses, sort of shimmery in the light This, she knew, was the maintenance Heads-Up Display. A card from Tom Korman fell out of the box'. It said, "First test of VHUD. Enjoy!"


She pushed the goggles aside, looked at the other papers on her desk. The CVR transcript of cockpit communications had finally come in. She also saw a copy of Transpacific Flight-lines. There was a postit on one page.

She flipped it open to the picture of John Chang, employee of the month. The picture was not what she had imagined from the fax. John Chang was a very fit man in his forties. His wife stood beside him, heavier, smiling. And the children, crouched at the parents' feet, were fully grown: a girl in her late teens, and a boy in his early twenties. The son resembled his father, except he was a little more contemporary; he had extremely closely cropped hair, a tiny gold stud in his ear.

She looked at the caption: "Here he relaxes on the beach at Lantan Island with his wife, Soon, and his children, Erica and Tom."

In front of the family a blue towel was spread across the sand; nearby, a wicker picnic basket, with blue-checked cloth peeking out. The scene was mundane and uninteresting.

Why would anyone fax this to her?

She looked at the date on the magazine. January, three months ago.

But someone had had a copy of that magazine, and had faxed it to Casey. Who? An employee of the airline? A passenger? Who?

And why?

What was it supposed to tell her?

As Casey looked at the magazine picture, she was reminded of the unresolved threads of the investigation. There was a great deal of checking still to do, and she might as well get started.

Norma was right.

Casey didn't know what Marder was up to. But maybe it didn't matter. Because her job was still the same as it had always been: to find out what happened to Flight 545.

She came out of the office. "Where's Richman?" Norma smiled. "I sent him over to Media Relations to see Benson. Pick up some standard press packets, in case we need them."

"Benson's got to be pissed off about this," Casey said.

"Uh-huh," Norma said. "Might even give Mr. Richman a hard time." She smiled, looked at her watch. "But I'd say you've got an hour or so, to do what you want. So get going."


3:05 P.M.

"So. Singleton," Ziegler said, waving her to a seat. After five minutes of pounding on the soundproof door, she had been admitted to the Audio Lab. "I believe we found what you were looking for," Ziegler said.

On the monitor in front of her she saw a freeze-frame of the smiling baby, sitting on the mother's lap.

"You wanted the period just prior to the incident," Ziegler said. "Here we're approximately eighteen seconds prior. I'll start with full audio, and then cut in the filters. Ready?"

"Yes," she said.

Ziegler ran the tape. At high volume, the baby's slobbering was like a bubbling brook. The hum inside the cabin was a constant roar. 'Taste good?" the man's voice said to the baby, very loudly.

"Cutting in," Ziegler said. "High-end bypass."

The sound got duller.

"Cabin ambient bypass."

The slobbering was suddenly loud against a silent background, the cabin roar gone.

"High delta-V bypass."

The slobbering was diminished. What she heard now were mostly background sounds - silverware clinking, fabric movement.

The man said, "Is - at - akfast - or you - arah?" His voice cut in and out.

"Delta-V bypass is no good for human speech," Ziegler said. "But you don't care, right?"

"No," Casey said.

The man said, "Not - ailing - or - ewardess - on - is -  ightr

When the man finished, the screen became almost silent again, just a few distant noises.

"Now," Ziegler said. "It starts."

A counter appeared on the screen. The timer ran forward, red numerals flickering fast, counting tenths and hundredths of a second.

The wife jerked her head around. "What - wa - at?"

"Damn," Casey said.

She could hear it now. A low rumble, a definite shuddering bass sound.

"It's been thinned by the bypass," Ziegler said. "Deep, low rumble. Down in the two to five hertz range. Almost a vibration."

No question, Casey thought. With the filters in place, she could hear it. It was there.

The man's voice broke in, a booming laugh: "Ake it -  easy - Em."

The baby giggled again, a sharp earsplitting crackle.

The husband said," - ost - ome - oney."

The low-pitched rumbling ended.

"Stop!" Casey said.

The red numerals froze. The numbers were big on the screen - 11:59:32.

Nearly twelve seconds, she thought. And twelve seconds was the time it took for the slats to fully deploy.

The slats had deployed on Flight 545.

By now, the tape was showing the steep descent, the baby sliding on the mother's lap, the mother clutching it, her panicked face. The passengers anxious in the background. With the filters in place, all their shouts produced unusual clipped-off noise, almost like static.

Ziegler stopped the tape.

"There's your data, Singleton. Unequivocal, I'd say."

"The slats deployed."

"Sure sounds like it. It's a fairly unique signature."

"Why?" The aircraft was in cruise flight. Why would they deploy? Was it uncommanded, or had the pilot done it? Casey wished again for the flight data recorder. All these questions could be answered in a few minutes, if they just had the data from the FDR. But it was going very slowly.

"Did you look at the rest of the tape?"

"Well, the next point of interest is the cockpit alarms," Ziegler said. "Once the camera jams in the door, I can listen to the audio, and assemble a sequence of what the aircraft was telling the pilot. But that'll take me another day."

"Stay with it," she said. "I want everything you can give me."

Then her beeper went off. She pulled it off her belt, looked at it.


John Marder wanted to see her. In his office. Now.


5:00 P.M.

John Marder was in his calm mood - the dangerous one.

"Just a short interview," he said. 'Ten, fifteen minutes at most. You won't have time to go into specifics. But as the head of the IRT, you're in the perfect position to explain the company's commitment to safety. How carefully we review accidents. Our commitment to product support. Then you can explain that our preliminary report shows the accident was caused by a counterfeit thruster cowl, installed at a foreign repair station, so it could not have been a slats event. And blow Barker out of the water. Blow Newsline out of the water."

"John," she said. "I just came from Audio. There's no question - the slats deployed."

"Well, audio's circumstantial at best," Marder said. "Ziegler's a nut. We have to wait for the flight data recorder to know precisely what happened. Meanwhile, the IRT has made a preliminary finding which excludes slats."

As if hearing her own voice from a distance, she said, "John, I'm uncomfortable with this."

"We're talking about the future, Casey."

"I understand, but - "

"The China sale will save the company. Cash flow, stretch development, new aircraft, bright future. That's what we're talking about here, Casey. Thousands of jobs."

"I understand, John, but - "

"Let me ask you something, Casey. Do you think there's anything wrong with the N-22?"

Absolutely not."

"You think it's a deathtrap?"


"What about the company? Think it's a good company?"

"Of course."

He stared at her, shaking his head. Finally he said, "There's someone I want you to talk to."

Edward Fuller was the head of Norton Legal. He was a thin, ungainly man of forty. He sat uneasily in the chair in Marder's office.

"Edward," Marder said, "we have a problem. Newsline is going to run a story on the N-22 this weekend on prime-time television, and it is going to be highly unfavorable."

"How unfavorable?"

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