Airframe Chapter 23


"You're a trusted, highly placed executive."

She nodded. If he only knew.

"Now there is an incident Flight 545. Involving an aircraft you say is perfectly safe."


"Yet three people died, and more than fifty were injured."


"The footage, which we've all seen, is horrifying. Your Incident Review Team has been working around the clock. And now we hear you have a finding."

"Yes," she said

"You know what happened on that flight"


She had to do this very, very carefully. Because the truth was she didn't know; she just had a very strong suspicion. They still had to put the sequence together, to verify that things had happened in a certain order, the chain of causation. They didn't know for sure.

"We are close to a finding," Casey said.

"Needless to say, we're eager to hear."

"We will announce it tomorrow," Casey said

Behind the lights, she saw Richman's startled reaction. He hadn't been expecting that The little bastard was trying to see where she was going.

Let him try.

Across the table from her, Reardon turned aside, and Malone whispered in his ear. Reardon nodded turned back to Casey. "Ms. Singleton, if you know now, why wait?"

"Because this was a serious accident, as you yourself said.There's already been a great deal of unwarranted speculation from many sources. Norton Aircraft feels it is important to act responsibly. Before we say anything publicly, we have to confirm our findings at flight Test using the same aircraft that was involved in the accident."

"When will you flight test?'

'Tomorrow morning."

"Ah." Reardon sighed regretfully. "But that's too late for our broadcast. You understand that you're denying your company the opportunity to respond to these serious charges."

Casey had her answer ready. "We've scheduled the flight test for five A.M.," she said. "We'll hold a press conference immediately afterward - tomorrow at noon."

"Noon," Reardon said.

His expression was bland, but she knew he was working it out Noon in LA was 3:00 P.M. in New York. Plenty of time to make the evening news in both New York and Los Angeles. Norton's preliminary finding would be widely reported on both local and network news. And Newsline, which aired at 10:00 P.M. Saturday night, would be out-of-date. Depending on what emerged from the press conference, the Newsline segment, edited the night before, would be ancient history. It might even be embarrassing.

Reardon sighed. "On the other hand," he said, "we want to be fair to you."

"Naturally," Casey said.



"I don't know," Richman said. "I think she may be planning something. She's pretty smart, John." "Not smart enough," Marder said.

"Fuck her," Marder said to Richman. "It doesn't make any difference what she does now."

"But if she's scheduling a flight test - "

"Who cares?" Marder said.

"And I think she's going to let the news crews film it"

"So what? Flight Test will only make the story worse. She has no idea what caused the accident And she has no idea what will happen if she takes that Transpacific plane up. They probably can't reproduce the event And there may be problems nobody knows about"

"Like what?"

_ "That aircraft went through very severe G-force loads," Marder said. "It may have undetected structural damage. Anything can happen, when they take that plane up." Marder made a dismissive wave. "This changes nothing. Newsline airs from ten to eleven Saturday night. Early Saturday evening I'll notify the Board that some bad publicity is coming our way, and we have to schedule an emergency meeting Sunday morning. Hal can't get back from Hong Kong in time. And his friends on the Board will drop him when they hear about a sixteen-billion-dollar deal. They've all got stock. They know what the announcement will do to their shares. I'm the next president of this company, and nobody can do a thing to stop it. Not Hal Edgarton. And certainly not Casey Singleton."


4:20 P.M.

The cameras were packed up; the white foam sheets removed from the ceiling, the microphones unclipped; the electrical boxes and camera cases removed. But the negotiations dragged on. Ed Fuller, the lanky head of Legal, was there; so was Teddy Rawley, the pilot; and two engineers who worked on FT, to answer technical questions that arose.

For Newsline, Malone now did all of the talking; Reardon paced in the background, occasionally stopping to whisper in her ear. His commanding presence seemed to have vanished with the bright lights; he now appeared tired, fretful, and impatient.

Malone began by saying that since Newsline was doing an entire segment on the Norton N-22, it was in the interest of the company to allow Newsline to film the flight test.

Casey said that presented no problem. Flight tests were documented with dozens of video cameras, mounted both inside and outside the plane; the Newsline people could watch the entire test on monitors, on the ground. They could have the film afterward, for their broadcast

No, Malone said. That wouldn't be sufficient. Newsline's crews had to actually be on the plane.

Casey said mat was impossible, that no airframe manufacturer had ever allowed an outside crew on a flight test. She was, she said, already making a concession to let them see the video on the ground

Not good enough, Malone said.

Ed Fuller broke in to explain it was a question of liability. Norton simply couldn't allow uninsured nonemployees on the test. "You realize, of course, there is inherent danger in flight test. It's simply inescapable."

Malone said that Newsline would accept any risk, and sign waivers of liability.

Ed Fuller said he would have to draw up the waivers, but that Newsline's lawyers would have to approve them, and there wasn't time for that.

Malone said she could get approval from Newsline's lawyers in an hour. Any time of the day or night.

Fuller shifted ground. He said if Norton was going to let Newsline see the flight test, he wanted to be sure that the results of that test were accurately reported. He said he wanted to approve the edited film.

Malone said that journalistic ethics forbade that, and in any case there wasn't time. If the flight test ended around noon, she would have to cut film in the truck and transmit it to New York at once.

Fuller said the problem for the company remained. He wanted the flight test portrayed accurately.

They went back and forth. Finally Malone said she would include thirty seconds of unedited comment on the outcome of the flight by a Norton spokesperson. This would be taken from the press conference.

Fuller demanded a minute.

They compromised on forty seconds.

"We have another problem," Fuller said. "If we let you film the flight test, we don't want you to use the tape you obtained today, showing the actual incident."

No way, Malone said. The tape was going to be aired.

"You characterized the tape as having been obtained from a Norton employee," Fuller said. "That's incorrect. We want the provenance accurately stated."

"Well, we certainly got it from someone who works for Norton."

"No," Fuller said, "you didn't"

"It's one of your subcontractors."

"No, it's not I can provide you with the IRS definition of a subcontractor, if you like."

"This is a fine point..."

"We have already obtained a sworn statement from the receptionist, Christine Barron. She is not an employee of Norton Aircraft. She is not, in fact, an employee of Video Imaging. She is a temp from an agency."

"What's the point here?"

"We want you to state the facts accurately: that you obtained the tape from sources outside the company."

Malone shrugged. "As I said, this is a fine point."

"Then what's the problem?"

Malone thought for a minute. "Okay," she said.

Fuller slid a piece of paper across the table. "This brief document conveys that understanding. Sign it."

Malone looked at Reardon. Reardon shrugged.

Malone signed it. "I don't understand what all the fuss is about." She started to push it back to Fuller, and paused.

'Two crews, on the aircraft, during the flight test. Is that our agreement?"

"No," Fuller said. "That was never the agreement. Your crews will watch the test on the ground."

"That won't work for us."

Casey said that the Newsline crews could come to the test area; they could film the preparations, the takeoff and landing. But they couldn't actually come on the plane during the flight.

"Sorry," Malone said.

Teddy Rawley cleared his throat. "I don't think you understand the situation, Ms. Malone," he said. "You can't be walking around filming inside the airplane, during a flight test. Everybody on board has to be strapped in in a four-point harness. You can't even get up to pee. And you can't have lights or batteries, because they generate magnetic fields that might disrupt our readings."

"We don't need lights," she said. "We can shoot available light."

"You don't understand," Rawley said. "It can get pretty hairy up there."

"That's why we have to be mere," Malone said.

Ed Fuller cleared his throat. "Let me be entirely clear, Ms. Malone," he said. "Under no circumstances is this company going to allow your film crew on board that aircraft. It is absolutely out of the question."

Malone's face was rigid, set.

"Ma'am," Rawley said, "you've got to realize, there's a reason we test over the desert. Over large uninhabited spaces?"

"You mean it might crash."

"I mean we don't know what might happen. Trust me on this: you want to be on the ground."

Malone shook her head. "No. We must have our crews on board."

"Ma'am, there's going to be big G-forces - "

Casey said, "There'll be thirty cameras all over the plane. They'll cover every possible angle - cockpit, wings, passenger cabin, everywhere. You're getting exclusive use of the film. No one will know your cameras aren't getting the footage."

Malone glowered, but Casey knew that she had made the point. The woman only cared about the visuals.

"I want to place the cameras," she said.

"Uh-uh," Rawley said.

"I have to be able to say our cameras are on board," Malone said. "I have to be able to say that."

In the end, Casey hammered out a compromise. Newsline would be allowed to position two locked-down cameras, anywhere in the plane, to cover the test flight They would take the feed directly from these cameras. In addition, they would be allowed to use footage from other cameras mounted in the interior. Finally, Newsline would be allowed to shoot a stand-up with Reardon outside Building 64, where the assembly line was located.

Norton would provide transportation for the Newsline crews to the Arizona test facility later in the day; would put them up in a local motel; would transport them to the test facility in the morning; and back to LA in the afternoon.

Malone pushed the paper back to Fuller. "Deal," she said.

Reardon was looking fretfully at his watch as he left with Malone to shoot the stand-up. Casey was alone with Rawley and Fuller in the War Room.

Fuller sighed. "I hope we've made the right decision." He turned to Casey. "I did what you asked, when you called me earlier from the video company."

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"Yes, Ed," she said. "You were perfect."

"But I saw the tape," he said. "It's dreadful. I'm afraid that whatever the flight test shows, that tape will be the only thing anybody remembers."

Casey said, "If anybody ever sees that tape."

"My concern," Fuller said, "is that Newsline will run that tape no matter what."

"I think they won't," Casey said. "Not when we get through with them."

Fuller sighed. "I hope you're right. High stakes."

"Yes," she said. "High stakes."

Teddy said, "You better tell them to bring warm clothing. You, too, babe. And another thing: I watched that woman. She thinks she's going to get on the plane tomorrow."

"Yeah, probably."

"And you, too, right?" Teddy said.

"Maybe," Casey said.

"You better think about this real good," Teddy said. "Because you saw the QAR video, Casey. That airplane exceeded its design G-loads by a hundred and sixty percent. That guy subjected the airframe to forces it was never built to withstand. And tomorrow I'm going to go up and do it again."

She shrugged. "Doherty checked the fuse," she said, "they've X-rayed and - "

"Yeah, he checked," Teddy said. "But not thoroughly. Ordinarily, we'd go over that fuselage for a month, before we put it back in active service. We'd X-ray every join on the plane. That hasn't been done."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying," Teddy said, "that when I put that aircraft through those same G-force loads, there's a chance that the airframe will fail."

"You trying to scare me?" Casey said.

"No, I'm just telling you. This is serious, Casey. Real world. It could happen."


4:55 P.M.

"No aircraft company in history," Reardon said, "has ever permitted a television crew on a flight test. But so important is this test to the future of Norton Aircraft, so confident are they of the outcome, that they have agreed to allow our crews to film. So today, for the first time, we will be seeing footage of the actual plane involved in Flight 545, the controversial Norton N-22 aircraft. Critics say it's a deathtrap. The company says it's safe. The flight test will prove who's right"

Reardon paused.

"Done," Jennifer said.

"You need something for the cut?'


"Where do they do the test, anyway?"


"Okay," Reardon said.

Standing in afternoon sun, before Building 64, he looked down at his feet and said, in a low, confidential voice, "We are here, at the Norton test facility in Yuma, Arizona. It's five o'clock in the morning, and the Norton team is making final preparations to take Flight 545 into the air." He looked up. "What time's dawn?"

"Damned if I know," Jennifer said. "Cover it."

"All right," Reardon said. He looked down at his feet again, and intoned. "In the early predawn, tension mounts. In the predawn darkness, tension mounts. As dawn breaks, tension mounts."

"That should do it," Jennifer said.

"How do you want to handle the wrap?" he said.

"You've got to cover it both ways, Marty."

"I mean do we win, or what?"

"Cover it both ways to be sure."

Reardon looked down at his feet again. "As the aircraft lands, the team is jubilant. Happy faces all around. The flight is successful. Norton has made its point. At least for now." He took a breath. "As the aircraft lands, the team is muted. Norton is devastated. The deadly controversy over the N-22 continues to rage." He looked up. "Enough?"

She said, "You better give me an on-camera about the controversy continues to rage. We can close with that."

"Good idea."

Marty always thought it was a good idea for him to appear on camera. He stood erect, set his jaw, and faced the camera.

"Here, in this building where the N-22 is built, no ... Behind me is the building where ... no. Hold on." He shook his head, faced the camera again.

"And yet, the bitter controversy over the N-22 will not die. Here, in this building where the aircraft is made, workers are confident that it is a safe, reliable aircraft. But critics of the N-22 remain unconvinced. Will there be another harvest of death in the skies? Only time will tell. This is Martin Reardon, for Newsline, Burbank, California."

He blinked.

'Too corny? Too much on the money?"

"Great, Marty."

He was already unclipping his mike, removing the radio pack from his belt. He pecked Jennifer on the cheek. "I'm out of here," he said, and sprinted to the waiting car.

Jennifer turned to her crew. "Pack up, guys," she said. "We're going to Arizona."



4:45 A.M.

A thin streak of red was starting to appear behind the flat range of the Gila Mountains to the east. The sky overhead was deep indigo, a few stars still visible. The air was very cold; Casey could see her breath. She zipped up her windbreaker and stamped her feet, trying to stay warm.

On the runway, lights shone up at the Transpacific wide-body, as the FT team finished installing the video cameras. There were men on the wings, around the engines, by the landing gear.

The Newsline crew was already out, filming the preparations. Malone stood alongside Casey, watching them. "Jesus it's cold," she said.

Casey went into the Right Test Station, a low Spanish-style bungalow beside the tower. Inside, the room was filled with monitors, each displaying the feed from a single camera. Most of the cameras were focused on specific parts - she found the camera on the right locking pin - and so the room had a technical, industrial feeling. It was not very exciting.

"This isn't what I expected," Malone said.

Casey pointed around the room. "There's the cockpit. High mount down. Cockpit, facing back at the pilot. You see Rawley there, in the chair. The interior cabin, looking aft Interior cabin, looking forward. Looking out on right wing. The left wing, Those are your main interiors. And we'll also have the chase plane."

"Chase plane?"

"An F-14 fighter follows the widebody all through the flight, so we'll have those cameras, too."

Malone frowned. "I don't know," she said, in a disappointed voice. "I thought it would be more, you know, glitzy."

"We're still on the ground."

Malone was frowning, unhappy. "These angles on the cabin," she said. "Who will be in there, during the flight?"


"You mean the seats will be empty?"

"Right. It's a test flight."

"That isn't going to look very good," Malone said.

"But that's how it is on a test flight," Casey said. "This is how it's done."

"But it doesn't look good," Malone said. "This isn't compelling. There should be people in the seats. At least, in some of them. Can't we put some people on board? Can't I go on board?"

Casey shook her head. "It's a dangerous flight," she said. "The airframe was badly stressed by the accident. We don't know what will happen."

Malone snorted. "Oh, come on. There aren't any lawyers here. How about it?"

Casey just looked at her. She was a foolish kid who knew nothing about the world, who was just interested in a look, who lived for appearances, who skimmed over surfaces. She knew she should refuse.

Instead, she heard herself say, "You won't like it."

"You're telling me it's not safe?"

"I'm telling you that you won't like it."

"I'm going on," Malone said. She looked at Casey, her expression an open challenge. "So: How about you?'

In her mind, Casey could hear Marty Reardon's voice, as he said, Despite her repeated insistence that the N-22 was safe, Norton's own spokesperson, Casey Singleton, refused to board the plane for the flight test. She said that the reason she wouldn't fly on it was...


Casey didn't have an answer, at least not an answer that would work for television. Not an answer that would play. And suddenly the days of strain, the effort to try and solve the incident, the effort to contrive an appearance for television, the effort to make sure she didn't say a single sentence that could be taken out of context, the distortion of everything in her life for this unwarranted intrusion of television, made her furious. She knew exactly what was coming. Malone had seen the videos, but she didn't understand they were real.

"Okay," Casey said. "Let's go."

They went out to the plane.


5:05 A.M.

Jennifer shivered: it was cold inside the airplane, and under fluorescent lights, the rows of empty seats, the long aisles, made it seem even colder. She was faintly shocked when she recognized, in places, the damage that she had seen on the videotape. This was where it happened, she thought. This was the plane. There were still bloody footprints on the ceiling. Broken luggage bins. Dented fiberglass panels. And a lingering odor. Even worse, in some places the plastic panels had been pulled off around the windows, so that she could see the naked silver padding, the bundles of wires. It was suddenly all too clear that she was in a big metal machine. She wondered if she had made a mistake, but by then Singleton was gesturing for her to take a seat, right in the front of the center cabin, facing a locked-down video camera.

Jennifer sat beside Singleton and waited as one of the Norton technicians, a man in coveralls, tightened the shoulder harness around her body. It was one of those harnesses like the stewardesses wore on regular flights. Two green canvas straps came over each shoulder, meeting at the waist. Then there was another wide canvas strap that went across her thighs. Heavy metal buckles clamped it all in place. It looked serious.

The man in coveralls pulled the straps tight, grunting.

"Jeez," Jennifer said. "Does it have to be that tight?'

"Ma'am, you need it as tight as you can stand it," the man said. "If you can breathe, it's too loose. Can you feel the way it is now?'

"Yes," she said.

"That's how you want it when you put it back on. Now here's your release here..." He showed her. "Pull that now."

"Why do I need to know - "

"Case of emergency. Pull it, please."

She pulled the release. The straps sprang away from her body, the pressure released.

"And just do it up again yourself, if you don't mind."

Jennifer put the contraption back together, just as he had done it before. It wasn't difficult. These people made such a fuss about nothing.

"Now tighten it, please, ma'am."

She pulled the straps.


"If I need it tighter, I'll tighten it later."

"Ma'am," he said, "by the time you realize you need it tighter, it'll be too late. Do it now, please."

Alongside her, Singleton was calmly putting the harness on, cinching it down brutally. The straps dug into Singleton's thighs, pulled hard on her shoulders. Singleton sighed, sat back.

"I believe you ladies are prepared," the man said. "You have a pleasant flight."

He turned, and went out the door. The pilot, that Rawley character, came back from the cockpit, shaking his head.

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