Airframe Chapter 7

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Deploy Mr. Ingram's slats."

The instructor reached over and pushed a button.

Felix turned to Casey. "Watch carefully, please."

On the video screen, the pilot remained casual, unconcerned. But a few seconds later, he leaned forward, suddenly alert, frowning at his controls.

Felix pointed to the instructor's console, and the array of screens. "Here you can see what he is seeing. On his Flight Management display, the slats indicator is flashing. And he's noticed it. Meanwhile, you see the plane gives a slight nose up..."

The hydraulics whirred, and the big cone of the simulator tilted upward a few degrees.

"Mr. Ingram now checks his slats lever, as he should. He finds it is up and locked, which is puzzling, since it means he has an uncommanded slats deploy ..."

The simulator remained tilted up.

"So Mr. Ingram is thinking it over. He has plenty of time to decide what to do. The aircraft is quite stable on autopilot Let's see what he decides. Ah. He decides to play with his controls. He pulls the slats lever down, then up... He's trying to clear the warning. But that doesn't change anything. So. He now realizes he has a system problem on his aircraft. But he remains calm. He's still thinking ... What will he do? ... He changes the autopilot params ... he descends to a lower altitude, and reduces his airspeed... absolutely correct... He is still in the nose-up attitude, but now at more favorable conditions of altitude and speed. He decides to try the slats lever again..."

The instructor said, "Should I let him off the hook?'

"Why not?" Felix said "I believe we have made the point."

The instructor punched a button. The simulator tilted back to level.

"And so," Felix said, "Mr. Ingram is restored to normal flight. He makes a note of his problem for the maintenance crews, and he continues on his way to London."

"But he stayed in the autopilot" Casey said. "What if he went out of it?"

"Why should he do that? He's in cruise flight; the autopilot has been operating the plane for at least half an hour."

"But suppose he did."

Felix shrugged, turned to the instructor. "Fail his autopilot."

"Yes, sir."

An audible alarm sounded. On the video screen, they saw the pilot look at the controls and take the stick in his hands. The audible alarm ended; the cockpit became silent. The pilot continued to hold the stick.

"Is he flying the plane now?" Felix asked.

"Yes, sir," the instructor said. "He's at FL two-ninety, point seven-one Mach, with autopilot disabled."

"Okay," Felix said. "Deploy his slats."

The instructor pushed a button.

On the systems monitor in the training console, the slats warning flashed, first amber, then white. Casey looked at the adjacent video screen and saw the pilot leaning forward. He had noticed the warning in the cockpit.

"Now," Felix said. "Once again we see the aircraft nose-up, but this time Mr. Ingram must control it himself ... So he brings the stick back ... very slightly, very delicately ... Good... and now he is stable."

He turned to Casey. "You see?" He shrugged. "It is very puzzling. Whatever happened to that Transpacific flight, it cannot be the slats. And not thrusters either. In either case, the autopilot will compensate and maintain control. I tell you, Casey, what happened to that aircraft is a mystery."

Back in the sunlight, Felix walked over to his Jeep, with a surfboard on top. "I have a new Henley board," he said. "Like to see it?"

"Felix," she said. "Marder is starting to scream."

"So? Let him. He enjoys it."

"What do you think happened to 545?"

"Well. Let us be frank. Flight characteristics of an N-22 are such that if slats deploy at cruise speed, and the captain goes out of the autopilot the aircraft is rather sensitive. You remember, Casey. You did the study on it, three years ago. Right after we made the final fix on the slats."

"That's right" she said, thinking back. "We put together a special team to review flight stability issues on the N-22. But we concluded there wasn't a control-sensitivity problem, Felix."

"And you were correct" Felix said. "There is no problem. All modern aircraft maintain flight stability with computers. A jet fighter cannot be flown at all without computers. Fighters are inherently unstable. Commercial transports are less sensitive, but even so, computers shift fuel, adjust attitude, adjust CG, adjust thrust on the engines. Moment to moment the computers continuously make small changes, to stabilize the aircraft."

"Yes," Casey said, "but the planes can be flown out of autopilot as well."

"Absolutely," Felix said. "And we train our captains to do that. Because the aircraft is sensitive, when the nose goes up, the captain must very gently bring it back again. If he corrects too strongly, the plane noses over. In that case he must pull up, but again, very gently, or he is likely to overcorrect, so the plane would climb sharply then nose down once more. And this is precisely the pattern that occurred on the Transpacific flight."

"You're saying it was pilot error."

"Ordinarily I would think so, except the pilot was John Chang."

"He's a good pilot?'

"No," Felix said. "John Chang is a superb pilot. I see a lot of pilots here, and some are truly gifted. It's more than quick reflexes and knowledge and experience. It's more than skill. It's a kind of instinct. John Chang is one of the five or six best captains I have ever trained on this aircraft, Casey. So whatever happened to Flight 545, it cannot be pilot error. Not with John Chang in the chair. I am sorry, but in this case, it has to be a problem with the aircraft, Casey. It has to be that aircraft."



As they walked back across the vast parking lot, Casey was lost in thought.

"So," Richman said, after a while. "Where are we?"


No matter how she put the evidence together, that was the conclusion she came to. They had nothing solid so far. The pilot had said it was turbulence, but it wasn't turbulence. A passenger gave a story consistent with slats deployment, but slats deployment couldn't explain the terrible damage to the passengers. The stewardess said the captain fought the autopilot, which Trung said only an incompetent captain would do. Felix said the captain was superb.


They were nowhere.

Beside her, Richman trudged along, not saying anything. He had been quiet all morning. It was as if the puzzle of Flight 545, so intriguing to him yesterday, had now proven too complex.

But Casey was not discouraged. She had come to this point many times before. It was no surprise the early evidence appeared to conflict. Because aircraft accidents were rarely caused by a single event or error. The IR teams expected to find event cascades: one thing leading to another, and then another. In the end, the final story would be complex: a system failed; a pilot responded; the aircraft reacted unexpectedly, and the plane got in trouble.

Always a cascade.

A long chain of small errors and minor mishaps.

She heard the whine of a jet. Looking up, she saw a Norton widebody silhouetted against the sun. As it passed over her, she saw the yellow Transpacific insignia on the tail. It was the ferry flight from LAX. The big jet landed gently, puffed smoke at the wheels, and headed toward Maintenance Hangar 5.

Her beeper went off. She unclipped it from her belt.


"Oh hell," she said. "Let's find a TV." "Why? What's the matter?" Richman said. "We have trouble."


9:20 A.M.

'This was the scene just moments ago at Miami International Airport when a Sunstar Airlines jet burst into flames, after its left starboard engine exploded without warning, showering the crowded runway with a hail of deadly shrapnel."

"Aw, blow me!" Kenny Burne shouted. A half-dozen engineers were crowded around the TV set, blocking Casey's view as she came into the room.

"Miraculously, none of the two hundred and seventy passengers on board were injured. The N-22 Norton widebody was revving for takeoff when passengers noticed clouds of black smoke coming from the engine. Seconds later, the plane was rocked by an explosion as the left starboard engine literally blew to pieces, and was quickly engulfed in flames."

The screen didn't show that, it just showed an N-22 aircraft, seen from a distance, with dense black smoke gushing from beneath the wing.

"Left starboard engine," Burne snarled. "As opposed to the right starboard engine, you silly twit?"

The TV now showed close-ups of passengers milling around the terminal. There were quick cuts. A young boy of seven or eight said, "All the people got excited, because of the smoke." Then they cut to a teenage girl who shook her head, tossing her hair over her shoulder, and said, "It was rully, rully scary. I just saw the smoke and, like, I was rully scared." The interviewer said, "What were your thoughts when you heard the explosion?" "I was rully scared," the girl said. "Did you think it was a bomb?" she was asked. "Absolutely," she said. "A terrorist bomb."

Kenny Burne spun on his heel, throwing his hands in the air. "Do you believe this shit? They're asking kids what they thought. This is the news. 'What did you think?' 'Golly, I swallowed my popsicle.'" He snorted. "Airplanes that kill -  and the travelers who love them!"

On the screen, the TV program now showed an elderly woman who said, "Yes, I thought I was going to die. Of course, you have to think that." Then a middle-aged man: "My wife and I prayed. Our whole family knelt down on the runway and thanked the Lord." "Were you frightened?" the interviewer asked. "We thought we were going to die," the man said. "The cabin was filled with smoke - it's a miracle we escaped with our lives."

Bume was yelling again: "You asshole! In a car you would have died. In a nightclub you would have died. But not in a Norton widebody! We designed it so you'd escape with your miserable fucking life!"

"Calm down," Casey said. "I want to hear this." She was listening intently, waiting to see how far they'd take the story.

A strikingly beautiful Hispanic woman in a beige Armani suit stood facing the camera, holding up a microphone: "While passengers now appear to be recovering from their ordeal, their fate was far from certain earlier this afternoon, when a Norton widebody blew up on the runway, orange flames shooting high into the sky ..."

The TV again showed the earlier telephoto shot of the plane on the runway, with smoke billowing from under the wing. It looked about as dangerous as a doused campfire.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" Kenny said. "A Norton widebody exploded? A Sunstar piece-of-shit engine exploded." He pointed to the screen image. "That's a goddamn rotor burst, and the blade fragments broke through the cowling which is just what I told them would happenl"

Casey said, "You told them?"

"Hell yes," Kenny said. "I know all about this. Sunstar bought six engines from AeroCivicas last year. I was the Norton consultant on the deal. I borescoped the engines and found a shitload of damage - blade notch breakouts and vane cracks. So I told Sunstar to reject them." Kenny was waving his hands. "But why pass up a bargain?" he said. "Sunstar rebuilt them instead. During teardown, we found a lot of corrosion, so the paper on the overseas overhauls was probably faked. I told them again: Junk 'em. But Sunstar put them on the planes. So now the rotor blows - big fucking surprise -  and the fragments cut into the wing, so that nonflammable hydraulic fluid is smoking. It ain't on fire because the fluid won't burn. And it's our fault?'

He spun, pointing back to the screen.

"... seriously frightening all two hundred and seventy passengers on board. Fortunately, there were no injuries ..."

"That's right," Burne said. "No penetration of the fuse, lady. No injury to anybody. The wing absorbed it - our wing!"

"... and we are waiting to speak to officials from the airline about this frightening tragedy. More later. Back to you, Ed."

The camera cut back to the newsroom, where a sleek anchorman said, "Thank you, Alicia, for that up-to-the-minute report on the shocking explosion at Miami Airport. We'll have more details as they emerge. Now back to our regularly scheduled program."

Casey sighed, relieved.

"I can't believe this horseshitl" Kenny Burne shouted. He turned and stomped out of the room, banging the door behind him.

"What's his problem?" Richman said.

"For once, I'd say he's justified," Casey said. "The fact is, if there's an engine problem, it's not Norton's fault."

"What do you mean? He said he was the consultant - "

"Look," Casey said. "You have to understand: We build airframes. We don't build engines and we don't repair them. We have nothing to do with engines."

"Nothing? I hardly think - "

"Our engines are supplied by other companies - GE, Pratt and Whitney, Rolls-Royce. But reporters never understand that distinction."

Richman looked skeptical. "It seems like a fine point..."

"It's nothing of the sort. If your electricity goes out, do you call the gas company? If your tires blow, do you blame the car maker?"

"Of course not," Richman said, "but it's still your airplane - engines and all."

"No, it's not," Casey said. "We build the plane, and then install the brand of engine the customer selects. Just the way you can put any one of several brands of tires on your car. But if Michelin makes a batch of bad tires, and they blow out, that's not Ford's fault. If you let your tires go bald and get in an accident, that's not Ford's fault And it's exactly the same with us."

Richman was still looking unconvinced.

"All we can do," Casey said, "is certify that our planes fly safely with the engines we install. But we can't force carriers to maintain those engines properly over the life of the aircraft. That's not our job - and understanding that is fundamental to knowing what actually occurred. The fact is, the reporter got the story backward."

"Backward? Why?'

"That aircraft had a rotor burst" Casey said. "Fan blades broke off the rotor disk and the cowling around the engine didn't contain the fragments. The engine blew because it wasn't correctly maintained. It should never have happened. But our wing absorbed the flying fragments, protecting passengers in the cabin. So the real meaning of this event is that Norton aircraft are so well built that they protected two hundred and seventy passengers from a bad engine. We're actually heroes - but Norton stock will fall tomorrow. And some of the public may be afraid to fly on a Norton aircraft. Is that an appropriate response to what actually happened? No. But it's an appropriate response to what's being reported. That's frustrating for people here."

"Well," Richman said, "at least they didn't mention Trans-Pacific."

Casey nodded. That had been her first concern, the reason she had rushed across the parking lot to the TV set. She wanted to know if the news reports would link the Miami rotor burst to the TPA in-flight incident the day before. That hadn't happened - at least not yet. But sooner or later, it would.

"We'll start getting calls now," she said. "The cat is out of the bag."


9:40 A.M.

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There were a dozen security guards standing outside Hangar 5, where the Transpacific jet was being inspected. But this was standard procedure whenever a RAMS team from Recovery and Maintenance Services entered the plant. RAMS teams circled the globe, troubleshooting stranded aircraft; they were FAA-licensed to repair them in the field. But since members were chosen for expertise rather than seniority, they were non-union; and there was often friction when they came into the factory.

Within the hangar, the Transpacific widebody stood in the glare of halogen lights, nearly hidden behind a gridwork of roll-up scaffolding. Technicians swarmed over every part of the plane. Casey saw Kenny Burne working the engines, cursing his powerplant crew. They had deployed the two thrust reverser sleeves that flared out from the nacelle, and were doing fluorescent and conductivity tests on the curved metal cowls.

Ron Smith and the electrical team were standing on a raised platform beneath the midships belly. Higher up, she saw Van Trung through the cockpit windows, his crew testing the avionics.

And Doherty was out on the wing, leading the structure team. His group had used a crane to remove an eight-foot aluminum section, one of the inboard slats.

"Big bones," Casey said to Richman. "They inspect the biggest components first."

"It looks like they're tearing it apart," Richman said.

A voice behind them. "It's called destroying the evidence!"

Casey turned. Ted Rawley, one of the flight test pilots, sauntered up. He was wearing cowboy boots, a western shirt, dark sunglasses. Like most of the test pilots, Teddy cultivated an air of dangerous glamour.    

"This is our chief test pilot," Casey said. 'Teddy Rawley. They call him Rack 'em Rawley."

"Hey," Teddy protested. "I haven't drilled a hole yet. Anyway, it's better than Casey and the Seven Dwarfs."

"Is that what they call her?" Richman said, suddenly interested.

"Yeah. Casey and her dwarfs." Rawley gestured vaguely to the engineers. "The little fellas. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho." He turned away from the plane, punched Casey on the shoulder. "So: How you doing, kid? I called you the other day."

"I know," she said. "I've been busy."

"I'll bet you have," Teddy said. "I bet Marder's got the screws on everybody. So: What've the engineers found? Wait a minute, let me guess - they found absolutely nothing, right? Their beautiful plane is perfect. So: Must be pilot error, am I right?"

Casey said nothing. Richman looked uncomfortable.

"Hey," Teddy said. "Don't be shy. I've heard it all before. Let's face it, the engineers are all card-carrying members of the Screw the Pilots Club. That's why they design planes to be practically automatic. They just hate the idea that somebody might actually fly them. It's so untidy, to have a warm body in the seat. Makes 'em crazy. And of course, if anything bad happens, it must be the pilot. Gotta be the pilot. Am I right?"

"Come on, Teddy," she said. "You know the statistics. The overwhelming majority of accidents are caused by - "

It was at that point that Doug Doherty, crouched on the wing above them, leaned over and said dolefully, "Casey, bad news. You'll want to see this."

"What is it?"

"I'm pretty sure I know what went wrong on Flight 545."

She climbed the scaffolding and walked out on the wing. Doherty was crouched over the leading edge. The slats were now removed, exposing the innards of the wing structure.

She got down on her hands and knees next to him, and looked.

The space for the slats was marked by a series of drive tracks - little rails, spaced three feet apart, that the slats slid out on, driven by hydraulic pistons. At the forward end of the rail was a rocker pin, which allowed the slats to tilt downward. At the back of the compartment she saw the folding pistons which drove the slats along the tracks. With the slats removed, the pistons were just metal arms poking out into space. As always, whenever she saw the innards of an aircraft, she had a sense of enormous complexity.

"What is it?" she said.

"Here," Doug said.

He bent over one of the protruding arms, pointing to a tiny metal flange at the back, curved into a hook. The part was not much larger than her thumb.


Doherty reached down, pushed the flange back with his hand. It flicked forward again. "That's the locking pin for the slats," he said. "It's spring-loaded, actuated by a solenoid back inside. When the slats retract, the pin snaps over, holds them in place."


"Look at it," he said, shaking his head. "It's bent"

She frowned. If it was bent, she couldn't see it. It looked straight to her eye. "Doug..."

"No. Look." He set a metal ruler against the pin, showing her that the metal was bent a few millimeters to the left. "And that's not all," he said. "Look at the action surface of the hinge. It's been worn. See it?"

He handed her a magnifying glass. Thirty feet above the ground, she leaned over the leading edge and peered at the part. There was wear, all right. She saw a ragged surface on the locking hook. But you would expect a certain amount of wear, where the metal of the latch engaged the slats. "Doug, do you really think this is significant?"

"Oh yes," he said, in a funereal tone. "You got maybe two, three millimeters of wear here."

"How many pins hold the slat?"

"Just one," he said.

"And if this one is bad?"

"The slats could pop loose in flight. They wouldn't necessarily fully extend. They wouldn't have to. Remember, these are low-speed control surfaces. At cruise speed the effect magnifies: a slight extension would change the aerodynamics."

Casey frowned, squinting at the little part through the magnifying glass. "But why would the lock suddenly open, two-thirds of the way through the flight?"

He was shaking his head. "Look at the other pins," Doherty said, pointing down the wing. "There's no wear on the action surface."

"Maybe the others were changed out, and this one wasn't?"

"No," he said. "I think the others are original. This one was changed. Look at the next pin down. See the parts stamp at the base?'

She saw a tiny embossed figure, an H in a triangle, with a sequence of numbers. All parts manufacturers stamped their parts with these symbols. "Yeah ..."

"Now look at this pin. See the difference? On this part, the triangle is upside down. This is a counterfeit part, Casey."

For aircraft manufacturers, counterfeiting was the single biggest problem they faced as they approached the twenty-first century. Media attention focused mostly on counterfeit consumer items, like watches, CDs, and computer software. But there was a booming business in all sorts of manufactured items, including auto parts and airplane parts. Here the problem of counterfeiting took a new and ominous turn. Unlike a phony Cartier watch, a phony airplane part could kill you.

"Okay," she said. "I'll check the maintenance records, find out where it came from."

The FAA required commercial carriers to keep extraordinarily detailed maintenance records. Every time a part was changed out, it was noted in a maintenance log. In addition, the manufacturers, though not required to, maintained an exhaustive ship's record of every part originally on the plane, and who had manufactured it. All this paperwork meant that every one of the aircraft's one million parts could be traced back to its origin. If a part was swapped out from one plane to another, that was known. If a part was taken off and repaired, that was known. Each part on a plane had a history of its own. Given enough time, they could find out exactly where this part had come from, who had installed it, and when.

She pointed to the locking pin in the wing. "Have you photographed it?"

"Oh sure. We're fully documented."

"Then pull it," she said. "I'll take it to Metals. By the way, could this situation give you a slats disagree warning?"

Doherty gave a rare smile. "Yes, it could. And my guess is, it did. You got a nonstandard part, Casey, and it failed the aircraft."

Coming off the wing, Richman was chattering excitedly. "So, is that it? It's a bad part? Is that what happened? It's solved?" He was getting on her nerves. "One thing at a time," she said. "We have to check."

"Check? What do we have to check? Check how?"

"First of all, we have to find out where that part came from," she said. "Go back to the office. Tell Norma to make sure the maintenance records are coming from LAX. And have her telex the Fizer in Hong Kong to ask for the carrier's records. Tell him the FAA requested them and we want to look at them first."

"Okay," Richman said.

He headed off toward the open doors of Hangar 5, out into the sunlight. He walked with a sort of swagger, as if he were a person of importance, in possession of valuable information.

But Casey wasn't sure that they knew anything at all.

At least, not yet.


10:00 A.M.

She came out of the hangar, blinking in the morning sun. She saw Don Brull getting out of his car, over by Building 121. She headed toward him.

"Hello, Casey," he said, as he slammed the door. "I was wondering when you'd get back to me."

"I talked to Marder," she said. "He swears the wing isn't being offset to China."

Brull nodded. "He called me last night. Said the same thing." He didn't sound happy.

"Marder insists it's just a rumor."

"He's lying," Brull said. "He's doing it."

"No way," Casey said. "It doesn't make sense."

"Look," Brull said. "It doesn't matter to me, personally. They close this plant in ten years, I'll be retired. But that'll be about the time your kid starts college. You'll be looking at those big tuition payments, and you won't have a job. You thought about that?"

"Don," she said "You said it yourself, it doesn't make sense to offset the wing. It'd be pretty reckless to - "

"Marder's reckless." He squinted at her in the sunlight "You know that. You know what he's capable of."

"Don - "

"Look," Brull said. "I know what I'm talking about. Those tools aren't being shipped to Atlanta, Casey. They're going to San Pedro - to the port. And down in San Pedro, they're building special marine containers for shipment."

So that was how the union was putting it together, she thought. "Those are oversize tools, Don," she said. "We can't ship them by road or rail. Big tools always go by boat. They're building containers so they can send them through the Panama Canal. That's the only way to get them to Atlanta."

Brull was shaking his head. "I've seen the bills of lading. They don't say Atlanta. They say Seoul, Korea."

"Korea?" she said, frowning.

"That's right."

"Don, that really doesn't make sense - "

"Yes, it does. Because it's a cover," Brull said. "They'll send them to Korea, then transship from Korea to Shanghai."

"You have copies of the bills?" she said.

"Not with me."

"I'd like to see them," she said.

Brull sighed. "I can do that, Casey. I can get them for you. But you're putting me in a very difficult situation here. The guys aren't going to let this sale happen. Marder tells me to calm 'em down - but what can I do? I run the local, not the plant."

"What do you mean?"

"It's out of my hands," he said.

"Don - "

"I always liked you, Casey," he said. "But you hang around here, I can't help you."

And he walked away.


10:04 A.M.

The morning sun was shining; the plant around her was cheerfully busy, mechanics riding their bicycles from one building to another. There was no sense of threat, or danger. But Casey knew what Brull had meant: she was now in no-man's land. Anxious, she pulled out her cell phone to call Marder when she saw the heavyset figure of Jack Rogers coming toward her.

Jack covered aerospace for the Telegraph-Star, an Orange County paper. In his late fifties, he was a good, solid reporter, a reminder of an earlier generation of print journalists who knew as much about their beat as the people they interviewed. He gave her a casual wave.

"Hi, Jack," she said. "What's up?'

"I came over," he said, "about that wing tool accident this morning in 64. The one the crane dropped."

'Tough break," she said.

'They had another accident with the AJs this morning. Tool was loaded onto the flatbed truck, but the driver took a turn too fast over by Building 94. Tool slid off onto the ground. Big mess."

"Uh-huh," Casey said.

"This is obviously a job action," Rogers said. "My sources tell me the union's opposed to the China sale."

"I've heard that," she said, nodding.

"Because the wing's going to be offset to Shanghai as part of the sales agreement?"

"Come on, Jack," she said. "That's ridiculous."

"You know that for a fact?"

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