Airframe Chapter 8

She took a step back from him. "Jack," she said. "You know I can't discuss the sale. No one can, until the ink's dry."

"Okay," Rogers said. He took out his notepad. "It does seem like a pretty crazy rumor. No company's ever offset the wing. It'd be suicide."

"Exactly," she said. In the end, she kept coming back to that same question. Why would Edgarton offset the wing? Why would any company offset the wing? It just made no sense.

Rogers glanced up from his pad. "I wonder why the union thinks the wing's being sent offshore?"

She shrugged. "You'll have to ask them." He had sources in the union. Certainly Brail. Probably others as well.

"I hear they've got documents that prove it."

Casey said, "They show them to you?"

Rogers shook his head. "No."

"I can't imagine why not, if they have them."

Rogers smiled. He made another note. "Shame about the rotor burst in Miami."

"All I know is what I saw on television."

"You think it will affect the public perception of the N-22?" He had his pen out, ready to take down what she said.

"I don't see why. The problem was powerplant, not air-frame. My guess is, they're going to find it was a bad compressor disk that burst."

"I wouldn't doubt it," he said. "I was talking to Don Peterson over at the FAA. He told me that incident at SFO was a sixth-stage compressor disk that blew. The disk had brittle nitrogen pockets."

"Alpha inclusions?' she said.

"That's right," Jack said. "And there was also dwell-time fatigue."

Casey nodded. Engine parts operated at a temperature of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the melt temperature of most alloys, which turned to soup at 2200 degrees. So they were manufactured of titanium alloys, using the most advanced procedures. Fabricating some of the parts was an art - the fan blades were essentially "grown" as a single crystal of metal, making them phenomenally strong. But even in skilled hands, the manufacturing process was inherently delicate. Dwell-time fatigue was a condition in which the titanium used to make rotor disks clumped into microstructure colonies, rendering them vulnerable to fatigue cracks.

"And how about the Transpacific flight," Rogers said. "Was that an engine problem, too?"

'Transpacific happened yesterday, Jack. We just started our investigation."

"You're QA on the IRT, right?"

"Right, yes."

"Are you pleased with how the investigation is going?"

"Jack, I can't comment on the Transpacific investigation. It's much too early."

"Not too early for speculation to start," Rogers said. "You know how these things go, Casey. Lot of idle talk. Misinformation that can be difficult to clear up later. I'd just like to set the record straight. Have you ruled out engines?"

"Jack," she said, "I can't comment."

"Then you haven't ruled out engines?"

"No comment, Jack."

He made a note on his pad. Without looking up, he said, "And I suppose you're looking at slats, too."

"We're looking at everything, Jack," she said.

"Given the 22 has a history of slats problems ..."

"Ancient history," she said. "We fixed the problem years ago. You wrote a story about it, if I recall."

"But now you've had two incidents in two days. Are you worried that the flying public will start to think the N-22 is a troubled aircraft?"

She could see the direction his story was going to take. She didn't want to comment, but he was telling her what he would write if she didn't. It was a standard, if minor, form of press blackmail.

"Jack," she said, "we've got three hundred N-22s in service around the world. The model has an outstanding safety record." In fact, in five years of service there had been no fatalities involving the aircraft until yesterday. That was a reason for pride, but she decided not to mention it, because she could see his lead: The first fatalities to occur on a Norton N-22 aircraft happened yesterday...

Instead she said, "The public is best served by getting accurate information. And at the moment, we have no information to offer. To speculate would be irresponsible."

That did it. He took his pen away. "Okay. You want to go off?"

"Sure." She knew she could trust him. "Off the record, 545 underwent very severe pitch oscillations. We think the plane porpoised. We don't know why. The FDR's anomalous. It'll take days to reconstruct the data. We're working as fast as we can."

"Will it affect the China sale?"

"I hope not."

"Pilot was Chinese, wasn't he? Chang?"

"He was from Hong Kong. I don't know his nationality."

"Does that make it awkward if it's pilot error?"

"You know how these investigations are, Jack. Whatever the cause turns out to be, it's going to be awkward for somebody. We can't worry about that. We just have to let the chips fall where they fall."

"Of course," he said. "By the way, is that China sale firm? I keep hearing it's not."

She shrugged. "I honestly don't know."

"Has Marder talked to you about it?"

"Not to me personally," she said. Her reply was carefully worded; she hoped he wouldn't follow up on it. He didn't

"Okay, Casey," he said. "I'll leave this alone, but what've you got? I need to file today."

"How come you're not doing Cheapskate Airlines?" she said, using the derogatory in-house term for one of the low-cost carriers. "Nobody's done that story yet."

"Are you kidding?" Rogers said. "Everybody and his brother's covering mat one."

"Yeah, but nobody's doing the real story," she said. "Super-cheap carriers are a stock scam."

"A stock scam?"

"Sure," Casey said. "You buy some aircraft so old and poorly maintained no reputable carrier will use them for spares. Then you subcontract maintenance to limit your liability. Then you offer cheap fares, and use the cash to buy new routes. It's a pyramid scheme but on paper it looks great. Volume's up, revenue's up, and Wall Street loves you. You're saving so much on maintenance that your earnings skyrocket. Your stock price doubles and doubles again. By the time the bodies start piling up, as you know they will, you've made your fortune off the stock, and can afford the best counsel. That's the genius of deregulation, Jack. When the bill comes, nobody pays."

"Except the passengers."

"Exactly," Casey said. "Flight safety's always been an honor system. The FAA's set up to monitor the carriers, not to police them. So if deregulation's going to change the rules, we ought to warn the public. Or triple FAA funding. One or the other."

Rogers nodded. "Barry Jordan over at the LA Times told me he's doing the safety angle. But that takes a lot of resources - lead time, lawyers going over your copy. My paper can't afford it. I need something I can use tonight."

"Off the record," Casey said, "I've got a good lead, but you can't source it."

"Sure," Rogers said.

"The engine that blew was one of six that Sunstar bought from AeroCivicas," Casey said. "Kenny Burne was our consultant. He borescoped the engines and found a lot of damage."

"What kind of damage?"

"Blade notch breakouts and vane cracks."

Rogers said, "They had fatigue cracks in the fan blades!"

"That's right," Casey said. "Kenny told them to reject the engines, but Sunstar rebuilt them and put them on the planes. When that engine blew, Kenny was furious. So you might get a name at Sunstar from Kenny. But we can't be the source, Jack. We have to do business with these people."

"I understand," Rogers said. "Thanks. But my editor's going to want to know about the accidents on the floor today. So tell me. Are you convinced the China offset stories are groundless?"

"Are we back on?" she said.


"I'm not the person to ask," she said. "You'll have to talk to Edgarton."

"I called, but his office says he's out of town. Where is he? Beijing?"

"I can't comment."

"And what about Marder?" Rogers said.

"What about him?"

Rogers shrugged. "Everybody knows Marder and Edgarton are at each other's throats. Marder expected to be named president, but the Board passed him over. But they gave Edgarton a one-year contract - so he's got only twelve months to produce. And I hear Marder's undercutting Edgarton, every way he can."

"I wouldn't know about that," she said. Casey had, of course, heard such rumors. It was no secret that Marder was bitterly disappointed about Edgarton's appointment. What Marder could do about it was another story. Marder's wife controlled eleven percent of company stock. With Marder's connections, he could probably pull together five percent more. But sixteen percent wasn't enough to call the shots, particularly since Edgarton had the strong support of the Board.

So most people in the plant thought that Marder had no choice except to go along with Edgarton's agenda - at least for the moment. Marder might be unhappy, but he had no option. The company had a cash-flow problem. They were already building planes without buyers. Yet they needed billions of dollars, if they hoped to develop the next generation of planes, and stay in business in the future.

So the situation was clear. The company needed the sale. And everybody knew it. Including Marder.

Rogers said, "You haven't heard Marder's undercutting Edgarton?"

"No comment," Casey said. "But off the record, it makes no sense. Everybody in the company wants this sale, Jack. Including Marder. Right now, Marder's pushing us hard to solve 545, so the sale goes through."

"Do you think the image of the company will be hurt by the rivalry between its two top officers?"

"I couldn't say."

"Okay," he said finally, closing his notepad. "Call me if you get a break on 545, okay?"

"Sure, Jack."

"Thanks, Casey."

Walking away from nun, she realized she was exhausted by the effort of the interview. Talking to a reporter these days was like a deadly chess match; you had to think several steps ahead; you had to imagine all the possible ways a reporter might distort your statement. The atmosphere was relentlessly adversarial.

It hadn't always been that way. There was a time when reporters wanted information, their questions directed to an underlying event They wanted an accurate picture of a situation, and to do that they had to make the effort to see things your way, to understand how you were thinking about it. They might not agree with you in the end, but it was a matter of pride that they could accurately state your view, before rejecting it. The interviewing process was not very personal, because the focus was on the event they were trying to understand.

But now reporters came to the story with the lead fixed in their minds; they saw their job as proving what they already knew. They didn't want information so much as evidence of villainy. In this mode, they were openly skeptical of your point of view, since they assumed you were just being evasive. They proceeded from a presumption of universal guilt, in an atmosphere of muted hostility and suspicion. This new mode was intensely personal: they wanted to trip you up, to catch you in a small error, or in a foolish statement - or just a phrase that could be taken out of context and made to look silly or insensitive.

Because the focus was so personal, the reporters asked continuously for personal speculations. Do you think an event will be damaging? Do you think the company will suffer? Such speculation had been irrelevant to the earlier generation of reporters, who focused on the underlying events. Modem journalism was intensely subjective - "interpretive" -  and speculation was its lifeblood. But she found it exhausting.

And Jack Rogers, she thought, was one of the better ones. The print reporters were all better. It was the television reporters you really had to watch out for. They were the really dangerous ones.


10:15 A.M.

Crossing the plant, she fished her cell phone out of her purse, and called Marder. His assistant, Eileen, said he was in a meeting. "I just left Jack Rogers," Casey said. "I think he's planning a story that says we're shipping the wing to China, and there's trouble in the executive suite." "Uh-oh," Eileen said. "That's not good." "Edgarton better talk to him, and put it to rest." "Edgarton isn't doing any press," Eileen said. "John will be back at six o'clock. You want to talk to him then?" "I better, yes." "I'll put you down," Eileen said.


10:19 A.M.

It looked like an aviation junkyard: old fuselages, tails, and wing sections littered the landscape, raised up on rusty scaffolding. But the air was filled with the steady hum of compressors, and heavy tubing ran to the airplane parts, like intravenous lines to a patient This was Proof Test, also known as Twist-and-Shout, the domain of the infamous Amos Peters.

Casey saw him off to the right, a hunched figure in shirtsleeves and baggy pants, bent over a readout stand, beneath an aft fuselage section of the Norton widebody.

"Amos," she called, waving as she walked over to him.

He turned, glanced at her. "Go away."

Amos was a legend at Norton. Reclusive and obstinate, he was nearly seventy, long past mandatory retirement age, yet he continued to work because he was vital to the company. His specialty was the arcane field of damage tolerance, or fatigue testing. And fatigue testing was of vastly greater importance than it had been ten years before.

Since deregulation, the carriers were flying aircraft longer than anybody ever expected. Three thousand aircraft in the domestic fleet were now more than twenty years old. That number would double in five years. Nobody really knew what would happen to all those aircraft as they continued to age.

Except Amos.

It was Amos who had been brought in by the NTSB as a consultant on the famous Aloha 737 accident, back in 1988. Aloha was an inter-island carrier in Hawaii. One of their airplanes was cruising at 24,000 feet when suddenly eighteen feet of the airplane's outer skin peeled off the fuselage, from the cabin door to the wing; the cabin decompressed, and a stewardess was sucked out and killed. Despite the explosive pressure loss, the plane managed to land safely at Maui, where it was scrapped on the spot.

The rest of Aloha's fleet was examined for corrosion and fatigue damage. Two more high-time 737s were scrapped, and a third underwent months of repairs. All three had extensive skin cracks and other corrosion damage. When the FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive mandating inspections of the rest of the 737 fleet, forty-nine more planes, operated by eighteen different carriers, were found to have extensive cracking.

Industry observers were perplexed by the accident, because Boeing, Aloha, and the FAA were supposedly all watching the carrier's 737 fleet. Corrosion cracking was a known problem on some early-production 737s; Boeing had already warned Aloha that the salty, humid Hawaiian climate was a "severe" corrosion environment.

Afterward, the investigation found multiple causes for the accident. It turned out that Aloha, making short hops between islands, was accumulating flight cycles of takeoff and landing at a faster rate than maintenance was scheduled to handle. This stress, combined with corrosion from ocean air, produced a series of small cracks in the aircraft skin. These were unnoticed by Aloha, because they were short of trained personnel. The FAA didn't catch them because they were overworked and understaffed. The FAA's principal maintenance inspector in Honolulu supervised nine carriers and seven repair stations around the Pacific, from China to Singapore to the Philippines. Eventually, a flight occurred in which the cracks extended and the structure failed.

Following the incident, Aloha, Boeing, and the FAA formed a circular firing squad. The undetected structural damage in Aloha's fleet was variously attributed to poor management, poor maintenance, poor FAA inspection, poor engineering. Accusations ricocheted back and forth for years afterward.

But the Aloha flight had also focused industry attention on the problem of aging aircraft, and it had made Amos famous within Norton. He'd convinced management to begin buying more old aircraft, turning wings and fuselages into proof test articles. Day after day, his test fixtures applied repetitive pressures to aging aircraft, stressing them to simulate takeoffs and landings, wind shear and turbulence, so Amos could study how and where they cracked.

"Amos," she said, coming up to him, "it's me. Casey Singleton."

He blinked myopically. "Oh. Casey. Didn't recognize you." He squinted at her. "Doctor gave me a new prescription ... Oh. Huh. How are you?" He gestured for her to walk with him, and he headed toward a small building a few yards away.

No one at Norton could understand how Casey was able to get along with Amos, but they were neighbors; he lived alone with his pug dog, and she had taken to cooking him a meal every month or so. In return, Amos regaled her with stories of aircraft accidents he'd worked on, going back to the first BO AC Comet crashes in the 1950s. Amos had an encyclopedic knowledge of airplanes. She had learned a tremendous amount from him, and he had become a sort of adviser to her.

"Didn't I see you the other morning?" he said.

"Yes. With my daughter."

"Thought so. Want coffee?" He opened the door to a shed, and she smelted the sharp odor of burned grounds. His coffee was always terrible.

"Sounds great, Amos," she said.

He poured her a cup. "Hope black is okay. Ran out of that creamer stuff."

"Black is fine, Amos." He hadn't had creamer for a year.

Amos poured a cup for himself in a stained mug, and waved her to a battered chair, facing his desk. The desk was piled high with thick reports. FAA/NASA International Symposium on Advanced Structural Integrity. Airframe Durability and Damage Tolerance. Thermographic Inspection Techniques. Corrosion Control and Structures Technology.

He put his feet up on the desk, cleared a path through the journals, so he could see her. "I tell you, Casey. It's tedious working with these old hulks. I long for the day when we have another T2 article in here."

"T2?" she said.

"Of course you wouldn't know," Amos said. "You've been here five years, and we haven't made a new model aircraft in all that time. But when there's a new aircraft, the first one off the line is called Tl. Test Article 1. It goes to Static Test - we put it on the test bed and shake it to pieces. Find out where the weaknesses are. The second plane off the line is T2. It's used for fatigue testing - a more difficult problem. Over time, metal loses tensile strength, gets brittle. So we take T2, put it in a jig, and accelerate fatigue testing. Day after day, year after year, we simulate takeoffs and landings. Norton's policy is we fatigue test to more than twice the design life of the aircraft. If the engineers design an aircraft for a twenty-year life span -  say, fifty thousand hours and twenty thousand cycles - we'll do more than twice that in the pit, before we ever deliver to a customer. We know the planes will stand up. How's your coffee?"

She took a small sip, managed not to wince. Amos ran water through the same old grinds, all day long. That was how it got this distinctive flavor. "Good, Amos."

"Just ask. There's more where that came from. Anyway, most manufacturers test to twice the design life. We test up to four times the spec. That's why we always say, the other companies make doughnuts, Norton makes croissants."

Casey said, "And John Marder always says, That's why the others make money, and we don't."

"Marder." Amos snorted. "It's all money with him, all bottom line. In the old days, the front office told us, Make the best damn airplane you can. Now they say, Make the best airplane you can for a price. Different instruction, you know what I mean?" He slurped his coffee. "So. What is it, Casey -  545?"

She nodded.

"Can't help you there," he said.

"Why do you say that?"

"The plane's new. Fatigue's not a factor."

"There's a question about a part, Amos," she said. She showed him the pin, in a plastic bag.

"Hmm." He turned it over in his hands, held it up to the light. 'This would be - don't tell me - this would be an anterior locking pin for the second inboard slat."

"That's right."

"Of course it's right." He frowned. "But this part's bad."

"Yes, I know."

"So what's your question?'

"Doherty thinks it failed the aircraft. Could it?"

"Well..." Amos stared at the ceiling, thinking. "No. I got a hundred bucks says it didn 't fail the aircraft."

Casey sighed. She was back to square one. They had no leads.

"Discouraged?" Amos said.

"Yes, frankly."

"Then you're not paying attention," he said. "This is a very valuable lead."

"But why? You just said yourself - it didn't fail the aircraft."

"Casey, Casey." Amos shook his head. "Think."

She tried to think, sitting there, smelling his bad coffee. She tried to see what he was driving at. But her mind was blank. She looked at him across the desk. "Just tell me. What am I missing?"

"Were the other locking pins replaced?'


"Just this one?'


"Why just this one, Casey?" he said.

"I don't know."

"Find out," he said.

"Why? What good will that do?"

Amos threw up his hands. "Casey. Come on, now. Think it through. You have a problem with slats on 545. That's a wing problem."


"Now you've found a part that's been replaced on the wing."


"Why was it replaced?"

"I don't know..."

"Was that wing damaged in the past? Did something happen to it, so that this part had to be replaced? Were other parts replaced as well? Are there other bad parts on the wing? Is there residual damage to the wing?"

"Not that you can see."

Amos shook his head impatiently. "Forget what you can see, Casey. Look at the ship's record and the maintenance records. Trace this part, and get a history of the wing. Because something else is wrong."

"My guess is you'll find more fake parts." Amos stood, sighing. "More and more planes have fake parts, these days. I suppose it's to be expected. These days, everybody seems to believe in Santa Claus."

"How's that?"

"Because they believe in something for nothing," Amos said. "You know: government deregulates the airlines, and everybody cheers. We got cheaper fares: everybody cheers. But the carriers have to cut costs. So the food is awful. That's okay. There are fewer direct flights, more hubs. That's okay. The planes look grubby, because they redo the interiors less often. That's okay. But still the carriers have to cut more costs. So they run the planes longer, buy fewer new ones. The fleet ages. That'll be okay - for a while. Eventually it won't be. And meanwhile, cost pressures continue. So where else do they cut? Maintenance? Parts? What? It can't go on indefinitely. Just can't. Of course, now Congress is helping them out, by cutting appropriations for the FAA, so there'll be less oversight. Carriers can ease up on maintenance because nobody's watching. And the public doesn't care, because for thirty years this country's had the best aviation safety record in the world. But the thing is, we paid for it. We paid to have new, safe planes and we paid for the oversight to make sure they were well maintained. But those days are over. Now, everybody believes in something for nothing."

"So where's it going to end?" she said.

"I got a hundred bucks," he said, "they'll reregulate within ten years. There'll be a string of crashes, and they'll do it. The free marketeers will scream, but the fact is, free markets don't provide safety. Only regulation does that. You want safe food, you better have inspectors. You want safe water, you better have an EPA. You want a safe stock market, you better have the SEC. And you want safe airlines, you better regulate them, too. Believe me, they will."

"And on 545 ..."

Amos shrugged. "Foreign carriers operate with much less stringent regulation. It's pretty loosey-goosey out there. Look at the maintenance records - and look hard at the paper for any part you're suspicious of."

She started to leave.

"But Casey ..."

She turned back. "Yes?"

"You understand the situation, don't you? To check that part, you'll have to start with the ship's record."

"I know."

"That's in Building 64. I wouldn't go there, right now. At least not alone."

"Come on, Amos," she said. "I used to work on the floor. I'll be okay."

Amos was shaking his head. "Flight 545's a hot potato. You know how the guys think. If they can mess up the investigation, they will - any way they can. Be careful."

"I will."

"Be very, very careful."

BLD6 64

11:45 A.M.

Running down the center of Building 64 was a series of one-story chain-link cages that housed parts for the line, and terminal workstations. The workstations were placed inside small partitions, each containing a microfiche reader, a parts terminal, and a main system terminal.

In the parts cage, Casey bent over a microfiche reader, scrolling through photocopies of the ship's record for Fuse 271, which was the original factory designation for the aircraft involved in the TPA accident.

Jerry Jenkins, the parts flow control manager on the floor, stood beside her nervously, tapping his pen on the table and saying, "Find it yet? Find it yet?"

"Jerry," she said, "take it easy."

"I'm easy," he said, glancing around the floor. "I'm just thinking, you know, you could have done this between shifts."

Between shifts would have drawn less attention.

"Jerry," she said, "we're in kind of a rush here."

He tapped his pen. "Everybody's pretty hot about the China sale. What do I tell the guys?"

"You tell the guys," she said, "that if we lose that China sale, then this line will shut down, and everybody will be out of a job."

Jerry swallowed. "That true? Because I hear - "

"Jerry, let me look at the record, will you?"

The ship's record consisted of the mass of documentation - a million pieces of paper, one for every part on the aircraft - used to assemble the aircraft. This paper, and the even more extensive documentation required for FAA type certification, contained Norton proprietary information. So the FAA didn't store these records, because if they did, competitors could obtain it under the Freedom of Information Act. So Norton warehoused five thousand pounds of paper, running eighty feet of shelf space for each aircraft, in a vast building in Compton. All this was copied onto microfiche, for access at these readers on the floor. But finding the paper for a single part was time-consuming, she thought, and -

"Find it yet? Find it?"

"Yeah," she said at last. "I got it"

She was staring at a photocopy of a sheet of paper from Hoffman Metal Works, in Montclair, California The slats locking pin was described in a code that matched the engineering drawings: A/908/B-2117L (2) Ant SI Lteh. SS/HT. A typed date of manufacture, a stamped date of delivery to the factory, and a date of installation. Followed by two stamps -  one signed by the mechanic who installed the part on the aircraft, and a second by the QA inspector who approved the work.

"So," he said. "That the OEM or what?"

"Yeah, it's the OEM." Hoffman was the original equipment manufacturer. The part had come direct from them. No distributor was involved.

Jerry was looking out through the chain link at the factory floor beyond. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention, but Casey knew that they were being watched.

Jerry said, "You leaving now?"

"Yes, Jerry. I'm leaving now."

She headed across the floor, staying on the aisle that ran by the parts cages. Away from the overhead cranes. Glancing up at the overhead walkways to be sure nobody was up there. Nobody was. So far, they were leaving her alone.

What she had learned so far was clear The original installed part on TPA 545 had come direct from a reputable supplier. The original part was good; the part Doherty found on the wing was bad.

So Amos was right.

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