Los Angeles, California
June 25, 2013, 0920 Hours
The insistent vibration of his cell phone penetrated Jack’s consciousness. After a short debate, to answer or not to answer, ‘not’ won the moment reasoning if the call was important it would go to message. He did a cursory exploratory search of the bed confirming he was alone. He had yet to open his eyes but his brain was engaged and he began to assemble his day. The slightly elevated pressure behind his eyes and forehead and desiccated copper mouth whispered hangover.
Having pumped out two articles in ten days, thus appeasing the employer gods, he took a busman’s holiday going to the Bootleg Theater to check out Shapeshifter, an act from New Zealand. They played an excellent blend of heavy soul with drum and bass. Bootleg was an intimate venue where you could let your hair down and Jack had indulged. He remembered taking a number of ‘selfies’ documenting some bad behavior with the band between sets. The bands rapid backbeat still resonated in his skull.
He bit the bullet, threw the covers back, sat up, and opened his eyes. If the clock on the table wasn’t lying he had ten minutes to get to the free breakfast bar. The day began.
Forty-five minutes later Jack was human race-ready and checked his messages. He didn’t feel like re-financing his non-existent student loan, hit delete, and moved on. He didn’t recognize the second area code or number.
“This message is for Jack Hart. Vicky here at Pleasant Valley Home Care. Charlie arrived. If you’re still interested in talking to him give me a call.”
Jack was on it. The last ten days hadn’t been all music and debauchery. He had followed through, digging into the arcane depths of the NTSB and FAA databases. He felt like he knew enough to ask some reasonable questions and he was looking forward to meeting Charlie. He pulled up recent calls on his smart phone and punched the last missed call.
“He’s not here.”
“But I need to talk to him,” said Jack.
“Well, if you’d answer your phone it wouldn’t be a problem,” explained Vicky. “He had to go to work.”
“Did he leave a number?”
“No number. I told him you wanted to talk. He wasn’t too enthused about speaking to a reporter.”
“I keep explaining to people I’m a journalist.”
“The distinction is lost on some people.”
“Didn’t you tell him what great guy I am?”
“I told him you were a prince.”
“I should be trying to interview sleeping beauty.”
“You know Don enjoyed your visit the other day.”
“He told you that?”
“Of course not. But I know him. He likes people who bite back when he snarls. If you were to tell me you’d stop by and visit sometime, I might be able to help you find Charlie.”
“This is not a trick question, is it?”
“I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“Is that one of your super powers?”
“I’d love to stop by and visit Don sometime.”
“Charlie’s plane is in Lancaster.”
The good news, Lancaster was less than an hour away. The bad news, no idea what reception awaits him. An advantage of sleeping late was maneuvering the Corolla through light traffic. Jack organized his thoughts, reviewing his research, while climbing out of the San Fernando Valley on State Route 14.
George Petterson had been the NTSB investigator who returned to the 1992 crash site of tanker 82’s after the loss of the second C-130 in 2002. Upon the presentation of new evidence from the debris field of tanker 82, the NTSB had no choice but to make a new finding as to the cause of tanker 82’s crash. Additionally, he concluded both accidents could have been prevented had FAA and Air Force Service Bulletins, issued in 1985 and 1987, identifying the problems and solutions, had been complied with.
“Mr. Petterson found a preponderance of evidence that the FAA, US Forest Service, and tanker operators failed to provide proper maintenance and failed to comply with critical Safety-of-Flight Service Bulletins” stated one account.
After the 2002 fire season following the loss of tanker 130 and 123 the contracts for the balances of the C-130A’s and PB4Y-2 tankers were not renewed. The large airtanker fleet shrank once more. The technologically advanced C-130’s fell by the wayside because of doubts about their structural integrity and maintenance concerns.
Starting in the early 90’s the C-130s were the planes, along with the P3s, that were to be the all turban powered future of the industry, replacing the piston engine fleet. And while recognizing the reliability and simplicity of the multiple doored gravity systems, retardant simply falls from the bottom of the plane, a requirement for an improved, constant-flow, doored system, for a more consistent retardant line, would be mandated. The future had been in sight.
From what Jack had gleaned the plan to bring the C-130’s and P3’s into the tanker fleet had been flawed from inception with an array of problems. There were conflicting reports on the number of planes involved in the transactions. Two people had gone to prison ten years after the original transfer of the titles from the Air Force because of irregularities along with allegations of CIA involvement. The status of ten or more of the C-130’s was nebulous to opaque never having been converted to tankers. Two in the nebulous category had been busted trafficking drugs: one for the Cali Cartel the other the Tijuana Cartel.
How could a government program possibly get so screwed up? thought Jack.
Passing Palmdale Jack was intrigued by a bat-like aircraft rocketing skyward until a horn blasted, bringing him back to the road. Outside Lancaster he picked out the shadowed image of an airplane on a sign and exited. When he turned south a sign still proclaimed, The Musical Highway. The concept intrigued yet eluded him as he drove, then a car passed on his left, and its tires began to rumble. Notes emerged rhythmically. The passing car belted out the finale to the William Tell Overture courtesy of grooves in the road.
“Somebody had way too much time on their hands,” he said out loud.
The car in the left lane pulled in front of Jack and made the turn onto airport road. He followed. He passed an Art Deco era terminal advertising a restaurant. He saw the tails of two rather large airplanes behind some tanks and low metal buildings before he saw the Tanker Base sign. A cloud of smoke erupted enveloping the yellow tail of the closest plane. Jack stopped at the gate, pushed the button next to the speaker on a post, and waited.
“Fox Tanker Base.”
“Yeah. This is Jack Hart. I’m looking for a pilot, Charlie Jones. I understand he’s here manning an aircraft.”
The gate began to roll open. Jack passed through and drove around until finding a place in a dirt parking lot, the asphalt was taken. It was a busy place. A forklift raised a trail of dust as it past when he stepped from the car. The dust was swept away by a brisk wind. He worked his way through a maze of cars and structures, crossed a strip of asphalt road to an extensive cement covered patio area and walks. A path skirted a sparsely limbed and vegetated pine surrounded by a ring of bricks. The cement walk led to a tower with switchback steps climbing five stories. It appeared to be the hub of activity with people gathered at its base. The yellow tailed airplane had a Plexiglas bubble for a nose and a yellow and white fuselage. It was taxiing past, emitting a deep-throated rumble, and marshaled by a man in uniform. The second tankers props were turning; it appeared to be the same kind of airplane in red and white paint. There was something odd about the planes. Jack finally discerned each wing supported a single jet outboard of the big round engines. It looked like a committee had designed it.
Jack approached a man with a beard, one of the few in a uniform.
“Who knows what’s going on around here?”
“I’m looking for Charlie Jones. He’s a pilot.”
“He’s in the yellow plane.”
“Looks like he’s leaving.”
“He should be back. It’s a local fire; off I-5; The Grapevine.”
“I’m Jack Hart. I was hoping to talk to him.”
“I’m Clay. You can hang around and take your chances. If he doesn’t get diverted he should be back in less than an hour.”
“Thanks.” Jack extricated himself from the crowd and returned to the bricked off tree to re-group. A helicopter lifted off; a high winged twin-engine airplane roared to life; speakers blared incomprehensively, and a gust of wind liberated a hat. People scurried about looking purposeful.
Jack noticed a plaque on the bricks. It memorialized a tanker crew. Looking around he saw another shrine off the covered patio. He strolled over to take a look. After reading the inscription he decided to take a walk. Homeland Security apparently had not discovered Fox Airport; vehicles and pedestrian traffic migrated unchecked between the tanker base, the hangars, and ramp to the west. Jack leaned into the wind and headed down the tarmac to kill time. Five minutes later he decided to take shelter when he approached the low fence surrounding the terminal and restaurant.
The building was an island of calm refuge from the wind and the chaos and noise of the tanker base. Jack occupied a bench seat facing a thirty-foot wall of glass offering a panoramic view of the airport and the mountains to the north.
That’s when he saw her.
To be continued....