“Doesn’t this scare the hell out of you, Jack?” Helen Kaito moved closer to shield herself from the wind and snow. She pressed the top of her head into Jack’s chest, reaching just to his collarbone. Snatches of live broadcasts from breathless reporters floated on the wind and swirled around the crowd 200 strong.
“How much longer?” Helen asked. She pulled her scarf tight around her neck and stuffed both hands into her jacket pockets. People stamped their feet in the frozen, snowy field hard against the banks of Elkhart’s St. Joe River.
Jack glanced at his watch then up into the sky. “The Man said it’ll happen about 4:10 pm.” He looked around the field. Police officers stood in small groups talking quietly among themselves. Firefighters stayed near their rigs waiting to put their exhaustive training to work. The silence spoke volumes. This was no celebration.
“My God, Jack. Have you ever seen anything like this before? Of course you have.”
Jack nodded slowly. “I’ve seen some shit. Hostage rescue. Ragheads who didn’t give a damn because they were going to Paradise regardless…but this…this doesn’t come close.”
“What’s different now?” Helen asked.
Jack turned toward the crowd. Everyone’s searching the northeastern sky. Some were pointing. He checked his watch again. Twenty minutes left. He unzipped his backpack and pulled out binoculars.
“You can tell me, Jack. I’m your wife. What’s different now?”
“Damn. Like a dog with a rib bone,” Jack muttered.
“What is it?”
Jack kept the binoculars raised, scanning the horizon. “The difference is that I am powerless to stop it. Okay? It’s a feeling of total helplessness—creepy, unfamiliar. And I do not like it.” Another minute passed in silence.
“Okay, hon. We got us some action now.” Jack passed the binoculars over. “Take a look.”
Helen set the black rubber eyecups against her face.
Helen turned the focus knob. “Yes. Two nav lights. One red, the other green. They’re still faint. Way out there. Maybe ten minutes away.”
“Crowd’s buzzing now,” Jack said. “Reality is setting in. They’re getting scared—190 new homes right in the crash path. And there’s nothing any of us can do.
“The President told me earlier while he was scrambling our transportation out here,” Jack said. “It’s a Boeing Business Jet—the Dash-2. Biggest they make. Grissom Air Base sent up two F-35s to take a look. He said the fighter pilots saw the flight crew and three of the passengers slumped in their seats.”
“There it is!” someone in the crowd shouted. Every head in the snow-covered field turned north. People pointed. Binoculars snapped to.
“NTSB has their Go Team already in the air,” Jack said. “They’ll be on the ground shortly. The Whitehouse called ahead. They already emailed copies of our credentials to NTSB’s chief investigator. We’re working for the President on this one.”
“Presidents don’t get involved in aircraft crashes,” Helen said. “Unless there’s something involving national security.”
Jack nodded, still looking into the sky. “The four top people at the nation’s largest air transport company are aboard this plane. And the Whitehouse operator received a call an hour ago about this crash.”
Helen stared straight at Jack. He had her undivided attention. “What’d the caller say?”
“The caller gave a warning that this crash is just the beginning of America’s worst transportation nightmare. Then he hung up.”
Helen nodded. “So the Big Guy wants you to look into this for him during the time it takes FBI, CIA, and Homeland to get spun up. You’re family. I get that. But why am I here? We’re not aircraft accident investigators.”
“He trusts you, hon. He wants an outsider’s credibility just in case—”
“In case of what?” Helen asked.
“That’s what we’re here to find out. May be just an accident and some crazy caller with lucky timing, maybe not. We report directly to him for now.”
Jack scanned the skies for a few more moments. True enough. But he already knew the why of their involvement. “Got him.” He pointed a hand toward a still tiny pair of red and green wingtip navigation lights way off in the angry, gray sky. Another black cloud of helplessness swept over him. This wasn’t the passengers’ fault. Nothing anyone can do now to help them.
“Let me see,” Helen demanded. “Here’s where my pilot’s license comes in handy.”
Jack passed her the binoculars again. Soon people began moving closer to hear the expert. Helen placed the binoculars to her eyes. “Okay. What you told me on the way out makes more sense now.”
“What’s that?” Jack asked.
“The cabin air pressure system may have gone haywire. The passengers and crew fell asleep then succumbed due to lack of oxygen.” Helen took a deep breath then blew it out. The cold winter air came out in a misty cloud the wind snatched away. “The crew could have died after programing the autopilot.
“So the plane continued flying by itself all the way from New York?” Jack said. “With two dead pilots at the controls?”
“Programming the autopilot is standard procedure for transcontinental flights. Reduces the crew’s workload.”
“How long can the jet stay in the air once it runs out of fuel?” Jack asked.
“Depends.” Helen passed back the binoculars. “The engines will flame out at slightly different times. Then there’s no autopilot to keep the wings level. The jet eventually loses airspeed and altitude.”
Jack listened to his wife. Some people knew a little about a lot of things—a mile wide but barely an inch deep. Not Helen. She was an authority on so much; dug into the minutiae until she owned it. Now she was President of her family’s Kaito Automotive light truck division, a small part of the world’s largest car manufacturer. A force of nature, that’s Helen. “So if there’s turbulence or a crosswind that delicate balance goes to hell?” Jack asked.
“Exactly. No control inputs from the cockpit.” Helen took the binoculars from her eyes and glanced skyward. She pointed at the gray thunderheads to the north. “See how the storm clouds are moving? This Boeing Business Jet is about the most aerodynamically stable aircraft flying. Even under these conditions it should glide for a while after it runs out of fuel and the engines flame out.”
A sour taste seared the inside of Jack’s mouth. The red and green navigation lights were now just visible without binoculars against the gray sky. He’d watched military jets crash before. It’s the most helpless feeling in the world. The white fuselage now stood out clearly against the dark gray clouds. No wobble in the wings. Altitude seems constant. The storm’s icy fingers wormed their way inside Jack’s coat. Frosty tendrils picked through both layers, pushing them aside, until reaching bare skin. He shivered. Indiana’s mid-December snowstorms are a bitch. “Looks like its heading straight for us.”
“That’s just the angle we’re watching from,” Helen corrected. “See? Already the nose is moving left a degree or two. By the time it crashes, the jet will miss this field by a mile, maybe more.”
The distant sound of jet engines went silent. “Doesn’t look so bad yet,” Jack said.
“It won’t until something knocks it out of aerodynamic balance,” Helen said.
“Maybe the plane stays aloft long enough to overfly Sun Valley homes.”
“That would be the absolute best case, Jack. Two minutes since the engines cut out. That shallow glide slope has already steepened. The jet is trading forward momentum for downward. That’s the irresistible force of gravity replacing aerodynamics.”
Then the left wing dipped, pulling the nose down with it. Jack stiffened against the icy wind that caused that dip. It ran through his chest like a spike and clawed at his shaved head. Now the jet’s trajectory turned away from the dead center of the Sun Valley development. It angled toward the westernmost corner. And downward. Ever downward.
The crowd screamed. There were shouts of, “No, no,” by some whose homes were in the path. Jack refused to bury his eyes in his sleeves like so many in the crowd. He would watch until the end. He felt the unfamiliar shroud of powerlessness. Something unwelcome and never to be repeated.
Jack pulled Helen closer. Less than 300 feet above the ground and still gliding. Jack’s stomach knotted. Seconds now. Stay up there, Jack pleaded.
Then the jet’s lower wing clipped the high-tension electrical lines providing power to Sun Valley. The line jerked and stretched ribbon tight. It held. The two-inch diameter cable tore off the wing. The crowd screamed again. Suddenly the jet’s orderly glide ceased. The tail separated from the fuselage. Both tumbled through the air in a catastrophic cartwheel. The jet hit like rolling thunder over the Indiana landscape. Metal, house fragments, dirt, and other debris exploded in all directions as the largest parts impacted. Kinetic energy of the crash spread its debris over the site. The oncoming wreckage cut a swath of destruction more than a hundred yards wide.
The wreckage plowed through two homes. The debris flattened trees and bushes. It uprooted the newly planted grass, thundering deep into the park beyond. A huge dust cloud erupted as the debris finally came to rest. No immediate fire. The plane had long since run out of fuel.
Stunned silence blanketed the crash site and the residents standing in the field.
The crowd around Jack remained totally untouched. Gratefulness surged through him. The plume of dust continued rising into the darkened sky, marking the path of destruction. A breeze blew the smell of freshly plowed earth into the field where Jack stood. It assaulted his nose. His throat tried to close out the dust. The horrible sound of aviation’s modern machines crumpling into the ground at enormous speed faded into the landscape.
The crowd had moved right to the edge of the yellow hazardous danger tape surrounding the crash site. Jack and Helen stayed behind until they were alone in the snowy field. “Who is that guy?” Jack asked Helen, tossing his head toward the lone man walking away from the crash site and in their direction.
“Looks like he belongs here. Check out the jacket.”
The faded, navy blue windbreaker with age-cracked gold letters of NTSB on its front and back was the first thing Jack noticed. His weathered face was tan and pleasant. Jack guessed whatever he did at NTSB, he did it outdoors. His thin, white hair blew in the cutting wind. The man didn’t say a word nor did he raise his head from staring at the ground beneath him as he approached. Jack dug his hands deeper into his jacket pockets. The man from NTSB stopped beside Jack. Both stared silently at the crushed and mutilated Boeing Business Jet amid the splintered wreckage of the two houses it hit.
Jack watched him draw cold air deep into his lungs. He held it there like a smoker, enjoying the feel of its icy freshness, not wanting to let it go. He took a final breath of fresh air; seemed to brace himself, blew it out.
“Mr. Schilling, Jack, why don’t you and Helen come with me, get out of this cold.”
Jack arched a questioning eyebrow at Helen. Before they could move, Jack’s cell phone vibrated. He fished it out of his jacket pocket then turned the screen toward Helen so she could see who was calling.
“Yes, sir. We’re at the crash site—”
“Good,” came the voice familiar to millions. “Tom Gallager, NTSB’s chief investigator, will meet you, show you around. All these NTSB guys are real pros—best in the business. Got something else though.”
Jack and Helen looked at one another.
“We got us another flyer,” Jack.
“A business jet?” asked Tom Gallager.
“This one’s an InterTrans LTS450 with 147 people aboard, Mr. Gallager.”
“Sir, where’s this one going to crash?”
“Los Angeles, Jack. There’s fear that this thing may be escalating. We got another call. Same guy. More threats. FBI says he’s credible. Jack, I want you to continue your involvement for now. Report the facts in real time directly back to me. FBI and Homeland are arguing now about communication channels. We’ve already spoken to the directors of the FAA and NTSB. They know the score. You and Helen are my eyes and ears in case I need to make a decision. At least until the agencies whose job this is can get their feet under them. There’s transport on the way that will take Jack to LA. Helen, can you please remain at the Elkhart crash site with Chief Investigator Gallager? Both of you keep me in the loop on your progress. Gotta go.” Click.
“Just like that?” Gallager asked. “Who do you know with the power to order around civilians and whistle up transport just like that?”
“Jack hit the family jackpot,” Helen answered. “The President is his dad’s best friend. He is also Jack’s godfather.” The last part she shouted as an Air Force Blackhawk helicopter landed in the road outside the yellow caution tape amidst swirling snow and rotor wash.