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The Man In Orange

By Zac Yates All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Thriller

Blurb

Maxwell Hughes is a helicopter pilot, who has lived his entire life in the small North Island town of Tangikea. His company, grown from a handful of pilots and second-hand machines in the late 1980s, has grown to encompass operations around the North Island. He is quiet, unassuming, and prefers to work on his vintage aeroplane rather than be with a wife or girlfriend…despite several forays into that area. Hughes’ world, and that of his close friend and business partner Richard Hardy, is thrown into chaos with the arrival of a Canadian bush pilot in tattered orange overalls who asks for a job but, upon the latter’s refusal, flies off in a rage. Soon after the pair have to search for a young employee missing in a company helicopter; an old friend is murdered; and Hughes himself is brought down.

APRIL 12

Dawn came, and with it the distinctive sound of one of Mathesons’ Crescos spooling up. Most days in the outskirts of Tangikea began the same way as long as the air was relatively still.

Those closer could hear the other standard sounds of the topdressers’ morning ritual: a laugh or two catching up on the previous evening’s events; the swish of Jet-A1 in the jerry cans as they are hoisted in through the rear cargo door; the splash of warm water as it purges the windscreen Perspex of the morning dew. The big Matheson Aerial Farming hangar had previously been home to the company’s fleet of helicopters but once those had been sold off only the old, World War 2-era Tiger Moth – Frank Matheson’s original topdressing mount – had a roof over its head, the locally-based Fletchers and Crescos instead picketed about the airfield.

After the preparations came the engine start. Occasionally - if a health and safety representative was around - the loader driver would stand by with a fire extinguisher, just in case. It had only been needed once or twice over the years but the risk was always there. Another operator had recently lost a turbine Fletcher to an engine fire – on the ground, fortunately – so many pilots maintained their vigilance.

The starter motor would whine for a few seconds, the igniter would sound its rapid-fire TICK-TICK-TICK-TICK and the prop would spin, the whine of the starter being replaced by the muffled roar of the turboprop. The three propeller blades would quickly become a near-invisible blur, the eye seeing only the double white rings at the tips. Loader and pilot would strap into the cramped cockpit, the pilot would close the canopy to allow the cabin heater to begin its battle with the frigid atmosphere, and the aircraft would taxi out.

The first passenger flight from Auckland wouldn’t arrive until around 6:50am, and the field was no longer controlled by air traffic and radar, so often the Cresco pilot would simply check the nearest windsock, point the long nose with its antler-like exhausts into the wind, and push the “go-fast lever”.

Cresco ZK-MAQ had just lifted off, easily as always without a load in its hopper, when Max Hughes came out of the door onto the veranda with coffee in hand. The pilot must have seen the solitary figure backlit by the kitchen as the Cresco flashed its landing lights off and on. Hughes smiled as he raised his mug in return and the powerful aircraft whined overhead, banking to a new heading. Hughes followed the machine with his eyes as it wheeled around and then levelled out.

“Cook’s Corner,” he predicted quietly as the Cresco flew on. He had flown that way many times. The Matheson family block was out that way and as a result all the neighbouring landowners were staunch MAF customers when it came to superphosphate application. His eyes continued to follow the aircraft as it flew over Tangikea, the small city still mostly at slumber. Fifty years of the older, raucous Fletcher topdressers passing overhead before dawn had hardened the citizens to the Matheson family’s comings and goings, indeed most barely glanced up when one of MAF’s green and white aircraft flew overhead. Save for the children, many of whom would proclaim to parents and teachers that when they grew up they too wanted to fly.

Hughes turned and headed back inside to check the online forecasts one last time. It was looking good - clear all day with the wind staying away until late evening – and perfect for spraying. He drained the last of his coffee, shut his laptop and headed out the back door, hitting the light switch on the way. He had almost reached the shed when he realised he didn’t have his keys, cursed his stupidity softly, and went back to get them.

‘Idiot,’ he thought as he snatched the keys from their hook next to the fridge and strolled back to the shed. After snatching the rusty padlock away he opened the door and his hand found the main light switch.

With the metallic ‘CLUNK’ unique to industrial fluorescent lighting the interior of the shed became bathed in white light. What looked outwardly to be a run-of-the-mill corrugated iron farm shed, falling apart and neglected over the years, was inside a beautifully-maintained and well-equipped hangar. A grey floor (mostly) free of oil but with scrapes here and there, a well-stocked wall of air-powered tools, the stereotypical wheeled red toolbox like that in any workshop, as well as miscellaneous brooms and hoses. A few posters were tacked in place: a Spitfire here, Focke-Wulf 190 nearby, even a detailed pencil sketch of an old MAF Fletcher hard at work could be seen. A glass case against one wall contained several well-painted scale models, testament to the many rainy or wet days their builder was unable to work. And in the centre of the hangar on its trolley was ZK-HMH, the Hughes 369HS helicopter he had flown near-exclusively during his time with Mathesons. After the company decided to consolidate its business and focus solely on fixed-wing operations it had offered the helicopter pilots the chance to buy their units. A couple decided to make the switch to fixed-wing instead within the company (with varying results); others accepted the challenge of running their own business and purchased their aircraft, Hughes being one of them. He didn’t see the allure of modern fixed-wing topdressing, he had a real fondness for the Fletcher but they were on the way out, replaced by the more capable Crescos, with their powerful turbine engines, larger hoppers and accurate GPS equipment, His helicopter was a magic carpet, and even the staunchest fixed-wing devotee had to admit that Hughes had a way with the “flying eggbeaters”.

He opened the pilot’s door on HMH to fetch his logbook and aircraft manual as he had been emailed another amendment to be logged and added in. Likewise the maintenance manual needed a minor update and Hughes always felt it was better to get the paperwork out of the way before his day began than deal with it after a day’s work.

In 1986 he had purchased HMH and a cache of spares and set out with his crewman, Richard Hardy, as a two-man outfit called Tangikea Helicopter Services. The bland red and white Hughes factory paint scheme was stripped off by hand one weekend and replaced with a much more attractive combination of white and red with a deep blue tail and belly. Soon the distinctive new-look machine was seen everywhere around the greater Tangikea area as Hughes and Hardy drummed up support and sought jobs from the local farmers, and in no time the other two former MAF chopper boys who had remained in the area decided to merge their own units into THS. Ten years later THS had units throughout the North Island of New Zealand with around a dozen helicopters decked out in the smart white, red and blue trim.

Satisfied with the technical books Hughes replaced them on their shelf before making his way over to the large front doors and hauling them open. At one point he had toyed with the idea of a remote system, like the garage door clicker in a family car, that would be activated by a button on the cyclic so that as he came in at the end of the day the hangar would already be open. However it had proved difficult to perfect and prohibitive in cost and he decided he needed the workout anyway, rather than fork out for a gym membership he’d barely use. He had given himself one small concession to laziness by investing in a quad-bike to pull the helicopter out and then push it back in, as well as for using on his small property.

The sun was beginning to peek over the eastern hills so Hughes closed the hangar doors, switched off the lights and locked the shed. He grinned, pleased to have such a fine day to fly. No clouds could be seen from horizon to horizon which was rare for April in this part of the country. He glanced at his wristwatch and stepped up into his seat, replacing the flight manual and logbook in their pocket on the pillar between the two front seats, then stepped down again for his pre-flight inspection. As he walked around the silent aircraft he met no unexpected sights, everything appeared to be in order: lockwires tied correctly and taut, splitpins in place on nuts, no water in the main fuel tank under the belly, no warps or significant dents in the tail rotor, no rivets working themselves loose, the main rotors straight. The engine bay too presented no issues to his trained eye and everything looked as it should.

Satisfied, he walked back around the bubble nose to ensure the right side doors were latched well shut, rubbed a few dead bugs from the windscreen with a rag from the map pocket, and then sat in the cockpit to go through the starting procedure. MASTER and AVIONICS on, NAV and LDG lights on, GEN flicked to ON, FUEL PUMP running, throttle friction nut set and checked on his left hand, throttle twisted slightly, STARTER on and a reassuring whine, TICKTICKTICK and then the growing roar of the Allison turbine igniting, the four long blades of the main rotor spinning ever faster above his head, the sound of the engine drowned out by the scrambling whirr of the rotor, a lean outside to check the tail rotor was spinning, back inside to check RPM and turbine temperatures (both working into the green). Hughes got out of the noisy machine to quickly walk around it one last time, checking to see the blades were even in their rotation – a misbalanced blade could (and had in the past) throw a machine off balance and see it reduced to a pile of scrap. All looking good, he closed the door, latched it shut and put on his headset, adjusting the microphone to his lips.

“Tangikea traffic, 500 Hotel Mike Hotel is inbound from the south east, three miles out, to land,” he quickly spoke into the mic. He doubted anyone besides the long-gone Cresco pilot would be on the frequency to hear his call, but the law was the law. He expected the radio call would echo around the inside of the aero club – perhaps the airport caretaker, having a coffee from the club supplies before the day began, may hear him. With that in mind a grin formed on his face, he twisted the throttle to flight RPMs and lifted the machine into a hover. The 500′s stalky landing skids froze about five feet from the tarmac in front of the shed for a moment or two before the nose dipped and the aircraft began to speed forward into a climbing left turn. Hughes cleared the trees on his boundary with ease and remained at about 100ft altitude for the short trip to Tangikea airport. The helicopter – technically a Type 369HS but referred to by all as simply a “500” - flashed by the trees and hedges, the few farm animals along its route calmly sauntering out of its path.

The runway lights weren’t on – they rarely were unless an emergency flight was due – and most of the hangars were shut. The domestic airline terminal was open, attendant Martin Jones surely checking the schedules over a warm mug of Milo, and the only real sign of life was at the MAF maintenance hangar where the chief engineer and his foreman already had the doors open.

‘Another urgent job,’ Hughes thought. The fixed-wing pilots were of a different breed than when he had started: the smallest irregularity in the gauges, the tiniest change in pitch from the engine, and they were booked in for a check with the company’s team of expert engineers.

One other building was lit – Tangikea Heli Services’ headquarters, a smart hangar with a small office block attached, and a large window looking out over the airfield. As he approached Hughes could see a figure at the window but gave it no more thought as he circled and then flared for landing in front of the window, ignoring the viewer as he kept focus. With deft ease the 500 settled onto the concrete pad neatly surrounded by a yellow circle, the block H directly beneath the nose. With a quick check of the gauges he set the throttle to ground idle, unfastened his safety belts, opened the door and jumped out.

“You’re early today, Rich,” he said to the man leaning against the door.

“Not by choice,” his long-time friend replied with a sigh that Hughes could somehow make out over the 500′s whine. He looked haggard – hadn’t even had time to shave before coming up. “You know I’ve grown past the ‘up-at-sparrow-fart’ routine.”

“Don’t I know it? Best damn loader I ever had and he chooses a desk over the pleasure of my company,” Hughes laughed.

Hardy gave him a slight smile which quickly disappeared. “Are we in a hurry this morning?” he asked, gesturing to the idling helicopter.

“A small spraying job for Geoff Spencer up the Waitaki, why’s that?” Hughes replied loudly, making his way into the darkened hangar and taking a set of white overalls from a hook just inside the door. “He wants it done by half-ten, and you know I like a challenge to start my week.” He switched on the lights and made for a trolley stacked with spray bars and chemical tanks.

“Your wife called.”

Hughes stopped dressing for a moment and looked over his shoulder. “Margaret or Sarah?”

Looking exasperated, Hardy shook his head. “Current. I should’ve said current. You know I’m not onto it if I’ve not had my morning cuppa.”

Hughes tut-tutted. “Typical desk jockey. It’ll be on me then. What’s it about?” He pulled a trolley of spray gear to the door and opened it just enough to pass though.

“Your payments. Hard to miss mate, they do post out reminders.”

“Easy enough to forget when you’re flat tack with earning a living, and the slightly more important paperwork that comes with it,” Hughes countered as he reached the 500.

“That’s as maybe, but when it gets to the point of your jilted lovers calling me in the middle of the night you can understand how normal people might take exception,” Hardy said, raising his voice over the screaming turbine.

“True, true,” Hughes mused as he attached first one, then another white fibreglass tank to the chopper’s belly. “Speaking of normal people, they would also offer to help a mate out with a task.”

Ignoring him, Hardy went on. “She wants you to sign those divorce papers too. Her new man is eager to get married.”

“Ha! Poor bastard doesn’t know what he’s in for.”

“Never mind him, just sort it out would ya? I’m not your social secretary!”

“No, but she’s only just started and I’d hate for her to get the wrong impression about me,” Hughes replied as he fastened the clasps to affix the spray bar to the tank. He walked out from under the rotors and straightened up, pointing an accusing finger at Hardy. “And no smart remarks! I’m past fishing in the company pond!”

Hardy rolled his eyes. “Sure. Next you’ll be telling me you want to sell up and go back to Mathesons in a Cresco.”

Hughes jokingly grasped at his throat. “Blasphemy! I think I’m going to be sick!”

“Just get her sorted!”

“Marie or Sarah?” Hughes smirked.

“Sarah, you fool!” Hardy shook his head once more. “$570 is the last payment to settle, and she said she can get the papers here this arvo.”

Hughes clambered up into his chopper, put on his headset, and grabbed the handle of his door as he leant out. “Tell her 400 and we have a deal!” he shouted as he quickly shut the door, winked at Hardy through the window, and wrenched the collective to take off.

Hardy had to smile back as the shining chopper lifted into the sky and nosed off to the southwest. It was just as well Hughes had suggested to the board that he, Hardy, should take the position of managing director – if it was up to Mister Maxwell H. Hughes to arrange the day-to-day financial activities of Tangikea Heli Services (1986) Limited, the fledgling company wouldn’t have lasted the decade. It was true that Hardy did miss some aspects of the crewman/loader driver job, but after doing his back in on an Electrical Board job his body just wasn’t up to it. And his wife Louise had had some influence on his decision also. They had begun seeing each other fairly early on in his ag career, and they had been to enough funerals, wakes and hospital wards together that she had been petrified whenever he was half an hour overdue from a job. The day he suggested Hughes’ idea to her she had been overcome with emotion, and he felt as though a weight was gone from his shoulders. Sure, he wore a suit most days, didn’t fly as much as he liked and was getting a bit round in the midsection of his fuselage, but he and his wife were happy.

He headed back into the offices and took a seat on the sofa in the reception area, overlooking the runway. He looked up at the clock, its face painted with a generic aeroplane and the numbers in the style of military serials, and calculated that the morning flight would soon be in. He decided to wait just long enough to see it land and taxi in before going home and getting ready for the day.

#

ZK-HMH was passing over the slowly waking town of Tangikea, high enough to be legal but low enough that the noise from its spinning rotor and whining turbine would be audible to anyone outside. The council called it a city but, with barely 50,000 inhabitants, Hughes still saw it as just the small town he grew up in. Tangikea had always been seen as something of a rural backwater by the rest of the country, but as the 1990s drew to a close the city had seen an influx of students to its new university, and media outlets referred to the city as the Arts Capital. This never sat well with Hughes: sure, the town’s main street had an up-to-date feel with its modern shops and cafes, but he felt the council needed to take a firmer stance in preserving the town’s more historic areas.

Such thoughts often crowded his mind when flying to and from a job and, as he could see the Spencer block grow larger on the horizon, Hughes pushed the irrelevant from his mind to be replaced by formulae to judge the right amount of chemical to water for the spray job. It would be a straightforward job today: a small amount of weedkiller to be applied to the gorse-covered hills behind the 110 year-old Spencer family homestead. He’d been overstating the job to Hardy earlier as he was a firm believer in the practice of under-promising and over-delivering – he’d heard of (and, tragically, seen) talented pilots fly themselves into the ground trying to meet insane deadlines, and he had vowed years ago he would not meet his death in this beloved 500.

He didn’t need to physically shake the morbid thoughts from his head as he could see a pillar of light from the door of the homestead – Geoff Spencer must have heard the oncoming helicopter and was making his way to the flat lawn before his home. Hughes circled once to establish the wind (there was none) and that no livestock had strayed to his landing zone, and he flared for a landing directly in front of the farmer. He unstrapped himself, unplugged the headset and tucked the cables down his overalls, and got down from the idling machine.

“Punctual as always, Mister Hughes!” the amiable Spencer called, hand extended. The other lifted a cigarette to his smiling mouth.

“I do my best Geoff; you should know that by now,” Hughes called back, accepting the handshake with a grin, “what do you know?”

“Enough to be dangerous,” the farmer replied to the traditional greeting, “how long to do the job this morning?”

“Why’s that, in a rush are we?” Hughes asked, as always declining the smoke Spencer offered. He’d tried it once but decided it held no appeal and, besides, his life was hazardous enough.

“No no, not as such, but the wife wants to head into town and I’ve got a few things to do myself.”

“Aw Geoff, don’t you trust a flyboy around an unoccupied farmhouse?”

Spencer guffawed in reply, “Just get it done mate, you’ll find the chem in the usual place.”

“No worries Geoff, thanks mate. I’d better leave you to it.”

“Sure you won’t hang about for a brew? Alison’s done a nice strong pot this morning.”

“Thanks, but I’d better get onto it while the wind’s low.”

“Happy flying Max,” Spencer said as he waved a goodbye.

Hughes smiled widely. “Always.”

The more-than-forty year-old machine leapt off the ground, wheeled over the house and settled next to the machine shed which housed Spencer’s immaculate vintage Massey-Fergusson tractor and his harvesting equipment. Hughes got out of the chopper and found the hidden key for the chemical room, fetched the weedkiller and set about measuring an appropriate amount into each tank. He walked at a brisk pace to the nearby water faucet, ensured the long hose was attached, and ran the water to the tanks until they were full. Satisfied, he returned the hose to its hook so the helicopter’s downdraught wouldn’t blow the length of rubber and its nozzle into the rotors – an expense he could do without – and turned off the water before returning to his machine, scanning his gauges, and lifting off for the hills beyond.

Over the next ninety minutes, with short interruptions to repeat the filling cycle, the 500 flew up and down the property close to ground level, the spray curling up in the wake of the rotors. Hughes enjoyed this sort of job. Every pilot loved flying low and fast, and spraying gave him the only legal outlet to fly so low. Spraying gorse was a real challenge due to the landscape around the Spencer farm, with several gullies and hills to cover.

At the end of a run Hughes would point the nose up into a torque turn – tipping the chopper on its tail and allowing it to spin 180-degrees on its own – and fly the same path to ensure an even spread. By 9am the pilot was satisfied and, after circling the homestead to notify Spencer of that (if he was still home), headed back to Tangikea Airport.

#

The old airfield was more alive now, with the Auckland flight being fuelled to return north and the MAF engineers swarming like blue ants over a Cresco performing another 100hr check. Hughes kept a wide berth around the airport to avoid potential collisions, radioed his intentions and made for the THS complex.

As he neared the pad he could see a white Bell JetRanger helicopter at rest, with no obvious markings apart from registration letters.

“Who belongs to that?” Hughes asked himself quietly as he flared to bleed off speed. He parked next to the mystery ship and after shutting down walked to the open hangar, giving the JetRanger another glance over his shoulder.

“Morning bossman,” called one of the engineers from under a small Robinson R22 helicopter.

“G’day Mike,” Hughes replied, making his way to the diminutive machine. One of two owned by THS, it was based at their Tauranga training school and was undergoing its annual check. The tail boom looked to have been just reattached as two of the other engineers were checking the mounting bolts. Mike Parker, one of the more senior members of the team going back to the days of MAF helicopter ops, was working on the cargo hook beneath the compact chopper.

“How are you today, Max? Nice day for it! Thistles?” he suggested, stretching and gesturing to the spray gear on HMH.

Hughes shook his head. “Gorse, out at Geoff Spencer’s place. Almost on top of it now. How’s the annual coming?”

Parker grimaced. “Those trainees of yours, jeez they can dish out some punishment. The skids had seen better days, five or more rough landings and you’d have been looking for a new machine.”

Hughes nodded and examined the landing gear which lay next the Robinson. He could see some nasty dents and scrapes, and the shock absorbing components looked quite worn. Brand-new components had already been fixed to the aircraft’s belly. “How long ’til she’s up and running again?”

“Later on today, maybe even lunchtime if the young fella takes his thumb out of his arse,” Parker winked as he pointed at a figure in brand-new overalls.

“Apprentice?” Hughes asked.

“Yip, and a damned good one too,” Parker replied, setting down his tools. “He’s enthusiastic as anything, his old man used to fly for Mathesons. Early days yet, but he’s showing some promise.”

Hughes nodded as he watched the youngster at work. He appeared to be cleaning some components in the grease bath. “What else is happening?”

“You’d better talk to Trev, Max, I’ve been head-down arse-up dealing to IKA here,” he nodded to the stripped-down Robinson as he rubbed his hands clean on a rag, “so I’ve been too busy to notice much else.”

“Thanks Mike, I’ll let you get back,” Hughes replied, patting the engineer on the back. “Keep up the good work.”

As Parker lay back down under the small helicopter Hughes walked past the other machines in the workshop to the chief engineer’s office. As he neared the open door he could hear Trevor Smalley’s distinctive gravelly voice and could tell he wasn’t in the best of moods. He poked his head into the adjoining office, home to Mike’s wife Sam, the glue holding Smalley’s haphazard filing system together.

“Hey Sam, what’s up?”

The slim brunette looked up from an open Robinson flight manual, pages scattered around the desk, and rolled her brown eyes. “God knows, probably just a bolt facing the wrong way.”

Hughes smirked. Smalley did have a short temper when it came to “his” machines, and he often wondered how such a domineering force failed to become an officer despite being in the Air Force for nearly twenty years. “Okay, then wish me luck.”

She gave him a thumbs-up, already hunched over the manual again. Hughes walked into the next office quietly to see Smalley’s chair turned, facing outside.

“Alright then, if you really think it’s that bad then bring her in and I’ll take a look.”

Hughes sat across the desk and reclined, observing both his consternated engineering head and the taxiing airliner outside.

“How are we?” Smalley asked, replacing the handset.

“I could well ask you the same, Trev,” Hughes replied.

Smalley removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Craig Bennett just called, says he’s got a chip light on MAS.”

“Oh yes?” Hughes leant forward. “Serious?”

Smalley cleaned his glasses with a handkerchief. “Can be. Something in the engine, rogue piece of metal maybe. Bugger me if I know how it got in there.” Smalley was a man juggling two roles: chief engineer for THS and other private helicopters, and a secondary role as a consulting engineer for MAF.

“So what’s the latest on the hangar queens?” Hughes asked, gesturing back to the hangar. “Mike told me IKA is close to being finished.”

Smalley snorted as he replaced his glasses. “Maybe. If they pick up the pace. New skids gave gone on, the engine’s good, tail rotor bearings need a bit of cleaning. Got the young joker working on that.”

“The apprentice?”

“Hank’s overseeing his work, so don’t go getting your knickers in a twist, Max,” Smalley said. “He’s doing alright.”

Big praise from a man like Smalley who had seen no point in the apprenticeship programme, Hughes thought as he stifled a grin. “What else?”

“Well,” Smalley began with a deep breath, rising from his seat, “aside from IKA we have HFD down for some instrument work and you would’ve seen IDS getting a 50hr as well. That should be finished today. And we’ll need HMH sometime, too.” He walked out of the office and Hughes rose to follow.

“Oh?”

“Yip, annual,” Smalley stated briefly, walking over to ZK-IDS, a Eurocopter Squirrel and the newest addition to the fleet.

“But didn’t we do one just last year?” Hughes asked jokingly.

Smalley pretended to not hear him. “If you can have it here Wednesday that would be great.”

Hughes looked inside the Squirrel’s modern cockpit, so clean it looked as though it had never been out of the hangar. “I’ll look at the diary but I’m fairly sure there’s nothing on this week. Would you like me to leave her here today?”

Smalley shook his head, bending down to check the control tubes under the machine. “Not just yet, we don’t have room. This one should be done this arvo, though.” Satisfied with the Squirrel, he stood and made for the little Robinson.

“Is there anything else I should be aware of, Trev?”

“That’s it. Bring in the 500 tomorrow.” Smalley leant over the young apprentice to see how he was doing and, satisfied, moved on to check in with Parker.

Hughes shrugged off Smalley’s apparent dismissal and left the hangar. As he walked to the office he had a closer look at the JetRanger. He could see that, all in all, it was a very rough machine. Exhaust stains dirtied the tailboom, paint was chipped from around the pilot’s door and the numerous access panels, and the portside cargo door appeared to be from another machine as it was painted blue and yellow. He gave it no further thought as he scuffed his shoes on the welcome mat and opened the door into the reception office, greeting the newest member of the team, Marie Newhart. “Good morning Miss Newhart, how are you today?”

“I’m fine thank-you, Mister Hughes,” the raven-haired woman smiled from behind her counter as she removed her glasses to clean them. “And you?”

“I’m great thanks, and please drop the ‘Mister’, it makes me feel old,” he said as he leant on the counter. “Max is fine.”

She blushed slightly. “Okay then: Max, did you have a nice flight?”

Hughes smiled widely as he always did when asked this question. “Every flight’s a nice one! And walking away with the machine intact, well, that’s a real bonus.”

She giggled, caught herself, and covered it by replacing her glasses. “Mister, I mean, Richard would like to see you, he and our guest are in his office.”

“Oh, the pilot of Casper out there?”

“The JetRanger? Yeah, that’s the one,” Newhart replied, turning to her computer screen.

“Well done, you’re learning the different types of choppers!” Hughes said with mock condescension as he made for the director’s office. He didn’t see Newhart playfully poke out her tongue.

“Max, welcome back to civilisation!” Hardy said warmly as Hughes opened the door, freshly shaven and well-dressed. He gestured to a seat before him, the other being occupied by a dark-haired man in a set of dirty orange overalls. “This is Francois Charles.”

“Of the white JetRanger?” Hughes asked, extending a hand.

The other man stood. He was shorter than Hughes and wearing a cap emblazoned with a de Havilland Beaver floatplane. Stocky and with a week or so of growth on his chin, he accepted the handshake with a smile. “A real pleasure, Mister Hughes, I’ve heard so much about you.”

Detecting an accent, Hughes asked “American?”

Charles appeared to grimace slightly. “Canadian.”

“My next guess. Sorry, you must get that a lot,” Hughes offered.

“Constantly, but no matter,” replied the newcomer as he took his seat, a slightly wooden smile on his face. “Just back from a job?”

“Yeah,” Hughes replied as he unzipped his white flightsuit. “Spraying job north of town, and hopefully I’ll get to do the check flight on the R22 out there later on.”

Hardy smiled and reclined in his chair. “Francois is a bush pilot of many years standing and he has recently decided to have a change of scenery.”

“You’ll find New Zealand, especially our region, to be quite a change from Canada,” Hughes smiled.

“I know,” Charles replied, removing his hat to smooth his hair. “I have been here before, in the Seventies. I flew 500s for a while in Fiordland.”

Hughes knew exactly what he was referring to: the so-called “Deer Wars”, where hundreds of helicopters filled the air above New Zealand bush country, jostling for position and the greater share of the reward. The government had declared red deer to be a ‘noxious pest’, and soon the hunters were given free rein to exterminate the deer menace as they saw fit. The helicopter soon emerged as the most efficient way to track, kill and recover the animal, with the venison meat and antler being sold to the highest bidder. Man and machine alike littered the hillsides as the rivalry became more than friendly one-upmanship, and by the late 1980s the deer population was so drastically low that the hunters turned to live capture. Those crews left alive soon turned their machines into tourist taxis, or retired altogether.

“And now he’s keen to take up a position with us,” Hardy smiled.

“I see. Have you had much experience with agricultural flying?”

Charles shook his head. “Not as such, most of my work at home was charter – tourists, surveying, ferrying prospectors to claims, slinging.”

Hughes nodded. “You probably have been told by Richard already, but there isn’t much call for that sort of work. Has he told you about what we do?”

“He has. Spraying, fertilizer application, powerline support, animal monitoring,”

“Not much call for your sort of experience, I’m afraid,” Hughes said levelly. “We offer it, but very rarely do we have tourists coming in wanting a flight.”

Hardy’s smile faded a fraction as he detected a change in the atmosphere, whereas Charles’ face remained passive.

“Ag work is our bread and butter,” Hughes continued, “and it’s not the sort of game you can learn overnight.”

“I’m a fast learner.”

“We have blokes come to us straight out of school, not flight school mind you, and it can take years for them to progress up the ranks. I’m yet to meet the pilot who, right away, master loading AND flying. Has Richard told you what the crewman’s job entails?”

Charles shook his head slowly, and Hardy’s smile faded a little more.

“When a young bloke starts with us, or any ag firm, they start at the very bottom rung: driving the ute to the site, loading the chopper with chemicals, refuelling it, cleaning it and the vehicle after every job, day in and day out for about two years. Sure, he gets the chance to occasionally ferry to or from the jobsite, but that’s a perk. Exception rather than the rule. He may spend his pay on getting his licence, flying with the aero club on any days off he may be lucky enough to get, but that’s the only flight time he can log for up to five years. I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but that’s the way it is, and always will be.”

Charles’ face began to cloud over. “I have more than fifteen thousand hours at the controls. I could be a real asset to your company.”

“You could have thirty thousand and the answer would still be the same,” Hughes shrugged. “It’s nothing personal, Francois, it’s the way the game works. I’m happy to take you on as a crewman but, to be honest, you’d be wasted. I just don’t have a pilot’s job for you.”

Charles mustered a smile again. “What about charter work? I’d be glad to just do that. Get paid by the job, bring in new clients, do the marketing, whatever is necessary!”

Hardy smiled also and was about to comment but Hughes cut him off.

“I would love to say yes, really I would. But I have to face facts, as should you,” he looked at Hardy, “we tried the tourism thing in the early Nineties, it came to nothing. We’re not in the right location, no-one wants to take scenic flights over farm after dull farm. Hell, if they did you’d have passed five choppers on your way here! For ag work yes, the geography is perfect, but not sightseeing.”

“But with the right marketing -”

“You can market your heart out and get nowhere, it’s like selling sand to an Arab,” Hughes cut in. He frowned involuntarily as he remembered. “I damn near bankrupted myself trying to do it before. I’ve – we -” he nodded to Hardy, “have built a fine company here. We have pilots around the Island flying most days of the year, flying productive hours providing services that have proven to be necessary and profitable. If I were you I’d head to Rotorua, or maybe THL in Queenstown is hiring.” He stood and extended his hand to the simmering Canadian. “I’m sorry.”

Charles stood, snatched his cap from the table and stalked out of the room. Hughes was still standing with his arm fixed out when Hardy bolted up and walked around to shut the door.

“What the hell was that?! Fifteen THOUSAND hours, and you say ‘I’m sorry’?”

Hughes lowered his arm and sat back down, staring at the other seat. “I’ve seen it before, Rich. No matter the experience, once someone’s flown enough hours they feel they can waltz on in to someone’s office and feel entitled to a flying job, It’s just not done.”

Hardy sighed. “But what about his charter idea?”

“Forgive me Richard, I didn’t know you had the memory span of a goldfish,” Hughes replied, looking up at his friend and folding his arms.

“Maybe it just wasn’t the right time,” Hardy countered, shrugging his shoulders.

“Now is hardly the time either. Despite what may be said behind my back, I do try and keep up with the times. The economy is in a bad way. We don’t feel it because we’re fortunate to have a loyal customer base that year in and year out need us to survive. But tourists are fickle. After the earthquakes down south they just aren’t coming back. Gorse, on the other hand, doesn’t pay attention to a poor economic climate. And besides, like I told the man in orange here, we just aren’t in the right place.”

Hardy nodded and returned around the table to his desk chair. “I guess you’re right, those were hard times for us.”

Hughes nodded also. The company had indeed been near bankruptcy after their failed NZ Air Tours venture. After a big, well-publicised launch the tourists never came, and the factory-new MD500E purchased for the job had to be sold after just four months to recoup costs. A partial buy-out by a big fertiliser company had saved them from the brink of oblivion, and now the firm stuck solidly to agricultural work, with the occasional government contract job on the side. “Besides, we don’t need another pilot right now. We have enough crewmen begging for stick time as it is.”

Hardy smirked and chuckled. “Dumb bastards. Who would want to subject themselves to that?”

Hughes laughed. “Buggered if I know.” He heard the JetRanger start up and decided to go watch, motioning for Hardy to follow.

“What did you two do to that poor guy?” Newhart asked as the men emerged from the office.

“Never you mind, sweets,” Hughes responded as he opened the door to the tarmac.

Newhart pouted. “That could be construed as sexual harassment you know, Mr Hughes.”

Hughes turned and rolled his eyes. “Hey, I could be much worse. And besides, it’s not harassment if the feelings are mutual.”

She raised a single finger and returned to her work.

Hughes and Hardy stood outside as the JetRanger quickly lifted off, staying very low and barely missing Hughes’ 500 on its way. After skimming the parked machine it abruptly climbed away.

“Bloody hell, he’s crazy,” Hardy shouted, stunned at the near-miss.

Hughes just stood, arms folded on his chest. “Where did he come from?”

Hardy appeared not to hear him, following the machine as it flew to the northwest.

“Rich?” Hughes laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder to shake him from his reverie.

“What?” His face was ghostly white from the shock of almost seeing a potentially messy collision. “Canada! I told you that, didn’t I?”

“No, I mean here, where does he live? Where’s he based out of?”

“Not sure actually, we were just shooting shit before you arrived. Come to think of it,” Hardy began to scratch his chin as he often did when thinking, “I’m not sure he mentioned.”

Hughes nodded and headed back in, leaving Hardy to watch the disappearing helicopter.

“Hey, Marie,” Hughes began, but she cut him off.

“Not interested,” she snapped, “I have a boyfriend. And don’t make me call him here!”

“No, not that,” he replied, “can you get some information for me?”

“Not until you apologise.”

“Apologise? For what?”

“What you said just now,” she replied, obviously not really meaning it. When she looked up and saw the look on Hughes’ face her own expression changed. “Sure Max, what do you need?”

“I’d like to know a bit about Mr Charles: where he’s based, how long he’s owned his chopper. Did you get the rego?”

She nodded and set about an internet search, as well as bringing up the website for the Civil Aviation Authority.

Hughes walked over to the water cooler and downed a cup of the refreshing liquid, then poured another and sipped at it.

Hardy came in and shut the outer door. “Thought he’d stolen it, did you?”

“Not necessarily,” Hughes replied defensively, “he just seemed a bit...off.”

“Would you like me to get in touch with the licencing office at CAA?”

“Yes please Marie,” Hughes replied as he emptied his cup and crushed it.

“Is there anything else you’d like me to do for you, Max?” asked Newhart as Hughes passed by her desk on the way out.

“Yes, but not ’til tonight,” he replied with a mischievous wink over his shoulder.

“I said, I have a boyfriend,” the petite woman cried.

“Then just tell him you’ll be late,” Hughes replied as he shut the door behind him.

Newhart stared at the retreating figure before turning to Hardy. “Has he always been like this?”

He nodded. “More or less. It’s why he’s such a hit with the ladies.”

“I fail to see how,” she replied, picking up the telephone.

“You tell me,” said Hardy as he leant over the counter with a schoolboy grin, “you’re the one blushing.”

#

Hughes made his way over to the large Matheson Aerial Farming hangars, where he could see the engineers hard at work on a Cresco inside. He decided against making small-talk as he could see the team were hard at work trying to get the aircraft back out and earning, so instead he made his way through the hangar, past the staff lunch room and into the office. He greeted Joy, the “sixty-something” office lady and mounted the stairs to the boss’s office. He knocked once and went in, Lance Matheson, eldest grandson of the late Francis, sat behind his desk, an array of papers before him and what looked to be a cold coffee by his computer. He rose to shake Hughes’ hand.

“Good morning Max, and to what do I owe the pleasure of your company today?”

“Just wanted to check in. Okay if I sit?”

“Sure, go for your life,” replied the barrel-chested pilot-manager, who took his own seat and reclined. “What’s new?”

“Same-old, you?”

Matheson smiled warily. “One machine down for a 100hr check, another possibly needing a new engine, and last night we had another go through a fence up north.”

“Bloody hell,” Hughes sat up, a look of concern on his face. “Is the pilot ok?”

Matheson waved it off. “Yeah, he’s fine. The fool left it too late to come back. He had to put her down at Taumarunui. Murray’s got two of his boys going up with a new leg to get it ferryable. You look like you have something on your mind mate?”

“Did you see the white JetRanger that was here earlier?”

Matheson nodded. “Yeah, came in here looking for you. Joy gave him directions to your hangar. What did he want?”

“Canadian bloke looking for a job. Strange he came up here, his machine was parked outside our hangar.”

“Hmm. And?”

“And nothing. The guy thought he could walk in and get a job flying tomorrow!”

Matheson laughed and shook his head. “Always the same story. ‘But I’ve been flying for years! I’ve got my own machine!’”

Hughes nodded. “Fifteen thousand hours bush-flying in Canada, surveying and flying goldmining wannabes into the wopwops.”

Matheson let out a low whistle at the mention of Charles’ flying time. “Sounds about right. Has he flown ag before?”

“Not once.”

“Any time as a loader?”

“None.”

“Angry you wouldn’t give him a shot?”

“Absolutely. Almost took out HMH with his chopper on the way out.”

“Really? Seems like a bit of a loose unit from the way you describe him.”

“Rich thought I shouldn’t have been so blunt, but....hell, taking a group of Japanese tourists to look at a mountain is a tad different to spraying!”

Matheson nodded. Before MAF sold its helicopters he had flown a couple of seasons with Hughes in the 500 to see if it appealed. It was quite different work, and Lance Matheson preferred to look out of his cockpit and see thick, bent white wings either side.

“I dunno, I just have an odd feeling about him. He was not pleased when I turned him down, he even offered to be a one-man band flying tourist hops and charters under our umbrella.”

“That’s understandable.”

“But, the way he stormed out of the office, no ‘thanks for your time’ or anything…he just up and left.”

Matheson nodded sagely, his fingers together before his face. “Keep an eye out for him. Wouldn’t surprise me if he tried to set up shop in opposition, try to make a nuisance of himself.”

“Thanks Lance, I’ll do that.” He rose to leave, and stopped himself. “He did mention he flew down south in the Seventies.”

Matheson looked up at his one-time colleague. “Venison?”

Hughes nodded.

“They were a bunch of crazy bastards,” Matheson grunted as he lifted himself out of his chair. “Not many left now.”

“Yeah,” Hughes agreed, “you had to have a certain amount of ruthlessness to survive down there.”

“Take care, Hughesie,” Matheson offered as he returned to his paperwork.

#

Hughes finished his walkaround on Robinson ZK-IKA and got into its cabin to run through the start routine. With the pre-start check complete, and satisfied that the little aircraft was fit to fly, all that was left now was a quick test flight to check all was as it should be. The piston-engined helicopters always amused Hughes, with their small size and their car-style ignition keys.

Before long the Lycoming at his back had coughed into life and was running as smoothly as it could manage, and the now-declutched rotor spun ever faster above his head. Test flights were always single-person operations just in case anything went wrong so her regular pilot, Tauranga-based instructor Paul Harris, was waiting in the airport cafe for Hughes to sign her off.

Hughes lifted the small machine off the pad outside the maintenance hangar, hover-taxied to the runway, and nosed forward, climbing as he went. He flew two uneventful circuits of the field before returning, well satisfied the R22 was good as new. The lithe machine was nimble and light on the controls, but Hughes could never see the R22 as more of a training machine – he had no intention of buying the machines for anything else.

He landed on the grass near the cafe and walked over to Harris, leaving the machine running for the younger man to make a quick departure.

“Thanks for that mate,” Harris smiled as he finished his latte and grabbed his half-eaten muffin. “The wife’ll be getting worried, she was already asking questions after a week!”

Hughes laughed and waved in farewell, waiting until Harris had taken off to take a seat near the counter. As the little Robinson disappeared over the trees on the eastern boundary Sandy Morgan, owner-operator of the Happy Landings Cafe, appeared from out the back.

“What’ll it be, flyboy?”

Hughes turned. “Come now Sandy, you should know me well enough by now!”

She poured a black coffee and plated a bran muffin from the glass case next to them. “Bon appetit.”

Hughes smiled his thanks and sat facing the runway. The Canadian with his weary helicopter still bothered Hughes, and even when flying the R22 he still weighed on Hughes’ mind. He felt his hands begin to shake as he remembered the JetRanger almost flying into his own machine and wondered what sort of pilot flew so recklessly.

As he sipped the strong, piping hot coffee he forced the thoughts away and thought instead about Marie Newhart. She had been with THS for nearly four months and had greatly impressed both he and Hardy with her enthusiasm for and knowledge of aviation. Hardy later told him that she was a student pilot on her days off, and had been going to airshows with her father practically since birth. Hughes smiled at the thought – if he ever had children he’d be the same. Irrespective of gender he would take them to airshows, out on the occasional job, flying picnics to some remote beach or hilltop. It was probably too late now, he mused, as the steam rose from his mug.

His first wife Margaret James had been his teenage sweetheart, an impulsive wedding in the big city at nineteen and a tumultuous relationship which ended just as quickly. Divorced and not yet 22 the young Maxwell Hughes had returned to Tangikea and took a job with Matheson Aerial Farming as a topdresser loader driver. He relished in the early starts and found a real passion when first introduced by his pilot to the Fletcher FU24, the noisy, bent-winged spreading plane he loaded every day. Soon he was flying them himself and, when MAF bought a couple of helicopters, Hughes jumped at the chance to try something new. The workhorse Fletcher still held a place in his heart, but he saw the helicopter was his future. He married Sarah Marsh at age 34 and she became pregnant soon after, but sadly for the couple it was not to be.

By his late forties he was twice divorced and resigned himself to life as a bachelor. It wasn’t so bad, he found it hard to find new topics of discussion with a new lady-friend anyway, and one-night stands generally worked out for both parties. Marie Newhart was far too young for him, he decided, and more than one office romance had ended badly in the past. Better to remain as harmlessly flirtatious co-workers than cross that divide.

“Max! Phone!” Sandy’s shout broke his reverie.

Hughes left his mug on the table and, dodging the few cafe patrons, made his way to the phone.

“Thanks, Sandy,” he said as he took the proffered handset. “Hughes.”

“Max, it’s Marie.”

He smiled faintly. “I was just thinking about you, actually.” He chuckled inwardly at the exasperated sigh on the other end of the phone. “No, nothing like that. What have you got for me?”

“Well, Civil Aviation tell me that Mr Charles doesn’t currently hold a valid New Zealand pilots licence, and that his Canadian one is due to expire at the end of the month.”

Hughes leant against the doorframe, being careful to leave room for Sandy and her wait staff to get past. “Intriguing. And the ’Ranger is definitely his?”

“Yeah, registered to an F D Charles,” came the reply.

“Address?” There was silence. “Marie? Are you there?”

“What’s the magic word, Mr Hughes?”

Hughes sighed. “Would you be kind enough, Miss Newhart, to tell me to which address Mr Charles’ Bell 206 is registered, please?”

“That’s better. It’s in Taupo.”

“Thank-you, Miss Newhart.” He replaced the receiver before he walked into another ‘harassment’ situation and returned to his seat. ‘Taupo? That’s a bloody long way to come to a job interview you’ve set up yourself,’ he thought. He finished his coffee and settled his bill.

“What’s up, Max?” asked Sandy as he stood at the till, a blank look on his face. “What’s happened?”

“Hm?” He looked up and forced a smile onto his face. “Oh, nothing, nothing’s happened, Sand.”

“Your face tells me otherwise,” she countered, a look of concern appearing. “Has there been a prang? One of the boys?”

Hughes shook his head emphatically. “Good God, no, definitely not. Just a strange visitor earlier.”

She counted out his change from the cash drawer and handed it over. “The Canadian?”

Hughes looked a little gobsmacked, shaking his head. “Jesus, is there anywhere on this field he didn’t visit this morning?”

Sandy chuckled. “Easy tiger, he came in for a coffee while he waited for you to come back from Spencer’s. Interesting character. Was telling me some of his war stories.”

Hughes’ interest was piqued. “Did he just?”

She wiped down the already clean counter as she spoke. “Yeah, all the normal stuff: the time he and his mechanic were marooned on an Alaskan mountain by fog, the time he had to pick up some prospectors during a blizzard, all the usual over-the-top bull.” Sandy Morgan had been married to a pilot who was killed in a venison crash in 1983, and since then all the local pilots supported her and saw her as a sort of Mother Hen to them all. As a result, she could talk the talk.

“Sounds about right. He told me he had fifteen thousand hours, including time in Fiordland.”

Sandy looked up from her dishcloth at Hughes. “A deer hunter?”

“Well, I’m not so sure about the ‘hunter’ part, but he said he flew for a while down there during the Seventies. In 500s. I just joined the dots.”

“What was his name?”

Hughes turned to look at Sandy’s face. It was clouded over, part concentration, part worry. “Francois Charles. Why’s that?”

“I remember Andy telling me about this foreign pilot, an American, who turned up in Te Anau one day asking where he could find work. He was pretty wet behind the ears, but he said he’d had military experience. Adam didn’t want anything to do with him because he’d never been a shooter, and he had a bad experience with a green pilot who thought he could outfly the veterans,” she recalled, the mention of her deceased husband bringing both a smile to her face and some slight tears.

“One day Adam came back to the house, white as a ghost, and the first thing he did when he came through the door was walk straight over to the bar and drain a ¼ bottle of whiskey. I asked him what happened, but he didn’t want to talk about it. I asked Hamish, Hamish Lane his shooter, what happened and he said something about them being shot at.”

Hughes listened impassively, sipping at his refilled coffee mug. “And Adam never talked about it?”

Sandy shook her head slowly as she raked her memory for details. “No, not once. One time I went out for a fly with him, a naughty picnic somewhere,” she winked mischievously, “and I noticed a panel on the helicopter that was a different colour to the rest. I asked him and he said it was a replacement part, but I always had the feeling it was a patch over the bullet hole Hamish mentioned.

“A couple of months later he and Joe Parker went down in the Tararuas,” she concluded, resuming her rub-down of the already-pristine counter, “so I never got to ask him again about the patch, or that day in Te Anau.”

“Did you ever hear a name?”

“Not Francois Charles, that’s for certain. I think it was Tom, or Dom? It certainly wasn’t French! That’s why we thought he was ex-US Army, Vietnam or something.”

Hughes nodded, and smiled at his long-time friend. “Thanks for the coffees, Sand,” he said, retrieving his wallet. She laid her hand on it and pushed it away.

“That one’s on me,” she said warmly, clasping his hand on the counter. “Thanks Max, I haven’t talked about him in so long.”

Hughes gave her a one-armed hug over the counter and a light kiss on the cheek. “My pleasure.”

#

“You’re welcome to it, Max,” Murray Chambers concluded, waving at the long white shape in the long grass near the fence, “the boys have salvaged as much useful crap as they can. It’s barely worth scrap money now.”

Hughes and the MAF workshop foreman – temporarily in charge while his chief, Alec Walsh, was on sick leave - had been looking at the mortal remains of ZK-DCH, one of the first Fletchers bought by Frank Matheson in the early 1960s. Stripped for parts and left in the long grass near the MAF hangars, it was essentially only the fuselage and centre-wing of a once hard-working aeroplane. Once MAF had reduced their Fletcher fleet to just two the hulk had no further use and was put out to pasture, though it had often caught Hughes’ eye. He had been looking for a weekend project, something to keep him busy when the weather was bad and the paperwork had subsided. He had looked around for aircraft rebuild projects – an old Tiger Moth had caught his eye but he’d been too slow in acting so it slipped through his fingers, and a World War 2 fighter would be a tad expensive – but when he mentioned his hunt to Chambers, who like everyone else at Tangikea knew of Hughes’ fondness for the FU24, the engineer was quick to point out DCH’s availability.

“So how much do you want for her?” queried Hughes, hoping his chequebook was within required limits for such an investment.

Chambers made a face. “Are you kidding? If I had my way I would be paying you to get rid of the damn thing, it’s just cluttering up the field and generally being an eyesore.”

Hughes smiled. “Come on, Muz, I don’t expect you to just give her to me.”

“That’s exactly what I’m expecting,” Chambers replied, folding his arms. Look, if you really want to pay us, just bring a box of beers for the boys. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind helping you move it in exchange.”

“Deal!” beamed Hughes as he shook Chambers’ hand firmly.

In short order the fuselage of the old workhorse had been moved from beside the fence to a more open part of the field, followed soon by the centre-wing. A handful of the MAF and THS engineers, sacrificing their lunchbreak, helped out by securing the components with strops to a hovering HMH so that Hughes could lift the big hunks of old aircraft the short trip to his hangar. After a couple of hours Hughes had the old Fletcher snug against a wall in his hangar, landed the 500 back outside THS, and shot into town in his company car to fetch two dozen of the engineers’ favourite lager. Having delivered this precious cargo to the MAF staff room he drove the short trip back to THS, to be met at the door by Hardy.

“Sorry Rich,” he shrugged as he shut the car door, “the Beer Baron has served his people for the day.”

Hardy looked at Hughes with concern.

“Rich?”

“Paul Harris was due at Tauranga an hour ago. No-one’s heard anything from him in three. Pat’s gone out in IKB to search for him.”

“Oh shit,” Hughes breathed, leaning on the vehicle. Young Harris had been married less than six months and his wife Chloe was expecting their first child. Hughes had a bad feeling. “Follow me, we’ll take Mike Hotel.”

The pair walked quickly through the offices, Hardy ducking into his to pull on a pair of overalls and grab his tattered white “bonedome” helmet.

“Anything from the ELT?” Hughes asked.

“Nada. And before you ask, the boys in blue checked it just before you took it out for the checkflight, and it was working fine.”

Hughes felt a chill as he remembered Harris’ smiling face when he had declared the machine fit to fly. “When was the last radio transmission?”

“Routine positioning call, twenty miles out of Taupo. That was around 1.”

Hughes glanced at his watch. “What time’s sunset?”

“Five fifty.”

“Shit. We’d better get a move on,” he replied as the two clambered up into the waiting 500.

#

“India Kilo Bravo this is Hotel Mike Hotel, we are five miles southwest of your position, over,” called Hughes into his boom mic. The endless miles of pine-clad hills, stretching from horizon to distant horizon, barely registered in his mind as he manipulated the 500 to the small airfield being used as the search base for the missing Robinson.

“Hotel Mike Hotel from India Kilo Bravo, I hope you’ve got some good news cos I sure as hell don’t,” came the reply from a strained-sounding Patrick Gray, THS’ other Tauranga-based instructor. Hughes could just make out his tiny R22 flitting a back-and-forth search pattern up ahead.

“Good news is we’re here to help,” Hughes called in reply.

“Good to know boss, Dale and I have been at it for hours.”

Hughes looked at Hardy inquiringly and mouthed the word “Dale”.

“Newbie,” Hardy explained over the intercom. “He trained with Rick’s outfit in Palmy and did a stint mustering in Oz. He knows his shit.”

Satisfied, Hughes scanned his array of instruments and then the landscape laid out below his feet. “Roger that, India Kilo Bravo, I’ll be with you shortly.”

“Who do you have with you there, Max?”

“Nothing but the best,” Hardy called back, keying his radio mic.

#

Hughes twisted the 500′s throttle down to ground idle before unstrapping and jumping out of the machine and walking, hunched, over to the singing little Robbie and its crew.

“G’day Max, what do you know?” the black-haired Gray asked as he extended his hand.

“Not enough, given the circumstances,” he replied as he shook his young comrade’s hand. “What can you tell me?”

Gray shrugged. The strain and worry for his missing mate showed on his face. “Paul rang on his cell at Taupo, just to let us know he was on his way. He said he’d amended his SARtime cos there was a tailwind come up over the Central Plateau and it was forecast to stay the same all the way home.” He unzipped a breast pocket on his navy blue flightsuit to check his cellphone. “That was at 10:45.”

Hughes looked at his watch. “Well it’s after four now, nearly half-past, I think it’s safe to say that with his fuel situation he isn’t going to pop up in the air somewhere.”

Gray nodded, his shoulders sagging almost imperceptibly. Hughes knew the pair had gone through flight school together at Nelson and thus had a long history. In fact Gray had not long before given a well-received Best Man’s speech at Harris’ wedding. Hughes winced inwardly at the memory.

“Alright,” Hughes said firmly, more to himself than the exhausted young pilot before him, “where have you searched so far?”

Gray showed him on a map he pulled from another pocket. “We pretty much started looking as soon as we left, working on a reciprocal course to Paul’s. He said he was going direct, that he had fuel for that plus fifteen minutes as a reserve.”

“So it wouldn’t be fuel then?”

“I don’t think so, he had plenty to get home. And before you ask, the weather’s been great all afternoon.”

Hughes nodded. “I test flew her myself this morning, sighted everything, nothing seemed out of place.”

“I know, Boss, otherwise you wouldn’t have let him leave,” Gray replied as Hughes handed him back his map.

“Where’s this crewman of yours?”

“Dale? Fuelling. He’s a good bugger, he knows his stuff.”

“See how much longer he’ll be and get back up there. Rich and I’ll work the east, you two go west.” He turned and swiftly made his way to the 500, where Hardy was about to disconnect the long fuel hose. “How much?”

Hardy grimaced and spoke loudly, lifting his helmet from his head slightly so he could hear better over the screaming Allison turbine. “Eh?”

Hughes pointed at the fuel hose’s nozzle and then his watch. “How much did you put in?”

“Enough to last til dusk,” Hardy replied, removing the nozzle. “About an hour.”

“Put in another hour’s worth.”

Hardy shook his head emphatically, his management side coming out. “No way, this baby’s not IFR.”

“I don’t give a rat’s arse about certification Rich, those pricks at CAA take a backseat to one of our boys down in the bush somewhere!” He wrenched the heavy instrument from his friend and plunged it back into the 500′s tank.

Hardy struggled to seize the hose. “You’re crazy! The last thing we need right now is a fine or court case!”

Hughes spun around, anger clear on his face. “What’s more expensive: court for some infringement, or another funeral?”

Hardy paused and his eyes glazed over, his features softening. “Thirty minutes more. That’s it.”

“Forty-five,” Hughes countered loudly, depressing the trigger.

#

“I’ll meet you back at the strip Max, I don’t think we can be any more productive tonight.”

“No sweat Pat, thanks mate,” Hughes replied over the radio. The sun had nearly set at ground level but with his helicopter at 1000ft Hughes still had a few minutes daylight remaining. “I’m going to see how long the sun can stretch for us, we’ll see you in a bit.”

“Roger that, India Kilo Bravo out.”

They had seen nothing. No waving figure in a clearing, no hole in the bush canopy, no pines missing their upper branches. Hughes could feel his eyes aching more and more, and knew they wouldn’t be airborne much longer. He guessed his friend beside him felt the same but Hardy hadn’t uttered a word of complaint. ‘What a trooper,’ Hughes thought, ‘and here I was thinking his desk and suit had made him soft’.

“Anything on your side, Skip?” Hardy asked, using his old nickname for him from their flying days with Mathesons.

“Not a god-damned thing,” Hughes replied. “You?”

“Nope. Paul’s gonna have to tough it out tonight.”

‘If he’s alive,’ Hughes wanted to say. “What do you say we head back?”

“Nah, I think we should just re-check over there,” Hardy suggested as he pointed out of the windscreen.

‘More surprises all the time,’ Hughes thought with a smile.

#

“No luck then?” Gray called as the pair walked away from the 500, its four-blade main rotor slowly coasting to a stop. Dale Jackson, his young crewman, offered Hughes a thermos flask which he accepted with a nod.

“Nothing,” said Hardy mournfully as he took the flask from Hughes and took a swig of the sweet coffee within. After handing the flask back to Jackson he looked at his watch. “Three hours. We did pretty well, Max.”

“Not well enough,” Hughes said quietly as he took a seat next to Gray by the fire the young pair had started. There was a basic hut nearby with a pot-belly stove but the small group seemed to have silently agreed to stay outdoors and defy the chill, as though they were showing solidarity with their downed comrade. “So Dale, Rich tells me you trained on choppers down south?”

“Yeah, Rick and his lot gave me a job right out of the college,” the young pilot said. “After a year or so doing frost and a bit of instructing I thought I’d give Australia a crack.”

Hughes smiled. “Chasing beef across the outback must’ve been a damn sight more exciting than hovering over kiwifruit?”

Jackson laughed. “Yip! Money was good too, but the problem with Australia is, there’s too many damned Aussies over there.”

His managing director raised the thermos in agreement and Hughes just smiled.

“So I came home. Glad I did, too, Pat and Paul are great guys to work with.”

Gray flinched at the mention of Harris’ name, Hughes noted. He decided to ease the pilot’s worry and change the conversation to something that had been niggling him. “What’s your dad’s name, Dale? Is he a pilot too?”

“Nigel,” Jackson replied, accepting the thermos as Hardy passed it around. “He’s an architect by trade but he’s done a fair bit of writing and photos for Aviation Monthly over the years.”

“I thought I recognised you,” Hughes smiled. “Your old man used to pop in occasionally and drag you along. God, seems like years ago, you were only yea high!” he chuckled, motioning with his palm.

Jackson grinned sheepishly. “That’s what got me wanting to fly.”

Hughes smiled back and clapped the younger man on the back. “Sorry about that.”


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