Even the ashes of the campfire were cold when Hughes emerged from the hut to survey the skies, and escape the sawing sounds from the bunks within. He stretched his arms wide and walked over to the silent HMH, its windows glistening with dew. If the sun failed to dry it away in time for take-off he knew there was a bucket in the cargo compartment, and a water tap behind the hut, so it could be taken care of in short order. He was about to fetch the plastic bucket when he felt his pocket vibrate. He pulled out his cellphone to see who was calling but he didn’t recognise the 04-prefixed number. He answered anyway. “Maxwell Hughes.”
“Oh, hello Mister Hughes, good morning,” came the chirpy reply from the other end. “This is Karl Cook from the Civil Aviation Authority, how are you?”
Hughes felt the hairs on his neck rise. “Fine thanks, Karl. It’s a bit early for you to be up and about, isn’t it?”
“Under normal circumstances yes, but as you can understand we at CAA take a missing aircraft quite seriously. Sleep goes on the backseat when man and machine are missing. I understand you were out searching yesterday afternoon?”
Hesitantly, remembering their twilight operation, Hughes replied, “That’s right, myself and another pilot brought company machines over to search for Paul.”
“Paul?” asked the man on the other end, the sound of rustling papers in the background. “That would be Paul Adrian Harris, the missing man?”
Hughes thought he could hear little sympathy. “Yes.”
“And you had no luck?”
“No,” Hughes said through gritted teeth, “no luck yet.”
“Where are you exactly, Mister Hughes?”
Hughes tried to think if anyone could have witnessed their landing after dark...would the Authority really snap him during a search op?! “In the Kairanga Plantation, fifty miles from Taupo, why’s that?”
“We got a report about half an hour ago from a Link 1900 captain of some lights near you, as you are the closest aircraft we were hoping you could get up and investigate? They could be your man.”
Hughes’ face changed abruptly at the news. “What sort of lights? Where exactly?”
Cook told him. “Let me know what you find, and good luck.”
“Thank-you Karl,” Hughes replied sincerely. He thumbed the red END key and sprinted back to the hut, throwing open the door. “One of those overrated bus drivers spotted some nav lights on the ground sixteen miles south! CAA think it could be IKA!”
The three men stirred, Hardy swinging his bare legs over the side of his bunk and rubbing his eyes. “Say what?”
“A Beech pilot called Civil Aviation half an hour ago saying he’d seen some red and blue lights among the trees near here. This Cook bloke just called me from CAA to ask us to check it out, he thinks it’s Paul.”
Jackson finished yawning and stretching. “Give us fifteen minutes, we’ll be good to go.”
“You’ve got five,” Hughes replied as he headed for the door, “and count your lucky stars I didn’t give you the bucket!”
Jackson looked confused and turned to Hardy, who was pulling a thermal undershirt on. “Bucket?”
Hardy smiled. “When I first started crewing for him I didn’t have the best body clock, and your idol out there was fond of dumping a bucket of minus-nothing water over me as an alternative to an alarm clock.”
Gray chuckled at his crewman’s disbelieving head shake.
“That’s a bit rough isn’t it,” said Jackson. “I mean, sleeping bags are hardly waterproof?!”
“Who said anything about sleeping bags?” countered Hardy as he pulled on his shoes. “The bastard would barge into my bedroom at home and do it. No wonder I was single for so long.”
Both helicopters were fuelled and idling as the sun began to peek over the pines, and Gray walked over to the cockpit of HMH to confer with Hughes. “So where are we going, exactly?” he asked, struggling to make himself heard over the 500′s engine.
“Don’t worry about that, just keep behind me and be ready to search for a landing spot on my signal. You’ve got a better chance of getting in somewhere than I do.”
“Right.” Gray gave his boss a thumbs-up and headed back to his own machine, where young Jackson was already sitting in the right seat, his door off and laying on the ground so he could see more of the landscape below.
After reeling in the fuel hose and replacing the nozzle on its hook Hardy took his seat in the egg-shaped helicopter and Hughes lifted off, followed by Gray and Jackson in the R22. As they neared the area Cook had specified over the phone Hughes worried that the sunlight at their backs, bathing the plantation in golden light, would ruin any chances of seeing the lights the King Air pilot had seen. Soon they passed the south-western boundary of the Kairanga Plantation and were over bush-clad hills and farmland. Hughes scanned the landscape below.
“There!” Hardy’s harsh report broke into Hughes’ thoughts. He followed Hardy’s finger with a movement of the cyclic and banked to the right. He could see what looked like a small, unnatural gap in the ferns. His heart sank as they neared the spot. He knew they would not be collecting a passenger.
The gap contained bits of aluminium sheet, steel tubing and other unidentifiable scraps that had once made up the Robinson R22 ZK-IKA. Hughes could see the two navigation lights, one each side of the relatively-intact cabin, were still working despite the aircraft having impacted the hillside with some force. His hopes of finding the machine in reasonable, albeit damaged condition, with a smiling pilot waving alongside were well and truly dashed. The crash was clearly not survivable.
“Holy shit,” Hardy breathed, shock clearly evident in his voice. Hughes doubted he had ever seen a crashed machine before.
The was clearly no room for even Gray’s Robinson to set down anywhere near the crash site, so Hughes began to look for a clearing as he triggered the transmit button on his cyclic. “India Kilo Bravo from Hotel Mike Hotel, we’ve found him, I’m in a left-hand orbit over his position. No room to land, over.”
“Roger that Hotel Mike Hotel, any signs of life?”
Hughes could feel Hardy’s eyes on him. “That’s a negative, India Kilo Bravo.”
“Fuck me,” Gray said softly as the group approached the crash site. They had landed their machines alongside the dirt road bordering the bush reserve, and Hughes dispatched Jackson in the R22 to find the landowner and explain their visit. The others had walked twenty minutes to reach the remains of IKA.
“Don’t touch anything!” Hughes barked when Gray approached the wreck.
“I – I wasn’t, I was just going to -”
“I don’t care, CAA and the Police will crucify you if they find you moved anything, Pat,” Hughes cut him off. But seeing the sheepish look on the younger man’s face his tone softened. “It’s just, things are pretty bad as they are, we don’t want to make it worse.”
Gray nodded and backed away, feeling for a log on which to sit. He fumbled for his sipper bottle of water.
“The poor bugger never stood a chance,” Hardy said as he looked at the crumpled cabin mournfully. “He must’ve lost power and pancaked in.”
“It does no-one any good to guess at a time like this,” Hughes warned, giving the ashen Gray a rub on the back.
“Sorry Max,” Hardy replied, his gaze fixed on the shattered Plexiglas cockpit bubble, “I was just thinking out loud.”
“Should I call someone?” Gray asked, raising his head to look at Hughes.
Hughes shook his head and patted his back. “No need, I called that Cook bloke when we set down. He will have put the wheels in motion.”
All three men raised their eyes as they heard a steady beat in the distance coming toward them.
“Sounds like an Iroquois,” Hughes guessed. “Come on, let’s get back to the road.” He helped Gray to his feet and laid a hand on his back to head away from the crash site, but Hardy remained transfixed by the sight before him. Hughes walked over and grabbed his friend’s shoulder. “Richard, come on mate,” he said softly.
Hardy appeared not to hear him, staring blankly at the cabin, what little Plexiglas remained intact appeared to have been splashed with watered-down crimson paint.
“He’s gone, we can’t help him now. Let the professionals take care of him.”
“I went to his wedding,” Hardy spoke in a low monotone. “I watched him dance with Chloe.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Well you have to,” Hughes replied firmly, pulling him back. “CAA have sent in the Iroquois from Taupo to lift him out.”
“Right,” Hardy replied quietly. “Let’s go.”
It seemed as though the ground beneath Hughes shook as the big Bell Iroquois hovered in preparation to land in the paddock. As the aircraft touched down the rear cabin door slid open and a tall, thin man in a dark suit emerged, clutching a folder to his chest and bent almost double to avoid the big rotors overhead. A blue and white Squirrel with POLICE titling on the tailboom also set down and a small group of officers in hi-viz gear disembarked. The suited man approached Hughes, his right arm out.
“Mister Hughes, I presume? Good to put a face to the name! I’m Karl Cook.”
“I’d never have guessed,” Hughes smiled, accepting the man’s deceptively tight grip. “You certainly got here fast.”
“I may be a paper-pushing bureaucrat,” Cook replied with an exaggerated shrug, “but I never turn down the chance to fly in one of these babies! It’s like living all my childhood war movie fantasies.” He turned and gestured to another suited man who was talking to the Iroquois pilot through the open door. “And that is Steve Lonergan, he’s heading the investigation team.” Lonergan appeared to have given the pilot instructions to shut down as the loud turbine became silent and the big, wide rotor blades began to slow. Lonergan, a man of similar build and height to Hardy, approached Hughes and Cook while his eyes watched the Police Squirrel depart for the crash site.
“Steve, this is Maxwell Hughes,” Cook shouted, gesturing.
The newcomer turned to face them and smiled briefly. “Hello.”
Hughes nodded and addressed Cook. “So what’s the plan?”
Cook breathed in deeply. “Steve and the Police team are going to head in to the crash site and begin their investigation thing, a couple are taking photos and video from Eagle” - he indicated the Squirrel - “and then Wayne and his crew will lift out the wreckage when Steve and co give them the go-ahead.”
Lonergan looked to Cook, who replied, “We have an ambulance crew coming from Taupo to pick him up.”
“I’m sorry for your loss Max,” Lonergan offered to Hughes. Hughes tried to figure out why the man seemed so familiar. “I lost a couple of good men in an accident on Taranaki once a few years back. It doesn’t get any easier.”
Hughes’ face cleared. “You weren’t based with the Whirlwide boys out of Norfolk, were you?”
Lonergan smiled. “Indeed I was. Pretty sure we crossed paths a few times.”
“I thought you looked familiar,” Hughes replied. “It’s been a while.”
“Sure has, I’ve been with the investigation commission for five years now. Hence,” he gestured at his body, “my presence here. I wish it was under better circumstances.”
Hughes hummed in agreement, looking toward the bush. The Squirrel was orbiting the resting place of Harris and IKA.
Cook coughed. “I suppose we should head over. Max, would you care to guide Steve and I?”
“Yeah, probably a good idea,” Hughes replied. He looked over to Gray, Jackson and Hardy who sat in and around HMH, and decided against inviting them to come.
As soon as the trio had reached the crash site Lonergan immediately began taking notes, poking and prodding at the wreck. A quartet of St John’s ambulance officers, apparently having arrived just after Hughes left the makeshift heliport, appeared from behind them to begin the delicate process of extricating Harris from the wreck. Police and investigators were taking photos and discussing the best way to uplift the wreckage for transport to Taupo. It seemed a very short time to Hughes when Lonergan gave the go-ahead for the ambulance staff to move in. Cook chose to take the opportunity to call his superiors in Wellington and turned away.
After a time the body of Paul Harris was cut free from his safety belts and gently pulled from the cabin, the ambulance officers clearly treating the deceased husband and father-to-be with the utmost care and respect.
‘It’s not going to be easy on Chloe,’ Hughes thought to himself. The poor girl would be beside herself with grief. Pat Gray appeared at his side, watching the ambulance officers go about their morbid task. “Are you okay, mate?” Hughes asked.
Gray smiled and nodded, tears on his cheeks. “I should probably give Chloe a call.”
Hughes nodded and clasped the younger man’s shoulder for a moment. Gray followed the ambulance officers as they trekked back to their helicopter, wingman for his friend one last time.
Before long the distinctive WHOP-WHOP-WHOP of the big Bell echoed around the bush and drummed into Hughes’ consciousness, the Iroquois soon appearing above him. It gently descended, a length of cable attached to the big hook under its belly. The pilot’s door was off and a helmeted figure could be seen leaning out, no doubt listening to his grounded crewman’s directions on the radio and trusting his hand signals. Several of the men below worked to attach the crumpled fuselage and tail of the diminutive machine to the cable and, after a final signal from the crewman, the pilot lifted the big Bell and its precious cargo skyward. Hughes had to shield his eyes from the sun as the remains of what had, less than a day before, been an immaculate piece of technology lifted off for its final flight. Its rotor blades sagged like the shoulders of a defeated man, its skids drooping well beyond its original design parameters. Hughes had seen many crashed helicopters and he knew this one would not fly again. Not just because it would likely be scrapped after the investigation, nor the damage was irreparable, but also because Hughes abhorred the practice of rebuilding aircraft involved in fatal accidents. He wasn’t a spiritual man, but it just didn’t sit well with him.
The beat of the Iroquois faded into the distance and Hughes looked around himself once more. Those small parts of the aircraft that remained were being collected by Police and investigators by hand and taken back to their waiting transport. Soon the only evidence of the accident would be a few broken pungas and some scarring in the soil. He saw Lonergan and Cook begin the walk out of the bush and he followed. He looked over his shoulder for a final time and saw an officer pick up a battered square blue object – Harris’ logbook. Hughes turned and walked out of the bush.
On his arrival back to the busy makeshift heliport Hughes could see Hardy and Jackson speaking with Lonergan, and Cook off to one side on his cellphone yet again. The big Iroquois had placed the wreckage of IKA on a flatbed trailer and had already departed, whereas the Squirrel was being subjected to pre-flight checks prior to its own journey home to Auckland. Gray seemed to have vanished even though IKB remained parked near HMH. As he neared the group he could make out snippets of their conversation – ‘interrogation,’ Hughes corrected himself internally, as Lonergan appeared to be in ‘official mode’.
“And the machine had just come out of a maintenance cycle?” he was asking the pair.
“That’s right,” Hardy replied, “the boys had just finished an annual on her yesterday morning.”
“And Mister Harris carried out the test flight?”
“No,” Hughes interjected as he approached, “I did.”
Lonergan turned to him, nodded, and jotted down in his binder. “Any anomalies, anything out of the ordinary?”
“It would have been irresponsible to release it if there had been,” Hughes replied.
Hardy moved to his friend’s side, noting a cold tone suddenly appear as it always did when Hughes felt his patience was being tested. “Easy Max,” he said quietly, “Steve just needs to get all the facts right. There’s no witch-hunt going on here.”
“Not yet,” Hughes replied from the corner of his mouth.
“Mister Hughes,” Lonergan began, sounding very formal, “we both know you’ve been here before, accidents do happen and there are procedures to be followed. It’s nothing personal.”
Hughes turned to see Hardy’s hand on his shoulder and shrugged it off, realising his fists were clenched painfully tight. “Of course. I know that, Steve.”
Lonergan raised his binder. “So the test flight was uneventful.”
“100%. She was flying sweetly, all instruments as normal, I flew two circuits and gave Paul the ok.”
Lonergan nodded as he took his notes.
“After I landed I left her running, handed over the manuals to Paul, and he left.”
Lonergan looked up. “You didn’t put any fuel in?”
“No need. The engineers had given her a full tank before the chief engineer released her to me.”
“And you left the engine running. Why was that, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Paul had bought the aircraft over for a part change, but it turned out the annual was due so he was in Tangikea for three weeks. His wife is expecting, and he was anxious to get home.”
“I can understand that,” Lonergan sympathised, nodding and writing. Suddenly he looked up. “Wait, ‘it turned out’ the annual was due? I know they creep up on you, but come on! Surely he or your chief engineer would have known it was coming up?”
Now it was Hardy who became defensive. “Just hang on a minute, Trev’s been under a ton of pressure lately: he’d not just looking after our own machines, but Mathesons’ joker has been on sick leave so he’s been working extra time for them, too! I hope you’re not going to pin this on him too? The poor bastard’s been close to a heart attack for the last month!”
Lonergan motioned for Hardy to calm down. Young Jackson, seeing discretion as the better part of valour, set off for a chat with the ‘Eagle’ crew.
“Calm down Rich, who was it that said I’m just fact-finding, mate?”
“I’m not your mate,” spat Hardy, “all you stuffed suits are the same, have to find a scapegoat!”
“Steve – Mister Lonergan – we want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do,” explained Hughes as he stepped between them, surprised at the sudden change in his friend. “A talented young man is dead and an unborn child is without their dad.”
“Mister Hughes is right,” came a voice from behind them. All three turned to see Karl Cook place his phone in his jacket pocket. “A man has died here and it is our duty to find out why. His wife and child deserve to know why he’s not coming home.”
The three took on a sombre mood.
“Now. Mister Gray has chosen to accompany the deceased to Taupo Hospital, and Missus Harris is due on a flight from Tauranga in two hours. I suggest we head that way too. The ‘Eagle’ and her crew are needed elsewhere so would you care to give us a lift, gentlemen?”
Hughes nodded, and turned to Hardy. “Dale?”
“He will follow us in IKB, and when the time is right he will return to Tauranga,” Hardy declared. “It’ll be fine.”
Lonergan nodded in agreement. “Everything is under control.”
Hughes splashed handfuls of icy water over his face. As he looked in the hotel mirror he reflected on his afternoon. He and Gray had waited at the terminal at Taupo Airport for Chloe Harris’ flight to arrive – Hardy and Jackson were refuelling the two helicopters for their respective flights home – and when the Beech airliner did land Hughes felt a lump in his throat. As the passengers disembarked Hughes saw her clearly, a tall lithe blonde, her pretty face streaked with tears at the sight of the pair, a black blouse struggling to cover her pregnant belly. As she entered the terminal she ran to fling her arms around Gray and sob into his shoulder. Hughes, feeling immensely uncomfortable, rubbed a comforting hand on her back.
“Thank-you for being here, Mister Hughes,” she stuttered, a smile valiantly trying to break through.
“No problem,” Hughes choked in reply, “and please, call me Max.”
At that point Hardy entered, and made his way with his arms wide open, “Oh, Chloe...”
“Hi Richie,” she replied, embracing him as Gray released his grip.
His arms now folded, he motioned with a nod of his head for Hughes to follow him to the cafe. “So when do you want me and Dale to head back to Tauranga? We can be back up and running tomorrow.”
Hughes looked at the much younger man. “Are you kidding? I can’t expect you to go back to work just like that, not after what you’ve been through.”
“But I feel fine...”
“I don’t give a shit how you think you feel,” Hughes shouted, causing several cafe patrons to turn in their seats. “I mean, you may feel fine now, but you’re not. Trust me. I don’t want you wasting your, or anyone else’s, neck until you’re fit to fly.”
“He’s right,” chimed in Hardy, who had rushed over at Hughes’ outburst. “It has been known to happen: a guy buys the farm and his mate jumps straight back into the cockpit only to kill himself by making a stupid mistake.”
“I’m a great pilot,” Gray protested weakly, sounding to all the world like a spolit child who can’t have his way.
“A great pilot not only knows his limits, but sticks to them,” Hughes reasoned, laying his hand on Gray’s sagging shoulder. “None of us wants another death on his conscience.”
Gray raised his head, his eyes red and tears forming. “Why him? Why did it have to be Paul?”
His face fell as Gray began to break down, his head in his hands.
Chloe Harris came over and held her husband’s best mate close, rubbing his back. “It’ll be okay,” she cooed, her own tears returning. Hughes had to turn away.
Hughes left the hotel bathroom after drying his face and collapsed on the big bed, his face pointing at the bland ceiling above although his eyes were focused on a point beyond. Again, as he seemed to have done constantly since meeting the worried Hardy at the THS office door, he mentally ran though his pre-flight walk-around on IKA.
He was positive nothing unusual or out of place had passed him by. He tried to count the number of such checks he’d carried out on Robbies over the years but realised he couldn’t – he’d flown dozens, right back to the first demonstration aircraft arriving in the 1980s. Had he become blasé and taken shortcuts? ... surely not, he had not only his own life on the line but also those of his young instructors, their pupils, anyone on the ground.
‘It can’t have been mechanical,’ Hughes thought. The THS mechanics were amongst the best in the business: beside their own fleet, clients from around the country flew at the own expense to have Trevor Smalley sign out their machine. The aircraft had been in possibly the best hands in the country.
Pilot error? Yes, Harris was young and relatively inexperienced. Yes, he had been away from his wife for possibly the longest time in their relationship and may have been in a rush to return to her. But would that eagerness to hold his wife cloud his judgment and override his airmanship? Could he have underestimated the fuel load for the trip home? Could he have missed something on his own pre-flight check?
Hughes ran a steady hand through his hair. He closed his eyes and pictured the R22 in flight and tried to envisage how it had come to rest where it did. Tail rotor failure? No, he had seen for himself that the little anti-torque device was in place and as normal – evidently the young apprentice had done his job well. The aircraft had come to rest in a level position, almost like a heavy landing – albeit a very heavy one – and was even facing close to the heading it would have been flying. Was it engine failure? Doubtful, as the little Lycoming had well over 350 operating hours remaining until its next overhaul: Hughes could remember seeing that statistic in the engine log in Smalley’s cluttered office.
Paul Harris was a young pilot who could handle the R22 like a pro, Hughes reflected, so it was unlikely he would fly a perfectly serviceable helicopter into a bush-clad slope on a clear autumn day.
It was doing him no good trying to solve the complex puzzle on his own, he thought, so he pulled on a shirt and made for the bar downstairs.