Hughes lowered the collective until he felt the 500’s skids take the weight of the helicopter. As it settled he wound the throttle back to ground idle, checked all was well and shut down the whining Allison 250 engine. He unbuckled himself and sat as the blades spun over his head, slowing to a stop. He looked through the canopy into the THS engineering hangar and saw the blue-overalled team were hard at work on ZK-HTD, a similarly-painted Hughes 500D based up north and down for a check. He knew it was a three-monthly deal so the team would need it for a couple of days.
He checked the clock on the helicopter’s instrument panel and saw it was almost 10am, smoko time for the engineers. Almost as soon as the hands on the clock made it so, the engineers downed tools as one and disappeared. Hughes followed, carefully closing his door and patting the aircraft’s aluminium skin affectionately before heading for the break room.
“Hey Max,” Mike Parker called out as Hughes entered.
“Morning Mike, morning all,” Hughes replied, making a coffee. The rest of the team returned his greeting in various ways except for Smalley, who seemed very interested in his coffee.
“What brings you in this morning, Max?” asked Paul Douglas, one of the longest-serving of the staff. It seemed to Hughes a loaded question, as though Douglas knew the reason for his drop-in. The grey-haired man had been in the business long enough to have sat through many such “visits” all the way back to his own time as an MAF engineer.
Hughes took a long drink from his mug. “Not just a friendly chat, sorry. Paul Harris crashed near Taupo on Friday.”
Everyone in the room said something, be it a hushed swear or a louder “Jesus”. The young apprentice looked shell-shocked.
“Is he okay?” the young man in the clean overalls asked.
Hughes shook his head slowly. “No, he didn’t make it.”
Louder responses this time. Smalley continued to be mesmerised by his drink.
“What happened, Max?” This from Mike Parker, his wife grasping his hand tightly.
“We don’t know yet. There was no fire, so it might have been fuel starvation.”
“Nothing mechanical?” asked the apprentice in a hopeful tone.
Hughes turned to smile at the youngster. “No, I don’t think so.”
The younger man managed a brief smile before rising to make another drink to calm himself.
“I just wanted you all to know first. We’ve not told the papers about it yet, not until we’ve told his family.”
“Thanks Max,” Parker said genuinely. “We appreciate that.”
There were nods or murmurs of agreement from the other staff.
“If any of you need any help, or anyone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
Hughes turned to see Hardy standing next to him, leaning on the doorframe. He had no idea how long his friend had been there before he’d spoken.
“Thanks Rich,” one of the other engineers said, raising his mug.
Hardy smiled in response, clapped a hand on Hughes’ right shoulder and leant down. “Can I have a word?”
Hughes turned. “Sure thing mate.” He rose and looked at the men in the room, subdued and reflective. He nodded to Smalley, who had finally looked up from his now cold coffee. It had been years since the last fatal, and Hughes knew the old engineer would take it hard.
“What’s up?” Hughes asked when he and Hardy were out of earshot of the break room.
“I just had that bloke Cook from CAA on the phone. They’ve started their investigations and they want to have a word.”
Hughes nodded. “They certainly don’t waste any time. When can we expect him?”
“Well that’s the thing. It won’t be him, it’ll be your mate Steve Lonergan.”
“Ah,” Hughes replied absent-mindedly.
Hardy’s brow rose inquiringly. “What’dya mean, ‘ah’?”
Hughes looked up. “Lonergan.”
“What about him?”
Hughes shook his head. “Nothing. Never mind. Anyway, I’d better get going, that asparagus isn’t going to fertilise itself.” He made for the rear of the hangar where the spray equipment was kept and began to mentally run through the day’s job.