The Man In Orange

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APRIL 19

The hangar was, for once, very empty – it appeared that Squirrel IDS was the only machine being actively worked on. The only real sign of any life besides the cluster of blue overalls around the machine was the apprentice sweeping the floor and two other engineers pulling the northern 500D out of the hangar. Hughes shrugged and walked back into the office section, finding new paperwork on his own desk. With a sigh he shut the door and sat. No sooner had he lifted his pen than there was a knock at the door.

“Max?” It was Marie.

“Come in.”

Her head poked around the door. “There’s a man here to see you from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission.”

Hughes raised his right eyebrow. “Really? He wasn’t due to arrive until Monday.”

“He’s very much here now,” she replied, “he’s just gone out to the hangar with Richard.”

“Okay then,” Hughes replied, pushing himself away from his desk.

“Is this about -”

“Yes,” Hughes cut her off.

She nodded and stepped away from the door to let him past. “If there’s anything you need...”

“I know,” Hughes replied with a smile. “Thank-you.”

Marie smiled back, blushing slightly.

Hardy and Lonergan were examining ZK-HMH when Hughes approached them. Hardy, hearing his friend’s footsteps, turned. “Max, our friend Steve has managed to come a couple of days early.”

“I see that,” Hughes replied, smiling at Lonergan and accepting his outstretched hand. “How long since you last flew one of these babies?”

Lonergan breathed in through his teeth. “Oh, jeez, maybe 20, 25 years? There aren’t many C models around these days,” he replied. “I thought you’d have progressed to a NOTAR by now, actually.”

Hughes rubbed the rear of the helicopter’s engine pod affectionately. “Not yet, this one’s got a few years in her yet. I’m just stubborn.”

Lonergan laughed. “Fair enough, we all have our little idiosyncrasies. So, is there anywhere we can talk?”

Hardy motioned toward the office block. “The boardroom’s probably the best bet, just follow me.”

Hughes motioned for Lonergan to go on ahead as he looked over his faithful 500. ‘Nothing wrong with you, old girl,’ he thought as he admired the machine’s lines. She was old: ZK-HMH had been built in 1973 and arrived in New Zealand early the next year. She was bought by Matheson Aerial Farming in 1981 and since that year Hughes had been her only pilot. But after her upcoming annual there was no reason for him to retire his long-time companion.

Hughes turned his back on the machine and made for the boardroom down the corridor between Hardy’s office and the staff lunchroom. Lonergan had sat with his back to the wall, leaving Hardy and Hughes to sit in front of the large window overlooking the apron. Hughes saw the 500D was now parked out front, ready for a test flight. He took his seat next to Hardy.

“How is everyone coping?” he asked.

“Not bad, given the circumstances,” Hughes replied.

Lonergan nodded. “I understand how hard it is, having to go through something like this.”

“It’ll be hard, for sure,” Hardy said, “but we’re happy to cooperate in any way necessary.”

Lonergan nodded. He had a small tape recorder in front of him, and a copy of the report with a pen at the ready. “How long has Trevor Smalley worked here?”

“Trev came to us in 1994, and he was appointed chief engineer in 1999. Before that, he was working for a fixed-wing charter company up north, and before that the Air Force,” Hardy explained.

“And how much rotary-wing experience did he have prior to joining THS?”

“Not much,” Hardy admitted. “In the Air Force he basically looked after their advanced training fleet, the Strikemasters and then the Macchis.”

‘What a great start,’ Hughes thought.

“But you hired him anyway?”

“Well yes, twenty years in the Air Force is a pretty good record of experience! And he had done some heli work on and off in-between leaving the uniform and starting with us. Our previous chief engineer trained him up pretty damned well.”

Lonergan nodded as he made some notes.

“And what exactly does this have to do with Paul’s accident?” Hughes asked. “I thought the whole process was just to establish cause, not place blame?”

Lonergan’s pen froze and his face rose in a smile. “Of course, Max,” he replied as he laid down his pen, “all I need is a little background.”

“You have your background, now can we discuss the facts?” Hughes said in a low voice, his face clouded.

“Sure, but there’s no need at all for any hostility,” Lonergan replied, leaning back in his seat.

“Max, a word?” Hardy leant over to Hughes and motioned out the door. He looked across the table at Lonergan. “Would you mind?”

“Not at all,” said Lonergan with a smile and a small shake of his head. He fanned out some papers and the pair left the boardroom, closing the door behind them.

“What the hell?” Hardy hissed.

Hughes shrugged, “I don’t like it.”

“Nobody likes CAA snooping around their workshop,” Hardy replied, shaking his head. “You just need to remember he’s not out to crucify anyone.”

“How can you be sure?”

Hardy stared his friend in the eye. “You’re just being –“

“Don’t say ‘paranoid’,” Hughes replied.

“Well, what would you call it?”

“Uncomfortable.”

“How so? Wait,” Hardy stopped himself to check his watch, “never mind, we can do your therapy session later. Come on. And keep your mind on the job!”

Hughes smiled sarcastically. “Yes, mum.”

“Sorry about that, Steve,” Hardy announced as he held the door for Hughes.

“So, where were we?”

Lonergan bent forward to consult his papers. “Uh, Mister Harris.” He looked up and his eyes met Hardy’s. “I’d like to ask about Mister Harris.”

“Fire away,” Hughes replied, arms folded in front of him. He could feel Hardy’s eyes on him.

“How long had he been with the company?”

#

Lonergan’s questions seemed interminable to Hughes. He asked about every aspect of Harris’ career, where he trained, how many hours he had on type, as well as asking for a rundown on the experience of the engineers who had carried out the annual and the history of the R22 itself. Hughes had been through accident investigations before, and the procedure seemed different: he had questions of his own but knew better than to raise them with their guest directly.

“Well I don’t know about you guys,” Lonergan concluded with a look at his cellphone, “but I’m feeling a bit peckish. I think I’ll check out the sights in town, review my notes, and see you both here tomorrow morning?”

“Not a problem,” Hardy replied, rising and extending his arm, “officially the office opens at nine but normally Marie and I are in place before then.”

“Excellent,” Lonergan replied, shaking his hand and looking to Hughes. “And you, Max?”

“I’ll be around. I have a lot of paperwork to catch up on but I may have to go out for a job tomorrow arvo,” Hughes replied. “I’ll be free until then.”

“Alright then,” Lonergan replied with a nod. “See you both tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Hardy said with a smile and a wave. After Lonergan left, closing the door behind him, he turned to Hughes.

“See? That was pretty painless!” Hardy smiled, sitting heavily in one of the comfortable chairs.

“Yes, it was,” Hughes admitted as he put his hands on the back of the seat across from his friend, “but it just doesn’t sit well with me.”

Hardy unfurled his hands from behind his head. “How so?”

“Just the solo approach. Like I said, we’ve always had two or more guys come in for these things.”

“Times change,” Hardy replied, rising from his seat. “C’mon you, those forms aren’t going to fill themselves out.”

Hughes groaned. “Yeah, thanks for reminding me, mate.”

Hardy turned back to his office and as he shut the door saw Hughes looking outside.

“You alright?”

“I’m fine. It’s him I’m not sure of.” Hughes nodded at the dark sedan pulling out of the car park.

“What do you mean? He’s just doing his job.”

“I’ve been interviewed before. That wasn’t a normal interview. He was looking for a scapegoat.”

Hardy laughed. “Paranoid!” He stopped his laughing when he saw the real concern in Hughes’ face. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

Hughes stood up straight and stretched his arms. “Forget it. I’m gonna go check on HMH, I’ll see you later.”


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