The Man In Orange

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JULY 10

“Good morning Max!” chirped Marie as Hughes entered the THS office from the car park.

He shut the door slowly, and walked over to the water cooler.

“Max? Mister Hughes?”

He turned with a start. “Hmm?”

“You seemed to have zoned out,” she replied with concern. “Would you like a coffee?”

“Yeah, sure,” he replied, nodding. “Is Rich in?”

“No, he just popped out,” came the reply from the kitchenette, “something about lawyers. He shouldn’t be too far away.” Her pretty face peeked around the door frame. “How do you like it?”

Hughes was too tired to make any suggestive remarks. “Milk and two, thanks, Marie.”

He didn’t see the young woman’s frown as she finished preparing his drink. As she brought it out she asked, “Would you like to sit? You don’t look so good.”

“Yeah, thanks,” he replied as she guided him to the sofa.

“Rough weekend?”

“Something like that,” he replied with a weak smile, accepting the hot coffee. Taking a sip he felt a lot better. “Sarah came round.”

Marie’s face darkened. “I hope you didn’t -”

Hughes snorted. “Not a chance! She said she wanted to apologise.”

“Bit late for that, isn’t it?” She shook her head and sat beside him. “I can’t believe it, after what...” She stopped herself as she saw the look on Hughes’ face. “So did you get much done on DCH?”

Hughes grinned. Marie’s father had restored his own aircraft, a little Victa Airtourer, and he knew the young woman had helped out. “Yeah, most of the skins are off and I’ve started work on some of them.”

She smiled. “Good work! Well done you! You’ll be taking me for a fly in her in no time!”

Hughes laughed heartily. “I’ll be lucky to finish the damn thing before I retire! Besides, would that boyfriend of yours let you fly alone with an old bastard like me?”

Now it was her turn to laugh. “Grant? Never mind him, he doesn’t need to know!” She leaned in conspiratorially. “It can be our little secret.”

“What secret?” Hardy called from the door, looking unusually polished in a suit and clutching a briefcase and some envelopes. “I won’t have any secrets under my roof, you two!”

Marie quickly got up and walked back to her desk. “How’s town, Richard?”

“Ugh. I made the right choice working out here, I think,” he sighed as he handed over some mail. “Good morning Max, how was your weekend?”

“Sarah visited.”

Hardy rolled his eyes and put his hands on his hips. “Oh no. And?”

“And nothing!”

“Sure sure,” Hardy replied with a wink at Marie. “I have some news from the CAA, your mate Mister Cook called.”

“Oh did he?” Hughes asked, rising and draining his coffee. He wondered whether he should bother telling him about the car crash.

“Mm-hmm, he sure did,” Hardy replied, walking to his office.

Hughes followed and shut the door. “And?”

Hardy sat heavily and looked up at him. “The preliminary report is in,” he motioned toward the seat opposite his desk. “Fuel starvation.”

Hughes was shocked. “What?”

Hardy nodded, opening his case and retrieving small booklet with the CAA and Transport Accident Investigation Commission logos on the front. In the centre of the cover page was a photo of Robinson ZK-IKA taken shortly after she joined the THS fleet. The glossy little machine was a far cry from the pile of scrap he had found in the forestry block. “Essentially Lonergan, that investigator you met, and his team have found that Paul ran out of fuel and didn’t react quick enough to autorotate.”

“Shit,” Hughes breathed as he read through the report. He leafed through and paused at one page. “Hang on – ‘pitch control linkage failure’.” He looked over the desk. “Failure?”

“What the evidence suggests is that Paul tried to autorotate, but it was too violent and the collective links just shattered.”

“How they could they shatter, he was just in for an annual for God’s sake?!”

Hardy motioned with his hands for his friend to calm down. “Apparently it would’ve been a hairline fracture that the boys would’ve missed when they were doing the check, and the stress of the Gs during the drop – combined with the vibration – could’ve caused it to let go. Something about a lockwire being done incorrectly, so one of the nuts came loose too.”

Hughes shook his head. “But Trev and the boys -”

“Yeah,” Hardy began, rubbing his face with his hands, “about that. I’ve put Trev on leave.”

“Is he ill?”

Hardy seemed to squirm in his seat, clearly uncomfortable with what he was about to say. “CAA suggested he missed the problem with the linkages and signed it out anyway.”

“WHAT?!” Hughes bolted out of seat.

“Jesus Max, calm down!”

“Calm down? The man’s one of the most experienced LAMEs in the country, and you’re just gonna let him go?”

“He’s on leave, Max, I haven’t let anyone go.”

Hughes shook his head and sat down. “So where to from here?”

“Well, I’ve just talked with the lawyers about our options -”

“Options? For what?”

“CAA are going to investigate Trev, they want to make sure he’s competent.”

Hughes was gobsmacked. “So, what, this was his fault?”

Harding raised his hands to calm his friend. “No-one’s saying it’s anyone’s fault, not just yet. This is just Lonergan’s preliminary write-up and his recommendations. He’s going to come up and carry out an audit, make sure the paperwork is all up to scratch.”

Hughes could feel himself shaking with anger, and confusion. “We’ve never had a technical issue with Trev before...”

“We’ve also never had to share him before,” Hardy reminded him. “I have noticed that, over the last few months, he’s struggled to keep up.”

“The poor bastard,” Hughes said softly. He and Smalley didn’t always see eye-to-eye but he did have enormous professional respect for the man.

“I know,” agreed Hardy. “But it’s hard to argue with evidence like this,” he said as he gestured at the file between them. A photo of the wrecked helicopter was facing them, so Hardy gently closed it. “Karl said Steve would probably be here around ten tomorrow.”

“And who’s looking after the jobs while Trev’s off?”

Hardy smiled. “Mike. Trev’s going to hang around so Steve can talk to him.”

Hughes nodded. “That’s okay. I don’t think I could handle them bringing in another LAME.”

“Should it come to that I’ll make sure you are involved in the interview process.”

“It won’t,” Hughes replied, staring at Hardy. “I know Trev did nothing wrong.”

Hardy smiled, a little too patronisingly for Hughes’ liking. “How can you possibly know that?”

“I don’t,” Hughes replied as he rose from his seat. “It just doesn’t feel right to me.”

Hardy rose also, and replaced the report in his briefcase. “Well you can discuss any concerns with Steve tomorrow,” he suggested. “Have you got any jobs this week?”

“HMH is in for a check, God only knows how long they’ll be with the old girl, so I’ll be taking IDS on a fert drop,” Hughes replied, leaving his friend’s office.

“Hey Max!” Hardy called.

Hughes stopped and leant through the doorway. “Yeah?”

“Try not to think about it all too much,” Hardy offered. “Remember what you said to Pat in Taupo. It doesn’t just apply to the young jokers.”

Hughes smiled and nodded in agreement, and made for the hangar.

“So, where’s the job tomorrow?”

“Job?”

Hardy shook his head. “What is up with you lately? Did Sarah get to you that badly?”

Hughes turned to look at his friend, his brow furrowed. “It just doesn’t seem right to me.”

“You don’t seem very right to me, either,” Hardy replied, a frown forming on his face also. “I don’t think you should fly that job tomorrow.”

Hughes looked at the floor.

“Are you OK?”

“I’m fine, it’s just I don’t like this situation at all. Not just the investigation, but the crash.”

“But the report said –“

“The report is someone else’s words on paper. I know that aircraft was safe to fly. I would not have given it to Paul if I didn’t.”

Hardy was shaking his head. “But why did he crash then?”

Hughes leant against Marie’s desk. “Sabotage.”

“What?!” Hardy walked over to the sofa. “I need to sit down.”

“It’s the only thing I can come up with. We know Paul was quite happy, a very sound state of mind.”

Hardy nodded, his head in his hands.

“And the aircraft was mechanically tip-top.”

“Yep.”

“So what does that leave us with?” He sat next to Hardy.

Hardy sat still for a moment, then stood. “No, no, no.”

“Think about it.”

“No!” Hardy seemed to try and physically push the thoughts away with his hands. “You’re mad!”

“Why else would a fit and happy pilot in control of a freshly-annualled machine drop from the sky?”

“Why would anyone want to kill Paul?”

“I don’t know if it was Paul they were after. Maybe they just wanted to hurt the company.”

Hardy and looked at his friend. “You need a holiday.”

“I’m fine, you just need to look –“

“I need you to take a break and clear your head.”

Hughes shook his head. “I need to be here.”

“You need to take some time off. Paul’s crash, that woman, you’ve had a lot going on and I think you’ve started to take things on board that you shouldn’t.” Hardy knelt and looked at Hughes. “I need you to take a break.”

Hughes avoided his eyes.

“Take a holiday. Don’t make me go to the board with this.”

Hughes stood and walked to the window, leaving Hardy on his haunches. He was pleased he hadn’t mentioned Saturday’s car crash to his mate, he probably would’ve had a heart attack.

“Max? I’m serious.”

“I know you are, Rich,” came the reply from Hughes as he watched a THS 500D prepare to depart. “So I’ll go.”

Hardy rose and walked over. “Yeah?”

Hughes nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good man,” Hardy said as he clapped him on the back. “It’ll do you a world of good. Any ideas where you think you’ll go?”

Hughes turned with a smile. “Canada.”


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