The FAA House of Horrors


The FAA is charged under the law with first ensuring aeronautical safety, then competitive commerce. However, in the current time frame, their first mission appears to have been subverted in favor of corporate profits in a variety of styles. Recent history alone tells that story. Strangely, as newsworthy as that history is, the media treats the issues very lightly, indeed.

Worse, the apparent subversion of the FAA safety mission is known to all responsible agencies through Congress and the White House. Debate and rhetoric aside, nobody with any significant influence cares.

At least one Executive Order (12866) protects that subversion with a final tongue-in-cheek provision that the order isn't intended to usurp any laws. As a consequence, basic human rights are being trampled with calculated fatalities, all in favor of the American dollar.

What you are about to read is a fictional short-story as to the deadly potential. It boasts the futuristic reliability of Jules Verne as to the probability of the events actually happening - it's all a function of time and happenchance - i.e. it will happen; in one form or another - AGAIN.

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"PLEASE REPORT TO MEETING ROOM FOUR"


'Pandemonium' was hardly sufficient to describe the event.

The airliner was cruising at 41,000 feet when the skin burst like a balloon. The hole was relatively small, but deadly. All on board had been condemned to die, many years before. It was just their luck-of-the-draw to be there when the event finally happened. The actual event defied the even the imagination of the doom-sayers.


The first indication of trouble in the cockpit was the rippling cadence of tripping circuit breakers; then the flight attendant report of the smell of electrical smoke ..... then the smoke itself.

The pilots made a terrible assumption that the problem could be isolated and the flight continued. The multiple 'snapping' sound of circuit breakers tripping told them that the problem was serious enough that it would have no 'fix' while airborne.

The deadly and dumbing distraction was that the electrical power supply held up. Neither generator, in cockpit parlance, 'tripped,' off-line.

The pilots could only assume that there was a serious short-circuit in a wire bundle, causing the multiple failures. These were not particularly uncommon. There were enough news reports of electrical fires on aircraft, just not typically as deadly as this situation was about to get.

For lack of warning and training, the pilots' logic was badly misguided. The circuit breakers tripping was considered a good omen. The power was removed as an ignition source, good news on the surface; yet a deadly myth in reality. Circuit breakers didn't always trip; they sometimes got arc-welded closed. It was rare for that to happen; but it sometimes did.

The unwitting occupants were seated in a bureaucratically sealed in a tomb. Their demise would be a cascade of failures, stemming from a variety of design flaws which were well enough known, but expensive to fix. In long-term reality, the required modifications had always been affordable, but economically "impractical" and politically very well protected .

The 'system' had its method of "defining out" the requirement of response to the element of risk, using cost-benefit analysis. The system didn't have to react to dire predictions of failure that had no pre-existing history - nor to incidents or accidents that were "one-off" and not repeatable (in their expert judgment). The mathematical likelihood of failure was a staggering computer-derived probability figure, befitting of the "Titanic" engineers. Similarly, therein was its beauty; prove it wrong if you could. And of course, just like the Lauda Air B-767 reverser failure, the computer had said that was impossible and yet even so, it would be controllable. As with the "Titanic," a deadly history diverged from the calculations. Yes, the 'system' had their methods and all too often - their way.

In a sentence, aircraft manufacturers were effectively insulated from the same sphere of laws which protected automobile owners. Having a dangerous car at the hands of design errors was unacceptable. Having an aircraft with a history of deadly flaws was somehow 'different.' The only significant difference was the sacred volume of cash flow. It was greed and avarice; pure and simple. Recalling 15,000 cars for a major repair at the manufacturer's expense was common. Recalling airplanes in a comparable fashion was unheard of - so long as the element of luck kept the count of tombstones low enough. There was also a computer calculation for that number.

The airliner had a simple short circuit in a wire 'bundle,' running vertically up the side of the aircraft. It could have started with a simple chafed wire, maybe a wire being pinched as the aircraft was assembled. Perhaps the bundle of wires chafed against each other as the bundle stretched and relaxed in the turbulence the aircraft routinely encountered. Or; perhaps it was the fatiguing wire or insulation 'chafe' from what engineers called the "high frequency vibration harmonics," from however many flight hours. It really didn't matter; history was busy repeating itself with a slight but deadly variation.

The problem compounded itself through what was known as a 'ticking' fault. One tiny intermittent short circuit would start a charring of the thin polyimide insulation. However, unlike the nylon PVC in earlier jets, this char formed a carbon " track" that was electrically conductive. Like a festering sore it would spread, eventually infesting the entire wire bundle, triggering still larger arc-tracks - until the wires started burning like an arc-welder. In seconds, the electrical insulation would start burning like a dynamite fuse.

Scientists and engineers already knew the insulation's characteristics and the process. The burning electrical insulation would transform into an electrically conductive carbon, carrying the electric current; reacting like a stove-top burner. The material's insulation properties would become reversed; the fire would be self-supporting and fast moving. The wire and insulation combination would be spontaneously combusting, quickly generating incendiary temperatures of thousands of degrees Celsius. The temperatures could easily melt the thin stainless steel of high pressure hydraulic or oxygen lines.

Behind the cabin wall lining, the forced air circulation which was designed to control condensation would give the fire it's final license to kill. The only disclosure was the smoke which escaped into the cabin, first assailing the nostrils of the standing flight attendants. Its deadly nature was surreptitiously concealed in the human reaction psychologists called 'denial.' Out of habit, born of prior experience, the flight attendants first checked the galleys - nothing in the ovens; then they noted the smoke. The seated passengers didn't notice - at first.

The physical size of the fire was small, however intense. Its obscurity neatly suppressed panic, making the fire's progress both insidious and relentless. The metalized Mylar cover of the insulation took the flame in all directions, while favoring the direction dictated by the air-flow. The vertical orientation of the wire bundle effected a chimney for the heat.

There was no shortage of videotape and photographs to show what the event would look like when it happened. The problem had been well researched by the military alone; it was just a matter of time and a magnitude of bodies. The Air Force and Navy had a desert airport full of aircraft with the same deadly wire. Potentially, a small caliber bullet or piece of flak could take down a multi-million dollar aircraft. The wiring was as vulnerable as the hydraulics, and just as flammable. The wiring ran everywhere - but it was deadliest wherever focused tightly. Against or even in close proximity to the aircraft skin or a bulkhead, it was particularly dangerous. One of the TV networks had done a thirty-minute show on the issue; it was dramatic, but had no appreciable effect.

A design flaw saved some unknown enemy a bullet or the cost of a piece of flak. The aircraft were already down; no shots fired. Congress wouldn't appropriate the money for the retrofitting. New aircraft were needed in proportion to campaign contributions. Military readiness would have to wait.

There seemed to be an implied message. Until airliners became combat targets, the same design flaw could apparently wait.


Soon, the airliner's burning electrical insulation would ignite the plastic covering of the aircraft thermal / acoustic insulation. The plastic covering was a light-weight insulation itself; affordable, but flammable in the dehydrated atmosphere. The flawed thermal insulation was no secret, either.

The fire would travel upward into still more wire and thermal insulation until a barrier was reached. Dust from the circulated air had collected here, forming additional fuel. The adjacent fiberglass insulation would serve a most unwanted purpose now; the heat had nowhere to go. The temperature would be focused and multiply, heating the aircraft skin until it was pliable enough for the air pressure inside the aircraft to escape with a vengeance into the frigid external atmosphere at 41,000 feet.

No disaster is complete without Murphy's Law. The heat was concentrated along the edge of a 'tear strip,' which was designed to prevent a small hole from becoming dangerously larger. When the skin finally ruptured, the hole would be as large as chance would ever permit. The nature of the event maximized the mathematical 'rate' of air escape.

******


The passengers were first alarmed by the smell of the burning wire, then the smoke. An explosive decompression was the least of their concerns. Fire has a way of concentrating one's attention on the immediate.


The pilots checked the electrical gauges in the overhead control panel; there was no indication of an abnormal current draw. Again, they concluded an erroneous proposition, that the smoke would clear itself with the ignition source being removed - that's what circuit breakers were for. That's the way it usually worked.

ValuJet 592 had been forgotten. The government and media blamed the oxygen canisters, carried as cargo. Those who were certain that ValuJet 592 had been downed by an electrical fire were discounted and branded as 'conspiracy buffs.' Relating prior or subsequent electrical fires became a bizarre taboo.


When the flight attendants called the flight deck the third time, the pilots took notice. The captain would have the situation checked. The first officer had his reservations about not immediately resorting to the "Electrical Smoke and /or Fire" checklist.

The science of "Crew Resource Management" called for him to assert himself. Yet, the FAA inspectors quickly pointed out that the science was just that; nothing more. The concept of "CRM," as it was known, was required to be taught by the FAA regulations, there was no requirement, save for professionalism, common sense and good judgment, for it to be practiced. The tradition that "the Captain is God" was making a comeback. "CRM," had a selectively 'politically correct' quality; strangely combined with a 'situational ethics' flavor.

The captain sent the first officer back to check the problem. When the first officer opened the cockpit door, only a small amount of smoke entered the cockpit. Not enough to cause major alarm.

It never occurred to the captain that the electrical smoke procedure was essential. In a mindset of denial, he decided to wait for the first officer's report. In reality, he was more tired than he realized; chronic fatigue had an insidious way of diminishing judgment. This was the end of a long day and a long and profitable month. Reserve duty was hell. The captain would soon find the statement to be far more than a cockpit cliche.

The regulations called for the remaining pilot to wear an oxygen mask; a procedure most pilots saved for the occasional 'line check,' with the FAA or a company supervisor on the 'jump seat.' The oxygen mask inflatable harnesses were too awkward to re-bundle small enough to get back into their tiny compartment correctly. The mask would be there, if needed. He was tired.

The captain left ATC a clue; he asked for a radio check - just in case. His last words on the radio were, "...Just checking. ..had a couple of circuit breakers pop; hate it when it gets too quiet up here." He assured ATC that everything was okay.

There was some weather 'painting' on the radar. ATC had previously approved the flight to take up a heading to the north, around the weather. The captain selected the new heading on the autopilot. The ATC transmission was the standard one, "Cleared to deviate around weather as required; report back on course."

The first officer approached mid-cabin, seeing a flight attendant with the emergency smoke hood packet in her hand. She gestured to him as though offering it for his use. Inwardly, he smiled; the message was clear, "Here, you do it." He didn't expect anything else; like so many things in life, this was a man's job. Then he saw the concern on her face. He stopped abruptly, as his eyes focused on the density of the smoke layer in the cabin overhead. He never reached her position.


In the cockpit, the captain had bent around to see which circuit breakers had popped. They hadn't lost any instruments, lights or radios in the cockpit. The last thing he was to look at was the 'popped' circuit breakers indicating that a large number of the passenger 'convenience' items were un-powered. Nothing critical, he noted. He was very wrong. In that position, he didn't see the upward creep of the amp meters on the overhead panel.

Paradoxically, the airline industry hadn't learned from their 'cousins' flying the Lear-type executive jets. They had long ago learned that if electrical smoke was certain, to immediately kill all possible electrical power, restoring it slowly, being certain of the problem source. The Lear pilots had learned early. It was amazing that the airline industry hadn't followed that lead. No doubt the reasoning had to do with PR and the feared profit loss. Then again, maybe it wasn't particularly amazing, after all.


Disaster was announced by a loud metallic 'bang,' caused by the air gushing through the enlarged hole made by the burst aircraft metal skin, making a 2' X 2' hole as the cabin air escaped in nearly an instant.

Simultaneously, the cabin filled with a strange fog, the temperature fell one hundred twenty degrees. Most of the passengers' eardrums ruptured, their sinuses drained, every cubic inch of intestinal gas quadrupled its previous volume, escaping if possible. Anyone with a sinus problem experienced still more severe pain to accompany their ruptured eardrums.

Most passengers instantly experienced severe vertigo, adding to the effect of shock.

The overhead panels deployed the expected yellow oxygen masks, which were sucked toward the gaping hole along with all other loose material. The layer of smoke disappeared in an instant. Some of the masks tore loose in the resulting 'wind.' Hair, blankets, toys, cups and loose clothing raced toward the breach.

The sound of the debris flying was terrifying, if anyone actually heard it. The scene was befitting of a combat strike.

Those who remained conscious for very long died in detached horror and abject bewilderment. At so high an altitude, the air which had been in their lungs had nearly exploded from their throats, causing a strange moan as it raced past their vocal chords. If they reached for an oxygen mask, it wasn't where they expected it to be. The only masks available came from behind most of the passengers, trailing toward the gash in the aircraft skin. The rate at which the air escaped was as deadly as the oxygen void itself.

By the time shock had set in, it was already too late. Even in the chaos of the moment, the passengers tried to regain the icy breath of air which just wasn't there. Some managed a moan from the pain from their joints, sinuses or ears. It was their last monument to history.

The flight attendants collapsed in the aisle with the blast of escaping air. From the floor, they looked for an oxygen mask to use - there were none within timely reach. Their own portable oxygen bottles were beyond reach in terms of distance and time. No doubt in their last seconds, they were torn between helping the passengers and their own survival. No one told them that their physical activity on the aircraft diminished their time to react. It made little difference; they were just among the first to go. The children were inherently 'tougher' with the youth of their organs; they managed to briefly scream and cry before their final sleep.

The first officer fell to the floor and grabbed at the base of a seat leg assembly. He died, trying to get to his knees, attempting to make his way to the 'doghouse' compartment which held a portable oxygen bottle. He quickly collapsed from hypoxia.

Some of the passengers in first class actually managed to get a mask partially on, but it was already too late. What little oxygen was supplied was whisked from the loose seal of the mask into the frigid air, estimated at minus fifty-five degrees. It was doubtful that anyone managed to don a mask as described in the computerized PA announcement which accompanied the dropping of the oxygen masks. Anyone who had been drinking went that much sooner, but probably easier. No doubt, some hearts failed. There was no one to keep score.

Later, a few tissue and blood samples and the bloodstains on so many of the shirts would tell much of the story. The two distinct blood trails on the collars of many of the passengers came from their ears. The rupture was fast, indeed. The throats and lungs of the passengers sitting near the rupture contained enough soot to testify to the fire's occurrence having started in flight. The distinctive hole in the aircraft skin would ultimately lead the investigators to the burned wire bundle and the blackened insulation.

******


In the cockpit, it was almost worse. Beyond the same physical effects as the passengers from the explosive decompression, any loose maps and papers had instantly flown past the captain. The papers exited through the unlocked cockpit door which had torn through it's latching mechanism as the cockpit air escaped. The captain's back had been severely strained from his posture while looking for the popped circuit breakers, the force of the escaping air and the tension he mounted in his opposing reflex, trying to regain an upright position.

Above the decompression 'bang' and rushing sound of the air, the cabin altitude warning horn sounded; the associated warning lights illuminated.

Instinctively, the captain made the mistake of looking around for the cause of the chaos and a clue as to what the total reality was. Even with his lungs begging for air, he erred by trying to assess the situation. Adrenaline wouldn't compensate for his fatigue and the lack of oxygen in his blood cells.

The delay was deadly. The captain was known to be a smoker - unusual in these times. His 'physiological altitude' was later estimated to be at 7,000 feet at sea level. It could only be estimated as to the degree his smoking habit diminished his "Time of Useful Consciousness" (TUC), as it was called.

By the time the captain reached for his oxygen mask in the side-wall storage compartment, his fingers lacked the coordination and strength required to squeeze the pneumatic harness inflation device. Failing to get the oxygen mask on, in time, the emergency descent maneuver was never initiated.

If the pilots had both been on oxygen, they would have been hard pressed to have accomplished the required descent in time, anyway. Profits demanded that they fly at the highest altitude at the highest speed. Older pilots knew that as the "coffin corner;" the term was appropriate.

The term meant that the aircraft didn't dare go either faster or slower. Even a significant temperature change could cause a control problem. Such was the high-altitude physics of profit. Luck and awareness would be the difference. The Flight Management Computer relieved the pilots of the burden of thinking. If there was a problem, the pilots would be warned by the computer. In the meantime, the high altitude meant less fuel burned. Accountants were very fond of high altitudes.

Trusting in modern engineering and the automation, the pilots spent less time thinking about their profession. Many of the high altitude aeronautical issues were long-forgotten. There was even an industry joke about detailed information, "Works fine; last a long time." Most assumed that it was almost that simple, anymore - almost. Many of the airlines didn't even issue the FAA regulations to the pilots.

If the pilots had been able to make the emergency descent decision, they would have been faced with a deadly dilemma. To descend quickly meant an increase in airspeed. Being already at the highest speed, the pilots would have had to make the trade-off of a slow rate of descent at first to preclude aircraft damage or loss of control.

A descent to a reasonably safe altitude would have taken approximately three minutes. That was too long in the best of conditions for passenger and flight attendant survival. If the captain had been able to get his mask on in time, he might have survived. In the best of conditions, the passengers and flight attendants had little chance - if any.

In the best of conditions, instinctively from their training, the pilots would have taken precious additional seconds trying to ascertain the aircraft 'structural integrity' to determine whether or not they dared resort to a high speed descent. The flight attendants couldn't have told them; they wouldn't be conscious.

Government studies had shown that in an EXPECTED decompression drill, it would take a minimum of 17 seconds to initiate a descent in ideal conditions. In an explosive decompression such as this, the passengers had ten seconds to get their mask on before the "Grim Reaper" called their name. No matter how one looked at the situation, there just wasn't enough time; at least not for the passengers.

******


The high altitude risk to the passengers had actually been thought out during the most recent discussions on the aircraft certification requirements. The structural strength was ascertained as being more than sufficient for the expected life of the aircraft. The threat of bombs and "uncontained engine failures" simply hadn't been mentioned - not politically correct; despite the pertinence of history.

All the known data had been considered; the equations and calculations had been verified.

The issue of selectively unreported safety data would probably die with whomever dared to address it. The monetary stakes were enormous. The renegade safety activists estimated a reporting of only 30% of the required safety incidents. No one questioned the figure. Even though it was effectively a felony not to report the data, no one would get involved. The regulation was known as "FAR 121.703." Getting involved killed careers in a hurry. Illusions aside, nobody with a public position got involved.

******


By the time the first engine failed from fuel starvation, the chance of human recovery was long past. The medical term was "Time of Safe Unconsciousness." Beyond that period, serious brain damage or death was expected. The maximum estimated "TSU" at 41,000 feet was one minute, two at best; possibly as little as ten seconds. Survival was in the physical stamina of the individual's organs.

Only the associated electrical power interruption from the failed engine disconnected the autopilot. It had held the aircraft at 41,000 feet too long. The autopilot held the last heading, to the north. The aerodynamic drag of the failed engine caused the aircraft to gently roll over into a high-altitude death spiral. The automatic throttle system obediantly brought the other throttle to idle power to match the rotational speed of the opposite engine. That was the way it was designed to work. It didn't take long until the ATC radar could no longer discriminate an altitude readout, due to the extreme descent rate. The military radar data later described the final moments.

******


From the beginning of the investigation, the questions were fast and furious. The pre-existing background of similar events and scares had primed the media for the basic issue. Within hours, hundreds of pilots were anonymous consultants. It would appear that no one had given any thought to the potential of an event such as this. If any had, they didn't dare admit it. The public record showed a concerned discussion of the high altitude risk - if it could be found. It was waiting there. The safety activists already knew where to look; they had copies.

The bulk of the questions were well formulated.

"Was it true that the crew were given only minimum high-altitude emergency training? Had such an occurrence been anticipated? At so high a cruise altitude, was the passenger oxygen system actually capable of sustaining life for any duration? Did the number of oxygen units comply with the certification regulations? Did the aircraft have the required extra 10%? Did the electrical backup switch legally qualify as a "manual" means of oxygen activation? Did the crew have a means to determine actual oxygen flow to the passengers? Why did the FAA simply 'expect' the pilots to assume the oxygen system worked? Why was there no scientific or medical data on the passengers probable plight at that altitude? Were pressure masks available for passenger use? Did the flight attendants have any chance of reaching their own oxygen masks? How much time did they have to live if an immediate descent had been initiated? Were there any radio calls? How many children? Were there enough masks for them?"

"Was it true that the company was just saving money by flying that high? If the flight had been a few thousand feet lower, would that have made the difference?"

"What had happened in the debate over the size of the oxygen canister time duration over the South American high-altitude routes? Had the 12 minute canisters been replaced by the 20 minute canisters? What was the history on the failing activation lanyard issue? Did the FAA really extend that 'compliance date?'  Did this aircraft have the new units? What size were the canisters on this aircraft? Were there such things as "infant masks?"

"What about the rumors that there were well known safety flaws? Was it true that the White House had been informed for years? Was it true that the FBI had been informed but wouldn't investigate? Were FAA inspectors actually fired for questioning the aircraft design and certification?"

"What did the 1996 report on the Norwegian MD-80 incident have to do with this crash? What was the media talking about? Was that an electrical fire? Did it happen in flight? Was this similar to the Valujet 'uncontained engine failure? Was there any basis for the crew fatigue rumors? Was it true that the flight attendants were illegally on extended duty?"

The questions were endless. Many were borderline stupid: "Were any of the passengers trained in an altitude chamber? Was that an option they had? Did the gate agents inform the passengers about the high altitude danger?"

The NTSB and FAA squared off for a fight. Liaison was set up between the two. They were either going to be bitter rivals or close allies - there would be no middle ground. The automatic question was asked by everybody on both sides, "What does Washington want us to say?" The detailed investigation and cause would have to wait. Political damage control was in effect.

Now the government had to face Executive Order 12866. The application was simple, "If safety costs money, don't get involved." Article nine of the Order referred to maintaining the observation of existing laws, but that's not 'EXACTLY' what happened.

The FAA's mandate under the law had been conveniently 'shifted' so that they were no longer held responsible for the same level of safety; they had their cop-out. Safety responsibility was nothing less than politically selective. The pilots were the easiest target, after all, they should have put their masks on first. Yes, it would probably be pilot error again - whatever it took to argue that case. Pilot ignorance was the FAA's bliss. It would work - it had to.

It would be a battle of verbiage, not regulations. The public hadn't caught on, yet. The abbreviations would keep them busy, "CSET," "ATOS," etc. Those even kept the FAA confused; the public would be in 'sensory overload' quickly enough. The crusading specialists would be the problem; they kept getting better. IASA would be the worst. ALPA might 'play ball,' since they didn't represent these particular pilots - then again, they might not. ALPA could sometimes be the proverbial 'loose cannon.'

******


Tragically, the pilots' high-altitude training hadn't been updated. The pilots as a whole simply hadn't given any thought to such a high altitude reality. From habit, the older pilots, mostly the captains, only thought in terms of 35,000 feet. The altitude difference was radical in terms of the potential for human survival, but, to the pilots, it just seemed to be a few more numbers.

It was almost strange that the well-known terrorist threat and infamous lax FAA security hadn't caused pilots to think about the potential of such happening as the result of a bomb.

Perhaps the frightening Government Accounting Office report to the Congress on the FAA's security failings wasn't circulated. The details and prominence of the two attempted hijackings, immediately after the report was published, had quietly disappeared. With aviation security being an industry joke, the head of the FAA security section was retired with honors - strange, nigh unto nauseam.

One would think the news reports, by themselves, would raise the obvious concerns over bombs and high altitude flight. No doubt the psychologists were right about pilots; they called it the "Immortality Complex." Pilots were said to be "compartmentalized." A strange set of descriptors for industry apathy and ignorance. Yet, the pilots could only deal with what was presented to them; it wasn't fair to fault them for trusting the 'system.' Profits had priority.

The politics were high-risk. So long as no one spotted the awareness of the FAA as to the potential and how they had effectively scammed the statistics to rationalize safety, it would probably be all right. That was what the PR spin-doctors were for. The certification argument only considered the basic structural integrity of the aircraft; discussions concerning unexpected breaches of the hull were avoided.

Except for Executive Order 12866, the ridiculous regulatory maintenance upgrade 'compliance dates' would be the impossible part to explain. No matter, this would be "pilot error"  -  'convenience' at its best. Maintenance and upgrade modifications could damn well wait.


To the ultimate horror of the FAA, the Internet communication made the difference. Between the aircraft radio transmissions and the gossip circle of cellular phones and their internet capability, the bulk of the facts had been put together before the stricken aircraft left altitude. The captain described plural circuit breakers popping. The Air Force interceptors said that the oxygen masks were down. Only one pilot in the cockpit. The pressurization valve was reported closed. That only left the probability of an electrical fire; however bizarre the event might be.

Strangely, the bulk of scenario had been quickly assembled by the network of HAM radio operators belonging to a volunteer emergency communication response team. Their scanners had picked up fine details from the Air Force UHF transmissions. The telephone system and the Internet connected everybody else. The investigation was destined to only verify the gory details. It was amazing how many people had a connected friend. It was an ironic twist for the HAM radio operators to get involved; they understood electricity.

******


The politicians' nightmare was already underway. The safety activists not only had the data, they had records that their protests of a potential disaster such as this had been methodically swept under the proverbial rug. If this didn't turn up as a bomb, there would be hell to pay. Scapegoats and plea-bargains were being secretly discussed. Resignations were tendered and refused. Anybody with a favor owed was anchored to a telephone.

Begrudgingly, the safety activists sent their collection of files out to the desperately hungry requests of the media who previously couldn't find anything newsworthy about prevention. No bodies; no news. Advertisers paid for exposure and circulation, not journalism.

From experience, the activists also knew that only enough of the data would be used to create the desired headlines. The full story would be told only on the Internet. When the media had their purse, they would go back to protecting the desired political position. The real money came from the advertisers; hard-copy sales were just gravy.

The investigators were grateful the plane hadn't come down on a city or town. The Payne Stewart crash was all too recent. It had missed a town by 12 miles; still too close. There were other similar events being cited in the media.

It was politically unfortunate that the aircraft came down in a Canadian forest. The trees broke the fall, preventing a subsequent fire. The evidence would be found. The Canadian investigators didn't subscribe to the American political dictates. The American investigators would be involved, but they wouldn't be welcome. Swiss Air 111 was still simmering on the political burner. Arrow Air hadn't been forgotten. The Canadians would have no motive to lie or cover up the facts.

******


The cockpit voice recorder told much of the story. Beyond the desperate grunt as the air exploded from the captain's lungs, there was nothing verbal after the decompression 'bang' and the immediate aftermath.

There was a rustling sound and a distinctive click of the miniature clipboard on the control yoke being contacted by a hand or his chest. There was a very rapid 'shushing' sound suggesting that the captain's oxygen mask harness inflation button had been pressed - briefly.

Beyond the sound of the various cockpit warnings, the recorded 'rush' of the airspeed could be heard to accelerate with a modulating character, suggesting the violence of the spiral. The airspeed warning clacker was heard. The last verbal sound on the voice recorder was ATC still trying to effect contact, then the more desperate ATC calls as the data on the radar screen showed an abrupt deceleration in ground speed with no altitude readout. The flight data recorder only confirmed the obvious.

American and Canadian fighters had been launched in the same fashion as the Payne Stewart crash. In the night sky, the cabin and cockpit lights showed the horror inside. The bodies were bent over, the yellow masks could be seen dangling. Some of the masks appeared to hang straight down; some at a strange angle. The fighters could only get as close as the wing tips of the airliner. Only the captain could be seen slumped over in the cockpit. There was no sign of the copilot. A brief  'fly-by' suggested that the cockpit door was open.

In the darkness, the culprit hole in the side of the fuselage couldn't be distinguished. It's discovery would have to wait for the accident investigators. The clear windows indicated that moisture wasn't being trapped inside; somehow, there was air circulation. One fighter got a view of the pressurization outflow valve on the airliner's tail section in his landing lights - fully closed. No missing or broken windows could be seen; all the doors appeared to be closed.

The speed and heading were compared to the computer flight plan data. It wouldn't come down in a populated area. The timing on the last radio contact suggested that they would be burning fuel from the wing tanks. One engine would probably quit before the other. The final event was anticipated to be an accelerating spiral. Additional fighters were launched to witness the morbid final moments. They broke off their observation in the darkness, as the aircraft descended below 5,000 feet; its end would be lonely. It was better that way; the fighter pilots didn't stand a chance of seeing that much through their tears. The wreckage would have to tell the rest.


The final sound of the flight wasn't the PA in the arrival terminal, requesting the family members to "Please report to meeting room number four." The 'delayed' flight number and data had been removed from the monitors forty-five minutes earlier. The final sound was the horrified screams of the family members who knew exactly what the PA meant.

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Except for the combination of details, the story contains precious little fiction. Be certain that disaster is waiting at the hands of the profit-takers and the corruption of the government agencies. The reliable documentation is too complete. Most of these events have already happened in some form. Others are still waiting for the PA directing the waiting families to report to the meeting room, as described.


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