A blog where Stephanie M. Belser test-drives her fictional stories.
Expect the occasional
"stall, spin, crash & burn".

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Aluminum Rain; Sam Hawkins Returns

I am working on a new Sam Hawkins story.  This one will be set around 1992.  I don't know if it'll work out to be a novel, a novella, or a short, but here is the first chapter:

It didn’t look like much of an airplane, just bits of twisted and blackened metal.  The fragments had been laid out inside the outline of an airplane.  There probably had been an odor at one time, but the wreckage was old enough for any smell to have faded away.

I walked around the outline and took a series of photos with my Nikon.  My name is Sam Hawkins.  I’m a private investigator.  Not for the first time, I was wondering what the hell I was doing there.  I’m not an aircraft engineer, I just fly some of them from time to time.  Great Barrington, Massachusetts was far away from my office in northern Virginia.  A former client had asked me to look into this as a favor for a friend of a friend, or something like that.  Since I had made a boatload of money from that client’s case, I agreed.  I had to get up fairly early, fly my Piper from Manassass, Virginia to Great Barrington, and then finagle a car at the Great Barrington Airport.

The wreckage was in an old and otherwise vacant warehouse next to a railroad line.  Both the warehouse and the railroad track had seen much better days.  Javier Hendrickson was watching me with well-disguised bureaucratic impatience.  Hendrickson was an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board and apparently, he had his orders to play nice with me.

I put down the camera.  “What can you tell me about this, Mr. Hendrickson?”

“You’re looking at what’s left of November Four One Five Mike Alpha.  The aircraft is, or was, a Loftus Rocket-400.  It crashed four months ago on a flight from Akron, Ohio to Bedford, Massachusetts.  The pilot was attempting an emergency landing at Great Barrington.  Conditions were night VFR, close to perfect flying weather.”

”I’ve never heard of a Loftus Aircraft Company, let alone a Rocket 400.”

Hendrickson nodded.  “That’s because the FAA assigns names to experimental aircraft based on the last name of the builder.  The airplane is more generally known as a Durden Rocket, you know.”

“So this thing was a homebuilt airplane?”

Hendrickson looked at me with some skepticism.  “You don’t know much about such things?”

“I’m a private detective, not an engineer.  Enlighten me, please.”

He repressed a sigh of “why me” and got on with it.  “This is what’s known as a ‘plans-built’ airplane.  Durden designed it and built one for his own jollies.  It’s a fast one, one of the fastest out there.  Lots of people wanted one.  So he sold the plans, over 200 sets about $250 per.  About a dozen are flying.  Loftus built one of the first ones to get into the air.  We estimate he flew it maybe 300 hours or so before he crashed it.”

“What caused the crash?

“Best we can guess, it was flutter of the right aileron.  It somehow wasn’t balanced right and at the airspeed and weight of the airplane, it started to vibrate.  From the air traffic control logs, Loftus knew something was wrong and he got out of the flutter regime-“

”What’s that?”

“The particular condition that generates flutter.  He declared an emergency and tried to land at the closest airport.  He almost made it, but he got back into the flutter regime and the airplane came apart on him.  The right wing departed the airframe, we didn’t find much of that.  What was left crashed almost vertical about four miles west of the airport."

“Christ.  No wonder there’s not much left.”

Hendrickson nodded.  “Post-crash fire didn’t help.”

I scratched my chin.  “If the airplane came apart in flight, why the fire?”

“The airplane had a fifteen gallon fuel header tank just behind the firewall.  That was enough.”  He handed a file folder to me.  “That’s the on-site photos, summaries of the structural engineering analyses, autopsy report, a copy of the proposed final report and some literature on the Durden Rocket.”

I opened the folder and then wished that I hadn’t.  The autopsy photos were right on top.  Let’s just say that slamming a body into the ground at high speed and then setting it on fire doesn’t lead to portrait-quality photographs.  “Do you have drawings of the airplane?’

“Like construction drawings?”


He shook his head.  “Not that I can show you.  Mr. Durden did give us a set, but we agreed to keep them confidential.  He also gave us his engineering analysis papers and wind-tunnel data, so you’re going to have to talk to him about those.

“We also have a copy of the builder’s logs.  Mr. Loftus made a very detailed log, with color photographs of almost every step.  We have black-and-white copies, Mrs. Loftus has the originals.”

I held up the folder.  “Are these my copies?”

“Yeah.  We were told to extend every possible courtesy, so they’re yours.  Please don’t discuss the proposed findings with anyone until they are made public.  If you’ll give me your card, I’ll make sure that if the final is different, you get a copy.”

“Thanks.”  We exchanged cards.  “I appreciate your courtesy, Mr. Hendrickson.”

“No problem.”

Hendrickson showed me out of the warehouse.  I could hear the ‘thump’ of an industrial-sized electrical switch being thrown as I walked out the door.  I opted to skip lunch and just drive back to the airport and fly back to Virginia.

It was a nice day, so I chose to just go for flight following.  I was on the airport’s phone with the Flight Service Station when Hendrickson walked in.  I finished up my flight briefing, told the briefer “got you another one” and handed the phone to Hendrickson.

I pulled my Piper up to the gas pumps.  I was filling up the wing tanks when Hendrickson walked out of the airport’s pilot’s lounge.  He gave me a short wave, climbed into a shiny white RV-3 home built, started it up, taxied out and took off.  No wonder he seemed a little shirty when I was asking about homebuilts, for he had one.  It didn’t surprise me, for I knew that a number of the NTSB airplane guys had their own airplanes.

Ten minutes later, I was in the air and heading roughly south-southwest.  I climbed to a cruising altitude of 8,500 feet, then I checked in with Boston Center for traffic advisories.  My route of flight would take me west of the New York City airports, but it’s nice if the controllers know what to expect of a blip.  Besides that, it’d be easier to go through Dulles Airport’s airspace if they knew that I was coming.  This was a trip that couldn’t be feasibly made in one day without a small airplane, as there were no airline served airports close to Great Barrington.

I flew along, listening to the chatter on the air traffic control frequencies, and changing from one controller to another as I moved from one sector to another.  I watched for other air traffic, kept track of where I was, but still had brain cells left to think about this case.  What I told the NTSB guy was correct: I’m not an engineer.  If Loftus’s crash wasn’t an accident, then the way to figure out how was to first answer “who” and “why”.  The best method for that was to figure out who benefitted from his death. I touched down at Manassass about two and a half hours after leaving Great Barrington.  I put the Piper into its hangar, then swung by the fuel service desk and asked them to gas it up.

Forty minutes later, I was in my office.  I work out of my home, I meet clients in public locations.  For public record purposes, I have an office the size of a closet that’s co-located with another investigator, but this isn’t a storefront business for me.  I don’t do walk-in trade.  If someone needs to get in touch with me, I have an answering service and a beeper.  A colleague recently talked me into a gizmo called a “cell phone”, which was both large, heavy and not cheap to use.  It rides in the glove-box of my car.  I turn it on if I need to use it, which is almost never.  Lunch was in order, so I made a sandwich.

After lunch, I sat down at my desk with the NTSB file.  I made some notes, primarily information about Loftus himself.  He had some businesses and he made a lot of money.  He owned a chain of “rent-to-own” stores, which can sort of be described as reverse pawn shops.  If there was a more expensive way to buy something on time payments, it hadn’t been invented.  He had business partners, a wife and four kids.  That gave me two groups to investigate.  When a spouse dies and it’s questionable as to why, the surviving husband or wife is an obvious suspect.  So are business partners or anyone named in a will.

I started making some calls.  Loftus was from a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.  A nice lady in the Summit County Court Clerk’s Office confirmed that a probate case had been filed and that a copy of Loftus’s will had been admitted.  She obligingly told me the copy fee and how to request one.  I wrote down the details with one hand and flipped the switch for my computer with another.  I typed out the request letter and wrote the check for the copy fee.

Next, I called a credit reporting service for reports on Loftus, his wife, the adult children, and his business partners.  There was a different service that covered businesses; I ordered reports on all of his businesses.  A third service agreed to do a litigation and criminal records check on all concerned.  It was a good thing that I had received a decent retainer for this case.

While I had to wait until the papers came rolling in, there was other research to do.  I went to the county library to research what had been written about the Durden Rocket-400.  There were articles in almost all of the aviation magazines, as well as some of the more pulp-quality science magazines.

The airplane’s designer, R. John Durden had been an engineer with Douglas Aircraft and had been laid off following both the merger with McDonnell and the aerospace industry crash in the late sixties and early seventies.  He then worked for some of the general aviation companies, he did some engineering analysis on the side and started tinkering with the then-nascent experimental airplane movement.  Along the way, he earned a Ph.D. in applied structural engineering.

In essence, the Rocket-400 was close to the smallest possible airplane with the largest possible engine.  The engine was an eight cylinder 720-cubic inch Lycoming aircraft engine that put out 400 horsepower.  The wings almost appeared to be an afterthought.  One article written about the airplane called it “a silver bolt of mean”, for it had the wing-loading and handling of a World War 2 fighter.

Loftus’s airplane was different.  When you build your own airplane, there are a lot fewer rules.  Loftus had engined his with a turbocharged 540-cu.in. Lycoming from a Piper Navajo that had been crash-landed with a load of weed.  The engine had been completely rebuilt to factory-new specifications.  Despite having two fewer cylinders and a smaller displacement, because it was turbocharged, the engine was rated for 420 horsepower.

One magazine writer had flown Loftus’s airplane.  The writer seemed to think it was the closest thing to a F-104 jet, albeit with a piston engine.  It was no trick at all to fly it up over 30,000 feet, though the FAA routinely limited such airplanes to an altitude of 25,000 feet.  Loftus had built in an oxygen system.  He had a place in Florida; he had built the airplane so that he could fly high, fast and far.  Apparently, the airplane had an approach-to-landing speed similar to that of a Boeing 727.  Which meant that Loftus had to have known that he was in real trouble for him to try to land at Great Barrington, as he most likely would have either had to ground-loop it or run off the end of the runway.

The article about Loftus’s airplane noted that Loftus has a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Academy.  He had flown F-14s.  That gave him experience in flying very high performance aircraft.  The reviewer of the airplane had noted that if there was a builder out there who was qualified to handle such an airplane, it was Cole Loftus.  I was also curious about what they said in his obituary, but I’d have to find someone in Cleveland or Akron to get that for me.

While I waited for the materials that I had ordered to arrive, I tracked down Dr. Durden.  To be honest, I was surprised that he agreed to talk to me.  A lot of guys in his position might not have, on advice of counsel.  Durden lived in North Carolina.  Not surprisingly, his house was adjacent to an airport.

So I flew down to talk to him.  It was about a ninety minute flight to get there.  A taxiway led to his house and hangar, though the hangar was much larger than the house.  I shut down my Piper near the door, got out, and slid a set of chocks under each of the main wheels.  Dr. Durden walked out of a side door to his hangar as I did that.

I recognized him from the photographs.  He was tall, lanky and gray-haired.  He glanced at my Piper and invited me in for coffee.  His kitchen wasn’t very large, there was a small round wood table with four matching chairs.  He set out a small pitcher of milk and a sugar bowl.  After a few minutes of pleasantries about my trip down, he asked why I wanted to talk to him.

I had thought about that.  “Dr. Durden, I just want to get a sense of what Mr. Loftus had built.  My client wants to know what happened.”

Dr. Durden rubbed the back of his neck.  “You said you’re a private detective.  What do you know about aircraft design and construction?”

“Not much,” I admitted.

“Hmm.  And yet, here you are.  Which tells me that somebody has a suspicion that the crash wasn’t an accident.”

“Doc, I don’t know.  Did you know Mr. Loftus?”

He smiled.  “Oh, yes, I knew Cole quite well.  There’s a lot of interest in my design, Mr. Hawkins. I’ve sold a lot of plans.  But very few have been built, it’s not an easy airplane to build.  To build it, one has to be an excellent mechanic.  To fly it, one has to be an excellent pilot.  Cole Loftus was both.  I built the airplane around the O-720 because I had one available.  Cole used a different engine, but he didn’t just slap it in, no sir.  He had to do a fair amount of re-design work and he did it well.  He sent his changes to me for review.  If anything, his engine choice made his airplane better than my original.”

“Because of the turbocharger?”

Dr. Durden nodded.  “My airplane tends to get a little anemic in the middle teens, his didn’t.’

I knew that “middle teens” meant an altitude of around 15,000 feet.  “Doctor, what could make an airplane come apart like that?”

He didn’t have to think about that.  “A thunderstorm, certainly.  But the weather was good.  I’d say flutter, but I designed the wings and tail to be free of that risk up to 450 miles an hour.  Somebody sooner or later would do something like fit a turboprop to an airframe.  I designed in lots of margin.  Let me show you something.”  He got up and I followed him into the dining room.  A set of plans was on the dining room table.  They were bound at the left edge.  Each sheet was the size of a large land survey.

Dr. Durden expertly thumbed through the plans and opened them to a sheet.    “This is the plan for the right wing.  Do you see the red legend?”

I read it.   “Yeah, sure can.”

It read: “The design of this wing has been flutter tested to 450 MPH.  Any deviation from the plans as shown will void the tests and cannot be guaranteed to be free of the risk of flutter.”

He turned to another sheet.  It was a detail drawing for the construction of an aileron, then another sheet for flaps, then a sheet for wing ribs.  Each sheet had a box that listed the materials needed.  Each sheet had the same red legend.

“Did Mr. Loftus follow the plans,” I asked

“Precisely.  You may know that when someone builds an airplane, there are FAA-mandated inspections to ensure quality of workmanship and materials.  Those are done by an FAA inspector or someone that they designate.  Cole had me participate in those inspections.  His workmanship was really good, good enough that I suspected that he had professional assistance.”

“Isn’t that against the rules?”

“I suppose so, but he wasn’t building a replica of a Piper Cub.  Did you note the N-number that he had for his airplane?”

“Ah, N415MA.”

“Yes.  That stands for a Mach Number of point 415, or 315 miles an hour.  That’s over four times faster than a Cub.  Cubs are fun airplanes, they fly fast enough to kill you, but they are pretty much big toys.  Five Mike Alpha wasn’t a toy, Mr. Hawkins.  It was a serious high-speed traveling airplane.   If Cole did hire a professional to help him build it, he was wise to do so.”

“Did he build it per the plans?”

“Other than the engine, yes.  Oh, he built in more fuel capacity than I did, but I designed the airplane to accommodate that.  He had better instruments, but as you know, the state-of-the-art for cockpit instrumentation is always in flux.  I’ve reviewed Cole’s builder’s logs several times, he did a top-rate job.  I’ve also looked at the maintenance logs, there wasn’t any work done after he had flown off the test time.  He had to make some adjustments to trim, but those weren’t substantial changes.”

Now for the 64 Dollar Question: “What if someone wanted to have an airplane come apart like that?  Could that be done?”

“Yes.”  With that, Dr. Durden launched into a rather detailed explanation of what various things could be done to increase the risk of flutter.  I couldn’t keep up.  After his third sentence, he could have switched over to speaking in Finnish for all I could understand.  What I gathered was that someone who knew what they were doing and had a couple of hours to do it in could arrange things so that a flutter regime had a good chance to occur.

“OK, Doctor, I think I understand.  I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Hawkins.  Before you go, would you like to see the airplane?”

“Sure, that’d be kind of you.”

“OK, right this way.”  A door in the hallway led directly into the hangar. Dr. Durden flipped on the lights.

The hangar had a central aircraft bay with workbenches along the back wall.  I recognized both a sheet metal brake and an English wheel.  There were pieces of airplanes lying around, but it wasn’t cluttered.

The Rocket-400 was by the door.  The fuselage was slender, it had two seats with tandem seating. The nose was large to accommodate the engine and it sported a large three-bladed propeller.  The vertical fin was tall and large, it would have had to be in order to absorb and control the torque from that engine.  The articles did not do justice to the wings.  For the size and power of the airplane, they were tiny, probably less than half the wing area of my Piper, which had less than half the horsepower and twice the number of seats.  Imagine, if you will, Dirty Harry pointing his .44 at you and asking “do you feel lucky.”  That’s the feeling that I got from the Rocket-400.  It was the most serious airplane that I had ever seen that wasn’t first built for the military.

Dr. Durden interrupted my musings.  “Do you want to fly it?”

I shook my head.  “That’d be like going out for coffee with Cindy Crawford.  This airplane is way out of my league.”

He smiled at that. “Is there anything else that I can help you with?”

“No, Doc, thanks for your time.”  We shook hands and he showed me to the hangar door.

I pulled the chocks from the wheels of my Piper, stowed them and climbed in.  I strapped myself in, started the engine and was soon on my way.

I had the “how” part of the equation.  It was pretty ingenious, for when the airplane tore itself apart, it scattered itself over a wide area.  If Loftus’s airplane had come apart at high altitude, Lord knows how far and wide the wreckage would have been scattered.   For a one-person fatal wreck, the NTSB wouldn’t have search teams combing the countryside for bits of aluminum.  Nobody would ever know that it was sabotage.

Now I needed the “who” and “why”.

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