Home > Airframe(15)

Author: Michael Crichton

The flight attendant lapsed into silence again. There was a pause. She looked down at her hands, then back up. "So. Is there anything else I can tell you?"

Outside the cubicle, Richman said, "Isn't this the thing you said couldn't happen? Uncommanded slats deployment?"

"I didn't say it couldn't happen. I said I didn't believe it was possible on this aircraft. And if it did, it raises more questions than it answers."

"And what about the autopilot - "

'Too early to tell," she said, and went into the next cubicle.

"It must have been around six o'clock," Emily Jansen said, shaking her head. She was a slender woman of thirty, with a purple bruise on her cheek. An infant slept on her lap. Her husband lay in the bed behind her; a metal brace ran from his shoulders to his chin. She said his jaw was broken.

"I had just fed the baby. I was talking to my husband. And then I heard a sound."

"What sort of a sound?"

"A rumbling or a grinding sound. I thought it came from the wing."

Not good, Casey thought.

"So I looked out the window. At the wing."

"Did you see anything unusual?"

"No. It all looked normal. I thought the sound might be coming from the engine, but the engine looked normal, too."

"Where was the sun that morning?"

"On my side. Shining in on my side."

"So was there sunlight on the wing?"


"Reflecting back at you?"

Emily Jansen shook her head. "I don't really remember."

"Was the seat-belt sign on?'

"No. Never."

"Did the captain make an announcement?"


"Going back to this sound - you described it as a rumble?"

"Something like that. I don't know if I heard it, or felt it. It was almost like a vibration."

Like a vibration.

"How long did this vibration last?"

"Several seconds."

"Five seconds?"

"Longer. I would say ten or twelve seconds."

A classic description of a slats deployment in flight, Casey thought.

"Okay," she said. "And then?"

"The plane started going down." Jansen gestured with the flat of her hand. "Like that."

*   *   *

Casey continued to make notes, but she no longer really listened. She was trying to put together the sequence of events, trying to decide how the engineers should proceed. There was no question that both witnesses were telling a story consistent with slats deployment. First, rumbling for twelve seconds -  exactly the time it took the slats to extend. Then a slight nose up, which would occur next. And then porpoising, as the crew tried to stabilize the aircraft.

What a mess, she thought.

Emily Jansen was saying, "Since the cockpit door was open, I could hear all the alarms. There were warning sounds - and voices in English that sounded recorded."

"Do you remember what they said?"

"It sounded like 'Fall... fall.' Something like that."

It was the stall alarm, Casey thought. And the audio reminder was saying, "Stall, stall."


She stayed with Emily Jansen a few minutes more and then went back outside.

In the corridor, Richman said, "Does that rumbling sound mean the slats deployed?"

"It might," she said. She was tense, edgy. She wanted to get back to the aircraft, and talk to the engineers.

From one of the curtained cubicles farther down .the corridor, she saw a stocky gray-haired figure emerge. She was surprised to see it was Mike Lee. She felt a burst of irritation: What the hell was the carrier rep doing talking to passengers? It was very inappropriate. Lee had no business being here.

She remembered what Kay Liang had said: A Chinese man was just here.

Lee came up toward them, shaking his head.

"Mike," she said. "I'm surprised to see you here."

"Why? You should give me a medal," he said "A couple of the passengers were considering lawsuits. I talked them out of it."

"But Mike," she said. "You talked to crew members before we did. That's not right."

"What do you think, I fed them a story? Hell, they gave me the story. And there's not much doubt about what happened." Lee stared at her. "I'm sorry, Casey, but Flight 545 had an uncommanded slats deploy, and that means you've still got problems on the N-22."

Walking back to the van, Richman said, "What did he mean, you've still got problems?"

Casey sighed. No point in holding back now. She said, "We've had some incidents of slats deployment on the N-22."

"Wait a minute," Richman said. "You mean this has happened before?"

"Not like this," she said. "We've never had serious injuries. But yes, we've had problems with slats."


1:05 P.M.

"The first episode occurred four years ago, on a flight to San Juan," Casey said, as they drove back. "Slats extended in mid-flight. At first, we thought it was an anomaly, but then there were two additional incidents within a couple of months. When we investigated, we found that in every case the slats had deployed during a period of flight deck activity: right after a crew change, or when they punched in coordinates for the next leg of the flight, or something like that. We finally realized the slats lever was getting knocked loose by the crews, banged by clipboards, caught on uniform sleeves - "

"You're kidding," Richman said.

"No," she said. "We'd built a locking slot for the lever, like 'park' on an automobile transmission. But despite the slot, the lever was still being accidentally dislodged."

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