Friday, March 14, 2014

How Investigators Discern Early If Sabotage Caused a Plane Crash

In my novel STALKING THE SKY, I wanted to show how an investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board and an FBI agent obtain an early sense of whether a plane's crash was caused by sabotage.

Here's an excerpt:

Dwight Raeburn, head of the NTSB’s Go-Team, looked up from the bright tangle of ripped wires sprouting from the sliced-open rear fuselage and spotted Clayton. They had worked together in the past, but on nothing of this immensity.

"It’s a God-awful mess, isn’t it?"

"When are the dogs expected?" Clayton asked.

"The FAA says they loaned the closest team out to you guys investigating a theft of explosives from an army base. Another’s sniffing out a bomb in an office building. There’s no longer an emergency here."

"What does it look like?"

"Can’t be sure. The front of the fuselage folded up like an accordion when it hit. Any evidence of explosive decompression in the fore section is hidden right now."

"But you’ve got to be suspicious. Items from the plane are turning up for miles around."

"Owen, I can’t be sure of anything yet. This is one where we won’t know definitely until we pull it out of the crater and piece it together."

Clayton remained insistent. "And those other parts that blew off it all the way down."

The process of hauling every piece of the wreckage to an empty hangar and diligently reconstructing the mammoth airplane, like a great Chinese puzzle, could take months.

"I can’t wait for that—the trail will be cold by then," Clayton said. "Have you spoken to your guys checking out Operations and Air Traffic Control at O’Hare?"

The smaller man pulled the clipboard from under his arm. "Just before it went down, the plane was at an altitude of twenty-seven thousand feet and an airspeed of five hundred and forty miles per hour. Nothing near it. Weather clear. No turbulence, so far as we know. And then the plane just dived. It’s not much, but believe me, it’s all we know right now."

"Dwight, I know you don’t want to be put on the spot this early, but if you had my job, would you treat this like a potential criminal matter?"

This time Raeburn did not hesitate. "I’d bust my rear on it, if I were you. Look, any number of things could have caused this, and the clues are still buried in the wreckage. But right now it smells of sabotage. We’ll know more when we find the recorders, but even they might not tell the whole story."

Heavily protected to survive a crash, the recorders monitor the flight and provide hard evidence for investigators after an accident. The flight data recorder chronologically registers takeoffs, altitudes, speeds, angles and other numerical indicia of the flight. The voice recorder captures the voices of the cockpit crew on tape by means of three overhead microphones.

"You haven’t found them yet?"

Raeburn shook his head. "We’re cutting away metal at the place we think the flight recorder should be. We’re just not sure yet where the voice recorder is buried. God, it’s a horror!"

"Call me as soon as you know something more."

They separated. Clayton took a slow walk through the debris. This was a last search for any clue he might have missed that would spark an insight into what had suddenly happened on a clear night twenty-seven thousand feet above the unyielding ground.


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