I never knew the ones that were on that plane. I'm sure I had seen them, I worked at the squadron that three of them went through training for. In those moments between where they came out of the building and got into the airplane, I am sure I saw them at least once. Helmeted and visors down, survival gear in place securely about their abdomen. At least once. Other than that, they were ghosts.
Around noon on Friday, we hear early and ugly rumors that one of the birds from the squadron next door to us has gone missing. That preliminary phone calls to ATC, (air traffic control,) reveal something that does not bode well for the fate of the aircraft and crew.
They reported icing.
They stopped responding.
Four hours later we find out what we already knew and didn't want to be told.
It was a routine cross-country to Las Vegas where one of the pilots was going to be married. The remaining four people in the airplane were three other officers and one enlisted aircrewman who were all supposed to have been part of the ceremony. Upon transitioning the range of mountains separating the southern California coast from the Central Valley the aircraft entered a cloud bank. Climbing out of the weather proved ineffective and the aircraft's ice detecting system illuminated a caution on the Master Caution/Advisory panel. Radio transmissions to ATC for a request to descend in an attempt to thaw the blades before they iced over were received, as the anti-ice system appeared to be malfunctioning. The request was processed and permission given to descend to 7000 feet. The highest peak in the area was 6000 feet and an advisory was issued on from ATC, which the aircraft acknowledged. More difficulty with icing was reported and another request to descend was made. ATC cleared the aircraft to descend to 4000 feet with stern warnings concerning land features in the area. No response was made to that or any of the now panicky calls from ATC either over guard or the control frequency used previously.
Sitting in the smoking area, I see one of the people sent to the crash site wander out of the building and then toward where I am lounging in the shade. He's wearing civilian clothes and covered from the knees down in mud, grit and grease. Something hangs behind his eyes that I am not sure I want to know. The dim light of a mental weight that has to be shed rests there like a ragged package waiting to be opened and the contents revealed. He sits down next to me, asks for a cigarette and I comply more than willingly.
"How was it?" Without looking over I speak and allow the words to float into open space. No one else is around, for some reason the entire base seems dead still. The flags flutter limp at half-mast, defeated by something none of us could have done anything about. These things happen and we all know that. None of us talk about dying, part of living through some of the things we deal with is to deny that which is so obvious. Morbid jokes are occasionally made but nothing ever serious. A 'go screw yourself' or a hostile 'fuck you' but never 'I hope you die.' That's going way too far.
"I don't know." Leaning back into the bench under the shade of an overgrown palm tree, Wayne stares out over the patio and the accompanying silence. "It was a mess."
"There's not enough of that plane left to put in a shoebox. When they hit they must have ruptured the fuel cell 'cause there's parts all over the place." Pausing for another pregnant silence, Wayne takes a long drag on the cigarette and slowly releases a lung full of smoke into the stagnant air. "We found the pressure fuel port a hundred yards from where they smacked into the mountain. Fine, nothing wrong with it. Probably be able to put it on another bird if they wanted to."
"Found Walter's drivers license. Balanced on a rock. Untouched."
"What're they doing with the parts?" Normally I don't chain smoke. I jump start another from the butt I had when Wayne came out to sit down.
"I dunno. They're out in the hanger all boxed up, shipping them someplace for the accident investigation I think. Fuck Yurei, we'd find an engine all mangled and shit right? Right next to it there's a flower or a patch of grass."
"The accident guys say anything about causes?"
"Not really. Found a fucking helmet man." Wayne leans over and rubs the bridge of his nose with the tips of his fingers for several seconds then sits back. Eyes closed, the cigarette dangling from his mouth bobs in time with the spoken words like a metronome. "Goddamn helmet, just sitting there like someone dropped it and was going to come right back. Found a boot too. Just one. Still shined."
"I don't want to know."
"Nothing in it."
"Do they think anyone made it out?" Praying for a quick death.
"No. The guys there from the mishap team said they probably hit the side of the mountain at close to 120 or 140 knots."
"Christ, I'd rather go like that than crawling around in the wreck." Leaning back into the shade, I watch someone walk in from the parking lot. They nod at Wayne, he nods back. Selection to go to the crash site was voluntary, no one over a certain rank either.
"No shit, huh." Wayne opens his eyes to stare at nothing in particular. "Better quick. They think the blade de-ice system may have burned through the rotor."
"That means they knew what was going on on the way down." This statement is made just above a murmur and more for our collective benefit than my own. Both of us know what it meant, at the time I was probably the only one who could have said anything.
"Shitty way to go." I don't want to know what it would be like. My mind for some reason is dedicated to spewing out imagery at the moment of the last drawing seconds. The violence of the rotorhead coming apart, the sickening descent, overspeed condition causing the engines to wind into a shrieking roar, pinned in your seat by G forces and knowing that there wasn't anything else to do. Flotsam banging around the cabin, the safe environment disintegrating from the inside out from the stresses placed on the airframe. Not being able to comprehend exactly what is going on and still knowing the truth. The sheer desperation, the desire to escape and still being able to do nothing. Waiting for it to end and hoping it doesn't hurt. Regret, loss, hatred of the situation. Impact.
"Yeah." Wayne and I sit in silence for a few minutes watching two birds bounce across the cement in the patio. Chirping, they fight over a piece of a hamburger bun from the coffee mess around the corner. "Hey, Yurei, thanks for the smoke."
"No prob. You bailing?"
"Yeah. I need to sleep this off."
Never forget the ghosts.
For the pilots and crew of six six, and the families they left behind.
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