Using her investigative skills and sharp observations, Gables resolves to unearth the cause of the crash for the sake of Collingwood's widow. She learns that it was not a mechanical malfunction that killed Collingwood; someone wanted him dead. With her newfound knowledge, Gables may be in danger, too-especially when this investigation leads her all the way to the White House.
As she attempts to get closer to the truth, Gables is dogged at every step by disruptive parties, including the police and fellow reporters. As her investigation continues, she uncovers a plot to assassinate the President of the United States when he is scheduled to give a speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point. When authorities do not listen to her as she voices her claims, it seems as if Gables will have to take matters into her own hands in order to prevent imminent tragedy.
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The AirplaneThe Story of the Next Big Thing
By Karl Milde
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Karl Milde
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHello! My name is Julianne Gables, "Juli" for short. If you've read about the hijacking of the commuter train to New York City, you know all about my husband, George White, and me. Shortly after the trial of Carl Collingwood and his son, Bruce, George and I got married and honeymooned in Bermuda. Yes, Bermuda! The very same place where we got shot at and narrowly escaped by helicopter.
When we came back home to New York, we set to work again investigating and reporting the news on our website, GablesReport.com, which, by the way, just kind of took off. We've been getting thousands of hits a day now, and every day there are more.
We post up-to-the-minute news on the site before it's reported on TV or in the newspapers. We leave the murders and break-ins to the local media and focus on political and corporate corruption. We also do sex scandals when they apply to a presumably responsible public figure such as Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even John Edwards, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning and tell you what happened to Carl and his aircraft. Tighten your seatbelt, dear reader, and hear me out—
George and I left early in the morning and drove way out to the Suffolk County Airport in Westhampton, Long Island, a trip of more than an hour. When we arrived at the airport gate, we stopped and asked directions to our final destination, the Hummingbird Aircraft Company. The security guard handed us a sheet with a map of the airport and noted the route. We finally pulled up in front of a huge metal hangar, and there, on the tarmac, in front of the open hangar door, stood the thing we had come to see: It was what Carl Collingwood, the inventor, once dubbed his "personal aircraft."
The craft looked like any other airplane one might have seen, but it was supposed to take off and land vertically. Carl and Bruce had been working with their team of engineers for nearly two years to build this first prototype. Carl had asked us to come today to watch the very first test flight.
George and I got out of our car and walked toward the open entrance of the cavernous building. Carl and Bruce were over in the far corner on the right, holding coffee cups and chatting with their engineers. There were nine of them in all—members of his team, I mean—each with a different skill set that was needed to build such an aircraft. No one was dispensable.
As we joined them, we saw Carl and Bruce locked in a heated exchange about who would pilot the plane. His handy cam always at the ready, George held back and started quietly to record the scene.
"You've got to be kidding, Dad. You're twice my age for God's sake! Pardon my saying so, but your reflexes are a bit slow." Bruce dragged out the last word for effect. "It's going to act more like a bucking bronco than an aircraft."
"I can handle it. Don't worry. It's my baby, and I want to be the first to take it up."
"Why don't we let our people decide?" Bruce turned to the Hummingbird team for support.
"Yeah, right," Carl said dubiously. "If they choose you, I'll be annoyed at you, and if they choose me, you'll be annoyed at everyone, including me."
"Okay, here's Juli! Maybe she can settle it." Bruce turned in my direction expectantly as I walked up.
We had asked for, and Carl and Bruce had granted us, an exclusive on this story. We were the only reporters allowed anywhere near the hangar today. Whether the test was a soaring success or a fatal flop, we were entitled to the first broadcast. After that, ours would be the only video footage available, so we could license it to the media. Considering the publicity we got at the Collingwood trial, I figured there'd be a heavy demand for our pictures.
"This is the big moment," Carl explained. "It'll be the first time a fixed-wing aircraft could do this, rising straight up from the ground. The military brass will be here in a minute to watch this test flight, and if it goes well, the army has agreed to give us an order for five thousand units."
"I still don't get it," I said. "What's makes it so special?"
"The fixed-wing aircraft, as we know it, has been developed and refined for over a hundred years. It is incredibly fuel-efficient at producing lift, once you get it moving through the air, but this is the first time an aircraft of this type is going to go straight up and hover. No downward pointed jets. No spinning chopper blades, which are the helicopter's wings, by the way. No complex mechanism to control those spinning blades. Much less noisy, too!"
"Like flying a magic carpet?"
"Exactly! Someday we'll all be able to take off from our own backyards. This is going to be big, really big!"
I heard a sound behind me, and all heads turned to see a black SUV pull up and stop just outside the hangar. Three men in uniform got out. I could tell by the stripes on his sleeve that the driver was a sergeant. The other two wore those military hats with gold graffiti on their visors proclaiming their elevated status. They all headed our way.
Carl just stood there, staring at them blankly, without moving. The arrival of the military had triggered something, and he froze. Maybe it was the enormity of this moment—to have arrived at this final test, which, if successful, would result in fulfilling his lifelong dream—or maybe it was fear: fear of authority, fear of the military, fear of the future, whatever. I didn't have a clue.
As he sensed his father's difficulty, Bruce quickly stepped forward to greet the visitors. "Hi, I'm Bruce Collingwood." He held out his hand. "Thanks for coming."
"I'm General Bellamy, and this is Major Hendricks and Master Sergeant David Schulz."
They shook hands all around, and Bruce introduced his father, who was still standing silently for some reason, and the other members of his team. Finally, they got around to greeting George and me.
"We still haven't decided who will fly it, Dad or me," Bruce continued, while Carl still seemed to be tongue-tied. I just couldn't believe it! "We'll have to flip a coin or something."
"Is that a problem?" the general demanded. "It's your invention," he said and turned to Carl. "You decide who flies it," and that was that.
Without a word, Carl reached for his flight jacket and carefully put it on. George kept the camera rolling as Carl walked out to the aircraft on the tarmac. Bruce followed and helped him climb into the cockpit and close the door.
At Bruce's signal, Carl opened the side window and shouted, "Clear prop!" I figure he had finally found his voice. The front propeller cranked a couple of turns and awakened the engine, which sputtered briefly before it settled into a smooth, comfortably quiet hum. Then, strangely, a second engine buried somewhere in the middle of the fuselage started up, turning fans partly buried in the wings with a muffled bustle. The combined sound was not unpleasant, something like the sounds one hears in a Laundromat.
The wheels of the craft were blocked, which kept it from moving forward or back. Bruce moved in and grabbed little ropes that were attached to each chock and then pulled the chocks away, at first from the front wheel and next from the main landing gear under each wing. He backed off a safe distance, carrying the chocks, and watched the aircraft vibrate as the rotating blades in its wings churned the air with a flutter.
The aircraft shuddered slightly as its engine sound increased in pitch and then moved forward a bit as it slowly lifted itself, seemingly by its own bootstraps, off the ground. The landing gear extended downward at first, leaving the wheels on the tarmac beneath, and then it picked the wheels up off the surface. The craft was airborne!
The tiny group of people, who stood by with their eyes glued to the levitating aircraft, spontaneously broke into wild applause. "Hurray!"
The aircraft continued to rise, first by a foot and then five feet, and eventually held steady at about ten feet off the ground, rotating horizontally a little as it hovered. We all stood there in awe, especially because it was impossible to see how the aircraft could fly at all. Except for a tiny shroud above each wing, the aircraft looked like a conventional airplane, but it was not flying forward. It was just sort of ... defying gravity.
The aircraft remained motionless for a few seconds. Then, without warning, there was a huge explosion, and it ignited into flames right before our eyes. The fire burst forth and quickly engulfed the aircraft just like what had happened to the dirigible Hindenburg.
Chapter TwoThe flames were horrible! I could feel the heat from one hundred feet away. The aircraft wobbled like an out-of-round Frisbee and then suddenly fell as a dead weight and crashed against the tarmac. By the time it hit, it had practically burned itself out and had turned everything within itself to black ashes.
George—God bless him—had the presence of mind to keep the camera rolling the whole time.
I stood transfixed, unable to move. The explosion, the fire, the crash had happened in no more than an instant, but it seemed to occur in slow motion. I heard silent screams in the background. Eventually, my own screaming voice pierced my consciousness.
Even before I came to my senses, I realized that sirens were approaching, and within a minute or two, public safety vehicles with airport insignia converged on our location—an ambulance and two fire trucks. Soon after, several police cars, their overhead lights flashing, arrived, too. An odd feeling of relief and gratitude came over me because I knew I was helpless to assist in any way. I learned later that the general had instantly called 911 on his GPS phone and demanded help, so help did descend on us—big time.
As fast as the feeling of utter helplessness had come and turned me into a statue of stone, the feeling evaporated, and my body switched into hyperdrive. My first concern was for the safety of Carl's son, Bruce, and his team of engineers. They had witnessed Carl's death in the explosion firsthand and must have suffered more shock and trauma than any normal person could possibly bear. I ran over to Bruce, who stood there trembling, and put my arms around him to give him whatever comfort and solace I could. The rest of the team stood by in a nearly catatonic state, not even understanding their own reactions to the crisis, much less coping with their distress at this moment.
When they were finally able to control their emotions and function somewhat, Bruce and his men went back to their office in the hangar and waited for the public safety people to quench the remaining fire and start their investigation. This left me free to do what a reporter is supposed to be doing under the circumstances of a breaking story, and boy was I energized. I quickly ran back to the car to grab my notebook and then moved about the scene like a maniac, taking names and transcribing comments and quotes from the numerous public safety personnel who had arrived. George, who had been zeroing in on one heartrending face after another, now had his camera focused on the police chief in charge, who was interviewing General Bellamy.
"Your name is?" The police chief had probably picked him out to speak to first because the general's uniform gave him away as somebody important.
"General Bellamy. David Bellamy."
"You saw this happen?"
"Yes, I was standing right there." The general pointed to a spot near the hangar.
"Why? Why are you here?"
"I came to see the flight test. The military is interested in this aircraft. Was interested." The general emphasized the past tense.
"Well, what did it look like?"
"I'd say it was a bust. It went up. It went boom and then came back down and crashed."
"The pilot didn't have a chance," the chief said.
"No, I guess not. Too bad."
"Any idea what might have caused this ... this boom, as you say?"
"I'll leave that one to you professionals. Must have been a faulty design."
"Or maybe a bomb of some kind?"
"I wouldn't think so," the general said.
"Who would want to do such a thing? It was just a flight test."
"I see your point. The pilot was the inventor, wasn't he? A Mr. Collingwood?"
"Collingwood, right. Carl Collingwood."
"Not much left of him, is there?"
"No," the general said.
"Did he have any enemies that you know of?"
"Spoken like a true military man," the chief said.
"Why don't you talk to his son, Bruce? I'll bet he knows where the bodies are buried."
"Believe me, General Bellamy, we intend to. But right now I'm talking to you. When was the last time you spoke with Mr. Collingwood?"
"Before today, you mean?"
"At any time."
"I talked to him today, of course. Just before the flight."
"What did you talk about?"
"We shook hands. I said hello. That was about it," the general admitted.
"Did everything seem normal?"
"Now that you mention it, well ... no. Mr. Collingwood was acting a bit strange. He didn't say much."
"How do you mean 'strange?'" the chief questioned.
"It was like he was under some kind of strain or something. I assumed it was because the test was critical."
"Was anyone with you when you spoke with him?"
"Yeah, his son, Bruce. Like I said, you should talk to him. I've got to go now and get back to my base."
"And like I said, we'll talk to Bruce. I have just a couple of more questions if you don't mind—"
"All right," the general said. "If you insist."
"Did the military have some kind of contract with this company? Collingwood's company?"
"No, but like I said, we were interested. If the aircraft had flown according to specs, it would have solved a big problem we were having, and we would have placed a rather large order."
"And what problem was that?"
"Noise. You can hear a helicopter coming a mile away. This airplane is designed—correct that, was designed—to hover quietly. The concept was to have a low-flying, slow-flying aircraft for emergency rescue, surprise attack, that sort of thing."
"Kind of like a stealth aircraft, only for ground operations?"
"That was the idea anyway."
"Thank you, general," the chief said. "That'll be it for now. I'll need your contact information in case I want to follow up."
General Bellamy took out a business card and handed it to the chief. Not to miss an opportunity, I stepped in and asked for a card, too. One can't be too pushy in this business, and you never know when the information might come in handy. Without thinking, the general gave me one. I took the card and jammed it in my pocket. Later when George and I got back to the car and headed home, I looked at what it said:
Major General David Bellamy Director of Procurement
US Army Ordnance Command Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD firstname.lastname@example.org
Chapter ThreeThe mental image of that plane blowing up kept playing itself out in my mind over and over as George drove us home. I really didn't want to see the video George had taken that morning—it would be too horrible—but I had to see the explosion in slow motion. I was hoping against hope this recording would reveal some clues.
And the reporter that I am, I couldn't help thinking we had to get the story out ... fast. We had some valuable footage here, but I wasn't about to release anything that was grisly or otherwise disrespectful of the Collingwoods. Carl Collingwood had burned to death, and that was big news; however, a tight shot of his final agony didn't have to float around the Internet like so much flotsam and jetsam.
Also, I wanted to make sure that nothing went out before Bruce had time to tell his mother about the tragedy.
An hour later, back in our apartment in New York, George and I sat in front of the computer and watched the terrible scene unfold again before our eyes. We saw it through once at regular speed and then again in slow motion. Finally, we reexamined the video record once more, frame by frame. What we saw was absolutely shocking.
Excerpted from The Airplane by Karl Milde Copyright © 2011 by Karl Milde. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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