Thursday, November 19, 2009

Echelon: Chapter 2

“United flight one-oh-two, what is your location?”

The dank, crowded control room of the Washington Dulles Air Traffic Authority building rang with the din of one-sided conversation. Four-year control officer David Barker had been tracking the movement of United Flight 102 for the last seventeen minutes, immediately after it had been handed off from the Dulles control tower. For the final ten or so, his senior advisor had been leaning over his shoulder.

The problem was the deviation from the flight plan. Barker was tracking the plane’s path via the transponder beacon that all airlines installed on their birds. He had first noticed the deviation roughly twenty minutes into the flight. Because it had taken off from Dulles, he hadn’t even had time yet to hand the flight over to the next leg’s controller. Its proximity to DC when the flight first diverted from the flight plan had nearly caused Barker to issue the terror alert, but its path never went near the capital. Instead, it flew southeast over Fredericksburg, south of Quantico, and over the Chesapeake Bay. At that point, they were effectively over the Atlantic and out of harm’s way.

Shortly before they had reached water, Barker had radioed the pilot to ask him what the hell was going on. The pilot had responded with some story about an Air Force training exercise, which didn’t make any sense at all. The nearest Air Force base that regularly ran airborne drills was in Langley, and they usually conducted them over the water to minimize collateral risk. Regardless, any military exercise would have been logged with the FAA and passed down the switchboard to all of the controllers at Dulles. Still, mistakes sometimes happened and Barker had put a call in to their Air Force liaison, who told him that no training exercises were planned for another week.

So what the hell was this pilot talking about? He hadn’t sounded hysterical, and Barker had dealt with flight crises enough that he could tell when pilots were speculating or lying. He decided to just play along, ready to hit the terror alert if the plane turned back towards Washington.

He had logged the new flight path and maintained contact with the pilot, listening for any sign that something was off. Eventually Barker grew frustrated and told the pilot that there was no training exercise and that he was going to alert the Air Force if he didn’t turn the plane around and get back on course.

“But I’m telling you, they’re the ones that gave me this heading,” the pilot said, sounding like he was getting frustrated himself. “And I’ve got two fighter jets tailing me that won’t let me deviate from this course.”

Barker immediately rechecked his radar. There were no fighters according to the screen. Only Flight 102. He frowned and began to wonder if the pilot might be having a breakdown after all.

That’s when he’d heard angry shouts about targeting locks and missiles over the radio. Barker glanced at his supervisor, who looked equally perplexed. Back on the screen, Flight 102’s readings had gone all screwy, registering severe pitches and oscillations that looked to Barker like evasive maneuvers. It wasn’t the kind of thing that commercial aircraft were built to withstand.

Then the radio crackled and went silent.

Barker looked back at the radar screen. United Flight 102 had disappeared.

And now he’d been trying for ten minutes to raise the pilot on the radio, but there was nothing but static. “What the hell,” Barker shook his head. He turned to his supervisor.

“I don’t get it,” the supervisor frowned. “Log the coordinates when the transponder went offline and issue the terror watch. I’ll call the FAA.”

* * *

John Baez had been the one on call for the FAA’s Washington-Dulles office, just down the Potomac. His office was in charge of supervising all of the commercial carriers, and he was one of the six agents assigned to United Airlines. It was an enormous job, one that far outreached the FAA’s funding, something about which his supervisor had reminded him after providing him with an agency sedan and a map to the crash location in the Chesapeake Bay. With fare hikes coming frequently and ridership plummeting due to the economy, the airline business was getting squeezed and the old whispered demands of deregulation were starting to be heard again. It was causing even the senior agents in Baez’s office to worry about their jobs and update their resumes.

He made the turn off of the highway and drove along the coast of the bay. Eventually he saw the flashing lights of ambulances and cars marked NTSB, for the National Transportation Safety Board.

He parked on the shoulder and made his way through the grass towards a rocky, dirty beach.

One of the NTSB lackeys who’d been milling about came jogging to meet him. “You from the IAD office?”

IAD was the abbreviation for Dulles International Airport. “Yes, what have you found?”

“We just confirmed that it’s Flight 102 from the serial numbers on part of the fuselage.” The young man squinted in the sun. “Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot left.”

“Uh-huh.” Baez pulled out his blackberry and began typing notes as he asked questions. Was the flight recorder recovered? Was it intact? Had they confirmed the entry point? What was the condition of the flight deck? Were there any survivors? Were there any bodies?

The young man answered negatively or uncertainly in nearly every case, prompting Baez to lower the Blackberry and glare. “Look, you have to have found something.”

“Like I said, sir, there isn’t a whole lot left.”

“Let me talk to lead NTSB agent on site then. He ought to know more.”

“I’m the lead agent, sir.” The young man squinted again. “Look, maybe you should just take a look for yourself.”

They made their way towards the water. Baez hadn’t been able to see them before because of the high grass, but the agents had assembled three distinct piles of debris out of the reach of the water. One was tail, one was fuselage, and the other was flight deck. He could tell by material of the fragments and their shape. The piles were fairly small, with maybe fifteen pounds of scrap in each.

In the water were several inflated rafts manned by more agents. They were reaching into the water or casting out fishing nets. None of them seemed to be making for shore to drop anything off. “This is all you’ve collected?”

“Yes, sir, somewhere around fifty pounds.”

“And you’ve scanned under water?”

“Using passive sonar and magnetic response for the metal. We’ve got nothing, sir.” The agent bit his lip.

“Something to add?” Baez asked him.

“Sir, some of the men have been hearing rumors that the Air Force shot something down over the bay. Something big. And there was the rogue flight warning issued from Dulles.” His implication was obvious.

“The Air Force doesn’t shoot down civilian planes,” Baez sighed. “Tell your men to stop spreading rumors.”

“But if it really was terrorists, wouldn’t they—“

“They haven’t shot down a civilian aircraft in the entire history of flight,” Baez cut him off. “Perhaps they will have to sometime in the future, but I can guarantee you that they didn’t shoot down this plane.”

“How do you know?”

“Because they had no reason to,” Baez said, trying to maintain his patience. “They were over water and headed due east over the Pacific. What danger could they be?”

The NTSB agent seemed to consider that and then nodded. He said he was going to gather up the other senior agents and have them issue warnings to their crews about spreading false rumors.

In the meantime, Baez made his way back to the salvage piles and picked through them. He found the remains of the FDR in one of the piles. Flight Data Recorders were one of the infamous black boxes that the media constantly referred to. Reporters talked about them like they were they eyes of God on a flight, able to spit back exactly what happened on any commercial airliner. In truth, FDRs were notoriously unreliable. Single faults in one of the data drives could and often did result in faults throughout the machine. He was just about to bend down and collect the contents when he heard shouts from further up the beach.

He saw the NTSB lead agent gesticulating angrily as he argued with two men in dark suits. The men were frowning and kept shaking their heads, one of them repeatedly holding up a piece of paper. He stood and made his way over.

“John Baez, FAA,” he said to the two men, reaching out his hand.

They ignored it. The one with the paperwork held it up. “This area is being quarantined by the NSA. Everyone needs to be off of this beach in the next twenty minutes.”

“This is a crash site,” Baez said sharply. He couldn’t imagine what the NSA would be doing here. “We need time to investigate.”

“Not possible,” the NSA agent replied. “Twenty minutes from now, this beach is going to be hit by low-grade napalm. We believe that the plane that crashed was carrying a biological weapon. You’re to remove nothing from the site and vacate immediately. We need to cleanse the area to ensure it does not spread.”

Baez immediately felt unclean. He turned to the NTSB agent. “You heard them. Gather your men and let’s get the hell out of here.”

“But sir,” the agent began.

“Biological weapon,” Baez said, emphasizing the words. “You want to stay here and catch whatever they were carrying, fine. I’m going back to Dulles.”

The NTSB agent frowned again, but then went off to gather his men. It was only after he was out of earshot that Baez asked to see the NSA agents’ identification and paperwork again. It all appeared to check out.

There was little else he could do, so he began making his way back up the beach and towards the highway. The NTSB agents were already back on shore and gathering their equipment. He looked and saw the two NSA agents digging through the salvage piles. One of them reached down and pulled out a thin black laptop computer. He broke the laptop apart and retrieved some sort of data disc. He looked around quickly, not noticing Baez, and slid it into his trench coat.

Baez frowned. Something wasn’t sitting right about all this. But his supervisor’s statements about their budget and lack of pay rang in his memory. After one last look over the beach and the water beyond, he returned to his car and drove back to the office.

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