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       Airframe, p.1

           Michael Crichton
 
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Airframe
Chapter 1

  The damn things weigh half a million pounds, fly a third of the way around the world, and they carry passengers in greater comfort and safety than any vehicle in the history of mankind. Now, are you fellas really going to stand there and tell us you know how to do the job better? Are you going to pretend you know anything about it at all? 'Cause it looks to me like you boys are just stirring folks up for your own reasons.

  Aviation legend Charley Norton, 78, speaking to reporters in 1970 after an airplane crash

  The irony of the Information Age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.

  Veteran reporter John Lawton, 68, speaking to the American Association of Broadcast Journalists in 1995

  MONDAY

  ABOARD TPA 545

  5:18 A. M.

  Emily Jansen sighed in relief. The long flight was nearing an end. Morning sunlight streamed through the windows of the airplane. In her lap, little Sarah squinted in the unaccustomed brightness as she noisily sucked the last of her bottle, and pushed it away with tiny fists. "That was good, wasn't it?" Emily said. "Okay . . . up we go. . . "

  She raised the infant onto her shoulder, began to pat her back. The baby gave a gurgling belch, and her body relaxed.

  In the next seat, Tim Jansen yawned and rubbed his eyes. He had slept through the night, all the way from Hong Kong. Emily never slept on planes; she was too nervous.

  "Morning," Tim said, looking at his watch. "Just a couple of hours more, hon. Any sign of breakfast?"

  "Not yet," Emily said, shaking her head. They had taken Transpacific Airlines, a charter from Hong Kong. The money they saved would be useful when they set up housekeeping at the University of Colorado, where Tim was going to be an assistant professor. The flight had been pleasant enough - they were in the front of the plane - but the stewardesses seemed disorganized, the meals coming at odd times. Emily had turned down dinner because Tim was asleep, and she couldn't eat with Sarah sleeping in her lap.

  And even now, Emily was surprised by the casual behavior of the crew. They left the cockpit door open during the flight. She knew Asian crews often did that, but it still struck her as inappropriate; too informal, too relaxed. The pilots strolled around the plane at night, kibitzing with the stewardesses. One was leaving right now, walking to the back of the plane. Of course, they were probably stretching their legs. Stay alert, all of that And certainly the fact that the crew was Chinese didn't trouble her. After a year in China, she admired the efficiency and attention to detail of the Chinese. But somehow, the whole flight just made her nervous.

  Emily put Sarah back down in her lap. The baby stared at Tim and beamed.

  "Hey, I should get this," Tim said. Fumbling in the bag under his seat, he brought out a video camera, trained it on his daughter. He waggled his free hand to get her attention. "Sarah. . . Sar-ah. . . Smile for Daddy. Smi-le. . . "

  Sarah smiled, and made a gurgling sound.

  "How does it feel to be going to America, Sarah? Ready to see where your parents are from?'

  Sarah gurgled again. She waved her tiny hands in the air.

  "She'd probably think everybody in America looks weird," Emily said. Their daughter had been bom seven months ago in Hunan, where Tim had studied Chinese medicine.

  Emily saw the camera lens pointed at her. "And what about you, Mom?" Tim said. "Are you glad to be going home?'

  "Oh, Tim," she said. "Please. " She must look like hell, she thought All those hours.

  "Come on, Em. What are you thinking?"

  She needed to comb her hair. She needed to pee.

  She said, "Well, what I really want - what I have dreamed about for months - is a cheeseburger. "

  "With Xu-xiang hot bean sauce?" Tim said.

  "God no. A cheeseburger," she said, "with onions and tomatoes and lettuce and pickles and mayonnaise. Mayonnaise, God. And French's mustard. "

  "You want a cheeseburger too, Sarah?' Tim said, turning the camera back to their daughter.

  Sarah was tugging at her toes with one tiny fist. She pulled her foot into her mouth, and looked up at Tim.

  'Taste good?" Tim said, laughing. The camera shook as he laughed. "Is that breakfast for you, Sarah? Not waiting for the stewardess on this flight?'

  Emily heard a low rumbling sound, almost a vibration, that seemed to come from the wing. She snapped her head around. "What was that?'

  'Take it easy, Em," Tim said, still laughing.

  Sarah laughed, too, giggling delightfully.

  "We're almost home, honey," Tim said.

  But even as he spoke, the plane seemed to shudder, the nose of the plane turning down. Suddenly everything tilted at a crazy angle. Emily felt Sarah sliding forward off her lap. She clutched at her daughter, pulling her close. Now it felt like the plane was going straight down, and then suddenly it was going up, and her stomach was pressed into the seat. Her daughter was a lead weight against her.

  Tim said, "What the hell?'

  Abruptly she was lifted off the seat, her seat belt cutting into her thighs. She felt light and sick to her stomach. She saw Tim bounce out of his seat, his head slamming into the luggage compartments overhead, the camera flying past her face.

  From the cockpit, Emily heard buzzing, insistent alarms and a metallic voice that said, "Stall! Stall!" She glimpsed the blue-suited arms of the pilots moving swiftly over the controls; they were shouting in Chinese. All over the aircraft, people were screaming, hysterical. There was the sound of shattering glass.

  The plane went into another steep dive. An elderly Chinese woman slid down the aisle on her back, screaming. A teenage boy followed, tumbling head over heels. Emily looked at Tim, but her husband wasn't in his seat any more. Yellow oxygen masks were dropping, one swinging in front of her face, but she could not reach for it because she was clutching her baby.

  She was pressed back into her seat as the plane descended steeply, an incredibly loud whining dive. Shoes and purses ricocheted across the cabin, clanging and banging; bodies thumped against seats, the floor.

  Tim was gone. Emily turned, looking for him, and suddenly a heavy bag struck her in the head - a sudden jolt, pain, blackness, and stars. She felt dizzy and faint. The alarms continued to sound. The passengers continued to scream. The plane was still in a dive.

  Emily lowered her head, clutched her infant daughter to her chest, and for the first time in her life, began to pray.

  SOCAL APPROACH CONTROL

  5:43 A. M.

  "Socal Approach, this is Transpacific 545. We have an emergency. "

  In the darkened building that housed Southern California Air Traffic Approach Control, senior controller Dave Marshall heard the pilot's call and glanced at his radar screen. Trans-Pacific 545 was inbound from Hong Kong to Denver. The flight had been handed over to him from Oakland ARINC a few minutes earlier: a perfectly normal flight. Marshall touched the microphone at his cheek and said, "Go ahead, 545. "

  "Request priority clearance for emergency landing in Los Angeles. "

  The pilot sounded calm. Marshall stared at the shifting green data blocks that identified each aircraft in the air. TPA 545 was approaching the California coastline. Soon it would pass over Marina Del Rey. It was still half an hour out of LAX.

  Marshall said, "Okay, 545, understand you request priority clearance to land. Say the nature of your emergency. "

  "We have a passenger emergency," the pilot said. "We need ambulances on the ground. I would say thirty or forty ambulances. Maybe more. "

  Marshall was stunned. 'TPA 545, say again. Are you asking for forty ambulances?"

  "Affirmative. We encountered severe turbulence during flight. We have injuries of passengers and flight crew. "

 
; Marshall thought, Why the hell didn't you tell me this before? He spun in his chair, beckoned to his supervisor, Jane Levine, who picked up the extra headset, punched in, and listened.

  Marshall said, 'Transpacific, I copy your ground request for forty ambulances. "

  "Jesus," Levine said, making a face. "Forty?"

  The pilot was still calm as he replied, "Ah, roger, Approach. Forty. "

  "Do you need medical personnel, too? What is the nature of the injuries you are bringing in?"

  "I am not sure. "

  Levine made a spinning gesture: Keep the pilot talking. Marshall said, "Can you give us an estimate?"

  "I am sorry, no. An estimate is not possible. "

  "Is anyone unconscious?"

  "No, I do not think so," the pilot answered. "But two are dead. "

  "Holy shit," Jane Levine said. "Nice of him to tell us. Who is this guy?"

  Marshall hit a key on his panel, opening a data block in the upper corner of the screen. It listed the manifest for TPA 545. "Captain's John Chang. Senior pilot for Transpacific. "

  "Let's not have any more surprises," Levine said. "Is the aircraft all right?"

  Marshall said, 'TPA 545, what is the condition of your aircraft?"

  "We have damage to the passenger cabin," the pilot said. "Minor damage only. "

  "What is the condition of the flight deck?" Marshall said.

  "Right deck is operational. FDAU is nominal. " That was the Flight Data Acquisition Unit, which tracked faults within the aircraft. If it said the plane was okay, it probably was.

  Marshall said, "I copy that, 545. What is the condition of your flight crew?"

  "Captain and first officer in good condition. "

  "Ah, 545, you said there were injuries to the crew. "

  "Yes. Two stewardesses have been hurt. "

  "Can you specify the nature of the injuries?"

  "I am sorry, no. One is not conscious. The other one, I don't know. "

  Marshall was shaking his head "He just told us nobody was unconscious. "

  "I'm not buying any of this," Levine said. She picked up the red phone. "Put a fire crew on level one alert. Get the ambulances. Order neuro and ortho teams to meet the plane and have Medical notify the Westside hospitals. " She looked at her watch. "I'll call the LA FSDO. This'll make his damn day. "

  LAX

  5:57 A. M.

  Daniel Greene was the duty officer at the FAA Flight Standards District Office on Imperial Highway, half a mile from LAX. The local FSDOs - or Fizdos, as they were called - supervised the flight operations of commercial carriers, checking everything from aircraft maintenance to pilot training. Greene had come in early to clear the paper off his desk; his secretary had quit the week before, and the office manager refused to replace her, citing orders from Washington to absorb attrition. So now Greene went to work, muttering. Congress was slashing the FAA budget, telling them to do more with less, pretending the problem was productivity and not workload. But passenger traffic was up four percent a year, and the commercial fleet wasn't getting younger. The combination made for a lot more work on the ground: Of course, the FSDOs weren't the only ones who were strapped. Even the NTSB was broke; the Safety Board only got a million dollars a year for aircraft accidents, and -

  The red phone on his desk rang, the emergency line. He picked it up; it was a woman at traffic control.

  "We've just been informed of an incident on an inbound foreign carrier," she said.

  "Uh-huh. " Greene reached for a notepad. "Incident" had a specific meaning to the FAA, referring to the lower category of flight problems that carriers were required to report. "Accidents" involved deaths or structural damage to the aircraft and were always serious, but with incidents, you never knew. "Go ahead. "

  "It's Transpacific Flight 545, incoming from Hong Kong to Denver. Pilot's requested emergency landing at LAX. Says they encountered turbulence during flight. "

  "Is the plane airworthy?'

  "They say it is," Levine said. "They've got injuries, and they've requested forty ambulances. "

  "Forty?"

  "They've also got two stiffs. "

  "Great. " Greene got up from his desk. "When's it due in?"

  "Eighteen minutes. "

  "Eighteen minutes - Jeez, why am I getting this so late?"

  "Hey, the captain just told us, we're telling you. I've notified EMS and alerted the fire crews. "

  "Fire crews? I thought you said the plane's okay. "

  "Who knows?" the woman said. "The pilot is not making much sense. Sounds like he might be in shock. We hand off to the tower in seven minutes. "

  "Okay," Greene said. "I'm on my way. "

  He grabbed his badge and his cell phone and went out the door. As he passed Karen, the receptionist, he said, "Have we got anybody at the international terminal?"

  "Kevin's there. "

  "Beep him," Greene said. 'Tell him to get on TPA 545, inbound Hong Kong, landing in fifteen. Tell him to stay at the gate - and don't let the flight crew leave. "

  "Got it," she said, reaching for the phone.

  Greene roared down Sepulveda Boulevard toward the airport. Just before the highway ran beneath the runway, he looked up and saw the big Transpacific Airlines widebody, identifiable by its bright yellow tail insignia, taxiing toward the gate. Transpacific was a Hong Kong-based charter carrier. Most of the problems the FAA had with foreign airlines occurred with charters. Many were low-budget operators that didn't match the rigorous safety standards of the scheduled carriers. But Transpacific had an excellent reputation.

  At least the bird was on the ground, Greene thought. And he couldn't see any structural damage to the widebody. The plane was an N-22, built by Norton Aircraft in Burbank. The plane had been in revenue service five years, with an enviable dispatch and safety record.

  Greene stepped on the gas and rushed into the tunnel, passing beneath the giant aircraft.

  He sprinted through the international building. Through the windows, he saw the Transpacific jet pulled up to the gate, and the ambulances lined up on the concrete below. The first of them was already driving out, its siren whining.

  Greene came to the gate, flashed his badge, and ran down the ramp. Passengers were disembarking, pale and frightened. Many limped, their clothes torn and bloody. On each side of die ramp, paramedics clustered around the injured.

  As he neared the plane, the nauseating odor of vomit grew stronger. A frightened TransPac stewardess pushed him back at the door, chartering at him rapidly in Chinese. He showed her his badge and said, "FAA! Official business! FAA!" The stewardess stepped back, and Greene slid past a mother clutching an infant and stepped into the plane.

  He looked at the interior, and stopped. "Oh my God," he said softly. "What happened to this plane?"

  GLENDALE, CALIFORNIA

  6:00 A. M.

  "Mom? Who do you like better, Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse?"

  Standing in the kitchen of her bungalow, still wearing her jogging shorts from her five-mile morning run, Casey Singleton finished making a tuna sandwich and put it in her daughter's lunch box. Singleton was thirty-six years old, a vice-president at Norton Aircraft in Burbank. Her daughter sat at the breakfast table, eating cereal.

  "Well?" Allison said. "Who do you like better, Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse?' She was seven, and she ranked everything.

  "I like them both," Casey said.

  "I know, Mom," Allison said, exasperated. "But who do you like better?'

  "Minnie. "

  "Me, too," she said, pushing the carton away.

  Casey put a banana and a thermos of juice in the lunch box, closed the lid. "Finish eating, Allison, we have to get ready. "

  "What's quart?"

  "Quart? It's a measure of liquid. "

  "No, Mom, Qua-urt" she said.

  Casey looked over and saw that her daughter had picked up her new laminated plant ID
badge, which had Casey's picture, and beneath that C. SINGLETON and then in large blue letters, QA/IRT.

  "What's Qua-urt

  "It's my new job at the plant. I'm the Quality Assurance rep on the Incident Review Team. "

  "Are you still making airplanes?" Ever since the divorce Allison had been extremely attentive to change. Even a minor alteration in Casey's hairstyle prompted repeated discussions, the subject brought up again and again, over many days. So it wasn't surprising she had noticed the new badge.

  "Yes, Allie," she said, "I'm still making airplanes. Everything's the same. I just got a promotion. "

  "Are you still a BUM?" she said.

  Allison had been delighted, the year before, to learn that Casey was a Business Unit Manager, a BUM. "Mom's a bum," she'd tell her friends' parents, to great effect.

  "No, Allie. Now get your shoes on. Your dad'll be picking you up any minute. "

  "No, he won't," Allison said. "Dad's always late. What's your promotion?"

  Casey bent over and began pulling on her daughter's sneakers. "Well," she said, "I still work at QA, but I don't check the planes in the factory any more. I check them after they leave the plant. "

  'To make sure they fly?"

  "Yes, honey. We check them and fix any problems. "

  "They better fly," Allison said, "or else they'll crash!" She began to laugh. "They'll all fall out of the sky! And hit everybody in their houses, right while they're eating their cereal! That wouldn't be too good, would it, Mom?"

  Casey laughed with her. "No, that wouldn't be good at all. The people at the plant would be very upset. " She finished tying the laces, swung her daughter's feet away. "Now where's your sweatshirt?"

  "I don't need it. "

  "Allison - "

  "Mom, it's not even cold!"

  "It may be cold later in the week. Get your sweatshirt, please. "

  She heard a horn honk on the street outside, saw Jim's black Lexus in front of the house. Jim was behind the wheel, smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a jacket and tie. Perhaps he had a job interview, she thought.

  Allison stomped around her room, banging drawers. She came back looking unhappy, the sweatshirt hanging from the comer of her backpack. "How come you're always so tense when Dad picks me up?"

  Casey opened the door, and they walked to the car in the hazy morning sunshine. Allison cried, "Hi, Daddy!" and broke into a run. Jim waved back, with a boozy grin.

  Casey walked over to Jim's window. "No smoking with Allison in the car, right?"

  Jim stared at her sullenly. "Good morning to you, too. " His voice was raspy. He looked hung over, his face puffy and sallow.

  "We had an agreement about smoking around our daughter, Jim. "

  "Do you see me smoking?"

  "I'm just saying. "

  "And you've said it before, Katherine," he said. "I've heard it a million times. For Christ's sake. "

  Casey sighed. She was determined not to fight in front of Allison. The therapist had said that was the reason Allison had begun stuttering. The stuttering was better now, and Casey always made an effort not to argue with Jim, even though he didn't reciprocate. On the contrary: he seemed to take special pleasure in making every contact as difficult as possible.

  "Okay," Casey said, forcing a smile. "See you Sunday. "

  Their arrangement was that Allison stayed with her father one week a month, leaving Monday and returning the following Sunday.

  "Sunday. " Jim nodded curtly. "Same as always. "

  "Sunday at six. "

  "Oh, Christ. "

  "I'm just checking, Jim. "

  "No, you're not. You're controlling, the way you always do - "

  "Jim," she said. "Please. Let's not"

  "Fine with me," he snapped.

  She bent over. "Bye, Allie. "

  Allison said, "Bye, Mom," but her eyes were already distant, her voice cool; she had transferred her allegiance to her father, even before her seat belt was fastened. Then Jim stepped on the gas, and the Lexus drove away, leaving her standing there on the sidewalk. The car rounded the comer, and was gone.

  Down at the end of the street, she saw the hunched figure of her neighbor Amos, taking his snarly dog for a morning walk. Like Casey, Amos worked at die plant. She waved to him, and he waved back.

  Casey was turning to go back inside to dress for work, when her eye caught a blue sedan parked across the street There were two men inside. One was reading a newspaper; the other stared out the window. She paused: her neighbor Mrs. Alvarez had been robbed recently. Who were these men? They weren't gang bangers; they were in their twenties with a clean-cut, vaguely military appearance.

  Casey was thinking about taking down the license plate when her beeper went off, with an electronic squeal. She undipped it from her shorts and read:

  She sighed. Three stars signaled an urgent message: John Marder, who ran the factory, was calling an IRT meeting for 7 A. M. in the War Room. That was a full hour before the regular Morning Call; something was up. The final notation confirmed it, in plant slang - BTOYA. Be There Or It's Your Ass.

  BURBANK AIRPORT

  6:32 A. M.

  Rush hour traffic crept forward in the pale morning light. Casey twisted her rearview mirror, and leaned over to check her makeup. With her short dark hair, she was appealing in a tomboyish sort of way - long limbed and athletic. She played first base on the plant softball team. Men were comfortable around her; they treated her like a kid sister, which served her well at the plant.

  In fact, Casey had had few problems there. She had grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, the only daughter of an editor at the Detroit News. Her two older brothers were both engineers at Ford. Her mother died when she was an infant, so she had been raised in a household of men. She had never been what her father used to call "a girly girl. "

  After she graduated from Southern Illinois in journalism, Casey had followed her brothers to Ford. But she found writing press releases uninteresting, so she took advantage of the company's continuing education program to get an MBA from Wayne State. Along the way, she married Jim, a Ford engineer, and had a child.

  But Allison's arrival had ended the marriage: confronted by diapers and feeding schedules, Jim started drinking, staying out late. Eventually they separated. When Jim announced he was moving to the West Coast to work for Toyota, she decided to move out, too. Casey wanted Allison to grow up seeing her father. She was tired of the politics at Ford, and the bleak Detroit winters. California offered a fresh start: she imagined herself driving a convertible, living in a sunny house near the beach, with palm trees outside her window; she imagined her daughter growing up tanned and healthy.

  Instead, she lived in Glendale, an hour and a half inland from the beach. Casey had indeed bought a convertible, but she never put the top down. And although the section of Glendale where they lived was charming, gang territories began only a few blocks away. Sometimes at night, while her daughter slept, she heard the faint pop of gunfire. Casey worried about Allison's safety. She worried about her education in a school system where fifty languages were spoken. And she worried about the future, because the California economy was still depressed, jobs scarce. Jim had been out of work for two years now, since Toyota fired him for drinking. And Casey had survived wave after wave of layoffs at Norton, where production had slumped thanks to the global recession.

  She had never imagined she would work for an aircraft company, but to her surprise she had found that her plain-spoken, midwestern pragmatism was perfectly suited to the culture of engineers that dominated the company. Jim considered her rigid and "by the book," but her attention to detail had served her well at Norton, where she had for the last year been a vice-president of Quality Assurance.

  She liked QA, even though the division had a nearly impossible mission. Norton Aircraft was divided into two great factions - production and engineering - which were perpetually at war. Quality Assuran
ce stood uneasily between the two. QA was involved in all aspects of production; the division signed off every step of fabrication and assembly. When a problem emerged, QA was expected to get to the bottom of it. That rarely endeared them to mechanics on the line, or the engineers.

  At the same time, QA was expected to deal with customer support problems. Customers were often unhappy with decisions they themselves had made, blaming Norton if the galleys they had ordered were in the wrong place, or if there were too few toilets on the plane. It took patience and political skill to keep everybody happy and get the problems resolved. Casey, a born peacemaker, was especially good at this.

  In return for walking a political tightrope, workers in QA had the run of the plant. As a vice-president, Casey was involved in every aspect of the company's work; she had a lot of freedom and wide-ranging responsibility.

  She knew her title was more impressive than the job she held; Norton Aircraft was awash in vice-presidents. Her division alone had four veeps, and competition among them was fierce. But now John Marder had just promoted her to liaison for the IRT. This was a position of considerable visibility - and it put her in line to head the division. Marder didn't make such appointments casually. She knew he had a good reason for doing it.

  She turned her Mustang convertible off the Golden State Freeway onto Empire Avenue, following the chain-link fence that marked the south perimeter of Burbank Airport. She headed toward the commercial complexes - Rockwell, Lockheed, and Norton Aircraft. From a distance, she could see the rows of hangars, each with the winged Norton logo painted above -

  Her car phone rang.

  "Casey? It's Norma. You know about the meeting?"

  Norma was her secretary. "I'm on my way," she said. "What's going on?"

  "Nobody knows anything," Norma said. "But it must be bad. Marder's been screaming at the engineering heads, and he's pushed up the IRT. "

  John Marder was the chief operating officer at Norton. Marder had been program manager on the N-22, which meant he supervised the manufacture of that aircraft. He was a ruthless and occasionally reckless man, but he got results. Marder was also married to Charley Norton's only daughter. In recent years, he'd had a lot to say about sales. That made Marder the second most powerful man in the company after the president. It was Marder who had moved Casey up, and it was -

  ". . . do with your assistant?" Norma said.

  "My what?"

  "Your new assistant. What do you want me to do with him? He's waiting in your office. You haven't forgotten?"

  "Oh, right. " The truth was, she had forgotten. Some nephew of the Norton family was working his way through the divisions. Marder had assigned the kid to Casey, which meant she'd have to babysit him for the next six weeks. "What's he like, Norma?"

  "Well, he's not drooling. "

  "Norma. "

  "He's better than the last one. "

  That wasn't saying much: the last one had fallen off a wing in major join and had nearly electrocuted himself in radio rack. "How much better?"

  "I'm looking at his resume," Norma said. "Yale law school and a year at GM. But he's been in Marketing for the last three months, and he doesn't know anything about production. You're going to have to start him from the beginning. "

  "Right," Casey said, sighing. Marder would expect her to bring him to the meeting. "Have the kid meet me in front of Administration in ten minutes. And make sure he doesn't get lost, okay?"

  "You want me to walk him down?"

  "Yeah, you better. "

  Casey hung up and glanced at her watch. Traffic was moving slowly. Still ten minutes to the plant. She drummed her fingers on the dashboard impatiently. What could the meeting be about? There might have been an accident, or a crash.

  She turned on the radio to see if it was on the news. She got a talk station, a caller saying, " - not fair to make kids wear uniforms to school. It's elitist and discriminatory - "

  Casey pushed a button, changing the station.

  " - trying to force their personal morality on the rest of us. I don't believe a fetus is a human being - "

  She pushed another button.

  " - these media attacks are all coming from people who don't like free speech - "

  Where, she thought, is the news? Had an airplane crashed or not?

  She had a sudden image of her father, reading a big stack of newspapers from all over the country every Sunday after church, muttering to himself, "That's not the story, that's not the story!" as he dropped the pages in an untidy heap around his living room chair. Of course, her father had been a print journalist, back in the 1960s. It was a different world now. Now, everything was on television. Television, and the mindless chatter on the radio.

  Up ahead, she saw the main gate of the Norton plant. She clicked the radio off.

  Norton Aircraft was one of the great names of American aviation. The company had been started by aviation pioneer Charley Norton in 1935; during World War II it made the legendary B-22 bomber, the P-27 Skycat fighter, and the C-12 transport for the Air Force. In recent years, Norton had weathered the hard times that had driven Lockheed out of the commercial transport business. Now it was one of just four companies that still built large aircraft for the global market. The others were Boeing in Seattle, McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, and the European consortium Airbus in Toulouse.

  She drove through acres of parking lots to Gate 7, pausing at the barrier while security checked her badge. As always, she felt a lift driving into the plant, with its three-shift energy, the yellow tugs hauling bins of parts. It wasn't a factory so much as a small city, with its own hospital, newspaper, and police force. Sixty thousand people had worked here when she first came to the company. The recession had trimmed that to thirty thousand, but the plant was still huge, covering sixteen square miles. Here they built the N-20, the narrow-body twinjet; the N-22, the widebody; and the KC-22, the Air Force fuel tanker. She could see the principal assembly buildings, each more than a mile in length.

  She headed for the glass Administration building, in the center of the plant. Pulling into her parking space, she left the engine running. She saw a young man, looking collegiate in a sport coat and tie, khaki slacks, and penny loafers. The kid waved diffidently as she got out of the car.

 
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