Wednesday, August 17
Lienhofer Aviation, Chukchi
Active followed the smell of stale cigarette smoke and day-old coffee down a grimy hallway to the break room on the second floor of Lienhofer Aviation's hangar and terminal at the Chukchi airport. He had been driving to Arctic Pizza to meet Grace for lunch when Cowboy's urgent call came in.
He found the pilot at a chipped Formica table with his back to a picture window that overlooked the tarmac and the airport's main runway.
"What's the emergency?" Active crossed the room and pulled out an orange vinyl chair.
Cowboy slid a stack of papers across the table, knocking over a half-full can of Coke in the process. Brown foam swirled across the floor. "You seen this yet?"
Active righted the can, picked up the papers, and scanned what turned out to be the official report on the Cessna 207 crash that had killed Evie Kavoonah and Todd Brenner six weeks earlier.
"Ah, why would you? It just came out." Cowboy shoved back his chair and paced in front of the window. He pulled off his Lienhofer ball cap, returned it to his head, put on his mirrored shades, and snatched them off again. His sun-browned face was unshaven. His eyes were red, and the crow's feet at the corners showed a little deeper than they should have on a man in his mid-forties. He groped inside his weathered bomber jacket, came up with a pack of Marlboros, and tapped one out.
Active looked up from the report as Cowboy brought the cigarette to his lips, lit it with a red Bic, and took a drag.
His own face looked back at him from Cowboy's lenses. Active ran his hand over the bristly buzz cut that made him look closer to twenty than thirty. "Pilot error, huh? Tough one, I guess."
"And total bullshit." The cigarette bobbed. "That girl was the most meticulous pilot I ever flew with. I gave her her first lesson when she was thirteen, and even then she had more airplane sense than a lot of pros my age."
Active read from the report. "'Probable cause of this accident was the pilot's failure to confirm the aircraft had adequate fuel on board to complete the flight.'" He dropped it on the Formica table. "She ran out of gas."
"Not Evie. Do you know the meaning of 'meticulous'?"
"Of course, but"—Active looked at the report again—"but this says, 'no fuel was observed in the lines, and propeller damage was consistent with the engine not producing power at impact.'"
"No way she ran out of gas," Cowboy said. "I checked those tanks myself that morning while she was doing her preflight. They were full, right up to the filler neck. And with full tanks, Two-Five-Mike could fly the 440 miles to Fairbanks and most of the way back."
Outside the window, a red and white Cessna 207 lifted off into a cloudless sky and banked east, presumably for a trip to the villages up the Isignaq River.
Active flipped through the report again. "So the weather was clear here that day and clear in Fairbanks, but there was cloud cover in between?"
"Yeah, a cold front was sliding through, but it wasn't a problem."
Cowboy tapped ash from his cigarette into the empty Coke can and stepped up to the big aviation chart on the wall.
"What we do in a case like that is, we climb out of Chukchi and get on top of the clouds." Cowboy swept a hand across the jumble of rivers, ridges, peaks, and tundra plateaus that lay between Chukchi and the Yukon River to the south. "So Evie would have been above the weather till she got to the other side, then they were gonna stop at Tanana for lunch and a potty break. From there, it was a sightseeing run up the Tanana River into Fairbanks. It's a beautiful ride in decent weather."
"Sounds like it."
"We do it all the time. In fact, I flew that route with her back in April to show her the ropes. Same kind of weather, too."