Authors: Tom Young
“That front is approaching Manas,” one pilot said in Pashto.
“I can see that,” the other pilot said. Tone a little condescending. So maybe this was the aircraft commander, Gold thought. But how could he see the front? Were the clouds that distinct? Oh, yes, she remembered. Airborne radar. Gold had learned a few things from Parson, seemingly by osmosis.
“Perhaps we should consider a divert,” the copilot said.
“No,” the aircraft commander said.
For several minutes, the crew said no more about the weather. They began some sort of checklist; Gold transcribed it all and trusted Parson to make sense of the technical parts. The sound of rain increased, and Gold heard grunts and curses. She took down all that, too.
“Bishkek VOR tuned and identified, sir,” the copilot said.
“I will carry a few extra knots down final,” the aircraft commander said.
“Sir, it is getting bad. We have plenty of fuel. Let us go to the alternate.”
“Kochkor is no better. Can you not see the radar?”
“That is in Kazakhstan, you fool. We have no diplomatic clearance for that country. If we declare an emergency and land in Almaty, we could get stuck there for days.”
So the aircraft commander had a strong motivation to reach Manas, Gold realized. He apparently knew about his extra cargo and needed to get it there on time regardless of risks. Well, he got it there, all right. As for the copilot, maybe he knew; maybe he didn't.
A voice in accented English came over the radio: a Kyrgyz air traffic controller, Gold assumed.
“Golay One-Three,” the controller said, “descend and maintain 4,400 feet. You are cleared for the VOR/DME approach to Runway Two-Six. Contact tower on one-one-eight point one.”
“One-one-eight point one,” the copilot said. “Cleared for approach.” Resignation in his voice.
Silence for a few moments. Gold supposed the copilot was changing frequencies. Then he called the tower, and the tower cleared Golay One-Three to land. The tower also warned about wind shear, just as Parson had said. None of the crew members said anything else about diverting to an alternate airport.
The aircraft commander called for the landing checklist, and the copilot began reading the items. Gold continued taking down each word.
“Gear down,” the aircraft commander said.
“Gear down,” the copilot responded. Gold heard the landing gear lever seat into position as the copilot moved it. Then the copilot said, “Down and locked.”
“I have the approach lights,” the aircraft commander said. “Going visual.”
Gold clicked on
to catch up with her typing. Absurdly, in some odd corner of her mind she wanted an interphone switch that would let her speak back in time, so she could tell the crew what was about to happen to them. Warn them off. Tell the aircraft commander he'd made a bad decision: So what if you're late? Whoever you're carrying those drugs for won't kill you any deader than you're about to kill yourselfâ
your crew members, jackass. She realized she was channeling a little of Parson's attitude now. She also knew there was no changing the outcome. Though Gold listened to events in real time, that real time had passed. What was done was done, and not even the angels could change it. She clicked
The copilot swore, and Gold heard a jostling sound. Items in the cockpit, Gold imagined, helmet bags and checklists thrown by another jolt of turbulence.
the copilot said. Gold typed:
the aircraft commander replied. Gold wrote:
IT IS WINDY
. Then the commander added, “We have all seen wind before.”
“Zmaa neh khwakhigee,”
a new voice said. Gold typed:
I DON'T LIKE THIS
. The enlisted loadmaster, apparently, now frightened enough to speak up to the officers.
“Quiet,” the aircraft commander ordered.
A synthesized voice came over the recording, blaring in English: SINK RATE, SINK RATE.
“Correcting,” the aircraft commander said.
“Descent rate, sir,” the copilot said. “We have entered a downdraft.” Evidently, the commander's correction wasn't working.
“Adding power,” the commander said.
The engine noise rose, and the synthesized warning repeated: SINK RATE. The voice hushed for a moment, then screeched: PULL UP, PULL UP.
“Power!” the copilot shouted. Then he yelled, “I have the aircraft!”
“No, you do not!” the commander shouted.
Curses and rattles. Then the aircraft commander said, “Golay One-Three going around.” So he had relented. But now it was too late to do the right thing.
“Gear up,” the commander ordered.
“Gear up,” the copilot acknowledged. Gold heard a
, presumably an angry and fearful copilot slamming the gear handle.
The turboprops howled. The artificial voice again called: PULL UP, PULL UP.
The pilots stopped speaking. Parson had said that happens in so many crashes: right before impact, people lock up and shut up. Until the screams begin.
And the screams began. Underneath the screams, Gold heard a grinding or crunching sound. Only one voice spoke intelligible words. It sounded like the loadmaster, who ended his life in mid-sentence: “There is no God but God andâ”
Unidentifiable noise rose in volumeâthen stopped.
Gold let out a long breath. She typed:
END OF TAPE
PARSON HAD MORE THAN
just a plane crash on his hands, and he knew law enforcement would get involved one way or another. But to make things even more complicated, the United States didn't really have jurisdiction. The Manas Transit Center wasn't an American-owned base; the government of Kyrgyzstan simply allowed Americans to use ramp space at the airport that served the city of Bishkek. U.S. officials had to coordinate with Kyrgyzstanânot exactly the world's most stable government. And in Afghanistan, where the drug flight originated, some units of the National Police were practically criminal enterprises themselves. So when the Air Force Office of Special Investigations sent an agent to follow the opium trail, Parson did not envy the man.
Special Agent Carl Cunningham showed up in Webster's office, and Webster called in Parson and Gold to meet him. In his late twenties, Cunningham carried himself with the watchfulness of a cop in a bad neighborhood. Parson guessed that he'd come out of Air Force Security Forces, though Parson knew OSI agents could also be recruited from other fields. Some were officers, some were enlisted, some were civilian, and some were reservists. But you seldom knew their true rank. To the outside world, they were all just “Special Agent.”
Cunningham wore gray tactical pants with large cargo pockets. White cotton shirt. A canvas vest extended below his waistband, but the slight bulge gave away the presence of his sidearm. The agent's black beard looked newly trimmed. Parson wondered if Cunningham had worn his beard longer in the recent past to blend in with troublemakers in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
“Colonel Webster tells me you've already transcribed the cockpit voice recording,” Cunningham said. Parson puzzled over the man's accent. It sounded almost British. “Transcribed” sounded like
“We have,” Gold said. “I made a copy for you.” Gold handed him a manila envelope.
“Thanks very much,” Cunningham said. “Did you find anything of interest on the recording?” Now, where had Parson heard people talk like that? Oh, yeah: while stationed at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. You occasionally heard that accent in coastal areas of the state. A few island communities had existed in enough isolation to keep some of the voice of their Elizabethan forebears. This guy wasn't a Brit; he was an Outer Banks redneck with an education. You're a long damned way from Cape Hatteras, Parson thought.
“The aircraft commander wanted to land here no matter what,” Gold said. “You'll see what I mean when you read the transcript.”
“If he'd landed safely, where would he have gone next?” Cunningham asked.
“Back home,” Webster said. “We checked with the Afghan Air Force. He had orders to fly back to Bagram.”
“What about his cargo?” Cunningham said.
“We haven't looked into that yet,” Webster said. “It would have been offloaded here and then picked up by another flight. Probably a civilian cargo line.” Webster explained that American and Kyrgyz authorities had not publicly announced the discovery of opium on the plane. No sense alerting the traffickersâthey'd just suspend shipments until they found another route. “We figured we'd better let the professionals take it from here,” Webster added.
“I appreciate that,” Cunningham said. “If you'd snooped around without knowing what you were doing, the bad guys would have just disappeared.”
Good thing Webster brought a background as a country prosecutor, Parson thought. At least he knows what
to do. Sometimes these Guard guys brought civilian skills that came in handy.
“So what do you need us to do?” Gold asked.
“Just maintain,” Cunningham said. “Don't bring in drug dogs to check flights from Afghanistan. Don't change anything you're doing. Let 'em think we don't know anything.”
“That's easy enough,” Parson said.
The meeting broke up, and Parson headed for the door. He needed to write a report for the Air Force Safety Centerâleaving out the drug connection, of courseâand he dreaded it. The task brought back memories of papers he'd done for university professors and War College instructors. The papers usually came back with red marks all over them. Maybe Gold could help him with her plain old English skills. Cunningham held back, still standing by his chair. He looked down at the carpet; apparently he was thinking about something.
“Ms. Gold,” he said, “how long will you stay here at Manas?”
“Well, I'd like to get back to my work in Afghanistan, but I could probably make arrangements,” she said. “Why?”
“It would help if you can stay and find out if the Afghans have any ground support people here,” the agent said. “If they do, talk to themâpurely about safety. Tell me if anybody acts nervous.”
“They'll all act nervous,” Parson said. “They'll think they're in trouble because of the crash itself.”
“Yeah,” Cunningham said, “but that's a different kind of nervous. Anyway, it couldn't hurt as long as you're careful not to tip them off.”
“Do you want to come with us if we talk to them?” Parson asked.
“Not now,” Cunningham said. “They don't need to see me just yet.”
Later in the day, Parson walked along the ramp area to watch the activity. In his flight suit, he could look around all he wanted without arousing suspicion. At any moment, a dozen other men dressed just like him worked on the ramp: pilots and flight engineers conducting preflight inspections, crew chiefs fueling their planes, loadmasters pushing pallets.
The morning looked pretty typical. Three KC-135 Stratotankers waited side by side, electrical cables snaking from generator carts to receptacles along the sides of the aircraft. Parson knew the tanker crews would take turns flying over Afghanistan in case any wayward fighter pilots needed an emergency refueling. The Stratotankers might fly planned refuelings, too. As American forces drew down, C-5 Galaxies and C-17 Globemasters hauled trucks, Humvees, and helicopters out of Bagram and Kandahar. Sometimes the big jets departed so heavy with cargo that they could not put on enough fuel to reach Europe and still get off the runway. So they'd take off with a light fuel load, then rendezvous with a tanker and get all the gas they needed. Parson remembered the pride he took in the deft control needed to fly one big aircraft within feet of another, the satisfying
as the refueling boom seated in the receptacle.
Civilian aircraft came and went, as well. An Air Astana 757 from Kazakhstan taxied for takeoff. At the passenger terminal, an Airbus pushed back from the gate. The plane bore the green, gold, and white livery of Pakistan International Airlines. And a Russian Antonov lumbered toward a hangar.
In front of the hangar, a ramp worker beckoned the Antonov to a parking spot. The cargo jet rolled into its space, engines whining near idle. The ramp guy crossed his fists over his head, and the Antonov shuddered to a stop. After several minutesâa cool-down for the engines, Parson supposedâthe turbines finally quieted. Crew members climbed from the aircraft as a forklift approached. The forklift carried a single pallet.
As Parson strolled nearer, he saw that the forklift driver wore a military uniform. The forklift stopped under the tail of the aircraft, and Parson walked over to talk to the driver. The man's uniform bore the insignia of an Afghan Air Force sergeant.
“Good morning,” Parson said.
The bearded Afghan Air Force man looked at him and smiled. Then the man shook his head and said, “No English, sir. No English.”
Parson held up one hand and said, “That's okay. No problem.” He knew the sergeant probably hadn't lied. Few Afghan military personnel spoke good English. But now he knew the Afghans had a ground detachment at Manas. Nothing sinister about that; it made perfect sense for them to keep maintenance and cargo-handling capability here. But that also created an infrastructure that traffickers could exploit. So, Parson thought, Agent Cunningham had come to the right place to start his investigation.
In the afternoon, once ground crews had loaded the Antonov and sent it on its way, Parson returned to the Afghans' cargo facility with Gold. The two sat with the Afghan sergeant in a break room just off the hangar. The place smelled of cigarette smoke and grease. Parson slouched on a tattered sofa so worn that its stuffing spilled from rips and tears. Gold and the sergeant chose metal folding chairs, rusted and bent. Cases of Fanta lined the walls. The sergeant eyed Parson, then looked through the door to where the other Afghans folded cargo netting and swept the floor. Maybe the sergeant wondered why he was being interviewed alone, but that was normal procedure for a safety probe.
Parson opened a notepad, clicked a ballpoint pen, and said, “Tell him we're very sorry about the crash, and we're trying to learn its cause.”
Gold spoke a long sentence in Pashto. Probably adding more courtesy to his opening statement, Parson imagined. Whatever she said must have worked; the man seemed to relax a little.
“Did he see the accident?” Parson asked.
Gold translated the question, and the sergeant said,
Parson had picked up that much of the language. The word meant yes.
“Tell him to describe what he saw,” Parson said. Didn't really matter what the man had seen. Parson knew why the C-27 had pranged into the ground. But this question would get the sergeant talkingâand, Parson hoped, thinking this was still just a safety investigation.
The man began a stream of words Parson could not understand. Parson tried to listen for pauses, to determine when one sentence ended and another began, but he could not even tell that much. Like every accident witness, this guy had a story to tell, and he told it in excited tones. He raised his hand with thumb and little finger outstretched to represent wings. The hand traced a slanting descent path, then crashed onto his knee. The sergeant said,
No interpreting needed there.
Gold told Parson what the man had described. The English translation included nothing Parson hadn't seen for himself during the event.
“Ask him what the plane was carrying,” Parson said. Now I'm acting like a lawyer, he thought, asking only questions to which I already know the answer.
Gold spoke, and the man responded. Shorter answers this time.
“Equipment in boxes,” Gold said. “That's all he seems to know.”
“All right,” Parson said, “ask him where the plane would have gone if it hadn't crashed here.” Another question to which he knew the answer.
After Gold asked the question in Pashtoâwhich sounded like all vowels, to Parson's earsâthe man answered quickly, rubbing the palms of his hands along his thighs.
“He says the plane would have gone back to Afghanistan,” Gold said. “Civilian airplanes carry the cargo to Europe.”
Careful now, Parson told himself. Don't get too close to the wrong topic.
“Tell him we're wondering how well the pilot knew the approaches to Manas,” Parson said. “Does he know if that crew had flown here before?”
More chatter in Pashto. Parson envied Gold's language ability. He wished he could know what she knew, but achieving that would take more than a few hours of Rosetta Stone. Gold had studied hard for years. Making a good interpreter took as long as making a pilot. And she'd done all that work and training for enlisted pay.
“He says C-27s come here at least twice a week,” Gold said.
“Interesting,” Parson said. “Let me think for a minute.” So they could have shipped a hell of a lot of opium through here, he considered. Maybe this guy knows about it; maybe he doesn't. Parson decided to quit while he was ahead and just ask some fluff questions to cover his tracks.
“Ask him if this aircraft commander had a good reputation, if his men respected him,” Parson said.
Parson hardly listened as Gold translated and then came back with “âOh, yes.'”
Whatever. Jackass didn't deserve respect now; that was for damned sure. Parson remembered an old saw he'd heard from one of his instructors years ago:
A superior aviator uses his superior judgment to avoid situations that would require his superior skill.
Well, that bonehead who'd bought the farm out there hadn't possessed skill
Gold and Parson spoke with the three other Afghans who made up the ground detachment. They all gave similar answers. Parson thanked them for their time, apologized for making them recount a traumatic event.
At the end of the day, Parson and Gold walked down the flight line and out of the ramp area. As they walked across the apron, sunset bled across distant mountains. The dying light lent a shade of rose to the snow on the peaks, and Parson thought of all the things he and Gold had endured among mountains like that. Their working relationship had begun when a terrorist's shoulder-fired missile had blown his C-130 Hercules out of the sky. Parson and Gold survived the crash landing, but the ordeal of surviving a winter storm and evading insurgents had left them with scars both visible and unseen.
Parson brought his thoughts back to the current problem. So we have regular Afghan flights into Kyrgyzstan, he noted, and a permanent ground crew here. Nothing necessarily incriminating there. But regular flights? How much cargo would Afghanistan really need to send out of the country?
“So what do you think?” Parson asked.
Gold stopped and looked down at the concrete for a moment. She opened her mouth to speak, but the roar of a KC-135's takeoff drowned her out. As the tanker jet retracted its landing gear and banked to the south, she said, “You touched a nerve somewhere.”
“How's that?” Parson said.
“You made his palms sweat.”
“How do you know?”
“Did you see the way he was rubbing his hands along his legs?”
Parson tried to recall the interview. Yeah, he remembered that. But so what? “Does that mean anything?” he asked.