He had always taken care of himself. Exercised regularly, never smoked, never drank, watched his diet. Now, at a youthful sixty-two, he would not live to see sixty-three. That fact had been confirmed by so many specialists that, finally, even Lieberman’s massive will to live had given way. But he would not go quietly. He had one card left to play. He smiled as he suddenly realized that impending death had granted him a maneuverability that had been denied in life. It would indeed be an ironic twist that such a distinguished career as his would end on such an ignoble note. But the shock waves that would accompany his exit would be worth it. He walked into the small bedroom and took a moment to glance at the photos on the desk. Tears welled up in his eyes. He quickly left the room.
At five-thirty precisely Lieberman left the apartment and rode the small elevator down to the street level where a Crown Victoria, its government license plates a gleaming white in the wash of the streetlight, was parked at the curb, its engine idling. The chauffeur exited the car briskly and opened and held the door for Lieberman. The driver respectfully tipped his cap to his esteemed passenger and, as usual, received no response. In a few moments the car had disappeared down the street.
* * *
At about the time Lieberman’s car entered the on-ramp to the Beltway, the Mariner L800 jetliner was being rolled out of its hangar at Dulles International Airport in preparation for the nonstop flight to Los Angeles. Maintenance checks completed, the 155-foot-long plane was now being fueled. Western Airlines subcontracted out the fueling component of its operation. The fuel truck, squat and bulky, was parked underneath the starboard wing. On the L800 the standard configuration had fuel tanks located within each wing and in the fuselage. The fuel panel under the wing, located about a third of the way out from the fuselage, had been dropped down, and the long fuel hose snaked upward into the wing’s interior where it had been locked into place around the fuel intake valve. The one valve served to fuel all three tanks through a series of connecting manifolds. The solitary fueler, wearing thick gloves and dirty overalls, monitored the hose as the highly combustible mixture flowed into the tank. The man looked slowly around at the increasing activity surrounding the aircraft: mail and freight cargo were being loaded on, baggage carts were winding their way to the terminal. Satisfied that he wasn’t being observed, the fueler used one gloved hand to casually wipe the exposed part of the fuel tank around the intake valve. It was a perfectly natural action and would have prompted no undue suspicion even had it been observed by airline personnel. The metal of the fuel tank gleamed where it had been touched. Closer examination would have revealed a slight misting on the metal’s surface, but no closer examination would he made. Even the first officer making the rounds on the preflight check would never discover this little surprise lurking within the massive machine.
The man replaced the small plastic container deep within one pocket of his overalls. He pulled from his other pocket a slender rectangular-shaped object and raised his hand up into the wing’s interior. Again, an action that would prompt no undue scrutiny. The fueling completed, the hose was loaded back on the truck and the fuel panel on the wing was reattached. The truck drove off to complete work on another jet. The man looked back once at the L800 and then continued on. He was scheduled to get off duty at seven this morning. He did not intend to stay a minute longer.
* * *
The 220,000-pound Mariner L800 lifted off the runway, easily powering through the early morning cloud cover. A single-aisle jet with twin high bypass ratio Rolls-Royce engines, the L800 was the most technologically advanced aircraft currently operating outside those flown by pilots of the U.S. Air Force.
Flight 3223 carried 174 passengers and a seven-member flight crew. Most of the passengers were settling into their seats with newspapers and magazines while the plane climbed swiftly over the Virginia countryside to its cruising altitude of thirty-five thousand feet. The onboard navigational computer had established a flight time to Los Angeles of five-hours-and-five-minutes.
One of the passengers in the First Class section was reading the Wall Street Journal. A hand played across the bushy steel-gray beard as large, active eyes scanned the pages of financial information. Down the narrow aisle, in the Coach section, other passengers sat quietly, some with hands folded across their chests, some with eyes half-closed and others reading. In one seat, an old woman gripped rosary beads in her right hand, her mouth silently reciting the familiar words.
As the L800 climed to thirty-five thousand feet and leveled off, the captain came on the loudspeaker to make her perfunctory greetings while the flight attendants went about their normal routine—a routine that was about to be interrupted.
All heads turned to the red flash that erupted on the right side of the aircraft. Those sitting in the window seats on that side watched in the starkest horror as the right wing buckled, metal skin tearing, rivets popping free. Bare seconds passed before two-thirds of the wing sheared off, carrying with it the starboard side Rolls-Royce engine. Like savaged veins, shredded hydraulic lines and cables whipped back and forth in the fierce headwind as jet fuel from the cracked fuel tank doused the fuselage.
The L800 immediately rolled left over on its back, making a shambles of the cabin. Inside the fuselage every single human being screamed in mortal terror as the plane whipped across the sky like a tumbleweed, completely out of control. Passengers up and down the aisle were violently torn from their seats. For most of them the short trip from the seats was fatal. Screams of pain were heard as heavy pieces of luggage, disgorged from compartments torn open when the shock waves of air pressure gone wild exceeded their locking mechanisms’ strength limits, collided with soft human flesh.
The old woman’s hand slipped open and the rosary beads slid down to the floor, which was now the ceiling of the upside-down plane. Her eyes were wide open now, but not in fear. She was one of the fortunate ones. A fatal heart attack had rescued her from the next several minutes of sheer terror.
Twin engine commercial jetliners are certified to fly on only one engine. No jetliner, however, can fly with only one wing. The airworthiness of Flight 3223 had been irreversibly destroyed. The L800 settled into a tight nose-to-ground death spiral.
On the flight deck the two-member crew struggled valiantly with the controls as their damaged aircraft shot downward through the overcast skies like a spear through cotton. Unsure of the precise nature of the catastrophe that had occurred, they nevertheless were well aware that the aircraft and all lives on board were in significant jeopardy. As they frantically tried to regain control of the aircraft, the two pilots silently prayed they would collide with no other plane as they hurtled to earth. “Oh my God!” The captain stared in disbelief at the altimeter as it raced on its unstoppable course to zero. Neither the most sophisticated avionics system in the world nor the most exceptional piloting skills could reverse the startling truth facing every human being on the fractured projectile: They were all going to die, and very soon. And as happens in virtually all air crashes, the two pilots would be the first to leave this world: but the others on board Flight 3223 would only be a fraction of a second behind.
Lieberman’s mouth sagged open as he gripped the armrests in total disbelief. As the plane’s nose dropped to six o’clock, Lieberman was looking face down at the back of the seat in front of him, as if he were at the very top of some absurd roller coaster. Unfortunately for him, Arthur Lieberman would remain conscious until the very second the aircraft met the immovable object that it was now racing toward. His exit from the living would come several months ahead of schedule and not at all according to plan. As the plane started its final descent, one word escaped from Lieberman’s lips. Though monosyllabic, it was uttered in one continuous shriek that could be heard over all of the other terrifying sounds flooding the cabin.