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20

About the fifty-third time I called Bozeman, Montana, the phone was answered. By that point, I was back in my dorm room, jet lag catching up with me, getting ready for bed. As the phone rang at the other end, I was barely paying attention. Somewhere along the way, Id stopped believing that anyone would ever answer, and yet, my finger kept hitting the redial button.

Ohman here, a brisk but friendly male voice said.

Mr. Ohman? R. J. Ohman?

You got him.

This is Isabel McNeil. If there was any recognition of my name, he said nothing. Im calling from Italy, I said. I wondered if I could ask you a few questions about my father.

Whos that?

Christopher McNeil.

Still nothing.

He died in a helicopter accident twenty-some years ago. I think you might have been his flight instructor.

Ah, hell, sure. Youre Chris McNeils kid? He tsked. That still bothers me.

What do you mean?

Well, helicopters are more dangerous than planes, but you dont expect to lose a student. I trained him well. I train everybody well.

Was he a good student?

Hell, yeah. Always came prepared. Took it very seriously. But there were concerns about the R22s back in those days.

Whats an R22?

The chopper. Could be kind of a swirly bird. Damn near lost one myself.

So there were problems with it?

Well, the lawyers told me not to say this-they were afraid wed get sued, I guess-but I was never very good at holding my tongue. He grunted. But anyway, yeah. The R22s used to have problems because they would start oscillating and student pilots would sometimes overcorrect. That would make it worse and the blades would flex and slice the tail rotor right off.

What happens then?

Once that tail rotor comes off, its a quick trip to the undertaker. You go into auto rotation. And then youre going down.

I winced. If he had died, what must my dad have gone through? Had he been scared? Do you think it was excruciating for him? My voice came out soft.

Honey, he probably never knew what happened. Id guess he didnt even have time to think about the fall, and when you hit that water, you have nothing more to worry about anyhow. He didnt suffer.

Did you inspect the helicopter before he took off?

Yep. Nothing wrong that I saw. We both did the preflight inspection.

What does that entail?

A long checklist. We pilots do almost everything from checklists. I always tell my students, you might think youre pretty smart, but a checklist has a hell of a lot more intelligence.

And what did you find during the inspection?

Everything looked good to me. To your dad, too. This was one of your dads solo flights, so he spent a lot of time around the chopper before he left.

Is it typical for students like him to fly over bodies of water like Lake Erie?

Well, in order to get their certification, they have to complete a number of solo cross-country flights. Up to him to chart his course. And I checked it with him. Also, the helicopter was equipped with pontoons so he could practice water landings if he wanted.

Did he file a flight plan? I thought of some of my Internet research, which mentioned flight plans.

Yep. And didnt look like he was off course.

I sat down on the dorm bed, pushing a toe back and forth across the black-and-white patterned linoleum floor. Mr. Ohman, you worked with the FBI, is that right?

I thought hed hesitate, maybe be secretive, but he answered with a quick, Yep. Civilian contractor with them for over thirty years.

I know my father did consulting for the federal government. What I dont understand is why he would need helicopter training.

Didnt need it from what I knew. Just wanted it. And at that time, if you worked with the Feds, they encouraged all kinds of skill-set enhancements. I was told your dad simply wanted to learn how to fly a helicopter. He was already a pilot. My job was to go around the country and train federal employees how to fly better or fly different aircraft.

He worked for a city police department and consulted for the Feds.

Well, he had something more than consulting to do with the Feds if they hired me.

I didnt know what to say to that.

Was he a good pilot?

Absolutely. Conscientious and thorough. I was surprised as hell when we lost him.

I thought about the question that had been playing in my mind. I wasnt sure whether to ask it. If I did, and I was right about my hunch, would it signal something, start some chain of events?

But Ive never been good at holding my tongue. Is there any chance my fathers death was faked so that he could enter the witness protection program?

He actually laughed at me. It wasnt an unkind laugh exactly, more of a chuckle. Why do you think your father was in the witness protection program?

Because his body disappeared and I figured I might as well say it. I think I saw him recently.

He didnt laugh at that. What do you mean?

I told him what had happened in the stairwell. I told him I thought I had heard my fathers voice. He listened, then said, What did you say your first name was?

Isabel. Izzy.

Well, Izzy, Id never thought about that possibility before. Really hadnt. The fact of the matter is if he was entering a Fed protection program, they wouldnt have told me. But thinking about it now, seems like its not a bad guess.


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