The Matter of the Missing Phantom-Four
Posted on 03/19/2021 Steve Levi
Steve Levi: Master Of The Impossible Crime
Author Masterminds Charter Member
Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was in the last place on earth he ever thought he would be. But, in reality, he was not in the last place on earth he would ever have believed he would be, but, rather, over it. He was in the back seat of a Phantom-Four, a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the United States Air Force’s workhorse during the Vietnam War.
And why was he aloft in an ancient but useable vintage aircraft? To prove this aircraft, the one he was sailing, was real, flyable, and had not been snitched. But, as he had been informed by the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security for the Outer Banks of North Carolina, this aircraft had disappeared off the runway at Manteo—and then reappeared three days later—on the same runway.
Since the aircraft, ancient though serviceable, was being used for reconnaissance for the United States Coast Guard in support of Department of Homeland Security’s mission, it fell to Commissioner Edward Paul Lizzard III to determine what had happened to the airship. So up into the atmosphere went Heinz Noonan, Chief of Detectives for the Sandersonville Police Department.
Why was a city policeman on assignment to the United States Air Force?
Because the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, Noonan’s supervisor, had ordered Heinz Noonan, Chief of Detectives for the Sandersonville Police Department, aloft in the suspect Phantom-Four.
“When are we going to land?” Noonan yelled into the voice box microphone. “Manteo is only, what, four minutes away from Sandersonville at this speed.”
“Now,” came the reply as the jet lurched downward, dropping out of the sky and leaving Noonan’s stomach at 1,500 feet.
“Here we are, sir,” said the clown in the front seat when the Phantom-Four hit the landing strip.
“Have a nice day.” And with that welcome to the so-called Manteo Airport, the Lt. Colonel clown popped out of the cockpit, clambered down the fuselage staircase and walked across the tarmac, never looking back.
It took Noonan a bit longer to get out of the aircraft. Once on the cement – (A cement landing strip?) – he had his first look at the Manteo Airport. Which, as he could see, was not an airport at all. It was what was left of an abandoned, stripped-to-the-cement United States Coast Guard base. All that was left was a barrack building at the Atlantic-side of the massive cement slab and the cyclone fence’s encirclement topped with razor-wire.
“And have a nice day to you,” Noonan said to the back of the retreating Lt. Col.
“Not much of a welcome,” said a three-striper approaching Noonan from plane-side. “Sorry about that.”
“I didn’t expect a band,” Noonan said with a smile. “I’m Heinz Noonan,” and he extended a hand to keep the three-striper from saluting.
“We knew you were coming, Sir. We . . ”
“Heinz. Unless a crime has been committed, I’m Heinz, not Sir.”
“Works for me. In that case, I’m Mala.”
“Mala. Good. Now tell me about the missing plane, which cannot be missing since I just rode here on it.”
“Well, s…, Heinz, it’s simple and complicated at the same time.”
“I hate answers like that, Mala.”
“OK, I’ll make it as easy as possible. How much do you know about this base?”
“That makes it easy. This was a Coast Guard Search and Rescue operation until it was closed down about 15 years ago. Then, with 911, it was turned over to Homeland Security. The buildings were removed to make a landing strip so a fighter plane could be based here.”
“Why does Homeland Security need a fighter plane on the Outer Banks?”
“That’s easy. The plane was free. It was decommissioned and about to be junked when a local Lt. Col . . .”
“Yup, same one. He lives in Manteo and convinced the Air Force to give the plane to Homeland Security. Then he convinced Homeland Security to give the plane to the Outer Banks Commissioner. And the Outer Banks Commissioner, I think you know him…”
“That’s a ‘yes,'” Noonan replied with a slight grimace.
“. . .the Commissioner connived to have the Coast Guard rehabilitate the base seven years ahead of schedule and, voila, here we are.”
“But there’s nothing here to support the plane,” Noonan said, sweeping the horizon with his hand. “It takes a city to support a fighter and there’s no city here.”
“Correct. The plane is serviced out of Virginia Beach. It lands there, is fueled there, repaired there, and then flown here for duty.”
“Duty? How much duty is there for fighter plane here?”
The three-striper looked around to make sure no one was listening.
“To use your term, ‘zip.’ It’s for show. The Lt. Col. flies it every few days, but other than that, nothing.”
“But the plane disappeared. Or so I’ve been told.”
“Well, not really. See, this takes some explaining.”
“I’m here to listen.
Mala continued. “About a year ago, the Homeland Security responsibility was assigned to the newest officer on a base in Virginia Beach. It went to a second lieutenant who was long on ego and short on brains.”
“This will not have a happy ending,” Noonan said sadly.
“You are correct. He has been here a bit over a year and it has been a rollercoaster. He’s still as green as the day he walked through the main gate. Listens to no one. When there’s a screw-up, it’s never his problem.”
“I know his brother from another mother,” Noonan said sardonically.
“When he first got here, he ordered some computers to be put in a building on base in Virginia Beach. There had not been a building on that slab for years. But the base map indicated there was a building there. So, the 90-day wonder ordered the computer to be placed in a building that did not exist. When a sergeant told him there was no building there, Mr. IQ gave him a direct order. ‘Put the computers there.’ The sergeant did. A year letter, the sergeant got an Article 15 for destroying government property.”
“Let me guess, the lieutenant got a promotion.”
The three-striper was surprised. “How did you know that?
“It’s the same the whole world over. Let me guess again, the missing plane, the same lieutenant?”
“Yup. But the disappearing is a joke. This landing strip is a joke. We have four men who march around the plane 24-7 to protect it when it is here. From what I do not know. But that’s the Air Force for you. Missions? Other than the Lt. Colonel who showboats, there has not been a single legit assignment. This plane is a complete waste of money.”
“Tell me about the disappearing.”
“Never happened. What did happen, and I’ve got the paperwork to prove it, is standard Air Force procedure. The Phantom Four landed in Virginia Beach with mechanical problems. The Light Colonel radioed the tower he was taking the bird directly to the mechanical shed. Standard stuff. The bird landed and went directly to mechanical. The control tower didn’t list the plane on the runway because it was on its way to the mechanical tower. Someone just listed, say, the 23 planes that were visible on the landing strip. The shift ends. The next shift arrives. The blues in the tower count 23 planes on the runway. Three days later the Phantom comes out of mechanical and is put on the runway. Now there are 24 planes on the runway the control tower can see. They list 24 planes on the runway.”
“What was the problem?”
“There was a snap IG inspection, Inspector General. The bean counters go through the runway paperwork and find a gap of one plane for three days. The inspectors hit the panic switch.”
“Why didn’t they just check the mechanical shed records?”
“The IG inspection either did not include the mechanical shed notes. It might have been an inspection of the record, maybe my internet. I don’t know. All I do know is that suddenly there was a plane, a fighter jet, which had been missing for three days. Air Force asks Homeland Security for an answer, and then you get called. That’s all I know.”
Noonan shook his head. “So, I’m here to search for a plane that was never missing, and I have to come up with a report that makes everyone looks competent.”
The three-striper shook his head sadly. “It is a cruel world, Heinz.”
* * *
“What’s with the model?” Harriett said as she pointed to a plastic Phantom-4 on Noonan’s desk. “I didn’t know you were into models?”
“I’m not. It was a gift.”
“You can’t take gifts, Heinz. You’re a cop. Cops can’t take gifts. Even small ones.”
“Oh, it’s not for me. It’s for his lordship,” Noonan said as he let his eyes drift to the ceiling tiles indicating the Third Floor where Commissioner of the Homeland Security Edward Paul Lizzard III had his office.
“I didn’t know he was into models?”
“I don’t know that either. But he is into publicity. I am going to give him his missing plane.”
“You mean the one that disappeared in Manteo?” She mouthed the word disappeared in a mysterious whisper.”
“Yes,” Noonan said softly. “The one that disappeared.” He said disappeared in the same low, mysterious tone.
“This model is going to please his highness?” She looked up momentarily.
“Harriet, there is an old Mark Twain quote I live with: ‘Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.'”
“I am going to bring an old squawk back to life.”
“What’s a squawk?”
“A new term I learned in Manteo. A squawk is a note left for Air Force mechanical crews about what is wrong with an airplane. You know, like ‘oil pressure low’ or ‘short in communicator,’ things like that.”
“There was one I particularly liked. The squawk was ‘Number Three engine missing.’ The response from the mechanical crew was simple “Number Three Engine found on right wing after a brief search.”
“How’s that going to satisfy his lordship? The jet was missing for three days.”
“Correct. And the mechanical crew fixed it. Then it was no longer missing. And I’ll attach the mechanical shed work order. I’ll just tell him it was a misreading of the mechanical order as written by a retired Lt. Col.”
“You think his lordship will buy that?”
“I’m certain of it. Jellyfish have survived for 650 million years with no brains. That’s good news for people like his lordship.”
The Matter of the Missing Phantom-Four was first published with Readers and Writers Book Club: https://readersandwritersbookclub.com.