BACKGROUND INFORMATION: This is not in the Wielvakia-Erusea Conflict, unlike most of my other stories. This is going to be during the Anean Continental War between the Battles of Selumna and San Loma. Also, I am not going to specify the aircraft used in the story. I don't have enough knowledge on these types of aircraft or their operating protocol, so I'm going to structure it according to my ideas (plus basic concepts from already-existing aircraft). I leave it to your imagination.
Mission 1: January 29, 2016 18:33 hrs.
I stand in my flight suit, on the tarmac, leaning against the fuselage of my plane. Three others are with me. The light wind and the low sun mix in a combination that will surely give me a headache. I've been staring at the doors to Hangar Three for nearly half an hour, waiting for the mission analysts to emerge from their briefing. I'm annoyed. Maybe it's the weather here, or maybe it's our target location. I sure as heck know that we're going to Saarella Tähteä, Nordennavic, and that it'll take about seven hours to do this mission. I learned this yesterday, along with my aircraft crew. We ALL know what we're doing, and we learned it early. But the mission specialists? No, they just have to take their time.
Finally, all five of them come out of the doors, folders in their hands. We all know what we're supposed to do. So let's go do it.
As I turn to my plane, getting ready to open the door, "Wait!" shouts a voice.
"Let me get a picture of you all." says a college age journalist. "You're part of the 390th Surveillance Group, right?"
"Yeah," I reply without hints of politeness.
"Let me get a picture of you guys next to the plane. Let's have the guys with binders kneeling, and you four stand behind them."
I stand, farthest to the right. I don't smile. What's the point? It's just so some journalist can get a picture of us in some magazine and then call us murderers. Well, we're the reason you're still alive, sonny. After the photo shoot, I turn around and crank the handle that opens the door. The door is in the back of the fuselage, on the left. I'm first in, followed by my copilot, navigator, and engineer. Then the analysts go in.
The door opens into the back cabin. The back cabin looks like a regular commercial airliner. Five chairs line the right row of the back cabin. That's for the analysts when they're off duty (when we're en route to or from an AO.) Then we get into the observation bay, where there are five stations. There's the radar stations, radio signal station, and visual observation stations. This part of the cabin is dark. Well, actually, it's ALL dark now. The aircraft is completely dead. That's until I open the door, step into the flight deck, and climb into the cramped left seat. I also double as the aircraft commander. I get to work, just making sure that this thing turns on.
First, I get a go for turn-on from the ground engineer. They don't have to work on the plane anymore; we're using it now. I go through the procedures with Terry, while Red is discussing the flightplan with Wiseguy.
"Battery switch to on." He calls out as he looks at a checklist binder. I reach overhead and flick the battery switch.
"Battery on," I affirm.
"Avionics on." I give the plane a minute to turn on the flight displays. It's like a 737 cockpit in here, with the throttle actually next to the overhead panels instead. The throttle hangs in the pilot's face, which confuses most new pilots. The dashboard is so close to the seats, and the roof is low. I find it ok.
"Ok. Radios." Terry says.
"Radios to on." I say. "Red, do a radio and IFF check. Get the weather report and contact the ground controllers."
"Wilco." he says, putting on a headset.
"Ok, what next?" I turn to Terry's seat, behind Red's. Terry is looking farther down the list, but not answering. I sigh. "TERRY!" I shout. He looks up, with an unimpressed face. "Welcome back." I tease. "What's after the radios?"
"Well now, nothing. Do the radio checks, flightplan check, turn on the lights, everything short of turning on the engines."
"Right." I reach up, turn on the taxi, recognition, strobe, and wing lights. Red chatters with the ground, writes pertinent information in his notebook, then turns to me.
"Cap, we're clear for the twelve."
"Ok." I say. "Set the autopilot and flaps." He reaches for the lever to his left, next to the radio stack. I reach to the instruments atop the dashboard and turn knobs that determine our heading, altitude, and airspeed. In the meantime, I reach up and turn on the cabin lights and A/C. It's too dark and too warm in here. I pick up the large, bulky headset and place it on my head, the mic near my mouth. I push backwards on the button around my belt.
"Buckle up, back there, and close the door. You all know the drill." I put the harness around my shoulders and buckle my belt, tightening it.
Terry taps me on the shoulder. "How about the engines now?"
"Sure, I think we're all ready. Wait, hold on." I check the radio. It's tuned to the ground frequency. Good. "Ok."
"Ok." I reach for the buttons near the throttle.
"Fuel on." I open the fuel, which are levers near the throttle that actually look like the throttle. New pilots are so confused with this.
"Ok. Fire it up." Terry says.
"Firing up." I reach for the four starter switches on the overhead, one for each propeller. Each engine starts up normally, as I observe out the windows. The wings look really short compared to the background of the tarmac. I turn the starters off; they have served their purpose. I push the mic button forward. "Ortara Ground. Spyglass 55 taxiing to the twelve."
"Spyglass 55, Ortara. roger. Verify information Kilo."
Red chimes in. "Roger, we have Kilo." That was just asking if we had the latest weather update. A storm's on the horizon, and the sun's about to set. I push the throttles forward just a bit, release the brakes, and taxi forward onto the taxiway parallel to the runway. We, the plane and all its occupants, turn left onto the long taxiway. After riding in that direction for a minute, we turn perpendicular to the runway.
"Ortara tower, Spyglass 55. Request takeoff on runway 12, with information Kilo and Oscar priority." Oscar is code for observation.
"Ortara tower to Spyglass 55. Cleared for takeoff. Have fun."
"Spyglass 55, will do. Thanks." I reply casually.
We turn onto the runway. I turn off the taxi lights and turn on the landing lights. Then I reach for the throttle, and push it smoothly, but fully, forward. The props turn furiously as they pull us down the runway. I am pushed back into the seat as I return my hand to the control yoke. I stare intently at the airspeed. As it hits 155 mph, I pull the stick back and the nose points up. I am squished back into the seat again and my ears pop. The rear wheels leave the ground. Our altitude goes up, at a rate of 800 feet per minute.
"Red. Gear and flaps up."
"Right." He says, and pulls the gear and the flaps levers. I hear a whirring sound and then a clunk as our flaps and gear go up.
I push five buttons on the autopilot: Autopilot mode, autothrottle, speed hold, heading, and altitude. The plane now flies itself; I only have to turn a couple of knobs. I look out the window, and see the sunset-colored desert shrinking as we get higher. Our horizon gets larger.
"Spyglass 55, you are leaving my airspace. Squawk friendly until you need to go silent. Take care." The controller says.
"Spyglass 55 copies all. Thanks." So we're on our own.
We climb to an altitude of 19,000 ft ASL and turn north, headed for Nordennavic.
It's a three hour trip up.
"Wiseguy." Red says, two hours after takeoff.
"Yeah?" the navigator answers.
"Don't you have a brother that's a sailor?"
"Yes, and no. He's a bridge spotter."
"Po-tae-toe, po-tah-toe." Terry, the engineer says. "He works on a navy boat."
"All he does is sit on a bridge wing and stare into the distance. He's not doing anything productive!" Wiseguy says.
I try to turn around, to look at Wiseguy's screen and confirm our course. The sudden physical motion seems to awaken me somehow. It's as though I've been asleep for an hour, in the cushion-y seat. When I twist around, the harness stops me. I try to turn my head, which only works if I'm trying to look at Terry. He's at my back right, behind Red. Wiseguy is directly behind me. Forget turning around.
"What's our course deviation, Wise?" I ask him, consciously aware that I'm interrupting the conversation.
"We are pointed three degrees too far to the left."
"Ok. Thanks." Returning to my boring, forward facing position, I turn our heading indicator from 019 to 022.
"What ship is he on?" Red asks.
"Odysseus. They were just barely approaching Gracemeria when it got bombed. That's probably when he saw action."
"Huh. And since then, what?" Red presses on.
"How should I know? All I get to know is that he's still alive. The rest is blacked out. You don't see me writing 'Hey buddy, we're gonna go drop a transmitter in central Estovakia!'"
Their voices drift off. I don't want to fall asleep, but I've been up since four, and I've been flying this tub for two hours. We're still three hundred miles (forty-five minutes) away from the operation area, and a hundred miles (fifteen minutes) from the border. Looking out the window, it's actually kind of black. The sky is dark blue, because of the moon. I love that kind of moon, the kind that lights up the sky and casts sharp shadows. The light cloud cover below is glowing dull white. The skies above are clear.
After half an hour of flying on a course, the ground looks different. It's not ground anymore; it's ocean. The black sea glimmers and glistens with moonlight.
"Feet wet," says Wiseguy.
"Spyglass 55, feet wet." I say to the AWACS in the area. He acknowledges me. We have crossed into the channels surrounding the various Nordennavic islands.
"What latitude are we at, Wise?" I ask.
"Stand by...we're at: sixty-seven degrees, ten minutes, six seconds north, one hundred thirty seven degrees, thirty three minutes, eighteen seconds West."
"Thanks." I say. We're so far north, the sun won't rise for about another three months. I look out at the wings, and I feel the strangest feeling of sympathy. That's the same wing that I saw in Ortara, and it rode with us all the way here.
"We're 20 mikes from AO." Twenty minutes away.
"Roger." I reply. We work on turning off the lights, notifying the AWACS about our radio silence and IFF silence, and start the decent. We have to go to 6,000 ft. I call the cabin. "Ok guys. 20 minutes from the AO. Get to your stations."
I turn off the lights in the back cabin and turn on the lights in the observation bay. I assume they're doing what they should be, so I return my attention to the instrument panel. I notice that Red has already done the altitude correction.
We have another four minutes until we hit altitude, and the plane has become a ghost, almost as if it was sitting dead on the tarmac. Radios, transponder, lights, all are dead. We're in neutral territory, but we have to treat it as if we were in Estovakia. We have to scan for a submarine base that the satellite photos say is around here.
I turn the autopilot off once we hit altitude, but I keep the same settings. Then Terry and I work on turning off the two outboard engines. We don't need them. They'll just make noise and waste fuel, and we'll just be flying in circles for an hour and fifteen minutes. Once the engines are off, the navigator specifies the search areas.
Which I go to. We fly in circles at five waypoints, which is almost as monotonous as the flight up here. The difference is that I actually steer the plane myself. We spend fifteen minutes at each waypoint. The weather up in Nordennavic is so much clearer than Ortara, and the ground below still looks innocent. At about the third waypoint, Red resets our autopilot so that we climb to 20,000 feet and have a southerly course.
After an hour and fifteen minutes of circling channels between islands (which are incredibly beautiful and detailed), checking my turn rate, and keeping my plane between two visual reference points, I assure that the cabin crew has what they need. I get up out of the seat and stretch (which feels insanely good), then I open the door to the flight deck. They're sitting, focused on the now-activated consoles, with information about a number of factors that I have no time for.
"Are you guys done? We've hit the five waypoints."
"Yes, sir, mission accomplished." The Chief says, turning his head to me. "We found the base, seventeen miles from Waypoint 2. I can't tell you much about it, that's for the debriefing."
"Ok. Do your thing." They are supposed to shut off all of their sensory equipment and move back into the back cabin.
I go back to the flight deck and sit down in the seat again. I turn on the autopilot and we ascend, leaving Nordennavic behind. The friendly seas and channels shrink. I look out the window, and think about how much I'll miss the weather and scenery when I go back to the stormy Ortara desert.
After half an hour, we turn the lights, radios, and engines on again. The easygoing attitude from to hours ago resumes in the cockpit. The time is now 2245, and the moon is sufficiently high enough to illuminate the ground like the sun. I gotta get a picture of this. For the history books, I'll say. No cameras allowed on board though!
"Red, how's your wife doing?"
"Wow! That's a good question." He lets out a sigh. "I assume she's ok. She called me a week ago, gave me the 'Still Alive' stuff. I don't know how the occupation's treating her -- didn't we just hit Selumna?"
"What do you mean?" I ask. I don't know whether he means we just flew over or something else.
"Well, I heard about the army going to Selumna. It almost got nuked, then the Garudas did something?"
"No, they liberated Selumna, then the Garudas helped the forces evacuate. Those missiles are not -- yeah, not air-ground. They should have told you this, Red!" Terry says.
"Yeah, guys? Selumna, ten o'clock?" Wiseguy says.
At the ten o'clock position, there's a small cluster of lights shining dimly through the clouds. The moon's glare is not helping, but I can see it. The guys have all gotten up to look at it, and we all see the same thing. It's apparent the town is in a valley, but it is completely dark at the bottom of the valley. Power outage. Oh, those Stovies.
Another hour passes. Same conversation, occasional aircraft adjustments. Then a clattering, like multiple stones, shakes the plane and lights up the cabin brighter than our lights. Seven glowing holes are in the engine immediately to Red's right.
We've been hit.
There's no time to lose. I turn the autopilot off and grasp the M-shaped yoke to turn the aircraft to the right and down, in a dive-bombing manner. The others heard the clatters, but they didn't immediately recognize the danger. I did. So in a second, my brain prioritizes the information.
"We've been hit. Terry, turn off engine three. Completely off."
"Ok!" He throttles it back, cuts the fuel, and turns on the fire suppression.
"Red, tell the AWACS that we're taking fire and are descending to 4,000."
"Ok." In an instant, his tone turns from college age friend into official soldier. "AWACS, Spyglass 55. We're taking fire, unknown attackers. Descending to four angels."
"Roger, Spyglass 55. We copy your attackers. Windhover 3, Windhover 4, move to intercept two Estovakian F-18's six miles southeast of your present location. Weapons free. I repeat..."
We hit four thousand. I level off and start to think of our next move. First, I call the cabin. "Hey back there. We've been hit, not too badly. Hope you're all right, and please voice your concerns." Typically, they don't. I then get to work checking and double-checking every instrument's status, something that Red helps me with.
"Terry, how are we looking on systems?" I ask after five long, silent minutes.
"Well, I redistributed the fuel, so you should have equal on each wing now. Given that there's unequal consumption, the fuel will have to be redistributed every...ten to twenty minutes." He pauses, gathers himself, then resumes. "We've completely lost engine three, and I would risk a restart for fear of fire. The fuel's also running low, and you'll have to go at a 60% power rate from here on back."
"Ok. Uhhh, Wiseguy, how do we look on route?" I ask.
"Well, from what I gather, we don't have very much fuel left. I want us to stay at four thousand, because climbing would stress the engines. The enemies are probably sill up there, or maybe there's more enemy along the way. As for direction, I think the old route is good. It's pretty direct. At our current distance and speed, we'll get home in..." He punches numbers into his calculator. "...An hour. One AM."
"Ok. Gents, let's get to it." Red says. He changes the autopilot settings. Speed, vertical rate, and altitude are turned back to zero. The heading is returned to true north. We are now in manual control of the aircraft.
I turn the plane to the direct course of 183 degrees. Now it's up to me to keep the plane on this direction and altitude.
"Wiseguy, do I have a margin of error for the heading and altitude?"
"You have plus or minus two degrees, and about five hundred feet in either direction." That's not a lot of room to screw up, and will require more concentration from me than I actually have at this hour of the night.
"Red. Tune the nav radios to the Ortara beacon." This will at least give me an extra direction needle I can work with.
"They're already there. Should we turn the transpond -- never mind."
I follow the needles, making sure to keep the heading accurate. The altitude is very difficult to work with, and I have to try very hard not to pitch up. There's also the redistribution of fuel. The terrain outside changes from snowy hills to mountains to dry, blank desert.
After clutching the handles of the control yoke for what seems like forever, keeping the plane from banking right or climbing, Wiseguy chimes in.
"We're entering Ortara airspace. They'll probably put us on the approach for runway 12...but, ah, give them a call."
"Red." I say through gritted teeth. "You do it."
"No, cap. You do it. I want to fly. You've been struggling for over an hour." He insists.
"I'm fine. I know how it's behaving." I have been so attached to it, I know exactly what it needs, how not to hurt it.
"You sure?" He asks. He hasn't had much to do, I think.
"Oh my God. Someone! Just put us down!" Wiseguy sounds annoyed.
I'm exhausted. I sigh, then hand control over to him. I relax my arms and hands for just a second, breathe for the first time in forty-five minutes, then hit the push-to-talk button.
"Ortara Tower, Spyglass 55 coming in, engine three is damaged, requesting a landing."
A silence. Not now, we're dying! I am getting frantic. I push the button again.
"Spyglass 55 here, are we cleared to land?"
A crackling is heard. "Spyglass 55 is cleared to land, runway 30. Emergency vehicles are rolling."
"Spyglass 55, cleared to land on runway thirty."
Now we start down, from 21 miles away. We'll have to reset our autopilot switches, make sure to turn that off (both of which I have already done), open our gear and flaps, and calibrate our altimeter. We're also coming in from the wrong direction, but I'm sure Red already knows that. He does, and we take a wide circle as we descend.
"Red? Do you want to land?" I ask.
"Yes, sir." He says.
"Ok. I'll open the flaps for you, to 20 degrees. Tell me if you need more or less. "
"Wise, what's our altimeter?" I ask.
"It's 29.31. Perfect storm conditions."
I turn a small knob below one of our flight screens. We are at 4,000 feet right now, flying at 250 mph, on a heading of 254 degrees. That's about right.
"How we looking, Red?" I ask after a while of descending. The ground is getting closer, the horizons are farther, and the ground detail is growing.
"Bit fast. Put flaps at 25." He says, apparently concentrating a great deal.
I reach for the small flaps lever next to him and pull it down one more notch. Then an idea hits me. I talk to the back cabin.
"As a precaution, put your seatbelts on and brace for impact." I release the mic button. "You too, Wise. Terry. Red, keep doing what you're doing. I am fully confident in you, I'm just preparing for the worst."
"Yeah. THAT makes me feel good. Ten miles."
The plane is so much slower now. We're at 220 mph, 2,200 feet, and I can see the desert rush by beneath me. Then I look out of the front. I can see an island of lights in the darkness of the ground. There's white, red, yellow, blue, and some green. A row of white lights fence in an area of darkness, and there is a line extending from the edge. That's our runway.
"Yeah?" He would be so angry now if he wasn't so busy.
"Ok! Get the gear for me." I'm not going to talk to him anymore; our lives are in his hands now.
I pull the long lever (situated on Red's side of the panel) down, extending the gear. A loud whirring is heard, followed by a thump. Three arrows illuminate the central screen. The gear is open.
The runway grows larger in the window, and there are four lights next to the runway. Three are white, one is red. We're too high, but he probably already knows that. I cross my arms and hold my breath.
We pass twenty feet over the airfield fence and the runway threshold. Then Red points the nose up and lowers the throttle. I fear that our tail will fall helplessly out of the air and hit the ground prematurely. The nose is pointed up; we are falling. I squirm tensely in my seat.
I hear and feel a strong thud, and then our nose goes down. I pull a lever on my right, on the radio panel. This opens the speedbrakes. At the same time, Red pulls back on the throttle. Reverse thrust, as loud as takeoff, pulls us back, stops us, until our speed reaches 20. Then Red pushes the throttle slightly forward, and stops us. We turn onto the taxiway. I put the flaps and speedbrakes up. After a couple of moments, we reach the parking space.
Sighs of relief escape my crewmates. They sit up out of the brace position.
"Good landing, Red." says Terry.
"Yeah, good job."
I let out air that I've been holding since forever. It feels great.
"Good job, man," I say, turning to him. Oh boy, physical motion. "We'll be letting you sleep in."
We work on turning off the aircraft, and then we sit up. I stretch again, which really relieves my tension. Now I notice how tired I am. We leave the cockpit, and then one of the analyists comes up to me.
"Good job, sir." He salutes me.
"It wasn't me, it was him." I gesture to Red. I don't like to steal.
"Oh. Good job, sir." He salutes Red now. Peeking his head in the cockpit, he says, "Man, it's hot in there! How could you even do ANYTHING in there?"
I ignore him, and we leave the plane. As I step on the tarmac, I feel safe. I almost take time to enjoy the peace, but then three things enter my mind. It's 1 AM, there's a costal winter storm out here, and the smell of smoke drifts from engine three. Forget it, let the mechanics handle it. Let's go to the debriefing and then get some sleep.
Mission 2: January 30, 2016 19:45 hrs.
"Thanks to the work of Lieutenant Marasek and his team, we have determined the location of their submarine base, seventeen miles northwest from the second search waypoint." The Adjutant General speaks.
He paces across the front of the sunlit room, with a map of Anea positioned on the wall behind him.
"Given the additional information which was acquired yesterday, the Estovakians have stationed two submarines there with the intent of turning it into one of their own ports. But, the information is incomplete. We can't risk having our navy crippled by a submarine threat, which could be operating in a neutral country. So, we are going to plant a sonobuoy five miles from the base. There will be fighter escort for the aircraft of operation."
Gutsy. At that range, it's a wonder if they don't smell us.
"The sonobuoy will be attached to the bottom of the aircraft, and will be deployed in the same manner as a torpedo. You are to follow Emmerian bombing regulations and protocol at all times. You will start from Waypoint one, then fly to the drop site."
Yeah, I got this.
"Captain Rivers, do you believe you can undertake this mission?" He questions.
"Yes, sir, I can." I respond.
"Are you sure? Is your aircraft in a stable operational state?"
"Yes, sir. The mechanics repaired the engine this morning. They said it was good."
"Ok. Spyglass 55 crew and analysts, do you have further questions?"
No questions. We are dismissed. I head down the hall to my room one quick last time. I want to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. As I scan the room, the cruel thought crosses my mind that this may be the last time I see this room. I push it away and rush to the tarmac.
"Rivers!" the mechanic shouts.
"What?" I reply sarcastically.
"Stop getting my plane shot up!"
"Yeah? That's how you're playing it? Stop the Stovies from shooting up the plane! It's not as easy as it looks." I give him a not-exactly gentle push.
"Oh, I see how it is," he says as the crew and I board the plane. He stands up and we stare each other down for a minute, then we laugh and then he delivers a solemn good luck and farewell.
In twenty minutes, we are in the air. The sun has set, and it's raining hard. I turn on the instrument panel lights, and the cockpit looks like a classroom. I also put on the windshield wipers. The plane, what with all the clouds and storm, is jostling like a car on a bumpy road.
"Spyglass 55, Ortara Departure here." The static-laden voice interrupts my boredom.
"Spyglass 55 here, go ahead." Red answers while I turn the plane north.
"Yeah, sorry to distract you guys, but we're picking up a radar click near the oilfields. Not sure it's a friendly. Can you guys check it out?"
"Cap?" He turns to me.
"Yeah, why not?"
"Yeah, all right." He tells the controller. "What do you want us to do?" Red asks.
"Tell him to turn his transponder on, and to exit the oilfields." The reply comes in through the headsets.
"Ok, and do we resume mission after?"
"Orders received. Turning to intercept."
"Red, tell the guys in the back that we'll need the radio analyst and a spotter on duty. Brief them, I'll be flying."
Red gets up and walks back to the back cabin while I turn the autopilot off. Grasping the yoke, I turn the plane from our northerly course to the southeast, in the direction of the oilfield. I also push the yoke forward and descend to 4,000 ft ASL. Heading in that direction, I can't see anything. It's raining at night, a zero visibility combination. I can only imagine what the analysts must see. Red returns from the cabin and gets back in his seat.
After a short time, I hear a voice in my headset.
"Hello?" They sound nervous.
"Hello? Who is this?"
"This is the captain of the Draconis. I was told to contact the Spyglass 55 captain on this frequency."
"Yes, sir," I reply, "In accordance with the Emmerian Air Force, I need you to turn your transponder on to a friendly setting and exit the oilfield immediately."
I stop, but then decide to emphasize it a bit.
"Failure to comply will result in the use of force."
"Yes, sir. I will do exactly that. Sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for. Happens all the time." I reply to calm him down, if he needed it. With that, we turn the autopilot back on and immediately, the plane turns to a northerly heading and picks its nose up. The clouds are making me frustrated, but I don't know why. Maybe it's our engines or something.
"Spyglass 55, turn left heading two niner five." The departure controller says.
"Left to two niner five. Spyglass 55." I say as Red turns the dial.
We pass through nine thousand feet as we do the turn. I look out my left window. The sky is gray, dark, and hostile. It's like something that will kill you in one pinch, but decides to lurk until you can't see it. As we pass through 9600, the reported cloud ceiling, my view changes.
The clouds all disappear. Instead of looking out the window and seeing dark, ominous clouds, I now see the most calm and peace I've seen since the war began, except for maybe yesterday. The clouds below us glow orange-yellow with the city lights, and the stars above us shine radiantly. And to top it all off, the full moon rises, just behind my left wing.
The blinking strobe lights and the cockpit chatter turn my attention back. As we turn, we put the moon to our right.
We attain 20,000 ft now, with the cabin lights on. There's no need for the windshield wipers, and our altimeter has been calibrated to standard pressure. We are almost feet wet, past the arctic circle.
"Man, I just wanna go to sleep." Wiseguy groans. "Why do we have to do this stuff during the day?"
"Well, if you did it during the day, you wouldn't get this great scenery." I say. "I actually may live up here after the war. Maybe I'll see planes flying north."
"Cap, are you going soft on us?" Red says. The guys all react.
I do a quick scan of the instruments to hide my embarrassment. Airspeed, altitude and course look ok, mechanical systems are ok, avionic settings are--
"Spyglass 55, come in."
I am startled, and my pulse is up. I did not expect that. The other guys are scared too. I figure since the land is pretty dead below us plus the fact that it's night really lowered our guard.
"Spyglass 55 here." I respond with a frail voice, which only further proves my wimpiness.
"This is Avalanche three. I'm at your four o'clock. I'm your fighter escort. I shot those Stovies down for you yesterday."
"Avalanche. Right. Spyglass 55 copies." I reply tersely.
It's eerily silent for a good four minutes inside the cockpit. I scan the instruments once more. A loud combination of beeping and vibrating goes off in my pocket. I slowly check my pocket, and pull out my cellphone. I had forgotten that I even brought my phone onboard. The screen shows a single image of an antenna spinning around, and below that are the words "Looking for service...".
"Cap, what's that?" Terry says, looking over my shoulder.
"Oh, my phone's looking for cell service." I hold it up for him.
"Just press a button. The "End Call" one." Red says. I press it, and nothing happens. I test the other buttons, but none of them seem to work either.
"It's not working. The phone won't do anything until it finds service." I say.
"As if anyone calls up here. that thing's gonna be looking for service all the way until we turn around and reach Selumna again. That's why they say 'Turn off your phones.', because it does stuff like that. Turn it off before it messes with the radios." Wiseguy says.
"Rip out the battery." Red says. I open the case on the back and take the battery out. The screen dies. I put my phone back, then return my attention to the windscreen. I get bored quickly, however. After four minutes, I turn to the guys.
"You guys scared?"
Terry speaks up. "No, sir."
"You will be." I reply, and reach for the radio tuner knob to my right. "This is something I used to do when I was a kid and it was a boring night."
I tune to a randomly selected channel, and I land upon 123.800 MHz. The transmission comes in all static choked, the voice sounding non-emotional and almost dead.
"Automated weather observation for Golden Shore, 0543 Zulu. Wind is 253 at 25. Sky condition, overcast at 6,800 feet above ground level. Temperature 05 Celsius, Dew point 04 Celsius. Altimeter 29.11. Automated weather obser--"
I tune back to the old channel after listening in. Golden Shore isn't even remotely near here. The monotone voice of the weather station is making me feel like the nine people in this plane and the escort pilot are the only people for miles. I turn back to Terry.
"Scared now?" I ask, smiling.
"Not in the least, sir."
"Oh, that's how it is, huh? Not even a twinge of loneliness?"
"Yeah, if we could just get back to work and not listen to the ghost voice from Golden Shore, I'd appreciate it." Wiseguy chimes in.
"How far are we from AO?" Red asks.
"About 180 miles."
"Hey, Wiseguy, you could take off from Ortara at nine am, and you'd still be in darkness up here." Red says.
"Cap, why do you want to come up here? It's dark for half the time, and the other half is freezing."
"I don't know. It seems innocent up here. It's a contrast to the death that's been going on lately."
"Captain, permission to access the lavatory." Terry says. It's awkwardly silent for a second, then the other guys start laughing.
"Go, man." I say. He is embarrassed now, and my revenge has arrived. He exits the cockpit. Another scan of the instruments says that everything's running smoothly. I reconfirm our course.
Red hits the radio. "Avalanche three, Spyglass 55 would like to ask a question."
"Avalanche three. Go ahead." You can hear his engine noise through the radios. Poor guy must be deaf.
"What would you do, sitting in that cramped cockpit, if you suddenly had to take a crap?" He asks. Me and Wiseguy laugh.
"Don't talk to me about that." He replies after a minute. I can tell he's been laughing; he sniffles and it seems like his eyes watered too. "I usually take care of it before." He says. Terry returns.
We return to our stations. After what seems like only a couple of minutes, Wiseguy says that we are 30 miles from AO. I tell the analysts to report to their stations. I also adjust the altitude on the autopilot to 3,000 ft, standard bombing pattern altitude. Red tells the escort to descend with us, in that back-to-business tone. We pass through 18,000 ft, and I have to retune the altimeter to storm conditions. It was so calm, and now I have to keep my guard up again.
"Shut off the lights, the transponder, and the radios, cap."
I forgot about that. I quickly go through the steps, but leave the radios on for just long enough.
"Avalanche three, go into radio silence. Contact us only for emergencies."
"Roger. Going silent."
We're going in silent now, starting a torpedo run.
"Red, set the course to 180, and the altitude to 20,000. As soon as we shoot this thing off, we're turning around."
"Right." He replies.
We pass by a large iceberg, and we arrive at the first waypoint. I talk to the back.
"Hey back there, I'm just going to be flying the pattern for you. You are responsible for dropping the sonobuoy at the correct location. After we drop, I'm turning straight around."
I start at Waypoint 1. From there, I turn to Waypoint 2 with instructions from Wiseguy, 15 minutes to the northeast. The aircraft is responsive and doesn't shake as much as it did in Ortara. Once we reach Waypoint 2, I turn to the north. Their radar should have picked us up by now. Five minutes pass silently. The only sound is the humming of the engines. The only sight is of a choppy black ocean.
The sound of a sledgehammer being swung violently against the bottom of the plane interrupts the monotony. The sonobuoy has been released. The aircraft immediately feels lighter, and it almost feels like it is climbing on its own.
"Sonobuoy away," Terry says.
"Red, hit the autopilot." I say. He pushes the five autopilot buttons, and I turn the heading to 176. We climb out again, greeting the moon and stars, and saying goodbye to the storm.
The analysts are still at their stations, programming and receiving from the sonobuoy. Nice to see that they're doing something now.
Upon establishing course and altitude, I turn the radios and transponder back on. I contact the escort pilot.
"Spyglass 55 to Avalanche 3. Still with us over there?"
"Yeah. It's boring here." He replies, almost sleepily.
"You're doing it right. No one's come after us." I say. But there's no reply. The silence and monotony return. I actually quite enjoy it. The polar night. It gives me a chance to-
The F-18 that was next to me now rushes ahead of me, afterburners ablaze.
"Spyglass 55, take evasive action!" shouts the Avalanche pilot.
That doesn't have to be repeated twice. I take the autopilot off and dive for 4,000, same as yesterday. The other guys have heard the order too, and are all ready this time. I hope that they're all buckled up in the back.
Six bullets hit the fuselage, and it sounds too close to the cockpit. One even hits the left wing near my window. The aircraft accelerates as it drops out of the sky at a steep angle. It seems as though I will fall onto the panel, but the seat restraints hold me back. The straps press against my chest. The ground fills the view out of my windshield.
We pass 280 mph, past the safe structural limitations of the aircraft. Our altitude is 14,500 ft and rapidly dropping. I hear a large explosion behind me.
"Avalanche 3, splash one."
Guess I spoke too soon when I said no one came after us. I try to bring us out of the dive, which won't be easy. Gripping the yoke, I pull it gently back. I am slightly pushed down in my seat due to the g-force. The nose pitches slowly up. Finally, I can almost put it on the horizon at 8,000.
"Avalanche three, splash one. I don't see you anymore, but you guys just stay at that altitude. I'll get another fighter over here."
An alarm goes off. We're losing cabin pressurization. I call the cabin.
"We're losing oxygen. Put the oxygen masks on." I speak to the crew. "Masks on."
I reach for the black-gray mask next to my flight display and pull the straps around my head. I breathe through the mask, and it smells like rubber. At this altitude, it's not necessary, but I'm not taking chances. Clouds and mountains pass below my windshield. A deadly combination.
"Avalanche 3, thanks for the cover. Is it safe to climb to 11 angels? I have zero visibility down here."
"Avalanche three here. Can you climb?" The hole in the wing is trailing fuel, and I might not climb. The engines would work harder and the fuel would run out quicker. But, then again, it's only three thousand feet.
"Maybe. Are we safe?"
"Um, I'm pretty sure." A pause. "Why does your voice sound different?" He asks.
"I'm wearing a mask. We're losing pressure."
"I'll contact the AWACS. They'll talk to Ortara and we'll see if we can't divert you."
"You don't need to do that. We--"
"Cap," Red interjects, "We really need a divert. We're running out of fuel, oxygen, and I'm pretty sure there's a monster storm in Ortara."
"Ok." I ponder the issue. That's almost parallel to a mission abort. We're expected in Ortara. "Wiseguy, Terry, what do you guys feel?"
"I think we need a divert." Terry says.
"Me too." says Wiseguy.
"What will we tell the mechanics? And the General?" I ask.
"We got shot. Not our fault. Stuff like this happens in war. It's their job to fix the plane. And the General would be happy to see us and the plane intact. What have we done wrong this whole time?" Terry says.
"What now?" Red asks.
"Climb." I say finally. "Once we're above the clouds, change the altimeter. Pull the thrust back to 60%."
"Yes, sir." He says, and gets back to work.
"Wiseguy. What's the closest Emmerian airfield that can take us?"
"Lemme see..." he leans and stares into his screen. He looks like an alien, with the blue light against his masked face. "Goose Bay Field."
"What's the weather looking like there?"
"Cloudy. Windy. No precipitation." He says. That's gonna be a hard landing.
"Ok." I talk to the escort. "Avalanche 3, what's the deal?"
"AWACS says Goose bay is a prime candidate, but they have to check with Ortara. Stand by."
A two minute pause drags on. I retrace the last couple of events.
Thank escort: Ok.
Get shot: I'll evaluate the damage after this.
Save descent: Amazing.
Climb: Ok, watch fuel and speed.
Enemy down: Ok.
Divert: General won't be happy. But, I suppose we'll just have to live with that.
Back to work.
"Red! What's the plane lookin' like?" I ask.
"Fuel is holding slash dropping slowly. Speed? Speed is slower than a grandmother."
"Ok. Terry, go in back. See what's been hit and get a sitrep on the analysts."
"Um, what about the oxygen?" He asks.
"We're at 11,000 feet." Red says. "I believe you can breathe."
"Godspeed. If you suffocate, I'll recognize you for your actions." I say as he leaves. After two minutes he comes back and puts his mask back on.
"They're shaken up, one has a bruise from hitting his head, not too serious. The observation bay got hit."
"Good, expensive equipment is damaged. General's gonna LOVE this." I say.
"Spyglass 55. Ortara's perfectly ok with the diversion. Go to Goose Bay." The escort says.
"Going to Goose Bay. Thanks, man. Thank Ortara for me, too." I say. "Red. If you get too tired or overwhelmed, just hand me control."
"Yeah." He gets back to flying, but reconsiders and hands me control. We turn in an easterly direction, and fly that way for five minutes. I start to descend to 4,000.
"Goose Bay approach, Spyglass 55 here. We've been hit, ahh, pretty hard. We diverted from Ortara and we need a runway." Red says through the radio. I almost don't expect a reply. It feels so dead and ominous up here.
"Spyglass 55, cleared ILS runway 4. Once you're established, contact tower on 119.0." The controller says back.
"ILS on the 4, tower on 119.0. thanks." He says.
He runs through the landing checklist: Flaps, gear, speed, instruments, so on. I tune to the ILS (Instrument Landing System, sort of like a radio-extended runway) frequency and immediately we receive landing vectors.
"Cap." Red says.
"Yeah?" I reply.
"Sure." My pulse shoots up. Landing a normal plane is already hard. I have to land a sick plane in semi-stormy conditions. Terry and Wiseguy have turned away from their stations. There's no need for them to do any work anymore. They, along with the analyst crew, have nothing to do but sit and wait. Red assumes my position from the last sortie.
I grasp the yoke and push it forward. We are five miles from the airport. I should see the runway by now. Red calls the tower. They say we're cleared to land and we're looking good.
A pool of brilliant white lights emerges from a cloud. We're past the cloud ceiling at 2,300 ft. Airspeed is at 220. Our descent rate is too low, so I pitch down just a bit more. I can feel some wind shear, so I turn the airplane so it points to the right of the runway. The lights to the left of the runway show three white and one red. I'm too high. Pitch down some more. It feels like the engines are about to shut off due to the lack of fuel. I add some more thrust to save the aircraft from an imaginary stall, and in doing so, the altitude does not go down. But that's what I wanted.
We're a mile from the runway now. I adjust more for crosswind and keep descending. Our speed is 215, altitude is 1,100, and distance is a half a mile. I bring all four engines back to zero thrust, and we drop, gliding over the airport perimeter fence. We cross over the runway threshold and a large number 4. I pitch the nose up.
A strong thud hits the plane, and I push the yoke forward. I also pull back on the throttle and open the speedbrakes. We slow in a matter of seconds.
"Spyglass 55, welcome to Goose Bay. Turn left onto the taxiway and head to the fuel box."
"Heading to fuel, Spyglass 55. Thanks." Red says. An immense feeling of relief washes over all four of us, and we're all silent as we start to breathe again and move out of our tensed-up sitting positions. My tooth hurts from gritting my jaw. We head over to parking and shut off the aircraft. I unbuckle my harness and stand up, stretching.
"Red, what did you want to say?" I ask.
"I was going to ask if you needed to hand off the plane. But you seemed angry."
We leave the aircraft, and I am the last one to exit. It's so cold and chilly out here. A contrast from the stuffy cabin. The other eight guys line up and salute me. I salute back, and we share the same thought that we are alive yet again.
The next morning, the crew of the Spyglass 55 flew back to Ortara. the Adjutant General was not angry, as he too knew the risks of the mission. He jokingly prided the crew for successfully landing at a friendly Emmerian base, well inside the operation parameters. He was also grateful for Goose Bay's hospitality and repair service, as was the mechanic.
The aircraft crew never flew with the analyst crew again for the duration of the war. The aircraft and its crew were restationed to San Loma after the liberation, and flew four more missions including observing a weapon in Estovakia later revealed to be the Chandelier.