by Richard Sheffield
The jolt of landing gear meeting runway awoke the sleeping captain. United States Air Force Captain John “the Judge” Marshall sat up blinking the sleep from his eyes and looked around the C-5B cargo plane's empty passenger area. His watch and his body were still set to California time, where it was eight in the morning. But before taking off he had set the small red hand on his watch that read military time to the correct time zone for Crete, in the Mediterranean. He looked at his watch as he stumbled into the aisle. It read 1800 hours, or six in the evening. “Geez, am I messed up.”
At five feet ten inches and a stocky 180 pounds, Marshall looked like he had been stamped out of the standard mold for a fighter pilot. In the cramped John he splashed water onto his face and looked in the mirror at the three days growth of salt-and-pepper beard.
“I'm a mess.”
He stuck his head into the cockpit, looking for his crew chief, who was somewhere on board.
“Last stop, Cap'n,” said the C-5B pilot as he stowed his postflight checklist. The pilot worked his neck from side to side, trying to loosen the stiff muscles that always result from flying for hours with five pounds of helmet and electronics strapped to your head. “I won't say it hasn't been fun, but it hasn't been fun.”
Marshall smiled, glad to see someone who looked worse than he did.
“Well, you just stick around and keep the meter running. I may be in a big hurry to get the heck outta Dodge in the morning.” He clomped down the metal stairs to the cargo area, still looking for his crew chief.
“Bubba!” He shouted into the cavernous belly of the aircraft.
An impatient, “WHAT?” was the only reply. Two years of working together on the top secret Stealth Fighter project had broken down most of the formality between the officer and the enlisted man.
Below, crew chief Bubba Spencer was making the first series of checks on “his” F-19 Stealth Fighter. “Looks like she came through the flight OK, even though that blockhead bunny-hopped the landing.” Actually the landing had been fine, but the Chief had yet to see a landing smooth enough for his liking. Behind the squat black F-19 sat two Palletized Work Stations, which contained everything the chief would need to work on the aircraft. He dragged a large yellow cable from the closest one and plugged it in to the belly. Turning on the Portable Power Unit, he climbed onto the wing and turned the key to open the canopy. He was sitting in the cockpit running an electronics check when Captain Marshall hopped onto the wing to see what was going on.
“We gonna be ready to go in three hours?”
“You just worry about getting her back in one piece. My aircraft will be ready,” replied the Chief with an emphasis on the word my.
“Okay, Okay. Geez, you sure are getting grumpy in your old age, you really should consider switching to decaff.”
The sound of someone clearing his throat caused both men to turn and notice a stern looking major who had mysteriously appeared on the cargo deck. He was trailed by a young lieutenant with a mass of papers and charts.
“I'm Major Hollings, here to give you your final intelligence briefing. Are you sure we can't do this in my office?”
“Uh, sorry sir, no can do,” said Marshall hopping down and sketching a quick salute. “I signed for this baby and I'm not about to let her out of my sight until this is all over. I take it I'm about to find out just what 'this' is?”
Marshall guided them over to one of the wide work surfaces attached to the work stations and helped the Lieutenant spread out his charts.
“Higher Authority has asked me to convey their regrets for springing this on you so quickly, but we have quite an opportunity here. As you know, four days ago terrorist bombings occurred at eight U.S. and NATO bases all over the world. What you don't know is that there were supposed to be ten attacks. Two of the terrorist teams were captured, one in the U.S. and one in the U.K. Interrogation and evidence found established an unmistakable link to Libya. Furthermore, both sources confirmed a secret meeting to take place tonight near Benghazi. Apparently, they're planning the next step in their terrorist war on NATO and the heads of terror organizations from all over the world will be in attendance.”
“Such as?” Marshall interrupted.
“That's strictly 'Need to Know' information, but I think you can figure it out. We may never get another chance like this. We just broke this yesterday, so there was no time to put together a large raid like we used in '86. After much debate, you and the F-19 were chosen. I don't have to tell you that you'll be totally on your own out there. If you get into trouble, there won't be anyone around to pull your chestnuts out of the fire.”
Marshall took a deep breath, “Okay. Let's get on with it.”
“Here's the Op.” The major handed Marshall several sheets of paper and the lieutenant opened the charts. “Your primary target will be the terrorist camp near Benghazi.” He pointed to a spot on the western shore of the Gulf of Sirte, just inside the infamous Line of Death.
“A follow-up strike may be necessary, so your secondary target is the SAM radar site near Al Bayda.
“There are a couple of missile boats in the area, but they're always on the move, so you'll just have to locate them and make adjustments on the way in. There are two permanent SAM locations you'll have to worry about. The first is here,” pointing to the chart again, “near Al Bayda airfield. The second is near Benghazi itself.”
“What kind?” Asked Marshall without looking up from the notes he was making.
“At Benghazi they've got an SA-5 battery, and at Al Bayda they have SA-2s. Both use older Soviet beam-rider pulse radar technology. They shouldn't be much to worry about. But remember, they scored a hit in '86. Be careful not to drift too far to the south. There's a big SA-12 site in Maradah with a real nasty doppler system, but it shouldn't be able to pick you up around Benghazi”.
“Can't hit what you can't see. What about air cover?”
“They have MiGs operating out of Port Brega, to the south, and Benina, right next to Benghazi. There's one squadron of MiG-23s at Port Brega. The MiG-23 has a lousy search radar. They shouldn't be a problem. But close by at Benina they have MiG-29s. Their search radar is only slightly better than the MiG-23's, but they have excellent maneuverability and better pilots, so be careful around them.”
“Weapons?” As Marshall began to get his “game face” on, his questions and comments became terse and to the point.
“The MiG-23s will probably carry AA-7 Apex missiles, both IR and Radar versions. They stink. But the 29s will carry AA-2 Atoll and AA-8 Aphid missiles. Both are pretty good, especially the second generation AA-8s.
“Your fuel estimate is 9,312 pounds. A little tight, but you should be okay if you don't hang around too long.”
“What's the ROE?” Marshall knew that the Rules of Engagement would play a big part in how he flew the mission.
“Technically we haven't declared war on Libya, but you're given a full-scale war ROE. You'll have “weapons free” from the time you go “feet wet” over the Med until you land. It seems the brass want to show the F-19 off a little. Of course, they'll deny it officially, but word will get out.
“You have a takeoff window from 2100 to 2105 hours. All the tower knows is that during this time an aircraft will take off or land. They've been advised to not pay too much attention one way or the other.”
The major flipped quickly through another couple of pages of notes. “That's about it. You're more or less free to carry out the mission any way you see fit. I'll be whatever help I can. So, what's it gonna be?”
Marshall took a calculator out of his shirt pocket and punched in some numbers. He scratched the stubble on his chin and looked at the map. More numbers in the calculator. He wandered over and got the weapons inventory list from the crew chief. Without looking up, he circled three items and handed it back.
“How's this sound, Major? I think the fuel is a little too tight, so I'll load one bay with an extra fuel cell. That will give me 11,900 pounds. So if I find something interesting, I'll be able to hang around for a while. Two Mavericks will go in another bay for the primary and secondary targets. Those MiG-29s worry me a little, so I'll take four Sidewinders. This still leaves one bay open. Since I've got to fly right past them anyway and there's nothing else worth shooting at, I figured I'd load up with Durandals and take out the two runways.”
The major smiled and gave Marshall a wink. “I was hoping you'd say that.”
“I always aim to please, Major. Is there some place around here where I can grab a quick shower and a shave? Bad as I smell, I'm afraid I might cause some sort of electronic malfunction in the cockpit!”
“I heard THAT,” called Bubba from the cockpit.
“You just get this bird loaded and ready to fight,” replied Marshall as he and the major headed down the loading ramp to the tarmac. “Then you can take a little nap while I go do the real work!”
True to his word, the crew chief had the F-19 ready to fly with a half hour to spare. Now with ten minutes left before take-off time, Marshall sat strapped in and ready to go. The Stealth Fighter had been towed from the C-5 after dark and fueled. Then Marshall had taxied to the far end of the airfield, where he now sat with the bay doors open so Bubba could remove the weapon's safety wires just before takeoff.
With nothing to do but sit and wait, Marshall's nerves were beginning to get to him for the first time. He had trained for 15 years to fight but had never actually flown a combat mission. Now all of the doubts he had ever had about being able to “cut it” came rushing back. He knew a pilot's first combat mission was probably the most dangerous. If he could just make it through this one…
He looked at his watch for the tenth time in five minutes and silently said a fighter pilot's prayer: “Please don't let me screw up.”
With two minutes to takeoff, Marshall could finally start moving again. He motioned to the crew chief and waited for him to reappear with the safety wires. Bubba ducked out from under the wing and gave him a big OK sign and a sharp salute. As Marshall increased power and taxied to the end of the runway, Bubba hoped he would see both the pilot and aircraft back in one piece.
Marshall turned and brought the plane to a stop at the northern end of the long runway. He applied the brake and extended the flaps. He checked his watch again and at exactly 2100 hours applied full military power. A quick scan of the dials showed all to be in order, so he took a deep breath, reached down with a gloved hand to release the brake, and accelerated down the runway.
The roar of the two GE turbofan engines cracked the cool silence of the Mediterranean night. At 130 knots Marshall pulled back on the stick and brought the nose up. He pulled back a little more, and the dark aircraft was airborne. With full power still on he climbed quickly to 400 feet, snapped the gear up, and leveled off, still on a heading of 180. He cut the throttle back to about 70 percent and turned on the Autopilot. The INS was set to the Primary target, so the plane banked to the right to take the correct course. The white strip of beach flashed past leaving only the black waters of the Mediterranean below him. As the plane leveled out toward Benghazi at 300 knots, Marshall brought the Tactical Situation display up on the left-hand CRT.
Just as he had expected, there were two Libyan missile boats on the prowl. One was broadcasting radar and the other was quiet. “If I'm careful, I should be able to squeeze right between them.”
There was activity in the air also; two MiG-23s were patrolling the gap between the boats. A quick check of the EMV scale showed nobody was close to picking him up. But he was getting close to the right-hand missile boat, so he took the stick and turned a little to the west. That put him dead on with the two MiGs. The F-19's first test would come quickly. There was nothing to do but disappear, so he eased forward on the stick and then leveled out at 180 feet. Cutting the throttle even more, he watched as the EMV indicator got lower and lower. When his speed hit 150 knots, his EMV was so low it was almost off the scale.
Marshall rotates the F-19 off the runway and nervously heads out for his first taste of combat.
A tap of a key changed the HUD to air-to-air mode so he could keep track of the MiGs. Thirty miles out they were painting him with radar but the elusive F-19 was returning a very small signal. It was much too small for the aging MiG radars to pick up. Twenty miles and still no problem. Ten . . . five . . . Marshall held his breath as they flew right over him. He was just about to switch to air-to-ground mode when he noticed one of the MiGs start to turn.
"Aw, come on, no way they could see me!"
But they continued to turn to the east. Marshall eased down to 100 feet. It was bumpy, but keeping the flaps out helped smooth things a little. Just when he was about to increase speed to turn and fight, the two MiGs pulled out of the turn and headed for Al Bayda.
Marshall pulled back up to 400 feet and let out a long breath, "OK, let's get down to business." He switched to air-to-ground mode to take a look around. The airbase at Benina was the first to show up, then a SAM radar site near Benghazi. He hit the Next Target key and the terrorist camp came up on the screen with the words PRIMARY TARGET. Another cool white symbol appeared on the HUD as the Targeting Box popped up over the camp location. The camp was much bigger than he had imagined. It must be air-conditioned, since it's cool IR signature stood out nicely from the hot desert ground. The sensitive sensors in the nose of the Maverick missile should have no problem picking it up. The camp was 45 km away, and the SAM radar was 50 and a little to the east. He took a course about half way between the two. At 30 miles out he cycled through the weapons to bring up the AGM-65D Maverick missiles. As soon as he did, the targeting box turned to an oval and TARGET LOCKED flashed on the screen. "Not yet . . . just a little bit longer."
He expanded the view on the Tactical Display and found two more MiGs headed his way, probably the same two he had seen earlier. But the target was only 20 km away; they would never get there in time. He eased up to 500 feet just as the targeting oval turned bright red. In one quick motion he punched the button to open the bay doors, hit the "pickle button" on the stick to launch the missile, and snapped the bay doors shut again. Marshall looked away to save his night vision as the Maverick leapt off of the rail and streaked away to the west. He eased forward on the throttle and turned hard to the east, looking for the SAM radar site. Leveling off at 1200 feet the radar came into view on the CRT. Only 10 km away.
He turned hard to line it up in the center of the HUD. At 6 km he made a minor correction to keep the target centered and checked the MiGs one more time—they were getting close. At 3 km away from the radar site he opened the speedbrake and dived for the target. At the same time a bright flash was seen to the west, and a message telling him the Maverick had found its target appeared on the HUD.
Marshall barely noticed it as he concentrated on the spinning radar dish below him. As he passed through 700 feet, he fired a quick burst from the cannon, which exploded short of the target, kicking up a fountain of sand. He fired again, now down to 500 feet; still no good. He fought back the urge to pull up and fired one more burst. This time he was rewarded with a flash of flames. The blast from the shattered radar lit the desert night. Marshall pulled the stick back into his lap and strained against the mounting G-forces. With only 100 feet to spare, he pulled out of the dive and started a climbing turn to the west, where he knew the frustrated MiG pilots would be investigating the attack on the camp. They would be receiving frantic orders from ground controllers who where even more frustrated. After closing the speed-brake and increasing the throttle to 100 percent, he switched the HUD to air-to-air mode and brought the Sidewinder missiles up. Time to go MiG hunting. "OK, where are ya?"
With the SAM site out of the way, Marshall turns his attention to MiG hunting.
Both MiGs were right where he thought they would be. They were now turning to investigate the latest commotion at the radar site. The first one was only 15 km away and to the right; the second was dead ahead at 20 km. With that much space between them, Marshall figured he could take them out one at a time. He headed toward the first MiG. At 9 km, his EMV indicator beeped to tell him he had been picked up on the MiG's radar, but the tracking light wasn't on so he knew they didn't have a lock on him. It didn't matter anyway; he had a good angle on the MiG from the right and was closing in. The MiG pilot finally saw the F-19 at a range of 5 km and turned hard towards it. But Marshall was ready and put the aircraft over on its side in a hard turn, trying to keep his nose ahead of the target. "Too late, Pal!" Keeping a good lead on the MiG, he fired a short burst from the cannon at 3 km and watched the MiG explode nicely and spiral into the ground.
He pointed the nose toward the ground to try to lose some of the altitude he had gained during the turn, and to pick up some speed. His head bobbed up and down as he alternated between looking out the cockpit and down at the CRT screens. "Where's the other one!" MiG number 2 was closing in from the left and below him. He hit the Cam Left key and the MiG popped up on the screen.
"Gotcha!" Marshall continued the dive and turned toward the enemy. He used the speed he'd gained during the dive to bank over hard and "pull lead" on the second MiG. The range was closing fast and he just had time to squeeze off one quick snap-shot as the MiG flashed past. An explosion and smoke filled the windscreen momentarily as the second pilot joined the first in bailing out.
All this activity had drawn a lot of attention. A check of the Tactical Display showed two more MiGs coming at him at high speed. Marshall's adrenaline was really pumping now. "Come on! Let's see what you got. There's plenty of room to paint two more red stars on the side." He turned toward the attackers and locked the first one up on the CRT—it was a MiG-29. These guys were nothing to fool around with. At 16 km out he opened the bay doors and fired a Sidewinder missile at the first target head-on. Since the target was coming head-on, he knew he'd have to fire early if the missile was to have time to track the target. With the doors still open, he locked up the second MiG, also a 29, and fired another Sidewinder. The two MiG pilots were totally taken by surprise. Both lit their afterburners and turned hard away from the onrushing missiles. "Wrong Move, Boys." The hot afterburners just made a better target for the Sidewinder's IR seeking sensor. Marshall snapped the bay doors shut and pulled out to the west to try and get a little lateral separation just in case the missiles missed. But both missiles found their marks and the planes disappeared from the display with a bright, but silent, flash.
A Sidewinder missile chases after the retreating Mig-29.
With the air clear around him, Marshall took a couple of seconds to get his bearings and plan his next move. Over his shoulder he could see the smoke beginning to rise from where the four burning MiGs had crashed. A feeling of exhilaration washed over him. All his fears were gone. Things had happened so quickly, he had just reacted on instinct and training. And judging by the fresh crop of smoking holes, his instincts were pretty good! Under his oxygen mask, a big grin came over his face as he nosed the plane up and did four quick victory rolls.
Having drawn enough attention to himself, he cut the throttle back and dived for the ground. "Break's over, back to work." The scrap with the MiGs had led him to the west, close to the shore, so he turned back inland and switched to air-to-ground mode. The airbase at Benina came up on the display at 25 km; he adjusted his course to line the targeting box up in the middle of the HUD. Leveling off at 500 feet, he brought the two Durandal runway penetration bombs up. With 12 km to go to the target, he slowed even more and lined the target up. The ends of the red Range Indicator Bar started moving towards the middle of the screen. At 3 km out, Marshall opened the bay doors. He made a nice, slow, level pass over the runway at 500 feet and released the bomb as the ends of the range bar met.
The Durandal dropped from the weapons bay and deployed a small parachute. It hung nose-down over the runway for a moment; then the rocket motor in the tail burst to life, shooting the warhead deep into the concrete surface. Once well under the tarmac, the warhead exploded, sending huge slabs of concrete into the air. It would be quite some time before anyone took off or landed at Benina. Any MiG-29s that hadn't been damaged in the blast would be grounded until the runway was patched.
A good Durandal hit should keep this runway out of action for awhile.
A loud tone from the EMV indicator brought Marshall's head back down into the cockpit. The SAM radar site just past the runway, which had been quiet, had just been fired up and had spotted him. Pushing the throttle to the stops, he turned hard toward the site, which was only 5 km away. Pulling the nose up, he managed to clear 800 feet by the time he was 3 km from the radar. Extending the speed-brake he dived for the target, hoping to blind the site by destroying its radar before it could fire on him. Marshall lined the radar up in a shallow dive and started firing. His first shells were way short but found one of the missile launchers, which exploded beneath him. He continued to fire long bursts and walked his fire onto the radar, which also exploded nicely. "Must be my lucky day." Since this dive had been shallow, the pull out wasn't so bad. He checked the throttle, pulled in the brake, and headed north, leaving a stunned Libyan air force in his wake.
He slowed down to 200 knots and skimmed along 180 feet above the desert floor. A bright flash on the EMV scale showed the SAM radar at Al Bayda was up and operating. As he moved northward, the signals became stronger. But hugging the ground paid off. At 32 km the Maverick acquired the Secondary Target and the TARGET LOCKED message came up again on the CRT. He watched the radar dish casually spinning on the Track Cam CRT and closed in for the kill. At 20 klicks, he popped up to 500 feet. He was just shy of being seen now. But before the radar could paint him again, he opened the bay doors and sent the Maverick on its way. Ten seconds later the dish disappeared in a flash of smoke and flames. A quick turn to the right and the airstrip at Al Bayda came up on the screen.
"One last chore." A wide scan of the Tactical Display showed another MiG in the area, apparently headed for Al Bayda. Both the range to the MiG and the range to the targeted runway were closing quickly. It was going to be close.
Marshall climbed to 600 feet as the screen showed ten km to the target. He brought the other Durandal up and adjusted his course to line up with the targeting diamond. He was going so slowly that even at 600 feet the MiG couldn't pick him up on radar. Not yet. The Range Indicator Bars were marching steadily towards the center of the HUD when the EMV gauge beeped. The MiG had spotted him. But he was too close to the target to pull off now. The MiG-23 was pulling around on his tail as he opened the doors and released the Durandal for another direct hit.
But there was no time for celebration. The MiG slid in behind the F-19 and fired an AA-2 Atoll missile. Marshall hit max power as the missile launch message came up on the HUD. At the same time the Red IR indicator started to flash. An AA-2 wasn't the greatest missile in the world, but when fired straight up your tailpipe it was hard to shake. Marshall gritted his teeth as he fought the temptation to turn hard, waiting for his airspeed to build. Finally at 300 knots he could wait no longer. A loud klaxon sounded, the missile was only seconds away. “Now!” After popping a flare he rolled the dark aircraft over and turned as hard as he could, yanking the stick back into his lap. Ignoring the G-forces and the Stall Warning, he held the turn until the Atoll shot harmlessly past him.
The tight turn had bled away most of his airspeed, and he struggled against a stall as he pulled out of the turn. But the stall was a disguised blessing as the MiG pilot scrambled in the cockpit and was forced to overshoot.
“OK, pal, it's your turn now!”
Once again the bay doors whined open. Heart pounding, he turned towards the MiG that was racing away and sent a Sidewinder missile after it. The race was on. The MiG pilot went to afterburner in an attempt to outrun the missile. Marshall watched on the Tactical Display as the Sidewinder slowly made up ground. “Go Baby, Go!” Just when it looked as if the Sidewinder would run out of steam, the two images on the screen met. Marshall had the MiG on the Track Cam and noticed the MiG pilot was taking no chances. Just before the missile hit, he bailed out.
“Well, it's been a blast gang, but I'm afraid I'm gonna have to break up this little party and make tracks for home.” Marshall transferred the fuel from the extra tank in the weapons bay to the main tank with a couple of quick keystrokes. He had plenty to spare. Cutting the throttles back to 70 percent, he turned and headed due north, back out over the water.
As the narrow strip of beach passed under him at 400 feet, Marshall gave the transmit button on the stick four clicks. This was the signal to those listening nervously to all the angry chatter on Libyan radio that he was once again “feet wet” and headed for home.
A bright flash on the EMV scale announced the presence of the two Libyan missile boats. Instinctively, Marshall nosed down and cut his throttle. He leveled off at 150 feet and surveyed the situation and his options. With no missiles left and only a couple of hundred rounds of cannon ammo, he decided to leave those two fish for someone else. “I guess I bagged the limit tonight.” He waited for the next radar pulse, and then banked hard to the east as soon as it passed. Before the next pulse could reach him, he pulled out of the turn and leveled the wings on his new course. With plenty of fuel on board, it just made sense not to push his luck and simply fly around the threat.
Marshall made a pistol with his finger and pointed it off to the west toward the closest boat. “Not tonight fellas, not tonight.”