by Richard Sheffield
OPERATION: Federal Express
Captain Marshall paced nervously in the makeshift ready room, pausing occasionally to stare out the window into the moonless night. He had spent three days and nights confined to the hanger facility at the Ras Shaffaniyah airstrip along the northern coast of Saudi Arabia. It wasn't that the accommodations weren't nice—quite the contrary. Some of the richest men in the world came and went through these facilities as they conducted their business dealings at the oil terminal. Luxury was a way of life for the “haves” in this part of the world. It was the waiting that was getting to the captain. Three times he had been briefed and ready to go, and three times someone in Washington had pulled the plug at the last minute.
Part of the frustration came from the fact that he thought it was such a simple mission. Sneak in, land, pick up a package, and leave a little calling card on the way out. Piece of cake. All Marshall knew about the package was that it had something to do with Soviet high-energy particle beam research. It had been smuggled out of Russia and, in what the intelligence community thought was a brilliant plan, smuggled into Iran. The Soviets were frantically searching along their border with Afghanistan, a natural escape route. The CIA figured Iran would seem to be the last place they would try to set up operations. And though it was hardly ideal, they did have access to a secret rebel airstrip deep in the Zagros Mountains.
All Marshall had to do was show up during a particular time window and pick it up. But the package was late arriving—they preferred to refer to it as late rather than missing. They were all visibly worried. Marshall's main worry was that the longer he stayed there with his highly unusual fighter, the better the chances were the mission would be compromised.
He picked up the small clipboard that would ride on his thigh during the flight and carried it over to the large conference table covered with maps and charts. He double checked his notes, wondering again if there was anything he had missed. The flight plan was simple, but if anyone found out he was here it would also be obvious. The thought of flying into a trap did not sit well on a stomach that had been subjected to three days of Arabic cuisine. He was to fly through a small gap in radar coverage between Bandar Khomenyi and Bushehr. Both had good U.S.-made Hawk Doppler surface-to-air missile radar systems. Once through the gap he would be in a desolate section of the Zagros Mountains that wasn't covered by radar but was surrounded by enemy airbases. Once north of Bandar Khomenyi and Bushehr with their squadrons of F-5s, he would have Esfahan airbase to the north with two squadrons of F-4Es and Shiraz to the east with Iran's lone squadron of lethal U.S.-made F-14 Tomcats. He didn't relish the thought of tangling with them.
The intelligence spooks were still calling this a combat mission, although during the wait several spineless members of congress who were informed of the mission had gotten cold feet about the strike portion. Iran had recently put into service on Kharg Island a new generation of Silkworm missiles purchased from China. This new version had a larger rocket assist during the launch phase of the missile's flight, which greatly increased the effective range. With a rumored range of almost 200 miles, this put all shipping in the northern gulf in jeopardy. But even more frightening to the pro-U.S. nations of Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar was the thought of these missiles raining death and destruction upon their cities. The original plan had been for Marshall to hit this site on his way out of Iran. But the longer they waited, the greater the chance that someone on Capitol Hill would get popsicle toes.
The lanky IO (Intelligence Officer) stuck his head in the door. “Time to suit up; looks like we may go this time.” That's what he said the last three times, thought Marshall, as he started his preflight ritual. The CIA only had radio contact with the secret airstrip once a day. Marshall had to be in the F-19 and ready to go when the contact was made. If the package was there, he would launch immediately. There was a good chance someone was tracking the party with the package. The longer they had to sit at the airstrip, the better the chances were they might have uninvited guests.
Marshall started to sort through the pile of survival gear in the corner of the room. He pulled his G-suit over his “plain Jane” flight suit, which had no insignia or name tag. He struggled into his yellow life vest and headed for the John. Few things in life are as uncomfortable as the combination of a full bladder and high Gs.
Ready to go, he attached the small clipboard to his thigh, grabbed his gloves and helmet bag, and headed out into the hanger. His crew chief, Master Sergeant Bubba Spencer, had just finished his preflight prep of the sleek black F-19 and was putting on another pot of coffee.
“Gonna go flyin' today, Boss?” asked Bubba, as he handed the captain the aircraft acceptance form to sign.
“Your guess is as good as mine, Bubba.” Marshall signed the paperwork and began his walk-around of the aircraft to check the control surfaces and look for leaks.
“Well, I hear it's a go this time, sir.”
“Sounds good to me.” Although still skeptical, Marshall had learned to trust Bubba's information. Wherever they went in the world, Bubba would tap into the most up-to-date informational database in the military, the sergeant's grapevine. Sergeants seemed to always know what was going on before the officers did.
Marshall finished his walk-around and scrambled up the ladder to the cockpit. Bubba followed him up to help get him strapped in. “I tell you Boss, you're gonna go.”
Marshall yelled down to the CIA man who always seemed to show up when Bubba made a fresh pot of coffee. “What's the latest on the strike option?”
“It seems that the DCI is having a hard time catching up to the congressmen in question. So until I hear otherwise, it's on.” In actuality, the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) was playing an intense game of hide and seek in Washington, hoping the mission would start before those particular congress members could find him.
With the auxiliary power unit fired up, Marshall punched a button and the cockpit avionics blinked to life. He activated the BITE (Built-in Test Equipment) and watched as they ran through their computer checks. Once completed, he brought up the Internal Navigation System. After waiting a minute for the INS gyros to spin up, he punched in the coordinates of Ras Shaffaniya to let the plane know where it was. When the correct map popped up on the left-hand display, he moved the cursor to set the waypoints to his chosen flight path. Everything checked out ready to go. There was nothing to do now but wait.
When the CIA man was satisfied the F-19 was ready to go, he headed for the radio room to try and make contact with the rebel airstrip. A few minutes later he reappeared in the doorway, made a circle in the air with his thumb and finger, and disappeared again. Bubba hit a button to kill the red night working lights and opened both the large hanger doors as Marshall started to spool up the two big turbojet engines. He took his helmet out of the blue bag with “The Judge” blazed across the side in red, put it on, and plugged it in. The roar of the GE turbojets made conversation impossible, so Bubba put on a headset and plugged it into the undercarriage of the jet. “See Boss, I told you!” he shouted over the roar of the engines.
“I'm not airborne yet, Bubba.”
The intelligence officer appeared at the door and waved Bubba over. After a few quick words, he gave the captain a quick salute and disappeared.
“Like I said Boss, it's a go. Good luck and Godspeed, sir.” He stepped back, unhooked his headset, came to ramrod attention, and gave the captain a sharp salute.
Marshall's gloved hand returned the salute crisply and then eased the throttle forward. The F-19 rolled out of the hanger. Once clear of the doors, he stopped the rolling aircraft to check the brakes and to arm the ejection seat. The seat was always left unarmed when the aircraft was in a hanger—you wouldn't want it to accidentally shoot you through the roof. He moved the stick and watched over his shoulder as all the control surfaces moved correctly. He raised and lowered the dorsal fin-like speed brake. Three blinks from a light in the tower told him he was free to taxi.
After running through the checklist, Marshall taxis toward the runway.
He advanced the throttle a little more and drove quickly to the end of the runway, feeling naked and exposed on the ground. A rapid 180-degree turn and he was ready to” go. Without even a pause, he extended his flaps and pushed the throttle to the stops. Blue flame shot out of the rear of the strange-looking aircraft as it lurched forward and rumbled down the runway. At 130 knots he pulled back on the stick, and the ride got suddenly smooth as the gear left the tarmac. Finally, Operation Federal Express was underway.
Once airborne, he immediately cleaned up the aircraft by snapping up the landing gear. A quick punch on the keyboard engaged the autopilot while he cycled through his weapons and brought up the Tactical Display screen. This screen would be constantly updated by a circling E-3C Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft. The E-3C couldn't come to his aid, but it could provide him with a much better picture of what was going on in the area than his enemy would have.
This was going to be a walk in the park, thought Marshall, as he scanned the instruments and started to settle into his flying routine. As the craft leveled out at 495 feet, the updated display came up. This was his first indication that everything might not go as planned. The gap in radar coverage he had planned to exploit had been filled by three patrolling missile boats.
“Well, they never said this was going to be easy.” Still, on the other side of the Persian Gulf and over a hundred kilometers away, it was hard to tell just how close together the patrol boats were. But since they carried the older pulse-type radar, Marshall figured he could get around them somehow.
Just as Marshall was beginning to get comfortable again, the situation went from bad to worse as the E-3C reported aircraft taking off from both Bandar Khomenyi and Bushehr, probably F-5s. They quickly appeared on the Tactical Display headed out over the gulf. Moments later they were joined by a third aircraft, possibly an F-14 from Shiraz. It was Marshall's worst nightmare. Either the Iranians were incredibly lucky or the long delay had given someone the opportunity to locate him. Either way, things were going to be very difficult from here on in.
Marshall also figured if they knew about him, then the team at the secret airfield was in even more danger. The sooner he could get there and pick up the package, the sooner they could disappear into the safety of the rugged Zagros Mountains.
He disengaged the autopilot and reduced the throttle to about 60 percent. Pushing forward on the stick, he eased the aircraft down to 200 feet, then to 150. The pitch black waters of the gulf slid silently past beneath him. Switching to air-to-air mode he picked up the first F-5 on the TrackCam. It was moving at 600 knots. The three aircraft appeared to be moving to take up patrol positions in front of the missile boats—a nice, layered defense. He cycled through the other aircraft, confirming they were indeed another F-5 and an F-14.
Marshall pushed his loose oxygen mask aside and scratched his chin while he weighed his options. He could attack the aircraft and one of the missile boats to clear his path, but doing so would alert everyone to his presence and get a lot more aircraft in the air looking for him. Other radar operators would also be much more alert or they might wake up the first team operators. He would much rather slip in without being seen and stir things up on the way out. He decided to try the quiet approach first.
The F-14 worried Marshall more than the others. It had an excellent doppler air-to-air radar and only the best pilots got to fly them. The F-5s were equipped with older pulse-type radars, easy to sneak by but tough in a tight battle. The F-14 had taken up a position in between the F-5s. “That's where I would have put it,” thought Marshall. It was patrolling in a clockwise direction, so Marshall eased the stick to the left. He planned to try and sneak behind the F-14 to the left and then do his best to avoid the F-5 to that side.
The F-14 pulled out of a turn and was pointing directly at the F-19. Marshall eased the stick forward and took the plane down to 100 feet in preparation for the coming radar sweep. He watched the EMV scale as the pulse from the F-14 made a bright blue bar that extended about halfway down the scale. It was strong but still had a ways to go before it would detect him. His EMV was hugging the bottom of the scale.
Immediately after the pulse, he turned a little to the right to try and get out of the cone of radar coverage in front of the aircraft as quickly as possible. The next pulse came. It was stronger than the first but still not strong enough to pick up the slow-moving F-19. The range was only 30 km when the F-14 passed in front of Marshall moving right to left in its racetrack search pattern. He tried to slide in behind it, hoping he could make it past him before he came around the pattern again. He increased the throttle to try and keep up with the faster fighter.
Stay cool and sneak under this fighter patrol.
The F-5 on that side was getting uncomfortably close. A pulse from his radar was almost to the detection level, so Marshall gritted his teeth and backed off the throttle to reduce his radar signature. His heart pounded the seconds away as he waited for the F-5 to turn. But it kept on coming straight towards him.
BONK! A yellow flash on the EMV scale and the warning tone told him the F-5 had picked up his radar return. It probably had not located him yet, but it was close. Marshall increased the throttle a little and turned hard heading straight for the F-5. He was trying to get past him and out of his radar cone before the next pulse. Besides, pulse radars were best fooled by flying straight at them. At least that was the theory.
He pulled out of the turn and leveled his wings just before the next pulse. This time it showed up as a blue bar on the scale. It was close to seeing him but still in the safe range. The F-5 flashed by him on his right before the next pulse. Marshall took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes. He was out of danger for the moment.
BONK! His break was short lived as another warning tone sounded. Shocked, he looked quickly to the EMV scale. This time he had been spotted by a ground-based radar. A check of his altitude showed why. During his hard turns to avoid the F-5, he had wandered up to 500 feet and into the radar coverage zone of the Hawk Doppler system at Bandar Khomenyi. “Rookie mistake,” he grumbled, as he cut the throttle and dove for the deck. When the next pulse came, it went all the way down the scale but stopped just short of the detection threshold. Reducing his speed and altitude had done the trick. Marshall immediately increased the throttle and turned hard away from the radar source, just managing to pull out before the next pulse. Two more seconds and it would have had him. He took a course headed due east; this took him away from the threatening Hawk SAM battery but right back into the teeth of the three patrolling aircraft, all of which seemed to be heading straight towards him.
"Well, when your plan doesn't work, you make a new plan." Marshall cycled through his weapons to arm the three AMRAMM radar-guided missiles in bay number 3 and snapped his oxygen mask firmly into place.
Three against one weren't his favorite odds but he would be able to get off the first shot. Words from flight training came back to him. "Lose sight, lose fight." He could see them and they couldn't see him, not yet at least. Marshall's fingers played the keyboard and locked onto the first target, an F-5 Tiger II. He wanted to take this first bogey by surprise. Opening his bay doors to use a missile would probably give his position away so he elected to go after the first bogey with his cannon.
He pushed the throttle to' the wall and started a shallow left turn to keep the Tiger in his 12 o'clock position. With over a thousand knots closure speed, the target grew rapidly in the aiming circle on the HUD. Marshall was going to shoot him in the face with a frontal cannon shot. The Tiger veered slightly to the left, still unaware of the danger, but Marshall stayed padlocked on the F-5's course.
When the range fell to 8 km, Marshall put the "death dot" gun aiming circle a little ahead of the target and squeezed the first burst of cannon fire. He banked to the left to pull a little more lead on the bogey and squeezed off another burst of 50 cannon shells. He felt, more than heard, the burr of the gatling cannon as it filled the sky in front of the Tiger with a curtain of exploding steel. His timing had been good and the Tiger flew right through the deadly sheet of fire. It's left wing tip and stabilizer went immediately; then it burst into flames and cartwheeled into cold black water.
"One down!" Marshall burst through the smoke trail left by the burning F-5 and reefed the stick back into a hard climbing right turn. The other two bogeys were just now aware of his presence and adjusted their headings. Still turning hard to the right at 5000 feet, Marshall rolled inverted and pointed the nose below the horizon to gain speed. The other two bogeys now came into view below him and to his right. He pulled back hard on the stick and fought the climbing Gforces as his turn tightened.
There's no kill like a guns kill!
The F-14 popped up on the TrackCam at the same instant the warning tone sounded: It had radar lock on him. The yellow TRACK light flashed its warning as the bay doors whined opened beneath the F-19. A short pylon extended below the aircraft and the AMRAAM missiles attached came alive to search for a target. Marshall held his tight turn until the words TARGET LOCKED appeared on the TrackCam CRT. With that he squeezed the trigger and an AMRAAM leapt off the rail after the Tomcat. At almost the same instant a bright plume appeared under the wing of the F-14 as an AIM-7 Sparrow missile set out in search of Marshall's Stealth Fighter.
The hard turn had bled away a great deal of Marshall's airspeed, so he had no choice but to dive for the deck if he wanted to have enough speed to avoid the incoming missile. A flashing yellow R on the righthand console told him the missile's robot brain had located him and was tracking. He started a shallow turn to the right during the dive to try and force the missile off to his side. Sweat rolled down his face and off the tip of his oxygen mask as he watched the altimeter unwind in a blur. At 200 feet he pulled up. The missile was now directly off to his right. In one quick motion, he leveled the wings, punched out two blooms of chaff, and dipped down to 100 feet. Behind him, millions of small strips of metal swirled into a cloud in his slipstream. It made a much nicer target than the radar elusive fighter, so the missile released the F-19 and exploded harmlessly in the chaff.
The AMRAAM was still tracking the F-14 when Marshall got around to checking the Tactical Display. He cheered the missile on as it made up ground on the gyrating fighter. Just as the two images met on the display, Marshall saw a welcome flash off to the right. But a bright blue flash on the EMV scale showed the Tomcat had decoyed the missile and was still alive and hunting, but it had lost the F-19 in the confusion. The other F-5 never located the elusive Stealth Fighter and was circling over the burning oil slick that marked the final resting place of his partner.
A quick check of his watch told Marshall that he was dangerously behind schedule. Though he had taken out only one of the bogeys, the resulting melee had put him to the north of the fighters and back on route. The circling F-5 would certainly make an easy target, but he forced himself to think of the team desperately waiting for him at the airstrip. "Mission first."
He turned his attention to the three missile boats that now blocked his path. He zoomed in the Map view on the left-hand CRT to take a look at the boat's radar activity. A pulse from the boat to the west flashed about halfway down the EMV scale. It was followed by a similar pulse from the boat to the east. But the boat dead ahead remained quiet. Marshall watched and waited. Still nothing.
"Maybe I'll finally get a break," thought Marshall as he considered the situation. He should be able to slip between the radar coverage with no problem, but not without passing very close to the silent boat in the middle. If its radar was broken, he could blast right by with no problem. But if it was only shut down and they heard him pass overhead, they could launch a SAM at him from dangerously close range.
"Nope, I've taken enough chances for one night. Let's make this one a sure thing." Marshall checked his gun ammo and decided to make sure the boat stayed quiet.
The stocky Stealth Fighter pilot adjusted his course to head straight for the missile boat and eased forward on the throttle. He approached, clipping the wave tops at 300 knots. At a range of 6 km, he started a climb up to 1000 feet. Marshall was surprised to see that the boat still had its running lights on as he extended the speed brake, nosed over, and started to dive on the unsuspecting warship. Bright lights against the dark water made a perfect target. The jet and wind noise faded away as Marshall concentrated on keeping the boat under the aiming circle on the HUD. He was faintly aware of the altitude numbers on the right side of the HUD. When 600 feet flashed by, he squeezed the trigger and felt the aircraft shudder as the 20mm cannon spit out 50 rounds in less than a second. An eruption of white foam in front of the boat signaled a miss so Marshall squeezed the trigger again. This group of shells ripped into the boat and taught the ship's captain a hard lesson about storing munitions on the deck. The exploding cannon shells would have caused enough damage to put the boat out of commission for a week or so, but one of the shells touched off a much larger warhead on the deck and the entire stern disappeared in a cloud of splinters.
Scratch one missile boat.
Yanking the stick back as far as it would go, Marshall grunted against the mounting Gs and leveled off at 1000 feet. He pulled in the speed brake and fire-walled the throttle. The bright explosion would certainly draw a lot of fighter attention—best be gone when they arrived.
With the burning hulk of the missile boat 30 km behind him, Marshall approached the Iranian coast. The two strong Hawk radar sites were to his right and left and getting closer, so he cut the throttle to 60 percent and tried to hold a constant 150 feet of altitude. He had to be very careful and hit the gap just right. The radar at Bushehr swept his way and left a blue bar about three-quarters of the way down the scale. It was followed shortly by a pulse from the Bandar Khomenyi site; it seemed a little stronger. Hoping to stay in the middle, Marshall veered a little to the east towards Bushehr. The next pair of pulses were about equal in strength but much closer to the detection threshold. The pair that followed were closer still. Marshall began to have evil thoughts about the intelligence officer who claimed there was a gap in the radar coverage."No problem” he had said." You could drive a C-5 through there.” We're going to have a real interesting debriefing if I live through this, he thought.
The next pulse from Bushehr was almost all the way down the scale. Marshall blinked the sweat from his eyes and reduced the throttle further. The airspeed rolled down past 150 knots, and he eased down to 100 feet. The speed dropped to 140 and kept falling. The next pulse flashed down the scale but stayed blue. They didn't see him.
A strip of white breakers signaled the water's edge. Marshall was glad to finally be over land. Perhaps the ground clutter would degrade the radar performance. He was starting to feel a little more confident when a small blinking light up ahead caught his attention. At first he thought it was a helicopter slightly above him, but it didn't seem to be moving. . . .
"Oil derrick!" Reacting purely on instinct, he turned so hard to the right that his head almost bounced off the canopy. Flying knife-edged, he just skimmed by the 150-foot structure with the stall warning klaxon screaming in his face. Acutely aware of the ground rushing by beneath him, his left hand jammed the throttle to the stops as he jerked the wings level with his right. Marshall winced and held his breath as the altimeter spun down to double digits. Thrust and lift fought with gravity in a deadly race. With barely 50 feet between the hardscrabble surface of the desert and the sleek black undercarriage of the F-19, lift won out and the altimeter reversed direction.
That blinking light turns out to be an oil derrick!
Leveling off at 200 feet, he took a second to catch his breath and check the situation. The next radar pulse from Bushehr was a little weaker than before. He checked his position on the map and found he was past the two radar sites and moving into safer territory. Several aircraft were in the air behind him, but none seemed to be headed his way. A check of the luminous green dial on his watch told him he needed to make up some time if he was going to make it to the secret airstrip on time. With the radar pulses getting fainter, he increased the throttle. WAYPOINT 1 REACHED flashed on the HUD and the NAV cursor jumped 20 degrees to the left. Marshall put the plane into a gentle bank and pulled out on the new heading.
After 20 minutes at 400 knots, Marshall could make out the dark crags of the Zagros Mountains against the horizon. He had made up the proper amount of time, so he backed off on the throttle, not knowing exactly how much further he would have to go before landing. The mountains loomed larger ahead of him, but there was still nothing on the TrackCam.
Finally, the right-hand CRT blinked and the lighted runway appeared on the screen. Range, 30 km. Marshall maintained his course of 335 degrees and watched as the target box on the HUD and the NAV cursor moved slowly to his right. When the NAV cursor slid under the 000 marker on the HUD, he turned back hard and lined it up in the center of the screen. With a few minor corrections, he had the NAV cursor in the center of the screen and was on a heading of 000. Since he knew the runway was lined up due north, he should be in line for landing.
"Yikes!" said the Captain unconsciously as the landing strip came into visual range. The strip was nestled right up against the base of a mountain, and it was short, too. He would only get one try at landing. There was just not enough room off the end of the runway to pull up and go around without smashing into the face of the cliff. One way in and one way out. He eased up to 500 feet to get a better picture of his lineup, dropped his gear, and eased the throttle back to 50 percent. At ten km out, he started his descent. Marshall was aiming for the very end of the runway, as he knew he would need every foot in order to stop.
200 feet . . . four km out. 100 at 2 km. The runway was coming up quickly. He was down to 20 feet when the end of the strip rushed under him. As soon as his wheels touched the ground he cut the throttle back, applied the brakes, and prayed it would stop in time. It rolled to a stop with 50 feet to spare, staring at the rocky face of the mountain only another 200 feet beyond.
Inching the throttle forward slightly, Marshall taxied the F-19 to the end of the runway and turned it around, ready to take off again. Over to his left he could make out something moving beyond the runway lights and a moment later a jeep pulled through the lights and onto the tarmac. "I sure hope these are the good guys," Marshall thought, as he sat with his hand on the throttle, ready to take off at the first sign of trouble. He blinked his landing lights twice. The driver of the jeep blinked his twice in return, then twice more. That was the okay signal, so Marshall flipped a switch and the canopy whined open, letting in the cool night air.
The jeep pulled alongside the oddly shaped fighter and four heavily armed black-clad men jumped out. Marshall watched over the lip of the canopy as one of them approached the F-19. With the engines still running at idle, it was much too noisy to converse, but a big smile and a sharp salute were all the communications necessary. Marshall reached over with his right hand, pushed a series of buttons, and the doors to bay number 1 slid open.
The other three men grabbed an oblong crate from the rear of the jeep and disappeared under the fighter. After a few moments, they reappeared and the leader gave Marshall a thumbs up. With that, Marshall closed the bay doors and extended a gloved hand down from the cockpit. The black clad figure below smiled and reached up. With Marshall straining against his straps and the man on the ground standing on tiptoe, they managed a quick handshake. Marshall mouthed the words "Thank you" over the din of the jet engines. The other man backed away shaking his head and smiling. "Thank you," he shouted, pointing up to the pilot. Then he and the others disappeared into the night.
Not wanting to wear out his welcome, Marshall checked to make sure the brake was on and ran the throttle up to full military power. When the power level reached 100 percent, he released the brake and felt the surge of acceleration as he rocketed down the barren strip. He kept the nose down as long as possible, building up speed. Finally, just as he was about to run out of runway, he pulled the stick back and the aircraft leapt into the air. The howl of the engines ripped through the quiet mountain night and echoed through the cracks and canyons. By the time the quiet returned and the local hillsmen came to investigate, the four men on the ground would be miles away.
Marshall snapped the gear up and flipped on the autopilot while he selected the next waypoint and ran a check on the two Maverick air-to-ground missiles in bay number 2. "Enough with the hide and seek. It's time to come out of hiding." He banked the aircraft to follow the new course indicated by the NAV cursor. It would take him straight to Bushehr. The secondary target was the Silkworm missile site on Kharg Island, but it was so close to Bushehr that it was just easier to take out the SAM radar at Bushehr on the way to Kharg Island.
Marshall weaves his way out of the rugged Zagros Mountains.
Weaving his way out of the mountains, Marshall settled onto a low and slow path to Bushehr. He was picking up radar pulses from the Hawk site again, but they were only half way down the scale. An F-5 circled to the west, but Marshall easily snuck past its weak radar system.
The lights of the busy city glowed on the horizon. There was port activity round the clock, and there would be a great deal more activity shortly. Cycling through the targets available on the TrackCam, Marshall viewed the downtown area and the airfield, and finally locked onto the Hawk SAM site. Range 40 km. He eased down to 150 feet as the radar pulses became stronger. At 36 km the targeting box on the HUD changed to an oval and the words TARGET LOCKED flashed on the TrackCam view. But he couldn't risk a long range shot; he only had two Mavericks, and he had to make both count.
The next radar sweep came at 28 km and greeted the pilot with a loud BONK from the radar warning indicator. Seeing no use in being coy any longer, Marshall jammed the throttles forward. BONK! The radar site had him now as the Trak light started to flash. Up ahead the captain saw a bright flash as a Hawk missile leapt off its launcher and raced after him at one and a half times the speed of sound. The captain's mouth got suddenly dry as he envisioned a missile the size of a telephone pole rocketing after him. He wanted to take evasive action, but he had to maintain this course long enough to launch the Maverick or he would be dodging SAMs all night.
A quick keystroke zoomed in the view on the Tactical Display so he could see when the missile got close. At 20 km to the target he opened the bay doors and nervously fingered the fire button as the SAM continued to fly straight towards him. 18 km and he could see the SAM glowing dead ahead. Determined to wait, he gritted his teeth and watched. Finally at 16 km, with the SAM bearing down on him, he pressed the button on the control stick and the Maverick left the bay, streaming out after the radar site. With the missile warning klaxon blaring in his helmet, Marshall released a radar decoy and yanked the F-19 hard to the left.
His timing was almost perfect. The SAM immediately went after the decoy and exploded with a bright yellow flash behind the aircraft. Marshall felt the aircraft buck as the shock wave hit him. But the Hawk is a big missile and has a large kill zone. Though just out of the kill area, the F-19 still collected several of the small iron rods flung out by the missile's detonation. Marshall growled angrily as several of the green lights on the Damage Board went to red. The first thing he noticed was a reduction in power. One of the engines must have taken a hit. He seemed to be using fuel a little faster, too. “This isn't good. Nope, Bubba's not going to like this one little bit.” His spirits were lifted by the flash of an explosion up ahead and a message saying the SAM site had been destroyed.
But his spirits plummeted again when that message was replaced with, HAWK MISSILE LAUNCHED FROM KHARG ISLAND. The missile quickly appeared on the Tactical Display. Marshall turned the F-19 so he was flying perpendicular to its path. While waiting for the missile to close on him, he scanned the area with the TrackCam and locked onto the Silkworm missile site only 30 km away on Kharg Island.
The last missile eliminates a troublesome Silkworm Missile site.
He continued to turn, keeping the missile in his three o'clock position until his warning klaxon sounded. This time he would do it by the book. He punched out a bale of chaff and switched on the ECM (Electronic CounterMeasures) to jam the radar. The yellow R stopped flashing, indicating the missile had lost its lock. Marshall grunted and pulled a six-G turn toward the missile, forcing it to overshoot. He immediately shut down the ECM and dove for the ground to pick up speed. The turn put his nose back on the Silkworm battery, with the range now only 20 km. A quick check of the Tactical Display showed more trouble in the form of two aircraft heading his way. Add to that another SAM launch, and things were not looking good for the stocky Air Force captain.
The targeting oval turned to red and Marshall let go his last Maverick against the Silkworm missile installation. That out of the way, he turned his attention back to the incoming aircraft and missile. With the missile in front and the aircraft to his right, Marshall turned to head straight for the aircraft. A burst of flame on the island and a message showed him that the Maverick had found its mark. A pillar of smoke lifted into the air as the fire roared at the missile site. Small secondary explosions followed as missile warheads began to cook off in the fire.
With the SAM now closing in on his tail and the two bogeys dead ahead, Marshall popped off his second decoy drone and headed for low altitude. The SAM as well as both aircraft locked onto the decoy right away as the F-19 slipped off to the right. The decoy still had ten seconds of life when both aircraft, an F-5 and an F-14, passed by him on the left. This was enough time for Marshall to whip around and get on their tails. He wasted no time in opening the bay doors and launching a hungry Sidewinder missile after each plane. Fired from less than 5 km, both Iranian pilots had little time to react. They scrambled in their cockpits to take evasive action, but at mach three the Sidewinders ate up the range in a hurry. Before the enemy pilots could maneuver to safety, the growling Sidewinders homed in on the hot jet exhaust and exploded, ripping large sheets of metal off the planes and sending them spiraling into the sea.
Fighting the temptation to run for home at full speed, Marshall took a deep breath, nosed down to 150 feet, and eased off the throttle until his airspeed dropped to 150 knots. At that altitude and speed, the shocked radar operators watched in disbelief as he suddenly disappeared from the screens. More planes would be vectored to his last known location, but he would be long gone by the time they arrived.
The next waypoint was set for the home base, but a couple of quick calculations and a check of the fuel bar showed that at the current rate of consumption, he would never make it. The quick fight had taken him back up to the northwest. A check of the map showed he had only one option.
Reluctantly, Marshall thumbed the mike switch on the control stick and broke radio silence for the first time. “Watchtower, Banshee 1.” The circling E-3A was using the call sign Watch tower; Marshall was Banshee 1.
A somewhat surprised female controller came back over the radio, “Roger, Banshee 1. Read you five by five. Go ahead.”
“Declaring minor damage and minimum fuel. Request priority handling into Second Base.” Second base was the code name for the alternate return route landing site, which in this case was Kuwait City Airport. While not exactly a U.S. ally, Kuwait was certainly in favor of the U.S. presence in the gulf. A request for an emergency landing could hardly be denied, especially at this late hour when the airport wasn't busy.
“Banshee 1, Watchtower. Fly heading two-seven-zero. Wait one for landing clearance.”
“Roger, Watchtower.” Marshall banked lazily over to 270 degrees and activated the TrackCam view to the right to lock in Kuwait City Airport.
“Banshee 1, Watchtower. Are you requesting emergency equipment at this time?”
Marshall thought for a moment. He hated to cause such a commotion. But with leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid, it was better to be safe than sorry. “That's affirmative, Watchtower.”
“Banshee 1, you're cleared to land. Jump to Air Traffic Control frequency.”
“Roger, Watchtower. Hats off to ya. Thanks for the help.” Marshall reached over to the radio frequency knob, but before he turned it he keyed the mike once more. “Watchtower, Banshee 1. Next time you stop at Home Plate, I'm buying the bar.”
“Roger that Banshee 1, and well done. Out.”
Marshall contacted the airport and rolled in on final approach on a zero-zero-zero degree heading. He eased back on the throttle and greased the smoothest landing he had ever made.
He taxied over to the waiting line of emergency vehicles and one deuce-and-a-half Air Force truck. A soon as he rolled to a stop, technicians swarmed under the plane, popped open the bay door, and made off with the package. Delivery complete.
One hundred and twenty kilometers to the south, Bubba Spencer almost took the door with him as he sprinted from the radio room. Only guessing at the damage to his F-19, he gathered a box of tools and a few components from his service palette. Out in front of the hanger, he tossed an airman from an idling jeep and roared off to the north.
In an amazing display of skill, Bubba patched a few holes, repaired several fuel and hydraulic lines, and had the plane flyable again in four hours. It was imperative that they get the plane back to the safety of Ras Shaffaniyah before too many prying eyes could get a good look at it.
The exhausted sergeant collapsed back into the jeep and watched Marshall make his long roll to a one engine takeoff just as the harsh desert sun was beginning to peek over the horizon.
“I wonder if there's anyplace that could rustle me up some biscuits and gravy in Kuwait?”