Lost opportunities, V
By lex, on June 11th, 2007
Well, I think I’ve strung you along for long enough. I told you what we dream of, a day cat shot loaded for bear, a shack hit on a defended target, a MiG kill on the way home and an OK-3 wire (day) landing with maybe a bacon cheeseburger at midrats to help lull you to sleep. The bombing and the landing would almost be a matter of routine after a while, but the opportunity of a MiG would be something else indeed – no one ever comes out to play anymore. Put them all together, and that’d be a pretty good day.
You could write a book about a day like that.
But you already know how the story ends – and that I didn’t get my MiG. Trust me, if I had, you’d have heard about it long ago – I would have found a way to work it subtly in to every other post or so. Like, “Did I ever tell you about the time I flamed that Flogger? I did? Do you want to hear it again?”
But there was full disclosure all along, right there in the title of the post. And I wanted you to understand, to feel it. I wanted you to remember the environment we operated in: Never at war, never at peace and a madman whose fondest dream it was to shoot one of us down and parade us through the streets of his capital, or else hurl us in to some dark and secret place where evil men could work their worst – hell holes beyond the glare of public view, in places where neither the ACLU nor the Red Cross had the slightest degree of influence. There are things worse than dying as we very well knew, and there was a reason that I learned to count the rounds from my pistol as they left the barrel in training: Having saved the final bullet there would always be at least one alternative to imprisonment.
I wanted to tell you what wisdom we had received from the brave men who’d gone before us, men who set the standard for another generation of wingmen, men who would sturdily bind their fates to our own in the skies above an unremittingly hostile land.
And finally I wanted to try to share with you how very rare the opportunity is to find yourself in an armed fighter, carrying heat when the E-2 controller says, “Bandit airborne out of al Taqqadum, track south.” I wanted you to understand how electrifying those words could be.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Most box hops were boring – long hours spent tooling around trying not to get complacent and almost hoping that something exciting would happen. Not too exciting though. A man can only take so much excitement.
Knob and I had gotten airborne in good time, gotten our gas and were waiting for the rest of the gaggle to go through the tanker when the word came on the net that, once again, one of the good guys had been shot at and – thankfully – once again the ground gunner had missed. The right number of provocations having finally been accumulated, this would serve as a “trigger” event for a response. It was our lucky day, we were a “go,” before we even got feet dry. I remember that my mouth suddenly went a little dry, and my heart rate increased – I mumbled the obligatory prayer, “God, please don’t let me mess this up,” as we headed north, completing our combat checklists, each of us thinking our private thoughts in the background, but trying to focus on the task at hand. Trying not to think too much.
It was our job to suppress a SAM battery near the target with our JSOWs, so we pushed out well in front of the rest of the package, just the two of us. There was very little chatter – we’d briefed thoroughly, and Knob, as I have said, was a very good wingman. Most of the hard work in JSOW employment is done in mission planning – weapons delivery itself couldn’t be simpler, it is almost an anti-climax. Once in range we hit our weapons release “pickles,” the weapons fell away from our wings with a mechanical “THWOK!”, spreads their wings and started looking for home. For a moment there were four of us there, where before there had only been two – all flying formation. Pigs away.
We turned a bit out of the way, since it makes no sense to follow a “stand-off” weapon into a hostile missile engagement zone. We did slave our forward-looking infrared pods to the impact zone though, since it was considered good form to have video evidence of weapon effects. Some of the pilots that had brought back video of SAMs cooking off on the ground after a JSOW attack, skipping madly across the terrain as their rocket motors ignited. Our effects were more subdued, but gratifying nonetheless – where once there had been a SAM battery, now a series of fires raged.
The strikers were not far behind us, and we watched their work with professional interest even as we almost automatically switched our weapons system back to an air-to-air mode to scan for airborne threats – unlikely of course, but such is the force of deeply ingrained habit. Having completed our primary mission, we flexed to our secondary role of providing a barrier CAP between the strikers and anything flushing out of the north. The strikers had completed their tasking – “tasking”: funny, these little antiseptics that we use to insulate ourselves from thinking about what it would mean to be on the other end of our work – and turned southbound. We lagged on station for a couple of minutes before sauntering after them at a leisurely pace, closing the door behind as it were.
We were about half-way back to Kuwait when the E-2 told us about that MiG coming south. He was much too far behind us to present any kind of threat, and although he was making good time in a demonstration of eager hostility, I more t han suspected that he’d snap back to the north as soon as we turned to confront him.
Still, it was worth a try to find out. How many chances do you get?
(Have you noticed that when we talk about targets on the ground, we talk about “it”, but when we talk of enemy fighters the language switches to “him”? The first is a kind of duty. The second is more personal. Almost intimate.)
Silently, knowing that Knob would support whatever plan I developed, I worked the math in my head. If I could slow us down a bit – show a little thigh as it were, just a little – he might be tempted across the line far enough that we could turn the tables on him. If he was receiving poor ground control or hesitated even a moment we might trap him across the line and bring him down in flaming little pieces south of the 32nd parallel.
It was considered important that the wreckage land on “our” side of the line.
I did a quick fuel state check with Knob – we didn’t have a lot. Certainly enough to get us to the tanker orbiting overhead the ship if we went there straight away, but not enough for a full blown aerial engagement and a recovery at sea. We’d have to land in Kuwait, get gas there and then scamper back to the ship. A MiG kill might ease the sting of being late for the recovery. With a MiG kill, we might even be forgiven.
When I judged the time was right I called the E-2 and requested a commit to the north. “Stand by,” was the controller’s initial reply before he finally concluded, “Bossman says RTB”
Bossman wasn’t the E-2, he was a very senior officer on deck. By the sound of his voice, my controller was sympathetic – but higher authority had issued the order for us to RTB – return to base. I was shocked and angry, disbelieving. Here we were ostensibly policing the “no fly zone” and there to the north was an Iraqi fighter brazenly violating UN sanctions.
“Bossman says we’ve had a pretty good day, RTB” came the controllers reluctant reply.
A lot of thoughts go through your head at a moment like that, not all of them printable in a family blog, and not all of them creditable. I knew that if I told Knob to shut down his IFF, he would have done so unquestioningly. I knew that if I threw him a wingflash, he’d follow me to the north, supporting the plan even as we found our target on radar, prepared to employ weapons, execute the briefed game plan. I knew that without the IFF to highlight our position it would be several crucial moments before either Bossman or the E-2 could put it all together. I knew that by the time they did it would be too late – we would have been committed to the engagement with no possibility of safe withdrawal and command would have been forced to throw the full weight of their support behind us. I thought that with a MiG pelt hanging from our harness to go with the SAM battery we’d bashed and the OK-3 wire to come, few hard questions would be asked of us in the debrief.
It would have been a very good day indeed – I had never in 17 years of flying been so close, nor ever (God help me) wanted anything more.
I gripped the stick with my hand tightly, thinking hard, leg muscles already bunching up in anticipation of the g-forces induced by a hard turn back to the north. Took a look over at Knob, flying there in perfect formation – I could sense his equal readiness to fight or flee, the fascinated anticipation with which he in turn regarded my machine.
My thumb tightened on the throttle-mounted UHF switch and even as I keyed it I was not entirely sure what I would say.
“Roger, RTB,” is what I said.
Some people get to do what they want – others do what they must. There would be other days, I thought. Other MiGs.
I was half right.