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       Hawx (2009), p.4

           Tom Clancy
 
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  However, Harris had gotten creative in his interpretation of the rules of engagement. The Task Force Sudan aircraft were not permitted to fly strike missions against targets inside Eritrea, but anyone fired upon could return fire. Harris had decided that if one of his reconnaissance aircraft was fired upon by a missile site or a ZSU-23, the pilot could attack the site and destroy it.

  A week ago, Harris had ordered all his reconnaissance aircraft to carry AGM-88 HARMs (High-speed Anti-Radar Missiles) and to attack any ground-based weapon that locked its radar on a friendly aircraft. Then he went a step further. In Falcon Flight, he ordered Jenna and Troy to specifically track enemy radar. Hal would fly at the center of the formation, running his Sigint pods as usual, while the other two flew off his wing to the right and left, concentrating their attention on killing the Al-Qinamah antiaircraft sites.

  If Hal felt as though he were bait in the fishing expedition that Harris had concocted, there was a reason. He was.

  If Troy felt as though he were a player in an increasingly competitive game that Jenna had concocted, there was a reason. He was.

  "I'm gonna be the first, y'all."

  Those words, which Munrough had spoken on the flight line three days ago, had startled Troy. He hadn't thought of being the first to kill an enemy antiaircraft site as part of a race, but if that was what she wanted to play, he was more than willing to oblige.

  Thinking about it today, as he watched her Falcon in the distance off Hal's left wing, it startled him that he was startled. He should have predicted this. Competitiveness was in her nature. In the boredom of base life, he could see it in the way she played cards and the way she played basketball. In the air, aggressiveness defined Jenna Munrough.

  Today's mission was taking them deeper into Eritrea than normal. The Denakil Depression was an uninviting wilderness where the Al-Qinamah were massing to infiltrate into Sudan by way of Ethiopia.

  Eight clicks north of the town of Kulul, Hal dropped from fifteen hundred feet, and the others followed.

  "Falcon One . . . flight level . . . two hundred feet," Hal reported.

  "Falcon Three holding at four hundred," Troy confirmed.

  "Falcon Two . . . let 'em start pinging me at four hundred," Jenna said. The girl who had carried a squirrel gun in the Ozarks when she was barely six was itching for a fight, and it showed. Being at higher altitude, Jenna and Troy were more likely to have enemy radar lock on to them than Hal.

  "Let's do this," Hal said as Kulul came into view, the spire from its mosque clearly discernible.

  Nobody saw them coming.

  Nobody down there perceived the AN/APY-77 and AN/ASD-83 electronics pods sucking up data like milk through a straw.

  Wherever in the vicinity of Kulul the Al-Qinamah nerds had their Wi-Fi connection, it was being routed into the surveillance pods at a bit rate that would have made their heads spin.

  By the time the thunder of the three General Electric F110 jet engines hit the town and rattled its windows, the Americans had come and gone.

  "Falcon One . . . resuming flight level . . . turning ninety degrees . . . north."

  "Roger, Falcon Three climbing out . . . right behind you."

  Troy could see Jenna below and to his left as she started to turn to follow Hal.

  "I've been made, y'all," Jenna shouted. "I'm going missiles hot."

  She'd been pinged. Somewhere, someone had locked on to Falcon Two.

  Troy had to hand it to her, she had reacted instantly. Suddenly, he too heard a pinging in his headset, and he turned hard to line up on the source.

  As Jenna and Troy banked hard to get into firing position, Hal was getting farther and farther from the other two. Carrying the heavy surveillance pods, he had a harder time turning at high speed than did the others, who were encumbered only with the lighter HARMs.

  When the formation turned left on exiting the Kulul area, Troy, being on the right wing, came around at a higher altitude. Jenna, being on the left, was closer to the ground. So Troy had a cleaner shot as he came around and locked his HARM onto what he could now see was a surface-to-air missile battery on a hilltop.

  "Fox One," Troy said. He decided that he'd be damned if he'd wait for Jenna to take her shot.

  "Damn you," Jenna barked as she saw Troy's HARM streaking toward the SAM site at supersonic speed.

  Troy missed seeing the impact but saw the column of smoke beginning to rise as he came around.

  He had no time to gloat. The sound of another radar lock-on was screaming in his ears.

  "This one's mine," Jenna demanded.

  "Not if I get to him first," Troy replied.

  He knew he shouldn't have. It was all about impulse, and Troy didn't have the best head for sorting out his impulses.

  He cut Jenna off, firing his second and last HARM less than a quarter kilometer from the SAM site just as a surface-to-air missile left the tube.

  As the SAM site erupted in smoke and flame, he could see the contrail of the SAM as it arced up and away. "Bogies at eleven o'clock," came the call.

  It was Hal.

  Bogies?

  Bogies were enemy aircraft. In nearly two months in country, nobody from Task Force Sudan had ever been challenged by enemy aircraft.

  There has to be a first time for everything.

  "I got two MiGs incoming," Hal said.

  Troy jerked his head around, trying to spot the flight leader in the dome of blue sky as he turned.

  He saw the lead F-16, the pods heavy under its wings, making a slow banking turn.

  He also saw the enemy, a pair of dark check marks maneuvering in the sky, too far away to identify as to type. They had apparently made one pass to check out the American Falcon and were banking around for a second pass--their kill pass.

  For the first time during their series of encounters since exiting Kulul, Troy felt the creepy sensation of dread.

  If Hal was planning to try outmaneuvering the MiGs, he was a goner. He was between a rock and a hard place. The surveillance pods inhibited his ability to turn, but to drop technology so sophisticated inside Eritrea would compromise the whole Falcon Force operation.

  There was no way that Troy could get there before they pounced on Hal.

  As he lit his afterburner, Troy spotted another aircraft.

  It was Jenna.

  She had executed a Split S maneuver and was above the enemy and beginning to dive. The bad guys were so focused on getting into firing position behind Hal that they hadn't seen her.

  Troy saw a flicker of orange flame erupt as an AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile left the rail at the tip of the F-16's wing. From above and behind, it was a no-miss shot, and it didn't.

  It was over in a second.

  Troy watched the contrail of the Sidewinder as it overtook an aircraft that he could now make out as a MiG-29 Fulcrum.

  The fireball briefly continued the forward momentum that it had when it was an airplane, then fell like a rock.

  The other MiG broke off his attack against Hal and ran.

  Jenna, whose higher altitude could be translated into speed, gave chase.

  There was another flicker of orange flame, but this time the MiG jinked at the last moment. The contrail shot past with inches to spare.

  It seemed as though the panicked pilot had just caught a lucky break, but his turn brought him face-to-face with Troy.

  Two fighters closing on each other both face a difficult shot. With an aggregate speed of more than a thousand miles per hour, a second is a long time.

  Troy impulsively thumbed the trigger of his M61 Vulcan cannon. Had he had a moment to think, he'd have known that a heat-seeking Sidewinder would have a hard time acquiring the MiG in a head-on dash, but something in his instinct had told him to use his gun.

  The MiG raced through the wall of tracers that Troy had put up, and kept coming--on a collision course toward him.

  Troy broke left.

  He was lucky that the MiG pilot broke right.

&nb
sp; He was also lucky that the MiG pilot decided that now was a good time to turn.

  Troy never had time to wonder whether the breaking turn was the MiG pilot's attempt to turn and fight or whether it was just an evasive escape maneuver.

  It didn't really matter.

  The turns bled off a great deal of speed for both aircraft, but it also brought the MiG directly into the circle in Troy's head-up display. The red, green, and blue insignia of the Eritrean Air Force looked like a Christmas tree ornament.

  This time, training and instinct converged.

  The Sidewinder left the rail on Troy's wingtip.

  It is a cliche to say that the speed of the missile made the slow-turning MiG seem as though it were standing still.

  There was still smoke and debris in the sky as Troy's momentum brought him hurtling through that place where once there was a MiG.

  Chapter 8

  Atbara Airport, Sudan

  UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

  The words stung.

  Nothing inflates a fighter pilot's balloon more than his first kill in aerial combat. As Falcon Flight dashed home after their dogfight over the Denakil Depression, Hal Coughlin was breathing a sigh of relief, but for Troy Loensch and Jenna Munrough, the mood was the exhilaration of victory. Two MiGs down.

  Nothing deflates a fighter pilot's balloon more than to hear the words grounded until further notice.

  If Troy and Jenna had harbored any illusions about a cheers and champagne reception back at Atbara, they were mistaken. General Raymond Harris was livid. He had already caught a hellstorm from the chain of command above him, and he was passing it down.

  Eritrea was swift to lodge a protest with the UN. Two of their half dozen MiG-29s were now debris fields. Two of their "brave aviators" had been "murdered" by pilots operating under the mandate of a UN resolution.

  "Self-defense?" Harris queried angrily when Troy and Jenna explained what had happened, his normally ruddy cheeks redder than usual. "That's what you're saying?"

  "Begging your pardon, sir," Troy replied. "But you did authorize us to return fire when attacked . . . as I recall, sir, you went so far as to encourage us to return fire."

  "I believe that we were discussing Al-Qinamah ground fire when we had that conversation, Captain. The emphasis here is on AI-Qinamah. Our enemies are the Al-Qinamah rebels, not the Eritrean government. The fact that the Eritrean government is sloppy about controlling the rebels inside their porous borders is beside the point. The fact that the Eritrean government is probably complicit in the rebel activity and giving aid and comfort to the rebels is beside the point."

  "Yes, sir," Troy said.

  "Off the record, I don't care if you take out the whole damned Eritrean Air Force," Harris said. "But I'm reprimanding Loensch and Munrough because the higher-ups demand it . . . and for showing bad judgment in not paying attention to what was going on and letting the bastards get the drop on you. Coughlin, you're off the hook this time, but I hope you're learning a lesson here." "Yes, sir."

  "It was self-defense, sir," Jenna interrupted. "As we explained, those MiGs were going after Captain Coughlin at the time we opened fire, sir."

  "At the time that you opened fire, Captain Munrough," Harris clarified. "It seems from what I've seen on the gun camera footage that Captain Loensch attacked a fleeing aircraft."

  "He was coming right at--" Troy said.

  "He was running," Harris replied. "The gun camera footage shows him coming at you, but he never fired. He could have fired and he didn't. You were shooting at a scared rabbit."

  "Or one with malfunctioning fire control," Troy suggested. "I've heard their maintenance is lousy."

  "That's beside the point," Harris said. "This whole damned incident came about because you weren't paying attention . . . none of you . . . but especially you, Loensch. You were showboating with Munrough, cutting her off and trying to blow up every damned SAM site in that desert and you missed the fact that enemy air was in the area."

  Jenna took the opportunity to give Troy a dirty look.

  "That's why I'm reprimanding Munrough and grounding you, Loensch. Your little game with the SAM sites endangered a fellow pilot . . . your shooting at a fleeing aircraft gets me in hot water with the big bosses, and all of the above show piss-poor judgment. Am I making things perfectly clear?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "Loensch, just so that you don't get too bored on your 'vacation,' I have a team that needs a hand installing some software upgrades in about four dozen targeting systems. I overheard them saying that it would be useful to have a pilot involved in their work. You could report to the major in charge at 0700 tomorrow. You wouldn't mind, would you, Loensch?"

  "No, sir."

  "Don't get too smug, Munrough," Harris added. "If I could afford to ground both of your sorry asses, I would. But I need at least two aircraft in Falcon Force to carry on with operations tomorrow and the next day .. . and the next day . . . Dis-missed."

  Troy and the others went their separate ways. Once again, as in the Bruins locker room and in OTS, a big screwup had gotten Troy in serious trouble. He guessed that he was lucky that the general didn't put him on KP. Installing software beats peeling potatoes.

  When he had finished an early dinner in the mess hall, Troy decided to seek out one of the satellite phones that were made available for the troops to call home. He hadn't talked with Cassie for a while, and to his parents for even longer.

  "What time is it there?" Cassie asked after he said hello.

  "Quarter after six. What time is it there?"

  "Shit, it's after seven already," Cassie said, sounding distracted. "I gotta get ready for work."

  "What's up?" Troy asked.

  "Not much . . . just going to work and . . . hanging out . . . How about you?"

  "Oh, not much . . . just going to work and hanging out," Troy said, deciding not to tell her that he had just "murdered" an Eritrean pilot and had been grounded. "Same old thing."

  "Have you seen any camels over there?"

  "Only from the air . . . we don't get off base much .. . there's a lot of rebel activity not too far away, so we're staying inside the wire."

  "You're not in any kind of danger or anything?" "Naw . . . not here. What's the weather like there?" "Pretty warm . . . and crazy smoggy in the Valley .. .

  what's it like there?"

  "Hot as hell with a ninety-nine percent chance of dust storms."

  "Sounds like beach weather." Cassie laughed.

  "Yeah . . . I sure am looking forward to getting back home and going to the beach with you."

  "When's that going to be?"

  "I dunno. Like I said in my e-mail . . . tours keep getting extended. Not long, I hope . . . I'm sure missing you."

  "I'm missing you too, big guy," Cassie said in a matter-of-fact way. Troy was just happy to hear her using her pet nickname for him. "Listen, I gotta run . . . gotta get to work. Love ya, big guy."

  "Love you too," Troy said as the click of Cassie hanging up echoed in his ears.

  "I thought that absence made the heart grow fonder," he said out loud to himself as he dialed his parents' home.

  "Heard the smog's been pretty bad," Troy said after exchanging greetings with his mother. She too had wanted to know what time it was.

  "Yeah, very bad here in the Valley. I'm going up to that needlepoint shop in Santa Clarita later. Guess I'll make a day of it."

  "No work today?"

  "It's Saturday. . . . What day is it over there?"

  "I guess it must be Saturday night," Troy said. "The days just run together. One's the same as the next." "You sound despondent," she scolded. "Gotta get your blood sugar up. Did you get those cookies I sent?" "Not yet. When did you send them?"

  "Last week."

  "They'll get here. They're pretty good about getting our mail to us . . . not necessarily in a timely way . . . but it seems to get here sooner or later. . . . So where's Dad, if it's a Saturday?"

  "He went in to work
. . . something about the warehouse . . . I don't know."

  It was his mother's turn to have a despondent edge to her tone of voice. Troy decided to change the subject, a subject that worked its way around to the question of when he'd be coming home.

  Again, he explained that tours were being extended. "What exactly is going on over there?"

  "You know I can't talk about what we're doing," he explained, mad at himself for his patronizing tone.

  "I watch it on the news, and it just doesn't make sense. These guys look like just a bunch of ragtag punks, but they seem to be winning. Can't you stop them?"

  "We're trying, Mom. We're trying."

  "This morning there was a thing on the news . . . they said that the Americans shot down some planes that belonged to one of those countries over there . . . not to the punks . . . but to a country. Did you hear about that over there?"

  "Yes, Mom, I did," Troy answered, suppressing the urge to tell her that he was one of the Americans.

  "Is it true?"

  "True, what?"

  "That Americans are shooting down planes." "Yes . . . it is true."

  "What's gonna happen?"

  "That's up to the politicians to decide."

  "Promise me one thing, Troy."

  "What's that, Mom?"

  "Promise me you'll stay away from where they're shooting down airplanes."

  "Ummm . . . "

  "Promise me."

  "Yeah, Mom . . . I promise I'll do my best."

  Chapter 9

  Atbara Airport, Sudan

  "THANK YOU, SIR."

  Eight days and five or six dozen software upgrades later, Troy Loensch had just gotten restored to flight status.

  Eight days of grunt work--albeit high-tech grunt work--had gotten Troy's attention. A 1.8-millimeter Phillips screwdriver and a pair of needle-nose pliers were not exactly like the control stick of a jet fighter. The first couple of days of plugging, playing, and running diagnostics with a laptop had made Troy feel a bit humiliated. For the next few days, humiliation had gradually turned to humility. Troy found himself working side by side with people who did this for a living, day in and day out. They crouched in awkward places in the fuselages of airplanes in hangars that felt like ovens so that hotshot pilots like Troy Loensch could have the means to be hotshot pilots. When he finally got the word that his indentured servitude had come to an end, Troy was ecstatic, but at the same time, he would never again take the software geeks for granted.

 
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