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       Hawx (2009), p.5

           Tom Clancy
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  "We need you back in the air," General Raymond Harris explained from behind his messy desk. "We can't afford a pilot off flight status with the situation on the ground as screwed up as it is. Besides that, your team needs you."

  "Team . . . needs me?"

  "Yeah . . . they've been on my case to get you back in the air. Both of 'em. Coughlin and Munrough .. . especially Coughlin."

  Troy was dumbfounded that Hal and Jenna had interceded with the general to get him back in the air. Both had reasons to be glad that he wasn't flying with them. He was also surprised at his own reaction when the general had referred to the three of them as a "team." They flew together, executed missions in a coordinated manner, and got things done, but he had never thought of them as a team, certainly not in the sense of the football teams on which Troy had played such a long time ago.

  He caught up to his "teammates" in the officers' mess, sitting together at a table on the edge of the room. Troy grabbed a cup of coffee and walked over.

  "Guess what," he said in as cheerful a tone as he could muster, given that the mere sight of them reminded him of the long-strained relationship. "You are rid of me no longer. I'm back in the air."

  "Mission briefing at 1400," Jenna said, standing up to leave. "Check you then."

  "I heard you put in a good word for me with the general," Troy said to Hal as Jenna left the room. "I don't deserve it . . . but thanks."

  "Whatever your faults, man . . . you're still a helluva pilot."

  "Thanks. It's appreciated .. * ummm . . . coming from you . . . I mean I don't deserve it from you."

  "Like I said . . . you're a helluva pilot."

  "It was Munrough who saved your ass in that dogfight," Troy reminded him. "It wasn't me. I was just watching and trying to get there."

  "I know . . . I owe her big-time . . . but I appreciate that you were coming back."

  "All's well that ends well, I guess."

  "It ended well," Hal said. "Unless you count the reprimands."

  "That's no big deal . . . anybody who reads those reprimands is going to see that we got into a fight and lived to tell about it . . . who would you want on your team? Who would they want on their team?"

  "Haven't heard you use the word team before," Hal said. "Guess I'm glad to have people like . . . y'know . . you and her on mine."

  "Don't get all gushy on me now," Troy said, getting up to go. "See you at 1400."

  Troy felt good, sitting in at his first briefing in nearly two weeks--even if it was a good news/bad news briefing.

  The good news was that it would be a shorter mission than those to which Troy had been accustomed before his grounding. The bad news was that it was over Sudan. The front in the war had crept much closer to Atbara.

  Troy was happy beyond words to be back in the saddle again, but he was hoping that his first mission after the grounding would be routine. The last time he had this stick in his fist, he had been thumbing a trigger that killed a MiG--and created an international incident.

  About four hundred clicks south of Atbara, Falcon Force descended from a cool, cloudless fifteen thousand feet to a hazy fifteen hundred. In this arid desert, ground fog was rare. The haze that pilots often encountered was the remnant of the incessant dust storms that made life in Sudan generally unpleasant for aficionados of fresh air.

  The target for the day was not a place on a map, but a set of coordinates in a trackless desert north of Al Qadarif. The ISR Sigint interpreters somewhere back behind the front lines had decided that these coordinates marked the spot where the Al-Qinamah had located the command post that directed their attacks on UN Forces east of Khartoum.

  A bunch of ragtag punks. That's what Troy's mother had called Al-Qinamah. Others--a lot of others--had called them worse--a lot worse--and they were. It seemed counterintuitive that punks riding around on donkeys could be so sophisticated in their technological expertise that it took AN/APY-77 and AN/ASD-83 electronic pods to keep tabs on them.

  Falcon Force dropped to two hundred feet.

  It was showtime.

  For today's mission, both Hal and Troy were carrying pods, with Jenna flying off Troy's left wing with HARMs.

  Below, in the ocean of dirt, there would be no landmarks, no mosque spires of a rebel-held city, only a camouflaged communications hub that American eyes would not see but American ISR pods would hear.

  If the bad guys were smart--as often they were--there would be no position-revealing ground fire. They knew that in Eritrea, rules of engagement prevented the Americans from attacking them, but here in Sudan, the American jets they heard approaching were likely to have a hellstorm of cluster bombs beneath their wings.

  Today, at least one bad guy wasn't smart.

  "Tracers at one o'clock," Jenna reported.

  "ZSU?" Troy asked.

  "Smaller. Just a quick burst. Probably a nut with an AK."

  The pilots usually ignored small-arms shooters with no chance of hitting a fast-moving jet--and it was pointless for them to try to hit back at a target so small and so easily concealed.

  "We're on top of the target . . . now," Hal reported.

  It was merely a formality. Hal and Troy had already lit their AN/APY-77 and AN/ASD-83 gear, and it was working autonomously.

  "Didn't see anything," Troy said.

  There was nothing to see. A few seconds after Hal had said the word now, they were already ten miles from the target.

  "Hiding in a hole probably," Jenna said with disdain for the Al-Qinamahs back there.

  "Climbing to flight level one-five-five," Hal said. "Roger one-five-five," Jenna said calmly. "One-five-five and home," Troy said. "Ugh. Come on you, what's the--"

  "Falcon Three, what's up?" Hal asked.

  "Some kind of fuel issue . . . Getting sluggish performance."

  "Can you climb to one-five-five?"

  "Maybe . . . ugh . . . no. I'd better level out at five-five," Troy said, opting not to climb any higher because his aircraft was not behaving properly.

  "We're with you, Falcon Three," Jenna said, leveling out at Troy's altitude.

  "Roger, five-five," Hal confirmed, doing the same. Guess we must actually be a team, Troy thought to himself.

  It startled Troy to discover that the others were dropping back to his altitude. Long ago, deep in a wilderness, Troy had deliberately abandoned Hal. Today, high over another wilderness, Hal had deliberately not abandoned Troy.

  A few minutes later, Troy's warm fuzzy feeling was jolted--literally--as his F-16 began to shiver. He looked at the fuel gauge. It was dropping much faster than it should be. His left wing tank was nearly empty, increasing the weight on the right and making the plane hard to control.

  "Falcon Three here, I'm losing fuel . . . pretty fast, too."

  "You okay to Atbara?" Hal asked.

  "Think so," Troy said. "Left wing tank is dry and I'm having trouble pumping from the aft tank. Right wing . . . very heavy."

  The F-16 shivered again.

  Troy was doing his best to adjust the crossflow of fuel, but his whole fuel system was misbehaving, and not enough was reaching the engine. The aircraft was slowly losing altitude.

  Would he be able to maintain his altitude long enough to reach Atbara?

  Below, the trackless desert raced beneath his wings. What if he had to punch out?

  A SAR chopper could reach him in an hour or so. If there were no bad guys around, it would be a mere inconvenience. If there were bad guys, then it could be--probably would be--all over.

  "Seven minutes out," Hal said calmly after what seemed to Troy like an eternity of fighting to keep his plane from slumping to the ground. "Falcon Three, go on in first."

  "Atbara approach," Troy called. "This is Falcon Three . . . I'm declaring an emergency . . . coming in bingo fuel."

  "Roger Falcon Three, we have your flight on the scope, you're cleared to land at your discretion. We are vectoring other traffic out of the approach pattern .. . will you need assistance on the ground?"
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  "Not if I make it as far as the runway," Troy said, half joking. He knew that he could land the F-16 if he could get it to the runway, if he could get it on the runway. If he didn't make it to the runway, they could take their time picking up the pieces.

  As he banked left to line the aircraft up with the strip of asphalt in the distance, Troy felt the F-16 shudder and fall.

  Starved of fuel, the 3,700-pound Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 had just quit.

  The lump in Troy's throat seized like the fuel line to the engine, and he yanked back on the stick in an effort not to lose any more altitude until he reached the runway.

  He was coming in fast and low, low enough that he imagined he could see the expressions on the faces of the guys on the donkeys in the desert just beneath him.

  The higher-than-normal airspeed kept his momentum up and contributed to his keeping the aircraft up, but coming in fast and low was not the best way to land an F-16.

  The fast-forward momentum was not Troy's best friend, it was his only friend. It was the only thing that was keeping his nose above the top of the perimeter fence. It would also mean that if the F-16 hit the ground before the runway, the destruction would be so complete and so fast that Troy would feel no pain.

  From above and behind, Jenna watched Troy's F-16 racing toward the runway, flying in formation with its own shadow. She watched the airplane and shadow merge into one as the F-16 dropped to an altitude of practically zero.

  Jenna gritted her teeth, noting that Troy still had a quarter of a mile--an endless distance under these circumstances--to go before he was over the runway.

  She expected at any moment to see the F-16 suddenly turn into a tumbling cartwheel of scrap metal.

  Through her mind dashed the images of this aggravating asshole of a man and his self-centered behavior at every turn. Yet despite this, she yearned, even prayed, that he would not die.

  She stared at him, ahead and below, for those few seconds that stretched to eternity.

  Suddenly, the airplane was engulfed in a gray cloud.

  In less time than it took for the image to travel from eye to brain, she realized that this was merely the burning rubber of a dead-stick aircraft's tires hitting a runway at high speed.

  Aboard that dead-stick aircraft, Troy had waited painfully long before dropping his landing gear, so long that he was not sure the gear was fully extended when he hit the runway.

  He clenched his teeth, waiting for the ground loop that never came.

  The hotdogger quickly replaced the man who had almost died, and Troy used his last spurt of momentum to turn neatly off the runway and onto the taxiway as though nothing had happened.

  Chapter 10

  Atbara Airport, Sudan


  "Thanks for what?" Hal Coughlin asked.

  The two men were walking from their quarters to the briefing room. Barely eighteen hours after Troy had landed with two lucky nine-millimeter holes in his fuel system, the Falcon Force was going out again.

  "I thought about that day, that night, y'know, out in the Colville," Troy said. "I thought about how I left you . . . and then . . . I was in trouble out there yesterday by Al Qadarif . . . and you didn't leave me."

  "You made it back on your own," Hal said. "You didn't need anything I did . . . nothing that Munrough did. We couldn't do anything but watch."

  "Still, it's the thought that counts," Troy said appreciatively.

  "I don't want you dead," Hal said. "As hard as that may be for you to believe, I don't want to see you dead. When I was lying on my back in the hospital, I probably would have shot you if you came through that door .. . but . . ."

  "Thanks for that . . . I guess . . ."

  "I don't want you being dead on my conscience," Hal said.

  "I don't want it there either," Troy agreed, ducking into the head, as much to get away from an awkward moment as to get rid of the remnants of the three cups of coffee in his bladder.

  As he emerged, he noticed Hal at the end of the hallway. Jenna was there too. Neither saw him or looked in his direction. This was not the least bit unusual; everyone was headed to the same briefing. However, they were standing awfully close to one another, closer than two pilots usually stood next to one another--much closer.

  Pilots who were part of the same flight were supposed to work closely, but there was something more to this. Troy was about to accuse himself of overthinking the situation when he saw their hands touch--not accidentally, nor for just a split second. Then, for a split second, he saw Munrough's hand touch the back of Coughlin's flight suit. Aha, there was more to it than met the eye.

  ANY BRIEFING THAT BEGINS WITH A SENTENCE containing the phrase not going to be easy is one of those that gets your attention.

  The first slide on the screen looked like someone had splattered pink paint on a pale blue wall.

  "This is the Dahlak Archipelago," Harris intoned. "Bunch of islands east of Eritrea in the Red Sea. Intel had it that the Al-Qinamah heavy weapons are being transshipped through here. They get shipped out of Iran or North Korea or wherever, come into the Red Sea, and get landed here. Then they shuffle 'em onto small boats and bring 'em ashore on the mainland."

  "Lot of islands there," Hal said. "I lost track counting at two dozen."

  "They tell us that there's a hundred twenty-four of 'em," Harris said. "Trouble is, we don't know where the hell they're bringing the stuff in."

  "And so you send a recon flight out there to find out," Troy suggested.

  "Clever boy, Loensch." Jenna laughed sarcastically.

  "Obviously it's better that nobody with radar sees you coming," Harris said, ignoring her taunting banter. "You'll fly low, so you'll need to carry extra fuel. Fly east, cross over the coast and turn south across the Red Sea at two hundred feet or less. You'll be sucking whitecaps as you go."

  "Why not head due east? It's a lot shorter," Hal suggested, pointing at the screen. Harris had a map of the entire region up now. The route that Harris had described took a roundabout track to the target.

  "Because," Harris said in an exasperated tone. "The shortest distance between two places takes you right over the Eritrean population centers . . . practically over their capital . . . I do not think you clowns want to be tangling with the Eritrean Air Force again. . . . Am I right?"

  "Right," Hal agreed. "I guess we don't want any more international incidents."

  "Guess not," Jenna agreed, glancing at Troy with a wry grin.

  It was the kind of glance that instinctively elicits a wink when you see it, but remembering what he'd seen in the hallway before the briefing, Troy simply stared back, his expression unchanged, then glanced back at the screen.

  The flight out of Sudanese airspace was uneventful, but the wavetop run over the Red Sea was challenging. The guidebooks all tell you that the daytime weather over this placid lake between two deserts is clear and sunny ninety-nine percent of the time, but pilots know that the same unsettled air at low altitude that kicks up killer sandstorms over land can also kick up killer turbulence over the water. At two hundred feet, it was a white-knuckle ride as they dodged both downdrafts and the masts of supertankers bound for the Suez Canal.

  At last the khaki-colored lumps of the Dahlak islands loomed ahead.

  "Dropping tanks," Hal said.

  "Tanks," Troy confirmed, feeling the F-16 bob upward as his auxiliary fuel tanks tumbled into the Red Sea. Without them, the aircraft would be lighter and somewhat easier to manage, but each plane was still encumbered with more than the usual payload of recon gear.

  "Falcon Three, breaking right," Troy said. Each member of the team had a particular flight path and a particular set of islands to survey.

  "Falcon Two, left," Jenna confirmed.

  "Falcon One, cameras on," added Hal.

  "Cameras on," Troy and Jenna said, almost in unison.

  The recon payload that each F-16 carried included not just camera pods, but their AN/APY-77 and
AN/ ASD-83 pods, as well as AN/AKR-13 telemetry receivers and other equipment. Because each member of Falcon Force was surveying a separate path, there were no HARMs today. They each carried recon gear.

  Troy glimpsed a few small boats--they came and went in a split second--and wondered if any of them were carrying weapons or contraband.

  As usual, everything on the ground flashed by too quickly for any of the pilots to make out anything useful.

  It was up to the interpreters who plowed through the data the pilots were collecting.

  "Dammit," the other pilots heard Jenna say.

  "Falcon Two, whazzup?" Hal asked, more than a trace of concern in his voice.

  "Damned AKR-13 went FUBAR on me just as I came over Dhuladhiya," Jenna said.

  The island of Dhuladhiya was one of the key islands on her recon track, and a screwed-up telemetry receiver meant incomplete coverage.

  "Falcon Three breaking left," Troy said. "I'm only about ten clicks off. I can be there in half a minute." "What about your track?" Jenna asked.

  "I can bounce over and bounce back," Troy said. "Thanks," Jenna said.

  "General Harris thanks you," Hal added.

  Troy banked hard, heading north toward Dhuladhiya.

  This will make them feel special, he thought to himself, to get buzzed by two American jets from two directions in one day.

  The large island lay like all the others, flat and dust-colored, a few boats clustered around an inlet on one side.

  By the time Troy had zigged back to the recon track assigned to him, Falcon One and Falcon Two were far ahead, no longer visible to him, exiting Dahlak airspace and turning for home.

  "Falcon Three, we're gonna orbit at the egress point and wait for you to catch up," Troy heard Hal say.

  "Roger that, Falcon One," Troy replied. "Thanks. I appreciate the company."

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