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“311
copies, ID pass only, nose is cold,” Himes responded, letting the controller
know—for the third time since takeoff—that all his weapons were safe. He
transitioned from the radarscope on his instrument panel to his heads-up
display, which also showed the radar target lock, and prepared for the
intercept. Unlike the past few years, when all the F-16 Air Defense Fighter
birds carried was ammunition for the cannon, Himes’ and his wingman’s birds
were fully armed in air defense/intercept configuration. Himes carried six
AIM-120A Ram radar-guided missiles on this mission, plus one fuel tank on each
inboard wing pylon and two hundred rounds of ammunition for his 20-millimeter
cannon; his wingman carried four AIM-9P Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles
instead of the newer Ram missiles. The AIM-120A Ram missile was a medium-range
“robot” missile, capable of guiding itself to a target at over twice the speed
of sound from twenty-five miles away with its own on-board radar, rather than
having the launch aircraft illuminate the target for it.

 
          
A
lot of low-level humidity haze and a few summertime thundercloud buildups in
the vicinity of
Dallas-Fort
Worth
Airport
were the only obstructions in the sky.
Himes encountered a little thermal turbulence at all altitudes, and the cockpit
glass acted like a greenhouse, trapping the hot Texas sun inside the cockpit
and baking his slate-gray helmet. Himes usually enjoyed flying, even in these
conditions, but this assignment was demanding and very frustrating. Only two
F-16 fighters from his unit had deployed to DFW Airport, since Texas Air
National Guard fighters were being sent as far away as Ohio to fly air defense
missions over major airports, and resources were very scarce. That meant Himes
and his wingman, Captain Jhani McCallum, one of the first black female combat
pilots in the world, took all the scramble calls for this very busy airport.

 
          
It
was never anticipated that the interceptors would be used so much, and the
strain was starting to wear on Himes. On average, an Air National Guard fighter
on alert would launch once in a three-day alert shift and spend about two hours
in the air. Here at DFW, they were launching every few hours, day or night,
good weather or bad. No sooner would they land from one scramble and refuel,
and they’d be off on another chase. A sortie lasted only twenty to thirty
minutes, but the tension was ten times greater than anything most of them had
ever experienced. They were chasing down a deadly terrorist who could kill
hundreds of people in one pass if the interceptor pilots didn’t do their job.
But so far all they had accomplished was to train live missiles and guns on
airliners filled with travelers, not explosives. It was a deadly game.

 
          
Himes
saw the airliner’s smoke trail first. He wagged his vertical stabilizer, a
visual signal to McCallum to extend into combat spread formation left, then
gently eased into a left rolling climb. As the airliner slid underneath him,
Himes continued his roll until he was above and to the 727’s right side, beside
the tail. He made a fast check— good, McCallum was in position above and behind
the airliner’s left wingtip. She would stay in that support position until this
727 was either on the ground, no longer classified an unknown—or they destroyed
it.

 
          
“Tiger
Control, 311 in position, nose cold, radar down, wingman on guard,” Himes
reported to the AWACS Weapons Controller assigned to him. “Stand by for visual
ID.”

 
          
“Tiger
Control, ready.”

 
          
“Tango
X-Ray-311 lead has intercepted a Boeing 727 airliner, registration number
November 357 Whiskey. Beige in color with royal blue stripe across the windows,
no lettering. Large heraldic crest in gold on the blue vertical stabilizer.”
Himes slid a few more yards to the left, close enough to see a shadow of his
number-one AIM-120 Ram missile on the airliner’s tail. “Reads ‘U-N-I-V-E-R-S-
A-L’ on the scroll. I observe several sealed windows on the right side over the
wing. The aircraft appears to be in Westfall Air livery, repeat, Westfall Air
charter livery. Moving underneath.” Westfall Air, based at Dallas-Fort Worth
and owned by the same company in Scotland that owned Universal Express
overnight package service in Memphis and Sky Partner International Airlines in
New York City, was one of the largest air charter operations in the south, and
its planes were well known to most Texas fliers.

 
          
Himes
gently eased below the fuselage until he could see the entire underside of the
jet. It was filthy dirty from years of accumulated tire smoke and perhaps some
rough handling, but otherwise normal. “311 is underneath the target aircraft.
No open panels, no underslung devices. No unusual antennas. Moving forward in
visual range of the target’s crew.”

 
          
“Clear,”
the weapons controller acknowledged.

 
          
Himes
carefully slid out, then above the airliner, then eased forward until he was
abeam the cockpit windows. Then he slid forward and gently in toward the
airliner until he could see the pilots turn their heads toward him—he knew he
had their attention now. “Tiger Control, I have positive visual contact on two
male individuals in the target’s cockpit, and they do see me as well, repeat,
they do see me.” He hit a button on his multifunction display, which activated
a video camera that had been mounted on the right wingtip. The video was
displayed on the multifunction display. Himes adjusted the steerable camera
with a toggle switch on the instrument panel until he could see the cockpit,
then zoomed in until he could clearly see the i faces of the men in the
airliner cockpit looking back at him. / “Smile for the camera, boys,” he said
half-aloud as he zoomed in for a nice tight shot.

 
          
“Tango
X-Ray-311, this is Tiger Control, you are clear to divert the flight, preferred
destination airport from your present position is Fort Worth-Meacham, heading
three- five-one at two thousand feet, do not overfly Carswell Air , Force Base
or Naval Air Station Dallas. Landing at Alliance Airport or Dallas Love Field
not authorized. Weapon status is HOLD FIRE, repeat, HOLD FIRE, acknowledge.”

 
          
“Tango
X-Ray-311 acknowledges weapon status HOLD FIRE, my nose is cold. Switching.” He
punched up FTW on his navigation computer, got a heading to Fort Worth-Meacham
Airport, just fifteen miles west of DFW, switched his radio frequency to
simultaneous VHF and | UHF GUARD, the international aviation emergency chan- '
nels, and clicked open his mike. “Attention, 727 airliner November 357-Whiskey,
this is the United States Air Force
1
fighter Tango X-Ray-311 abeam
your right cockpit. You are in violation of emergency federal air regulations.
All I previous ATC clearances are hereby canceled and continued flight toward
Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is denied. You are hereby ordered to turn left and
fly heading three-five- zero, descend and maintain two thousand feet, and lower
your landing gear immediately. Prepare for a VFR approach and landing at Fort
Worth-Meacham Airport. Acknowledge these instructions on VHF frequency 121.5 or
UHF 243.0 now. Over.”

 
          
On
the GUARD frequency, Himes heard, “Tango X-Ray-311, this is Westfall Air
357-Whiskey, I acknowledge your transmission.” The accent was typical Texas,
smooth but firm, maybe a Houstonian. “Our destination is Dallas-Fort Worth
Airport, we’ve got the field in sight, and Approach has cleared us to the
field. Is there a problem?” ‘Westfall 357-W, this is Tango X-Ray-311, all
previous clearances are canceled. You are ordered to land at Meacham Airport.
Do not overfly Carswell Air Force Base. We will be escorting you for landing.
Lower your landing gear and turn left heading three-four-five. Over.”

 
          
“Roger
. . .” Himes was afraid he might argue some more, but just then the airliner
banked left and settled on a three-four-zero heading, lining up almost
perfectly with Meacham Airport. The landing gear then came down, and Himes had
to lower flaps to stay in formation as the airliner decelerated. “Tiger,
Westfall-357-W is slant-Romeo direct Meacham at this time, over.”

 
          
“Tango
X-Ray-311 copies, descend and maintain two thousand, airport is twelve o’clock,
twenty-one miles, contact Meacham Tower on 118.3. Acknowledge.”

 
          
“Switching
to Meacham tower, Westfall . . . stand by one, Tango . . .”
Oh shit,
Himes thought.
Here it comes.
Obviously, when the
landing gear came down, the charter client woke up—those VIP 727s had a bedroom
that rivaled anything on the ground—and now he was undoubtedly being heard
from. “Ah, Tango X-Ray-311, my client wants to know why we can’t land at DFW.
We had a valid clearance from San Antonio. Over.”

 
          
“Westfall
357-W, I don’t have that information, sir, but you must comply with my instructions.
All previous clearances have been canceled. You cannot land at Dallas-Fort
Worth. Over.”

 
          
“Okay,
Tango X-Ray, but I really need to know . . .” There was a momentary rustle on
the frequency, like paper being crumpled. Himes looked over to the airliner’s
cockpit and saw the copilot rising out of his seat and another man, in a white
shirt, tie, and dark beard, drop into his vacated seat. Then, a definitely
Middle Eastern voice came on the frequency: “Listen to me, Air Force fighter
plane, we land at big Dallas airport.
Right
now.
Right
now. You understand . . .
?” And at that, Himes saw the bastard grab the 727’s control wheel and turn it
hard to the right—directly in the F-16’s flight path.

 
          
“Holy
mother of God!” Himes pulled on his control stick and shoved in full military
power. He caught a glimpse of the airliner’s nose rolling toward him, and then
a hard
slap!
under his seat as the
airflow buffet from the big airliner hit the F-16. They had missed by just a
few feet. Himes continued his climb, raised his flaps, and fought to roll
wings- level. When he finally got himself stabilized, he had climbed over five
thousand feet above the airliner—it was no longer in sight. “Tiger flight, this
is lead, check.”

 
          
“Two’s
in,” McCallum reported. “I’ve got you in sight, Ron. I’m at your seven o’clock
low.”

 
          
“Stay
on the airliner, Jhani.”

 
          
“Thought
you needed help, came to see if you needed help.”

 
          
“No,
damn it, stay on the target.”
Too late
now,
Himes thought angrily. He switched back to Tiger Control: “Tiger
Control, Tango X-Ray-311 flight, we had to break away from the target, he made
a sudden turn across our flight path. Over.”

 

 
          
Aboard the E-3C AWACS Radar Plane Tiger
Control

 

           
Without the fighters tailing the
airliner, Kestrel and his weapons controllers had lost their “eyes” on the
scene, and without visual contact they had only a two-dimensional radar image
to use. “Lost visual contact on the ‘unknown,’ ” the weapons controller shouted
to everyone in the weapons section of the radar plane.

 
          
Kestrel
leaned closer to his screen. The airliner was fifteen miles out, over
Lake
Arlington
, well outside the safe- fly corridor, five
hundred feet below the programmed approach altitude, a little faster than
normal, and still heading for
Dallas-Fort
Worth
Airport
. According to the rules of engagement, that
bastard was dead right now. “Comm, broadcast warning message on GUARD, on all
DFW tower freqs, and all DFW regional approach control freqs, try to get that
unknown turned westbound.”

 
          
The
assigned weapons controller was already back on his radio. “Tango X-Ray-311,
this is Tiger Control, your bogey is at two o’clock, three miles, fly heading
zero-six-five, descend and maintain angels two.”

 
          
“Tallyho,
Tiger,” the lead F-16 pilot reported. “Descending.”

 
          
But
it wasn’t going to happen fast enough, and Kestrel knew it. The sonofabitch was
heading right for the west terminals of Dallas-Fort Worth. He looked up and saw
Hardcastle and Vincenti carefully studying him. “All right, Admiral, Colonel,”
he said. “I could use a little advice here.”

 
          
“You
still got time to reacquire the intercept,” Vincenti said immediately. “He’s
still five minutes from landing. Get on his ass and try to turn him away. If he
doesn’t turn by five miles—”

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