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Authors: David E. Meadows

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Joint Task Force #1: Liberia (5 page)

BOOK: Joint Task Force #1: Liberia
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The land disappeared as Shoemaker pulled back on the stick. Clouds raced across the front of his vision. The prototype’s radar reflected Tomcats crossing right to left ahead of him. He watched as the radar returns split apart. The electronic-countermeasure suites on the F-14’s weren’t supposed to be able to pick up this new radar, but you couldn’t trust those Navy aviators to play by the rules. You tell them about your systems because of the new technology involved, and the next thing you know they go out and jerry-rig their aircraft to defeat it. He shut his eyes for a couple of seconds. What would happen if they failed this operational evaluation? This guy Holman, commanding the amphibious exercise, was an aviator. Shoemaker felt he was good at reading body language, but when they briefed the admiral in the hangar bay, he couldn’t determine whether Holman believed the program was heresy or a technological breakthrough. But of course, the pilots of yesteryear probably thought it was horrible to go from biplane to a single-wing contraption.
Wonder what he really thinks.

“Avatar Two, this is Avatar Leader; break left and commence a rear hemispheric approach against the bogie to your left. I’ll take the one to the right.”

A Tomcat blacked out his vision ahead as it passed in front of Shoemaker, its afterburners blazing. Startled, Shoemaker jerked back against the seat. His view vibrated as the jet wash caused the smaller fighter to be tossed about in the air.
Dunning won’t be happy if I lose this jet. Of course, then you have
to ask yourself the question as to when has the man ever been happy?

Shoemaker glanced down at the display. Avatar Two was doing okay. He couldn’t see anything to indicate the F-14 was even aware of Valverde’s approach. How in the hell did this Tomcat get this close? The red electronic-warfare light flashed in his cockpit.
Damn!
The F-14 pilot had radar contact and
he
didn’t have a damn thing. He pushed down and to the left on the stick while simultaneously pushing his left foot down, allowing the right one to ease up slightly. The maneuver brought the fighter around. The F-14 shot by him, the afterburner rocking the prototype slightly as the faster Navy fighter twisted into a hard left turn. Shit! The F-14 was bouncing him all over the sky and he couldn’t find a moment of advantage. This was not looking good.

“Tallyho! I’ve got him! I’ve got him!” shouted Ensign Jurgen Ichmens. “Take that you human no-load!”

“Such language for a young man,” Valverde broadcast.

“I find it sexy when he talks like that,” Pauline added. “Switching radar signature to simulate F-14 Tomcat. That should confuse them.”

“If you two would focus on the job at hand, you might be able to find your targets,” Professor Dunning said. “Pauline, if you are going to fool with the electronic-warfare system—”

“Doc, it’s just a matter of punching in the right code. Right?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“So, there you are.”

“—we were going to do this exercise with our high radar. The stealth mode.”

“Hate to tell you, Doc,” Shoemaker said. “But the stealth mode—
she no can to be working
. Either these jocks know the electronic signature, or it just doesn’t work.”

“They may know,” Ensign Jurgen Ichmens said. “But the exercise doesn’t call for them to use it. It calls for us to use our stealth mode and them to use—”

“There you are, Doc,” Pauline added. “The thing doesn’t work because we know Navy officers would never cheat during an exercise. Especially pilots. Of course, I could simulate an F/A-18 Hornet?”

Shoemaker grinned. What would they do without their ensign? Every officer ought to have one. Every chief petty officer had one, why shouldn’t they?

A glint of sunlight caught his attention. There he was. The F-14 was in a left-hand bank. Shoemaker waited until the F- 14 was two thirds of the way into the turn before pulling the stick hard left. With his right hand, he gave it full throttle. The gauge indicated he was pulling just under an eight-G turn. In a normal fighter, his body would have been wedged against the seat, blood draining from his upper extremities to pool in his buttocks and legs. He stretched his neck and rotated his jaw. Amazing how he felt nothing, but then he wouldn’t. No one would ever feel a G turn flying these aircraft. “Ain’t technology great,” he whispered softly to himself. He looked up. The F-14 was gone. “Damn!”

“Avatar Leader, Avatar Four; you call me?”

“No, Jurgen. Just talking to myself.”

“Then you need to talk silently, Lieutenant Shoemaker, and not risk the exercise.”

“Roger, Professor.”

The electronic-support-measures system on his console started blinking again. Instinctively, Shoemaker turned his head to look behind him before realizing it was impossible to see that angle from his cockpit. He jerked the stick right. Nothing in front. He caught a faint blip on his radar, and then the F-14 disappeared from the scope. How far away was his target when he lost him? He flipped back to the left. Still nothing. He banked farther left, watching the clouds race across his vision as he twisted his head back and forth trying to gain a visual on his target. He glanced several times at the air-search radar, but other than Lieutenant Alan Valverde’s aircraft, it showed nothing. Out there, somewhere, was his F-14 and by God, he was going to find it. The electronic-countermeasures system was still blinking, so the opposing fighter did have him on his radar screen. Shoemaker just couldn’t reciprocate.

He pushed down, sending the fighter into a left-hand spiral descent. The blinking stopped.
“There, at least I’ve lost his radar,”
Shoemaker said to himself. A shadow passed down his right side. Shoemaker jerked back on the stick. A series of warning beeps sounded and red lights flickered across his
console lighting up like a Christmas tree.
Too many Gs
, he said to himself, fighting to ease up on the turn.
Over 14 Gs! Christ, Dunning was going to kill him.
The warning tones stopped. He might not feel the G’s, but the aircraft would, and if it fell apart through his hotdogging, Doc would kill him, if the experience didn’t.

“He’s not moving!” Pauline shouted. “Dumb shit must think I’m another F-14 coming up beside him.
Must be a male pilot
.”

Across the radio came a series of exclamations as Pauline, Alan Valverde, and their ensign reported successful camera shots. Those camera shots recorded successful kills during an exercise. Moreover, here he was the formation leader and he couldn’t get his target to stay still long enough. Movement to his left caught his attention. He glanced at the radar. There he was! The Tomcat was back on his scope.

“Should have seen the look on his face when I flew down his side,” Pauline said. “It’s times like that when I can understand the overwhelming male desire to moon someone.”

“Got you, buddy,” Shoemaker mumbled through clenched teeth as he eased his fighter to the left, aligning his nose with the radar return of the Tomcat dead ahead of him. He flipped the radar mode from search to fire control.

The pilot of the Tomcat must have either seen him or caught him on radar, or his electronic-countermeasures unit caught Shoemaker’s radar shifting modes, for the Tomcat pulled away, running, flames of afterburner shooting from its exhaust. The heavy Navy fighter pulled up, climbing rapidly. No way the prototype could catch a heavy. Big fighters such as the F-14, F-18, F15, F-16, and F22 were called heavies because of their weight, size, and performance characteristics. The Tomcat climbed, quickly going nearly vertical in its haste to escape the telltale radar reflection. Of course, the light weight and flight endurance of the prototype meant they could stay airborne nearly twice as long as a heavy. He watched the F-14 disappear into a small cloudbank as it passed the ten-to-twelve-thousand-foot altitude. Nothing makes a pilot more nervous than to know he or she is on a foe’s radar screen. He pulled up in pursuit. He knew he couldn’t catch the F-14 if the heavy decided to separate, but he had to try. As long as
he had him on radar, then he had a fighting chance. If the Tomcat broke off, Shoemaker could always argue that he accomplished the mission because he had cleared the skies of enemy fighters.

Shoemaker glanced down. The radar painted the Tomcat a couple of more sweeps, then the video return was gone. Shoemaker leaned forward, twisting his head in all directions, searching for the aircraft. Above him, he caught a reflection of sunlight off the fuselage of the Tomcat. A dark contrail from the Tomcat afterburner broke the summer blue of the sky in front of him, revealing the direction the opposing fighter was flying. Shoemaker pulled back on the stick, switched his radar to standby, and smiled when the Tomcat shut down its afterburner and leveled off. The Tomcat must be running low on fuel by now, he thought. Dogfights sucked up fuel. Shoemaker made a visual approach toward the right rear side of the F-14. The pilot would have to have good eyesight and a lot of luck to see him. Spotting aircraft with the naked eye was tricky when you were engaged in aerial combat maneuvering. He focused on the target, ignoring his console, and hoping he could fly this thing by feel for just a little longer.

Without warning, the Tomcat rolled right. Shoemaker licked his upper lip.
Oh, you’ve done it now, my fine fellow of an aviator.
The F-14 engines were pointed toward the nose of his aircraft. Shoemaker reached down and flipped on the fire-control radar, which was connected to the camera. He took several digital photographs as the Oceana aircraft headed back down, rocking and rolling side to side, trying to break fire-control lock-on. Shoemaker glanced at the altimeter: 32,000 feet. Nearly the maximum altitude for this small boy he was flying.

“Avatar Leader, Avatar Three; mission complete. Request permission to return to Mother.”

“Avatar Three, what is your fuel?”

Shoemaker leveled off. He had his photographs.

“Fuel one-two. Got enough for another couple of hours, Boss. Why? You got another mission for this hotshot FEMOP?” Pauline asked, using the term for “female operator.”

Shoemaker thought for a moment. “Sure, why not on the way back out to the
Boxer,
you and Jurgen,” he said, “make
a run along the beach and take some combat footage of the Marines. It’d be nice to show the versatility of the prototype program.”

“My pleasure, sir,” Pauline replied in a singsong cadence.

He pulled back on the throttle, allowing the decreasing speed to send the prototype fighter into a steeper descent.

“You are enjoying this too much, Pauline.”

“If I was enjoying this much more, it would be obscene.”

“Things that make you go ummmmm,” muttered Valverde.

A warning light flashed on the engine gauge. Shoemaker reached forward and tapped the display. No change.

“Professor, I have an engine warning light,” Shoemaker broadcast.

“I see it,” Dr. Jesse Dunning replied. “Try pulling back on the throttle . . .
not so far back you shut off the engine!
That’s it, ease it back.”

The nose of the aircraft increased its downward angle. The stick began to vibrate, increasing in intensity as the rate of fall grew. Shoemaker gripped the stick with both hands, trying to bring the prototype fighter level. He fought the stick farther back. A violent shake knocked his hands off the stick. He reached forward and grabbed it. The aircraft slid into a right-handed spin. He pushed the left pedal down as far as it would go. The spin slowed, but there were no gauges to measure its rotational speed, only the visuals in front and to his sides.

“Lieutenant Shoemaker, you must stop that spin. If you don’t—” Dr. Dunning said.

“You’re going to splatter all over the North Caroline hills,” Lieutenant Pauline Kitchner finished.

“Lieutenant Kitchner, please get your aircraft back to this floating
whatever
and stay off the circuit,” Dunning ordered, his voice tense. “I have this now and I know what I am doing.”

“No problem, Doc. I’ll just open the cockpit and shout to my wingman.”

“Don’t piss off the Doc, Pauline,”
Shoemaker said silently to himself.
“Don’t want to have to pack up and move again.”

Shoemaker eased the throttle forward, looking at the heads-up display across his front screen. The engine RPMs weren’t increasing as he pushed the throttle forward.
What the hell!

The digital altimeter showed him crossing fifteen thousand
feet. Those descending numbers were picking up speed. Scattered clouds ahead and below showed the ten-to-twelve-thousand-foot altitude. Below that altitude, pilots could breathe without an oxygen mask. That’s bloody nice to know, he thought, pushing the stick left. Maybe if he increased the spin, hit the rudders, and pulled back on the stick, he could shoot the aircraft out of this one-way trip earthward. With luck, the effort should catapult the aircraft up, long enough for it to slow sufficiently so maybe he could switch to propeller power. He leaned back, wiggled once for comfort, and executed the plan. The aircraft increased in speed of descent for a few seconds. He pulled back on the stick. The prototype fighter shot out of the descent, heading up. The spin slowed, and then stopped. His vision steadied.

“Mother—”

“I’m coming, Nash!” shouted Alan.

“Alan, this is Dr. Dunning. What in the hell are you going to do once you get there? Bring your aircraft back to the ship and let Lieutenant Shoemaker and me save my fighter. You know how much they cost?”

“But—”

“Lieutenant Valverde, think about it. Think what you’re flying. We all know nothing is going to happen to Lieutenant Shoemaker. Prototype fighters are the ultimate in pilot safety. I personally identified to Congress that factor. Unless he goes squirrelly and his mind convinces his body that—”

“Doc, I know that, but in a real fight—”

“Lieutenant Kitchner, stay off my circuit.”

“Alan, do what the Doc says,” said Shoemaker, “Let me try to work this out. Doc, I’m going to shut down the engines when I reach apex and try to switch to propeller power.”

“You can try that, Lieutenant, but if you aren’t careful, the wind speed will tear the propeller to bits before it can deploy.”

BOOK: Joint Task Force #1: Liberia
4.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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