A scientist charged by Saddam Hussein with pioneering a horrific breakthrough in biological warfare, Shakir Abbas defects at the American embassy to warn the world of the new weapon. America’s worst nightmare has come true—and now US forces must scramble to put together a plan to destroy the weapon of mass destruction.
When the operation goes awry in Saudi Arabia, Col. Will Westerman commandeers a C-141 transport to get the Special Forces team into Iraq. With the help of air force buddy Col. Doug Harris, Westerman reaches his target only to discover that the unthinkable has happened. Now they must use all their ingenuity, daring, and adrenaline to stop a worldwide catastrophe—and survive what looks increasingly like a suicide mission.
From the bestselling author of Pandora’s Clock and the Kat Bronsky series—a pilot and Operation Desert Storm veteran himself—this is a “gripping” aviation thriller (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) featuring “thoroughly realistic background detail and an entirely too plausible plot” (Kirkus Reviews).
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By John J. Nance
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 John J. Nance
All rights reserved.
Keflavik Air Base, Iceland
Wednesday, March 6, 1991 — 3:30 P.M. (1530 GMT)
Jan Bae of the International Red Cross returned the small, conservative wave of the captain of the Balair DC-10 as the pilot closed his cockpit window. The portable stairs had already been moved back from the essentially empty passenger plane, and the American Air Force ground crewmen were moving into position for engine start. Bae smoothed his thinning blond hair with his right hand and glanced at the leaden skies overhead, and then at his watch. Thirty minutes early. That was typical of charter operations. He wished they could have talked Swissair into using one of their 747s directly from Geneva, but the Swiss were so zealous about guarding their neutrality that involving the nation's flag carrier was impossible. Even with the sudden, mystifying change of heart of the American government, the Swiss perceived a postwar International Red Cross humanitarian rescue mission to Baghdad as somehow potentially partisan. So they had offered their charter subsidiary's aircraft instead — Balair — at a substantial price, of course, and then only if they departed from some country other than Switzerland.
The delegation had chosen to meet in Iceland for reasons that were known only to the Americans. From here, the flight to Baghdad would take just under eight hours.
Bae turned and walked briskly toward the terminal, enjoying the cool air of what had turned out to be a balmy day with temperatures in the forties. At home in Oslo a snowstorm was in progress. There he would need a heavy coat.
He reached the entrance to the old wooden breezeway and walked to the main military terminal waiting area, long habit forcing him automatically to the large glass windows, where the quiet approach of another man completely escaped his notice.
A familiar voice suddenly reached his ear.
"You couldn't slow them down, then?" the man asked quietly.
Bae turned suddenly and recognized Colonel Richard Kerr of the American Defense Intelligence Agency, who had set up the charter and flown in with the DC-10 crew the night before. Bae smiled at the big pilot, whom he knew from his days in Washington as a wicked chess partner and an intimidating golfer. At well over six feet, Kerr towered over him; he was like a grownup kid who still loved to play with airplanes, but he had a first-class mind. Just the sort to be an effective air attaché — if he'd ever accept such a position.
"No, Richard, I tried, but the captain wanted to leave as soon as possible, and you never gave me a sufficient reason to protest."
"I couldn't. It wasn't anything sneaky, though."
"Of course it wasn't." Bae tried hard to look like a disapproving schoolmaster faced with a ridiculous lie. The effort was not in vain. Colonel Kerr was suddenly very uncomfortable and searching for a response.
Bae, with practiced timing, beat him to it, raising a hand as if to dismiss the need for a defense, a sly smile on his face. "Well, you will, no doubt, report this flight's early departure to some command post around here with that portable radio you're hiding in your right hand" — Bae noted with satisfaction the look of mild alarm that now flashed across Kerr's face — "and I suppose they'll simply have to adjust their thoroughly innocent plans." Bae turned further toward the Air Force colonel, looking him in the eye. Kerr was always great fun to toy with. "You wouldn't want to tell me what's going on, would you?"
Kerr tried to look hurt. "Nothing at all, Jan. Except normal operational caution for a dangerous mission to a criminal country. Air traffic control clearances and diplomatic clearances are hard enough to coordinate without changing the times."
Bae fixed his gaze on the taxiing DC-10 and smiled. "Nothing going on, eh? What's the phrase your big general used at that briefing last month? 'Bovine scatology'? I do know it when I hear it."
Sandy 101 — Classified Coalition Air Base in the Arabian Desert (southeast of Bi'r Fardan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)
Wednesday, March 6, 1991 — 6:35 P.M. (1535 GMT)
The food smelled surprisingly good, probably because he hadn't taken time out all day to eat. At sundown, Major Jerry Ronson had chased him out of the ALCE, the tiny portable airlift command post, asking one of his sergeants to escort the visiting colonel to the brightly lit mess tent, with instructions to get him to eat.
Colonel Will Westerman, commander of a Special Operations–Low Level (SOLL) squadron at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, moved past the steam tables with detached curiosity, collecting an assortment of hot food in the various scalloped sections of the gleaming stainless steel tray. Westerman retraced his steps back through the connecting tent corridor then, drawing a cup of coffee before sitting down at the closest table. The mess tent was indeed a tent, but it was also the latest version of military field equipment, with Velcro flaps and air conditioning and bright lighting — yet it still felt like the ones he remembered from Vietnam.
Westerman looked around and chuckled. If Colonel Potter and Hot Lips Houlihan had walked by at that moment, he wouldn't have been surprised. It looked like the set of "M*A*S*H."
Poor Ronson, he thought. Westerman knew him well enough to perceive that the months away from home had been rough on the man. Ronson had been uprooted in mid-August from Charleston Air Force Base along with three sergeants and one lieutenant and sent to man a tiny twelve-by-fourteen-foot folding metal box full of radios in the middle of the Arabian Desert for an indefinite period of time. The collapsible ALCE box, which was to serve as a forward Military Airlift Command Post, had been airlifted in by a C-5 and plunked down on August 14 at what was then a sleepy Saudi air base. Now it was a busy U.S. Army maintenance and staging center, with a contingent of British fighter pilots thrown in to irritate the Saudis even more. For seven months Ronson had coordinated Military Airlift Command — MAC — flights to a base which officially didn't exist.
Poor guy! I've been here less than two days and already hate it, and he's been here seven months so far. Lord!
Westerman realized he was toying with his chicken fried steak. He wasn't hungry after all, and his mind was elsewhere, searching for problems in the hastily assembled mission he was in charge of launching within hours. It was a strange and worrisome secret operation that had landed in his lap out of nowhere two days ago, just as it looked like the war was over and everyone could begin breathing a sigh of relief.
Suddenly he was embroiled in a whirlwind of activity and fatigue. One minute he had been sitting quietly in his office at Charleston, the next he was on a four-engine jetliner from the presidential fleet in Washington, headed east while glued to a scrambled satellite phone, trying to assemble his people and the equipment they were going to need. The use of the VC-137 — a Boeing 707-type jetliner from the 89th Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, occasionally used as Air Force Two by the Vice-President — had been a real shock. But it was a measure of the importance of the assignment.
This one came directly from the White House.
The first problem had been finding his aircrews, since they were scattered between the States and the Persian Gulf, flying airlift missions for MAC in the venerable C-141B cargo jet. That had been quite a challenge.
Westerman focused on a forkful of potatoes au gratin he had been balancing for the past few seconds. Pure calories, but then he had always been able to eat as much as he wanted and never gain an ounce. For someone who loved food, it was a blessing, and this wasn't bad at all — especially for an Army field kitchen. The potatoes disappeared in his mouth as Major Ronson's voice crackled from the hand-held portable radio he had borrowed from the ALCE. There was alarm in Ronson's voice.
Westerman swallowed quickly and brought the walkie-talkie to his mouth in a practiced, singular motion.
"Colonel, you may want to get back here. The inbound mission's just checked in on our ALCE frequency, and he's got a problem. He wants to talk to you."
"What kind of problem?"
There was a moment's hesitation before Ronson responded. "Sir, he's got a major flight-control problem."
Westerman covered the hundred yards through the tent city to the ALCE in seconds. The prefabricated metal door had barely closed behind him with a solid thunk when the familiar voice of the aircraft commander of the inbound C-141 filled the small metal box office.
"Sailor Zulu, how copy? MAC five-zero-two-four-zero, calling for Ramrod." The voice was obviously strained. Something was significantly wrong, Westerman thought, but the pilot was at least controlled enough to use the proper code name for his mission commander.
"This is Ramrod, two-forty." Westerman scooped the microphone from the hand of a sergeant, his eyes focused out the rectangular window of the ALCE box into the desert twilight. "What's up?"
"Sir, something's bad wrong in the elevator system, and we can't figure out what's going on. We got a nose-up runaway pitch trim going through thirty thousand on climb out from Riyadh, so we disconnected the trim at eight degrees nose up, but now we can't get either electric or electro-hydraulic trim to reset, and the straight hydraulic trim lever won't work. We've tried turning off hydraulic systems — every combination we can think of — but we can't get the trim back, and the pitch control keeps slamming us up and down. It's all or nothing. We pull slightly and it goes full nose up. We push on the yoke just a little, and it goes full nose down. There's no in between! We've been leapfrogging through the sky for the last twenty minutes, and I wouldn't be surprised if we've bent the tail."
Will let his mind race through the C-141B's trim system, a combination of hydraulic and electrical motors that moved the huge horizontal T-tail up or down to keep the pitch control balanced. If the trim weren't frozen in an extreme nose-up position, Collinwood could fly easily without the trim motors. With eight degrees nose up and something else wrong with the elevator — the pitch control — it was a life-threatening emergency without question.
"Have you done a controllability check?"
"Yes sir. Pitch control is marginal, but we're learning how to fly it, and I think we can land it — since I've got bank control with my ailerons. At one point back there we had the yoke full forward and we couldn't get the nose down! I had to go into a forty-five-degree bank to keep from stalling!"
Westerman could picture Jim Collinwood's serious face in the cockpit of the Starlifter. He was a young captain, but one of the Special Operations–Low Level squadron's best pilots. In the dead of night over the Atlantic, Westerman had located Collinwood and his crew in the MAC "stage" at Torrejon Air Base near Madrid, and had picked them up when the Andrews AFB–based VC-137 stopped there for fuel. The crew had been as excited as children at Christmas to be whisked away suddenly by a jet normally assigned to the White House — a plush flying boardroom with a stocked galley and thick carpets. Will had briefed them thoroughly on the secret mission before they reached the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where he dropped them off while he went on to Sandy 101 to set up the rest of the mission. Jim Collinwood and his crew were to get thoroughly rested, then oversee the outfitting and loading of the C-141 chosen for the mission before flying it into Sandy for what was supposed to be the beginning of a very long night. But they had apparently drawn the wrong C-141B.
"How far out are you, Jim?" Westerman asked.
"Forty miles, at twelve thousand feet and descending." There was a long pause. "We don't know what else might be ready to come apart. I think we're all in agreement up here that we'd better get this bird on the ground."
"Stand by, two-forty." Westerman turned to Jerry Ronson. "Get Lighthouse on the satellite line. Fill them in on what you're hearing, tell them to patch through to the MAC command post at Scott, and check the weather for Riyadh and Dhahran." He raised the microphone again.
"Two-forty — Ramrod. How's your fuel?"
"We've got ... wait a second ... fourteen thousand pounds. Not really enough for Dhahran, sir, if that's what you're thinking, and Riyadh's supposed to get another sandstorm in the next hour. I know they've all got better maintenance and stuff, but I think you're the only reasonable base in range, and we've got some things aboard you, uh, need."
Westerman knew he was right, even as Ronson confirmed the marginal weather in Riyadh, three hundred miles to the northwest. Most of the people and vehicles he had assembled for this operation were already in position at Sandy 101, out there in the dark, waiting to be loaded aboard a serviceable airlifter. But Collinwood's C-141 was bringing in some key equipment as well — not to mention Collinwood and his crew, who were supposed to fly it. They had specialized SOLL training that the average C-141 crew never received.
Murphy's Law wins again, Westerman thought. I was afraid this was going too smoothly.
Westerman turned to Major Ronson again. "How good's your maintenance, Jerry? Can they fix it here?"
"Probably not. We've got three mechanics and their toolboxes, and I have to scrounge maintenance stands from the Saudis. That's it."
"Okay. Tell Lighthouse that Colonel Westerman wants them to start looking for another C-141 to divert in here. Now. We won't be able to use two-forty. Use the scrambled line."
Westerman raised the UHF microphone to his mouth again. "Two- forty, Ramrod."
"Yes sir." No hesitation in the reply.
"I have no disagreement with your plan, Jim. Just try to stabilize her on a long, flat, straight-in approach and change your pitch as little as possible. Don't worry about your approach speed. You've got ten thousand feet of runway and a hard-packed desert beyond that for at least a hundred miles."
"Roger." There was a hesitation. "Sir, you mean do a no-flap?"
"If you decide that's best."
"No, it seems to fly better at lower speeds, and we've already got the flaps to approach position and the gear down."
"It's your call, Jim. Just get it stabilized and don't plan to flare. We'll have the emergency equipment standing by." Will turned to the sergeant. "Make sure of that, will you? The emergency equipment, I mean — tower notified and all?"
The man nodded smartly, his eyes reflecting intense concern.
Sandy 101 belonged to the Saudi Air Force, and the Saudis who ran the control tower did not respond well to Americans telling them what to do. The sergeant, however, was an expert at massaging them diplomatically. He moved immediately to an ordinary phone at a small desk in the rear of the ALCE.
Will Westerman peered into the night, his mind running through his memory of the C-141B pitch-control systems as he suppressed the gnawing worry that the entire mission was now threatened. Collinwood, he knew, would know the systems with even greater precision, but Collinwood was also under tremendous pressure at the moment, though he was apparently handling it well. Will had approved Collinwood's upgrade to Pilot Flight Examiner just last year, even though he had only eighteen hundred flying hours and had been promoted to the rank of captain just six months earlier. The SOLL missions could be dangerous. They involved flying big four-engine jet transports at treetop level to drop troops and equipment on clandestine missions behind enemy lines, and for the average C-141 crew, that was an unnatural act among nonconsenting adults. Strategic airlift crews operating what amounted to huge, unarmed targets in the sky had a distinct aversion to flying low and trolling for ground fire.
But this young man had asked for the assignment, and from the first had shown an unusual ability to coordinate his people and sufficient maturity to listen to them. Even Will had learned things by watching him instruct and give check-rides.
Will picked up the microphone and fingered the transmit button, intending to remind Collinwood as aircraft commander to make the landing himself from the left seat as MAC regulations required. But he stopped himself. He had picked good people. He ought to trust them. Collinwood knew the rules.
Another radio transmission cut through his thoughts. "Ramrod — two-forty. Just to let you know, we're lining up now on a thirty-mile final."
"Roger, two-forty," Westerman replied, recognizing the voice of First Lieutenant Jeff Rice, son of a longtime friend, Brigadier General Walt Rice. Ever since young Rice had joined the squadron, Will hadn't been able to shake a feeling of special responsibility for the young officer's welfare, especially after choosing Collinwood's crew for the first really risky SOLL mission since Operation Just Cause in Panama. Will had fought the temptation to call Walt Rice to let him know his boy was going in harm's way; that would have been inappropriate and embarrassing to both father and son.
Excerpted from Scorpion Strike by John J. Nance. Copyright © 1992 John J. Nance. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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