Is this what death feels like?
(updated July 29, 2016)
Harry now realized this was a two-phased battle. He had been wildly successful in the initial phase. He had scored three victories and caused the fourth plane he faced off against to choose discretion and turn away from the battle rather than face the threat posed by the longer range of Harry’s air-to-air missiles. He felt relief because in what he would come to consider a stupid move, he had expended all four of his long range air-to-air missiles to attain the three victories. Hence, his dilemma!
Do I go in with the Sidewinders or exit?
He had committed earlier and was not inclined to change his mind. He still faced another echelon of four more Flankers . . . maybe five, if asshole turned back to resume the fight. . His armament included four short-range Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles; four missiles against five aircraft! And then, he had the 20 millimeter gun to use for really close in work. No doubt his adversaries would have plenty of long-range missiles remaining. He realized no one would blame him if he refused to engage, exited, and headed home.
The deadly engagement had begun when, out of the blue, an air-to-air missile had stuck his wingman’s plane causing Mike to bail out and the plane to crash. The Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft with its advanced radar had informed Harry two flights of four Su-27 (NATO code-named ‘Flanker’) aircraft were inbound to challenge Harry.
A few moments earlier, with the help of the missile controllers in the AWACS aircraft, he successfully engaged the first flight of four aircraft. Most analysts considered the Su-27 Flanker aircraft superior to his F-15C Eagle in individual air-to-air combat. He had been out-numbered and out-gunned. Maybe he did not need the help of the AWACS controllers and the data-link to help guide his missiles, but he played a deadly game of tag with his long-range air-to-air AARAM missiles and scored three hits. His long range air-to-air missiles held a slightly longer range of lethality than his foes so he used it to his advantage. Three aircraft destroyed.
Three air-to-air victories.
His thoughts did not linger on victories but his mistake. He had wasted two of his missiles on one aircraft. If he lived through the situation in which he found himself, he would never allow himself to forget this error.
Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! You dumb shit!
For a few milliseconds, he realized he would take a ragging about that for years. At the moment all he could was pass the thought out of his mind and focus on then situation at hand.
After the sneak attack downing his wingman, he determined the opposing Flankers bearing down on him still needed to close the gap before they could launch their long-range radar guided missiles. With the assistance of the data link systems built into AWACS aircraft, he decided he was in range and his opponents had not closed the gap within range of their missiles. Having been attacked, he claimed the advantage and launched his long-range missiles.
Since the planes he opposed were out of range with their missiles, the question bugging him and would continue to bug Air Force analysts for months still remained.
Where in the hell did the first missile come from which had destroyed Mike’s plane?
Harry had answered.
Now, with his long-range advantage gone, the second flight of four Flankers was closing on him. They had the advantage now. Their long range missiles would be in range soon. He had to decide whether to engage or not engage in the fight again . . . soon!
If he departed, no harm no foul.
Fear, adrenalin, and confidence surged though his body. Like most people, he did not want to die. Truth be told, fear of failure rather than the fear of harm colored his approach to this decision. His background and training emphasized pressing the attack whenever possible. He realized he could leave the area without any loss of honor or respect or the nagging idea he would feel he had failed in following his sense of duty.
Honor played an important part in his life. At the same time, he did not want to be shot down and possibly die, like Mike.
God! I hope he made it.
It was not a matter of being considered cowardly although part of him felt he would rather die than be considered a coward by his peers. Simply stated, overriding these emotions, there was another feeling. His adoptive father had always told him, “Do the right thing.” He always did his duty. His eleven months as an enlisted driver in the Motor Pool; two years in the Academy Prep School, and then the four years at the “Zoo,” the Air Force Academy, had reinforced that dogma, drilling it deep, deep, deep into his subconscious.
This trait had served him well once he entered the service - particularly after he began to fly. He didn’t like leaving any job unfinished. It seemed to him, if he did not engage the second flight, a part of him would feel he had left a job unfinished. To him, leaving a job unfinished was tantamount to failure.
He could not deny the fear of physical harm he felt. His mind seemed to be operating at a thousand miles an hour. The thought of a missile finding his plane and the fireball inevitably ensuing worried him kept intruding into his thoughts. He wondered if he would be conscious when the flames encircled his body should he be unlucky enough not to eject and escape the carnage. He worked hard to push those feelings away and deal with the matter at hand. They kept popping up like unwanted volunteer plants in a garden. His mind worked on several channels at once and olne channels worked hard to push the fear away.
There was also the matter of his wingman. He had lost his wingman to the unprovoked attack. Once again, he worried; “How did that missile get in undetected?” He put that thought out of his mind. That was a question for another day and if he didn’t make it back today, it would be someone else’s question. Right now, Harry felt Mike deserved everything he could give to resolve the current situation.
After all, when someone attacks your wingman, you have to do something about it.
He climbed to 55,000 feet to give himself some perspective on the scene and pondered the matter. He was still outnumbered and outgunned. A plan formed hastily in his mind. They would be coming after him deployed in two flights of two – a lead and a wingman each. His notion was to get between them so they would be unable to launch for fear of hitting their fellow fighters. then he could maneuver, launch his Sidewinders, fire his gun and maybe get another victory or two. He would then get the hell out of Dodge, find a tanker, and head home.
He realized he would have to endure a gauntlet of long-range air-to-air missiles before he executed his plan, but he had some tricks up his sleeve to defeat their effectiveness.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s book had heavily influenced his training, particularly the following quote.
“ In my opinion the aggressive spirit is everything.”
He did not lack an aggressive spirit but calculated the approach he wanted to take. His training taught him the conventional wisdom in battling one versus many aircraft situations dictated that if the enemy possess long range air-to-air missiles as these foes certainly did, he should descend to a lower altitude so the ground clutter might confuse the missiles when launched.
What he should do and what he would do; however, were two different things.
He knew, however, to maintain his high speed at lower altitudes would be very costly in terms of fuel usage and maneuverability. He glanced at the fuel indicators and noted he had used a significant amount of fuel in the first salvos he had launched. He considered the advisability of remaining at high altitudes versus diving to lower altitudes and made the decision to remain at the high altitude. He decided the additional maneuverability, speed, and fuel efficiency at higher altitudes would outweigh any advantages of flying at lower altitudes trying deceive any missiles launched at him as ground clutter. He needed speed.
After all, the powers that be had drilled the mantra “Speed is Life” into him ever since he had entered fighter lead-in training after his graduation from flying training. All his training told him in no uncertain terms – “Speed is Life”!
At the moment, his body reflected the ‘speed of life’ mantra as well. His heart beat furiously. His airspeed indicator measured 450 knots per hour. His eardrums hurt. It felt like a thousand tom toms beating the walls of his inner ear. Sweat rolled down his forehead, blurred his vision, and pooled around his oxygen mask. Focusing on his breathing, Harry breathed in deep breaths of 100% oxygen and hoped the deep breaths would help calm his body down.
He had to pee. He felt like he needed to fart. He peed in his relief tube but tightened his abdomen to hold the fart in.
God, if it’s a wet fart, there’ll be a mess. Everyone will say I got so scared, I shit himself!
Harry laughed mentally at his attempt at humor and that served to calm him down somewhat.
That’s not half wrong! If I weren’t so busy, I would be scared shitless! S shit, I am scared shitless!
He did another quick re-assessment.
What are my odds? Maybe 50/50? Is that realistic? Am I being overconfident?
He selected a heading taking him on a vector toward the last known location of the enemy flight. He had decided. If they wanted a fight, he was going to give it to them.
Arming one Sidewinder, he prepared to engage. With the missile armed, when the missile detected a heat signature emanating from the exhaust of another plane, a tone would sound in his earphones telling him he was in range. He waited anticipating the tone. He had practiced going up against two enemy fighters in training. The trick was to get between them, confuse them, and keep them from launching for fear they would hit their compatriots. If he could do this now, he would have an edge. He was in what others termed a “target-rich” environment. Every target in the sky would be an enemy. He could launch without fear of any friendly fire incident. Confusion was his friend. He faced four Flankers.
Maybe five, if that asshole in the first flight turns and decides to re-engage.
He knew he needed all the confusion he could endenger in his opponents. Once again, he told himself; if he could get between them, they wouldn’t launch for fear to hitting their comrades. He would be the one in a target-rich environment, not his enemy. His mental calculations told him he had better than a 50% chance of getting in and then getting out. he questioned his decision again. He asked himself if he were overconfident. Had he made an accurate assessment or was it just wishful thinking?
He would never know.
* * *
Things changed quickly. Warbling tones filled his ear. These were not the steady tones telling him the Sidewinder was in range. These sounds broadcast a dreaded warning.
His Heads-Up-Display (HUD) tracked 3 air-to-air missiles headed his way.
No choice now. He was in the shit storm. He wondered if he had lingered too long with the decision. He felt some bile in his throat. It tasted bitter. His vision once again blurred from sweat.
The remaining Flankers had gotten within launch range. The streaky lines on his HUD marked the deadly spears shooting toward him. He imagined the flames exiting the rear of the missiles from their rocket motors. More importantly, he noted two of the missiles tracking from 30 degrees port and the other tracking from 45 degrees starboard. The converging missiles made him feel he was flying into a bear trap with no way out. Evasion from one source endangered him from the other. His HUD indicated the two port missiles loomed closer than the third. He knew instinctively three of the four ship formation had launched against him.
When he engaged the first flight, he had hit three ships of the first four-ship formation. It appeared the fourth Flanker had turned and hightailed it back toward Iran. He didn’t blame him. He had a slight edge using the long range missiles and there was no way the Iranian pilot could know there wasn’t a fourth missile heading to destroy his fighter. Harry wondered if the fifth pilot had turned and by taking advantage of the protection afforded by the second flight of Flankers, had decided to re-engage Harry to avenge his comrades.
No worries, mate! I’m between a rock and a hard place no matter how you figure it!
At 55,000 feet, the young man jammed his stick forward and drove his airplane down and to the right as he began evasive maneuvers to get away from the danger. Spiraling down, he jammed his stick hard right to push his craft into a series of tight spins to confuse the missile radars. He failed to notice the twirling, swirling kaleidoscope of browns and yellows of the desert sands as the plane twisted downward toward the ground. On training flights when he practiced spins and spin recoveries, this pattern always entranced him. On those occasions, there had been swirling patterns of greens, blues and brownish hues. The swirling colors fascinated him and he would marvel at it like he was a twelve or thirteen year boy experiencing it for the first time. He did not enjoy it now. He was too busy with the task at hand.
This maneuver enabled him to break the radar lock from the first two missiles and they sailed off to wherever useless missiles flew to die. The third had been far enough away and it re-adjusted its flight path and continued its inexorable path toward him. He began to doubt if he was going to lose the third.
At 20,000 feet, he pulled the stick back at full afterburners and climbed reaching 45,000 feet but it didn't seem to do any good. The missile followed like stink on shit. He pulled up to 57,000 feet. He would have gone higher but knew his engine performance would degrade quickly at any higher altitude. He pumped the rudder pedals and yawed his aircraft from right to left trying to evade the missile and break its radar lock on his craft. He desperately tried some 60 degree turns while dropping a couple of thousand feet then some more high speed pull ups back to altitude. The engineers who designed his airplane had incorporated low wing loading (the ratio of aircraft weight to its wing area) in the aircraft design. His engines provided him with intimidating thrust. These two factors provided him with immense power available for acceleration and superior maneuverability at his fingertips. In his training, he had discovered he could turn the aircraft in tight turns without losing airspeed.
These evasion tactics seemed to work. Climbing back to 60,000 feet, the warning tones had disappeared and he failed to notice any threats on his display. Still planning to engage with his Sidewinders, he started the process of trying to determine the enemy's location.
Where the hell are they?
* * *
He noticed he felt badly. He realized he had a physical problem. It was more than the stress of combat. He had not felt quite 100 percent when he took off but, then again, sorties were sorties. Harry knew that the medical guidelines dictated he should have declared that he didn't feel well enough to fly. The squadron operations officer would have assigned another pilot to take his place. He really couldn't put a finger on anything specific. That morning, he had noticed a shortness of breath and a general feeling of malaise. He knew his squadron would rotate back to the States soon and he wanted all the sorties he could get. He wasn’t going to let a mild feeling of disorder keep him from flying a combat sortie. With tensions increasing between Iran and the US, there was small chance of an encounter. Beside, if there were a chance for any action, he damn sure was not going to miss it.
He told himself nothing was a better cure whatever else ails you than 100% oxygen. So while waiting for takeoff clearance, he selected 100% oxygen. The cure had seemed to work but now, with a Sidewinder armed and preparing to take the battle to the enemy flying at 550 knots, he noticed things were not as good as he might hope.
At that point in time, he became dimly aware of another set of warbling tones in his headset signaling another deadly missile headed toward him. His deteriorating condition distracted him. He knew he had to do something; take some evasive maneuvers against the incoming missile; but he could not give it his full attention. All he could focus on was the way he felt physically.
He felt his throat constricting and tightening. Tunnel vision crept into his consciousness. He noticed the clouds turning grey. He felt like he was 'greying out' - a feeling not unlike the feeling one would get experiencing high-G turns in an aircraft without benefit of a G-suit and/or training or experience. A ‘grey out’ normally occurred when a person is flying in an aircraft and certain maneuvers create positive g-forces forcing blood from the abdomen and lower extremities of the body and lowering blood pressure in the brain. As the blood drains from the brain, this creates restricted vision and can lead to a loss of consciousness.
Harry wore a G-suit, which helped ameliorate the effects of the gravity forces fighter pilots endured during maneuvers. The g-suit were a pair of tightly-fitting trousers fitted with inflatable bladders which, when pressurized through a g-sensitive valve in the airplane pressed firmly on the abdomen and legs and restricted the draining of blood away from the brain during periods of high acceleration.
He had flown this type aircraft many times before under stressful g-forces and had trained his body to activate its muscle memory so his muscles would tighten automatically to compensate for the g-forces he encountered. In addition, along with his peers, he regularly exercised his legs and abdomen to strengthen those muscles he needed to fly in the high g-force environment. He had developed a muscle memory to counteract the g-forces.
He had experienced the "grey out" phenomenon before in the altitude chamber when he removed his oxygen mask at his instructor’s behest so he could experience oxygen deprivation in a controlled environment. In addition, early on in his flight training, he had experienced a ‘grey out’ under controlled conditions so he knew what to expect.
This was not it. It was something different.
"Maybe it'll pass."
Harry checked his oxygen mask. Operating normally pumping 100% life-giving, life-saving oxygen. No problem there.
The warbling tones signifying the oncoming deadly missile continued. He hardly noticed them. His mind focused on the scene within his consciousness. Nothing happening outside seemed to matter. Not even the impending death signaled by that high pitched warbling tone.
He felt his consciousness was jammed into a square, boxlike structure. Some giant force seemed to push the sides of the structure together closing the gap of his consciousness. It was a strange Kafka-like novel sensation where one remained trapped inside a box which kept becoming smaller and smaller. As the box reduced in size, he felt his consciousness diminishing.
Next, it seemed there were these two giant hands pushing at his lungs expelling all the air. The air would not go anywhere. His larynx had closed and the stale air remained trapped in his lungs and not a milliliter of the 100% oxygen coming through his facemask could enter. The edges of his mask bulged as the oxygen released over his cheeks out the sides of the mask. With his throat closed, lungs trapped, and the box pressing in; fear gnawed at him. His world spun. Lack of oxygen caused everything to turn gray.
Another warbling warning tone blasted in his ears. It sounded faint and far off. He glanced at his Heads Up Display and saw another missile headed for his airplane.
Damn. Everything's spinning. Everything is going black. Did I get hit?
His body had a spasm and Harry jerked. When he did so, the spasm caused his hands to pull back on the throttle taking the plane out of afterburner. He had lost control of his airspeed. He was violating the cardinal mantra of air-to-air combat.
Speed is Life.
He didn’t have time to remember that mantra. He was unconscious. And then, the unthinkable occurred. His airplane entered into a flat spin.
The designers had fashioned his Eagle’s wings to aggressively take high-speed turns without losing speed. Had he remained in afterburner, he could have maneuvered more effectively, stayed at a high speed, and possibly avoided falling into a spin. He flew comparatively slower. His F-15 Eagle was not immune to the phenomena of unrecoverable spin characteristics. With the decrease in thrust and his high-speed turns, his plane hit the combination of forces all pilots dreaded. His airplane began to spin and gyrate in a 360-degree circle on a horizontal axis while careening down as gravity worked its unstoppable force. Known as a "flat spin," most pilots considered it the kiss of death. The textbook answer requires the pilot to eject as soon as possible for there was no recovery.
Harry didn't consider ejecting. He wasn't even aware his plane had gone into a "flat spin." His constricted throat and lack of oxygen had caused him to black out and lose consciousness.
His loss of consciousness came in stages. The warbling warning sound, while continuing, faded into the background as he became acutely aware of a regular, pulsing sound. It persisted and resonated like a drumbeat inside his head. Had he paid more attention, he would have realized it was the sound of his pulse beating through his carotid arteries as blood tried to rush into his brain. The pounding continued . . . KER-THUNK . . . KER-THUNK . . . KER-THUNK; then Ker Thunk . . . Ker Thunk . . . Ker Thunk . . . then, ker-thunk . . . ker-thunk . . . then . . . silence.
As the airplane continued its horizontal spins, he would have noticed the clouds and the horizon spinning as the plane circled and dipped its nose down five or ten degrees in its descending rotations. Since he loved flying so much the horizon bobbing up and down in five-degree increments as he swung around and around would have entranced him. He did not notice anything.
Were he conscious, he would have marveled at the way his plane rocked and rolled as it spun round and round descending. If he were able to see, he might have noticed the five-degree up and down motion as the plane spun caused the horizon to bob up and down. This experience may have spurred a memory of a similar experience.
It was a hot summer day at Virginia Beach and he and the Swedish girl he met the night before had decided to scuba just outside the breakers. He rented a rubber inflatable raft with an outboard motor and took it outside the surf about a thousand yards and dropped the anchor just where the swells were before they turned into the breakers headed for the beach. He had gone in first and while he swam, he discovered the Swedish girl liked to scuba topless. When they surfaced, they had shared some wine and had lain in the bottom of the rubber boat and learned more about each other. He might have recalled later lying in the rubber boat, his head on her shoulder seeing the shoreline bob on and out of sight he looked over the edge of the rubber boat wall, their boat bobbing up and down in the ocean swells.
He might have remembered that morning on the sea near the beach. He did not remember. His consciousness, his inner mind, focused upon other things.
All of a sudden, the young man found himself in a black hallway moving swiftly down the corridor. He didn’t think about the airplane. He appeared to be floating rather than walking. There was a black luster covering the floor, walls, and ceiling. At the end of the hallway, he saw a door. A white, high intensity light seeped through the edges outlining the door against the dark hall. Even though it was behind the door and he could not grasp it all, he knew it was one of the brightest lights he had ever seen.
What will it be like on the other side of the door?
Unaware of the plane’s deadly spiral, he was only conscious of the feeling of floating toward the door. He floated, glided with an ease he had never felt before. It was a slow controlled journey drifting toward that door. some part of him wondered if he could do cartwheels.
It was a sold oak door with a heavy brass handle and scalloped panels. He marveled at the heavy burnished finish on the oak. He noticed a brass knocker positioned about three quarters up the door on the center scallop.
No need to knock.
It seemed to Harry there were others on the other side of the door.
People are waiting! Who are they? Are they waiting for me?
He sensed they were waiting for him to open the door.
Harry instinctively knew if he opened the door and entered, there would be no turning back. He didn't see any other options at this point. The pain in his throat had disappeared. He noticed he wasn’t breathing. No need to breathe.
He noticed a bight point of light focused on the top left side of the door. As he watched the point of light began to travel downward toward the handle. At the same time, a black dot began to travel upward from the bottom left hand of the door. The light and the dark point moved at the same speed. He tracked the paths mentally and knew as they converged; they would meet at the same time on the door handle.
When they meet, I don’t think, I will have a choice.
He realized he still had a choice. He felt rather than heard voices calling to him from the other side of the door. There was something familiar to him about those voices. They seemed to urge him on more and more.
Harry started to reach for the doorknob. His fingers touched the handle. He felt the cool metal of the brass handle of burnished metal as his hand encircled the loop and his thumb reached for the latch. Harry began the motion to press his thumb down to open the door. Once he pressed his thumb down, the door latch would engage and he would open the door.
I read about this. Is it oxygen deprivation working on my brain? Seems real.
Is this what death feels like?
* * *
Before he could answer his question, the plane shuddered. A violent energy shook his airplane.
When the plane shook, it seemed as if his consciousness, extended out of his body by a thin silvery sinew of elastic string, had snapped back into his body. It jolted him, making him aware once again of his body and physical condition. He felt as if a giant finger had released a taut rubber band propelling his consciousness from the beyond into his skull.
Instantaneously, his windpipe opened up. 100% oxygen flowed into his lungs. His breath came back. The capillaries in his lungs began a fierce, herculean effort to exchange the carbon dioxide built up inside the lobes for the life-giving oxygen. A mucus of sticky phlegm found its way upward and out into his throat. Harry cleared his throat. He felt the mucus in his mouth. He swallowed the mucus to provide room for more oxygen to enter. His vision cleared. In a matter of seconds, he became whole.
The plane buffeted and shook. Harry came back to full consciousness. He grabbed for the throttles and pushed them forward engaging the afterburners. Power propelled the aircraft. Then, he pushed the stick forward and nosed down to build speed.
Speed is life.
The buffeting had shaken the F-15 enough so these actions negated the forces causing the flat spin. The plane nosed down and gained speed. As oxygen returned to his lungs, his situational awareness returned and he swiftly regained control of the airplane.
Shit, 7,000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level).
Looking out the windscreen, he felt so close, it seemed to him he was so close to the ground, he could have reached out and let his fingers skim the desert sands.
He pulled the stick back and when he reached 20,000 feet, leveled off momentarily.
He did not hear the warbling warning noise he had listened to before.
What the fuck?
He pulled the nose up and added power. The two engines responded and Harry climbed back to 35,000 feet. Then he heard the steady tone indicating his heat seeking Sidewinder had secured a target.
Time to fire.
While climbing, he turned and spotted the bluish-gray shape of another F-15 on his left.
Harry quickly disengaged his heat-seeking missile.
No friendly fire today! If I had been just a little less alert, I would have pranged his ass!
"You owe me one."
The voice sounded slightly familiar.
"Who be you?"
Okay. One of the Elmendorf bunch.
"I got one bogie. I think you got three.”
You don’t know how close I came to getting four.
Harry learned the AWACS had contacted another two plane flight flying an orientation mission to the area to help out. The other jet’s wingman had developed engine problems and returned to base but Polar 29 had continued on to join the fray. Harry was to determine later, Polar 29’s actions proved lucky for him.
The AWACS mission director advised the two aviators they would remain on patrol. Harry realized the two jets needed to stay on station. Even though Harry had expended his long range missiles, he knew any enemy radar would not know the status of his munitions and a flight of two Eagles flying Combat Air Patrol flight profiles above Iraq near the Iranian border may dissuade any further enemy attacks. The enemy ground radar would show the United States Air Force remained on patrol. It was a gamble but a necessary one. Now it was a question of who was going to lead this gaggle.
"Who be lead?" Polar 29 asked, trying to determine who would serve as flight lead during the remainder of the patrol. The remaining Eagle pilot would serve as wingman.
His throat gripped him for a second and he felt like it was closing up on him again, but Harry would be damned if he was going to turn over the lead to some jock from Elmendorf who had happened along into his airspace. After all the work he had put into it, this was his mission.
"I be lead." Harry hoped his voice was sounding okay.
"Rebel 3, this is Early Bird. Turn over lead to Polar 29. Do you need to RTB?"
That settles that!
Since the AWACS served as a Mission Director, Harry didn’t question the decision.
The controller aboard the AWACS was also asking Harry if he wanted to return to his base in Saudi immediately.
If he did return to his base, he would leave Polar 29 alone to continue on the patrol. It seemed highly unlikely there would be further action but if there were, Harry didn't want to leave anybody out here alone. After all, he felt he owed this guy. His mind quickly scanned his body. His throat ached and he felt like a team of horses had dragged his body over a streambed full of river stones. But, in the final analysis he felt fit enough to continue the combat mission. He keyed his mike button.
"Negative, Early Bird, Rebel 3 is back on station. Find us a tanker."
Since the AWACS served as an airborne command post of sorts and was technically in charge of the battle area, Harry proceeded to position himself as wingman to the other Eagle. As they headed for the tanker, the AWACS aircraft informed them the Flanker Su-27 aircraft had turned back and escaped over the Iranian border.
Good thing. We had damn little to discourage them.
A few minutes later, as the two-plane flight approached the tanker, another flight of four Eagles showed up on station so the AWACS directed Harry and Polar 29 to return to their respective air bases in Saudi Arabia.
As they neared the base, Harry asked the other pilot for his call sign.
Harry knew him. He was an Air Force Academy graduate and the son of a retired Air Force colonel. The other pilot's name was Leif Baker. Harry had encountered Leif or “Norseman,” as he was known, about 14 months previous when he and Norseman flew Dissimilar Air Combat Training sorties at Nellis Air Force Base in training exercises known as "Red Flag". The same quiet reticence, with his underlying confidence, continued to mark Leif. Harry found him to be an excellent pilot. Leif was able to take his fighter to the edge of the envelope and wring out the systems during training flights so, in an actual combat situation, he would have the full grasp of experience regarding the capabilities of his aircraft.
"This is Scrub."
Click. Click. Norseman clicked his mike switch twice to acknowledge he had heard the transmission. Norseman didn't waste words on the ground or in the air.
The AWACS informed Harry his wingman had ejected safely and Search and Rescue was on the way to pick him up. He had some bruises but overall was none the worse for wear. Harry knew Mike’s pride was hurt more than anything. The F-15 aircraft had a history of one hundred and one air-to-air combat engagements without any losses. This series of engagements would go down in the history books as the one hundred and second air engagement in the history of the airplane, if the historians logged everything occurring that day as one engagement. It was possible they could log today’s actions as two engagements.
Nevertheless, no matter how the historians scored the day; Mike’s plane would go down in the history of the Eagle as the only F-15 ever downed by enemy action. In the previous engagements, no air force had ever lost an F-15 aircraft in air-to air combat. It wasn’t his fault, being a sneak attack but Mike would never live it down. He would go though his Air Force flying career feeling the oblong glances his fellow fighter pilots would give him.
Leif had accomplished another remarkable feat. He had observed Harry's plane go into the flat spin and begin to sink. Noticing Harry had not ejected, the younger fighter correctly surmised Harry was unable to eject for some reason. He knew a change in the center of gravity would sometimes change the aerodynamic forces and help stabilize the airplane.
So Leif had accelerated his Eagle to supersonic in such a manner as to create a sonic boom, which washed against Harry’s jet. This sonic boom created enough of a jolt to change the center of gravity in his plane and jar it out of the spin. Harry, having come back to a state of semi-consciousness, had been able to wrest back control of the jet.
Harry reviewed the action in his mind as he approached the base and entered the landing pattern. He knew the AWACS had captured everything on radar and stored it digitally. In addition, they had encrypted the information and transmitted it in microbursts to his base in Saudi Arabia and to the headquarters back in the States.
In the landing pattern, once again, the question once again popped into Harry’s mind.
Where did the first missile come from? They got my wingman and almost got me. Someone’s got to be all over it.
Harry was correct. Many people questioned the origin of the missile, initially fired at him and his wingman. Analysts reviewed the AWACS digital radar record in depth. The analysis pointed to two potential problems contributing to the inability to detect the attack. At first the analysts focused on a hole in the AWACS radar net. After many hours of research and testing, the Air Force came up with a fix on the problem. The second theory speculated the Iranians had somehow developed or acquired radar-guided missiles using an undetectable bandwidth radar signal. Air Force Intelligence began an operation to find out.
As Harry entered the landing sequence, Norseman wiggled his wings and headed toward his own base 59 kilometers south. In the pattern, Harry’s mind drifted to other things. He remembered launching two AARAM missiles at his first target.
Crap, I’m going to take a ragging for years for wasting the missile. Three victories and I could have had four. Can’t worry about it now. Could have had a V-8.
Harry flared his jet and his wheels slid smoothly on the runway.
He didn’t realize it was to be his last flight in the Air Force.
His plane taxied to the parking slot and a military van waited. An intelligence officer escorted Harry into the van and took him to debriefing.
After debriefing, the Flight Surgeon came by and talked to him. During the conversation, he violated a cardinal rule. He had admitted he had blacked out.
Any fighter pilot worth his salt realized one never told a Flight Surgeon you had lost consciousness. Even when the loss occurred on the ground, if you were on flying status, the Air Force did not take chances. They grounded the pilot immediately and the individual had a very slim chance of ever climbing into a cockpit again. Harry's incident occurred while flying. DOUBLE BAD! The Flight Surgeon took him to the infirmary.
Soon, he found himself on a Medical Evacuation flight headed for Germany still wearing the sweat stained flying suit in which he had flown the mission. After the medical evacuation flight had taken off and reached altitude, Harry began to notice the sick smell of his own fear and adrenaline-pumped sweat. He knew he had not peed himself since his piddle pack was still connected when he landed. During the flight they allowed him to change in a set of hospital scrubs. He noticed the medical technician put his flight suit into a plastic bag.
Good thing I didn’t fart!
Meanwhile, word of multiple air victories spread throughout the base and to Harry’s squadron area. Bottles of champagne mysteriously appeared, compliments of the Squadron Commander. His squadron mates waited in the squadron area to congratulate him for his three "victories" by dousing him with champagne.
Harry didn’t return to the squadron. After awhile they learned he would not be returning to the squadron area but was airborne to a hospital in Europe.
They drank the champagne in a toast to Harry's "victories." No sense in letting good champagne go to waste.
* * * * * * * * * * *
An analyst is born
Harry stayed at the Hospital in Landsthul Army Regional Medical Center, Germany for two nights. Then he traveled to San Antonio, Texas where the Air Force admitted him to the Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base south of San Antonio. Once the medical center performed its initial evaluations, they released him as an outpatient. They tasked the Air Force Personnel Center with finding Harry a position while he awaited the medical decision.
It would be a conditional assignment; one in which Harry could be productive and yet return to the hospital when called upon for more tests.
The personnel officer who received the job of finding Harry a temporary assignment while he underwent medical examination knew him. He had been a year ahead of Harry at the Air Force Academy Prep School. He remembered an incident occurring while Harry was in his first year at the Prep School. A Barracks Thief had been active in Harry’s dormitory. Someone had ransacked rooms at various times and stolen money and other valuable items. The cadets were required to keep their rooms open and ready for inspection at all times. They had been provided secure lockboxes for money and other items of value, but in a hurry to get to formations for military drills and physical conditioning, many didn’t use the boxes.
Harry had spent a day analyzing the movements of the other cadets in his flight and another adjacent flight. After reviewing their actions in his mind, he concluded the possible culprit was a fellow cadet named Harold. After a little homework, he discussed the situation with his fellow cadets.
The Prep School followed the same honor code as the Air Force Academy.
“I will not lie, steal or cheat nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”
The next Saturday morning Harry invited Harold to join him for breakfast at a Denny’s restaurant near the Prep School.
When they ordered Harold ordered a stack of pancakes and Harry very casually ordered two eggs, one over easy and the other scrambled, hash brown potatoes and bacon. When the waitress brought the order, Harry looked down at the food solemnly, sighed, looked up at the waitress, and in a very sincere voice, said; “You scrambled the wrong egg.”
The waitress’ mouth dropped open and Harry laughed and quickly said; “Just kidding.”
She left, shaking her head, and Harold said; “What was that all about?”
“Well, Harold, you can’t fry an egg cleanly if you break it the wrong way and then you have to scramble it. When you scramble an egg, it’s like someone’s brain got caught in a mixer . . . all messed up. But we’ll talk more about that subject later. Both you and I know there’s been some stuff taken from the dorm rooms. I know you’ve said that you’ve had some stuff missing also. Thinking about it, if I were the one taking stuff, then I would tell people that I was missing stuff too. But, fact of the matter is, over the last two days or so; we’ve been keeping an eye on when things went missing and where everyone was at the time things disappeared. For example, on Wednesday, when Jones reported his IPod gone, we were all at Drill and Ceremonies, marching like good little cadets. All except you; you weren’t there. You signed out for a medical appointment but I spotted you leaving the barracks. Then, we compared notes, it seems that when things go missing, you’re missing too for one reason or another.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Harold poured syrup on his pancakes.
Harry held his phone out. “You might want to take a look at this video.”
By the way, we had something like this happen at the high school where I played football. Our school didn’t have an honor code to speak of but, when something happened, the team got together and resolved the situation.”
Harry stared at Harold and then looked down at his plate. He picked up a fork and very deliberately picked up his fork, suck it into the yolk of the sunny side of the egg. He began twirling his fork rapidly mixing the yellow yolk material into the white of the egg until it was a gooey mess.
“You know, this always reminds me of scrambled brains for some reason.”
“You know, one thing I like about this Prep School program is the fact that anyone can self-eliminate themselves from the program here. All they have to do is contact the administration and say they want out and BOOM, they’re out! Oh look, there are some more guys from the flight here, Pete, Shorty and Junior.”
Harold stood promptly and left the restaurant.
Harry and the others went to the movies in Colorado Springs and when they returned, they were greeted with the news that Harold had contacted the Commandant and eliminated himself from the program for “personal reasons”. Some said he left the Air Force and some said he was sent back to his former duty station.
Afterwards, his fellow cadets called Harry, “Egghead”, for a few months after that. But then, in the crush of qualifying for entry into the Academy, their sole purpose for being in the Prep School, everyone got busy, they forgot.
The personnel officer remembered this incident and first conducted the Security Police Squadrons at both Lackland and Randolph Air Force Base to see if they could use him in the Investigations Section of the squadron. Both demurred.
Looking further, the personnel officer remembered seeing a memo about a need for additional analysts within the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) headquarters. Since the OSI had its headquarters at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, that wouldn’t work.
The personnel officer played a hunch and made a telephone call to the regional OSI office at Randolph Air Force Base and found the local commander knee deep in investigations. He was in dire need of an analyst, but normally analysts were full-fledged OSI agents. He checked Harry’s records and agreed that would not work. Harry would never qualify to become a full-fledged OSI agent. Due to his medical history, they didn’t want to take the chance he would lose consciousness while on an investigation in the field.
After some discussion, he agreed to take Harry on as an analyst on a temporary basis as long as the personnel center agreed to keep looking for a full fledged agent who could serve and fill the vacancy. Basically the deal he made with Personnel gave him Harry as free labor without hurting his staffing. The OSI Commander thought it was a good deal. He could use all the extra help pushing paper he could get even it was ‘warm meat.’
The Personnel Office assigned Harry duty as an analyst at the regional OSI office at Randolph Air Force Base, north of San Antonio. Harry would have the opportunity to travel to Wilford Hall whenever he was needed for his medical tests and evaluations.
Initially, Harry disliked the work. Although he had been informed he was an analyst, he got stuck with cleaning up the paperwork after cases had been resolved and turned over to the Judge Advocate General’s office for adjudication. He felt like a glorified file clerk.
Early on, by happenstance, Harry got full credit for launching an investigation resulting in the resolution of a major case. Two months after having been assigned to Randolph, Harry moved out of the Bachelors Officer Quarters on base. He had found a small house under foreclosure near the base in Universal City and bought it. Later, he visited the Base Exchange department store to purchase some linens and other necessities.
As he walked down the hallway toward the main shopping area, he heard some raised voices. Looking over, he noticed an Army Major and an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel involved in a discussion in the Snack Bar adjacent to the Exchange department store. He continued walking but there was something odd about the two he couldn’t place.
He stopped at the entrance to the main shopping area of the Exchange and pondered. It was not the fact they were discussing something or loudly disagreeing. There was something odd and he couldn’t figure it out. He shook his head and continued his shopping.
Later, while loading his car in the parking lot, he saw the Lieutenant Colonel getting into a new Mercedes. He noticed a glint of light hit his eyes as the fading sunlight reflected off the Colonel’s watch.
Later, in bed that evening, Harry suddenly sat upright.
At that moment he realized he had noticed both of the officers had been wearing gold Rolex watches - distinctive Rolexes. The watches had gemstones looking suspiciously like diamonds mounted around the face of the watch. Harry figured the stones were Cubic Zirconia, fake diamonds, but impressive no less.
Umm, he thought, a Rolex and now a new Mercedes, the Lieutenant Colonel was not wearing wings. Harry had noted the license number and although it was late, he returned to the OSI office and got on the computer. It took him about an hour to locate the Lieutenant Colonel and figure out the colonel was assigned to the Procurement Office on base. The Procurement Office website listed the Colonel as a warranted Contracting Officer, meaning he has authority to award contracts and spend money on behalf of the United States government.
He dug further and determined the Colonel had recently been assigned to the Joint Contracting Office in Afghanistan, one of a team of Contracting Officers assigned to issue contracts to local Afghan transportation companies for the $3 billion of contract awards for transporting goods and supplies within Afghanistan.
Joint command? Air Force, Army and Navy?
Harry was able to access the Colonel’s address from his military records and noted it was in a section northwest of San Antonio known as the “Dominion.”
Harry then accessed real estate sites and soon determined the minimum anyone could purchase a house for in the Dominion subdivision was $2 million and that was rock bottom.
Having just purchased a foreclosure, he wondered if there was such a thing as a foreclosed house going for just two million. The real estate site listed other houses for sale in the subdivision in the three to five three to five million range.
How much did the Colonel pay for his house? That’s a pretty expensive neighborhood. Maybe if I get promoted to Lieutenant Colonel then I could afford a house like that!
Harry tried digging further in to things but found his access to records limited.
The next day, he had an appointment at Wilford Hall and when they finished with another trip down the MRI tunnel, resulting in a headache from the headgear the orderlies had strapped to his head. Going back to the parking lot, he realized the hospital on the southern side of San Antonio afforded him the opportunity to visit the Dominion residential area.
He drove out Interstate 10 and found the Dominion. It was a gated community. Harry drove up to the gate and a guard asked him his business. Harry gave him the name of a San Antonio Spurs basketball player and said he was expected. The guard told him the basketball star was not a resident and invited Harry to leave before he called the police. Harry left.
Early the next morning, he knocked on the Commanding Officer’s door and asked for clearance to access records fully including national law enforcement databases and intra-service databases. The Commander granted his access without asking many questions.
The commander did point out there could be a logical explanation for the Colonel’s ostentatious display of wealth. He suggested the Colonel might have received an inheritance, perhaps. After Harry pointed out that did not explain the coincidence of both officers wearing similar Rolexes, he shrugged and told Harry to continue his research.
“Knock yourself out.”
Harry went to his cubicle and armed with access codes to many federal databases, started digging. It didn’t take long for Harry to figure out the Colonel had not declared any extra income and there did not seem to be any deductions for mortgage payments.
Did he pay cash for that house?
As Harry continued his research, he learned the name of the Army Major and started researching information on the Army Major as well.
Three days later, he received an email from the OSI commander to prepare a briefing on his findings and deliver it the next morning. He wasn’t ready but the Commander had asked him to come brief him.
The Commander had received a query from the Army Criminal Investigation Division (otherwise known as CID) relayed through the OSI national headquarters in the Washington area wondering why the OSI was seeking information for one of its field grade officers. Harry’s research had not gone unnoticed.
Harry felt a little uncomfortable because he thought he should have more information before delivering his report. But, he had been ordered to give a summary of his findings so he did. He stayed up until midnight collecting his information and summarized the facts as he saw them.
Both the Major and the Lieutenant Colonel had served as Contracting Officers at the Joint Contracting Officer and both had extended their tours in Afghanistan. A normal tour of duty in the region, considered a combat zone, was 12 months. The Major had extended his tour for an extra 12 months se3rving a total of 24 months and the Lieutenant Colonel had extended his tour by an extra 18 months serving a total of 30 months. Combined, they had issued contracts totaling over 6 billion dollars to Afghan firms providing goods and services to Coalition Forces. They had awarded over 3 billion dollars for transportation contracts and contracts providing security services for the transportation convoys.
Harry had also noted that both officers also performed as review authorities. Whenever a firm protested an award, the review authority would determine if the protest has merit or if the award would stand. As an objective review of the contract award process, it determined whether or not the contract had been awarded fairly in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulations and Department of Defense guidelines. By tracking the cases the two officers reviewed, he found they had reviewed many of each other’s awards when a rival Afghan company protested. Without exception, it seemed the officers would determine a protest did not have merit when reviewing the other’s award.
Harry informed the commander it appeared the Contracting Officers had received bribes to award contracts to favored companies. If there were protests, they would back each other up. They advertised and awarded the contracts as ‘Best Value’ contracts meaning the lowest bid did not necessarily win the contract.
Harry didn’t have access to all the bids for the contracts but he noted the companies protesting the awards had stated they offered comparable services at lower prices.
Harry also determined another potential crime existed. One of the officers would award a contract to an Afghan company to provide both transportation and security services under a contract for a certain route and then the other would issue a requirement and award a contract for security for the same route. Harry felt the security contracts were, in effect, bogus contracts since the transportation company had already received a contract to provide security services for the route. Harry suspected the security companies could be traced to either one or both of the Contracting Officers, who were receiving payments and transferring the monies to offshore banking accounts. They collected millions for these contracts.
Harry explained his report was incomplete. He suspected both the Major and the Lieutenant Colonel has used their positions to accept lucrative bribes to award contracts to favored companies. He also felt they had created false Afghan companies to funnel money into their bank accounts while defrauding the Government.
He shared his suspicions with the Commanding Officer and presented the facts as he had determined them
The Commander listened with interest. He told Harry it seemed to him there was a strong possibility a major crime existed here. He explained there was some high level headquarters interest in the case due to the Army CID request. Harry has triggered an inter-service interest that attracted major attention.
He asked Harry to hold off for a couple of days. A day later, he called Harry into his office and informed him the OSI Headquarters at Andrews near Washington had assumed jurisdiction over the case. Since the case involved officers from both the Army and the Air Force and most of the illegal activity had taken place in Afghanistan, the OSI headquarters was going to follow up on the case. He ordered Harry to put all the data he had collected on a disc and to bundle up all the paperwork for a special courier arriving that evening from Washington.
The next day, two agents from Washington showed up and collected the data. They spent three hours with Harry going over the data and getting his impressions. Ten days later, the Commander called Harry into his office and presented him with a Letter of Commendation from the Commandant of the OSI, a female Brigadier General.
It took another two and a half months before the government arrested and filed charges against both the Lieutenant Colonel and the Major. When they did arrest the two officers, the story made national news. News reports indicated the two had taken over 4 million dollars in bribes and fraudulent claims while in Afghanistan.
Reading the news as it filtered through the local San Antonio Express News and the television, Harry suspected more money had been embezzled but those two were looking at long term assignment in the military prison at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. They wouldn’t be able to spend any money for a long time.
After he had handed over the files in the case to the Washington couriers, word traveled fast throughout the office. His reputation as an analyst grew. Harry didn’t have to worry about being utilized in a productive manner. Agents started coming by with requests for help on active cases. As the requests mounted, the Commanding Officer had to intervene and establish a system to schedule his assistance on active investigations.
He became proficient tracking spending habits of Air Force members suspected of dealing illegal drugs within the military. He noted that whenever the local office stumbled upon anything that linked any Air Force member to espionage or terrorism, investigators from headquarters soon showed up and the casework disappeared.
One day, an agent had asked him to review his investigation of a case the Procurement Office had referred to the OSI. They had received a complaint a small minority owned machine shop in San Antonio was overcharging the Defense Department for nuts and bolts it manufactured under contract with the Government. After his review Harry concurred with the agent the items the shop manufactured met the standards established under the contract. They jointly concluded the complaint against the business was baseless and the agent had prepared paperwork to that effect.
When Harry was packaging the paperwork, he notices an invoice for shipping.
That’s odd. $498.36 for shipping a $36.57 order?
At Harry’s request, the agent re-opened the investigation. They soon discovered an anomaly in Department of Defense procurement rules requiring businesses to submit separate invoices for items purchased and shipping. Subsequently, they discovered three years previous, the machine shop had made an honest, typographical mistake and received $479.00 for shipping when the original shipping invoice should have been for $47.90.
The owners had promptly refunded the difference to the Government, but their bookkeeper made another mistake and they received payment again. This time, they did not return the money and soon discovered they could charge excessive shipping and would receive payment.
The temptation proved too great. The shop then embarked on a practice of padding the shipping invoices with excessive charges and pocketing the difference between the actual shipping costs and the invoiced amount.
To keep orders flowing in, they submitted bids undercutting their competitors and let it be known they would specialize in filling fill small quantities. Soon their business flourished and they received order after order from government warehouses and delivered promptly. They were soon netting over $600,000.00 per year in excessive shipping charges.
Once the OSI completed their investigation, the practice stopped and the owners received suspended sentences and were ordered to pay restitution to the United States Government.
Subsequently Harry and the agent both received a letter from an Assistant Secretary to the Secretary of Defense thanking them for their work and informing them their efforts had resulted in changes to the Department’s procurement regulations.
Harry became known as the “go-to” person to contact when agents needed help with cases. He was a quick study and considered “free labor” since he was not counted against the unit’s manning documents. Whenever he didn’t travel to Wilford Hall for medical tests, he remained available to help out. Although he enjoyed solving the puzzles, his focus remained returning to an assignment flying fighters. It felt good to be needed and valued. The work was interesting but it wasn’t flying.
When flying Harry had possessed a security clearance and because the Air Force consider him an OSI asset, albeit temporary, The Air Force kept his clearance active. After his success with the case involving the Procurement Officers, the OSI issued him his own set of access codes permitting him to roam freely through all Air Force databases.
In his spare time and sometimes after normal duty hours, Harry started searching the databases of the Air Force Foreign Technology Division. That agency tracked weapons systems developments of foreign government’s air forces. Harry sought information regarding the development of air-to-air missile technology in the Iranian Air Force. The mystery of the missile downing Mike’s airplane haunted him.
He did not learn much about the missile but did learn about the Su-27 aircraft the Iranian Air Force had gained as the result of breakaway states in the Caucasus region. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia became independent states and the resulting turmoil created chaos particularly during the two Chechen Wars. During this period, Muslin elements had succeeded on spiriting away 24 Su-27 Russian fighters, along with parts, tools and logistical supplies, which had formerly belonged to the Russian Air Force.
These aircraft ended up not in the Iranian Air Force, but in the Aerospace Force of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or more simply the Revolutionary Guards Air Branch. Harry was surprised to learn the Revolutionary Guards had an air force but they did. The Revolutionary guard air arm possessed many assault helicopters to support ground forces, fighter aircraft, and control of the Iranian strategic missile forces.
While political correctness proved primary to serving as a member of the Revolutionary Guard Air Branch, Harry learned the standards demanded of its pilots were high. The Branch had engaged former Soviet Su-27 fighter pilots as mercenary flying instructors to teach the Iranian pilots the necessary skills associated with the air-to-air capability of its fighter aircraft.
Harry learned of one pilot, rumored to have shot down an Eagle, who had mastered a maneuver known as the ‘cobra.’ This maneuver called for the pilot to turn the Su-27 up on its axis in a 90 degree stall like position causing enemy flyers to overshoot their plane placing themselves in front of the Su-27 in easy range of the heat seeking missiles.
Harry knew instantly this maneuver violated the ‘Speed is Life’ mantra fighter pilots lived by. He considered the maneuver a pretty dumb move for any fighter pilot to make.
Harry also learned they called this pilot “Mar”, the Farsi name for snake.
Since rumor held Mar had shot down an Eagle, Harry surmised this must the asshole who had gotten Mike.
Before Harry could learn more, Air Force Foreign Technology Intelligence cyber security team detected his curiosity and blocked his access into the Foreign Technology Division saying he did not have the requisite ”need to know” to access the information. The information he sought was not relevant to any OSI investigations. therefore, they decreed, he didn’t have a need to know.
The hell I don’t.
He didn’t press the issue because he felt there was little else he could learn. The sneak attack would remain a mystery. At least, now he had a name.
It didn’t seem to Harry to matter much. He was beginning to give up hope of ever flying again.
* * *
As it turned out, Harry never flew again in the Air Force. His medical problem proved mysterious and unable to duplicate. The Air Force conducted every test conceivable. He underwent so many EEG tests, he felt like an expert. Once when a hospital technician made a mistake attaching the leads, Harry corrected her and showed her the proper sequence. They ran him through the MRI machine so many times wearing that tight headband he thought he would have a permanent headache. They eliminated the possibility of panic attacks.
In the meantime, four months after arriving in the San Antonio area, the Air Force notified Harry he would receive the Air Force Cross, the nation’s second highest military award, second only to the Medal of Honor. The top general in the Air Force, the Air Force Chief of Staff, flew down to San Antonio, pinned on new Major’s leaves on Harry, and presented the medal at a parade at Lackland Air Force Base. The Air Force general gave him the honor of reviewing the troops as they marched by. He didn’t care. All he wanted was to return to flying fighters. When the Chief of Staff shook his hand, all Harry could do was ask when he was returning to flying fighters.
Eleven general officers attended the parade and the reception at the Lackland Club following the parade. When the Air Force Chief of Staff shows up at an event, he draws a crowd. Harry lobbied every one of them to assist him in his return to flying. He regarded the event as an opportunity. He was in a target-rich environment and he was not going to waste it. He made a note of all those who attended and followed up with a letter writing campaign to each of the attendees. He looked at the letters as his long-range missiles and considered his campaign to return to flying fighters as an extended air campaign. His appeals did not go unnoticed or unanswered.
As time passed, he became more and more discouraged. He kept up his letter writing campaign for a few months but recognized he was growing increasingly angry at his situation. His frustration, anger and bitterness was boiling over and seeping into the letters. He knew the people who would read the letters would detect some of this bitterness and be repelled just as he was repelled when he read the letters over to himself. He would tear the letter up and start again.
Soon the one letter a month became one letter every two months. After a while, he stopped writing them altogether.
Old demons he felt he had vanquished began to re-appear. These demons encroached on his thoughts and enhanced his sense of futility and deepened his sense of hopelessness. His self worth plummeted down like a rock dropping down a bottomless pit.
He began to mull over his situation as he lay in bed at night and there were many nights when he would still be awake when the alarm went off the next morning. It was a standing joke when he was in the Academy, he and his fellow cadets could sleep anywhere; even standing up if they had the time. One of his fellow cadets had even mastered the ability to sleep during sporting events amid the roar if the crowd.
So much for the Academy cadet who could sleep anywhere.
Although the fighter pilot mystique portrayed fighter pilots as hard drinkers, Harry and his peers were actually very conservative. They needed their wits in the air and early on, many soon discovered drinking the night before slowed their reflexes to the point where they would find themselves on the losing end of their mock air battles in the sky the next day. Despite their reputation of partying hard, most pilots allowed the fighter pilot heavy drinking myth to continue but maintained a conservative lifestyle.
Most found the “high” others sought in alcohol in the thrill of flying and taking their bodies and airplanes to the limit in mock combat. They pushed themselves and the airplanes to the edge while training and flying their mock combat missions and received rewards of a high sense of accomplishment. The mixtures of adrenalin, dopamine and serotonin flooding brains and bodies stretched to the limit provided more satisfaction in an afternoon than others received in a lifetime. The “high” others received from sniffing cocaine or using other stimulants paled in comparison.
One night, restless, unable to sleep, emotions overtook him. The pain he felt at the loss of flying began to remind him of the emotional loss he had suffered in high school when he lost his family; his adoptive parents and his sister. An automobile accident had taken them midway through his senior year in high school. He had left school, enlisted in the Air Force and worked through his grief and loss. That had served to remind him of the first accident claiming the lives of his natural parents when he was ten.
The loss of flying affected him emotionally. It seemed as if he had lost his family a third time. As he lay there, his feelings felt like they were cleaving his mind in half and hurt him more than any physical pain he had ever felt. It was a Wednesday and he had been sleepless for two nights running. When he went to the Air Base to the OSI office, he wore his uniform with his wings displayed. This served to remind him he had once been a fighter pilot but he was no longer on flying status. According to regulations, he had to wear his wings or be considered “out of uniform.”
Additionally, while on the base, he was constantly exposed to the whine of the jet engine noise emanating from the flight line. These subconscious cues served to remind him his hopes of regaining status as a fighter pilot were more and more forlorn. He started to consider his case hopeless and himself a washed-up fighter pilot.
He instinctively knew deep inside he was a natural flyer. Every time, he strapped himself into a cockpit, be it a light plane like he flew when he earned his private pilot's license while a cadet at the Air Force Academy Prep School; he always felt he became part of the plane he flew. The aircraft felt like it was an extension of his body.
It took work to excel in the flying arena, but work he loved. All that work, all that training, earning his private ticket, excelling in the Initial Flight Screening program while at the Academy, scoring first in his class during the first phase of pilot training to get selected do the fighter track and then studying, learning and refining his talent to graduate from Undergraduate Pilot Training second in his class. Due to his ranking in Pilot Training, the Air Force allowed him to select the airplane he wanted to fly. He surprised everyone by selecting the F-15 Eagle instead of the F-22. He had excelled in his initial training and received an assignment to the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing and his talent caught the attention of the Wing commander, Colonel James "Bulldog" Rippenger, a fighter ace from the Gulf War in 1991. The memories of these achievements only deepened his despair.
Discouraged by the failure of his efforts to regain a position as a fighter pilot in the Air Force he began to feel like the situation regarding his return to flying seemed more and more hopeless. They had presented him with the nation's second highest medal for bravery and yet, they still refused to let him fly again. He felt stymied by this intransigence on the part of the institution he had devoted every fiber of his being to serving his country doing something he loved to do.
Now, because he had told the Flight Surgeon the truth that he had lost consciousness, he found himself medically grounded; barred from flying and he found himself in the fight of his life. He was in a battle greater than the one he fought in the skies over Iran. Only, this time he felt he had lost the initiative and was in a losing battle.
He kept telling himself,
It's just not fair! It's just not fucking fair.
Night after night, he lay in his bed at night, his mind racing, focusing on his situation. The more he thought about things, the more negative things seemed to him. Resentment overshadowed his thinking and feelings. As he so often did, he battled the covers, twisting and turning, trying to calm his mind so he could go to sleep. Typically, he would wake up the next morning realizing he had only slept an hour or two.
This Wednesday night, however, around midnight he arose and drank two beers but that didn’t seem to help. He still felt the restlessness and the emotional pain. Then at one in the morning, he walked into his kitchen, pulled a bottle of bourbon from the cabinet, broke the seal and poured himself a shot. The first belt of whiskey didn’t seem to do much for him. He gagged. The second drink seemed to relax him a bit but the third dollop did the truck.
Seconds after the third shot hit his stomach; it felt like loose, limp rubber bands inside his tangled brain let go. The emotions and tensions knotting his gut relaxed. Resentment dissipated. He instantly felt relaxed and slept.
On Thursday, after the late news, he went straight for the bourbon. He drank another three shots. He initially stopped at two, but felt the pull to take the third. He seemed to sleep better but woke a little early. Friday night, he watched a ball game and helped himself to three drinks while watching. Then, he had a fourth before he went to bed. He slept well.
On Saturday, he went to the liquor store and stocked up. By the end of the next week, he had developed a habit of taking a few “toddies” each night to help him sleep. On the third week, he noticed he did not feel the sense of relaxation he had initially felt after three so the three shots become four and on some nights, five.
Harry started the drinking to escape from the emotional pain he felt at being removed from flying. This rapidly turned into a two-edged sword – a Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. The alcohol began to take over.
As he continued the pattern of drinking to calm him down and sleep, he became more dependent on its effects. However, the emotional pain he felt intensified. Without his realizing it the alcohol served an accelerant to his negative feelings much like adding gasoline to a fire. To counter this increased turmoil, he drank more and when he did not drink, the need for alcohol fed his insecurity; playing a trick on him. So without realizing it, the alcohol caused his emotional pain to surface and intensify until he drank to counter the feeling. He was unable to tell the real distraught feelings from the ones created by the alcohol.
Some nights, he took an over the counter sleeping pill with the whisky but noticed he awoke with a really severe headache so he soon discontinued that practice.
He enjoyed his work with the OSI. He worried initially his work might suffer from his nightly drinks. He soon discovered a few drinks each night to help him get to sleep did not seem seriously impact his work as an analyst. He told himself he was actually much more rested while on duty. He convinced himself he was actually a better analyst.
He soon found he was taking Friday afternoons off “to play golf.” He never played golf but sometimes did stop off at the 19th Hole – a Casual Bar near the golf course. He acquired a taste for Mexican food and some Fridays, when he was playing “golf’,” it would turn out he had stopped at Felix’s Mexican restaurant on Pat Booker Boulevard and have lunch. Lunch often included a couple of beers and then he would gravitate to the bar and watch golf on TV.
Golf entailed a margarita or two or three.
He was careful. He knew the ramifications resulting from a Driving While Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) charge on an Air Force career. He had a security clearance for his work at the OSI. Even though things looked hopeless, he still held on to the hope of returning to an active flying job. A Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) would most certainly smash that dream into oblivion. He also realized the combination of alcohol and driving had played a major factor which had claimed the lives of his close family twice before in his life. Both his natural, biological parents and subsequently, his adoptive parents had died as a result of automobile accidents caused by drunk drivers.
Those times he felt he had exceeded the legal limit he would call a cab. Universal City was a relatively small bedroom community nestled next to the base. He got to know many of the taxi drivers in town. Then one evening after he had spent “lunch” at Felix’s, a waitress gave him a ride. She was his type, buxom and easygoing. He invited her to spend the night and she gave him a ride back to his car in the morning.
He soon discovered other females willing to give him a ride whenever he stopped at the Casual Bar at the Officers’ Club. This activity soon developed into a pattern. Many considered him a womanizer. It was only partially true. He looked at many of these liaisons as opportunities to save what was left of his Air Force career and to support his personal distain for driving while drunk..
He was actually indifferent to women and this quality proved attractive to them. His indifference served like a magnet to attract members of the opposite sex, his primary focus was returning to flying status. When he flew fighters, he concentrated on improving his flying skills and devoted much of his time perfecting his skill. At the same time, he did not turn away any opportunity to spend time with women, especially those with big bosoms, who drifted into his orbit. There were enough of those occasions, so he did not even think about it.
Meanwhile, many officers in the tactical flying arena continued to work behind the scenes to secure his return to flying duties. Though the assistance of his former flying mentor, Brigadier General James “Bulldog” Rippenger, many top generals went to bat for him trying to persuade the medical community to let him fly again. It was not an easy decision. Predictably, a fierce debate ensued between the Air Force medical community and the generals advocating Harry’s cause. At last, the Secretary of the Air Force intervened and pronounced the final verdict. Medical protocols trumped rank and two years and one month after the incident, the Air Force issued Harry a medical retirement.
After twenty-five months of evaluation, despite his protests and appeals to high-ranking officials, the Air Force Flight Surgeons refused to reinstate him to flying duties.
* * * * * * * * * * *
In the meantime, Harry had continued his work as an analyst with the OSI. He did well and when it seemed inevitable the Air Force was gong to discharge him, the local OSI commander asked him to sign on as a Civil Service analyst on a full-time basis. Harry refused. He felt if he were going to be in the Air Force, he would only serve as a fighter pilot, a warrior. He felt he would just as soon go back to being an enlisted driver in the Motor Pool as he would a civil servant analyzing cases for the OSI. He didn’t want to be a driver again either. That assignment, driving pilots back and forth from the squadron areas to their planes, had kindled his desire to be an Air Force fighter pilot and started him on his journey which had ended in the sky above Iraq.
His persistence, his inner drive to succeed, had enabled him to take the journey from a driver in the Motor Pool to the position of an ace fighter pilot.
This dogged determination wore thin one Friday. The day started off auspiciously enough. Harry entered the OSI Building and went to his cubicle to continue his research for another agent investigating a major drug case. At 10 AM, a secretary came be and told him, he was needed in the conference room. As he walked to the conference room, he noticed the other cubicles were empty. He opened the door to the conference room and the room was crowded with agents and the local OSI commander was standing at the end of the room with a female Major General. Harry recognized her as Helen Parchment, the first woman to command the Air Force Office of Special Investigation. They directed Harry to the end of the room and the Commander shouted, “Attention to Orders.”
General Parchment then presented Harry with the Air Force Legion of Merit. The citation, read by the local Commander, cited his diligence in uncovering a major corruption case, his assistance in unraveling major narcotics crimes, and his work on a classified case (a reference to an espionage case).
Afterward, General Parchment asked Harry for a provide meeting in the Commander’s office. There she gave Harry the news. The Secretary of the Air Force had approved his discharge. He was to report to the Base Personnel Office for processing at 10:00 AM the following Tuesday morning, the end of the month.
General Parchment then reiterated the offer for Harry to accept a Civil Service position as an analyst and once again, Harry refused. The General muttered.
”That’s what Jim said you would say.” Harry recognized she referred to his former commanding officer and fighter pilot, Jim “Bulldog” Rippenger, now a General Officer managing space operations at the United States Space Command.
She then invited Harry to lunch with her at the club before she flew back to Washington. He declined, announcing he was off to “play golf” because he had an early tee time. Then he went to Felix’s and watched golf on television while he drank some beers and had a few margaritas.
There was no ceremony when he retired. He showed up in a uniform, as required, hung over, needing a haircut and with a three-day stubble of beard. He did not wear his wings, as required. He reported to the base personnel office, received his paperwork from a Master Sergeant who thanked him for his service, and pointed out the exit.
The personnel people told him the Air Force had automatically processed some paperwork with the VA for his disability pension. When it was all said and done, he would receive about 50% of the base pay he had been receiving as a Major. The Secretary of the Air Force had insisted the Air Force do everything it could in the way of ensuring he received all the possible benefits the country could offer him.
He drove his second hand car out the front gate. As he rolled his car through the light onto Pat Booker road, Harry’s mind flashed back twenty-six months to those few seconds over Iraq when, near death, in his consciousness, he faced a solid oak door. He had understood at the time if he opened the door, he would be leaving the world he knew and entering into a vast unknown full of light on the other side of the door. He had blocked the memory of those few seconds from his consciousness in the ensuing days, weeks, and months. He remembered now.
As he cleared the traffic light unto Pat Booker Boulevard, one thought entered his mind.
Maybe I would have been better off if I had opened that damn door!
Author’s note -
I hope you enjoyed this story. I am considering using a modified version in my next HARRY’S WAR book. I would appreciate your comments either here on you can email me at EdBenjamin.author@Gmail.com
You can also find more Harry Miles' adventures in Harry's War on Amazon or wherever digital books are sold.
You can also find more Harry Miles' adventures in Harry's War on Amazon or wherever digital books are sold.