Endless turns on CAP, unrelieved khaki brown below, the distant horizon obscured by a dirty, sullen haze. Over to the west, the sun crawls lazily down towards the haze layer, just that tiniest degree lower with each successive turn. Nothing to break the monotony but the repetitive sound of his own breathing in the O2 mask, the very occasional radio communication to his wingman as they come to the end of an orbit and reverse course. On each turn, the engine instruments, fuel quantity and fuel transfer systems are checked and verified in the green with such long-accustomed force of habit that the thing itself is automatic, unremarkable. Out of the turn the squadron XO looks to his right three o’clock wearily, almost hoping to see his wingman out of position. If only to have something to talk about, something to say besides, “In place right, go.” But no: The young man is exactly where he is supposed to be, in perfect formation, as silently focused as a bird dog on point. He had, the XO admitted to himself, done very well in his first hot mission, very well indeed. He might just do.
“In place left, go.” Just to be different this time. Suppressing an ironic smile at the liberties available to him.
In a fully armed fighter at 25,000 feet over what he has still thinks of as hostile terrain, the XO struggles to keep his eyes open, to stay awake. The excitement of his wingman’s JDAM strike is long passed, back before the last air refueling cycle. Finally the tedium is punctured by a UHF call not his own, on the prime radio, imperative, demanding: “Hammer One-one, Icepack, say your posit and state.”
He checks his moving map, the digital display there down behind the control stick, between his legs – southernmost part of the CAP leg, south of Ad Diwaniyah – what should have been 304′s airspace, if he’d made it in country, the mere plumber. “Icepack, Hammer 11, we’re bullseye 180 for a hundred, northbound, low state, ah… base plus 5.0,” the XO replies.
“Roger base plus five, break, Hammer 21, Icepack, say your posit, state?” The XO flips his briefing card over – Hammer 21′s station was to the west, almost to Ar Rutbah…
“Hammer 21, bullseye 285, 110 low state base plus 6.5,” which made sense, the XO reflects, they’d come off the tanker more recently than he and his wingman had. Pretty far east of his CAP point though…better than half way to Baghdad. Almost in my airspace…
“Roger, base plus 6.5, break Hammer 31, Icepack, say your posit, state?” North, the XO confirms on his briefing card, Hammer 31 is stationed north. Nearly to Mosul.
“Hammer 31 is bullseye 340, 150, southbound – base plus 3.0. We’re ah, we’re heading off station for Texaco.” Makes sense, the XO thinks, his eyes open but momentarily unseeing as he drew the relationship between fixed reference points and the fighters’ shifting geometries in his head, orienting himself to the only universe that counted: Battle space lines, bullseyes and fighter orbits. He feels the picture click into place for an altogether too brief moment before once again becoming gradually less distinct with each passing moment. Things change, airplanes move quickly. He thought, they’re heading down to the tanker; it’s their turn to get some gas – the north CAP will be abandoned. Hammer 41 flight is not here, they cannot flow north to fill the lane from Basra to Baghdad, peeking in upon Najaf, while he himself filled the gap between the capital and Mosul. But all this roll calling is unusual: Before he can fully form the question in his own mind, the DASC speaks up again, saying, “Hammer 21, Icepack, initial vector southeast, station CP Mustang, switch Viper on Purple-3 for a TIC and check in. Buster.”
A TIC, the XO thought, all weariness instantly vanished – “troops in contact” and “buster” – get there in a hurry. He looked on his own cockpit chart and found the inertial waypoint for Check Point Mustang – Fallujah. No, west of Fallujah – Ramadi. His hands bump the throttles up just a bit, he checks his three o’clock again, sees his wingman fall behind, surge, catch up, overshoot, settle back. Not ready for that, were you my son? You will be next time.
“Icepack, Hammer 11, we’re available for tasking if you need us.”
“Stand by, 11,” followed by a brief pause. “Hammer 11, Bossman wants you to flow north, fill for 31. Hammer 31 you are airspace south until aboard Texaco. Maintain mutual separation.”
Ugh. The mission goes to the closer two-ship, the higher fuel state. No use to grumble. “Two, Hammer 11 is going to be off freq on aux for a moment,” the XO says, turning his kneeboard card over again until he finds the comm plan: Purple-3/324.75/JTAC
He doesn’t really belong on this freq, the DASC has told him that it’s not his fight, but it is his flight, he briefed the mission and he’s curious. He tunes Purple-2 into the aux radio, listens in, silently:
“…in as fragged, two GBU-12, two GBU-35,” finishes the engaged flight lead, Hammer 21.
Weakly, almost unreadable, “Roger 21, we’ve got hostiles danger close, almost on us – do you have any 20 mike-mike?” The JTAC is asking for twenty-millimeter cannon, the XO thinks, eyebrows lifting. The bad guys must be close aboard indeed… What is that ripping sound in the background? Static? Something else?
“Hammer 21, that’s affirm, 500 rounds each 20 mike-mike.”
“Roger 21, stand by for nine line…”
(to be continued…)