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Old 01-23-2015, 11:43 PM
Matt Wiser Matt Wiser is offline
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This one's set in the final week of the war in the Lower 48, and the 335th's crews find out that not all MiG drivers really belong in the cockpit....

Part I

Nearing the End: Burnout


Laredo AFB, Texas: 1 October, 1989, 0620 Hours Central War Time



Major Matt Wiser, the CO of the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron, was doing something that the 335th had hardly ever done since the war began: holding a mass briefing. There had been one on the first day, four years earlier, and one or two since. Mainly at the start of PRAIRIE FIRE and LONG RIFLE, but apart from that, he didn't recall any. No matter. The 335th had taken over some offices that prewar, had been used by an air charter company, the base having been closed a number of years prior to the war. The Soviets and Cubans had made use of the facilities since, both here and at Laredo International Airport, and now, the USAF, along with the Marines, had returned.

Crammed inside a meeting room was every crew in the 335th: he had eighteen flyable aircraft and thirty-two crews. Two aircraft were down for maintenance, and he was expecting four more to come, either from deep overhaul at McClellan AFB, or newly built from the Mitsubishi line in Japan. Well, when we go south into Mexico-and as far as Mexico City, we'll need those new birds and some new crews. But that was in the future-he hoped, but today's business-and those in the days ahead, came first.

“All right. You've probably noticed something. There's no preplanned targets for today. Everybody that can fly in MAG-11, along with the entire Tenth Air Force, is going south. Other than the Monterrey Air Defense Zone, anyplace in Northern Mexico from Amistad Reservoir down to Roma is fair game.”

His Exec, Captain Don Van Loan, asked, “So what are we doing, hitting opportunity targets?”

“That, and armed reconnaissance,” Major Wiser, call sign Guru, said.

Pilots and WSOs looked at each other. Then Capt. Valerie Blanchard, or Sweaty as she was known on the radio, said, “Southeast Asia all over again?”

“No. The reason Monterrey's a no-go area is because of the air defense threat. The only restriction, other than that, is no southbound traffic. Intel says the ComBloc are shipping POWs south in trucks headed deeper into Mexico, so no hitting southbound vehicles. Other than that, any military traffic on any road, whether the Mexican Federal roads, or the local ones, is a target,” Guru said.

“This all prep for the invasion?” Capt. Kara Thrace, or Starbuck, asked. She was the Operations Officer for the 335th, and had submitted a strike plan for Mexico City. One that Guru had reluctantly turned down.

“They wouldn't say, but even money says it is,” the CO replied. “At least, it forces the ComBloc to realize there's more than just Brownsville.”

Heads nodded. Anything that made the bad guys remember there was more than that pocket on this front was a good thing. “Opportunity targets?” Capt. Lisa Eichhorn asked. Goalie was her call sign, and she was Major Wiser's WSO.

“Anything military or military related. This includes bridges, power substations, airstrips, you name it. If it's defended, it's a target.” the CO told everyone.

Then Capt. Bryan Simmonds, Sweaty Blanchard's backseater, asked, “Ordnance loads?”

“Good question, Preacher.” Major Wiser said. “Right now, you're going out with either dumb bombs, CBUs, or a mix. But when you come back from the first hop, the ordnance guys will have whatever they've got ready. You might get napalm, or all dumb bombs, all CBUs, Mavericks, rocket pods, whatever. But you still get at least two AIM-7s, two wing tanks, and a full load of 20-mike-mike. And Sidewinders. Flight leads get an ECM pod as well.”

“And MiGs?” Hoser, or Capt. Nathan West, asked.

“OK, here's what the deal is. If the MiG or Sukhoi has a good driver, or if it's got a Red Star or Cuban insignia on it, go ahead. Kill it and claim the kill. If it's flown by some Mexican who's flying like he expects to be shot down, different story,” Guru said.

“What does that mean?” Sweaty asked.

“I haven't been claiming those kills. I've got five of those, and so does Kara. You've got four, Don has three, and several of you also have at least two. These have been too easy,” Major Wiser said.

“Like those Syrians in the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot back in '82, Boss.” Van Loan said. “Lot of those guys acted as if they knew they'd be shot down, but took off anyhow.”

“Yeah,” Guru responded. “Here's what I've been doing. When I've killed these guys, I say that I've fired an AIM-9 or AIM-7, depending on what I did use, but the missile missed, prematured, failed to guide, or whatever. And the target got away,” the CO said. He knew that several of those he'd mentioned had done the same. “If you want to claim the kill, go ahead. It's up to you.”

Heads nodded. And Major Wiser noticed one thing. The old hands in the squadron were those not likely to file these claims, even if it kept somebody from a better score. The new people-and the 335th had several new crews-were more likely to do otherwise. To them, killing some guy fresh out of flight training was no different than killing a high-time flier. He knew the saying, “A kill's a kill.” Normally, he'd agree. But with these greenhorns they'd been splashing, it was all too easy. He'd rather get into the transport stream from Mexico City to Brownsville instead and be like a shark in a school of fish.
“Any other questions?”

“What's the weather, Major?” asked one of the new guys.

“CAVU all day.” the Major said. That meant clear skies and visibility unlimited. A fighter-attack pilot's dream. “As for bailout areas south of the river: anyplace away from the roads. If you can, stay with the bird as long as you can and get your asses north. The closer to the Rio Grande, the easier time that the Jolly Greens have to get you. And if you can get across the river, best of all.”

Heads nodded again. Major Wiser looked around the room. “Anything else?”

Then one of the sergeants came into the room. “Major, this should've been handed out yesterday. It's from Major Ellis,” the sergeant said, handing the CO a letter.

“Thanks, Sergeant,” Major Wiser said. “Before we go, anyone want to hear from Mark?”

Multiple heads nodded. “Come on, Major,” Kara said, “Read it.” Sweaty Blanchard said the same thing, as did Goalie.

“OK, hold your horses,” Guru said as he opened the letter. “He's home-back in Ohio. 'I'm at Rickenbacker's base hospital,' he says. 'I'll be back in the cockpit, but the docs say it's at least a year. More likely eighteen months. That's what happens when you break one leg in two places, along with the other leg, and your shoulder, too. I saw you guys on CNN a couple of times, and it looks like you're all doing OK. Drop me a line, and if I don't see you guys before the war's over, I'll be there at the reunion. Check Six, and kick those bastards back to Mexico City.' There's more, but that's about it. Oh, he's getting married once he can walk down the aisle.”

Clapping and cheering followed. Mark Ellis had been a well respected pilot and Exec. He and Guru had run the 335th the best way they could, even if they had to fold, spindle, bend, or mutilate a few regs to get things done, so be it-as long as it got results. And having both MAG-11's commander and General Tanner at Tenth Air Force have the same attitude helped a lot. Then he'd been shot down during that Midland-Odessa offensive, what some had called Ivan's last roll of the dice, which had drawn parallels with the Battle of the Bulge, and had been rescued by the Jolly Greens. But his war was over. Major Wiser gave the letter to one of his ground officers. “Put that on the bulletin board, so everybody can read it.”

“Glad to, Major,” the man said.

“Okay. Anything else?” Major Wiser asked. There wasn't.

“Good. Let's hit it.” Wiser said, grabbing his flight helmet.

With that, the room emptied as those crews assigned to fly the first sorties of the day went to their aircraft. And soon after that, the runways were filled with aircraft as F-4s (both AF and Marine), Marine A-4s, A-6s, F/A-18s, and some A-7s from a shore-based Navy squadron, began taxiing for takeoff. It was going to be a very busy day.


1430 Hours Central War Time: Over Northern Mexico.


Guru was on his fifth flight that day; he and Goalie had flown four before noon, and they'd finally had a break. Lunch, taking care of squadron paperwork, and then back in the saddle. He was in his usual mount, 512, and he had eleven Red Stars painted on the side. So what if the bad guys saw that in combat? At least they'd know they were up against a proven MiG-killer.

They were flying with their usual wingmates, 1st Lt. Kevin McAllen and his WSO, 1st Lt. Toni Grey. Since Kara had graduated to flight lead, a year earlier, these two had been their wingmates. And had made ace in the process. But kills had been few-other than these rookies, and neither Kevin or Toni (Cowboy and Nooner as they went in the squadron) had claimed any of those, either. Then they heard Sweaty call on the radio “Any Chiefs north of Sabinas Hidalgo?” Chiefs was their squadron's nickname.

“Sweaty, Guru,” Wiser called. “What's up?”

“Big convoy at the junction of Highway 85 and Route 22: somebody dropped the bridge north of that on 85, and they're all backed up,” Sweaty called.

“Copy. Cowboy, you hear that?”

“Roger, Lead,” Cowboy said.

“Sweaty, Guru. We're on our way.” Wiser said.

“Roger, Boss.” Sweaty called. “We're Winchester right now and are RTB.” That meant she was out of ordnance and had to return to base.

“Roger that. Any other Chiefs working 85, head to Sweaty's target location.” Guru said, not waiting for any acknowledgments. And he took his element to that location. Sure enough, there was military traffic backed up on the highway, and the bridge was down over the Rio Salado. His two Phantoms had six Mark-82 500-pound bombs and six CBU-58/B cluster bombs. These had one advantage over Rockeyes, his favorite CBUs: they had incendiary submunitions mixed in with the antivehicle and antipersonnel ones. And ripping up a truck convoy like this one was one thing CBUs could handle.

The two Phantoms came in on the target. “Anything on the threat receivers?” Guru asked Goalie.

“Not a peep. They must not have any radars down there.” Goalie responded.

“Two, this is Lead. First pass Mark-82s. Second pass CBUs. Then we RTB. Both runs south to north.” Guru called.

“Copy, Lead,” Cowboy responded.

With that, Guru rolled in on his first pass. He picked out some trucks and unloaded his six centerline Mark-82s from low level. The six bombs ripped into the convoy, blasting some trucks, and tossing others aside as if they were toys. Cowboy followed his leader, and his bombs, too, had the same effect. The two Phantoms then came around for another run.

As the two Phantoms came in, the crews noticed small-arms fire and even some 23-mm coming up. It looked like to the crews that somebody-Russians, Cubans, or Mexicans, had put 23-mm guns on either trucks or BTR-152s as improvised antiaircraft vehicles. No matter, they were coming in too fast. And both F-4s laid down their CBUs on the vehicles cramming the northbound lanes of Highway 85. Both crews were rewarded with multiple secondary explosions, as trucks, BTRs, and armored vehicles exploded. As they pulled up, two more elements from the 335th, Don Van Loan's and Hoser's, came in.

Guru called Van Loan. “Pouncer, Guru. Who's that with you?”

“Hoser, Boss.” Van Loan called back.

“Copy that, these guys are all yours. I'm Winchester, and RTB. Watch out for 23-mm and possible SA-7s.”

“Roger that, Boss. I'll be taking Rifle shots,” Pouncer said. Rifle meant Maverick missiles.

“Copy that, Pouncer. Go get 'em.” Guru called as he headed north. Just then, AWACS called.

“Mustang One-One, Crystal Palace. Bandits, Bandits. Threat bearing two-four-zero for fifty-five.”

Uh-oh, Guru thought. “Roger, Crystal Palace. Say Bogey Dope?”

“Mustang, Crystal Palace. No Joy,” the AWACS controller called.

Lovely, Guru thought out loud. And Goalie felt the same way. But it was showtime. “Cowboy, Guru. Bandits inbound. Drop tanks and fight's on.”

“Copy, Lead. Drop tanks and fight's on.” Cowboy responded.

Both F-4s dropped their wing tanks and turned into the incoming bandits. As they did so, the WSOs had their radars on, trying to pick up the bandits. And Crystal Palace kept giving range and bearing.
“Mustang One-One, Crystal Palace. Bandits on your nose, seventeen miles.”

Then Goalie called Guru on the intercom. “Two hits at twelve o'clock.”

“Got it. Crystal Palace, Mustang One-One. Judy.” That meant the F-4s were taking over the interception. “Say Bogey Dope?”

“Mustang, Crystal Palace. Bogeys are Fitters.” That meant anything from Su-7s from the mid '60s to the latest Su-22M4s. And those Fitters were very effective attack aircraft.

“Roger that,” Guru called. “Goalie, anything?”

“I've got a lock!”

“Copy that. Fox One!” he called out, signaling a Sparrow missile launch as he squeezed the trigger on the stick. Then he fired his second Sparrow. “Fox One again!”

Two AIM-7E Sparrow missiles streaked towards their target. Then the enemy aircraft became visible. These were swing-wing Fitters: Su-17s at least. As Guru's missiles streaked towards their target, Cowboy called, “Fox One!” as he ripple-fired two Sparrows.

Guru's two missiles missed. Cowboy's first one burned out short of the target, while his second flew right past the Fitter and exploded well behind the aircraft. As the Fitters broke, they jettisoned their external ordnance and fuel tanks, and tried to break away. And when they did that, their insignia became clear. Red stars on the tail. That meant Russians. “Two, Lead. I've got the leader.”

“Roger, Lead. I've got the other one.” Cowboy called.

Guru got in behind the Fitter. This one might have been an Su-22M version, but it was impossible to tell visually. And he could see the Fitter had two AA-8 Aphid missiles for self-defense. He grinned underneath his oxygen mask. No way, Ivan, he thought as he turned his missile selector to HEAT. His AIM-9L missiles were now armed. And the seeker was tracking. The growl went loud in his headset: missile lock. “Fox Two!”

Guru's first AIM-9 shot off the rail, corkscrewed right, then left, and then smashed into the Fitter's tail. The explosion blew the tail off the aircraft, and as it spun down to the left, the canopy came off, the ejection seat fired, and the pilot was in his chute. “Splash one Fitter!” Guru called.

Just as Guru made that call, Cowboy got in behind the wingman. He, too, got Sidewinder lock, and fired. Once again, an AIM-9 went off the rail, and flew up the Fitter's tailpipe. This time, when it exploded, the plane blew in half. The rear half fell away and broke apart, while the cockpit and wings tumbled end over end, before smashing into the desert floor. This one didn't have a chute. Cowboy gave the call, “Splash two!”

“Copy that, Two. Any chutes?” Guru asked.

“Negative, Lead.”

“Roger that. Crystal Palace, Mustang One-One.” Guru called to the AWACS.

“Mustang One-One, Crystal Palace. Go.”

“Splash two Fitters-Su-17s or -22s. One chute. We are RTB at this time.” Guru said.

“Roger that. Do you need a vector?” the AWACS controller asked.

In 512, Goalie shook her head. “Do those guys think we're lost?”

“You know the AWACS guys, they're like the backseat driver from hell-no offense intended.” Guru said.. “Crystal Palace, Mustang One-One. Negative.”

Goalie smiled underneath her oxygen mask. “None taken, my dear Major,” and she laughed.

Mustang Flight soon was short of the Rio Grande, and the crews looked down. Neuevo Laredo looked like Berlin in 1945, and inbound aircraft gave the place a wide berth: all the artillery fire being poured into the city meant that the sky over Neuevo Laredo was a dangerous place-and a 155 shell didn't care if you were friendly or not. Then Guru heard Starbuck on the radio. “Guru, Starbuck. Got something here.”

“Go, Starbuck,” Guru called back.

“We've got a MiG-21MF here, no gun pack, two Atolls, and he's got a centerline tank, but he's flying really weird. Straight and level at times, then he's all over the sky,” Starbuck called.

Guru frowned underneath his mask. “What's he got on the side?” He was asking about insignia.

“FARM,” was Starbuck's response. That meant the Revolutionary Air Force of Mexico.

“Starbuck, he trying to signal or anything?”

“He did wave,” Kara said. “This guy might be a defector.”

“ETA home base?”

“Fifteen mikes,” Kara said.

“Starbuck, fly alongside and see if you can get him to follow you. Have your wingie right behind him in the kill slot. He does anything funny, just roll out and away, and have Grumpy take the shot,” Guru ordered.

“Roger that.” Kara replied. “See you on the ground.”

“Copy.” Major Wiser then called Laredo operations and advised them of what was coming in. Then his flight came into the pattern, with each doing a victory roll, before landing. After taxiing in, his crew chief was waiting. “Major, what's up?”

“Sergeant, your guess is as good as mine,” the CO said. “Get the strike camera film unloaded, and what have you got for the next hop?”

“Shake'n bake, Major.” the crew chief replied. “Six Mark-82s centerline, and two napalm tanks each wing. And we'll get you two new wing tanks. Be ready in thirty minutes.”

Nodding, Guru and Goalie headed to squadron ops. They ran into Capt. Darren Licon, the squadron's intelligence officer. “Sir, Starbuck's inbound. ETA seven minutes.”

“Anything new?” Goalie asked.

“No, other than Starbuck said the guy looked like he could barely see out of the cockpit,” Licon said.

Major Wiser's flight looked at each other. This was strange. They went into ops, and quickly reviewed their flight. AWACS had confirmation of the Fitter kills, so those claims were valid. Then Major Wiser went into his office, grabbed a pair of binoculars, and went back outside. He turned to Licon. “Get a Humvee or a truck. When Kara lands, I want to be there.”

“Right, Major.” Licon said as he raced to grab a Humvee. When he came back, it wasn't just Major Wiser's flight, but a number of other aircrews, who were gathered there. Word was going around. Then Licon, who had his own set of binoculars, said, “There they are,” pointing to the southeast.

The three-ship made a pass over the base, then flew around for landing. Kara put her Phantom down first, and taxied away as fast as she could. Then the MiG-21 came in, and several pilots watched in shock as the pilot nearly ground-looped the MiG, but managed to get the plane down in one piece. Grumpy, Kara's wingmate, pulled up and did another flyaround, before coming in himself.

Then a dozen aircrew jumped into the Humvee, or so it seemed. Goalie drove, while Major Wiser and several others were wondering what kind of pilot they had on their hands. They drove past Kara's plane, which had taxied into its revetment, and the crew was quickly getting out. The MiG taxied to the edge of the ramp area, before it shut down. And armed Combat Security Police and Marines converged on the scene. Then the pilot got out. And it was Sweaty who spoke first. “My God! He looks like an Eighth-Grader in a flight suit!”

Goalie drove as close as she could. As the aircrews got out of the Humvee, Kara came running up. She hadn't bothered to get out of her G-Suit and harness, and she ran up to the MiG pilot and slammed him against the side of the aircraft. Guru and the others came rushing up, as Kara was yelling, “What in the hell were you doing?” She asked the Mexican, who looked quite terrified.

“Whoa, Kara!” Guru said, separating the pair. “Take it easy!” He turned to the Mexican pilot. He looked like he was way too young to be flying fighters. “Do you speak English?”

“Y. Y. Yes, I do Senor.” the Mexican said.

“How old are you?” Major Wiser asked.

The Mexican paused, as if he was choosing his words carefully. “In two months, I'll be Seventeen.”

Jaws dropped, as both Air Force and Marine aviators, digested what they'd just heard. Colonel Brady, the MAG-11 commander came up. “Major, did we hear right?” He asked.

Guru looked at the Mexican. “Did you say 'seventeen'?”

“Si.”

“Guru, I think I'm gonna be sick,” Goalie said.

Major Wiser knew it right then. He got the same sick feeling. “My God. That explains it.” The Major turned to his squadron mates. “We've been killing kids in those MiGs!”

Kara exploded. She cursed out anyone who would even consider such a thing, and those who actually trained these kids to fly. They barely belonged in Piper Cubs, and had no place being in a fighter. She stormed off, still yelling, and headed straight for the Officer's Club tent.

Colonel Brady came up to the Mexican. “How much flight time do you have, son?” He asked.

“Two days of taxi training. Then two days of takeoffs and landings, with three days of formation flying,” the boy said.

Not just Guru, but everyone else there from the 335th, as well as the Marines there, realized it then and there. They'd been killing kids who were being sent out with a week's training in MiGs, and who were expected to fight the Americans. Most of the fighter pilots-whether Air Force or Marine, had at least one of these in their kill sheet, even if the kills hadn't been claimed. Then Licon spoke up. “Like the Kamikazes: those guys were sent out with a week's training.”

Sweaty swore. “Yeah, but they weren't expected to fight. These kids, though...Major, what have we been doing?”

“I know. This isn't what we all signed up for.” Major Wiser said, looking at the Mexican, then Colonel Brady, who nodded. He knew what everyone was thinking. What kind of people would put teenage boys in fighter cockpits?

“What now?” Goalie asked.

Colonel Brady responded. “We get on with the job at hand. I know you're not in the mood, but we've still got a job to do.” He turned to a Marine sergeant. “Take this boy to Intel and have the intel shop have a long talk with him. And pass them this: ask the kid if he's got family in the States. If he does, get one of those 1140 forms for him.”

The Marine nodded. “Aye, Aye, Sir.” And several Marines took the Mexican away. A 335th line crew brought up a truck with a tow bar to pull the MiG out of the way. Brady turned to the aircrews. “We've got three hours or so of daylight left. If you're angry about this, make some Mexicans-or Soviets-or Cubans, feel that anger.”

The crowd broke up, as aircrews and ground personnel headed back to their jobs. Back at 335th Ops, Major Wiser found 1st Lt. Keith Crandall, the Deputy Ops Officer. He talked to Crandall, who was grounded with a cold. “Keith, pull Kara and Grumpy off today's schedule, and tomorrow's as well.”

“Right, Major.” Crandall nodded. “Going back out, sir?”

Guru looked at Goalie. And the rest of his flight. Though angry, they knew they still had a job to do. “Yeah. But this is our last one for the day. Tell Don when he lands: no more flying today. Those being turned around, and are ready, go. Anyone airborne doesn't go back out. Even if there's daylight left.”

“Yes, sir.”

Guru corralled his flight. “I know what you guys are thinking. We're going to make somebody-Russians, Cubans, Mexicans-pay. They'll burn, bleed, and blow up for sending that kid out in a MiG. Get back into Game Mode.”

Heads nodded. “Then what?” Goalie asked.

“Kara's probably getting sloppy drunk. And she's not going to be alone. Got that?”

And with that, Mustang flight went to their aircraft, mounted up, and went back out. And they did make someone pay-dearly-for what they'd seen earlier. When they got back, and checked in with ops, Don Van Loan was there.

“Major, what happened? I heard about a defector, but why's everybody so pissed off?”

“That defector was a sixteen-year-old. A kid. And they gave him a week's training before sending him into combat. Those MiGs we thought were flown by greenhorns? We've been killing kids.” Wiser told his Exec. And Van Loan turned pale.

“Major...what kind of people do that?” he asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine. I'm headed over to the O-Club and drown my anger in a couple of beers. And I bet everybody on this base who could is gonna be there.” Major Wiser said. “You did get what I told Keith?”

“Yeah. No more flying today. We've still got an hour of daylight left, though.” Van Loan reminded his CO.

“I know. But the Marine ramp is almost full: they saw the same thing-and they've got some of those MiG kills in their log books,” Wiser said. “Nobody's in a flying mood after hearing that.”
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Treat everyone you meet with kindness and respect, but always have a plan to kill them.

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