10 April, 1970
The whine of a starting heartbeat was what first pulled him from his sleep, but it was the ‘thrum’ of two six-cylinder engines coming to life that put the smile on Draco’s lips. As he’d expected for one of their workdays, Aadi was first to taxi out to the runway, for the Indian flyer the most vital role. It would take his O-2A Skymaster the longest to make the trek from their base outside the boundary of Redcliff to wherever in Rhodesia they were being sent today, but without Aadi, no one else would be taking off.
The ringing of the red phone next to his headboard before their Indian compatriot had even taken off concerned him, so when Doug ‘Draco’ Downsen lifted the receiver, his voice was flat when reciting their cover-company’s catchphrase, “New Horizons Air Service: your vision takes off with us.” The red phone rings, and we take our wings… he privately mused, trying to wake his mind with the morning sun.
“Prepare to copy.” the calling voice responded promptly, snapping Draco to alert. The distinct properness of the English meant the caller was one of their contract controllers, probably at the British Embassy in the Rhodesian capital of Salisbury. One of only three locations on the continent that would have our numbers, and direct calls mean direct work.
“Reports of ZANLA gatherings at makeshift camp. Coordinates: 18°40’32.3″S 27°09’48.6″E. Confirm support request.”
“Draco confirms, airborne in ten.” He responded. In that response, Doug confirmed to the controller he understood this was a combat mission and of pressing urgency. His caller gave no reply, simply hanging up on their end, and the pilot immediately took to the large area map printed up on his wall. Weather-tanned fingers traced their way to a spot deep in the Sikumbi Forest, making him scowl. Lots of tree cover, very low visibility overall…“BLU-32s it is then.”
With that decision made, Draco picked up the whistle hanging from the wall and gave it one long blast, followed by two short tweets. Outside of his one-room stone hovel, the two English-speaking Rhodesian maintainers leapt from their makeshift table where a morning game of checkers had been going and set to work pre-flighting his A-37B Dragonfly. Even early in the morning, the rising sun was beating down on the cheap canopies hastily built over their parking spots. Already, Doug had to wipe sweat from his brow as he quickly zipped up his flightsuit.
“Bossman! Eh, Bossman!” one of the ground-crew called to him as Doug emerged, dressed and helmet in hand. No matter how many times Doug told his crew chief not to call him that, Chanda still used the nickname to summon the pilot. “What is it, Chanda?”
“Only one 32 left, so we balanced you out with two 81s on the other wing,” the mechanic reported.
The news made Doug grumble. “Did we put in an order for more?”
“Aye Bossman, but no deliveries yet this month.” Chanda shrugged, adding a new hot item to do as soon as he was airborne: Find out what the hell is taking Santa so long…
Filing that action item away for later, Draco was quick to the cockpit while his ground-crew went over the Dragonfly one last time. Doug had come into this contract with doubts, especially when they saw their operating base near Redcliff, which was little more than flattened dirt strips covered by steel plates for makeshift runways. Yet the expedience and the professionalism of their maintainers had impressed him, which he knew was part of a larger plan. If it were up to me, I’d smuggle you guys out in an instant. Damn Brits sure left you guys hanging when they gave this place up…
When he clicked the throttle open and cranked over the igniters, the two J85 engines at his sides purred to life like a waking jungle cat. It was the sound that washed any distractions from his mind, for now it was time to earn his paycheck. “Tower, this is Draco. Taxiing out for takeoff.”
“Right-o. Good hunting!” came the response from the Special Air Service air traffic controller, and his unmistakable Queen’s-speak. Officially, being a private airstrip owned by some local fancypants that didn’t actually exist, New Horizons was officially a ‘contract safari and transport’ service. How long that lie had held, Draco had no idea, but Rhodesia’s various powers were always peeking in on their flight activity and radio chatter, so only the bare essentials were ever shared on the airwaves. Doesn’t help when Pavel gets a job…I bet those plane-spotters go nuts seeing his FLAGON out here.
“Draco, airspace is clear, takeoff when ready.”
“Cheerio!” Doug responded and pushed the throttle forward with a smile. His Dragonfly chattered forward over the runway grates before its power overcame gravity and lifted him into the morning sky with a satisfying roar. Once his gear was up and he cleared the airstrip perimeter, Draco banked into an easy left climb to make his way to his objective. “Saadhuk, this is Draco, airborne for wildlife tagging in Sikumbi.”
“Suprabhaat mere bhaee,” Aadi greeted him. “I’m at checkpoint Zhom-One now, tracking bullfrogs near Lusulu, will advise.”
That told Draco enough, despite English not being Aadi’s first or second language, and he checked his fuel gauge to make sure this tanks had been topped in case he had to sprint back to help his unarmed comrade, jotting down the current levels in the tank and checking speeds at his altitude. “How nasty are they croaking?”
“May be hungry for tea and crumpets.” Aadi replied and Draco nodded to himself. “Copy all, I’ll save some tags for them too.” Doug fully counted on having to drop his heavy load on whatever was in the forest he was heading to, but the GAU-2B minigun in the Dragonfly’s nose was fully loaded, and bullets were far easier for their supply line to come by.
Speaking of… “Any word on when Santa’s gonna show up?”
“No idea, Draco. Hope soon, I’ve got a busted gauge in here.” Aadi replied, and the American could pick up his partner’s annoyance through the barriers of static and language. “Anything serious?”
“Depends, how serious is airspeed?” Aadi chided, making Doug snort a small laugh. “Oh, you mean that thing you don’t have any of?”
“Mujhe kaato, yaank!” came the Indian’s scathing reply.
“Hey, don’t blame me, it’s what we’ve got to work with. Maybe we’ll have good news waiting for us when we get back.” the American chuckled.
“I pray so. Good luck out there!” the pilot from Kariat acknowledged, signaling Draco’s cue to put his eyes to the ground and keep his ears open.
The flight from the airstrip to his assigned coordinates was just over twenty minutes, but it may as well have been a blink for Draco. In his mind, he rehearsed his approach to the target spot, the classic dive from above and when to release his bombs, even considering his breakaway if someone tried to shoot back at him. Da’veed mentioned some of these guys got their hands on a guided missile from somewhere, but no one’s seen it…
Sprawling out under him was an ocean of greenery and thick treetops, the kind of place most people would fight to save or blockade to avoid tarnishing. Draco canted his right wing down to drink in the eden a thousand feet below, picking out small clearings and man-sized openings in the branches for any signs of people or movement. As he’d expected from the printed map back at the base, there wasn’t much of anything to use for landmarks around the target area, so the Dragonfly swept around the forest in lazy half-circles and slow passes.
“Come on, show me something…” he muttered forty later, half-so to his aircraft, and half to the earth beneath him. By now, if there was anyone below him to target, they at least heard his aircraft above them. So do you run, or do you hide in the brush for another day?
The answer came when he caught a glimpse of a rocket motor igniting in-between two clustered groves of trees, and Draco instinctively banked hard to his starboard. Barely a second later, the tell-tale corkscrew engine trail of a missile stabilizing itself raced up to meet him. Only a panicked dive forced the SA-7 man-portable air defense missile to overshoot and detonate harmlessly behind him. Draco pulled the Dragonfly’s nose back toward the sun to set up his run, half-terrified, half enraged. Looking over his shoulder, he could see several specks of colored clothing massed around vehicles and boxes, at least one of the trucks was weighed down with the long barrel of a field gun.
“Gotcha!” he called out to no one, tightening his loop around until he felt the blood rush into his brain, then back to his feet. Once his nose pointed to ground again, he could see that the shooters below realize they’d missed him and were scrambling back to their trucks. A few braver one decided to make for the armed technical truck and start turning the field gun up towards him. For a moment, he wondered if the guerrillas below really knew what they were facing or why, but such thoughts didn’t sign his paycheck.
As he’d done dozens of times before, Doug pulled the trigger on the Dragonfly’s control stick and banked away, increasing his speed with more throttle. The BLU-32 napalm-filled bomb dropped effortlessly from his left wing and sailed screaming into the lush greenery. Scraping through the tops of the treeline, the fuse in the falling warhead sparked, and the brush roared in gelatinous wildfire covering a hundred feet in every direction. Unused small-arms ammo and gasoline quickly detonated, doubling the size of the forest’s destruction. Pulling away at 400mph, he could see a few unfortunate souls trying to run in every direction away from the blaze, at least one carrying the fire with him deeper into the woods.
To his surprise, Draco caught the moving reflection of sunlight against metal, and a line of cars racing along the sole flattened path to escape him. There were too many to stop entirely, even if he spent all his cannon rounds, but at least I can make them run like bitches! The American pilot watched the frightened convoy barrel through the underbrush and over exposed roots before they encountered a long open stretch of sky, in which the Dragonfly had darted to face them nose-to-headlight. When caught staring at the aircraft coming in a howling dive to less than fifty feet, some of the cars sped up to get under Draco, whereas others spun around to hide back in the trees.
With a beat between each press, Doug popped the two 500lb iron bombs off his right side, ensuring one fell on the speeding line of traffic, and the other hit the turnabout spot where others were panicking. Both explosions sprayed pieces of cars and people into the sky, sending those who witnessed the assaults scrambling in every direction. As the Dragonfly roared back into the sky, its pilot gave the grim scene another look. Looks like the hyenas and vultures will feed well tonight…
“Draco to Saadhuk; all done tagging the wildlife here, any frogs on your end?”
“Nothing yet, brother. Care to assist? At checkpoint Lusulu-Six now.”
Doug checked the map on his knee, charting out some quick math to see how long he could burn holes in the sky with the fuel he’d spent so far in high-speed dives. “Sure, I’ll hit L-Eleven through Seventeen, call it an hour on-station before I give up on toads for the day.”
“Teek hai,” Aadi confirmed, “I hear Santa landed last night in the mainland!”
That brought a smile to Doug’s lips as the Dragonfly climbed easily into the late-morning sky. Which means fresh supplies at last! “Ho ho ho, indeed!”
Two hours later, and still with a full magazine on his nose, Doug peered out of his canopy at the flatlands and plains left under his belly as his Dragonfly grew more and more thirsty. In the distance, he could make out the horizon where their contractor’s airfield had been cut out of the brush. It was nothing like the bombed-out ricefields and cobbled-together villages of Seoul or Yeoju he’d first flown over nearly twenty years ago. That and the old Sabre was a lot less comfortable…
“Unidentified aircraft on heading one-two-six, this airspace is under restriction of the Rhodesian Air Force. State name and purpose of flight,” the harsh voice cut in over his radio. Draco’s pulse immediately doubled and his grip on the control stick made his knuckles white. Looking over his left side, then his right, the American caught sight of the distinctive jungle camo pattern and centerline intakes of two Hawker Hunter FGA 9s gaining on him at dizzying speed. They must be pushing near max throttle…wonder what gives…
“Air Force Patrol, this is New Horizons Air Service out of Station Diana. Operating callsign Delta-Hotel-Niner-Six-Niner-One.” Doug replied from memory. He’d been intercepted by the Rhodesian Air Force before, as his Dragonfly had no hope of outrunning the much faster Hunter. And these dirt-huggers need all the practical training they can get chasing a cooperative target.
What was odd about this time was that, being so close to base already, that the SAS controller didn’t warn him they were coming in. And to come in so fast, so aggressively?
After a moment of staring down the eyes of the two Sidewinder missiles each interceptor carried, Doug’s pursuer hailed back, “Callsign confirmed, Delta-Hotel. Be advised, search-and-rescue operations are active in this airspace. Withdraw at once or you will be fired upon.”
“Copy all, Air Force, I’m RTB now.” Doug assured them, as he had no interest or fuel for a dogfight he was sure to lose. With that, one of the Hunters snapped onto its port wing and turned away as hard as it could manage. The second staying with Draco a few gut-clenching seconds more before following his wingman. Only when they were gone did the American remember the need to breathe in.
He was about to key his channel to the airfield’s tower, but the shining white reflection of a twin-propeller King Air 100 sitting on the taxiway brought his smile back and buried the dread. “Merry Christmas.” he said to himself as he pulled the lever down to pop out the Dragonfly’s landing gear. “Tower, this is Draco. Fresh tags up in the jungle, and so happy to see a friendly face!”
“Huzzah! That daft bastard sure kept us waiting!” responded the tower controller, proper English now a little more slurred and a little forgetful about the intrusion into what was supposed to be private airspace. I’ll just have to punch him later to remind him that drinks come AFTER everyone lands…
Once the Dragonfly touched down and was linked up for its slow tow back to its parking shade, Doug popped the canopy open and practically leapt down from his fighter to sprint to the hooch hut, where he knew their supplier would be making merry and collecting his coin. Sure enough, he could hear the laughter of the boisterous Canadian, followed by rapid-fire swearing in Mandarin Chinese.
Doug entered the hut in time to see the more-rotund northerner pulling a stack of the Queen’s bills out from under the tip of a knife that had been planted in the table by a visibly angry woman, still in her flight-suit and jet-black hair in a messy bunch. “You! You charge too much! You charge American half that for his ammo!”
Santa shook his head, his snowy beard jiggling along with the man’s stomach, “Not at all, princess. You go though cannon shells faster than anyone else in this shithole! If you wanna keep tearing up dirt, it’s gonna cost a little more! It’s not like I’m making any profit here!”
“Nǐ pàng, chòu zhū!” Shu yelled back at Santa, clenching her knife as though she were about to drive it through the many layers of blubber protecting the man’s heart. The towering Taiwanese finally scoffed in her relentment, sheathing her knife back into her boot and pulling another roll of high-value bills from her breastpocket, and tossing it at the seated freight pilot. “I want GOOD missiles this time.”
“The very best my Canadian brothers can buy from these Yanks.” Santa nodded, pointing at Draco with the cash still in hand. Shu turned, glaring down at Doug with fiery jade eyes that should be the desire of most any red-blooded man. His female counterpart only gave the American a ‘huff!’ before side-stepping him and heading back to her own bunk The many pieces and parts of Shu’s CF-5 still laid bare on the makeshift hanger floor, as her aircraft had gone well beyond its much needed maintenance period.
“You’re really charging her more for rounds than me?” Doug asked, only when the slender Eastern pilot was out of whisper-range.
“I have to, Dougie. Your damnned Customs agents are getting better at finding my suppliers…I almost didn’t get your 32s back here this time.” the larger man growled, pouring Draco a shot from whatever bottle of pisswater was next to him. Draco sat down across from their resident smuggler and clinked his glass with Santa’s, sending the cheap liquor down with a ‘hiss’. “Ugh, what is this shit?!”
The larger man laughed “Only the best distilled jet fuel in Soviet Germany! Pavel was practically awestruck I brought him any. Heard he had a bad day up there.”
Doug nodded, spinning the glass absently in his grip and making a note to ask that Red bastard about that later. “Speaking of gifts…you hear of anyone else flying guns down here?”
The Canadian sat more upright, more focused now on his company than his drink, “Why are you asking?”
“Because someone took a pot-shot at me with a goddamn SAM, and the local Air Force guys lost someone today, which I’d bet my entire day’s pay on being from another missile shot. These rebels and grass-fighters are getting some good shit in-country.”
Santa nodded, not looking up at Draco. “Is that so? Hmmm…”
“You’ve heard something.” Doug sternly replied, finger pointing through the beard and at his company’s sternum.”
“What makes you say that?” the Canadian replied, more curious than shocked at the accusation.
“Because you tug on the corner of that soup-catcher on your face whenever you’ve got good news, or a secret.” replied the American fighter jock.
Santa dropped the hand that had been unconsciously tugging at the longest wisps of facial hair, and chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind for our next poker game. And you’re right, I may have heard something about it last time I was in Hanoi. Wasn’t clear on the details, but this has that tell-tale Soviet stink on it.”
“You think you could track down the who? You know Pavel or Shu would jump at the chance to take down a few Commies, doesn’t matter which flavor.” Doug asked, sitting back in his chair. He didn’t share with the cargo hauler that he’d heard about this possibility from their resident Israeli before today’s mission. Because I need to know how Da’veed knew about it…
“And risk losing a valuable lane into both Red China and the Motherland? Not a chance, bub.” Santa punctuated the point by tapping his meaty finger on the table, which was suddenly cushioned by a few large bills from out of Draco’s wallet. “Then again…those poor Ruskies sure do hate what the Vietkong make them drink. Bet some Moskva homebrew could loosen some lips.”
Doug nodded, but paused a beat before asking the real question that was on his mind the moment he’d seen Santa’s King Air on the tarmac. “Any mail come in?”
The Canadian shook his head, “Not this time.”
Doug sank back a little in his seat, though he didn’t mean to. The sound of fluid refilling his glass drew him back into the conversation and away from the moment of weight that news put on his shoulders. “She’ll write again, Dougie. Just be patient.”
“Yeah…” Draco replied, draining his shot without really tasting it this time, staring out across the runway at something that was thousands of miles away, but never really there anymore.
A slapping hand on his back pulled Draco back to the moment, and he looked up to see Santa holding a combined roll of a massive payday. “Come on, someone needs some sensual chocolate. This one’s on me.”
Doug laughed a bit at that, deciding that the Candaian’s offer of a few hours of sinful distraction was due. “Just like Gimpo. Do us both a favor and don’t try to buy any more of the girls’ citizenship this time. Don’t need you busted on human trafficking charges.”
“Whatever do you mean, Yankee? I’m telling them it was your idea!”
The (maybe) opening scene in what was going to be my NaNoWriMo mission this year. It’s also been a wonderful exercise to actually try all those planning and preparation tricks one hears about in school, like storyboarding and plot-mapping.
I hope you all enjoy.