New Horizons Air Service: Mission #2 – The Encounter Below the Equator

10 April, 1970

Skorost

He’d never liked the heat. So when the contract came shipping them to a crumpling Imperial British colony, Pavel Yostovich Dobrow was half-tempted to do the same thing he’d done to end up in this situation: run. Running had become his modus operandi, as it had been since his youth, running track for the glory of the Soviet Union. It was that skill that had kept him level-headed through Soviet pilot training and his first basing at Afrikanda on the Murmansk Oblast, within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle. The snow and harsh winters were his friends, always pushing him to run harder and faster to keep out of frostbite’s reach. Perhaps it had been that skill that led him to being given the Su-15, named the FLAGON by fearful Western observers. An aircraft built to run fast and high. 

When he’d heard about the Article 58 charge levied against him by his regiment commander, Dobrow knew it was time to run again. The false charges of treason and conspiracy would certainly send him to the gulag or the firing squad. So under the cover of a brutal December night on the Servermorsk peninsula, Pavel had snuck out to the alert ramp where two of his regiment’s FLAGON were kept powered and waiting to fly. Fortunately for him, the two pilots sitting alert and ready were more concerned with the village whore they’d wrangled onto the base to notice him, and the Soviet groundcrew were taking turns sleeping. The initial howl of Pavel taxiing the interceptor to the runway certainly garnered attention, but it was too late by then, and the FLAGON designated ‘48 Red’ screamed into the night well before the airbase guards could catch him. Only one of the neighboring S-125 air defenders had tried to shoot him down, but Pavel dodged it by diving down to less than 5 meters above the churning Arctic waters. Despite the crushing turbulence and the ravenous waves trying to drown him, Pavel kept that altitude until he was well out of Soviet reach until he crossed into Finland and the demonized Western front. 

One year and an agonizing dose of African sun later, Pavel kept to his running just to maintain sanity. He was on his eighth lap around the shantytown airbase when he heard Draco’s engines firing up. It didn’t surprise Pavel that the American had been called on, as Doug had one of the better aircraft for ground pounding insurgents back to their tribal ancestors. It had, by contrast, been over a week since Dobrow had flown, and his last mission had been an absolute bore. 

As he ran past his designated hanger for the eighth time today, Pavel cast a look to his new aircraft, provided by his so-gracious handlers. Unlike the angelic delta-wing speed demon he’d defected with, Dobrow had been gifted the easily-acquired MiG-21PFM/FISHBED-F. At first, the Russian pilot despised the second-hand airframe New Horizons had provided him, as it paled in most every comparison to his Su-15. The FISHBED was slower, couldn’t reach as far or fly as high, and the cockpit was much more cramped. My saving grace in that bucket; it can turn much better.

His Rhodesian crew chief waving frantically to get his attention broke his stride, which normally would have aggravated Pavel to no end. But already being so antsy for work, the sweat-soaked sprinter dashed across the empty runway to his FISHBED’s shelter. “Telefon dlya vas,” his mechanic responded, one of the few Russian sentences the British had taught him.

“Thank you,” Pavel replied in the foreign English as he lifted the receiver. “New Horizons Air Service: vashe zreniye u nas.”

“Prepare to copy.” the handler ordered, and Dobrow quickly snatched up his pencil and notepad, knowing full well the British speaker would speak too fast for him.

“Unidentified aircraft have landed outside Sowa, at least one probable unmarked Ilyushian-Seven-Six. Coordinates: -20.780735 latitude by 26.1451289 longitude. Conduct overflight for identification, free-fire authorized.” 

That last part made Pavel’s pulse quicken. He’d never been given unchecked clearance to shoot at anything he encountered. Unlike most of his other teammates, Pavel’s missions rarely saw him get to load weapons at all. That told the Russian that this was probably a Communist-run incursion, but coming so far south from the Soviet Motherland seemed very odd.

“Yes, will fly anywhere.” he responded to the caller with the contract-provided confirmation code, and the line went dead. Pavel scanned the map by his receiver. It was a long run for his interceptor, but even weighed down with his best missiles, there was fuel to spare for a few passes. “Gari! Full loadout!”

“Yessir!” the crew chief shouted back, before yelling in his native Shona to his partner. Immediately, the two set to work on fueling the FISHBED, as well as loading two R-13M high-speed anti-air missiles Pavel had purchased at great cost. It was the first time he’d been allowed to fly with such capability since he’d left the Soviet mistakes behind. An opportunity that wouldn’t be wasted, even if he had to blow an empty transport out of the clouds.

Unlike the lazy maintainers that had enabled his escape, Pavel’s current groundcrew was efficient and quick. ‘Fast work means more pay!’ Gari had once told him, a sentiment the Russian could at least understand, since at least the Rhodesians were free to compete for precious coin. The crew chief came dashing with the pilot’s helmet under-arm as the Russian scanned the nose of the interceptor for any blemishes, which there were none.

“Going hunting today?” Gari asked, gesturing to the missiles being snapped onto the FISHBED’s wings.

“Da.” Pavel replied, still thinking through what would be out there that would need him to chase it down. The Hawker Hunters owned by the Rhodesian Air Force stood no hope of catching him at altitude or speed, and the neighboring Botswana only a few off-hand CF-116s with poor pilot training. Not even expert enough to catch Aadi.

Still, when the turbojet engine behind him bellowed to life, his mind was cleared of any other thought. “Vremya bezhat, time to run.” he whispered to himself as the interceptor taxied out into the near-blinding sun. The very thought of the upcoming crush of speed hitting his chest making his mouth water. 

“Good hunting, comrade!” The tower called out when the MiG-21 hit the active runway, a jab the English air controller made every time Pavel was summoned to mission. 

It was the worst-kept secret that most of the proper English staff in their operation hated dealing with a Russian about as much as they did Shu, thanks to her being Chinese. He’d tried once to explain that there was a marked difference between and Russian and a Soviet, which most of his fellow pilots understood, or at least accepted. Sadly, that was about as far as the local’s understanding spread. Instead, he’d ended up screaming in disdain at the ignorance shown by the man now clearing him for takeoff.

“Skorost, acknowledge. Joder a coroa!” Doborw replied back, tossing in a scathing Irish sentence he’d learned from a Belfast radio station. Not waiting for the lashing in response, he pushed the interceptor to its full power, afterburner blazing down the framework runway before Pavel pulled the nose skyward in a steep climb that none of his other cohorts would ever try.

Mile after mile fell behind him as the interceptor raced up against gravity before Pavel let the FISHBED ease itself into a level flight, eight miles above the savannah. From there, there was no difference between Rhodesia and neighboring Botswana. The wildlife paid no heed to man-made borders, nor did the oppressive southern sun that warmed the winds which now carried his fighter. 

The thirty-minute flight was over in the blink of an eye for Pavel, as he’d sunk back into his cockpit and let the slipstream of blue wash over his interceptor. A band of clouds marching their way across the wild green void between the countries had come and passed under him, giving Skorost a clear view of the world as he pointed his nose towards the coordinates and began a gentle descent. 

Even at a distance, Pavel could see the tell-tale gash of a runway cut into the plains was right where his handler said it would be. Its occupants had been smart and blended everything else into the vegetation on either side. So far out, Dobrow couldn’t make out any activity which wasn’t a surprise. But Soviet flight training was dependent on the ground controller, not the liberal freedom of the flyer that his Western cohorts displayed. “So who are you…” he pondered, before testing his theory

For a brief moment, Pavel flipped on his Identification Friend-or-Foe (IFF) beacon. If this was indeed a Soviet installation, it would have the accompanying receiver to respond to his signal. The Russian didn’t doubt for a moment that the poor ground controller would be confused by seeing a new IFF code enter the airspace, but the automatic response from the ground interrogator would tell him all he needed. If nothing happened, then someone else had come to Botswana and Control had gotten things wrong.

Almost immediately, the indicator on his central panel went green, so Skorost shut the beacon down just as fast, banking away to put the airstrip to his wing. Quickly, he marked his general location on the map strapped to his knee, simply writing ‘Sovietski’. Even squinting his eyes, the telltale blobs of metal against the dirt were almost impossible to make out. But the massive Il-76/CANDID transport was simply too tall and too wide to hide in the brush. Even miles away, the T-tail distinct to the Soviet long-hauler was unmistakable. 

As the centerpoint of the runway crossed over his shoulder, Pavel noticed something new coming into the sunlight. Two somethings, nose to tail. Unlike the swept, canted wings of the transport, he could make out the brutal, knife-edge wings of something with teeth. And when those distant shapes roared into the sky, they did so with the same kind of aggressive climb as he’d pulled. That told Doborw plenty about what they’d found. “Red Air Force is here!” he called out, dumbfounded by the display of acceleration from a machine he wasn’t flying. 

In perfectly practiced tandem, the two steel blurs raced to his flight level, banking sharply to position themselves at his rear. Skorost felt his heart begin to freeze over not just at the action, but at the raw speed of it all. He pulled the interceptor into a higher climb and poured more power into his throttle so he could fight in the arena where the FISHBED excelled. But to his horror, his pursuit was not deterred in the least, rampaging towards him like the lions below hunted their prey.

Then came the tell-tale trail of smoke from one of the leading hunters told the Russian that at least one air-air missile was rushing out to meet him.

On instinct, Pavel pushed the control stick as far forward as he could, sending the MiG into a nosedive. For only a split second, looking over his shoulder to count his remaining seconds, the Russian got a good glimpse of his hunters. Unlike the tube-bodied dart that was his interceptor, the pursuers flew massive blocks with massive wings, nestled between two almost rocketship-worthy engines that not only kept pace with his interceptor, but had successfully ran Pavel down like he was standing still.

Resigning himself to the incoming rush of death, the Russian let his chest deflate as the g-forces crushed it tighter. The seconds drug out into hours as the interceptor continued it’s dive, yet he did not feel the slam of collision. 

Instead, the missiles streaked over him and continued on straight for the ground. He let go the breath that he’d been clenching in his teeth, silently praising the often shoddy mechanisms behind an infra-red missile that found the ground more appealing than his jet trail.

 Trimming back the throttle so his engines didn’t shred themselves in such a dive, Dobrow looked again over his shoulder. The grip of death lifted from his heart as the sky behind him was clear. Leveling the FISHBED off at less than ten meters above the rolling brush, the Russian tried in vain to see whatever it was that tried to take him down. They’ve come so far south, but why…he thought, now feeling the MiG rock back and forth from the ground turbulence. Whatever tried to burn him down was now headed for Rhodesia and was far out of sight, for reasons he could only guess at.

Pavel knew full well, at those speeds, they would reach his comrades long before he could, so his mission for the day was at least a partial failure. Checking his fuel level and slowing the interceptor down even further for efficiency’s sake, Sokorost sank back into his chair for the flight back to base, refusing to let any detail about his attempted killer slip his mind, wondering if he would be so fortunate the next time he crossed paths with such powerhouses.

*****

Part 2 of what was originally going to be my NaNo project this year, and the first real outing for Pavel, before a Shark snatched up my main focus. As it turns out, writing historical fiction, even embellished like this, is quite difficult. There was a lot more to consider than I’d prepared for, so now it’s back to the research and trying to wrap my head around the 1970s post-colonial Rhodesia before it ceased to exist altogether.

I hope you all enjoy.

3 thoughts on “New Horizons Air Service: Mission #2 – The Encounter Below the Equator

  1. Mayumi Hirtzel says:

    I can definitely see the time you spent in your research in this piece. It’s wonderfully well-written, smooth, and the MC’s voice and vision is clear. As much as I love the Wildlife Security Solutions team, I advise you not to let Pavel’s story slip too far away. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and it feels like you have an almost instinctive grasp of the characterization, motivation, and action. Everything is just so fluid…!

    There’s a kind of story detail that I go back and forth on, and it has to do with message particulars, especially when they involve technical details. Giving information like geographic coordinates is cool, but I’d caution against using it too much. Ask yourself whether that level of specificity is important to the moment. It might be! But there’s a lot going on, and if immediacy and action are primary to the scene, you might consider glossing over some of the finer details of the mission specs. Unless stuff like those specific coordinates trigger something in Pavel’s realization, in which case you’d probably want to highlight their location in lay terms for the reader. Just something to think about, that caught my eye.

    Great stuff! Thanks for posting!

    • Thank you, Mayumi!
      Honestly, one of the biggest reason that the WSS crew overtook the New Horizons idea was because I very much underestimated the difference in culture from 1970s Rhodesia and now. But Pavel was certainly the most fun to write of his whole bunch, so I think you’ll see him again!

      Makes sense, and level of detail is something I’ve definitely struggled with before. Certainly, there are some cases where the minute technical differences are key, but I understand what you see in how the map coordinates could be a bit too deep in the weeds.

      Thank you for swinging by and reading!

  2. […] 3 of a somewhat–stalled NaNo project, but one I definitely had fun writing. Historical fiction is hard, especially trying […]

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