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0130 THURSDAY / 16 SEPTEMBER 1999
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE / FLORIDA
Hard rain pounded on a blue, six-passenger Chevrolet 3500 4x4 truck parked on the flight line. Ten Air Force pararescuemen were stuffed inside, watching as a big Hercules HC-130 aircraft taxied to a stop in front of them.
The Blue Team leader, Master Sergeant Jason Johnson, glanced at his new PJ pup, Dan Murray, a normally gregarious person who now sat oddly silent. He pressed his lips together in a tight smile, remembering himself as a young PJ. Nudging Dan, he asked, "First real world rescue mission?"
"Yeah." A shy and slightly embarrassed smile appeared on Dan's face.
"Who's your teammate?"
Jason tapped Alex Abbey. "Hey, Alex, if it's okay with you, I'd like to take Dan with me. You can go with my teammate, Doug."
"It's cool with me," muttered Doug Lutz.
"No problem," Alex said with a nod. "Hey, Doug, I talked to your girlfriend, and she's bummed 'cause we're both gonna be gone at the same time."
"I know. That's too bad, because her dog's in heat. You could've serviced them both."
"Work time, guys," Jason said as the HC-130's ramp and door opened.
The loadmaster guided in the truck until it backed close to the edge of the ramp, then the PJs jumped out and quickly tossed their gear onto it. In minutes all the equipment was stowed and strapped down on the airplane; then the 4x4 drove away.
Jason was the last man to climb onto the HC-130. The loadmaster closed the ramp and door, allowing the plane; to taxi back toward the runway.
Securing his gear, Jason dropped onto a red webbed seat and buckled himself in next to Mac Rio, the loadmaster and Jason's best friend. "Yeah? So what's the deal?" A phone call to his apartment in Satellite Beach had woken him, ordering him straight to the alert truck.
Mac frowned and asked, "Haven't you been watching the news?"
"I was asleep, thank you." Jason had known Mac for years. Together they had flown the world to famines, war, and natural disasters. Mac, with few exceptions, was the closest thing to family that Jason had.
Mac waited until the plane was safely airborne before he spoke again. "Hurricane Floyd really knocked the shit out of North Carolina. Man, day and night we've been hauling rescue gear from all over the country to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, but ain't nothing stopping the Tar River from flooding. It's swelled to over thirty feet-it floods at the nineteen-foot level. Now the river's become a wall of rushing water and they need all the rescue support they can get. This is our eighth and last lift for the night. We're dropping you off at Pope.
"Over thirty thousand homes have flooded and there's hundreds of people trapped in the rising water, and it's getting worse. If the people don't get out somehow, they're going to get swept away in the flood in a matter of hours and drown. Your choppers and crews are already there and are just waiting on you guys to get into the action."
Jason nodded. Hurricane Floyd, a category five storm, had come ripping out of the Atlantic Ocean and made a beeline for Florida, causing the biggest mass exodus in Florida's history. But Floyd had turned at the last minute and torn into North Carolina.
The call for help came quickly for the 920th Rescue Group at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, as it did for every other rescue asset available in the country.
The rescue group's H-60G Blackhawk helicopters were fitted with a myriad of night vision systems, plus they had primary hoist capabilities. True to their motto, the group was ready at a moment's notice. Once again, PJs and everyone supporting them were about to put their lives on the line so that others may live.
Jason Johnson was the leader of Blue Team's ten PJs-not a lot, but knowing that they were ten of only a few hundred pararescuemen in the world made him take his responsibilities seriously.
The flight to Pope took an hour and a half. Trained for combat and calamities, natural or man-made, Jason's Blue Team methodically checked over the gear that they had brought with them. Outfitted for war or peacetime rescue, they could go into any contingency with bandages, bullets, or both and save lives.
"Hey, Mac, would you ask the navigator to call ahead and check out the weather and ground conditions at our rescue location?" Jason asked as he pulled on his lightweight wet suit. "Make sure you get the amount of lunar illumination, too."
Speaking into his microphone, Mac waited until he got the answers Jason wanted, then said, "Floyd passed through less than ten hours ago. Flying conditions not bad-scattered clouds, light winds, and occasional rain showers. The ground's something else though. From the information Jackie got, she estimates it'll be six hours or less before the Tarboro and Princeville areas are completely underwater. The river is expected to rise to forty-three feet by morning. At thirty knots constant, the river will be running over seventy knots or more in some places. Moon illumination is at thirty percent." Nodding, Jason mentally absorbed the situation. The sun wouldn't be rising for another three hours, so they would be working in the dark. Wearing night vision goggles (NVGs), he could work well in the night.
"We're on descent. The pilot says we're dropping you guys off at the Green Ramp. The Blackhawk choppers are waiting for you." Mac put his hand on Jason's shoulder and squeezed. "Be careful tonight. You better than most know that actual rescues are the most dangerous missions around. You get so caught up in the rescue that you go beyond your limits, and then you fuck up. It happens before you know it, and this one's deadly as they come. Buddy, you ain't getting any younger, so don't do anything stupid. I don't expect to be part of a mission to rescue your ass!"
Jason nodded. At times Mac could act like the father he never had, but that was because he cared. He called his team together and gave them their last instructions. "Don't get separated. Stay with your teammate and the chopper crew!" he yelled over the engine noise. "If you have to, use the two-minute drill that I taught you guys. Remember, rescues are the most dangerous missions around. You get so caught up in them that you start fucking up. It happens before you know it, and this one's as deadly as they come. Don't do anything stupid!"
Mac grinned over Jason's shoulder.
The two-minute drill Jason taught his Blue Team was for emergency situations: Turn the mind and body on automatic, give it everything you have for two minutes, rest for one minute, even on the move, and assess your effectiveness; then go hard for another two, rest, and so on. Don't look at the clock. It was a mental exercise to counter the temporal distortion that can happen to the mind in dangerous situations when it feels like time is slowing down.
He'd discovered the technique on his own while a PJ candidate at Lackland Air Force Base, then perfected it on rescues, firefights, and long insertion missions. Human endurance was limited to the body's four miles per hour, one-g, daylight structure. Jason found that the body could go a lot longer in short sprints, and think more clearly when not trying to do it all at once. Two-minute increments worked fine.
Mac motioned for the PJs to sit down and strap in for the landing.
0305/ POPE AIR FORCE BASE / NORTH CAROLINA
The HC-130 Hercules touched down and the team was up and ready with their gear by the time they taxied to a stop. Mac opened the ramp and door. Once off of the plane, they gathered around a ground controller, who pointed them to their choppers. After they'd quickly loaded up their gear on a thirty-person crew bus, the driver raced out to the H-60 Blackhawk choppers, their engines and blades turning.
Pope Air Force Base pulsated with frenzied activity. Huge cargo loaders and forklifts laden with generators, tents, and communication gear crisscrossed the tarmac. C-5 Galaxy transports, C-17 Globemasters, and C-130 Hercules planes filled with people, supplies, and equipment touched down nonstop on the main runway. Air Force, Navy, Army, and Coast Guard rescue assets staged from the base to stop the damage left by Hurricane Floyd.
Most of the rescue choppers were landing for the night.
Jason's H-60 Blackhawk choppers from the 301st Air Rescue Squadron brought two key elements to the rescue table that no one else had: night vision and PJs. The night belonged to them; they were the only ones still flying.
Jason and Dan climbed aboard BAB-the Bad Ass Bitch, tail number 26232, always the first chopper out. Jason quickly checked out the crew complement. Chris "Sunshine" Hannon, was the pilot. Al "Hollywood" Lupinski the copilot. Brad Frizzell and Carlos Gonzalez were the flight engineers. It was a tight crew. They had been flying together for years and knew each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Hannon quickly briefed them on the mission. Call signs Tiger and Wolf controlled the airspace that they would be working in. The chopper's mission was to complete a seventy-mile box search section along the leading edge of the south-running flood line. Anyone and everyone in need of help were to be airlifted to a highland gathering center at a school ten miles upriver from the flood surge.
In a matter of minutes they were airborne and headed for Tarboro. Flying at fifty feet above the closest obstructions, and using a fully integrated display system developed for combat, the crew followed a moving map created by a constellation of satellites. They searched the ground for any movement using Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) and night vision goggles.
Jason slapped Dan on the shoulder. "Follow my lead. Take care of my back and watch what I do. When you feel like you're ready, take the lead and I'll watch your back. Plan for the worst and expect the unexpected. Stay in control and work the two-minute drill if you have to, understand?"
"I got movement on what looks to be a trailer roof," the pilot said. "But I don't see anywhere we can put down. It's all flooded, and getting worse."
"I got five body readings on the FLIR," Al confirmed. "Two big and three small."
"Yeah, I count five too," agreed Brad. "The water's about to run over the roof. We gotta get them out, and fast!"
During the short flight, Jason briefed Dan on his duties, with every intention of giving the young PJ as much responsibility as he had the training and willingness for and Jason filling in as necessary. "I'll be the lead on this one, then you'll be next. After that we'll change off on who goes down the hoist."
Attached to the end of the hoist was the Forest Penetrator. It had been used since the Vietnam War and was the primary mechanism used for hoisting. It had small, foldout seats and could accommodate three people at once. Pullout straps extended from the horse collar that wrapped around the individual to keep him from slipping off.
Climbing onto the Penetrator, Jason swung out from the chopper and indicated that he was ready to be lowered into the dark, swirling water below. He had absolute trust that Hannon and Carlos, the hoist operator, would land him safely on the trailer roof. But would the roof hold? Would the people rush him in a panic?
There was no time to ponder these questions. In just a matter of minutes the floodwater would be over the roof and wash away those on it. Here goes, he thought.
Jason appeared out of the darkness. The people in front of him had no idea he was there until he yelled, "Listen to me! Listen. We got to get you out of here." The chopper's rotor wash whipped the wind like a maelstrom. "One at a time."
Peering through the night, Jason saw a family of five: a man, a woman, and three small children. They were terrified. Who was this apparition who'd suddenly appeared before them?
The immediate and potential problems were obvious-the woman looked to weigh possibly three hundred pounds, the man even more. The hoist and chopper were going to get a real workout.
"How many of you are there?" Jason asked the woman.
"Fi-five. Praise God, who are ya?" she stammered.
"Angels from above, darlin'. What's your name?"
"Thelma. This here's my husband, Mark. He a stupid fool."
"We gonna be fine," he said.
She hit him hard on the shoulder. "Well, we ain't fine now, are we?"
Water slapped at their ankles. "My name's Jason, Thelma, and we're out of time so we got to move! Give me the smallest kid first."
From behind her, Thelma pulled a small girl and thrust her into Jason's arms.
"What's your name, sweetheart?"
She was frozen stiff with fear.
"Her name Pat, and she six years old. I got two more girls, one ten and the other eight."
The water was over their feet. "Great, Thelma. Pat first, then the other two. We'll take you and your husband after that. Ready?"
Jason carried the little girl to the hoist. "Pat. You have to trust me. We're going on a quick ride." He pulled opened a second seat on the Penetrator and put her on it, then wrapped the safety strap around her waist. Getting on, he held her close and keyed his throat microphone. "Okay, Sunshine, this is the first of three standard hoists. The last two will be heavy, real heavy."
It was a twenty-foot hoist and went without incident. The other two girls were no problem either. The mother and father were a workout, but Carlos was ready. The safety straps were too small to get around their bulk, so Jason had to use a five-thousand-pound cargo strap to hold them on the hoist. It worked, though just barely.
With everyone packed like sardines on the floor, Jason could hear the chopper's blades strain in the air to keep it flying. He looked at his watch. It had taken seven minutes to bring them up. Not bad, but there were hundreds of others who needed help.
The folksy routine had gotten Thelma and her family up the hoist; sometimes the curt and forceful approach was the ticket. The people they came across would have a choice-ride the hoist and live, or stay where they were at and chance the floodwater.
The crew stayed on night vision while the passengers sat in the dark, crying as their eyes tried to adjust to their surroundings. Through his NVGs, Jason could see the shock and loss on their faces. They had nothing but the one suitcase they'd brought up with them. They had no idea where they were going, or what they would do next. But they were alive.
From the Paperback edition.