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Misty Cordell powered back the throttles smoothly, and the hurtling T-38 jet slowed obediently. It might officially be a training aircraft, but it was originally designed as a supersonic fighter and was still one hot jet. She touched the stick between her knees and the narrow nose dipped into a descent.
"Snake 51 departing flight level three-seven-zero for ten thousand feet," she announced to Anchorage Center.
"Roger, Snake 51. You are cleared for approach to runway 31 at your final destination."
Her destination being a classified Special Forces training facility in western Alaska, both she and the controller were prohibited from naming it over the radio. Its optimistic sobriquet was Camp Green.
"How are you doing, sir?" Misty asked her back-seat passengerand bossGeneral Hal Wittenauer. "Great. Any chance you could throw in a barrel roll or two on the descent?"
"I'm afraid that's against regulations."
He chuckled, a metallic sound in her helmet speakers.
"Since when have regulations ever gotten in your way?"
Misty smiled into her oxygen mask. When indeed? "Remember the M-1 maneuver I showed youwhere you tense up your legs and abdominal muscles to hold blood up in your head so you don't pass out?"
"Yeah," he grunted, appropriately tensed.
She eased the T-38 into a lazy, tubular roll. The jet floated upside down easily over the top of the roll, then the g's loaded up as they scooped out the bottom side of the barrel roll. Her arm felt tremendously heavy and the painfully tight as a blood-pressure cuff. She glanced at the g-meter. 5.9 6.1 Better not pull any harder than that. She'd hate to knock out her boss.
She eased the plane out of the maneuver. Her g-suit was just finishing deflating when a frantic voice burst over the radios. It was garbled, unintelligible. Sounded agitated.
The air traffic controller snapped back, "Unknown rider, unknown rider. Identify yourself now or you will be shot down."
Whoops. A foreign jet too close to U.S. airspace perhaps? More jumbled chatter from the unidentified plane.
"Say again," the air traffic controller ordered with a certain amount of exasperation.
The male voice transmitted again, this time more clearly. Misty started. That was Russian! The international language of aviation was English. Every pilot was required to speak it on the radios. But this guy was definitely transmitting in Russian. She turned up the volume, listening intently.
She transmitted urgently, "Anchorage Center, this is Snake 51. Your unidentified aircraft says he's a military aircraft defecting from Russia. He's been shot. Is requesting clearance to land and an ambulance to meet him. He says he's bleeding badly."
"Roger, Snake 51. Can you relay for me in Russian?"
"Tell him we've got him on radar. Ask him what type of aircraft he's flying so I can tell the boys in the bunkers not to shoot him down."
Misty keyed her microphone and said in Russian, "Russian aircraft, I have relayed your message. Say type of aircraft, please."
A pregnant pause stretched out. Finally, the scratchy voice replied, "I am a MiG 55."
Misty's jaw dropped inside her face mask. She'd never heard of such a plane! A new fighter prototype? And it was defecting? Sweet.
Apparently, the air traffic controller needed no translation of that one. He replied, "Snake 51, tell the MiG he's cleared to land at your destination. If you could relay the ILS frequency to him and give him any assistance he needs to set up and fly the approach, that would be appreciated. Tell him an ambulance and fire trucks will be waiting for him at the end of the runway."
The next fifteen minutes were busy ones for Misty, keeping ahead of her own jet and talking the wounded Russian pilot through the Instrument Landing System approach to Camp Green. Worrisome was the way his voice was getting weaker and how he seemed to be struggling to focus on the task of flying his plane. He didn't say any more about his injuries or refer to any further bleeding, but from her first aid training, he sounded on the verge of passing out.
She transmitted, "Still there, Russian jet?" "Yes," he replied grimly. "Stay with me. You're almost there. Do you have the field in sight?"
"What's your altitude and airspeed?"
He relayed the numbers to her, albeit sluggishly. It sounded as if he was fighting for all he was worth to stay conscious and concentrate on flying.
"Is your gear down and locked?"
"How about your flaps? Are they configured for landing?"
"Are you on glide slope?"
"Uhh, I'm high."
"Power back a little and push your nose down."
"I know how to fly," came the snapped response. Excellent. That sounded a little more alert. "Let me know when you've stabilized on course and on glide slope."
"I will." For a moment his voice took on a mellow resonance. "And in case I don't make it, thank you for your help."
A chill raced down her spine. He had to live! "We've come this far together, MiG. You'll make it. I promise."
"You have a beautiful voice. I imagine you are as lovely as you sound."
"Let me know after we both land. How's that approach looking?"
The radio went silent while the Russian established himself on the narrow beam radio signal that extended up and out from the end of the runway, which a plane could follow right down to the first brick of the runway.
Misty checked her own fuel gauges, which were getting alarmingly low. She'd been orbiting high over the field for the past fifteen minutes to conserve fuel and concentrate on talking to the Russian. If he crashed and closed the runway, she was going to be in a world of hurt. She had barely enough fuel to make it through her own approach, let alone fly to an alternative airfield after this unscheduled loiter.
"How're you doing, Russian aircraft?"
"I see the field."
"Do you want to transition to a visual approach or continue the ILS?"
"I better stay on instruments. My eyesight's going." Not good. One of the last functions to fail before losing consciousness was the eyes. Pilots called it graying out. Everything they saw became a gray blur. The guy was putting up a good fight to make it to the ground, though. Tough customer. Brave. Maybe a little crazy, too, to have stolen a MiG prototype and raced it across the Bering Strait.
"Hang in, MiG. You're almost there."
"Roger," he ground out.
"Keep talking to me," she urged. "How far out are you now?"
A hundred and fifty knots, which was a typical fighter jet approach speed, was roughly two-and-a-half miles a minute. A little over two minutes until he'd be on the ground.
The air traffic controller broke in, transmitting urgently, "He's getting low. Tell him to pull up!"
Damn. Her brave MiG pilot was losing it. "Pull your nose up," she translated sharply. "Pay attention! You made it all the way from Russia. Don't blow it now. You owe me a drink after this!"
To the air traffic controller she asked in English, "How's he doing?"
"Better. Coming up to glide slope."
In Russian, "How far now, MiG?"
"Heck, you can glide in from there. No problem," Misty teased gently, "A lot of folks are watching you. Make it a pretty landing."
The Russian grunted back by way of reply. C'mon, you can do it! She forced her white-knuckled grip to relax on her own control stick. He'd gone too silent. She tipped up on her left side momentarily to peek below. His jet was medium-gray. And it was drifting well right of the runway centerline. No! He couldn't lose it now! He was so close!
"Fight, dammit! Stay with me! Fade left and get yourself back on centerline!"
"For you I will try."
She watched the clock tick in her own cockpit, the second hand sweeping slowly around its face. And then there was one last transmission, barely audible, from the Russian. "I'm on the ground." A long pause. "Thank you."
She sagged in relief. But she couldn't let down for long. She had her own approach to set up and fly. She dropped the flaps and gear, ran a before-landing checklist, and intercepted the ILS. A vehicle with red flashing lights raced away from the far end of the runway toward the low cluster of buildings that made up Camp Green. An ambulance. The Russian pilot must still be alive, then. Thank God.
She made out the sleek, muscular shape of his jet on the taxiway, but couldn't see any details from this distance. She'd love to get a better look at that prototype later. And then the ground came rushing up at her, the grass whizzing by at 160 knots, demanding her full attention. She pulled on the stick until the jet's rear wheels kissed the runway with a gentle squeak. She set the nose down smoothly, applied the brakes and taxied to parking.
She popped open her canopy and a pair of crew chiefs ran up to the T-38 and hung ladders on the front and back cockpits. She finished buttoning down the plane and climbed out. A signature in the maintenance log, and she was free to go.
General Wittenauer fell in beside her as they headed for base operations. "Just another day at the office, eh?" he commented.
She smiled over at him. "After you've been shot at enough times, things like that aren't even exciting any more." She was lying of course, all in the name of being cool. That guy had gotten to her. Something about his voice connected with her and she was waxing hokey in the extreme. He was just some Russian pilot who'd defected.
Beside her, the general said, "Becoming jaded is the price you pay for playing with the big boys."
"I'm not complaining. I love my job."
Who wouldn't? Getting to be on the first all-female Special Forces team in the U.S. military? It rocked, being one of the Medusas. Right now the team was on a break, standing down after several months of continuous missions. The other women were basking on beaches in various parts of the world, healing from their injuries and getting warm after their arctic training in northern Norway last month.
Well, it had started out as training at any rate. The junket to Norway had turned into a full-blown mission before all was said and done, with her boss, Vanessa Blake, and team member, Aleesha Gautier, both getting shot, and Karen Turner nearly dying from ingesting a lethal chemical.
While the rest of the Medusas worked on their tans, her idea of a vacation was to get back into the air. The team's only pilot, she'd used the break to renew her flight currency and log a few hours. Another perk of being a Medusa. Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, had made a T-38 and a fuel credit card available to her for as long as she wanted them.
As she walked toward base ops, the adrenaline surge of talking down the Russian pilot finally drained away, leaving her abruptly fatigued. Inside, a sergeant took her parachute, g-suit, and helmet from her to inspect and store. Two army officers met General Wittenauer and herded him off toward his briefing. She headed over to the dormitory shared by everyone stationed at the camp. It was easy to spotit was the only two-story building on the whole base.
She collected a room key and let herself into a sparsely furnished room. Linoleum floor, steel bed, three-drawer chest, a table and chair, television. Funny how her standards in quarters had changed. Time was when she wouldn't have considered staying at anything less than a world-class, five star hotel. Nowadays, it was pure luxury simply to have a roof over her head and sheets to sleep on. And she wouldn't trade the satisfaction of this job for anything in the world.
She pulled off her flight boots, slid the wooden blackout panels across the window, and fell into bed.
Yep, just another day at the office.