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Sky Hunters: X-Battalion
By Jack Shane
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Jack Shane
All right reserved.
The cliff was called Blue Sky Point, But on this clear Caribbean day it was hidden by clouds.
Dense, black, with torrents of rain falling, it was no weather to fly a helicopter into. Yet that was exactly what Captain Bobby Autry had to do.
It was the third day of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, an attempt to wrest the small tropical island from the hands of a brutal communist regime. Autry was a pilot in Task Force 160, the top-secret U.S. Army unit whose mission was to transport special operations troops to and from the fighting. Members of TF-160 had been among the first U.S. troops to land on the island. The unit was barely two years old, though, and this was its first real combat. They'd already taken some casualties.
Autry's aircraft was an MD-530, an extremely fast helicopter that, at just 24 feet long, wasn't much bigger than a Chevy stretch van. Basically a glass bubble with a rotor, it carried no weapons. Its size and swiftness was all the defense it was supposed to need.
Strapped into the seat beside him was a civilian named Gary Weir. He was CIA, a photo recon specialist; that's all Autry knew about him. Weir had three cameras with him; two Nikons and one contained in a small metallic briefcase, like something from a James Bond movie. He was also carrying a waterproof blast bag.
Autry had been tasked to take Weir and his cameras over Blue Sky Point, this after reports of some very unusual activity up on the cliff. Fighting was still raging all over Grenada. Fighter-bombers from U.S. aircraft carriers were carrying out air strikes. Marines and Army special forces were combing the jungle looking for both Grenadian troops and their Cuban allies. Navy SEALs were onshore too, doing God knows what. But the overall operation had not been the cakewalk some had envisioned. Earlier, six helicopters belonging to TF-160 had been shot up trying to land troops at the Richmond Hill prison. An MD-530 similar to Autry's had been downed the first day of fighting. The Cubans were defending parts of the island with suicidal ferocity. The U.S. brass was beginning to wonder why.
Earlier that day, a high-flying SR-71 spy plane had taken pictures of Cuban soldiers breaking up large sections of concrete on the flattened-off top of Blue Sky Point. Even when an AC-130 Spectre gunship was dispatched to fire on these soldiers, they continued banging away at the cement platforms, almost ignoring the withering fire from above. This behavior was so strange, a close-in photo mission was ordered.
The CIA already had a team aboard the USS Guam, the amphibious landing and command ship lying just off the coast of the embattled island. Autry's squadron was on board too; they'd been flying Special Ops troops in and out of the action for the past seventy-two hours. The photo mission was thrown together in just fifteen minutes. As Autry watched his colleagues load Army Rangers into their Black Hawk helicopters, he took off in the tiny MD-530 with the CIA spook on the shoestring reconnaissance mission.
His orders were simple: Go in low over Blue Sky Point, beneath the storm clouds, get some snapshots of whatever was going on up there and then get the hell out. Autry was both excited and anxious as they rose above the command ship. As the youngest member of TF-160, he'd been serving as the unit's maintenance pilot up to this point, flight checking copters that had been recently repaired. This would be his first taste of combat.
They were soon out over the open sea, about two miles off the edge of southeast Grenada. Blue Sky Point was squarely in their sights; Weir was giving his cameras one last check-through. The rain had ceased falling over the target, but the ominous clouds were still in place. This was good though. The strange cumulus would give the little chopper the extra cover it might need. After all, this was supposed to be a secret mission.
But all hopes that they could go in quietly were gone in a flash. A fishing boat that appeared abandoned and drifting about a thousand feet off the beach was actually hiding a Russian-made Zuni anti-aircraft gun, a very powerful, large-caliber weapon. It opened up on the small copter at two hundred yards.
Autry saw the fusillade at the last moment and yanked the copter to the right. Its engine screamed in response, but his quick reaction saved their lives. A half dozen shells did hit the copter. Three pinged off the spinning rotor blades; one hit the starboard landing strut, one blew a hole in the starboard door. The last round went right through the floorboard and shattered Weir's 007 camera case.
Incredibly, though, the little copter was not mortally wounded. It could still fly, but for how long, Autry didn't know.
He turned to Weir. The CIA man was in his mid-twenties, the same age as he.
"How important is this mission, really?" Autry yelled to him.
"It has an A-One priority," Weir yelled back, his voice shaky as he examined his camera box, which was now a box of junk. "Right from the top . . ."
Autry himself was a little rattled. He'd never been shot at before, and it was as unpleasant as advertised. But he knew what he had to do: Get over the fear and press on.
"OK, then!" he yelled back to Weir, laying on the throttle. "Hang on!"
They rocketed over the coastline a moment later -- under the clouds, grazing the treetops, seeing the very sharp rocks of the cliff lying dead ahead. The next barrage of AA fire was waiting for them up here.
Excerpted from Sky Hunters: X-Battalion by Jack Shane Copyright © 2005 by Jack Shane.
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