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The Sky Ghost
By Mack Maloney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Mack Maloney
All rights reserved.
August 15, 1997
The U.S. Navy destroyer Louis St. Louis was five hours out of Cape Cod when it got the strange message.
A Navy long-range, antishipping bomber had spotted three bodies floating in the Atlantic about 350 miles off the coast of Maryland and 24 miles from the destroyer's current position.
The crew of the Navy aircraft had no idea who these floaters were. A supertanker carrying aviation fuel had been sunk by a U-boat in the general area several days before, but it was unlikely the three bodies were from this engagement. More than 100,000 gallons of volatile T-stoff fuel had gone up when the supertanker was torpedoed. The chance that any bodies or even body parts remained was nil.
Nevertheless, the bomber saw three bodies and the Louis St. Louis was ordered to the area to investigate by Atlantic Wartime Command.
The destroyer was under the command of Captain Eric Wolf. He was a Naval reserve officer, mid thirties, with a good reputation for chasing long-range missile-firing U-boats away from the eastern seaboard of the United States. Though a handsome man, he was rarely seen without his thick sunglasses. He was of Scandinavian descent; his eyes were sensitive to light. But sometimes the corrective goggles made it look as if he was wearing a mask.
Wolf immediately turned his vessel in the direction of the bodies. The destroyer was powered by double-reaction engines, and at full speed, it could reach the area in a matter of minutes. The superheavy Navy bomber, which was also double-reaction powered, would continue circling until the destroyer arrived.
Wolf went up to the bridge and had the Navy plane's radio signals piped directly to him. He explained the situation to his executive officer, a lieutenant commander named Ed Zal. How had three bodies come to be floating 350 miles from the nearest land? the XO wondered. A huge, weeklong hurricane had just finished battering the New England coast—the Storm of the Century, they had called it. Perhaps these were fishermen who drowned in the storm and were carried far out to sea. Or maybe they were casualties from some unknown combat in the area.
"Strange things happen in war," Wolf told the XO as the swift little warship carved its way through the rolling Atlantic.
"Strange things happen in life," the XO replied.
At 17 miles out, Wolf was finally able to connect directly with the bomber pilot. The aircraft was still circling the area; the bodies were still in sight. The pilot could see no wreckage, no oil slick, no evidence of a recently sunk ship or a downed aircraft. The three bodies were simply floating atop the high waves, each one about 1000 yards from the other.
The destroyer increased speed and closed to within 15 miles. Then came a very strange report from the bomber. The pilot said one of the people in the water was waving up at his aircraft! Wolf asked him to repeat this. Finding three bodies out in the middle of the ocean was strange enough. But for one of them to be alive?
The pilot confirmed his report and had the copilot come on and tell Wolf the same as well. They were flying very low and very slow and one of the floaters was definitely waving up at them.
Wolf called down to his propulsion room and told them to reheat the engines to 110 percent power.
He wanted to solve this mystery quickly.
The aircraft that had spotted the floaters was a U.S. Navy B-201, an 18-engine, long-range, maritime attack plane commonly known as a SuperSea.
It was an enormous airplane. Its wingspan was 960 feet, three times that of its distant cousin, the Hughes Spruce Goose. The airplane was so large, it needed two crews, a total of 60 men, working 12-hour shifts to keep it in the air. Capable of staying aloft for 10 days at a time, it was returning from a weeklong combat patrol in the East Atlantic when it detected the floaters. The crew had shot about 100 feet of insta-film and now the commander of the aircraft, sitting in his luxurious berth just behind the flight deck, was reviewing this footage. Clearly it showed one of the people in the water waving up at them. What's more, a second floater seemed to be showing signs of life too. The COA just couldn't believe it. This was getting stranger by the minute.
Just as the COA requested another reel of insta-film be shot and processed, his surface warfare officer called up to him. An enemy warship had been spotted on the SuperSea's long-range visual display. It was a heavy cruiser, a cloak ship, able to hide its presence from radar and sonar by means of a towed electronic-interference array. But cloaking couldn't fool a TV camera, and the Hughes SuperSea bomber was bristling with them. The SW officer reported the enemy vessel was heading for the bodies in the water too—and at all-out speed.
The COA cursed on hearing this news. Usually a cloaked cruiser would be a prize for him. But his bomber had been on battle station for a week and was depleted of torpedoes, depth charges, and antiship rockets. The plane's 24 machine gunners barely had enough ammunition to load their quad-barrel .50 caliber weapons. The gigantic airplane simply didn't have anything to shoot at the cruiser.
But there was still the matter of the Louis St. Louis. The destroyer had not yet seen the enemy ship and was on a virtual collision course with it.
It was up to the SuperSea's aircraft commander to warn them.
The forward TV lookout on the Louis St. Louis spotted two people in the water at 1309.55 hours, about ten minutes after first getting the call.
The ship was only about one mile away now, and the waves, which had been calm, were growing choppy.
They were approaching an area of the Atlantic that was known as the Demon Zone. This patch of ocean was infamous. It stretched from north of Bermuda, down to the tip of Florida and then out some 600 miles into the Atlantic. An unusually high number of ships and aircraft had been lost traversing the Zone over the years. The weather was different here and prone to abrupt changes. Seamen of all stripes hated operating anywhere near it, Wolf included.
But he had no choice but to continue on.
The "combat-imminent" message from the SuperSea came in at exactly 1313 hours. An enemy cruiser had been spotted, Wolf was told. It was cloaking itself with electronic jamming, towing a separate sled almost as big as the ship itself to do so. The SuperSea's forward TV camera had the enemy vessel dead in its lens. The destroyer would be within range of the cruiser's weapons within five minutes.
Wolf acknowledged the aircraft's report and called his crew to battle stations. They were half a mile from the floaters now—and it was apparent the enemy ship was heading for them too.
He turned around to the massive computer located behind his bridge chair and typed several lines of numbers into its large keyboard. The machine's thick magnetic-film wheels began spinning crazily, the multicolored lights on its control panel blinking like a Christmas tree.
Essentially Wolf was asking the huge computer what he should do—and it took only 35 seconds for the computer to spit out its answer. The destroyer was much faster than the enemy battle cruiser and it was closer to the floaters. But the enemy guns had a longer range and could be very accurate. Therefore, the computer determined, theLouis St. Louis would beat the enemy cruiser to the floaters—but the destroyer would fall under the enemy guns' range shortly afterward.
This meant Wolf had to scoop up the floaters—whoever the hell they were!—and then hope to make a fast getaway. Time, then was of the essence ...
He called Zal to his side and recited a series of orders.
"Deploy starboard rescue boat and retrieval crew," he told the XO. "Order forward weapons crews to ready their stations. Roll out air assets and await my word on launch."
The XO saluted, grabbed a bridge mike and spoke the same words into it.
"Stand by for further orders," was how he ended his message.
The destroyer's starboard rescue boat was dropped into the water a minute later. Onboard was a special squad of Sea Marines, each one highly trained in deepwater rescues.
The destroyer's forward weapons crews began heating the ship's targeting beam. This powerful 200,000-candlewatt light could warm an enemy's hull to a temperature high enough for radiation-seeking shells to hone in on it. The destroyer also had some radar-guided air torpedoes at the ready, as well as half a dozen sonar-guided 188-mm underwater guns.
But the vessel's real ace in the hole was its air assets.
They were Convair FY-1s, vertical take-off fighters. Commonly known as Pogos, each sat on a four-point undercarriage supported by four stubby wings and was powered by a pair of mighty contra-rotating turbo-props on top. These dual propellers acted both as helicopter rotors and huge thrusters; the plane took off vertically like a chopper, and then, when it turned over to the horizontal, it acted like a fighter, one that could move at nearly 600 mph.
The two airplanes were wheeled out from their silolike housings and onto the rear deck of the destroyer. The pilots were already in their cockpits, checking their systems and powering up for launch.
Within a minute, both aircraft were ready to pop. The flight crew chief radioed up to the bridge with this information. The destroyer was now fully combat-ready.
"Stand by," came the terse reply.
It was now 1315.30. The enormous SuperSea bomber was still circling the floaters and simultaneously keeping an eye on the enemy cruiser, now about 25 miles away. Aware that its cloaking device had been foiled, the cruiser was coming on at full speed, its crew rushing to their battle stations.
The destroyer's rescue boat was just 500 yards from the first floater now. Its crew chief was equipped with an extended-lens TV camera and was able to pick up the human form in the water. This picture was fed back to the Louis St. Louis. Within seconds, Wolf was viewing the broadcast from the rescue launch.
The man in the water was indeed alive. He was waving with both hands. He was wearing a combat uniform, but it was of no design that Wolf had ever seen. Wolf turned up the power on his TV set and waited for the static to melt away. This gave him a blurry telephoto view of this man.
He was a strange one. His hair was long, almost womanish, but he also had a thick growth of beard. His uniform was free of ribbons, stripes, or bars. The TV transmission was black-and-white, so Wolf could not determine the uniform's color. But he guessed it was deep blue—and he knew of no armed forces presently fighting which claimed that color.
The rescue launch reached the man about a minute later—just as Wolf got a report that his vessel would be in range of the enemy cruiser's guns in 30 seconds. The floater was hauled aboard, water-logged and cold. Yet he appeared to be in good shape, considering he'd just been found floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Wolf had the camera scan back and forth. He was looking for any minute signs of wreckage, an oil slick, anything that would provide a clue as to how the man got here. But no such clue could be found. It was as if he'd dropped right out of the sky.
Another urgent message from the SuperSea bomber interrupted Wolf's musings. The enemy cruiser was firing its guns! A bright flash was spotted out on the eastern horizon a second later. The destroyer's massive combat computer warned a spread of eight long-range disruption shells was on its way.
Wolf ordered a hard turn to port—and just in time. The squeal of the enemy barrage was picked up by the rescue launch's TV camera. Its shriek filled the bridge's intercom speakers. Two seconds later, the eight shells slammed into the sea 100 yards off the destroyer's starboard bow.
The explosions created a huge swell beneath the surface. This instantly grew into a small tidal wave that hit the destroyer not five seconds later. It struck with such force, the Louis St. Louis nearly went right over. Bells and whistles began going off all over the ship. Anything not secured, bodies included, was suddenly flying through the air.
"Evasive action!" Wolf yelled into his intercom. "They might have a radi-seeker. Ice the hulls!"
On the captain's call, a supercoolant called Roxy-5 began flooding through lines built into the ship's hull. The idea was to lower the hull's temperature and prevent it from being warmed by the enemy's own version of a targeting beam.
Then Wolf pushed a series of buttons and was soon talking to the Sea Marine in charge of the rescue launch. It too had barely stayed afloat in the man-made tsunami.
"Can you see the other floaters?" Wolf asked the man quickly.
"We can see one more, sir," came the reply. "He's a half mile to the southeast. He's also alive. He's waving to us!"
A second later another barrage of disrupter shells came screaming out of the sky. They landed just 40 yards off the destroyer's port bow. Once again, the small warship was nearly tipped over by a sudden tidal wave.
Too damn close, Wolf thought. The cruiser was playing with them. The next barrage would definitely be guided by a radi-seeker.
"Roxy team, report!" he barked into the microphone.
"Hull temperature down to thirty-eight degrees, sir," came the reply. "And dropping ..."
"Double your efforts," Wolf yelled back.
But Wolf knew that hull-cooling or not, they couldn't hold this position much longer. He needed to buy just a little more time, though.
He flipped his intercom switch and was soon talking to the destroyer's air officer.
"Launch air assets," he said.
Seconds later, both Pogos revved up to full power and bounced off the rear of the destroyer. Once airborne, they turned over the horizontal and retracted their undercarriage wheels.
Wolf was quickly connected directly through to the pilots.
"OK boys, two passes, no heroics," he told them. "Just give us time to withdraw."
The pilots replied in the affirmative and clicked off. Then one pilot radioed over to the other.
"OK, sport," he said, "time to make some noise."
The two Pogo pilots increased power and quickly climbed to 10,000 feet above the enemy ship.
Each plane was bearing four machine guns, wing-mounted and synchronously fed. The enemy cruiser below was heavily fortified. From two miles up, it looked like a floating, ironclad castle. Spotting the pair of vertiplanes, it went into a wide circle as part of its evasive action maneuver.
The Pogos turned over and began a murderous dive. As airplanes, they were very noisy and their Super Browning big fifties were known for their bright muzzle flash and high velocity sound. But each Pogo was also carrying a device under its right wing known as SE/X. This stood for Sound Enhancement/Extra. Essentially these were electronic whistles which rang up high-pitched screeches whenever an aircraft equipped with them went into a steep dive.
The combined noise of all this was frightening—that was the point. Despite the cruiser's defensive lockdown, many enemy sailors were standing exposed at their weapon stations.
And now their ears were beginning to fill with the Pogos' ear-splitting screech.
The Pogos opened fire at 7500 feet. Small clouds of antiaircraft shells started coming up at them, but the pilots expertly began spinning and avoided the flak. They passed through 5000 feet and now the pilots could see flashes of sparks atop the mainsail of the enemy cruiser. Their armor-piecing shells were making contact.
The horrifying screech got louder as the Pogos continued their dive, guns blazing. At just 500 feet above the ship, they finally pulled up, each plane strafing the cruiser's bridge before peeling away to the south. Though the bridge was locked up, some of the Pogos' shells hit home and damage to the command center within was extensive. Now the ship had to slow down further—and that was the true purpose of this air attack.
The pair of VTOL-planes returned for their second pass. This time they came in low over the water, concentrating their fire on the unprotected rear of the cruiser. They managed to sever the cable towing the electronic-cloaking sled, causing the assembly to tip over and sink. The enemy cruiser was now very exposed and vulnerable to a variety of weapons.
But the Pogo pilots' orders were for two passes and that's all they would do. They'd bought time for the people out on the destroyer's rescue launch, as Wolf had wanted. Moreover, both planes were running very low on fuel. It was time to break off the engagement and return to the ship.
Excerpted from Wingman by Mack Maloney. Copyright © 1997 Mack Maloney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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