WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Sortie

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By Michael Parker

Jack Edwards, code name ‘Ice Man’, knew this mission would be vital: destruction of the dam would shorten the war considerably. He felt confident about himself this time as the Pegasus engine of the Harrier Jump Jet wound up into a crescendo of sound. He could feel it vibrating through the control column. He completed his checks and held up the mandatory four fingers to the ground crew to declare that the ejector seat and canopy were armed. He acknowledged them as he began to taxi out on to the short runway.

If he felt nervous this time, Jack didn’t want to show it. After all, he was the Ice Man. He dabbed the brake pedal to check the brakes were functioning, and then made another quick scan of the cockpit instruments. He knew his fuel load, his target co-ordinates and his time over target, scribbled on his knee pad. The air traffic controller gave him clearance for take-off as he came to a halt on the very short strip of tarmac road. It was a public highway, closed now, that served as a runway at the forward position established by the Allied forces. Jack brought the power up to maximum, set the nozzles at 50% and turned the water injection on. He could feel the jet straining on the leash as he held the brakes for a moment longer before lifting his foot. The Harrier leapt forward sending up clouds of dust in a vortex of wind and noise and scattering the birds from the trees.

Within seconds he was airborne: the jet’s nose dropped almost level to the ground as he raced towards the end of the short stretch of road. He touched the brake pedal to stop the wheels spinning and selected undercarriage up. He moved his eyes quickly and checked the four greens had changed to four blacks: ‘undercarriage stowed’. The trees below him almost bowed their heads in homage as the Harrier hurtled over their tops. Jack pulled back on the stick, edging it to the left and turned away from the forward airstrip. He turned up into the low cloud that hung sombrely over the dark countryside.

He checked his heading. On his knee was the notepad with the estimated time over the target clearly written. It wasn’t far and he knew he would probably not experience any enemy activity on the relatively short run into their territory, which meant a clear run. He did wonder on just what his chances would be of returning safely once the dam had been breached. The target was the important thing though: the dam had to be breached. His life was no longer important, but the dam was. He had about eight minutes of relative calm and safety, and then he would fly into the mouth of Hades where one false move would pile him into mother earth.

The cloud cover above felt like a blanket as he streaked over the ground, no higher than one hundred feet, his ground warning radar switched off to avoid unexpected detection. Ice-cold concentration was needed now from the Ice Man. In the distance he could see the vague shapes of the mountains: black silhouettes against a brightening, dawn sky. Jack had played the scenario over and over again in his mind. He knew exactly where the valley began. It was not clearly visible yet, lying almost unseen beneath a ridge spanning two peaks. Once there he would be in enemy territory.

Suddenly he was hot! He heard the ‘ping’ as the enemy radar found him, but it was only a brief contact as he hurtled into the shadow of the mountains and into the valley. The Harrier fled like a bullet, wings tipping as Jack turned to follow the winding river course that had scoured the valley for millions of years. On each side the ground rose up like castle walls, hemming the sleek aircraft in, threatening to pull Jack into the forests that clung to the sides. The wind funnelled through the canyon, buffeting the Harrier. Jack fought it, letting the stick tremble gently in his hand as he steered the jet with consummate skill.

Then the dam came into view: a small, almost insignificant wall that held back millions of tonnes of water. Jack selected the bombs, armed them, and levelled out as bursts of flak began to explode dangerously close. But Jack ignored the ground fire; his attention focussed on the dam wall. He dropped the Harrier to within fifty feet of the river, concentration forcing beads of sweat to burst out on his forehead. His breathing was harsh, but his determination never wavered.

He flipped the trigger cover and pressed. Bombs gone! Stick back. Jack heaved, lifting the Harrier up, fleeing like a guilty child after throwing rocks at someone’s home. Over the dam and turning, stick hard over to the right. Jack watched the gravity meter, the ‘g’ force, climbing. He knew he had to turn sharply into the only valley he could use to get away. 5g! His weight was now almost 350 kilograms. His G-suit was inflating to protect him from blacking out and he could see the gauge reading going up. The pressure on his ribs would be enormous. He wanted to ease off to reduce the g-force, but the valley wall was turning sharply and Jack needed to pull the stick further back and let the gauge climb to 7g. How much more could the plane take? There was a danger he would grey out. A few more seconds and blackout would occur. He had to get the jet back on level flight before the whole thing fell apart.

He heard the explosion as his bombs hit home and the missile ‘locked’ warning almost at the same time. Jack had expected this. He focused on the valley wall, sliding past him swiftly now and hit the chaff and flare buttons. The silver foil burst from the Harrier together with the flares, absorbing the transmissions from the oncoming missile. The burning flares decoyed its seeker head.

Suddenly Jack straightened and pulled the stick back, simultaneously rotating his jet nozzles. The missile streaked by and exploded against the valley wall. The valley turned left and Jack followed. Soon, very soon, he would be clear of the valley and into open country. He knew what awaited him there.

As if by appointment two MIG 27s hove into view. The sky had brightened considerably. Jack was flying with the rising sun behind him. The MIGs would not see him clearly, but their radar would be their eyes. He dropped the nose as the MIGs picked him up. They swung round in a symmetrical pattern to follow Jack down towards the ground, nap of the earth flying, reheat blowing from their tails like glowing torches. Jack’s Harrier was no match for them in pure speed, but Jack had more weapons in his armoury. More guile.

He dived down to a long run of trees, hoping to confuse the radar of the MIGs, but the launch of two missiles told Jack they had him locked into their radar. He made a tight turn, dropping more chaff. He couldn’t hope to outrun the missiles, but he could hope to spook the MIG pilots. He turned tighter until he was flying straight at the two jets and skipped over the tree line. The missiles made the same turn but lost time in the turn. Jack was now heading directly towards the two fighters at a closing speed of well over a thousand miles per hour. Before the two jets could pull up, Jack tugged the stick back hard, bringing the nose up almost vertical, dropping chaff and flares at the same time. One of the missiles, confused by the different heat signals in close proximity, took out one of the MIGs, blowing it from the sky. Jack cheered noisily as the second missile whistled between him and the remaining MIG.

He turned again, knowing he had a chance to make it to friendly territory, but he had to shake off the remaining jet. He knew the pilot would need just a moment to recover from seeing his wingman being shot down by his own missile, but not too long. It was enough for Jack.

He went in hard and fast over the trees. This, then, was to be the killing ground. This was to be the place where he would be able to test his skill against that of the remaining MIG pilot. One on one! Mano a mano!

He felt a sudden thrill surge through his veins. The kill! He saw the MIG clearly. And the missile!

“Jack!”

He spun round in his chair. His wife was standing at the door, one hand on her hip, the other thrust against the door jamb.

“If I’ve called you once, I’ve called you a dozen times. Your dinner is ready. Now switch that silly game off and come and get your dinner.”

Jack sagged visibly. He looked back at the computer screen as it blossomed into an orange flame and a message flashed up.

“Sorry, Jack, you lost. Better luck next time!”

He switched the game off and closed his computer down. Then he picked up his walking stick and levered himself out of the chair.

“Ah well,” he muttered to himself. “Not bad for an eighty-year-old. I’ll get them next time.”

His wife had already gone and Jack knew he had met his match in more ways than one.

THE END

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