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Sample from Those '67 Blues

 


     “This might get wild,” Mike said. “Lock your shoulder harness.” He checked his own, then made sure the bombsight mounted above the instrument panel’s glare shield was illuminated. He set the sight for a thirty-degree dive and tweaked the brightness up to compensate for the sunlight reflecting throughout the cockpit.
     As details of the target airfield became visible, CAG’s voice came up on strike frequency again. “Buster. Buster.”
     F-4 tailpipes gleamed white hot as their afterburners kicked in, and the fighters accelerated away from the rest of the flight.
     Deduldeduldedul.
     A missile alert tone screamed over the ICS, and the warning light in front of Mike’s face flashed bright red.
     “SAM rising at one o’clock,” Terry said. “Another at ten.”
     “Got ’em.”
     Racing upward, the missile on their left arced to intercept them. Its exhaust formed a bright halo around the dull nose cone.
     “Donut at ten,” Terry said. “It’s after us.”
     “Banner One breaking left,” Mike called over the UHF.
     He horsed the big airplane into a tight, descending turn towards the missile. The strike force behind him scattered, every man for himself.
     The missile’s nose came down.
     “It’s tracking,” Terry said.
     “Yeah.” Mike pulled the A-6 up into a tight barrel roll back to the right. He played with the g force: too much and they’d stall out, too little and the missile would have them for lunch.
     Unable to get its own nose back up in time, the missile detonated below them. There was no clatter of metal on metal; the missile’s lethal fragments had missed.
     “Missed us,” Mike said. He steadied the airplane and turned toward the airfield. Several A-4s appeared off to the right, seeming to materialize out of nowhere.
     “Two SAMs at twelve,” Terry said. “They’re after the F-4s.”
     Mike started his left hook around Kep airfield. A string of winking lights, muzzle flashes, marked the dense array of antiaircraft guns that occupied a mile-long arc along the north side of the runway.
     “Check the Master Arm on,” Mike said.
     Terry reached up to the armament panel and threw the switch. “Master Arm is on.” The weapon release button, the pickle, on Mike’s control stick was now hot.
     Off to Mike’s right, the fighters pulled out of their flak-suppression runs. Their CBU cluster munitions exploded above ground, scattering hundreds of antipersonnel bomblets—hand grenades, really—across the flak sites. Small, bright flashes danced among the enemy guns as the bomblets exploded.
     Antiaircraft fire diminished.
     The attack birds rolled in on their designated pieces of runway from multiple directions. Someone shouted “Big sky” over the radio, a reminder—or perhaps a hope—that running into another aircraft, or one of the falling bombs, was actually a low-probability event.
     The flak flared up again.
     Heavy, black puffs of smoke from North Vietnamese 85s popped up across the area at the strike’s roll-in altitude; smaller white puffs from 57mm weapons rippled across the target area at mid-dive altitudes; strings of orange tracers streamed up from dozens of 37mm rapid-fire guns.
     The air above Kep airfield became a spider’s web of aircraft, bombs, and flak, all weaving their own path through the melee.
     When his angle off the runway was about fifteen degrees, Mike rolled the A-6 almost inverted and pulled it hard down and right, into a steep dive. As the aircraft’s nose crossed an imaginary line to the target, he rolled upright and steadied the plane in its dive.
     They accelerated to 380 knots ... 400 ... 430. The bombsight’s crosshairs, the pipper, marched across the ground toward the runway.
     Flak rippled around the aircraft, but Mike focused on three things: airspeed, altitude, and the pipper. All three had to come together at a single point in space in order to achieve a good hit, or else the pilot had to make an eyeball correction: too fast ... pickle early, too slow ... pickle late. And pipper placement had to account for the wind that would affect the weapons on their flight to the target.
     “Reaper Two is hit ... good chute, good chute.”
     The call penetrated Mike’s busy mind, but he ignored it. The pipper touched the runway, airspeed and altitude looked good, and his right thumb squashed down on the pickle. The A-6 lurched as twenty-two bombs rippled off in less than two seconds, the center of the string destined for the middle of the runway.
     Mike looked up and calibrated the scene.
     Black smoke from the downed airplane rose from its crash site beyond the runway. The three surviving F-4s were south of him, back at altitude, out of the fray. The last of the A-4s was in a climbing left turn to the southwest, chased by 57mm bursts and 37mm tracers.
     All the gunners were obviously back on the job, and Mike’s A-6 was about to be low, belly up to them, and the only target still in range.
     Screw this.
     Mike pushed the A-6’s black nose down into a zero-g dive and aimed right at the flak sites that lay dead ahead.

* * *

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