“Okay, this is not good …”
Colonel Steve “Scarecrow” Richardson was in the fight of his life.
Plummeting to earth, his engine flamed-out and avionics de-energized, his F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had become nothing more than a meteor plunging to the desert floor. Following his wingman – he presumed now dead amid a fireball on the ground – and having failed to arrest his own descent or restart his engine, Scarecrow reached for his ejection seat handle. He hesitated. The thought of abandoning an 89 million dollar, state-of-the art aircraft didn’t sit well with him, especially on its maiden mission. The thing still had its “new car” smell. With one hand on the control stick and the other clutching the ejection handle, he gritted his teeth and tensed as he released the stick and with both hands, pulled the black and yellow striped loop located between his knees.
As the canopy blasted up and was swept behind the aircraft, Scarecrow shot vertical. The rush was disorienting, until he found the horizon, illuminated by the rising moon. Slamming into the airstream at still over 300 knots with less than 3,000 feet of altitude, the air hammered him as the parachute deployed with a crack, jerking his body and slowing his descent.
The impact and explosion of his own F-35 with the ground below and ahead of him played out in slow motion. Its fireball expanded and rose into the air, reaching hungrily towards him as he swayed under the nylon canopy. The shock wave knocked the wind out of him. On regain- ing his breath, he realized his trajectory, driven by his body’s momentum and the prevailing winds, was taking him right into the burning crash site. Attempting to avoid the flaming debris, he shifted his weight and adjusted his chute’s directional louvers.
Just a little more ... just a little further ...
Reflex caused Scarecrow to pull his knees to his chest as he drifted over the flames, hoping the few extra feet would be enough to keep him from catching fire. As he passed over the burning wreckage, a minor secondary explosion thrust flames upward and for an instant, they envel- oped him. Clearing the plume, he was thankful neither he nor any of his gear had ignited.
In preparation for impact, he relaxed his body, went feet and knees together, then held his breath. Landing with a heavy thud in a tuck and roll, he sprang to his feet as the chute, caught by the early morning ground breeze, began to tug at him. He snapped the release and shook the harness off his body, then spun around to see how far he was from the wreckage of his fighter. He was barely a dozen yards away.
At this distance, another explosion could be deadly, especially as the plane’s full fuel load and ordnance cooked off. Sprinting away from the burning F-35, he began a frantic search for a firebreak or outcropping that could shelter him from a blast. There was none. Dodging brush and rocks, he raced as fast as he could away from the crash site, despite being weighed down with his flight gear.
Just when he thought he might make it to safety, the feared explo- sion erupted, launching shrapnel-like debris in all directions. A smaller piece hit him in the back of his HMD, cracking it open and pitching him forward to bounce and flop across the hard desert ground like a rag doll in a gale. While his helmet kept him from being killed instantly, Scarecrow still suffered a massive concussion. He managed to stop rolling, and lay face up on the packed earth. Dazed, he fought to remain conscious as flaming debris landed all around him. Unable to move, he was convinced that if he was hit again, it would all be over.
This time providence smiled on him, and he remained unscathed. When the echo of the explosion subsided, Scarecrow’s ears were filled with a loud ringing, augmenting the pain now growing inside his wounded skull.
Struggling to stay conscious, Scarecrow stared up at the sky. As he lay on the cold ground, he knew Bagram Base would be scrambling a quick reaction force (QRF). Unless they arrived soon, he also knew they would find him dead, overwhelmed by the head injury now beckoning him down into a seductive oblivion, or shot by a roving Taliban patrol.
Either way, he could no longer move, even if he wanted to. For the first time in his life, his fate was in the hands of others.
An hour before, the Colonel sat in the briefing room with the team chosen to support the squadron’s first combat mission, including his wing- man, Captain Mark “Retro” Lewis.
As Group Commander, Scarecrow had already been briefed, approved the mission and selected his team. While the Squadron Weapons Officer and Targeteer (WEPS) would brief the mission to the squadron, as CO, Scarecrow was still in charge. When he sat down, the Director of Ops (DO) said, “Seats,” and those in the room took their seats as the Targeteer stepped up to the podium to begin the brief.
“Good morning, Sir. Today’s mission is a bombing strike against a recently verified Taliban weapons depot and munitions cache.”
After the details of the strike were laid out and the support team’s roles were defined, WEPS asked if there were any questions.
“How solid is your intel?” Scarecrow asked.
WEPS looked nervously to the side of the briefing room at a non-de- script, middle-aged man lurking in the shadows along the wall. It was obvious he had chosen not to sit with the squadron. All eyes followed WEPS gaze.
Mr. Kaplan, the resident CIA Officer, was an enigma. Never engag- ing with anyone, he was always seen skulking around the base, keeping to himself. It was he who had initiated the request for the target pack- age. “Very reliable Human Intelligence (HUMINT) – repeat source, on-ground, on-site. Backed up with fresh Satellite Intelligence (SATINT) – this morning.”
Almost imperceptible, the edge of Scarecrow’s mouth turned down as his face tightened. “Thank you. It’s useful to know what we’re basing the mission on.”
“Certainly,” came the acerbic, monotone reply. Neither attempted to conceal the mutual disdain and lack of trust they felt for each other.
“One more thing,” Kaplan said. “This is critical – the sector’s Taliban operations depend on this cache. Our intel indicates they’re massing for an offensive. This was the depot responsible for producing those two IEDs that took out Sergeant Jamison and his boys last week and Major Donaldson two weeks ago.”
“Roger that,” Scarecrow said as he nodded.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” WEPS moved on, “next we’ll review the call signs. Bagram Air Base Air Operations Center – Hardrock. Colonel Richardson – Lightning One. Captain Lewis – Lightning Two. Aircraft Early Warning Control System (AWACS) – Darkstar. QRF – Iron Man.
“Initial approach – Angels 23. Any additional questions, alibis or saved rounds?” Silence. “Very well. That concludes today’s briefing. Debrief, 30 minutes after return. Good luck.”
As the room rose, Retro caught a derisive look in Scarecrow’s eye. “Problem, Sir?”
“Kaplan,” Scarecrow huffed. “You’re new here, so I’ll read you in. The only part of this job I don’t like – having to work with the CIA.” He lowered his voice as he cast a wary glance at Kaplan, who pretended to ignore the pilots and their furtive glances as he stuffed his notes into a worn brief- case. “I don’t like spooks. And I don’t like the secrets they keep. I don’t like secrets at all – especially the kind the Langley bunch traffic in. These guys have plans within plans. We never have enough ‘need to know’ to get to the truth. What they don’t or won’t tell you can often get you killed. Remember that.
“Kaplan and his ilk have been wrong before. And another thing – I don’t like taking direction from the CIA. They never take a hit for being wrong. We’re the ones who pay for their mistakes, not to mention the inno- cent civilians they put in our gunsights.”
“Roger that, Sir. Looks like today though, they get their way.”
“Yeah. Today looks straightforward enough. I’m just saying that with the boys and girls from Langley, you never really know.”
Fifteen minutes later the two pilots slid out of their Hummer, its brakes squealing as the vehicle came to a halt on the tarmac between a pair of pristine F-35s. The birds were newly arrived from Hill Air Force Base, their sleek outlines illuminated by massive flood lights that rimmed the flight line. The tang of jet fuel, raw and burned, hung heavy in the air.
Scarecrow removed a glove as he walked up to his airframe and lightly caressed her skin, feeling the metal’s warmth in the desert’s hot, pre-dawn air. His eye followed her lines aft. “How’s my new bird, chief?”
“Ready to go, Colonel,” replied the crew chief.
“Good.” Scarecrow stepped over to the Portable Maintenance Aid (PMA) to review the plane’s data. “Hey, how’s that little girl of yours? What’s her name? Brittany?” Scarecrow asked as he and the chief did their pre-flight walk-around of the jet.
“That’s right, Sir. She took her first steps yesterday.”
“Please tell me your wife video-taped that for you?”
“Nope.” The disappointment on the chief ’s face was telling. “It
happened without any warning. Sarah didn’t have her IPhone handy.” “Ah, chief. I’m sorry.”
“One of the pitfalls of deployment, Sir.”
“I guess so. But your tour is over soon, right?”
“Yup. In three weeks.”
Moving around the aircraft, their pre-flight checks were methodical,
especially important for new planes. The chief had opened the side panel and extended the ladder for Scarecrow when he arrived. Having completed their ritual walk-around, the colonel patted him on the back, then climbed into the cockpit. The chief followed him up and helped him strap in.
“I’m no prophet, nor the son of a prophet,” Scarecrow said, “but I’m going to make a prediction. When you get stateside and step through your front door, her very first word to you will be ‘Daddy!’”
“Thanks, Colonel. Be safe up there – I haven’t lost a bird yet ... or a pilot. This one’s ready to go. I guarantee it.” He leapt down, retracted the ladder and closed the fuselage side panel with two slaps of his palm as he peered up at the Colonel. Scarecrow looked down on him, smiling. Then he frowned.
“Take care of that little girl. She’s precious.”
“That’s why I’m here, Sir. Keepin’ America safe.”
I’m not talking about America – take care of Brittany. You keep a
close eye on her. When you get back home, you make sure nothing happens to her.”
Startled by his intensity, the chief stared into Scarecrow’s eyes for a moment, searching for the cause of his concern. There was something there, but now was not the time to probe. “Will do, Sir.”
The colonel nodded and began the start-up sequence. The Pratt and Whitney F135 engine leapt to life, its whine increasing as the pilot went through his post-start checks. As the canopy dropped and snapped into position, he gave his crew chief a thumbs-up. The chief stepped back, clear of the aircraft, and stood beside an airman who had just pulled the wheel chocks. Both saluted crisply. Scarecrow returned their salutes and smiled, then clipped his oxygen mask into place. Tapping the throttle, he eased the F-35 forward, out from between the concrete barriers and onto the taxiway.
The Bagram F-35 squadron was the first to be deployed to an active theatre. The F-35 Program brass were anxious to prove it in action. They were taking no chances – several new, carefully groomed airframes and the best pilots from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base had been prepped in anticipation of being assigned to Bagram. As Group Commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, Colonel Richardson was tasked to lead the squadron on a series of missions to demonstrate the mettle of the new aircraft and hone the skills of its pilots. The colonel had been sent to Luke Air Force Base, located outside of Glendale in Arizona, for the Air Force’s seven-week F-35 System Training Program class. Once he completed the course, he travelled to Hill Air Force Base to meet his new squadron and familiarize himself with the pilots. He and the new squadron then transited to Bagram, where he gave them a proper shake- down. Scarecrow reported their readiness for an initial mission that would serve like a sniper’s “cold shot.” Nothing too strenuous, but sufficient to break in the new squadron so they could ramp up with a more challeng- ing, follow-on mission.
The call came two days later.
Intelligence had intercepted Taliban chatter about a major offen- sive against coalition forces, including the location of a weapons depot and munitions cache in the mountains north of Kabul, about 100 miles northeast of Taleqan, near the Tajikistan border. Kaplan confirmed it with CIA HUMINT and submitted a strike package request to take it out.
A simple bombing run. Exactly what they were looking for. Scarecrow personally supervised the WEPS in planning the mission and preparing the squadron brief.
It was a straightforward plan. Once within range, the colonel would map the target area with his Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to confirm his drop coordinates matched the target. He would acquire the target on his Electro-Optical Targeting System to ensure its final location and launch a JASSM from medium altitude, above 20,000 feet. After impact, he would do own-ship Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) to confirm mission success, then egress, again at medium altitude, keeping just below the Mach and be back on the tarmac by 0600, in time for some of cook’s famous Belgian waffles.
But it didn’t go as planned.
“Hardrock, Lightning One. Approaching target at Angels 23. Five minutes from drop, over.”
“Lightning One, Hardrock. Roger that, over.”
Scarecrow suddenly noticed a pop-up group on his Panoramic Cockpit Display (PCD) radar. He was surprised the sensor fusion algo- rithms hadn’t identified the type of aircraft. They had the sensor and elec- tronic signatures of all known aircraft in the world. “Hardrock, ID single group heavy, Bullseye 050 for 220, over.”
“Negative, Lightning One. We show nothing in the air with you, over.”
“AESA shows a cluster of three bogies at extreme range, moving in my direction, over.”
He switched to AWACS. “Darkstar, ID single group heavy, Bullseye 050 for 220.”
“Negative, Lightning One. Screens are clear, over.”
“Lightning Two, Lightning One. Are you tracking these targets, or do I have electronic phantoms, over?”
“Affirmative – intermittent contact, over,” Retro replied.
This had better not be something Kaplan ‘neglected’ to inform us about ...
Scarecrow switched to the VHF Guard Frequency – 121.5 MHz. “Unknown aircraft, this is a United States Air Force airborne combat unit. You are approaching restricted airspace. Alter course to 315. Confirm, over.”
“Unknown aircraft, you are about to violate a coalition no-fly zone. If you do not deviate from your present course, you will be deemed hostile and fired upon. Confirm, over.”
Still no response.
“Lightning One, Lightning Two – Hardrock. We’ve got them now. They’re moving at an impossible speed. Checking, over.”
Scarecrow scanned his AESA. “Hardrock, Lightning One. Estimate bogeys travelling at 4,000 knots. Closing time, one minute. Darkstar, do you have them on radar, over?”
“That’s affirmative, Lightning One. Just picked them up – erratic flight path. Lead aircraft being pursued by two followers, appears to be evading.”
“Stand by. I have a visual ...” Scarecrow peered through the sensor fusion of his Helmet Mounted Display (HMD). He could make out three points of light, growing in intensity. “I see flashes between them, like weap- ons fire ...” Scarecrow had activated his tactical sub-portal and brought it up on the main portal of his PCD. His weapons were hot while his sensor fusion continued to attempt identification.
“Darkstar, Lightning One. Bogeys have entered the no-fly zone. I have weapons-lock on the lead target. Do I have authorization to fire, over?” “Lightning One, Darkstar, single group Bullseye 050 for 180. You are not authorized to fire on target. I say again, you are not authorized to
fire. Confirm, over.”
“Lightning One copies. Standby for visual ID. Bogeys almost on top
of us, over. Retro, Scarecrow. Bracket, over.” “Lightning II copies, over.”
The lights approached, their trajectory putting them on a collision course with the flight of F-35s. Normal intercept procedure with bandits approaching would have Scarecrow and his wingman fan away from each other to determine which of them the incoming threat was targeting. Such a maneuver would allow the fighters to support each other, providing the untargeted fighter with an unobserved entry for a kill as they merged.
Scarecrow expected to hear a screeching roar as the targets drew near, accentuated by the Doppler Effect. Instead, there was complete silence. Suddenly, the unknown aircraft increased their speed and reached the fighters before they had the opportunity to execute their maneuver. Instinct caused Scarecrow to jink in a hard-left roll. He only saw the first aircraft – a bright flash as it swept by at hypersonic speed 200 feet from his wing. The pair pursuing it were of a different configuration – dark, almost invisible to the naked eye – but he could make them out through the night vision function of his ISIE-11 camera system. Regardless, they were little more than dark streaks as they flashed by. The proximity of their pass forced him into the precarious roll. He recovered, but his wingman wasn’t so fortunate. Retro didn’t react as quickly as his flight lead as the trio of bogeys swept by him Blue Angel close. His running lights blinked out as his engine died, the near collision throwing him into an uncon- trolled, lateral spin. Scarecrow craned his neck to look back. He watched in horror as his wingman augured downward like a pinwheel, disappear- ing into the darkness.
“Retro, Scarecrow. Status, over.”
Static. No response from Retro. The ISIE-11 system had six cameras merged to provide a 360 degree sphere around the aircraft in night-vi- sion mode, allowing Scarecrow to peer through the floor of his aircraft to ascertain the fate of his wingman. He searched in vain – he could see no chute deploy. Then there was an explosive flash as the F-35 impacted a nearby mountainside. As he witnessed the demise of his wingman, the trio of bogeys swept past once more on a reverse course. Like Retro, this time they passed only feet from Scarecrow’s JSF as his Helmet Mounted Display went dark. Scarecrow felt the stick pull against his grip as his bird lurched downwards. He looked up. His Panoramic Cockpit Display had also gone dark. His bird was without power. He was blind and deaf. The F-35, designed to provide the pilot with unprecedented situational aware- ness through sensor fusion, panoramic cockpit and helmet displays, took Scarecrow from a position of total SA to complete darkness in the middle of some of the world’s tallest mountains in under a microsecond. His best speculation was the bogies had detected his weapons-lock and deployed some form of electronic countermeasure during their fly-by, which also flamed out his engine. Rapidly losing altitude, he attempted to activate the IPP, or Integrated Power Pack, used to provide power to the F-35’s elec- tronic systems in the event of an emergency outage, but it was unrespon- sive. It also failed to provide a mid-air restart of the stricken bird’s engine.
Every system was out. The pristine, state of the art, high tech joint- strike fighter was now nothing more than an inert lump of iron hurtling towards earth. And Scarecrow was helpless to do anything about it.
“Kaplan!” Scarecrow said. “This is your fault! You and your CIA secrets!”
Lying on the ground, Scarecrow drifted in and out of consciousness. He thought of family. His father was already gone – his mother was in an assisted living facility enduring her final days. His sister hated him, but despite her best efforts, her two pre-teen daughters adored their dashing Air Force uncle. He would miss those precocious girls.
His thoughts drifted next to his crew chief and his 18-month old daughter, Brittany. Disappointment filled his fading consciousness, because now he would never know what her first word to her father would be.
Scarecrow thought about his life. The “flashing before your eyes” you were supposed to experience just before you died. Only disjointed failures played out in his mind. His whole life had been an ongoing attempt to protect people. That was why he joined the Air Force – to protect his loved ones and his country from their enemies. However, as he relived the key events of his life in his injured mind, he realized he’d failed to achieve his lifegoal. He thought of Sam. Of Chrissy. Both disasters of his own making. Add to that the loss of a wingman, not to mention the failure of this current mission. Other pilots would have to take up the slack and complete it. The mess he would leave behind was much larger than the burning debris field surrounding him.
Scarecrow rejected the survival instinct screaming at him to fight to stay alive. His body relaxed. It was better this way. Just let go – no more mistakes, no more failures. No more Sam’s, no more Chrissies, no more Retros, no more intact Tallie weapons’ caches. The world would be better off without him. Hopefully, on the other side there would be no more guilt, no more life and death responsibilities. He longed to be free from the over- whelming remorse that had haunted him for so long.
The irony wasn’t lost on him. Even though he was a combat pilot, Scarecrow hadn’t thought much about death. At least not about his own death. This was not the way he imagined he would die. He figured he would be shot out of the sky in a blaze of glory, his demise instantaneous. No time to think about anything. Yet here he was, lying flat on his back in northern Afghanistan, unable to move, the pungent odor of hawthorn and burning jet fuel stinging his nostrils as the first rays of the morning rose above the eastern peaks, setting flight to the stars above.
Though Scarecrow was no longer fighting to remain conscious, his ears still rang, and his head felt like it would explode. He took one last look up at the sky that had been his refuge and home for so many years before casting himself into the arms of the angels who would convey him to his eternal reward. But like everything else today, that didn’t go as planned, either. In fact, he was convinced he must be hallucinating.
In the sky above him, a shadowy shape appeared from nowhere. Unlike angels with white wings illuminated by the Shekinah glory of God, this angel, if that’s what it was, was dark. Black. Triangular. Silhouetted against the night’s fading stars, it had a white light at each of its three outer points and a larger red light in the center.
That’s got to be the most unusual angel anyone has ever seen. Perhaps I’m not going up. Maybe I’m headed in the other direction. Fitting, consid- ering the failure that was my life.
It hovered more than 50 feet in the air, spinning ever so slowly. Even though he knew it was too far away, he stretched a hand toward it. Then, as his lids became too heavy and he lost his battle to keep his eyes open, Scarecrow sank into a state of unconscious bliss, his arm collapsing over his chest.
Above him, the dark, triangular angel proceeded to descend.