Part of a semi-autobiographical novel concerning my active duty tour as a flyer in the USAF during the late 1970s.
FLIGHT OF THE “PHOENIX”
“The minstrel boy to the war has gone,
In the ranks of death ye shall find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him . . .”
North Test Range 1145 hrs (CDT) Tuesday 24 April 1979
The formation climbed to their assigned altitude of 5,000 feet and leveled out. The test was a series of eight racetracks, covering 40 miles per leg and roughly the same on the curves. Except for testing the Optic White/JANAF 2110, it would be a pretty routine flight, almost boring.
Except for the test, once Gibby powered that system up. Then it would cease to be routine. Then it would becomeinteresting. There was a small keypad attached to his instrument panel, and an identical on up front for Rex, and either one of them could punch in the numbered sequences that would enable Optic White to assume control of the aircraft and begin executing a series of maneuvers preprogrammed into the system’s brain, the computer mounted inside the fuselage just aft of Gibby’s cockpit. Then,theoretically, Optic White would fly the aircraft through those maneuvers for approximately one hour, the actual duration of the test.
But that was in theory. And so far, that theory hadn’t proved workable. That theory had been deeply flawed. Today’s test would settle once and for all whether the Air Force – and the US Navy – would retain the system or cancel it.
The first two racetracks would be standard, flown by Rex himself – well, he’d let Gibby fly some of it, nothing too difficult – and the remaining six would be under the guidance of the Optic White system, or HAL 9000 as Gibby had begun to refer to it, because the system seemed to possess a creeping malevolence all its own.
ThePhoenixbanked at about 45˚, and Gibby’s g-suit inflated as they took the curve at 590 mph. He checked his radar screen, just as Rex did up front, along with a quick visual scan to ensure that the other aircraft of Phoenix Flight retained their distance. The formation was loose anyway, so there’d be plenty of sky between each aircraft.
Because Gibby didn’t have to keep his eyes on the road as much as Rex did, he was able to give a longer look at the rolling South Dakota prairie spread out below them in all directions, at the browns of winter finally greening now from the recent spring rains, the stands of cottonwood trees scattered here and there about the landscape where there was a watercourse, and their course took them directly over the Cheyenne River where it forked with the Belle Fourche.
“Okay, Gib,” Rex said from up front. “Commencing first leg. Call it in.”
Gibby looked down at his map in the scrolling map case strapped to his left thigh.
“Nutmeg, Phoenix One-One,” he called Control. “Commencing first leg, over.”
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg, roger that, over,” Control replied.
It would take about fifteen minutes flying time at current airspeed to reach the next turn. ThePhoenixrolled gently level again. Gibby looked back, over his left shoulder. Phoenix ThreeandPhoenix Fourwere in their correct positions, and a glance right told him that Iron Mike Scanlon was just pulling into his slot slightly aft.
“Formation looks good, Rex,” he reported, and made a note in the flight log after a quick time hack. His own instruments showed that everything was normal. He then looked over to his left, at the access plates. It made him feel a lot more confident seeing those screws instead of bolts. He thought of Amy, down at the track shack, monitoring the flight on radar. For most of the flight they’d be in visual range, but on the extreme eastern curve they would be out of sight for roughly ten minutes before their return leg would bring them back under direct observation again.
He breathed in the rubber and metallic flavored heated air through his oxygen mask. They were flying low enough that they didn’t need oxygen, but he kept his mask on anyway, at least for now. The aircraft banked again into its eastern curve.
“Gib, when we come out of this turn, I want you to take her for a while,” Rex told him.
Gibby smiled beneath his mask.
“Roger that,” he replied, grasping the joystick between his knees with his right hand, resting his left on the throttle.
“Just don’t make it too exciting, Gibby,” Rex said. “I don’t know which scares me more, that damn HAL or your flying.”
“I guess it’s a toss-up,” Gibby replied. “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”
“With you that’s always true, Slick,” Rex said. “Okay, Gib, when I tell you, you take it, and I want you to kick in the burners. Can you hold a transonic turn at Mach one point five?”
Gibby began to get excited. Rex was going to let him break Mach, fly through the sound barrier.
“I can do it,” Gibby assured him, knowing he could. He’d done it before, and faster than Mach 1.5. Hell, he’d done 1.5 in a T-38 several times, and twice now in the F-15.
“Oh, thought I’d tell you,” Rex said. “I saw Papa-Mike-Bravo down by the track shack before we left.”
Gibby blinked. Papa-Mike-Bravo was phonetic code for Patti the Mystery Babe. As their words were going out over the speakers down on the ground, he realized why Rex had used it. He’d’ve probably used it anyway, but still . . .
“Still think you can hold that turn, Gib?”
Gibby could hear the grin in Rex’s voice, and knew why he’d given him that particular bit of intel. He was being Rex, testing him, seeing if he could rattle him. Telling him that his ex-girlfriend was watching him.
“Bring it on, O’Halloran,” Gibby told him. “Hey, d’you know why God invented the wheelbarrow, Rex?”
There was a pause from up front.
“Okay, Gib, this is a new one,” he finally spoke. “Y’got me. I’m game.”
“So you thickheaded Micks could stand upright.”
Again there was a pause. Then, there came a barked laugh over Gibby’s headphones.
“Not bad, Gibby me boy,” Rex replied. “But remember, you’re half-Irish.”
“Then half of me can stand upright.”
“Gib, you’ve never used a wheelbarrow in your life,” Rex came back. “You’ve never done any real work in your life. You just sit around Griff’s office, read National Lampoon and gab with Amy and Sam and teach Mandy all your bad habits and I have to fly your dead butt all over South Dakota so you can draw your damn flight pay.”
“I’m gonna write a song about you tonight, Rex,” Gibby told him with a grin. “An Irish song, gonna call itThe Kickin’ of O’Halloran’s Ass.”
“Aww, Gib, I truly appreciate that. I’m really flattered that you’d do that.”
“I can’t think of a better way to show my undying gratitude and love for you, Rex.”
“You’re undying love, I hope,” Rex said. “Okay, Gib. Get ready . . . Take her, boy, she’s all yours.”
Gibby felt the joystick come alive in his hand as Rex relinquished control. ThePhoenixwobbled a bit but he brought her out of the turn and got her level and on her correct course.
“Phoenix Flight, Phoenix One-One,” Rex’s voice came over his headphones as he informed the other three aircraft of the change of pilots. “Be advised, this crazy Orangeman’s got control of the aircraft. I hope your GI life insurance is up to date.”
“Oh crap, I’m buggin’ out,” Scanlon’s voice came over the headphones.
Gibby glanced to his right and back. He saw Scanlon’s helmeted head in his cockpit looking over at him, then give him a thumbs up.
He eased the throttle forward and watched the airspeed indicator come up, past 600 . . .
“Full power, Gib,” Rex told him.
Again, Gibby moved the throttle forward, his left index finger just below the lift switch that would dump JP5 avtag into the hot engine exhausts. The airspeed began inching upward. As thePhoenixapproached 700 mph indicated and transonic speed, they experienced some mild buffeting caused by compressibility of the control surfaces.
Rex’s voice came easily over his headphones.
“Put the spurs to her, Gib,” it commanded.
Gibby flicked the fingerlift and shoved the throttle forward, firmly but gently, just as Rex taught him. The afterburners exploded and hurled thePhoenixthrough the sky westwards, shoving him back into his seat. The Mach meter moved upwards and then he experienced that slightflutteringsensation in his stomach as the aircraft burst through the sound barrier.
Amy had been listening to every word spoken by Gibby and Rex. When they heard the code phrasePapa-Mike-Bravo, she smiled and heard Sam and Mandy laugh. A quick glance at Patti told her the woman didn’t understand what it meant, but then again it had been Rex who coined the term Patti the Mystery Babe to begin with.
She looked up at the sky just slightly to the north. The four aircraft were plainly visible, as five thousand feet isn’t that high, relatively speaking. As soon as she heard Rex tell Gibby to go transonic, she tensed. Then, as she watched, the lead aircraft seemed to leap ahead of the others, and they followed a scant second later. The moment they passed directly over and to the north everyone heard the first loudcrack-BANG!, followed closely after byBANG BANG BANGin such rapid succession that instead of a single sonic boom it sounded like one drawn out series of explosions that rumbled slowly earthward.
The aircraft were also producing contrails, which normally only occur at much higher altitudes, but will form lower down if atmospheric conditions are just right as condensation is formed by warmer metal in contact with colder air.
But something unexpected and truly spectacular occurred as well, a phenomenon known as a Prandtl-Glauert singularity, which is a large, flat slightly cone-shaped condensation cloud generated by a transonic flyby. It didn’t last long but it produced a mass “Ahhhhhhh!!”and applause from the gathered spectators, as if they’d just seen a truly magnificent starshell airburst at a Fourth of July fireworks display.
“D’you wish you were up there with him?”
She turned. Patti was standing next to her, her eyes on the sky.
“Yes, I do,” Amy answered quite truthfully.
“I know what you mean,” Patti told her after a moment.
Griff and Colonel Bannerman had come over and were now standing with them. When they got there and saw Patti, they both exchanged bewildered looks, but neither said anything except a polite hello.
“Well,” Griff glanced at his watch, and Mitch the Bitch did likewise. “The fun part’s about over. It’s gonna get real here in just a very little bit.”
The crews of the two grey-painted Hueys from the Search and Rescue Detachment started moving toward their slicks to stand by.
Mandy put her hand again on Amy’s shoulder.
He’s got a Plan, Amy reminded herself as she watched those four shapes streak off to the west trailing their sonic thunder rumbling behind them.
Up ahead, to the west, the dark smudge across the horizon told Rex he was looking at the Black Hills. A slight turn of his head to the right and he saw Bear Butte, that large magma cone left over from an eruption millions of years earlier rearing above the earth to the northwest.
A low, thin scud had moved in from the west, and was floating along translucently below them and to the northwest, moving slowly but non-threateningly. Rex didn’t think it would cause any problems for the ground observers watching with binoculars or the naked eye.
They were rapidly approaching the western curve of the racetrack.
“Okay, Gibby,” he spoke into his mask. “Ease her back just a skosh. You know how to do this.”
“That’s a rodge,” Gibby acknowledged.
Rex had to admit that he enjoyed flying with Gib. The guy brought his exuberance into the air with him, reminding Rex why he’d started flying in the first place 13 years earlier.
He kept his hand near the joystick but not on it. As they approached the turn, he was about to remind Gibby to begin slowing her down, but Gibby did it on his own and shut down the burners, easing the throttle back at the same time.
Good man,he thought, smiling approvingly.
Gibby rolled thePhoenixinto the turn, almost as if he’d been born doing it. The turn evolved into a 90˚ bank, perpendicular to the horizon as the aircraft swept around its arc, mini-contrails trailing from its wingtips.
Oh God this is GREAT!Gibby exulted, feeling thePhoenixalive around him, through the joystick he could sense its vitality, itslife.
“Gib, that was pretty damn good,” he heard Rex compliment him.
“Thanks,” he replied quietly. As it curved toward the eastern leg once more, he very gently rolled it level and cut thrust at the same time. The IAS began dropping. Flying straight and level again, Gibby looked at the digital clock on his instrument panel, and saw it was just about time for the actual work to begin.
Reluctantly, he gave thePhoenixback to Rex.
“Okay, I’m giving her back,” he said reluctantly.
As Rex took the joystick, he could hear the regret in his friend’s voice.
“Don’t worry, Gib,” Rex told him. “We’ll do this again. It’s your job, after all.”
“Best job I ever had in my life,” Gibby replied wistfully.
“Okay, go ahead, prepare to power HAL up,” Rex said, then reported to Control, “Nutmeg, Phoenix One-One, were are preparing to power up Optic White, say again, we are preparing to power up Optic White, acknowledge, over.”
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg, copy that, powering up Optic White, over.”
“Phoenix Flight, Phoenix One, okay boys, we’re gonna do this,” Rex told the other members of the flight. “Back it off a skosh, and follow briefing. Acknowledge, over.”
One by one, the other three aircraft acknowledged and began spreading out a little, dropping their speed. When they were roughly three-quarters of a mile behindPhoenix, the throttles came up again, to match speed with the test aircraft.
Rex took a deep breath.
“Okay, Gibby,” he said. “Bring HAL online.”
Gibby looked at the arming panel and keypad. Shaking his head, he removed the leather glove from his right hand. His first task would be to punch in the code sequence on the keypad, which would be the same course they’d been flying manually, while Rex did the same with his.
“Entering sequence,” Gibby informed Rex, then, his checklist in his left hand, he began entering the 16 numbers on the keypad. He double checked it with his list. Everything was correct. “Sequence entered. Confirm.”
Rex confirmed that his sequence code was entered as well.
A small green light came on at the top of the keypad. It told both men that their entries were identical. The information was relayed electronically to the comm center on the ground. They called back a few seconds later to confirm that the sequence was indeed correct, matching their system.
Gibby swallowed. He slipped the glove back on his hand.
“Okay, Rex, here goes.”
He flipped up the red plastic switch cover that would power up the main Optic White. Because of previous experience, he hesitated a second, then flipped the switch to “Arm”. Another green light winked to life on his panel.
“System is enabled,” Gibby reported. “Say again, system is enabled and powered up.”
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg, that’s affirmative,” Control replied. “We are showing Optic White as online and operational, over.”
“Okay, HAL,” Gibby spoke as if the system could actually hear him. The way it had been acting, who the hell knew? It actuallymightbe able to hear him. “You behave now, just like you’re supposed to, just like Dr. Chandra programmed you and I won’t have to unplug you.”
Rex took his hand off the joystick. ThePhoenixshuddered slightly, and kept flying straight and level. He knew the whole concept was similar to an autopilot, but no autopilot he was familiar with had ever displayed an almost sinister intelligence like this system did. Gibby’s nickname for it seemed more than appropriate.
The only control either man retained was throttle control.
“Approaching first turn,” Gibby reported, checking his small map and radar.
“Yeah, Gib, I know,” Rex drawled back. “The ‘Caution Tight Curve’ sign hangin’ up ahead kinda clued me in.”
Gibby chuckled, and unclipped his mask, letting it hang from the side of his helmet.
The turn was on them soon enough, andPhoenixbanked right at 45 degrees. Both men tensed, hands poised automatically near the firing handles of their ejection seats.
But then the first turn was completed and they were leveling out and heading west toward the Black Hills once again. Neither man spoke, not yet.
Gibby’s eyes on his instruments told him that their indicated airspeed was 580 mph, just ten miles per hour above normal cruising speed. He noted the time and made a note in the flight log. The prairie unrolled below as Gibby watched.
“Approaching western curve,” Rex’s voice told him.
“Roger,” Gibby put his mask up to his face and acknowledged.
“Gibby, make a note,” Rex said. “Inform South Dakota department of roads and skies that they need to put another damn sign up here. I almost missed this one.”
“Rex, you wouldn’t’ve been able to read it anyway,” Gibby told him with a grin.
“That’s why I have you along, to read it for me.”
“Okay, I want you to open your checklist,” Gibby smiled. “Y’got it? Now inside the cover I wrote out your next remedial reading lesson. D’you see it? I want you to read it to me.”
There was a short pause.
“Um, it says ‘See Rex. See Rex fly. See Rex fly him and Gibby into that mountain up ahead. See Rex say ‘What the fuck, over?’ See Gibby bitch and give an appropriate quotation from Shakespeare’.”
“Very good, Rex,” Gibby grinned. “Once again, I’m proud of you.”
On the ground, most of those listening in laughed as well, except for the chief controller, who was about to get on the radio and tell them to observe correct radio procedure, but Griff stopped him.
“Let ‘em talk if they want,” he commanded. “They’ll use correct procedure when they have to.”
“Y’know,” Bannerman pulled a stick of gum from the pocket of his flightsuit. “The way those two go at it, they kinda remind me of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in those old movies.”
“Yeah, but who’s who?” Griff asked, his eyes following the aircraft.
“I think they switch off,” Bannerman shrugged. Like Griff, he was watching his airmen up in the sky.
“I see those two haven’t changed at all,” Patti observed after hearing the exchange between Gibby and Rex.
“No,” Sam smiled, her eyes on the sky. “If they did, I don’t know what we’d do.”
“Us?” Mandy asked. “What the hell wouldtheydo?
“Scenes from Shakespeare,” Amy suggested with a shrug.
Mandy raised the binoculars she’d snagged and focused in on the four aircraft, concentrating on the lead aircraft.
C’mon, you guys, she thought. You’re almost half done. Get it done and come on back.
The speakers buzzed. Rex’s voice crackled out.
“Nutmeg, Phoenix One-One, commencing second leg. All systems green, say again all systems green, over.”
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg, roger that, over,” the controller replied.
Ted Reynolds, one of the three tech reps from Avionetics allowed into the command and control area to monitor signals relayed from thePhoenixto their equipment on the ground. Wearing his old sage green nomex flight jacket, he stood with one of the Air Force avionics techs, a senior airman, watching the screen that told him, in a sense, what Optic White was doing, what signals it was sending to the onboard computer system. So far, everything had gone smoothly, just as it was designed.
“You think it might work this time, Mr. Reynolds?”
“Well, it’s looking good so far,” Reynolds told him.
He looked up at the blue sky, watching the four aircraft zipping along. They were now nearly three-quarters of the way through their eastern leg and approaching the curve of the racetrack. For a moment, he remembered his own time as a blue suiter, flying F-101s and RF-101s in the mid-sixties and one tour in Vietnam. Those aircraft were two-seaters, and he’d always flown with a backseater. So he well understood the thought process of the two men, Rex O’Halloran and Gibby Patterson, who were flying the test. He understood their closeness, but those two weretight. In a way, he envied them, for he’d never developed that kind of rapport with any of his backseaters.
He just happened to look away from the sky and back at the screen when he saw it, and it was only there for maybe half a second.
“What the hell was that?” he frowned, and leaned over the Airman’s shoulder, his eyes on the screen.
“What was what?” the Airman asked.
“It looked like a pulse,” Reynolds said, and pointed at the screen. “About right there, on the mainframe guidance circuit.”
The Airman peered at the screen. “Well, whatever it was, it’s not there now.”
The light panel still glowed green.
“It might be a glitch in the system,” the Airman suggested. “Do you want me to run a diagnostic? It’ll take about five minutes.”
Reynolds thought about it. There was an identical console right next to them.
“Yeah, go ahead, do it now,” Reynolds told him, stepping over to the adjacent console and its tech. “Did you just see a small pulse from the mainframe guidance circuits?” he asked the second technician.
“No sir, I didn’t,” the operator, another Airman, told him.
Reynolds frowned deeply. He watched the screen and its light panel for another minute, then shrugged. Maybe it was just a glitch, a small burp in the system. At least he hoped that’s all it was.
Then, the speakers came to life, and it was Gibby’s voice, speaking quickly, and it soundedconcerned.
It sent a freezing chill up and down Amy’s spine.
They had just about reached the eastern curve when thePhoenixshuddered all through its airframe, then it shook once again, and settled down.
Jesus Christ,Gibby suddenly thought.
“Was that just turbulence buffeting?” he raised his mask and asked.
Naturally, Rex had felt it too.
“Yeah, I think that’s what it was,” Rex replied. He looked at his own small console and keyboard for Optic White/HAL. But it told him nothing. “Gib, check your readouts, is everything still in the green?”
“Roger that,” Gibby replied after a moment. “Yeah, everything’s checking out back here. It probably was just turbulence.”
That’s probably what it was, Rex concluded, as thePhoenixwas flying normally once again. But he remembered too well that those two Phantoms he and Gibby had punched out of had experienced violent buffeting before they became uncontrollable, and Pete Brown had reported wild shaking before he augured in last week.
“Well, make a note of it anyway, Gibby,” Rex said.
“Roger,” Gibby answered.
Rex glanced at his leg map, then his radar screen, the two video targeting screens.
“Gibby, check your radars,” Rex said. “Do you have anything that looks like a temperature inversion?”
“Ah, negative,” Gibby replied. “Besides, you know as well as I do thattemperature inversionis just what the damn Air Force calls a UFO. It’s all a cover-up, Rex, and if I saw one it would be a flying saucer.”
Rex smiled. Knowing full well that their voice transmissions were being listened to over loudspeakers down on the ground, he wondered just what those Pentagon pukes were thinking as they heard Gibby give his opinion on the official USAF policies concerning UFOs.
“Okay, so you’re not showing any flying saucers,” he said. “Your screens are clear?”
“Roger that,” Gibby agreed.
For a moment, he thought about calling the other aircraft in the flight, but decided against it. Depending on the sensitivity of the receivers, and he knew that avionics had calibrated all the radars in every aircraft to the finest, hair-triggered degree possible, a weak inversion or even a cloud would show up faintly.
So it had to be turbulence caused by wind. There were no heavy clouds or thunderstorms in the area anymore, they’d all moved east and southeast last night, so he ruled out wind shear as a possibility.
“Gibby,” he spoke into his mask. “We’re coming up on the eastern curve. Just . . . Just be ready, okay?”
“Ready for what, Rex?” There was a long pause, and it connected. “Roger that. I read you five-by.”
“You’re a lot smarter than you look,” Rex grinned.
“Too bad you aren’t,” Gibby replied. “What would you do if you didn’t have me to think for you, Rex?”
“Yeah, but I also know that shit rolls downhill, Gib,” Rex said. “You got Amy on your ass, so you pass it along to me. You’re a madman, Gib, she’s the only one who can control you. And don’t tell me you wear the pants in your family, I’ve seen you wearing that kilt too many times, buddy. She just lets youthinkyou’re in charge. You’re a real Napoleon until she gets you home and behind closed doors then it’sokay, Gibby dearest, will your soul to the Lord, ‘cause your ass belongs to me, now.”
“Oh yeah?” Gibby came back. “Well, you’re dumb, I win.”
Rex laughed outright.
“Y’got real cute knees, Gibby,” Rex continued to grin.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the lights on the Optic White panel blink red for just a second, then returned to a steady green.
“Hey, Rex,” Gibby’s voice sounded in his headphones. “I just got a red light, then it turned green again.”
There was no obvious worry in Gibby’s voice.
“Yeah, it did that up here, too,” Rex replied. He frowned. They were now coming out of their turn and the aircraft was flying straight and level again, westward. Everything seemed absolutely normal. “Well, if we ran a red light it was real quick and it turned green fast enough. So we could probably talk our way out of any ticket some cop on the ground with a radar gun might give out.”
“Quit being funny, Rex, that’s my job,” Gibby snapped. “D’you think I should shut it down?”
Rex thought hard about this.
“She’s flying normally, Gib,” he replied. “I say we give it a while longer.”
There was a long pause from the backseat.
“Yeah, I concur,” Gibby finally replied, albeit reluctantly. “It may just be a glitch.Let’s stick with it, at least for now.”
From the way Gibby said it, Rex knew he said it to convince himself.
Well that’s good, ‘cause I need convincing too.
Amy blushed slightly at hearing her name like that. And just about everybody who worked at the Center, in both Admin and Flight Ops knew that she and Gibby were married. But she smiled nonetheless, especially at Rex’s implication thatsheactually ran things, which wasn’t completely true, and it wasn’t completely false, but it pleased her nonetheless.
“Well, I’d say they’re about even,” Mandy said. “After a strong beginning, Gibby’s kinda fallen back and Rex has nosed into first place.”
“No,” Sam disagreed. “Gibby’s still ahead by a few points.”
Amy laughed. “My money’s still on Gibby.”
“Yeah, Mandy,” Sam grinned at her. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”
The aircraft were passing overhead and to the west again, just north of where they stood watching them.
“You don’t really like Rex that much, do you,” Patti almost whispered to Amy while Sam and Mandy were talking amongst themselves.
Amy looked at her.
“I didn’t at first, no,” Amy said. Then, she shrugged. “But after I got to know him, he was easier to take. Besides, he’s Gibby’s best friend, and he’s been good to both of us.”
“He approves of you,” Patti told her, then shook her head. “If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be praising you like he just did, especially in public like that. He never cared for me.”
What was it Rex had said that one time, about Patti, when she’d finally got Gibby to talk about her?Yeah, Gib, I saw her comin’.
But Amy didn’t say anything. Why should she?
Ted Reynolds began to feel a lot of doubts and then some worry just as soon as the two men in thePhoenixbegan talking about buffeting, and even more so when they’d mentioned the red light.
By now, the diagnostic had been completed on the first signal console. But there had been no other pulses reported.
He looked over, across the small group of personnel, many of them from the main Air Force test centers, who had come to watch, to observe, and if necessary, condemn, depending on the outcome of today’s flight. On the fringe, not quite a part of this inner group, were his colleagues from Avionetics, headed by Williams, whom he personally did not like, and whose instructions he had assiduously ignored. They were upset at him because he had been allowed in to provide tech support, because they trusted him, especially the two men in that aircraft upstairs right now, and Reynolds figured that his days at Avionetics were numbered but that was alright, he had submitted his résumé to Boeing and – at the urging of General Thompson – to Northrop, because he’d been told the latter had a very interesting project in the works. Thompson had also let slip an interesting bit, that he was thinking of asking Gibby Patterson to help out on an occasional basis, and when Reynolds had asked why, Thompson had merely shrugged and said “Because the kid loves the old YB-49 Flying Wing” and then he’d say no more.
But he had to get through this, first. And do everything he could to make sure nothing happened to those two men up there. That damn odd pulse was troubling him, and now the red light appearing for the blink of an eye on their control panels was something else.
A warm breeze had come up. It was turning into a perfect spring day, and the atmosphere had gone from a little tense – caused by last week’s accident – to almost festive, brought about primarily by the banter of the two men who were flying the test. Reynolds knew that as flyers they were well aware of the Air Force’s stricture against excessive radio chatter, he’d heard them observe it in the past. But he supposed that because of what they were doing, the potential they faced, they’d decided that being laconic didn’t apply to them, at least today.
They were halfway into their third racetrack when a transmission came over the speakers. It was Gibby’s voice, and it was calm, but there was some urgency in it.
“Ah, Nutmeg, Phoenix One-One, we are experiencing . . .major buffeting, say again, we just experienced a major . . . buffeting.”
Reynolds felt a cold certainty arise from his stomach.
“Mr. Reynolds,” the Airman sitting at the first console said. “There was just a large pulse from the main circuit.”
Reynolds turned and looked at the large oscilloscope-like screen just in time to see another glowing pulse crawl across the center of the screen.
“Holy shit,” he said.
Then another one followed it, and he knew they were in trouble. Again.
ThePhoenixshuddered violently through its entire length. Had it not been for the straps on his ejection seat and lap belt, Gibby would’ve been tossed rather violently around the cockpit.
He fumbled with reclipping his oxygen mask, but finally got it.
“You can’t tell me that’s goddam turbulence,” he said once the shaking had died down.
“It’s not,” Rex replied.
Then, the shaking receded, and the aircraftseemedto regain its equilibrium.
Gibby looked around the cockpit, then at the Optic White panel.
“What the fuck happened?” Rex was asking from the front.
“I have no idea,” Gibby told him. “I’m gonna shut this goddam thing down.”
“Concur, Gib. Kill it.”
Gibby’s hand went out to the master switch, and clicked it down, disarming the system, shutting itoff. One by one the lights on his panel went dark.
“System is disabled, lights are off,” he said into his mask.
There was a silence from the front cockpit, and thePhoenixcontinued flying straight and level.
“Gib, I have negative elevator control, the stick is not responding. Try yours.”
Gibby wrapped his gloved hand around the handle of his joystick, and pulled it back slightly.
Nothing. The aircraft remained on course. He tried left, right, up, down, with the same result.
“Negative,” he said, keeping his voice calm. He’d been through this before. “Okay, I’m engaging the master override.”
He snapped the switch cover up, then flipped the switch.
“Override’s engaged,” he reported. “Try it now.”
“Negative,” Rex responded after a couple of seconds. “Control functions are negative.”
The aircraft shuddered again, right through its central axis, then once again, it calmed down.
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg,” came the voice of Control. “Please give status update and report, over.”
“Phoenix One-One, Phoenix One-Two,” Mike Scanlon was calling them. “What’s going on? You guys are shaking like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Brevity! Brevity!” Control ordered cessation of all but absolutely necessary radio traffic. “Phoenix One-One, state condition, over.”
“Ah, Nutmeg, Phoenix One-One,” Gibby reported automatically, though it should’ve been Rex who did so. “We are experiencing severe and violent buffeting. We have shut down Optic White system, and engaged override, but pilot cannot, say again, cannot regain effective control of aircraft.”
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg, do you wish to declare an emergency, over?”
This was something Gibby couldn’t answer.
ThePhoenixwas banking now on its eastern curve.
“Phoenix One-One, are you declaring an emergency at this time, over?”
The aircraft came out of its banking turn and headed west once more, again flying straight and level. Rex looked to his right, out and down toward the base and the flightline which he could see, then ahead, and then to his left. The thin, nearly translucent scud was still moving south. He checked all of his instruments. All the lights on HAL’s (he’d started calling it that himself) were coldly black.
“Negative,” he replied. “Ah, Nutmeg, we are not, say again, we are not declaring an emergency at this time, over.”
“Stand by one,” Nutmeg’s voice crackled, then was cut off by a click like the crack of doom as the mike key was released.
“Okay, Gib,” he said. “Do you think it’s about time for your master plan?”
In the back, Gibby’s instruments were reading identical to Rex’s. A thought occurred to him. He pressed his foot lightly on the right rudder pedal.
ThePhoenixyawed slightly right.
“Rex, we’ve got rudder control,” he reported. “Try yours.”
“Is that what that was? Stand by.”
ThePhoenix’s nose swung right again a little.
“Well, we have rudder control and thrust control,” Rex’s voice was dry. “But without elevators we can’t do a lot, Gibby. Nice try though. Uh, how about that plan of yours?”
Gibby let out a long breath, then unzipped the top of his ejection harness, and squirmed his hand inside the upper left pocket of his flightsuit. It brushed against Amy’s note and her picture, he could feel the screwdriver. But his glove prevented him from grasping it, it had slid down across the bottom of his pocket.
“Son of a bitch!” he said, withdrawing his hand, and peeling off the glove that Mitch the Bitch had given him that morning. Thrusting the glove between his legs, he tried again.
“Anytime now, Gibby,” Rex was saying.
“Just a damn second!” Gibby practically snarled.
His fingers touched the screwdriver, and he was able to work it up and out. He transferred it to his left hand, and leaning forward as far as he could, he fitted it into the upper right-hand screw head, and began twisting.
True to his word, Andy had attached it loosely, for the screw came out easily. Without even thinking about it he put it in the pocket of his flightsuit, and went after the next.
As soon as Amy heard that first broken transmission about the buffeting, she stopped, and looked up. ThePhoenix, with the other three aircraft trailing by roughly a half-mile, was streaking eastward, toward its eastern curve. But she didn’t worry, and then she heard Gibby and Rex both determine that it was turbulence and she didn’t think any more about it.
But then, a few minutes later there was a second transmission, and this one was scary, the buffeting was worse. She heard Gibby and Rex’s voices increase in pitch, and she could tell that while they weren’t scared or even worried, they soundedagitated.
“I don’t like this,” Mandy said quietly.
“I don’t either,” Patti agreed.
Amy glanced sideways at Mandy and Sam. Their faces were set, expressionless, as they watched the lead aircraft. From this distance, they couldn’t see anything outwardly wrong, they couldn’t see it shaking.
“It’s doing it again,” Mandy said. “That goddam thing. If I see that fucker Williams, if he comes around here, I’m gonna rip his goddam balls off.”
“He doesn’t have any,” Sam told her.
Amy shook her head. She didn’t feel any fear. At least not yet. But her throat was suddenly dry.
“He’ll be okay,” she found herself saying. “They’ll both be okay.”
Mandy took her hand, her fingers encircling Amy’s, gave them a firm squeeze, then released it.
Sam agreed. At least she thought she did. Her saga didn’t seem that amusing anymore, but in one of those perverse processes of thought, it began to unroll again in her mind.
With a clash of arms and a mighty shout that shook the earth and threatened to rend the Heavens themselves, the great battle was joined. The Valiant Sir Gibby the Smartass and the Brave Sir Rex spurred their noble steed, thePhoenixinto the fight, ordering their boon companions, The Bold Fenian Men to remain behind lest their blood be spilt as well. But they, along with the Good King Griff, and Sir Gibby’s good lady wife, the lovely Princess Amy Elizabeth, the Fair Princess Amanda, the beautiful Princess-Regent Samantha, and yea, even the Lady Patti The Mystery Babe, though greatly stoic, did feel trepidation great as the fight was joined, and it did cause the very vault of the sky to tremble and shudder . . .
Sam closed her eyes and shook her head.
If I’m gonna write that goddam thing, she thought,then it damn well better have a happy ending.
She glanced over to where Griff stood with Mitch Bannerman. He looked at her briefly, then turned away.
Gibby attacked the second screw. It came away easily, just as the first one did, then went after the third, which was attached to the center of the access plate.
“How you coming, Gib?” Rex asked, and although he sounded unhurried, Gibby could hear a slightlyuneasy tone in his voice, even over the intercom.
“I’m working on –”
ThePhoenixagain shuddered, itshookviolently, the worst buffeting yet, it slammed Gibby to the left, his body tugged against his harness straps and he involuntarily loosened his grip on the screwdriver.
It fell from his fingers, hit his left knee, balanced there for a second and he grabbed for it but then it slipped off and down to the deck, somewhere below his boots and beneath the rudder pedals.
“Son of afuck!” he snarled and closed his eyes.
“Gib, what’s the matter?” Rex asked.
“I dropped the goddam screwdriver!” Gibby spat. “It fell between the rudder pedals.”
The aircraft settled down again.
“Can you reach it?”
Without answering, Gibby leaned forward as far as he could and looked down. He didn’t see the damn thing anywhere, even moving his booted feet off the pedals showed him nothing.
He sat back, and the aircraft shook again.
But this time it did something different. The strong vibration caused the nose to veer left, and the aircraft began to bank, off it’s preprogrammed course, it started to come around in a circle, and Rex realized they’d be heading right back toward the rest of Phoenix Flight.
“Phoenix One-One to Phoenix Flight, get the fuck outta here, this thing’s outta control for real. Break and clear out! Now now now!”
The others didn’t understand at first what he was talking about until they saw the F-15 swing around and head back for the formation. At their converging speeds and the relative close distance a collision with somebody was imminent.
Phoenix 3 and 4 broke left and went streaking away, back toward the Center while Phoenix 2 with Mike Scanlon at the wheel hesitated.
Godammit Mike!Rex swore to himself and grabbed the stick in an impotent effort to yank the aircraft away, but it did no good.
Rex could do no more than stare as Phoenix Two headed right for them.
Then he remembered what Gibby had told him, and stamped hard on the right rudder pedal.
ThePhoenix’s nose swung right just a skosh and Scanlon finally realized his error and jerked his aircraft to his right.
The two F-15s streaked by each other at a scant 30 feet, so close that they were both buffeted by the other’s jetwash.
“What the fuck was that?” Gibby demanded from behind him.
“Just a little near-fender bender,” Rex replied, feeling the sudden surge of adrenalin start to ebb, but not that much. He did let out his breath, however. “Did you get that screwdriver?”
“Negative,” Gibby told him. “I can’t even see the damn thing.”
Rex thought hard about the situation.
“Gibby,” he said. “I think we’re gonna have to punch out.”
“Just wait, okay?” Gibby responded. “I’m not done yet. Just wait.”
Goddammit Gibby!Rex swore internally. The aircraft was now heading to the northwest, in the direction of Bear Butte, about fifty miles distant.
“This is Rex,” he spoke into his mask, forgetting radio protocol and code designators. “You guys clear out, head on back, you can’t do anything for us, and the way this damn thing’s acting up, I don’t wanna chance another damn near-collision. Get outta here. We’ll be okay.”
“You sure, Rex?” Scanlon asked.
“Take ‘em on back, Mike,” Rex told him. “And you better have that whiskey ready for us when we get down.”
“Roger that,” Scanlon replied. “Good luck, you guys. We’ll see you when you get down.”
Rex closed his eyes for a second.
Gibby unclipped his mask again, and started twisting the halfway loosened center screw. It took him a few seconds, but it fell away just like the others. He took in a deep breath, and went after the fourth with his fingers. It was tedious, but started to come out, and his fingers would slip or the aircraft would start shaking and he’d have to start over again, but he kept at it.
ThePhoenixlurched, and began banking gently right, moving now toward the northeast, but this time it changed pitch, the nose was pointed earthwards, heading in the direction of the town of Dupree on State Highway 212.
Rex should’ve been able to see the town in the distance, but the scud was in the way, and he caught only glimpses of the ground through it’s near-opacity.
“Gibby, we’re gonna have to get outta here now,” Rex said. And then he said something he’d never said to Gibby. “And that’s an order, Sergeant.”
There was no answer from Gibby. Rex couldn’t even turn and look back, to see what his friend was doing, just that partial glimpse in the small mirror of his backseater’s helmeted head bent over, his harness prevented it and Gibby’s instrument panel would’ve blocked his view anyway. If he had to, he knew that he could punch out at any time just by pulling the twin yellow handles on the sides of his seat, the canopy would blow off and he’d be propelled into the air by the explosive charge beneath the seat.
But he also knew that there was no way in hell he would leave Gibby alone in that aircraft to ride it in.
“Did you hear me, Gib?”
Again, no answer.
“Gibby, answer me.”
In the back, Gibby was engrossed in a series of quick thoughts.
He unbuckled the web belt across his chest, and unzipped his harness all the way. He felt around the right side of his survival vest until his hand closed around the hilt of his survival knife. He unsnapped the leather keeper around the top and pulled it from its scabbard.
“Okay, Rex, hang on,” he reclipped his mask. “I think I got this fucker. Just give me two minutes, okay?”
“Gibby, I don’t know if we have two minutes. We’ve changed attitude and we’re headed for the ground, buddy.”
“Just two minutes, Rex,” Gibby repeated. “Just give me two goddam minutes.”
Then, just so he’d have more freedom of movement, he unbuckled his harness from the seat and leaned forward. He was no longer attached to the ejection seat or the parachute mounted on the headrest.
He grasped the knife, a USMC K-Bar with an eight inch blade, in his right hand, and then, just to make sure he didn’t losethathe looped the rawhide thong threaded through the hilt around his wrist. Using the blade, he started to pry open the loosened part of the access plate.
Everyone had seen the near mid-air collision; it caused an involuntary gasp from most of the onlookers, including Amy.
It was then that she began to worry, to feel doubt creep up from her stomach.
But she felt nofear. Not yet, anyway. Except the fear that shewouldfeel it, and worse yet, show it.
Mandy was biting at her lower lip, her eyes, like Amy’s and Sam’s, never leaving thePhoenix,which was growing smaller, heading toward those thin white clouds, and she had a sudden, absurd thought, something from a book that Gibby had given her about the Bermuda Triangle, something about an airplane that had flown into a cloud and never flown out, it had just disappeared.
She looked down at the ground, at the grass that had been trampled flat by their boots
The radio transmissions were starting to become garbled as they got further away. They heard the sound of jet engines approaching as the remaining three aircraft headed back.
Griff stood silently with Mitch Bannerman. He looked over absently, to where Amy was standing with Sam, Mandy and Patti. For a moment, he was tempted to order all of them back to the hanger, to the office, but he knew he couldn’t do that.
“Get a position report,” he heard Bannerman order the controller.
“Sir,” the Safety Officer, Major Harding, came up. “At this time, I would recommend that you order them to eject. They’re heading for the town of Dupree. At their current speed and course, the aircraft willprobablymiss the town, but . . . it will impact the ground. If they punch out now, we can pick them up. But if they wait much longer . . .”
He shook his head.
The Controller gave him the position report.
“Get Search and Rescue up and out there now,” Griff ordered.
The Controller nodded, and began speaking into his mike.
“That’s if they stay on course,” Bannerman growled. He looked up, toward the F-15 growing smaller. He had a sick feeling, deep in the pit of his stomach.
Griff nodded. “Give ‘em the order to eject.”
“Yes, Sir,” the man nodded, and got on the radio. Not too far away, he could hear the turbojet engines on the SAR Hueys begin to whine. The rotors began to revolve slowly at first, gradually picking up speed as the engines warmed again and the rpms increased.
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg. Be advised, you are ordered to eject. Say again, you are ordered to eject. Search and Rescue flight is on the way. Acknowledge, over.”
They both heard the order.
“Gib,” Rex’s voice sounded over Gibby’s headphones.
“Back off the throttle, Rex, I almost got this bitch. Just give me two more minutes.”
“Gibby, I gave you two minutes six minutes ago. C’mon, buddy, we gotta get the fuck outta here.”
The plate gaped open now at the top. It wasn’t completely free, but just enough that using his knife blade and fingers, he could pry it down, it was just thin sheet metal, and it bent easily.
Then,Phoenixgave another lurch, its nose came up and it was in a banking climb.
“Well, that’s better’n heading toward the ground,” he observed, and heard Gibby laugh over his headphones.
The aircraft was climbing now, at about 60 degrees, IAS 610 mph. Gravity forced Rex back in his seat again, but not violently.
“Phoenix One-One, Nutmeg, acknowledge ejection order, over.”
“Almost there, Rex,” Gibby told him.
As soon as he’d pried the plate back, he reached down and unsnapped the slender pocket on the inside left leg of his flightsuit and pulled out his shroud knife, used to cut parachute shroud lines. It was attached by a nylon cord to a brass grommet on the pocket flap, and he hoped it reached.
“Gibby, we just got an order to eject.”
“I heard. Tell ‘em we’ll call ‘em back, Rex,” Gibby replied. Being no longer hooked in, he was able to easily reach the wiring with the knife. “Besides, I’m unhooked.”
“Oh goddammit Gibby! And you call me stupid? Jesus Christ, boy, I’m gonna set you back to fucking first grade when we get down.”
“Oh c’mon, Rex,” Gibby started to grin. “You flunked outta goddam daycare. Listen, I got the plate off, and I’m starting to cut these wires. When I tell you to, you grab that goddam stick, because you should be able to regain control of the aircraft by then. So just let me do this, okay?”
Gibby looked at the wiring, ignoring the horizon to either side, which was now at right angles to the aircraft.
Then, he slipped the hooked blade beneath the wiring, and began pulling, tugging. The wiring wasn’t that thick and the blade was razor sharp. He refused to pay attention to anything else, even thoughts of Amy which suddenly pushed their way into his mind, and he had to mentally push back very hard so they didn’t intrude, not yet, not right now.
“Okay, HAL,” he said with a grim, vengeful smile. “You’ve been a very . . .bad. . . system, and now I’m going tokillyou, you evil son-of-a-bitch.”
The first strand of wires parted like undercooked pasta.
“One down,” Gibby’s smile became grimmer as he attacked the second strand. He heard Rex’s voice over his headphones, and he paused involuntarily.
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,” he was singing in a low, slow monotone. “I’m half crazy, all for the love of you . . .”
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Well, it worked for Dave in the movie,” Rex explained, a little sheepishly. “Keep cutting those wires, Gib, I’m calling Control.”
Gibby smiled. He was feeling hopeful again. For the first time, he let himself think of Amy, but only for a moment, and he thought of the note she’d left for him, but he couldn’t afford the distraction right now, he couldn’t spare time for her or the not-quite fear that was just now trying to climb past his diaphragm.
The twin turbojet engines on the Huey SAR slicks were whining, the rotors an iridescent spinning blur. Amy watched, feeling anxious –morethan anxious – as first one, then the other lifted tail first and pulled pitch. The two helicopters turned immediately to the northwest and rose, picking up speed as they flew away, their rotors soundingwhup-whup-whup-whupas they thuttered nearly overhead, low, the downwash kicking up dust and grit, forcing everyone to shield their eyes, the noise deafening as they passed.
As the SAR slicks moved further away, they began hearing transmissions again over the speaker, but they were still garbled.
“They didn’t acknowledge the order, Sir,” the Controller told Griff.
“Try again,” Griff said brusquely. Of course they didn’t, he thought.
After the repeated order was sent out, they waited again.
“Don’t worry,” Mandy said to Amy. “He’ll be okay, I know he will.”
“He will be,” Sam affirmed, but she wasn’t so sure now.
“I know,” Amy replied, her eyes, like the others, searching the sky to the north-northeast, where they’d last been seen.
“How do you know?” Patti asked, her voice low and hesitant.
“Because Gibby has aplan,” Amy said with conviction. “And I believe him.”
“Ah, Nutmeg, Phoenix One-One, that’s a negative, say again, that’s a negative. That damn fool Gibby unhooked himself and is disabling HAL.”
Griff, Mitch, the controllers, the officers from the Test Centers all looked at each other, and they weren’t the only ones.
“Ah, Phoenix One-One, say again all after disabling, over.”
Rex’s voice came through, but it was garbled again, and then silence.
“What’s hal?” one of the officers from Nellis asked.
“HAL,” Mandy raised her voice. “HAL 9000, from the movie2001, it’s what Gibby calls that goddam piece of shit Optic White.”
Amy noticed smugly that Mandy’s words caused consternation and anger among the people from Avionetics, especially that turd Williams. He happened to glance over in her direction, and unthinkingly she raised her right hand and gave him the finger.
He reacted as if slapped, which was exactly what she was hoping for, and his colleagues saw it as well.
“Good job, Amy,” Mandy clapped her on the shoulder.
The second strand of wires separated.
“One more, Rex,” Gibby told him.
ThePhoenixwas still climbing, but its speed was decreasing as it passed 7,000 feet, it’s angle of attack now increasing to 20 degrees, nearly straight up, and Rex increased thrust to keep it from stalling. He glanced at his fuel gauges. All the flying and wild maneuvering had depleted a lot of the JP5.
“How you doing back there, Gib?”
“Almost got the last one, Rex,” Gibby’s voice sounded confident, which was good, Rex thought.
“Okay, buddy,” he said, feeling a skosh more confident himself.
In the back, Gibby wedged the blade under the last few strands of wire and cut.
They came apart easily.
“Try it, Rex,” Gibby said loudly into his mask.
Rex grasped the stick, and eased it forward.
“Shit!” he swore. But they’d come too far to quit now, so he pushed the stick forward.
The nose started to drop.
“Gib!” Rex said excitedly. “You did it! I think you did it!”
“STALL WARNING . . . STALL WARNING . . .” Bitchin’ Betty’s voice sounded over the cockpit intercom.
“No problem, Betty,” Rex grinned, moving the stick forward to bring the nose down and advancing the throttle.
“Nutmeg, Phoenix, control regained, say again, control –”
Then there was a loudBANGfrom behind them, and they both heard, very plainly, the noise of the engines winding down.
“Gibby, we’ve had a flameout,” Rex spoke urgently as the nose began to drop, then he realized Gibby hadn’t heard him,couldn’thear him, as the engines died because of the steep pitch of the aircraft, and all the power was cut, knocking out the intercom and radio as well.
ThePhoenixbegan to fall off, it didn’t have a very good glide ratio, and without power Rex lost a lot of the hydraulics that operated the control surfaces.
Their climb had taken them back in the direction of the base, and once again, observers could see them – barely – with the naked eye. But the dark grey speck grew as it got closer, and they plainly heard the sound of the jet engines.
The speakers crackled to life and they heard Rex’s voice very clearly, very exultingly.
“Gib! You did it! I think you did it!”
There was an audible gasp of relief and Amy watched the approaching F-15, feeling that same respite, only hers was much deeper than anyone else there except for the three women she was with.
“Nutmeg, Phoenix One-One, control regained, say again, control–”
The transmission ended, cut off abruptly, and shortly thereafter the jet engine noise died away and was swept off by the wind. As everyone watched, thePhoenixbegan to nose over, gently at first, then it started falling.
“Son of a bitch they’ve had a flameout,” Bannerman swore, watching the aircraft as it nosed down.
Not now,Griff said to himself, an icy feeling growing in his stomach. Not after everything that’s happened. Not FUCKING NOW!
Amy’s heart began to beat rapidly, she watched openmouthed as thePhoenixcontinued to drop, it looked like it was trying to glide without power, which she knew was next to impossible with a jet, but it looked like Rex was trying it anyway and she sent every goddam good thought she could muster up toward that aircraft and all she could think about was Gibby andwe’ve only been married six weeks why the fuck did I shame him into this . . .
Mandy was squeezing her hand but she didn’t feel it.
Then thePhoenixpassed into the scud and was lost to sight.
Rex kept tugging gently back on the joystick and decreasing the throttle. He pulled the JFS handle to begin the engine restart process, but nothing happened.
“Oh fucking shit,” he swore. Then, moved by an impulse, he raised his hand above his helmeted head, two fingers making a pulling motion.
Gibby knew immediately what had happened when he heard that bang and Rex’s voice died in med-sentence. Of course, all of his instruments and indicator lights going down as the power died was another good clue. He was in the process of rebuckling his harness when he happened to look up and forward. He saw Rex’s hand, two fingers raised, making a pulling motion.
It took him a couple of seconds, then he realized what Rex was trying to tell him.
ThePhoenixwas an F-15B, a fighter-trainer. As such, it had dual controls and could be flown from either the front or the rear cockpit.
Gibby immediately pulled his own JFS start handle. It was difficult, with the slipstream outside, but he heard that high pitched whine as the JFS started. His cockpit lights began coming back on, and his headphones buzzed to life once more.
“Rex, can you hear me? Restart the engine, the JFS is up and running!”
“Jesus Christ Gibby, don’t yell like that!” Rex damn near laughed as he moved the throttle forward again. Then they were in the thin clouds and he lost a lot of his forward visibility. He wouldn’t have time for all the damn checks, this one was gonna have to be quick and dirty. The altimeter came back up and the digital readout blinked, but the sensors mounted externally operated the standard dial altimeter, and it was unspooling fast enough.
“Hang on, Gib, this is gonna be rough,” he said, and moved the throttle over the hump and engaged the fingerlift to restart number two engine. The engine thudded to life immediately and the RPMs started coming up, past 10%, past 20, but he didn’t leave the throttle in the ‘idle’ position, he knew the engine was already warmed up so he continued to ease it forward and he was gratified to hear that old Pratt & Whitney start spooling up. The altimeter said 3,000 feet when the RPMs read 56% and throwing caution to the wind – mostly – he let number two come up to 75% and then started number one engine.
It started with a muffled detonation and the JFS began to power down.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Rex said impatiently. He was starting to see patches of prairie through the scud, and it was getting a lot closer, but he was committed now, and he refused to punch out, not now, he was gonna see this through. A cursory glance at his instrument panel told him all was not well. The indicator light for the landing gear was off, as was trim and flaps and some of the minor systems as well. The horizontal flight indicator was working, as was the altimeter, but his forward-looking TV targeting screens were also out. Minor, but in this case very important.
“Gib, check your panel,” he spoke quickly. “Do you have power for trim tabs, landing gear and flaps?”
There was a pause, then “Yeah, Rex. I show gear, flaps and trim in the green.”
Rex couldn’t help himself. He grinned and shook his head.
“Okay, buddy, listen up,” he said. “Once I get us outta this and back on course, you’re gonna have to get us back and land us. D’you copy that?”
“Are you shittin’ me?” Gibby’s voice was a shade on the incredulous side.
“Not today, Gib,” Rex boosted the thrust a little more. In a way, he understood his friend’s reticence. “You’ve done it before. But if you expect me to do my part, then I need your help.”
“Rex,” Gibby’s voice came back over his headphones, and Rex could hear the hesitation in it. “I’ve landed a Cub –”
“Look, Gibby Sergeant,” Rex snapped. “You’ve landed those big-ass Phantoms, andthisbird. I don’t have time to argue anymore. You’re gonna have to do it, and that’s all she wrote. You’ve got your screens, and I’ll be your eyes up front. But I can’t argue anymore, Gibby. You’re landing us, and that’s all there is to it.”
There was no reply from the back. Rex well knew that landing an aircraft – especially one as hot as the F-15 they were flying – was one of the most difficult parts of flying, of knowing how to fly. Well, Gibbyhaddone it. And Rex knew he could do it again.
It’s that question of faith again, he thought.
“You ready back there, Gibby?”
“Ready for what?” Gibby asked.
“Just hang on, buddy,” Rex told him. “We’re gettin’ outta here.”
He advanced the throttle, his eye on the altimeter and the airspeed. The ground was coming up awfully damn fast.
At 1,000 feet, he pulled back on the stick and moved the throttle forward, his thumb on the fingerlift for the fuel pump. As the nose came up, he opened the fuel valve.
They heard the explosion about two minutes after thePhoenixdisappeared into the cloud. It was loud, and the noise rolled over the flightline slowly and passed on.
“No,” Amy whispered, and shook her head. She closed her eyes, feeling them start to fill with tears and she swallowed. “No . . . no.”
But she refused to cry. Not here. Not in front of all these strangers.
Mandy and Sam were there, each with an arm around her.
Her mind was suddenly blank. There was nothing there, nothing at all.
Oh God,she thought. Oh God . . .
Two tears sprang from Mandy’s eyes and rolled unchecked down her cheeks.
Griff looked at the ground, then away.
“It’s over, Mitch,” he said, and looked over to where Amy, Sam and Mandy stood, all in a tight group, a huddle. Even Patti hung her head. It was heartbreaking to see.
Mitch Bannerman stood silently, looking around, out toward the north.
“Something’s not right,” he said, then looked at Griff. “That wasn’t an explosion.”
“What?” Griff looked at him.
By now, the remaining aircraft of Phoenix Flight had landed and their crews had joined those waiting at the comm center. Larry Porter came up to join them
“That wasn’t an explosion,” Bannerman repeated. “That sounded like – ”
Then they heard the low moaning rumble of jet engines approaching from the north, coming inlow.
It appeared over the tops of some trees about a mile away, moving fast but not that fast, and its gear and flaps were dumped.
It was thePhoenix, and she was coming home.
Amy looked up with the others and saw it approach. At first, she didn’t believe it, she didn’t trust what she was seeing. It was like – she didn’t know, at the moment she didn’t have any words to describe it or her emotions, but the one thing she knew she mustnotdo was start crying, not now.
“Oh my God,” Mandy blurted in a sobbing laugh. “Oh my GOD!”
Her arm went around Amy’s shoulders and pulled her tight.
Sam was laughing. Laughing and pounding Mandy on the back.
“YEAH!” they heard a booming shout and saw Colonel Bannerman rip his cunt cap from his head and throw it in the air. “Go you crazy fuckin’ Irishmen GO!”
It was a signal. The rest of the spectators began cheering and applauding and whistling.
Amy sagged. She was supported by both Mandy and Patti.
“Nutmeg, Phoenix, requesting landing instructions, over,” Rex’s voice boomed over the speakers, sounding bored, as if he didn’t have a care in the world, and oh, yeah, sorry about asking foremergencylanding instructions but . . . “Be advised, a lot of my controls are out, say again nonfunctioning, so Gibby’s bringin’ her in, over.”
Sam began to laugh with tears streaming down her face. She put her arm around Mandy and Amy.
Mandy was beaming, she cupped Amy’s face in her hands and kissed her, then turned and kissed Patti as well.
“They’re home,” she said. “They’re home.”
“Thank God,” Griff said, lowering his head briefly.
Even the Navy officers looked relieved.
Phoenixwas cleared to land immediately. It swung around, into the wind, lined up for its final and touched down with a squeal of rubber and smoke as the tires kissed the runway’s concrete, slowed, turned and taxied over with its canopy and speed brake up, and came to a slow stop. The twin engines suddenly died as Gibby cut the power and the moaning noise faded away. Andy and the ground crew swarmed out to her. The ladder was quickly put in place.
Amy saw first Rex, then Gibby descend the ladder. Both men looked exhausted. All they did was look at each other, shake their heads and grin. An indefinable feeling of relief swept over her as she watched him start walking over, Rex by his side. He carried something in his hand, but she couldn’t tell what it was. They started talking about something.
Gibby removed his helmet without breaking stride.
The Pentagon punks began a move to swarm out when a stern command from Griff ordered them back and completely out of the area.
“Why didn’t radar pick them up?” one of the techs asked.
“They were too low,” Amy told him. “But it doesn’t matter. Not now.”
She looked over and saw Father Cavanaugh talking to Larry Porter. He turned his head and saw her. He smiled gently, winked at her, and pointed up.
She smiled back, and nodded. It felt as if some kind of circle was complete.
Gibby and Rex were suddenly surrounded by the Bold Fenian Men, all slapping them on the back and congratulating them. Scanlon produced the bottle of Jameson and handed it to Rex, who took a long drink from it and passed it to Gibby, who did the same thing, then raised it to his comrades, and drank again, then gave it back to Rex.
“Good landing, Gib,” Rex told his backseater, who looked a little too preoccupied with his thoughts.
“Well, we walked away from it, and you know what they say about landings,” Gibby managed to say.
He looked over and saw Amy. He looked down almost shyly, then he smiled at her, and her stomach and heart fluttered and she was afraid she was going to start to cry again, but she didn’t, she just smiled back at him.
Rex saw the exchange, saw Amy’s eyes not quite swollen with unshed tears, the look on Gibby’s face and finally understood something about both of them.
“I’ll go talk to Griff and Mitch,” he said, nodding in Amy’s direction. “The damn postflight debriefing won’t start for about an hour anyway.”
“Right,” he replied, feeling exhausted. “Thank you, Rex.”
“What are you thanking me for?” Rex responded with one of his patented grins that Gibby had been learning by heart for the past two years. Then he took a step closer. “Gib, you did . . . You did very well up there today. I’m not gonna tell you I’m proud of you, ‘cause you already know that. You’re exasperating as hell sometimes, but I wouldn’t wanna fly with anyone else, and I’m sure as hell glad it was you up there with me today, and nobody else. Thank you, Brother.”
Gibby looked away, over towards Amy then back.
“Anytime, Rex,” he said. “Anytime. You know that.”
“I know, Gib,” Rex smiled. “Uh, tell Sam I’ll see her later, okay?”
“Roger that,” Gibby smiled back.
Then he turned on his heel and began walking tiredly towards Amy and his women.
“What the hell did he do up there?” Scanlon asked.
Rex watched Gibby’s back as he walked toward his women.
Just give me two minutes, Rex, he remembered Gibby saying. Just give me two goddam minutes . . .
“Everything,” Rex answered. But as he watched Gibby walk away, he just could not clear his mind of those images of Gibby asking for two more minutes and ignoring everything else, and knew what he had to do.
He was surprised to see Patti standing with them. But after what Rex told him earlier, while they were flying, he knew he shouldn’t bethatsurprised. He smiled at her as he came around the long, heavy table that had been set up to hold the consoles and instruments that Amy, Mandy and Sam had been monitoring.
“Hi, Patti,” he said with an easy, tired smile. “You look nice.”
“Thanks, Gibby,” she replied. “I’m really glad you’re back alright. I really am.”
“It was pretty routine, really,” he said with a goofy grin, because even after all this time, Patti – just like Amy – still made him feel like he was in 10thgrade, and glad he didn’t have zits.
“Oh bullshit, Gibby,” Mandy smacked him on the arm.
“You coming to watch us play Saturday?” he asked, setting Amy’s helmet on the table.
“I am,” Patti replied. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Then, impulsively, Gibby put his arms around her and hugged her, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“I’ve got a surprise for you Saturday,” he told her, feeling giddy, a lot of which was adrenalin seeping out of his system.
“Oh?” Patti smiled at him. “What?”
“We’re playing your song,” Mandy said.
“Star of the County Down?”
“Thanks, Mandy,” Gibby grinned. “Now it’s not a surprise.”
Mandy shrugged and looked impish, and Gibby could tell she’d been crying.
“Thank you, Gibby,” Patti said.
Gibby turned to Mandy, and stroked her cheek.
“I am now,” Mandy replied. Then she threw her arms around him and hugged him close. “Oh God, Gibby, I was so worried. Please don’t do that to us again.”
The crowd of spectators was clearing out, the murmur of voices was receding, the sound of normal flight operations from 28thBomb Wing were replacing them. A few, more than a handful, had lingered, and some were watching, but most weren’t, and Donny Franklin’s SPs were keeping them out and telling them the show was over.
“It’s okay, Mandy,” Gibby said to her, then gave her a quick kiss. “It’s okay now.”
“I know,” Mandy choked back another sob, and smiled at him.
He exhaled a long breath, his legs now weak from sitting in that cockpit for two hours and his exertions and excitement and the draining away of all that adrenalin and theterrorhe’d felt toward the end but wouldn’t put a name to it.
Sam gave him a close, tight hug, kissed him on the lips.
“I’m glad you’re back,” she smiled at him.
“I know,” Gibby smiled back, and they both laughed.
“Hey, Gib,” she said before she released him. “I wanna talk to you about something later.”
“Sure,” Gibby looked at her with curiosity. “About what?”
“Oh, some dumb little thing I’ve been thinking about,” she shrugged, and tapped her head beneath her black F Troop baseball cap. She gave him a goofy smile, which was unusual for her. “Something I’ve been thinking about writing. I know you’re working on your writing, so I just wanna bounce some ideas off you. If it’s okay.”
“Sure it’s okay,” Gibby’s smile got larger. “You wanna write something?”
“Well, yeah,” she said, almost shyly. “Like I said, it’s kinda silly, but I’d like to try it, and I’d like you to help me with it.”
“I’d be happy to, Sam,” he grinned at her.
“Okay,” she nodded, pleased, and stepped back.
And the absolute best for last, he thought, as he turned to Amy.
She waited there patiently, that soft smile on her lips, her eyes full of love, and wondered again just how he’d managed to get her. Well, the how he already knew, Larry Porter had told him, but he thanked God, fate, Kismet, whatever, that she had come along when she did, he just couldn’t conceive of life without her.
“Thanks for letting me use your helmet,” he said, feeling suddenly awkward.
“You’re welcome,” she took a step closer, remembering those awful feelings of nothingness she’d felt earlier, just that emptiness when she thought she’d lost him forever.
“Oh,” he stepped closer to her, and patted his chest pocket beneath his harness and vest. “I, ah, I got your note.”
She smiled bashfully this time and looked down.
“I just wanted you to know . . . I just wanted you to know that I’d be thinking about you, that I . . .”
She stopped, unable to continue, at least for now, and she wondered why was it so hard? I’ve told him I loved him a million times and in front of these same people. Why can’t I now?
Her eyes went down to what looked like a piece of sheet metal he held in his hand.
“This?” He held it up. It was bent and scarred and gashed and had eight holes in it, four along the top, and four along the bottom. “It’s my shield, Amy. Last night, you told me, with my shield or on it. I have it with me.”
He handed it to her.
Stunned, she took it from him and looked at it, recognizing it as the access plate from thePhoenix, and that’s when it hit her.
She wrapped her arms around him, tightly, her cheek pressed against his, eyes squeezed shut to prevent the tears because she swore to herself that she would not cry, not yet.
“Oh, God, Gibby,” she sniffed, her voice a whisper, like her eyes full of unshed tears. “I wish to God I’d never said that. I wish I’d never told you that. Forgive me for saying that to you.”
Her reaction shocked him. He’d meant it as a joke, a private joke between the two of them, like her making him salute her when they were outside away from the Center because it excited her in some weird way.
“Hey, it’s okay, Sunshine,” he told her gently, his hands on her back. “Of course I forgive you. There’s nothing to forgive. I love you, Amy.”
“I love you too, Gibby,” she said to him. “I just wish you knew how much.”
“I do,” he began to gently pat her back. “I do.”
The other three women looked and stepped away, forming a protective cordon around them so nobody could really see.
Sam stole a glance at them, locked together like that. Now, after it was all over, the Captains and Kings departed, her tale concluded.
And thus it was that the Valiant Knight Sir Gibby and his boon companion, the Bold Sir Rex, were victorious. They had slain the evil dragon Optic White, and there was great rejoicing throughout the Kingdom as all the loyal subjects of the Good King Griff hailed and proclaimed them as heroes, to be remembered for all time for the glorious deed that they had that day accomplished. That evening there would be raucous merriment and great festivity at the Castle of Sir Gibby, and the Knights of the Bold Fenian Men would consume copious amounts of mead and juice of the barley known unto them as Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, to render themselves unable to drive to their own Keeps or indeed become unconscious and slumber upon the floor until awakened with headaches.
And the Valiant Sir Gibby was reunited with his Beautiful Lady wife the Princess Amy Elizabeth, and they would have a very hot time between the sheets that night, and those other stoic women, the Fair Princess Amanda, the extremely desirable and luscious Princess-Regent Samantha, and even the Lady Patti of Mystery looked upon the pair with love and approval. And all was right in the Kingdom again . . .
The flight of the Phoenix was over.