Book 3 : High Risk Series
Gardaz Air Base, Afghanistan
Like all warriors, Army SOAR pilot Shane Garrett had contemplated death. He lived with it, even expected it at times, but had always been a fatalist – when your number was up, it was up, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.
Still, although he’d never considered himself the least bit psychic, he’d had bad feelings about this mission from the beginning.
Night Stalker missions were complex, daring, and totally out there. In the six years he’d been wearing the red SOAR beret and unit crest, he’d taken part in missions no one – not even other members of the military — would ever know about.
Give a SOAR unit an impossible scenario, and they would put their heads together, train like demons, and then go off and execute it. Although it might not get as much press as Iraq, Afghanistan was pretty much the Wild West of the war on terrorism. SOAR was the army’s cowboys, and having grown up on a ranch, Shane fit right in.
Tonight they were “deep black.” They had no reporters with them, no one back home knew where they were, and they’d cut off all communications with the outside world.
Having initially joined the 160th to fly AH-6 Little Birds, which were the Porsches of military copters, or at least Black Hawks, which were considered the Cadillacs, Shane understood how people could look at his forty-thousand-pound Chinook and see an ungainly, flying refrigerator box, or as smartass Navy SEAL Zach Tremayne was always calling it, a Winnebago with rotors.
They also weren’t exactly designed for stealth. While the bad guys might not hear a Black Hawk or Little Bird until it was directly overhead, when a Chinook was anywhere nearby the earth would rumble like it was about to blow apart. If he’d still believed in Santa Claus, at the top of Shane’s Christmas list would have been a noise-cancellation system, which, although currently the stuff of science fiction, was being seriously studied in the aviation community.
But from the moment he’d climbed into the cockpit, Shane forgot all about those smaller, sexier birds. Where others looked at the helo and saw fat, ugly, and slow, Shane saw charm. And durability. And when you absolutely, posifuckingtively had to have something moved overnight, the Chinook jockey was who you called.
The bird had “legs.” Incredibly reliable, it didn’t have to land to refuel every couple hours. It also had the respect of its customers – Spec Ops guys who were interested in working with only the heavily armed and powerful birds that could get them to their targets, bringing the fight to the enemy anytime, anywhere, in any kind of weather.
Because of the altitude, and temperature extremes, flying in Afghanistan, where peaks soared more than sixteen thousand feet and the high altitude made engines run hot, was intense, nonstop, over-the-edge combat flying in a place where only the huge, sturdy birds could venture.
It was the Chinook pilot’s war, and Shane was damn glad and proud to be part of it. Nothing was ever routine or remotely mundane; he was shot at every night, but it was flat-out the most fun he’d ever had, and, in his view, loving his work kept him in the game and on his toes, which could just be another reason he was the most requested pilot in the unit by his customers.
Although this mission had originally planned for a SEAL team he’d flown with so many times that they’d become as close as brothers, since everyone wanted to play, a bunch of Rangers, Marines, and even some CIA guys had joined the full load he’d be ferrying up into the mountains.
The string of bad luck had begun when he’d gotten the go, only to have flames shoot out of the exhaust when he’d fired his engines, essentially burning one up. Which required them all to sit around on their asses, waiting for a replacement to be flown in from Bagram. There’d been more delays while they waited for the newly arrived bird to be refueled.
Then, just as he’d been readying to take off, damned if the delayed timeline hadn’t gone crashing into a B-52 bombing raid, keeping them on the ground even longer.
While last week’s earthquake may have shaken things up, the mountainous land in the lawless Waziristan area along the Afghan/Pakistan border had already become destabilized as various factions struggled for supremacy.
One al-Qaeda leader had begun a move to control the entire region. According to the latest intel, the terrorist was holed up in one of the many subterranean tunnels and the SEALS that Shane was ferrying tonight had been tasked with locating the “bat cave,” then calling in massive amounts of ordnance down on it.
Given that the Night Stalkers flew in the dark, without lights, the Chinooks were outfitted with a technical system called Terrain Following/Terrain Avoidance Multi-Mode Radar. Having never been used in combat before Afghanistan, it required “flying the cues,” which meant the MMR would “paint” the terrain, which appeared as a three-dimensional image on a display on the cockpit console.
Shane never looked out the windshield – something that had seemed more than a little weird in the beginning when he’d switched from the Black Hawks he’d flown in Iraq – but he’d keep his eyes glued to the VSD (vertical situation display), avoiding trees, power towers, buildings, and, most importantly, the sharp, thrusting peaks of the Hindu Kush.
It was just like playing a video game, except you couldn’t hit the pause button and if you screwed up you couldn’t just turn it off and start over again, because you and everyone else on board would be dead.
sert cammies she wore couldn’t hide the kind of curves Monroe had boasted back in her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes days, one of the few movies his old man would watch that didn’t have a single cowboy in it.
Shane been smitten – a stupidly girlie word, but it was the only one that fit – at first glance. Which was why it had been even more humiliating to spend their first thirty minutesBecause of the delay, rather than landing farther down the mountain, the decision had been made to land near the peak. Which, given the lack of flat spaces, damn well wouldn’t have been Shane’s choice, but since no one had died and made him head of central command, well, like the Duke (whose movies his dad was always watching on the Western channel) said, sometimes a guy had to do what a guy had to do.
Like all pilots, Shane was good at multitasking. Which was why, as he flew over the mountains, he thought about the recent earthquake that had further destabilized the region and wondered if Kirby Campbell might be down there.
He’d met the army physician when he’d been brought into the 28th CSH – Combat Support Hospital – in the Green Zone, after the bird he’d been using to ferry SEALS looking for Saddam had been shot down outside Fallujah.
Unlike everything else in that country, which was covered with fine desert sand, the white tile floor, walls, and windows of the hospital that had once served as a private clinic for the former dictator’s relatives had been sparkling clean. With five operating theaters, ten emergency room trauma stations, and seventy-six beds, it could’ve been a top hospital in any major city back home in the States.
It also boasted the sexiest military medical officer Shane had ever seen. Her wheat-blond hair, which she wore in a short, practical, no-nonsense cut, had contrasted with the deep, midnight blue of her eyes.
Unlike the tall, tanned, and toned whip-thin ranchers’ daughters he’d grown up dating, Captain Kirby Campbell barely topped five-feet two and even the baggy de together with him lying on his stomach on a metal table while she picked pieces of shrapnel out of his ass cheeks.
While he might have felt like a damn fool, apparently she’d taken the incident in stride, because the next time he took his pants off in front of the sexy captain, she’d been naked, too. They’d spent the next six weeks getting together whenever they could between missions, eating pulled-pork barbecue in the cafeteria of the former Republican Palace, drinking near beer while hanging out at the pool, and screwing each other’s brains out.
After she’d been rotated out to Heildelberg, they’d kept in touch by e-mail, but eventually life intervened and correspondence drifted off. He’d heard that after finding the staid confines of the European army theater boring, she’d left the service and signed up with a medical relief organization. Knowing how she loved being in the midst of the action, he wouldn’t be at all surprised if she was currently on the ground, bringing order to the additional chaos the earthquake had brought to the border region.
Just as Shane flared to land the big bird, he saw a flash of orange.
The RPG blinded him but that didn’t stop him from shouting out a warning an instant before the grenade crashed into the side of the Chinook.
Someone on the ground began raking them with machine-gun fire, shattering the windshield and sending a bullet through his copilot’s forehead.
An instant after the RPG hit, creating a chest-wrenching blast, a fireball of heat, and a bitter chemical taste in Shane’s mouth, the helo lost power, which he knew would cut out the door guns. At the same time the VSD screens in the cockpit went dark as the navigational systems shut down.
With the instruments gone, Shane began flying by feel. The Chinook, which was lurching from side to side, began to lift up.
That was the good news.
The bad news was another flash from the ground.
Shane ducked instinctively as the RPG came roaring toward them, only to land – thank you, Jesus! — in the snow twenty yards away.
The machine gun was still blasting away and small arms fire was peppering the fuselage.
“Go, go, go, baby,” he coaxed the heavy Chinook.
There was shouting from the back. Shane couldn’t allow himself the distraction of wondering who else might have been hit.
“That’s the girl,” he crooned, using the same warm tone he’d used his seventeenth summer when he’d coaxed Heather McFarland into letting him make love to her in the bed of his old F-150 pickup. It had worked then. And it seemed to be working now. “Lift it up, darlin’.”
They were flying.
Okay, not exactly well; the huge copter was bucking like some of the Brahma bulls Shane had grown up riding. But they were nearly airborne again.
Nearly being the definitive word as another fiery RPG came sailing by.
This time the hit felt as if they’d just had a head-on collision with a freight train.
Overhead, Shane could hear the rotor blades, which must have gotten peppered with shrapnel, whistling.
It was not a merry tune.
The communication system, which worked on DC, fortunately hadn’t been taken out with the first grenade.
“We’ve got smoke coming in from overhead, flames from the hydraulics, and a big chunk of metal, which I’m guessing is part of the back rotor, just flew by the open ramp,” Zach Tremayne reported over Shane’s headset.
Giving credence to the SEAL’s guess, the Chinook began to spin.
“I suggest you put her down.” Zach’s voice remained as calm and collected as if they were out for a little Sunday Afghan sightseeing tour. “Now.”
“Roger that.” Trying to stay upright in a sky that felt as if it’d suddenly turned to ice decidedly upped the pucker factor.
Shane pulled back on the power controls. No way this giant bird would be able to hover, letting him ease her down gently. She had one landing left in her, and it had better be a good one.
A bedlam of bullets hammered against metal walls and pinged like balls in a pinball machine. The tortured shriek of the right engine’s turbine blades ensured that once down, they weren’t going to be getting back up anytime soon.
“Tell the guys to brace for a hard landing,” Shane said.
Damn, he thought, as he prepared to slam down at what had to be fifty knots, this is going to hurt.