Highway to the Danger Zone

January 14, 2009
By Andrew Thorson, Bethesda, MD

Inspired by the movie Top Gun
A thunderous roar, reminiscent of creation itself, shattered the morning calm of the deck. A plume of steam rose lazily from the deck where an aircraft had stood just a moment ago. The catapult clanged back into position, ready for another violent launch. Flt. Lt. Carl Steigler, call sign Diamond Back, circled the ship once, then twice, gazing down at his floating home.

Spread around him, three thousand feet below, the horizon was dominated by the featureless, blinding, glittering ocean. He knew that for thousands of miles in every direction, his tiny ship, less than one thousand feet long, was the only possible place for a human to survive. The thought chilled him, yet he also felt a sense of pride, and of perspective. Up here, staring through the bulbous Perspex canopy, the carrier was so small and vulnerable. Compared to the infinite and invincible ocean surrounding it, the Nimitz was a leaf on a lake, buffeted by the powers of nature.

He turned his attention back to the controls. The hornet, newly fueled and delivered from the states, was flying beautifully. The massive engines roared contentedly at almost twice the speed of sound. In the air above the placid ocean, there was no way to tell his real speed. Were it not for the slight pressure pushing him back into the cramped seat and the graceful contrails streaming from the wingtips, he would think the aircraft wasn’t moving at all.

Steigler nudged the joystick to the left, carefully easing up the throttle with his left hand. The port wing swung easily down, banking the plane into a gentle curve. His wingman, call sign Spruce, came into view on the starboard side. The two pilots exchanged the thumbs up signal, and then righted their aircraft onto a northeasterly course.

The vast enormity of the Mediterranean Sea stretched out beneath the hornets. Four black dots appeared on the horizon. Accordingly, the Doppler radar display began beeping, warning Steigler of the unidentified jets up ahead. He brought up Spruce on the radio. “Spruce, do you see those guys?”

“Roger that Diamond Back. They seem to be holding tight formation. Let’s approach from altitude. Keep in the sun till we know who they are”.

Steigler hated that call sign. It represented for him all the pointless jargon of the Navy. He loved flying, he really did, and he felt pride in serving his country on a powerful warship. But the call signs and code words, he couldn’t abide those. They were childish.

The radar alerted him that the unidentified jets had begun to track him. He nudged the hornet gracefully up another twenty five hundred feet, determined to have the upper hand in any encounter with the planes. The two groups of planes were converging at almost four times the speed of sound. Steigler gazed at the four jets beneath him as a hawk gazes at its prey. He and Spruce seamlessly rolled their aircraft down into a shallow dive, right on top of the unidentified jets.

Steigler could see the red, black, and green stripes on the fins and wings, and knew that he faced an armed patrol of the Kingdom of Libya. The four MiGs diverged two separate ways. Steigler called up Diamond Back on the radio. “You follow the starboard group, I’ll tail to port.”

“Roger that Spruce. Keep your stick on the ice!”
He eased his plane into a smooth bank, following the contrails of the nearest MiG. The group was banking back toward the carrier, invisible over the horizon. Steigler remembered the standing orders. Direct all potential threats away from carrier. At all costs. This message had come in the briefing room, all the pilots tensely reclining in their chairs, braced against the heavy pitch of the ocean swell.

Steigler called back to Spruce. “I think I see anti-ship missiles. Those babies could sink the Nimitz”.

“Copy that. Stand by to engage the enemy”
Steigler rolled a seamless maneuver that brought him out of range of the smaller Libyan missiles. He gently flicked on the combat reflector sight in the windscreen. A score of numbers appeared on it, all changing to track and provide information on the selected target. His thumb brushed the missile release button on the joystick. With a tap, Steigler watched tensely as the sidewinder roared away from the wing root at eight thousand miles an hour.
It only took about 20 seconds for the missile to reach the MiG. Watching from half a mile away, Steigler viewed the fiery destruction of the aircraft’s tail. He waited anxiously for what felt like minutes. Then the ejector seat popped out of the canopy, and seconds later he watched relieved as the Libyan pilot gracefully descended in his parachute. Steigler never relished the idea of killing. He destroyed aircraft, not people.

The abandoned and smoking MiG spiraled down to the water, over a mile below into the glittering blue depths.

“One bogie down, three to go!” Spruce shouted into his mouthpiece.

“Copy that Spruce, I’m going to engage the flanking targets.”

“Negative Diamond Back, I don’t see any targets flanking” said Spruce, craning his neck around in the cockpit.

Steigler pulled behind Spruce, and then jetted above a small cirrus cloud revealing the hidden MiGs.

“They are behind the clouds Spruce, I repeat they are behind the clouds!” shouted Steigler, yawing away from the sight line of the three MiGs. Spruce peered off to right, attempting to make out the outlines of the enemy planes through the wispy clouds. He had almost caught sight of them when a thousand pieces of burning lead burst through the clouds at 4,000 feet per second. One of the twenty three millimeter rounds caught Spruce’s wingtip, rending metal and sending orange sparks onto Steigler’s cockpit windshield below.

“I’m hit! The MiGs are engaging with canon fire!”

Steigler copied while Spruce pulled an evasive maneuver to avoid further damage. Steigler had been waiting for a scenario like this since graduating from flight school. His gloved hands deftly flicked open the gun cover and aligned his sights, his finger instinctively squeezing the trigger. He kept one eye looking out the right side to make sure the MiGs didn’t blindside him from the clouds. The red burst of tracer and depleted uranium leapt out of his gun. The first few bullets lead the target, but the next rounds hit squarely in the engines. Wild flame erupted from the MiG’s engines as the fuel ignited. It only took a millisecond to engulf the entire plane in flame.

His jet wheeled around to face the last two MiGs. Steigler and Spruce flew forward on the same tack, Spruce five hundred feet above Steigler. They scanned the sky for the remaining aircraft. Two black specks came roaring at them from the right. One flew in front of Steigler, the other behind and below him. Above, spruce dived to keep pace with the faster Libyan aircraft. He got a lock, and released a missile at one of them. The warhead overtook it exploding in a display of awesome fireworks.
The remaining aircraft came about, peeling down from the sun. Steigler shielded his eyes, frantically searching for the last MiG. He realized that he was in a bad position. Some of the bullets from the previous aircraft had damaged his systems, and the hornet was responding sluggishly to his coaxing.

Right then, at his moment of vulnerability, the MiG soared down out of the sun. It launched a heat seeking missile. The missile lock-on screen warned him of the imminent threat. Steigler yawed into a steep roll to starboard, attempting to evade. The missile plunged after him like an avenging angel, pursuing its own selfless destruction. Steigler was helpless, the missile travelling twice the speed of his damaged aircraft. Impact was moments away.

His brain bursting with the inhuman pressure of multiple G forces, Steigler inched his hand to the emergency eject lever. He grasped it, praying that the system wouldn’t fail him.

An explosion, and then freezing air on his face. Was death cold, he wondered? The rest of him felt pretty numb, and he couldn’t really move it. A voice crackled into his mind.

“Diamond back, did you make it? Have you landed yet?”

“I’m dead, I’m pretty sure I’m dead” he replied with uncertainty.

“What, so are we communicating through the ether of the afterlife? Snap out of it Steigler, you’re just shook up”.

Steigler opened his eyes. Everywhere was blindingly bright. They began to adjust to the bright sun reflecting off of the cloud. He inclined his head, and was pleasantly surprised to see a billowing parachute above his head. The explosion must have been the ejection seat, he surmised. His mind felt lucid and calm. The MiGs no longer flew in his vision, and he had totally forgotten them. He curiously glanced down at his flight boots, weirdly suspended twenty thousand feet above the glittering ocean. One of the boots felt heavy and full of blood. That, however, was the extent of his injuries.

Steigler shifted around as best he could, suspended in the straps of his parachute harness. In about a minute, he knew he would have to exit his ‘chute when he crashed down into the water. This became a reality as the frigid water smacked into his legs like a concrete side walk. Then he was submerged, like a dreamer struggling to the surface of wakefulness. He fought against the medusa of cords dragging him down below the surface. His frantic, panicked eyes bore up to the surface, beseeching the sky and the air to help him.

His hand instinctively grasped the stopper on the floatation belt buried under his flight equipment. Compressed nitrogen filled the polymer life preserver, and he exploded to the surface in a cascade of bubbles. He gasped for air. Steigler’s vision was blurry and red tinged from the lack of oxygen.

After recovering his breath, Steigler set to work cutting away his parachute with a pen knife. As he worked at it, the thunder of a helicopter tore through the calm of the Indian Ocean. The navy rescue team lowered the winch, hauling him to safety. Soon silence returned, leaving the twisted wreckage of his plane burning in the azure sea.

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