CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

called again.

The E-2C was orbiting a fixed point fifty thousand feet above the Black

Sea, its sophisticated electronics keeping track of air activity across

a circle nearly five hundred nautical miles in diameter. As an Airborne

Early Warning aircraft, it wasn’t quite as versatile as the land-based

AWACS, but the Navy “Hummer” could do things no other AEW plane could

do. Specifically, it could fly off of a carrier deck, and with a

tracking capacity of over 250 targets it was well suited to warn the

ships and planes of a carrier battle group of any activity that might

pose a threat to their operations. As the aircraft’s Air Control

Officer, Brown was responsible for the coordination of air activity

throughout the carrier battle group’s sphere of operations.

The E-2C and her crew, Brown decided, were really pulling down their pay

today, that was for damn sure.

“Watch Dog, Bird Dog Leader” sounded over his helmet earphones. “We

copy. Whatcha got?”

“Bird Dog, Watch Dog. We have a hit on our screens here. Unidentified

contact, bearing zero-eight-five, range eight-eight miles, over.”

“Ah, roger, Watch Dog. We don’t have him on our display. Over.”

“Bird Dog, the target is flying at extremely low altitude. Contact is

intermittent, and we think he may be right down on the deck, zigzagging

through the mountains. We’ll vector you in.”

“Roger that, Watch Dog.” There was the slightest of pauses. “So tell me,

have you seen any flying saucers lately?”

Brown grinned. The flying saucer gag was one of a number of running

jokes aimed at the Hawkeye and its peculiar look with the saucer-shaped

radome up top. Sailors aboard the Jefferson made jokes about the little

green men who flew it. .. or called it a Frisbee and asked Brown if he’d

like to join them for a game of catch on the flight deck.

So far as Brown was concerned, it didn’t matter what the aircraft looked

like. It worked. .. flew like a dream, if a bit on the sluggish side. In

fact, the flattened-dish shape created as much lift as was needed to

counteract the parasitic drag of the entire assembly and neither helped

nor hindered the plane in flight, even during takeoffs and landings.

More important than flight characteristics, though, nothing could move

on land, on water, or in the air throughout a volume of three million

cubic miles and not be instantly pinpointed by the E-2C’s APS-125 radar.

Through a wide-ranging suite of communications equipment, including UHF,

HF, and high-speed data links, the Hawkeye could pass coded data to any

of the Jefferson’s aircraft, engage in a two-way exchange with the

Tomcats, and serve as the primary eyes and ears for Alpha Bravo, the

battle group’s commander. So far as Lieutenant Brown was concerned, the

entire air wing was structured around the Hawkeyes, like the rim of a

wheel connected by spokes to the hub.

He watched the blip crawling across the tangled web of returns off the

mountains. As far as he could make out, it was about thirty miles out of

Poti and moving away from the city at 150 knots. He adjusted the gain on

the set, willing more information from the pulsing smears of light

before him. It was hard to tell; there might be two aircraft there.

According to the schedule passed to the CBG from the UN liaison office

ashore, there were supposed to be a couple of friendly helos flying out

of Poti this morning. .. but that flight had been scheduled for a couple

of hours ago. And neither of these guys was showing IFF.

Ah, no! There were two aircraft. .. and the leader’s IFF had just been

triggered by the touch of the Hawkeye’s far-seeing radar.

Sierra-Delta-Three-Tango. .. He checked the code group with a list on a

clipboard at his side: UN Flight Two-seven, a CAT mission. Flying under

radio silence.

But who the hell was the untagged bogey on Two-seven’s tail? …

0916 hours (Zulu +3)

Tomcat 201 Over the Black Sea Batman was holding his Tomcat steady at

25,000 feet, flying south some ninety miles off the Black Sea coast.

He’d been aware of Malibu in the backseat talking with Watch Dog, but

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