in a hard turn to the right. No helicopter in the world could outrun a
missile; their one chance was to turn into the missile and pray that it
smacked into the ground before it could correct.
They almost made it.
The AIM9 Sidewinder streaked in at 660 miles per hour, arrowing down
from above and behind the Black Hawk, homing on the bright, hot flares
of exhaust spilling from the two engine exhaust shrouds beneath the big
four-blade rotor. The missile’s tiny brain was correcting the weapon’s
course, bringing the AIM9 up to match the target’s forward vector when
it struck. .. not the engine, but the tip of one whirling rotor blade.
The explosion was shattering, but not as deadly as it might have been if
the warhead had detonated inside the target’s engine, as it had been
designed to do. Cole felt the aircraft lurch suddenly, and then the
helicopter was violently oscillating, the entire ship jerking back and
forth with each turn of the rotors. He battled the stick, trying to
bring the ship back under control. The landscape was whirling past the
cockpit now as the Black Hawk spun dizzyingly into the valley.
It felt as though they’d lost all or most of one rotor blade; the
imbalance would tear the engine apart in seconds, but with luck and some
decent piloting, Cole thought he might be able to save enough collective
to make it to the ground all in one piece. Nursing the engine, battling
stick and pitch and collective, he brought the spinning aircraft down.
In the last second or two before touchdown, however, the machine started
to go over onto its right side, and nothing Cole could do would right
it. The spinning rotors chewed into earth and the Black Hawk’s fuselage
counterrotated. An instant later, the engine blew, and a ruptured fuel
line spilled aviation gas across a red-hot manifold.
They struck hard, plowing into soft earth, the impact softened somewhat
by the right-side ESSS crumpling with the crash and breaking away. Cole
gasped as he slammed against his safety harness, then again as his seat
tore free of its mountings and slammed him forward into the instrument
console. The fuselage bounced once, then rolled partly upright; the
change in attitude let the pilot seat collapse backward into an
approximation of its original position.
Stunned, his chest shrieking agony with each breath, Cole still managed
to hit the release and drag himself free of the seat. Dombrowski’s head
lolled to the side; Cole couldn’t tell if the copilot was dead or
unconscious. Blinking back tears against the pain, he unstrapped
Dombrowski, tried to drag him free. .. and failed. The man’s weight was
too much for him to handle with what felt like several broken ribs.
Then Chris Palmer was with him, his face a mask of blood from a nasty
cut on his scalp up near his hairline, but otherwise intact. Smoke
boiled into the cockpit from the aft cabin.
“The ship’s on fire!” Palmer yelled. “We’ve got to get out!”
“Help me with him!”
Together, they dragged Dombrowski out from between the cockpit seats,
aft into smoky darkness, and out the right-side door. They hit muddy
earth and kept moving; Cole glanced back once and caught a glimpse of
the entire engine housing aflame, as black smoke spilled from the downed
aircraft’s interior. A few seconds later, the flames reached the fuel
tanks and the Black Hawk erupted in a searing yellow-and-orange fireball
that roiled into the morning sky.
The two of them dropped to the ground on either side of Dombrowski’s
body, gasping for breath. “God, what happened?” Palmer asked.
“We just got shot down, is what happened,” Cole said. He winced as pain
lanced through his side. “Damn, I think we just got shot down by the
It was a miracle that any of them had survived.
0933 hours (Zulu 4)
Tomcat 218 UN No-Fly Zone, Republic of Georgia Mason pulled up gently,
putting his Tomcat into a terrain-hugging flight across the hills. At
the far end of his climb-and-turn when the missile had struck, he’d seen
the flash and the smoke. Now he was angling back into the valley for a
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