CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

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

fucking Navy!”

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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