Sat 1 Oct 2005
Weakly, almost unreadable, “Roger 21, we’ve got hostiles danger close, almost on us - do you have any 20 mike-mike?” The JTAC is asking for twenty-millimeter cannon, the XO thinks, eyebrows lifting. The bad guys must be close aboard indeed… What is that ripping sound in the background? Static? Something else?
“Hammer 21, that’s affirm, 500 rounds each 20 mike-mike.”
“Roger 21, stand by for nine line…”
“Hammer 21, ready.” Good man thought, the squadron XO - good form to be ready to copy as soon as possible - their need sounds great.
Quickly but precisely now, “Hammer 21, Viper, nine line follows: Ford. 212. Offset right. Seven point three. 60 feet. Hostiles in the open and pickup trucks, east side of a berm. Mike Charlie 3694 0345. Burning Humvee. West, 100 meters - on the eastern riverbank. South. Over.”
“Hammer 21 copies all, ready for a hack.”
“Hammer 21, Viper, we’ll take you when you get here. Could have used you yesterday.”
The XO busies himself copying this terse, almost cryptic data on a kneeboard card in his own cockpit, knowing that through application of the data, he will soon orient himself to the ground fight in progress down below and to the northwest. Still heading north towards Mosul, he looks down between his knees again at the digital moving map, and as he sees his aircraft symbol approach the latitude line for Ramadi, he creeps the throttles back, slowing the transit down, trying to stay as close as he can to the fight for as long as is decently possible without appearing to linger. He inserts the target grid coordinates first into his navigational computer, everything starts from the target outbound - the target bears 287 degrees magnetic for 48 miles, he’s a good six or seven minutes away at a sprint and Hammer 21 is almost there. Ford, yes Ford would be the initial point, or IP - the XO pulls out the appropriate 1:50,000 chart for the area - there, Ford - North of the city a fair bit. Two-one-two magnetic from IP to target for a distance of 7.3 nautical miles. Offsetting right will take the fighters toward the city, and the XO frowns momentarily - that will expose their bellies to fire from a hostile city as they reverse left to attack their targets - the targets located at 60 feet elevation - hostiles in the open and pickup trucks. He shakes his head slightly, worriedly - why would the JTAC expose the fighters to a threat like that? He opens the map, confirms the grid coordinates, runs his finger down the easting, along the northing, there. And now suddenly it all makes sense, the whole world snaps into place and although his eyes again look outward into the hazy northern sky, they are unseeing, focused inward instead on the picture that has painted itself with an almost preternatural vividity in his mind, the target at the center, the world revolving around it: The XO grimaces as he imagines the maelstrom on the ground below, the sudden chaos from order - The burning humvee - that’s not a target mark, although the JTAC has innovatively used it as such - that’s a result. The Marines had probably been moving along that secondary road running north/south here along the canal and were ambushed: IED? Probably - maybe an RPG, but probably an IED - An IED almost certainly, that’s why they stopped and dismounted - they stopped to assess the damage and look for secondary devices and that’s when the jaws of the trap slammed shut with small arms fire - probably medium or heavy machineguns as well - the, what do they call them, PKMs?
The XO is not a Marine, not versed in the art of ground warfare, but from what he knows about their tactics, he thinks that in an ambush they would assault into the fire if they could - the only reasons he could think of why they would not have done so would be that they were outmanned or outgunned. But now the hostiles were firing down on them, a plunging fire from behind the relative safety of a berm a scant 100 meters away, and they themselves trapped with a canal behind them - the “riverbank” - no room to maneuver. Were some already wounded? Or worse?
The XO marvels at the JTAC’s poise under such circumstances. It must be a living hell down there, with the noise, the whine and snap of the rounds overhead, no cover to speak of just reeds maybe and the ever-present, wretched, coughing dust and yet he had somehow found a way to paw through his frequency cards, observe the situation, orient to the world, decide and act - get air support moving. Because of his presence of mind, in five minutes or less from the first chaotic noise and fear, Hammer 21 and his wingman would be coming out of the north - got it! - along the berm line, that’s why he called for a right offset, towards the city - and now the roles would be reversed and the plunging fire would come not from AK-47s and PKMs, but from a sequential pair of six barreled, twenty millimeter Vulcan Phalanx cannons dispensing high explosive incendiary rounds like beaded necklaces at Mardi Gras, 6000 to the minute.
The XO cocks his head, listening, waiting - they should have been there by now, what’s taking them so long and finally: “Hammer 21’s in!” excited, settle down son, he’s beginning his attack run, and
“Continue 21,” the JTAC’s strained voice - he’s looking to the north no doubt, trying the acquire the strike fighter in his dive, he’s got his head low, helmet in the dirt to avoid the bullets overhead, but he has to see the fighter, he has to confirm the flight path is correct, the enemy is so very close, and a small error could turn a bad situation into a rout,
“Wings level” says Hammer 21, shortly after adding “contact!” triumphantly, he is in the final attack run and says he has the target in sight, and
“Cleared hot, 21!” and the XO, some thirty miles away can see it all, strokes his gloved finger on the stick-mounted trigger, almost hears the chainsaw sound of the cannon spooling up, firing, the wispy smoke coming up the canopy, the off-target jinks and, “Hammer 21’s off,”
“Hammer 22 in!” and the process begins again,
“Continue 22, from 21’s hits west 30 meters, along the berm,” adjusting fire, creeping it towards the foe, the startled foe, the fire slackening as wild-eyed heads turn, searching for the source of the fire falling in their rear, a moment before on top of their world, exultant, accustomed to thinking in two dimensions and now suddenly aware of their fatal vulnerability, the weakness in their legs, the nausea in their bellies,
“Hammer 22 contact, wings level,”
“Cleared hot 22!,” a pause, and “Great hits!” and the XO can almost hear the hard iron SPAT! of the rounds slapping the earth, explosive tips detonating, churning and gouging, the trying to be small, to shrink within oneself, to hide,
“Hammer 21’s in,” again and now it’s only a matter of time,
“21, you’ve got movers now, towards the pickup trucks, get the trucks!” and the turning of the tide, the hunters becoming the hunted, the hunted trying flee,
“21 contact, wings level,”
“Cleared hot 21!” another pause and “Outstanding! Out-by-God-standing!” the fleeing struck down in their tracks, the ebbing of the tide,
“Hammer 21 off,”
“Hammer 22 in,”
“Hammer 22 abort-abort-abort! Friendlies are moving now, moving to the east, we’ve got it fellas, great work!” the emptiness of after, the shaking legs, the mopping up, the turning over of almost familiar things with boot toes, and the moving through the smoking remains of what was left, the ticking down, fuel tanks ablaze in what had been a line of pickup trucks, now a charred and unrecognizable mess, like so many other things in this blasted land,
“Hammer 22, off, safe,” disappointed, philosophical. This too, will go into a box to be examined later, when there is time - the doing of the deed itself and the regret when it was over and done,
“Hammers, this is Viper, great job, take angels ten, orbit east, stand-by for further words,” stress level down, exultant, in charge - but evidently unwilling to let the fighters go so soon after a hard engagement. Wants to make sure it’s over. Pats himself down, slaps off the dust, checks for injuries, looking around him, reckons the cost,
“Hammers,” acknowledged, climbing into the darkening eastern sky, awaiting patiently, time being on their side.
Forty miles away, the XO twitches in his ejection seat, as if awakening from a reverie, eyes suddenly alive and focused again, back in his own moment, his own world, checks right three o’clock to see Hammer 12 in position, just as he should be. Reaches a gloved hand to the upfront control, almost regretfully changes the freq on aux radio, back to inter-flight frequency, back where he belongs, says, “Hammer 11 back up on aux, state base plus 4.”
“Hammer 12, loud and clear, state base plus 3.8.”