Authors: Ken McConnell
The most static I received stemmed from the fact that we were no longer on the defensive from a tactical point of view. After Commander Drake was killed, the acting Commander, the guy who couldn’t wait for me to take over and then bolted, was simply too scared to engage the enemy. That mindset seeped into the psyche of every pilot until eventually, nobody complained when they didn’t engage the enemy on regular patrols. This was completely unacceptable to Fighter Command and frankly, it really pissed me off. It also led to the dismal kill record and the high attrition when pilots actually did engage the enemy. They spent all their time evading and never attacking. There is no better way to reduce your numbers than to never attack.
Katya was eager to fight, but she was one of the anomalies in the group. Most of them had some kind of excuse for not getting kills. Poor weather, bad maintenance and fear of an enemy ace seemed to be the most popular excuses. The weather was almost always sunny and humid. Not a problem at the altitudes we flew. Blaming bad maintenance was always a fool’s excuse. Being a remote base meant that maintainers had to improvise, but I saw no real evidence that pilot gripes were grounding the fleet. As for talk of the Red Ace, as near as I could tell he hadn’t been seen in months. Most likely he was a ghost threat and was reassigned to another planetary theater or to an Armada.
Our first mission was to take a flight of four north to the nearest enemy held island chain and let them know we exist. Threat scanners would in all likelihood announce our approach so we would come in high and circle to see if anyone came up to fight. If for some reason they don’t scramble fighters, we were to strafe their flight lines and take out as many targets of opportunity as we could find. This was something none of the pilots could ever remember doing while stationed here. That practically caused me to start drinking heavily right there. After calming down I reiterated what our primary mission was - kill the enemy.
If we managed to dispatch any fighters launched against us, we were to continue with the air to sand attack and then, and only then, return to base. So no matter what the enemy did, shy of having totally left the islands, we were coming back with some kills.
Katya was all kinds of worked up about the mission. I think her enthusiasm eventually began to win over the other Leads. At one point Choke and Skip asked me how many kills I had in my career.
“With the Fleet or planetary based?” I asked.
“Both,” Skip said.
“Sixteen confirmed kills with the fleet and three in planetary systems. But as far as anyone here is concerned, I got nothing. We’re all starting over from here on out.”
“Wait, what about my two kills?” Choke asked. I could see his eyes popping out of his skull.
You don’t mess with a person’s combat records.
“Relax Choke, your record’s safe. But I’m having all red V’s removed from every fighter. I want to show you how fast we’re going to fill them up.”
Choke still didn’t like it one bit. He tried to argue leaving on his kills but I told him to stow it. Eventually Skip and Katya both talked him down with some peer pressure.
“First person to make ace will get two day’s leave anywhere in-system,” I heard myself promise. Normally, that would be a great prize, but here, not so much. We were light years from anywhere out of theater for the war. It was more of an I Owe You.
“How about doubling our allotted chocolate rations. That’s easier to promise,” Katya said.
“You got it.”
They all seemed to go for that one, clearly Katya knew their hot buttons here on Kew. Getting chocolate in was one thing, keeping it from melting was another. I offered to store their extra rations in the mess fridge, under a lock and key. After the meeting I swung by the mess and arranged the deal with them. Sometimes rank has its privileges.
* * *
Early the next morning four Swifts were parked together on the ready ramp being prepped for an early mission. None of them had pilot names under the canopies or kill flags. Crews had hastily painted them over with dark sea gray. Inside the Ops shack my Leads and I sat down to go over every conceivable part of the relatively simple mission. As the time dragged on I could see that their patience was wearing thin with all the details. A few pilots had trickled in to watch from across the room. I took note who they were, because they were probably going to be my next set of leads. Anyone interested in what was going on around here would surely be rewarded for it.
The sun was just starting to break the horizon when we walked out to the ready ramp. Steam was rising from the engines of the Swifts as crews pulled APUs and made last minute adjustments to the fighters. I slipped on my helmet and did my walk around to inspect the fighter. There were certain things a good pilot checked before taking off and we all had our own variation of the pre-flight walk around. Truth was, I trusted the maintainers with my life and would probably not find something they had missed, but that was like tempting fate so I kicked the skids and poked the panels and made my way back to the left side under the cockpit.
My crew chief was a young man with red hair and freckles. His skin was not tan like the others, despite spending a good deal of his time on the ramp with his bird. He positioned the lift stand against the plane and held it as I climbed up and swung myself into the seat. Then he climbed up next to me and made sure my belts were tight and my comm and air lines attached. Then he gave his report in a crisp, efficient manner. All systems nominal, munitions and fuel load at capacity. He saluted and pulled back the lift.
I surveyed the black panels around me, making sure all the gauges were set and the few physical switches were in takeoff position. Everything looked to be in order. I glanced over at Katya and she was doing the same. Over my left shoulder were Choke and Skip’s birds, each one of them waiting for my signal to launch.
“This is Rocket One, report ready,” I said over the comm.
“Choke, good to go,”
“Katya, let’s go,”
I nodded, gave the thumbs up signal and lowered my canopy.
“Home Base this is Rocket One flight, ready for departure heading two four.”
“Rocket One, cleared to NAVCOM Four, Winds 10 kph. Good hunting.”
“Home Base, Rocket One. Thank you.”
I hit the lifters and off we went turning to compass heading 24 and rising slowly to our cruising altitude of angels 35. It took us about ten mike to get up and then we kicked in the burners to get us into enemy airspace in about thirty mike. Along the way we maintained comm silence and spread out to travel spacing. Everyone seemed awake enough and ready for action as we neared the little island chain out in the deep water.
I had studied the maps of the enemy held islands and knew there really wasn’t much there to defend. The largest island was about the size of the one we were on and all the others were either uninhabited or occupied primarily by bird colonies. Most of them were just reefs barely above sea level. What interested me the most was the fact that this base was frequently resupplied by Votainion armada ships. It was a staging area for their other bases on the planet, which meant it probably had lots of stuff to blow up. That made it a prime target. They had a small contingent of KiVs based there for defense, but everyone I talked to about it said their pilots were nothing special and would more often than not run from our pilots. It sounded to me like the perfect first target for testing out my new aggressive attack posture.
About the time the base scanners would have spotted us our passive alarms went off and I could see at least a few KiVs rising up to meet us.
I broke comm silence. “This is it folks, I show three bogie's taking off. Spread out and call contacts.”
Choke moved further off my wing and Skip fell in behind and above him. Katya stayed in her dash two slot behind and above me. From her perch she could watch my tail while I pressed the attack.
The Votainions liked to fly in three ship V formations in everything from fighter flights to warship squadrons. They had a thing for odd numbers which I never really understood. It made them easier targets and I was okay with that.
“Choke, Victor, Victor, guns hot,” Choke’s voice came over the comm. He sounded like it was no big deal, but I knew he was fangs out and ready to dance.
I stayed on altitude and watched him and Skip engage the KiVs. The enemy fighters stayed together and came up in a single circular attack. Normally this would have pulled in our guys to turning with them into a death spiral but not today. Choke let them come into range and lit them up. His shots were right down the center line of the formation and in seconds he had his first and second kill of the day. The third fighter went down and tried to get away with the extra gravity pushing it down to the waterline.
Skip did his best to stay with Choke as he followed the running KiV. I kept looking around the sky and at my scanners anticipating a second flight of enemy fighters to pounce on us. It was a common Votainion tactic to have one ship turn tail and lead you into the teeth of another pack of hungry KiVs. For now, the horizon was clear of any contacts.
“Let’s go down and start our run on the base,” I said to Katya. She double clicked her mic and stayed on my tail as we dove for the deck. I focused on setting up my dive to come across their tarmac and lined up on at least one shuttle parked near the hangars. A few KiVs were parked a fair distance away and I’d have to circle around to get them on the way out.
The Swift was a natural at air to ground operations. Big, heavy and fast she bore down on helpless targets and pounded them with her four canons. I lit up the shuttle and in seconds it exploded in a giant fireball with debris raining down like hail. A few extra shots into the hangars set them on fire.
Katya stayed high and then crossed over me to hit the KiVs. It was a common move intended to draw surface fire away from me while I was shooting, but she added her spin of actually engaging her own targets. There was only moderate return fire from the ground. Both of us pulled up and away from the island in a lazy, climbing set of double circles. After we came around we dove again coming right at each other as we both sprayed the base with white hot fire from our wings. After I started my pull up over blue water I looked up in time to see the third KiV auger into the waves and explode.
“Splash three, Rocket One,” Choke said.
“Nice shooting Choke, form up and let’s go home.”
The entire engagement must have lasted about fifteen minutes. We stayed low and headed out to sea at a forty-five degree angle to where our home island lay. Then we climbed up to cruising altitude and pulled into our finger four formation.
I could see no apparent damage to either Choke or Skip’s fighters. Looking up at Katya’s bird I saw some fresh holes.
“Everyone say your state,” I said.
“Choke, state four plus two zero to splash.”
“Skip, state four plus two zero to splash.”
“Katya, state three plus ten to splash.”
“Katya, roll your belly my way, you’ve taken hits,” I said.
Katya slow rolled and I could see the damage was a bit worse on the far side. She had a hole big enough to stick my hand into.
“Katya, how’s your pressure?”
“Losing pressure like a popped balloon. Revised state ten zero to splash.”
Her engine was losing pressure and that meant she’d fall out of the sky in about ten minutes.
“Choke, Skip return to base, send out the rescue bird. I’m staying with her.”
Choke double clicked and he and Skip broke right and headed full throttle back to base. If we were lucky they’d be back in about thirty minutes with help. If not, well let’s just say I’d rather not go there.
“Hey boss, you don’t have to stay. I can swim fine.”
“It’s not your swimming I’m worried about it’s what’s swimming beneath you.”
There was a huff over the comms and then I heard her say that she didn’t taste real good.
Her Swift started leaking coolant or something clear then it turned dark and oily. I told her to shut it down and come along with the waves for her ditching. She acted calm and cool but I could tell she was not happy with her situation. Who would be?
The Swift would sink in seconds flat and she’d be left sitting in a dingy out in the middle of nowhere. Completely at the whim of any passing sea life.
I took up position off her wing and followed her down, talking to her the whole way. Trying to keep her at ease and her spirits up. She handled the emergency better than I think I would have and her water landing was textbook.
I saw her pop the canopy, inflate her dingy and fall into it just as the nose of the Swift started to sink. She paddled away with a single collapsible oar until the whole starfighter slid beneath the deep blue waves. She waved the paddle up at me as I passed overhead. I waved my wings and climbed a bit to maintain a vigilant circle around her.
The rescue shuttle made good time to her position and they rushed her aboard. Back at base Ops she was the toast of the squadron for having beaten the odds of surviving a water ditching. All I could think about was how I was down another fighter. If the same amount of damage had happened over dry land, we’d have been able to recover the Swift.
At the debriefing I awarded Choke his three kills. One more than he had before. He was now an ace. I let them celebrate the victory and didn’t dwell on the unfortunate outcome of losing a plane. Better to accentuate the positive for now. I’ll have to address attrition rates later.
We stood down after the first mission and I used the time to go over air to ground operations. Not that we did anything wrong, I just wanted to make sure everyone was up to speed on tactics and best practices. Turns out few were, so it was time well spent. Late that afternoon the base was hit with another token attack in response to our morning raid. I say token because we didn’t really lose any equipment or personnel which is always a good thing. The new alert team was able to engage them and got one kill.
I met with the leads again that night after chow. The food was finally beginning to get to me and not in a good way. It gave me gas and upset my stomach enough to cut the planning short, but we got done what we needed to. Choke and Katya would be the flight leads and I would stay behind on this one. It was partly a confidence builder for them and partly to see if I could effectively lead from home base. I decided to hang out at control and used some portable screens to set up a field version of a Combat Information Center. It was not ideal, but I had to adjust to the fact that I was never going to have the mission data I had in the Fleet.