Authors: James Barrington
Eastern Mediterranean: June 1972
‘So what the fuck did you do?’ Jonas snapped, loosening his seat belt and looking across the dimly lit cabin at the tall thin man in the leather seat opposite.
The Lear had reached top of climb at thirty-five thousand feet out of Cairo, and was heading west into the gathering dusk.
This atypical expletive – Jonas was the senior man and almost always calm and controlled – shocked Wilson. ‘I just did what the three of you refused to do,’ he said,
looking back at the hostile expressions of the other men. ‘I had to – my conscience wouldn’t let me ignore it. You know
what we were doing back there.’
‘No,’ Jonas said heavily, ‘we don’t
anything. You’re just guessing, and you could be guessing wrong.’
Wilson laughed shortly. ‘You’ve seen the file,’ he said, ‘and you’ve seen the research. How can you ignore it?’
‘Quite easily,’ Jonas replied, and turned to glance out of the window at the navigation lights of their escorting F-4E Phantom jet, a dimly seen shape a quarter of a mile out to
starboard and slightly behind the civilian aircraft. Then he turned back to face Wilson. ‘Look, why didn’t you just do what you’ve been paid – and very well paid – to
Wilson shook his head, rimless spectacles glinting in the cabin lights. ‘I couldn’t.’
‘So you reported it?’ Jonas asked, and Wilson nodded. ‘Who to?’
For the first time, Wilson looked uncomfortable. ‘I knew there was no point in going through the usual channels. That would just make sure whatever I said got buried in a file
Jonas and the other two men stared at him. ‘I’ll ask you again,’ Jonas said, his tone now low and threatening. ‘Who did you tell?’
‘The President,’ Wilson blurted out. ‘I wrote to the President, and copied it to the Director of Central Intelligence.’
For a moment, Jonas just stared across the cabin at his subordinate. His voice, when he spoke, was quiet and laden with infinite sadness. ‘You fool,’ he said. ‘You stupid,
meddling, ignorant fool. You’ve probably killed us all.’
‘Lima Charlie, this is Tango Three.’ The Phantom pilot sounded calm and controlled on the discrete frequency the two aircraft were sharing. ‘I have
unidentified traffic on radar, sixty miles to port, two contacts, high speed and heading towards. Suggest a precautionary starboard turn onto three zero zero while we check it out.’
‘Roger, Tango Three,’ the Learjet captain replied, as he disengaged the autopilot and eased the control column to the right.
‘I wonder who they are?’ the co-pilot asked.
‘I don’t know, but we’re not that far from Libya, so it might be Gaddafi starting to flex his muscles. Probably nothing to worry about.’
The Learjet steadied on its new heading, a track that would take it over to the west of Crete and towards the Ionian Sea.
‘Lima Charlie, Tango Three.’ There was now a clear note of urgency in the Phantom pilot’s voice. ‘We’re being illuminated by fire-control radar. Recommend you head
north. Dash speed. We’re—’ The transmission broke in a sudden burst of static.
‘Oh, shit,’ the Learjet captain muttered, pushing the throttles fully forward and moving the control column further to the right.
Wilson had leaned forward, reaching for the case at his feet, then fell back in his seat as the Learjet banked rapidly to the right, the engine noise suddenly increasing.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Jonas demanded.
Above the cockpit door, the ‘Fasten Seat Belts’ sign suddenly illuminated, and the cabin speaker crackled into life.
‘Buckle up, back there. We’ve got company, and this may get rough.’
‘Tango Three, this is Lima Charlie. Respond.’ Silence. ‘Tango Three, Lima Charlie.’
‘Leave it,’ the captain said. ‘He’s got his hands full, if he’s still flying. Kill the lights.’ The co-pilot obediently extinguished the Learjet’s
navigation and anti-collision lights. ‘A waste of time if these bastards have got radar-guided weapons.’
‘Who the hell are they?’ the co-pilot asked again. ‘We’re not at war with anybody, as far as I know.’
‘Who cares? Let’s just get the hell away from here. Make a broadcast on twelve fifteen. Give our position and tell anybody who’s listening that we’re under attack by two
unidentified fighter aircraft.’
The co-pilot switched to the civil aircraft emergency VHF frequency – 121.5 megahertz – and started speaking into his microphone. Almost immediately he stopped.
‘What is it?’ the pilot asked.
‘It’s just been jammed. There’s a tuning tone or something being broadcast. I can’t break through it.’
‘Try a different frequency. Try Guard, then Athens, or Cairo or Malta.’
The co-pilot tried four, then six frequencies, UHF and VHF, but the result was the same each time. He shook his head. ‘They’re all blocked,’ he said. ‘One of those
fighters must have an ECM pod fitted.’
The captain’s face was noticeably white in the dim cockpit lighting. ‘That’s real bad news,’ he said. ‘That means they don’t want us to tell anybody
what’s happening up here.’
‘Can we out-run them?’ the co-pilot asked.
The Learjet 23 was a very rapid aircraft, with a top speed of almost five hundred miles an hour and a service ceiling of over forty thousand feet. Its performance made it as fast, or faster,
than many civilian airliners, but not as quick as most fighter interceptors.
‘No idea. We’re at maximum velocity now. There’s nothing else we can—’
His voice was interrupted by a muffled crump from the port side of the aircraft. Warning lights flared red across the instrument panel, needles on gauges span wildly, and the aircraft lurched to
‘We’re hit!’ the captain shouted. ‘Missile in the port engine. Hit the extinguishers.’
The co-pilot pressed the buttons as the captain wrestled with the control column. With the port engine destroyed, the aircraft immediately became asymmetric as the thrust of the remaining
turbojet tried to turn the aircraft to the left. The extinguishers fired their foam into the wreckage of the engine, quenching the flames. Hydraulic fluid and aviation fuel bubbled out of ruptured
pipes, to be instantly carried away by the slipstream.
‘We’re losing height! Cabin’s depressurizing!’
The altimeter needles unwound in a blur as the Learjet tumbled out of the sky.
The missile that had impacted with the port engine had also blown a two-foot hole at the back of the cabin on the left-hand side. Oxygen masks dropped down in front of the
startled passengers from the overhead baggage lockers.
Three of them immediately pulled the masks over their faces. When Wilson didn’t follow their example, Jonas turned to shout out to him – but his voice died in his throat. A foot-long
shard of aluminium was sticking out of the back of the man’s seat, while another six inches protruded from Wilson’s throat, thick red blood pouring over it.
In the cockpit, the two pilots pulled oxygen masks over their faces as they struggled to regain some semblance of control.
‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,’ the co-pilot shouted automatically into his microphone, before again hearing the tone in his earphones and realizing nobody would be able to hear his
At fifteen thousand feet, the captain managed to get the aircraft straight, and more or less level. ‘Closest land?’ he demanded.
The co-pilot already had the navigation chart unfolded. Using his out-spread fingers as a crude measuring tool, he calculated distances. ‘Crete,’ he said. ‘Come right. Steer
zero two zero. Distance about fifty miles to the southern coast, around eighty to the airport at Irakleío.’
‘If we can keep this thing in the air that long,’ the captain muttered, as he cautiously eased the control column to the right, depressed the right rudder pedal and reduced power
slightly on the starboard engine. The flight controls felt soggy and vague, and the gentle turn cost him another three hundred feet of altitude. ‘And if whoever’s flying those fighters
lets us, more to the point.’
The co-pilot’s eyes scanned the instruments in front of him. Red and orange warning lights studded the panel, and yellow and red captions had erupted everywhere.
‘The fire’s out,’ he said. ‘That’s the good news. The bad news is we’re losing fuel. We’ll be tanks dry in about thirty minutes. The bigger problem is
that hydraulic fluid’s pumping out of the hole where the port engine used to be. Flight controls are heavy and mushy, and that’ll only get worse, and we’ll probably have to do a
wheels-up flapless landing.’
‘If we get that far, I’ll be happy to. Tell our passengers what’s happened,’ the captain said.
As the co-pilot selected cabin broadcast, a stream of tracer shells screamed past the left side of the cockpit, and both men felt the impact as they crashed into the port wing. Panels ripped and
buckled, the aileron and flaps were torn away, and then the last eight feet of the wing lifted upwards and backwards before ripping off and tumbling away behind the aircraft.
And then there was nothing anyone could do. The Learjet lost virtually all lift from the mangled wing, turned inexorably to port and began to spin rapidly down towards the sea nearly three miles
below. The two men in the cockpit fought it all the way, and managed to straighten the aircraft for a few brief seconds at just under a thousand feet. But they both knew they were going nowhere but
‘Brace for impact!’
As the glittering surface of the Mediterranean rushed towards them, both men saw a dark shape out to starboard, descending with them.
The captain shook his head in disbelief. ‘That’s—’ he started to say, and then the Lear impacted the water at a little over one hundred and eighty miles an hour.
At that speed, hitting water is pretty much the same as hitting concrete. The remains of the left wing and the nose of the aircraft struck almost simultaneously, the impact killing the men in
the cockpit instantly. The aircraft fell onto its back, filled rapidly with water, and sank. Bits and pieces of debris floated up to the surface to mark its grave – but no survivors or bodies
The fighter aircraft that had followed the Learjet in its final plunge circled the impact site for five minutes, the two-man crew scanning the surface carefully, the pilot’s finger
hovering over the firing button of the cannon. Finally satisfied, he made his weapons safe, pushed the throttles forward and climbed rapidly away to the west.
Present day – Monday
Southern Adriatic Sea
Paul Richter eased the control column of the Sea Harrier FA2 gently to the left, then pushed it further, turning the bank into a slow barrel roll. He levelled the aircraft
for less than a second, then turned sharply to port and accelerated to catch up with the other Harrier, which was already opening to the south-east. He glanced down briefly at the surface of the
Adriatic glinting far below, and waited for the Senior Pilot’s inevitable rebuke.
‘Tiger Two, Leader. Stop buggering about and stay in formation.’
‘Sorry, Splot,’ Richter said. ‘Just checking I could still do it.’
The two Sea Harriers steadied on a heading of one two zero and continued their climb to thirty-one thousand feet, holding four hundred and twenty knots or about eight miles a minute. They were
in battle pair formation, Richter holding position about half a mile to the right and behind Tiger One. It was his fifth Combat Air Patrol sortie since his temporary attachment to 800 Squadron,
embarked on board HMS
, for continuation training.
Richard Simpson, the head of the Foreign Operations Executive and Richter’s unloved superior, had bitched about it long and hard. However, Richter was still technically on the Emergency
List and in the Royal Naval Reserve, and had argued that he was required to keep up his flying skills. If there had been a good – or even a faintly convincing – reason why he
shouldn’t have gone, Simpson would certainly have used it. But everything was quiet in London, and Richter had just been sitting in his office moving paper from one tray to another and
getting increasingly irritated, so Simpson had reluctantly, and somewhat suddenly, consented.