Bandit

Fiction Contest Week

By Bryan Williams

LT. BARTLETT

VX-33 “Predators” AIR TEST & EVALUATION SQUADRON
0538R hours 25 MAY 2028CE
TAIWAN STRAIT.

Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m glad this isn’t Alaska. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the training, practicing intercepts, and targeting with the ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Infrared) pods, but the job was rough. Three years helping build that facility. Three years training in dissimilar combat with VX-33, testing weapon after weapon tirelessly. Three years watching the United States struggle to push back against the turning tides of the Pacific. So, I remember the bright side. I’m not freezing my ass off at NAWS Elmendorf, running through sorties with the Air Force to catch Tu-95s and Sukhois poking their way in the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone).

I wanted more excitement and a change of scenery. I wanted to have some type of career advancement that didn’t involve shadowing flying Russian deathtraps whenever Raptors weren’t available. I’m not the kind of person that sits and waits for opportunity, so maybe I seize the moment, and a transfer to Naval Air Facility Kadena to shadow VFA-113 seemed like a good move at the time. The Department of Defense wanted to try out the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, and these guys are the first ones to field them.

“Your duty is to train, get them comfortable, and advise improvements.” I was told. “You know the situation. You know our beyond-visual-range disadvantage. We’re here to correct it, especially if this gets hot.”

Imagine my disdain when I’m jolted awake by missile warheads hitting the city. Buildings shake. Smoke rises. Sirens blare, telling us the Chinese didn’t like our ship transit through the strait and the three fighter jets they lost playing chicken.

They sent more jets, which fired upon the USS Delbert D. Black, and unfortunately sunk it. Tomahawks cleared the launch base of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force jets, with the ones airborne and on attack runs destroyed by SM-2 missiles from the dying Delbert Black.

For years, our training hyped the potency of the Chinese ballistic missile forces. Late last night, we discovered one important thing about the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF): Well, their missiles do work.

INDOPACOM is in shambles, our satellites either blinded or destroyed. I’m suited up in minutes, escorted out to my aircraft that the Taiwanese staff ingeniously moved to trick the ballistic missiles targeted at the makeshift hangars. Oh, and by ‘makeshift,’ I mean it looks like they stashed three F/A-18s in a Walmart. Hidden “Rhinos” ready to roll.

But it works.

Startup procedures. Bitchin’ Betty and her attitude. Engines up. Canopy locked.

We’re told by command to “Get the hell in the air!”

Yes. We understand, sir. Perhaps it’s the barrage of guided missiles hitting the city behind us that presses the point.

We taxi deep, nose cone to nozzle until we reach the runway, a converted freeway for wartime. Which, if we haven’t noticed, is no longer a misnomer. Then it hits.

This is wartime. I was bored. I was lost. I wanted more.

As I climb full burner into the night sky, it looks as if I will get my wish. Maybe, this was more than I wished for. Space Force and INDOPACOM push our encrypted datalinks, then to a local AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) that patches us to a Mission Operator (MOP). For our surprise attack, we get MOP 2555.

MOPs are always focused, always punctual.

This person is no different, “Halo Flight. MOP 2-5-5-5. Proceed to waypoint Alpha, heading 0-6-0,” he says. “Mission: Defense. Skycap angels 25.” Basically, ‘Defend the sky in this area’ and shoot anything that tries to come into it.’ Then, “Command reports multiple groups inbound ADIZ, origin Putian, BRA,” meaning bearing-range-altitude, “last seen off your 2-4-0 for 1-6-3, angels 38, 950 knots. Potential group of fighter type J-11. Clear to engage at your discretion.”

So they’re behind us, out to the southwest, 163 miles range, at 38,000 feet, and flying at Mach 1.4ish. They’ll pass us eventually, likely within a few minutes at this rate, but Hillard strictly adheres to rules. We stick to mission. Period.

We’re at cruising speed. 570knots. No rush.

Halo Flight flies Vic formation. I, Halo 1-3, take third wing. Captain Hillard, Halo 1-1, flight lead. Lt. Dan, Halo 1-2, second wing.

We head west, ten degrees southward. Tankers are pivotal to any aerial operation. Our best guess is we are to swap babysitting as a flight of Raptors plays high cover. There’s no doubt about it: they are far better interceptors, but we’re all INDOPACOM has right now. I see no other reason to fly angels 20, or twenty-thousand feet elevation when more will do.

It’s night still. There should be no worry about contrails.

“Halo Flight,” says Hillard, “let’s push 0-6-0 for a while and try to pick up contacts to our west. No burners for now.”

“Copy,” both Dan and I say simultaneously.

There is a pause, “950 knots? Damn, they’re bookin’!” Dan says.

“Hopefully someone picks them up,” Hillard says.

“They’ll need a ferry if they want to harass Kadena. J-11s don’t have that range,” I say. “Especially at that speed.”

I peer down at my instruments. My cherished aircraft “Lucy” is my hidden joy. Our relationship goes through up and downs, usually when she throws fits and wants dates with the maintainers. The Environmental Control System and On-Board Oxygen Generation System suck as usual. ATFLIR works when it wants to, but I’m here.

But I need her now. She’s older, one of the last produced models of the 2010s, and one of the first variants of the Block III retrofits that changed her to an X model.

The active electronically scanned array radar is nice. I’ve enjoyed the APG-79. Still, even with it, I don’t see shit.

The tactical electronic warning system is silent too. Nothing on the screen. No one is tracking us.

None of these aircraft are smooth, but the turbulence leftover by Typhoon Noke plays hell on us as we climb.

A few of the jolts show 5g on the heads-up display. Bitchin’ Betty, the attitude-laced avionics computer constantly nags.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

We’ve all learned to live with her. Three more side bursts threaten to rip away the tails.

“Anything?” Hillard asks, seeing little on the scope.

“Negative,” I say.

“Same here,” says Dan.

“Halo Flight to MOP. We’re showing zero contacts, over.”

Then, it gets spooky. MOP gets snarky,

“Halo Flight, be advised, be advised, contacts, pop-up-group of three to five, unknown type, out your 3-0-5, now for 1-1-5, Angels 25. Flanking! 900 knots and reducing.”

Mystery contacts, now maneuvering to our sides.

“MOP we have no contacts.” Hillard grows worried. “Waypoint Alpha 160 miles out.”

“Do we keep this heading?” I ask. “I don’t like this.”

“We can’t leave the tanker.”

“Raptors, sir.” Dan adds. “Tell me they can’t cover it. They have the fuel.”

“Mission is mission,” Hillard hates dissidence. “FOBs (forward operating base) getting hammered, and we got missiles raining up the strait! We can’t lose that tanker. ”

“Sir,” I plead, “we do ourselves no good bunched up like this. We get out to the tanker, if it’s still there?”

“It’ll be there!” he snaps.

“And if not, sir?” I press. I know he hates this.

“Agh, dammit.” Hillard growls. “Halo Flight to MOP, we’re concerned about the lack of contacts this far toward the waypoint. We need your guidance for course correction.”

Nothing. Static.

“Halo Flight to MOP.”

“Halo Flight to MOP.”

“I say again, Halo Flight to MOP.”

“Shit,” Dan says. “Com blackout. Satellites down. Missiles.”

“So China was waiting for this! The whole time!” I exclaim.

“Cool it!” Hillard barks, thinking on his toes. “Three, I think you have a good idea. We’ll have to split. 900 knots, 115 miles, we’ve got five, maybe eight minutes tops until they’re on top of us. Let’s go for 3-0-0 and turn in sharp in three minutes.”

“Good idea to cut that flank off.”

I look over to my right. The sky is dark, lit only by the flickers of lightning in the tall clouds in the expanse. I know what’s next. Hillard only does what makes sense. We have to turn toward them.

“Three,” Hillard says to me, “go pincer right. Keep tight. 50 miles, turn back in, and we’ll meet you in the middle. Anything shows beyond this, it’s hostile. You’re the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) Queen.”

“No V-I-D?” I ask. Confirming the change of engagement rules.

Even in wartime, visual identification is necessary. No one wants to be the guy that shoots down a Dreamliner or an Airbus.

“Confirm. No V-I-D. We are at war. This is a no-fly zone.”

“Roger. Pincer right for 3-4-5. Mid-low-high.” I say, confirming out altitude positions relative to each other. “I’ll take high. Aiming for angels 40.”

I look at them, hoping this isn’t the last time. Then, with one subtle move of the joystick, I peel away and pull into the turn, breathing through the g against my stomach. Lucy noses up, and I see the stars fading above me. Over my shoulder, Dan peels away left.

Nautical twilight is near. I hope to use it should I meet something out there that isn’t a Raptor or tanker.

“See you in a few minutes,” says Hillard. “Good luck.”

“Aye, sir.”

The airframe is filled with squeaks, rattles, and buffeting. Over the years, I imagine the test pilots that flew Lucy before me grew as acquainted to those sounds as I am. It’s music when we have none. The one thing that keeps us ticking, should the adrenaline overwhelm me, I listen to the squeaks of rivets flexing in their seams, the wings bouncing along in the air.

I wish for home. Farm fields. Lush air.

There is no time for daydreaming. My thirty seconds is up, and I pop the radar into scan, nose still pointed high as I cross angels 30.

Nothing, but I give it time. The horizon spans to infinity, now flushing with blue with the new day, a bad day, potentially for millions of people should this grow even further out of control.

And it does. And it is now where I feel helpless, when I know deep down there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop a war, when training goes to reality in the time it takes for Hillard to scream,

“Spike! Spike! I got RWR (radar warning receiver) at three-o-clock!”

Dan followed up, “Turning in towards you! Still no contact!”

“Three! Contact?”

Nothing. Nothing. Oh, shit.

The instrument panel lights up.

I get Master Caution, and the RWR’s telling, Bloop!

Then, Deedle! Deedle! Deedle! Deedle!

Radar lock.

Shit. Shit. SHIT. The TEWS (tactical electronic warfare system) screen shows the missile, but the system’s weakness is that it only gives a relative direction of the spike. It isn’t exact, but it’s from 11-o-clock. That’s enough for whereabouts. I breathe, my legs tingling with despair as I must now choose whether to press forward for a counter shot, or dive defensive.

“Three!” I say, the tension clear in my voice. “I have RWR. Spike 11-o-clock. No—wait.” I see a hit on radar. Faint, the little rectangle glowing ominously through the scan. “I have contact! 40 miles! Low RCS! Got him on—” high-g interrupts my speech as I attempt to nose in, “—ugh! Hold on,” the rectangle disappears, instead replaced by a line of six hollow likings, “he’s jamming!”

RWR jingles again. Deedle! Deedle! Deedle!

But it gets worse, the chimes growing frantic, their pulses as fast as my pounding heart.

DeedleDeedleDeedleDeedle!

“Missile!” I call, fighting my instinct to turn away. I feel the heat leaving my body, the blood tensing into my gut, the dryness in my mouth.

I need to press. Just a few more miles to close the distance.

DeedleDeedleDeedleDeedle!
DeedleDeedleDeedleDeedle!

“Oh, come on!” I scream, frantically hitting the queue button, waiting through these agonizing seconds for my saving grace, the one thing that could tell me where my lovely secret bandit hides.

“Two!” says Dan, labored, “I’m completely defensive! I have two tracking me, 15 miles! RWR!”

“Come on!” I scream again, until finally, I see it spelled clearly in my heads up display. There, a little rectangle appears in the lens, levitating in the sky behind towering thunderclouds.

HOJ/MM.

Home on jammer/multi-seek mode. The rectangle highlights his position, still slightly out of visual range. A JATM should sprint toward that area, going ballistic before hitting pitbull mode, where it’ll lock onto the first thing it sees with both a heat signature larger than a car engine and a radar cross section bigger than a cardinal. If all else fails, it looks for visual cues of known adversary aircraft.

I’ve only tested it. Holy hell, I hope it actually works.

It has to work.

His missiles must be close, so I let loose, the master arm already toggled the moment things got hairy.

“Fox-3!” I yell, pressing the launch button.            

A JATM bursts from the rails, its rocket motor streaming orange as it fires away. Panicked, I let two more away.

“Fox-3! —Ugh, Fox-3 again!” before another JATM is off the rail. “Engaging bandit, heading 3-0-2, Angels 24. Pressing!”

“Three, defend!” says Hillard, defending himself. “Descending through Angels 13, countermeasures out!”

“Two!” I say, hoping he’s there. “Two!”

He’s not.

I lose contact with the bandit, flipping the radar into auto acquisition mode. It’s a last ditch effort, hearing the RWR stop blaring in my ears, the sounds of my breath fogging up my mask. This is stupid, and I know it. I should turn cold to him. In fact, I should’ve done that at least 90 seconds ago, but I can’t let him run us down.

Closing at 850 knots, there is no way we can run.

What I can do, and it’s the only thing I hope for, is to force an overshoot only if those missiles don’t jump me. I roll right, pushing Lucy into a brake so hard I feel my guts push deep into the seat. The blood sucks from my head.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

Breathing is the only way through it, if there weren’t 950 pounds atop my chest. It devolves to mere suckles, gasps for life as my vision peters out. I don’t want to drop my tank. It still has 2,000 pounds in it last I checked, but I’m chewing through that sitting on the afterburner like this.

I ease up on the stick. Life comes back to me.

No RWR yet. My goal is to notch the bandit. I need to stay as perpendicular to him as possible,

“Three, defending!” I gasp, hearing the RWR ring again.

DeedleDeedleDeedleDeedle!

Whoop! Whoop! its voice in slow motion, Missile! Missile!

Hillard yells, his voice tearing holes through me, “I see the missile! I see the launch! It’s coming! There’s two!” then, “Agh!”

Flight controls! Flight controls!

“Aggggh!”

And that is the end for him.

I’m heading straight for Hillard and Dan. Twilight blooms in the sky ahead this way, due east where home is, and my safety. I wish for them to save me, if only for this moment, before I see a flash on the horizon. Then flames, fragments of debris falling, the leftovers of what was once an F/A-18E. Captain Justin Hillard. Gone.

“I think One is down!” shouts Dan. “I’m defending!”

“I see One is splashed!” I croak, peering over the shoulder, seeing two contrails above, a kink in their line as they redirect towards me.

“Shit!” Dan screams. “No more RWR!”

“Don’t press!” I say, pointing Lucy’s nose down. The darkened ocean fills my view, the sounds of the aircraft bouncing through heavy turbulence at 870 knots. 910 knots. 960 knots.

I cross Angels 9. I’m running out of altitude at this speed.

This is it. This is where I die.

“I’m pressing!” Dan says defiantly. “Turned back in, I see—two, no, three contacts!” then, “Fox-3!” again, “Fox-3! Agh, oh sh—”

I already see it, one flash ahead of me. Maybe ten miles.

“Nooo!” I only hear myself.

Flames, but there are two contrails flying away from it. Two rocket motors heavy to the north, streaming up until through the breadth of baby blue abyss, I see a small blackened dot, an aircraft, two burners lit as it pulls defensive.

It’s a bandit. Within visual range.

Yes. This is where I die.

I check my six, dropping more chaff in the beeline down. I cross angels 5, pulling back on the stick, looking up to see. The bandit, just as confused and spaced out as me, makes a mistake and flares as he goes cold to Dan’s JATMs.

But AIM-260s don’t give a damn about flares.

He realizes this, but it’s too late. He pulls hard up, just as my vision goes black, the 900+ pounds pushing me into the seat.

DeedleDeedleDeedleDeedle!

Flight controls! Flight controls!

Boom. It bursts into a trail of flames. I pull up to center it, looking back, one missile bursting just behind me. Where’s the other? I saw two! The other one is next, surely here to finish what it’s brother couldn’t: me.

And there, behind the left tail, I see it, its rocket motor extinguished, its guidance computers honing onto me, using its last bit of kinetic energy to close the gap. Oh god. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go.

I must do something! I can’t just wait for it!

Roll! Roll! And I do, nearly spinning the wings off.

Desperation makes us all stupid, and here I do a stupid thing.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

“Aggggggh!” I’m blind, pulling into the bank so hard that my eyes give way to starvation. I don’t see it. “Aaaaaggggh.” And then I do, slipping beneath me, and then I yank the stick back, nosing up.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

I get lucky. There is no other way to put it. The missile attempts to follow, but it’s spent. Its nose pops up, and it closes to within perhaps a hundred feet of me—shit, maybe even fifty. Shit. SHIT. I think it’s going to hit.

DeedleDeedleDeedleDeedle

Whoop! Whoop!

I pull back again, hoping the wings don’t detach. Flight controls!

It bursts. I gasp. I hear the shrapnel shoot by me, some of it hitting the canopy, piercing the wing skin, hitting the tails, and then—the engine.

Turbulence. The worst kind.

I hear nasty sounds, much like metal chewing against blown bearings, the compressor and its fans shearing into their housings. Lucy rolls hard to the left. I see the wing flex.

“Aaaaaghhh!” I scream for someone to help me. “Noooo!”

Bitchin’ Betty spells it.

Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

It gets worse, ACM failure!

And worse in sequence, Radar failure!

But I don’t need radar for Sidewinders. Maybe, by this point, I either don’t care, or I’ve accepted my fate to the degree that I must maximize it. Lucy is still controllable. I still have hydraulics. Wings still attached. Both tails there. I can still maneuver—for now.

Let’s make the best of this. I put her into Seeker Caged Mode. Slam mode, the mode where the pilot no longer cares about being cordial.

Sidewinders armed. I nose up and bank back to the left.

Boom. There’s a flash in the distance. And then another. Two burning trails of debris falling. What? How could that be?

Holy shit. My JATMs. They both hit someone. There were only two fired in that direction, and it was from me.

“Splash two!” I say, still not accepting my friends are dead. “I think I splashed two! They’re in tight formation. Two groups of two—gaaaah—pincer coverage!”

I look left as I bank. I’m spewing smoke, a large flame reminiscent of Saturn V boosters from the nozzle of my left engine.

Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

Shut up, Betty! I know! I know!

My helmet sight queues. Seeing the two bandits down, I should be more than close enough for IRST [Infrared Search-and-Track]. The scan head sweeps, so I thank God it’s still working.

I reach down and pull the fire handle and shutdown switch for the left engine. Killing the turbine, yet the fire persists. I’m leaking fuel. It’s literally pouring out the wing, but I’m going fast enough to ensure it spews behind the plane in the wind.

Maybe, I’ll have just enough energy for this plan.

The reticle comes up on the HUD. The display shows my little wolves are ready. It’s time to uncage them, but only when the time is right.

There’s the telling hum of old adage.

Hummmmmmmmmm, then, waaaaaaaahhhh

But I can’t fire. I can’t waste this precious missile. The bandit closes, highlighted by the vibrating green circle over him in the visor as he speeds to my flank. He does what I planned minutes ago, doing an easy 700+ knots. The sky is much brighter now, and finally, I see them.

Holy. Hell. Two Chengdu J-20s. In the flesh.

One moving far faster than the other, half mile separation in altitude.

And I’m this close to them. Now, it all makes sense. The high interdiction speed. The lack of radar pickup. The missiles. I think they carry PL-21s, some bullshit knockoff Russian R-77, but maybe I shouldn’t discount them.

Clearly, they killed Hillard and Dan.

It’s just me, and I pull hard into the bank, just as I see the faster J-20 come to overshoot. I roll, holding the right engine as high as I can, feeling the left shudder and rake Lucy about in the clouds.

There is slow motion, though we pass perpendicular, him over top me. Admittedly, the Chengdu is a beautiful aircraft. It’s long, its wings mounted stern, little canards wiggling off each side just behind the canopy. Whomever is flying, they never realize their mistake.

Very little is known about the J-20, but physics are real.

He has far too much energy, and in his overshoot, he rolls and pulls up, forcing a displacement, attempting to match my turn—at least if he still considers me to be a threat. I’m on fire, but to him, he sees that one missile has missed, and the other as far as he’s concerned did most of its job.

Neither he nor his wingman fire at me.

Either I am lucky, or they are out of missiles.

Will they come back for me? Will they rotate, or will they commit back to their forward track? I focus on the lead. I see his burners on, and a fast, wide turn, and these fleeting seconds I hold my breath, ignoring the repeating warnings from Lucy and her Bitchin’ Betty. I hope. I pray, watching him start his roll.

Left or right? Which way will they try to get me?

Well, I’m not waiting. My indicated airspeed is 384 knots. Smack into the fat of a Super Rhino’s turn speed. With the larger wing area I can pull much higher turn rates in the F/A-18X, but that’s an undamaged one. Considering the holes in my left wing, I can’t pull as hard as I want. Still, I rotate just enough, bouncing aloft, watching and feeling the wings justle, the vortex clouds condensing over the leading edges.

I nose up, just as he crosses around.

I see his burners, still on. Perfect for a sidewinder.

Huuummmmmmm, then, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Fox-2. An AIM-9 leaves the rail.

I pitch down, still pretending to be dead.

He hasn’t turned yet, evidence that he assumed I was done for. With no tanks—or at least he dropped them—he has to be low on fuel, likely not wanting to expend any extra energy fiddling with me. His wingman does the same, covering the sea below as he banks away.

I turn my head upward, bringing the helmet-mounted seeker to him.

Maybe this is cowardice, but this is war. I nose up again.

Huuummmmmmm, then, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Fox-2. I fire my last AIM-9.

They are clueless at this point, still flying away, their backs turned to me.

I imagine them calling out a ‘splash,’ their temporary victory short lived as a Sidewinder closes in like a German Shepherd, and in just the last moment, I see the lead J-20 flaring, the decoys flying out behind him as, just then, he’s hit by a blast fragmentation warhead.

Fire engulfs him, then his right wing separates. He rolls, tumbling until the forces rip off the tails. I don’t see where he ends up, but it’s at least away from me. He’ll crash somewhere north of here at that heading, in waters we control. His friend meets a similar fate.

So much for your stealth tanker strike, guys. It was okay, until you met me.

Mighty Dragon — that’s what they call them.

Oh, yes, it’s a sight to see, and before I die, I hold in happiness that in my luck, maybe somewhere in history, I’d go down as the first pilot to ever face such an aircraft in surprise combat.

And I killed four of them. Lucky me.

That was for Captain Hillard and Lieutenant Dan. Shit. There’s a searing pain against my back.

Betty!

Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

APU fire! APU fire!

Dammit. Caught up in the Sidewinder uncaging, I forgot how dire my situation was. After losing the airspeed, the wind no longer keeps the spewing fire away. It’s in the aircraft, licking at the inner fuselage. The cockpit fills with smoke, my pants on fire, and the extinguisher only gives temporary respite.

I’m screaming. This hurts so damn bad.

I flip the toggle to jettison the drop tanks, but one catches—the one jammed on the battered left wing. Aerodynamic forces grapple the tanks, just long enough to yank Lucy into a hard left yaw. I’m thrown against the right cockpit fairing, the directional change and load shift more than the trim can adjust to. I nose up and over, the wind catching the bottom of the fuselage, ripping away the right tail, sending it into the left, and finally, the jammed wing tank is free.

Somehow I’m still flying. I use the one rudder I have left to point to heading 2-4-3. This should take me back to Taiwan, assuming that the island hasn’t been overrun. I have no clue what happened to the other two bandits we saw during the engagement. I can’t worry about that now.

There are three ways for me to die:

1) Burning alive in this aircraft.
2) A final hit by the other two bandits.
3) I eject, where I succumb to blunt force trauma from 400 knot winds, or make it down and drown.

Tough choices. But Lucy still has a little life left.

The main fuel dump still works, so I use it, pushing the right engine enough to climb back to Angels 10. Up here, I see Taiwan, and though it isn’t Taipei, I’m somewhere near the coast, at least 80 to 100 miles out. I adjust trim, keeping the nose high enough and the remaining left tail lags enough to hold a reasonably steady cruise. I’m guessing maybe 300 knots. Airspeed sensor failed when the nose cone detached.

Come on, Lucy. Come on sweetheart.

We’ve come too far to go out this way.

This gives me just a moment to see the beauty of the sky, perhaps the last few things I’ll see.

Flight computer hot! Flight computer hot!

The Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System visor quits along with the main avionics displays, but the bingo fuel light still works. So much for that fuel dump.

I’ll have to ditch, but I’ll hold out.

I fumble around, looking down to the com board, remembering to pay attention to the radio again.

I hear a voice in the static. “Halo Flight, this is Eagle Flight.”

Then, the coms die. Now, I get my silence. Minutes pass this way, five, six, or maybe eight.

Something catches my eye in the distance. It’s another bird, one of ours, moving into my three-o-clock. A Kadena Raptor. I recognize the tail number. Must be Eagle Flight, the bastards we were supposed to meet at the waypoint. He gets to within 100 feet of me, playing cautious to not get sucked into my debris stream.

He waves his wings. In the canopy, I see the pilot gesturing.

Oh, sure. Look at that. Lucy’s datalink still works. It’s a separate system from the avionics. I hit turbulence, either the wind, or the plane stalling. Maybe both.

My Raptor friend moves in above me. He’s surveying my plane, likely as shocked as his wingman that I’m still flying. I know, guys, I know. Make sure you get plenty of pictures.

Knocking and screeching startle me.

Engine fire, RIGHT! Engine fire, RIGHT!

I pull the right engine fire handle. Then I lose the lights. APU failure.

Flight controls failure! Flight controls failure!

Uh oh,

Eject! Eject!

I nose down. Oh god. I see nothing but water. My heart races. My stomach knots. Now, I have no more tricks up my sleeve, no more last minute lucky draws from a hat.

Bless their hearts, the Raptors follow me down.

The altimeter winds down, its hand spinning so fast that I can no longer see it. Rather I see dial digits, passing through 8,000.

7,000. I’m picking up speed.

5,800. The hops grow violent, threatening to shatter my spine.

4,150.

3,000.

There’s so much water. I can’t eject yet!

Not yet!

2,000.

“Oh—my god.” I black out, shortly after the left wing separates, the jet rolling starkly to the left. Somehow, before I inevitably pass out, I grab the handle, and I shoot out, my breath taken away by the pain and shock of bursting into the atmosphere.

I freefall until the chute pops, jolting me to a faint descent. Stunned, I can see only a few bits and pieces. Below me, my plane spins, the aerodynamic forces snapping the fuselage in two. There, it tumbles piece by piece into the water.

The same water where I meet my fate.

All I see is darkness.

I never thought that it would be this dark.

Bryan Williams is a Mechanical Engineer working in the automotive field and moonlighting as a novelist. He is a huge aviation fan, particularly interested in the tactics of combat aviation. He has self-published one unrelated novel, The Underground Kings. Further additions to “Bandit” can be found on his website at https://winiverse.com/bandit-section-one/.

Featured Image: “Jet” by Lorenzo de Sanctis (via Artstation)

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