He almost had to remind himself it was Utah. It may as well have been an alien world. The landscape was right out of a sci-fi fantasy painting. Towering spires of rock threw oddly shaped shadows across mazes of interwoven canyons. The spectacular formations were painted in red and orange hues and were nothing like one would expect to see in a blue and green world such as Earth. Mars, perhaps. Somewhere else, anyway. He half expected to see Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a landing party surveying the surface. You, in the red shirt — go check out that noise.
Lieutenant Eric Sims, formerly of the United States Navy, pulled his attention back into the cockpit of his F-14 Tomcat, cruising at 3,000 feet over the canyon lands. Though the Tomcat carried a back seat for a Radar Intercept Officer, Sims was alone on this flight. His radar was at that moment separated into at least a dozen component pieces in the maintenance bay of his base back in northern California. The post-World War III era had made functioning spare parts of any kind a rarity, and the complexity of the radar system meant that it was out of action as often as not. Without a radar to operate, his RIO remained at the base, assisting with the repair efforts. Besides, Sims was strictly flying as an instructor and observer today, in an area which had been repeatedly swept by the air forces of the new United American government. Hostile activity hadn’t been recorded here in months.
His eyes followed the formation of four small fighters below him. They were student pilots undergoing low-level strike training. He was their teacher. The pilots in his charge were flying AMX light attack jets. Newly purchased by the fledgling United American forces, these former Italian aircraft were proving to be quite effective. Their small size made them a difficult target to see at a distance, much less hit, and they were very quick and agile. Originally designed as a smaller, less expensive complement to the Panavia Tornado, one of the best strike aircraft the world had ever seen, the AMX could carry most of the same weapons as its bigger cousin, and its electronics and avionics suite was nearly on par as well. The AMX was not designed for low-level interdiction, however, and as such did not possess the sophisticated terrain-following radar which allowed the Tornado to fly autonomously at high speed through twisting terrain at less than 200 feet. To do that in the AMX took sharp stick and rudder skills from the pilot.
Sims keyed his mike. “Okay, boys, let’s do it.”
With that, the four students rolled inverted as one, and rocketed toward the desert floor. They rolled upright and leveled off at 300 feet, approaching the entrance to a system of mountainous canyons. The entrance was an opening in the rock face perhaps 150 feet wide. The mountains rose up 700 feet on either side of the entrance. Sims descended to about 1,000 feet to better observe his students. The AMX flight tightened to a single file formation and dropped to 200 feet as they swept through the entrance at 300 knots. About a half mile in, the canyon split in several directions. The pilots separated with precision, each taking a different route. The canyons all converged at a single point about six miles ahead. It was a roughly circular clearing in the mountains, and provided a perfect place to practice a multi-directional attack on a target. Each pilot advanced his throttle, increasing speed to 400 knots and descending even further, to 150 feet.
The lead AMX had chosen the route with the most difficult turns, the first of which was rapidly approaching. He watched the looming canyon wall as it raced toward him. His visored eyes risked an instant to focus on the numbers on his HUD, confirming his altitude, what little he had, before returning to the onrushing world ahead. Turning too soon would be as lethal as turning too late. Wait — wait — now. He yanked the stick to the left, snap-rolling 90 degrees, and just as quickly hauled the stick back, pulling the nimble fighter into a maximum-G turn. What felt like an enormous weight shoved him down hard into his seat. He felt a squeeze in his legs as his suit pumped full of air, forcing blood back up toward his head, preventing him from blacking out due to lack of oxygen to the brain. The world outside was moving rapidly from left to right, or from his perpendicular perspective, top to bottom. It seemed to him that he had been in the turn for a very long time. As the dark wall before him shifted sideways, it was also growing very close, very quickly. For a brief instant, he had the horrifying thought that he might have misjudged the turn. But in that same instant, his view outside suddenly brightened, and he was in the clear. He rolled out, feeling the G’s unload as he relaxed. The most difficult turn was behind him now.
Sims observed his top student with satisfaction. The leader had tackled the hardest turn on the course, and had nailed it. His eyes caught a reflection of light off to his left. He looked over and saw an AMX pulling up and out of the canyon. The pilot had overshot his turn and had to pull up to avoid hitting the wall. Sims heard the pilot cursing at himself over the radio.
“Take it easy,” Sims called. “That’s why we’re out here. If you’re going to make a mistake, now is the time to do it.” Sims knew that if the pilot had been forced to pull up like that in a combat situation, every SAM and AAA gun in the area would have painted him instantly, and he would likely have ended up as surely dead from enemy fire as if he had augured into the terrain. But Sims also knew the student didn’t need discouragement just now.
“You have to anticipate the turn. If you’re reacting, then you’re too slow.”
“Roger that. Sorry, boss,” the student replied as he headed back down into the canyon course.
All four pilots completed their runs without further incident, dropping their payload of small practice bombs with precision within the target area.
“Nicely done, boys,” Sims said. “I want all of you to get some time on the sim tonight, and tomorrow we’re coming back out here. I want 5 seconds off your best time today. Do that, and maybe we can get the hell out of the desert and back to the coast.”
The student pilots exchanged some enthusiastic radio chatter about the prospect, as it meant that their training was nearly done, and they were close to achieving a distinction in their line of work. Even though Sims flew what was primarily an air-to-air platform (the Tomcat did have a secondary attack capability), he was one of the UA’s senior air-to-ground instructor pilots due to his prior experience flying the F/A-18 Hornet, and also due to the fact that veteran combat pilots of any specialty were few and far between. That experience was a treasured commodity, and in the United American Air Forces, pilots who had completed Sims’ course were generally regarded as elite within the strike community.
In reality, Sims had already decided that all four pilots of this class were ready to graduate. They had fulfilled all his expectations and more, but he wanted them to keep pushing themselves to the limit. The truth was that no matter how well you trained, the reality was that training was one thing, and combat another. Whenever you had a pilot decide he was talented enough to dial his intensity back a notch, well — you usually ended up with one less pilot, sooner or later.
The five aircraft turned for home. Sims switched his radio to the proper frequency to signal the UA border defense forces that his flight was returning. He keyed the mike to transmit, and his headphones blasted him with screeching, high pitched static. Jamming? What the hell? A new sound assaulted his ears. This time it was his threat indicator, screaming a radar lock, then a missile launch warning. He jerked his head around to the left, looking behind just in time to see a flickering light racing toward him, trailing a long plume of white smoke. He reefed the big Tomcat over into a hard right turn, rapidly increasing his angle to the missile, making it that much harder for it to follow him. He also let out radar-reflecting bundles of chaff to lure the deadly needle away from his plane. The tactic worked, and the radar-guided missile veered away, confused by the sudden multiple targets created by the clouds of shredded aluminum. Sims knew he was extremely lucky. Had it been a heat-seeking missile fired at him, he never would have received a launch warning, and may never have known he was under attack until impact.
“Heads up!” He shouted into the radio. “We’ve got company!” He still had not seen the aircraft that had fired at him. His eyes swept the sky, desperately trying to locate his adversary. The jamming was apparently only affecting one frequency ‘” the one used to call home. The others were clear, but the problem was no friendly forces were listening to them. This meant that whoever was doing the jamming knew which frequency to use, but more importantly, the lack of a multi-frequency range suggested that the enemy jammer wasn’t very sophisticated. If he was lucky, neither was the enemy aircraft. He radioed his flight to leave the area. Each AMX was carrying nothing but their remaining practice ordnance, not even ammunition for their cannons, and would be useless in aerial combat. Not to mention that the jets would be irreplaceable if lost. The lead student responded to the order.
“Negative, lead, we’re coming to assist.”
“Repeat, return to base,” Sims called. “You won’t be any help to me. When you get out of range of the jamming, contact the Sierra fighters.” Point Sierra was a holding pattern over northern Nevada, the nearest of many locations where the UA always had fighters on station. However, Sims knew that the fighters from Sierra were a good 10 minutes away. The coming fight wouldn’t last nearly that long, no matter how it turned out. But his students wanted to help him, and this gave them a mission.
“Lead, we’re not leaving you here by yourself.” The student was insistent.
“What are you gonna use, harsh language? Now get the hell out of here before I shoot you down myself!”
“Roger that. Good luck, boss.” With that, the AMX flight headed for the deck and the safety of Nevada.
Sims was still searching the sky, straining his eyes, looking for any sign of the intruder. Or intruders. There! A glint of sunlight, probably off a canopy. He wheeled the ‘Cat around in that direction and went to full afterburner as the enemy jet came into view. Sims’ head snapped around to the right as the bandit flashed by perhaps 20 feet off his starboard wing. It was a MiG-21, painted sky blue, which was why it took so long for him to spot it. He was about to turn to go after the MiG when he saw three specks in the sky ahead. The MiG wasn’t alone. Most likely, the first one had gone out ahead, hoping Sims would turn on him so the other three would have a clear attack from behind. Sound in theory, but it was one of the oldest tricks in the book. Sims had not only read the book, he had studied Yeager, Cunningham, and Olds, who had written whole new chapters of the book. He wasn’t falling for this. As the specks ahead grew into three more MiG-21s, Sims, still in afterburner, yanked back on the stick and pulled the F-14 into a vertical climb he knew the MiGs couldn’t match. Who are these guys, he asked himself, and where the hell did they come from? He was sure that Russian Coalition forces couldn’t have made it this far west without the UA knowing about it. And the other regional players hadn’t been making any real noise of late. So that leaves — pirates? Air pirates had for years been a scourge of the remote areas, attacking cargo flights, forcing them to land, and plundering the haul just like the seafaring pirates of old. But there hadn’t been reports of pirate activity lately, either. Worry about it later, Eric.
He watched over his shoulder as the MiGs tried to stay with him. Mistake number one, Sims said to himself. The MiG-21 just didn’t have the power to maintain a vertical climb for long. Finally, they broke away, diving for the deck. Sims cut the throttle and kicked the left rudder pedal, pirouetting the Tomcat in midair to bring his nose to bear on the trio of retreating MiGs. The enemy pilots saw Sims coming after them and lit their own afterburners for escape speed. Mistake number two. Sims was in perfect firing position, behind and above, and the MiGs’ afterburners provided huge heat sources for his two AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles. He placed the Sidewinder’s diamond-shaped symbol on the HUD over the nearest MiG, squeezed the trigger on his stick, and repeated the process for the next MiG. The two Sidewinders leaped in succession off their rails beneath the wings.
The first MiG pilot quickly released decoy flares, but the advanced American missile ignored all else but the heat source of his engine, which at afterburner blazed like the sun to the Sidewinder’s electronic brain. It went straight up the tailpipe, and the MiG was blotted from the sky in an orange and black fireball. The second MiG managed to turn away from the missile at the last moment, avoiding direct impact, but the Sidewinder’s proximity fuse detonated the warhead only fifteen feet away. The expanding cloud of white-hot shrapnel perforated the wing surfaces of the ’21, making it uncontrollable. The crippled MiG fluttered earthward. The pilot frantically clawed for the ejection handle, found it, pulled — and nothing happened. Fragments of the missile warhead had sliced through the cockpit as well, missing the pilot, but severing the actuation controls for the rocket-propelled ejection seat. The cockpit became a glass-enclosed tomb, speeding the terrified pilot along to his death as he desperately pounded on the canopy in a hopeless effort to escape.
With his two Sidewinders expended, Sims was out of missiles. The UA’s weapon stocks were severely depleted, and for a training flight in a (supposedly) secure area, only minimal air-to-air ordnance had been assigned to him. All he had left was his 20mm cannon. He bore in on the third MiG and was nearing firing range when the original MiG showed up again; appearing when Sims saw the one he was pursuing pull straight up, revealing the sky blue MiG-21 racing headlong at his nose. Staccato flashes from the oncoming MiG’s wing roots told Sims he was being shot at as he shoved the stick forward. He felt a strong jolt on the stick before diving beneath the MiG. He checked for warning lights — none, he was okay. He put the Tomcat into a steep left bank, looking over his shoulder to see where the bandit had gone. He didn’t see the enemy jet, but he did find the source of the jolt. One or more 23mm cannon rounds had found their mark on his left wing. The wingtip, instead of being smoothly rounded, was now a tangled mess. Several strips of twisted metal hung from the wound, fluttering like streamers on a bicycle. It didn’t seem to be affecting his handling, luckily enough. He craned his neck around, searching for his enemy, running through the geometry of the fight in his head. If it had been himself in the MiG, he would have pulled up into a climbing left turn to set up his next shot. Which would put him on my six now, he thought. He looked directly behind him, the so-called six-o’clock position, but the MiG wasn’t there. Suddenly very worried, Sims reversed his turn, not having any idea where the MiG had gone. The enemy pilot should have been on his six. That was the logical move. Why didn’t he do it? He continued his right turn and finally caught the MiG again, this time crossing from left to right. The pilot, instead of pursuing Sims with a climbing left turn, had turned hard to the right instead. It was the last thing Sims had expected, and if he had spent a few more seconds searching for the MiG in his left hand turn, the ’21 just might have had enough time to come around on him and get into firing position. Crazy move, Sims thought, but it damn near worked. He pulled back on the stick, turning harder into the MiG, and the two planes passed each other canopy to canopy. Sims rolled level, lit the burners and took the Tomcat vertical, again using his advantage in the climb. As he came over the top of the loop, he caught sight of the third MiG from the trio that had tried to jump him earlier. It was bugging out, leaving the area at high speed. Sims knew he didn’t have the fuel to chase him, and decided to let him go.
The sky blue MiG had reversed his turn and was heading left, apparently looking for the F-14, which was now high above him. In an instant, Sims sized up the situation: this wasn’t some wily veteran pilot using unorthodox tactics. This was a rookie. Had to be. The guy was thinking in two dimensions. Twice in a row, the MiG pilot had failed to consider the vertical aspect of the fight. The first time, he had gotten lucky, but by making a level left turn he was now presenting his vulnerable tail to the Tomcat. Sims almost felt sorry for him. He was probably just a kid, thrown into the cockpit with very little training. Most air pirate gangs were well known for that, and this confirmed Sims’ suspicion of the origin of the unexpected flight of MiGs. The young pilot had natural instincts, which was why he had survived this long, but they were no replacement for real training and experience. At maximum afterburner, the F-14 swooped down after the MiG-21. But at the last moment, the MiG pilot saw him coming, quickly threw out his speed brakes, and hauled back on the stick, practically stopping his jet in midair as the Tomcat thundered right past him. Holy — Rookie or not, Sims had underestimated the kid. Behind him, the MiG also went into afterburner in pursuit. Sims broke hard left, then hard right to throw off the MiG’s aim. But the young pilot stayed with him, matching him turn for turn. Sims began to formulate a plan. He continued to alternate hard breaks to the left and right, gradually increasing the length of the zigzag pattern made by his plane. This soon had the desired effect. The MiG was matching his maneuvers, but was slightly behind in reacting to the turns. Out of a right bank, Sims would roll 180 degrees and head to the left, and when the MiG turned left to follow, Sims would reverse 180 degrees and head right. After a minute or so of this exchange, the MiG pilot saw the pattern, and began to anticipate the turns of Sims’ aircraft. He was soon turning at the same time the Tomcat did. Sims had him. He let the cycle go for three more turns, and then made his move. He came left, watching over his shoulder. Here came the MiG to the left as well. He began his roll to the right, and the MiG was right on top of it, heading to the right as soon as Sims started his roll. But instead of rolling 180 degrees, this time Sims made a complete roll through 360 degrees, and continued the left turn.
In the cockpit of the MiG-21, the young man thought he finally had the F-14. He saw the pattern of left and right turns and, anticipating the next one, heeled his nimble fighter to the right and readied himself for a gun shot on the Tomcat. He actually did squeeze off a few rounds from his 23mm cannon before he suddenly realized the F-14 was no longer there. It was as if it had disappeared right in front of him. He leveled off for a few seconds, and not seeing his adversary, broke hard left, frantically looking for the Tomcat which he now realized must have continued its left turn. He didn’t think to look above him until it was far too late, repeating his fundamental mistake for the last time.
Immediately after pulling left instead of right, Sims had gone once again to the vertical, taking advantage of the pirate’s two-dimensional thinking. Inverted, Sims looked down through the roof of his canopy at the MiG, which was pulling a tight left-hand circle, oblivious to the approaching death from above. You poor dumb kid, Sims thought as he eased back on the stick, pointing the nose of his Tomcat at the MiG and diving, still inverted, toward his prey.
He’s not here, the MiG pilot thought to himself. He should be here, but he’s not. He was dumbfounded. His enemy had seemed to vanish, though of course that wasn’t true. But where is he? Perhaps the flag-waver had bugged out. That must be it. Just then, the pilot noticed that he had lost altitude during his tight, circling turn. A mountainous rock formation loomed ahead. Cursing himself for his lack of attention, he leveled out of the turn and pulled up. And then it dawned on him. Up!
Sims rolled wings-level, completing the half Cuban eight. The MiG had come level as well, and now grew larger in his HUD. Sims flipped the switch on his stick to GUNS and squeezed the trigger. An enormous ripping sound filled the air and a gout of flame erupted from the left side of the Tomcat’s nose as the M-61 Vulcan cannon spat out 20mm shells too quickly for individual shots to be heard. He wasn’t aiming for the MiG’s cockpit specifically, but he watched as the tracers seemed to seek it out.
The MiG pilot, suddenly and horribly aware of what had happened, knew what he would see even before he looked up. There was the F-14, so close he thought they might collide. He could only watch as its nose lit up, and tracers appeared all around him. The MiG shook violently, and he felt a rush of searing heat before the world went black.
Sims thought he might have seen the MiG’s canopy flash from clear to bright red for an instant, but the ensuing fireball left it in doubt. Tendrils of soot appeared on his canopy and he felt a slight buffet as his plane passed through the superheated air. Such a waste. He keyed his radio mike and called off the approaching alert fighters. He was dangerously low on fuel from the dogfight, and absently radioed for a tanker to meet him over Nevada. He could hear himself speaking, but his mind was definitely not on his fuel situation as he turned to head for his refueling point, then California and home.