Welcome to the 335th: Kara's First Day
Williams AFB, Arizona. 6 May 1987.
Captain Kara Thrace looked out the window of the C-130E that was bringing her to her new unit: the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron, “The Chiefs”. Normally part of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, the squadron had been at Red Flag on Invasion Day, and ever since, had been OpCon to the Marines' MAG-11. The squadron, along with a couple of others under Marine command in other theaters, was known as “The Orphans of the Air Force”, and some had felt the unit had “Gone Jarhead”. She wondered if she'd fit in with a bunch of Marine-loving Blue-Suiters, but given her record, fitting in might be a problem. First in the class in pilot training and the RTU at Kingsley Field, and that bastard Tigh sends me off to be a ferry pilot, she thought. Though that duty had had its moments, like the time a nurse riding space-available in a KC-135 had flashed the Phantoms being refueled on the Hickam-March leg of a flight, or being at Kadena when North Korean commandos had infiltrated ashore from a submarine, and the call “Sappers in the wire!” had gone out. Now that had been a wild night.
As she looked out the window, she saw the metal revetments that Air Force Engineers, or Seabees, had built, similar to those used in Vietnam, when bases had been targets of VC rocket or mortar attack. Telling the 335th's birds apart from the others had been easy: they were still in the SEA camouflage scheme, where the Marine Phantoms were in that drab TPS gray color. Kara noticed not just Phantoms, but Skyhawks, Hornets, A-6 Intruders, and AF Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters. It was obvious that Williams, a former Air Training Command base, was a busy place.
“Captain, you'd better buckle up,” the loadmaster said as he came by. “We're getting ready to land.”
She obeyed, and fastened her seat belt in the seats paratroopers normally used, while the cargo pallets took up the rest of the space. Other than an RAF officer, Flight Lt. Kendra Shaw, who was assigned to a Marine squadron as an exchange officer, she was the only passenger on the Herky-bird, and was eager to get to where she was going.
The C-130 touched down, and to her surprise, there weren't that many bumps. Williams had been hit by Su-24s a couple of times, and though the runway had been cratered, it had been repaired. Then the C-130 taxied over to the transient ramp, and shut down. She picked up her bag and went down the ramp, where she found an AF staff sergeant. “Where's the 335th?” she asked.
“Are you reporting there, Captain?” he replied.
“No problem, Ma'am.” He pointed over to a building that had been the squadron office for a T-37 unit prewar.
“They're in there, and you can't miss' em.”
“Thanks, Sergeant.” Kara walked over to the building, where it was obvious the building was under new management: the old flying training squadron's signs had been taken down and a new one put up above the main entrance: “335th TFS: The Air Force's Bastard Orphans.” Taking a breath, she opened the door and went inside.
The first thing she noticed was that everyone was either in a flight suit or BDUs, and the second thing was that everyone also had a sidearm. Then an officer in BDUs bumped into her.
“Sorry about that, Captain.”
“No problem, Lieutenant. Where's the CO? I need to report in.” Kara said.
“CO's at a conference. The Exec's running the show while he's gone. Follow me, I'll take you to him.”
“O'Donnell, Kevin. I'm one of the maintenance officers.”
“Nice to meet you.” O'Donnell took her to the Exec's office, and knocked.
“Come on in, door's open.” a voice replied to the knock.
“He's in there, Ma'am.”
“Thanks.” With that, she took another deep breath and walked in. She found another captain like her, in his flight suit this time, and he was pouring over a TPC chart of New Mexico. “Reporting for duty, Captain. I'm Captain Thrace.”
“Nice to meet you. I'm Matt Wiser. Call sign Guru. Have a seat.”
Kara sat down and looked around the office. Photos of not only F-4s, but classic warbirds, lined the wall. A map showing the current battle lines in the Lower 48, and another showing the Canadian Theater, was also prominent.
“You're probably wondering why a Captain is XO of a fighter squadron?” he asked.
“The thought had occurred to me.” Kara replied.
“The previous CO felt that experience counts more than seniority, and that was that. It's what Robin Olds did in Vietnam when he ran the Wolfpack, and that got results. Same thing here. And so far, it's worked like a charm.”
“How'd you get the job, though?” Kara wondered.
“Long story short: I was squadron ops officer, and the previous Exec got himself killed. His WSO bailed out, and for all we know, he's behind barbed wire, eating kasha and borscht. The CO felt I'd do a better job in the slot than this eager-beaver Major we've got, who is Frank Burns in an AF uniform. He's done nothing but complain, but his complaints get thrown in the garbage, and everyone in the squadron wants to do the same with him. Be warned: watch out for this clown.” Guru looked at her, and he went on, “Got your orders and personnel jacket?”
“Right here.” She passed her personnel folder over. He opened it and started to read.
“Impressive. First in your class at Kingsley Field. So why did they send you to be a ferry pilot?”
“I rubbed a superior asshole the wrong way,” she responded.
“And that asshole pulled some strings, and voila, you're on the TransPac Ferry Run.”
“Something like that.”
“Well, if it's combat you want, you've come to the right place. For your information, we fly at least 75% of our tasking as air-to-ground, so if you're looking to run up a score, you'll have to take whatever gets past the MiGCAP or TARCAP. We don't go MiG hunting. That's the job of the Marines or the F-15s from Luke.” Guru told her.
“Air-to-mud...As long as it hurts the Commies, I don't mind.” Kara responded.
“Good. But we've got several aces in the squadron. And air-to-air does come from time to time, and if it does, make the most of it.”
“Are you one of the aces?” Kara asked.
“Yes. Six kills, with two-three probables. And some time camping with the Resistance. Five months in Southern Colorado; running, hiding, fighting, and trying to stay alive. In no particular order,” Guru said, trying to forget some very unpleasant memories of his escape-and-evasion.
“Sorry I asked.”
“No problem. Anyway, you're going to be my wingman. Judd Brewster, or Braniac, is your WSO. The guy you're replacing got killed two weeks ago-by SA-6, and the Jolly Greens got to Braniac before the bad guys. Listen to him, and you have a good chance of getting past ten missions. FYI two-thirds of our losses are people who don't make it to ten missions. Get past that, and your chances of survival increase. And we don't rotate people out of combat like in past wars. We're in for the duration, Kara. However long that is. They rotate the unit, not people.” Guru told her.
“So I've been told.” Kara said.
“Good. Now, when you're in the squadron, the dress code's pretty relaxed. Flight suits or BDUs, as you probably noticed. There's a time for spit-and-polish, and that's few and very far between. Always have your CW gear handy-we've never been attacked, but the base commander is fond of CW drills at least once a week. And get yourself a sidearm, not to mention a call sign, or do you have one?”
“They called me Starbuck, over at Kingsley Field. For some reason, they think I'm a female version of Dirk Benedict,” she told him.
He looked at her. With the cropped blond hair, she did look like the Battlestar: Galactica actor.
“As for the sidearm, either get a .38 through Supply, or you can do what practically everyone else did. There's a couple of gun shops we've done business with; one in Scottsdale, and the other in Mesa. They can get you whatever you want, within reason,” Wiser pointed out.
“I'll take care of that ASAP,” she replied.
He nodded. “Care to meet your WSO, and mine?”
“Might as well.”
Guru got up and walked to the office door. He waved Capt. Mark Ellis, who was his replacement as Ops Officer, over.
“Find Lisa and Braniac and get them to my office. And get 512 and 520 up and ready: two Sparrows, four Sidewinders, three tanks, and full 20 mike-mike for both planes.”
“Gotcha, boss. What's up?” Ellis asked.
“Breaking in a new wingman, Mark. Call MAG-11 and have them notify Tenth Air Force about the flight.” He looked at Ellis, who was staring at him. “Now, Mark.”
“On the way, Guru.” Ellis ran for his desk and picked up the phone. Guru went back into the office.
“Just out of curiosity, who'd you piss off at Kingsley Field?”
“Hear the name Colonel Saul Tigh?” Kara asked.
“I've heard about him: three tours in Vietnam, almost as much hair as a pool ball, divorced, and alternating on and off the wagon?”
“The same. I'd add stubborn: you either fly his way, or when you graduate, you don't go where you want,” she said.
“That's him...” A knock on the door interrupted his thought. “In!” He said.
A pair of WSOs, one male and one female, came in. The male WSO had short cropped hair, and looked like he was a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers. The female WSO was a blonde like Kara, only she wore her hair as long as regulations permitted, and even in a flight suit, she looked like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.
“Captains Brewster and Eichhorn, meet Captain Kara Thrace, call sign Starbuck,” Guru told the pair.
After handshakes were exchanged, he went on.
“Braniac, she's your new pilot. Keep her alive past ten missions, and you'll both get through this. Lisa, you up for a ride today?”
Capt. Lisa Eichhorn, call sign Goalie, said, “I thought were were on a stand-down? What's up?”
“We're giving Kara, or Starbuck as her call sign goes, her theater indoctrination ride. A nice scenic tour of Western New Mexico, from Las Cruces to Albuquerque. And if somebody out of Holloman or Roswell jumps us, we'll see how good she is at air-to-air. If not, we'll head over to the Plains of San Augustin and do some ACM.”
“Sounds good, Guru. When do we go?” Goalie replied.
He picked up his office phone and called Ops. He listened for a few minutes, then said, “Thanks,” before hanging up and looking at the trio. “Wheels up in thirty mikes. We'll brief on the tarmac.” They all nodded. “Goalie, take our new wingman over to the Life Support shop, get her a helmet, G-Suit, and harness. Meet us at 512's shelter. You'll be in 520, Starbuck. No trolling for MiGs, though. Only if they come across the Rio Grande. Any other questions?” There were none. “OK, see you at 512.”
45 minutes later, over Southwestern New Mexico.....
Both Phantoms were already in Combat Spread, heading east towards the Rio Grande and the front lines. There was some chatter on the radio, and the squadron used a discrete channel for such talk.
“Battle lines here have been stagnant since the early days. And we've got the ComBloc's Second String, or maybe Third String, out here. Don't be fooled, though: an SA-6 stamped “1974” on its data plate can kill you just as easily as a brand-new SA-11. The same goes for MiGs. An old MiG-21 or early -23 can still get you if you're not careful.” Guru radioed to Starbuck. “Got that, Two?”
“Copy, Lead. That it dead ahead?”
“That's the Rio Grande, Two. Anything past that is bad-guy land. Turn left, and follow me.” He put his F-4 into a turn, and she followed him. Looking down from 12,000 feet, she could see well into enemy-occupied territory. Then threat receivers in both planes began to chirp.
“Air-Search radar, bearing 090, Lead.”
“Got it, Two. Like I said, let them come to us.”
Then the AWACS came on the line. “Saber One-One, Crystal Palace. Two bandits, 087 for 40, closing.”
“Crystal Palace, Saber One-One. Copy that. Say Bogey Dope?” Guru responded.
“Saber One-One, Crystal Palace. Bandits are Floggers.” That meant MiG-23s.
“Goalie, watch our three. That's where they'll be at,” Guru called on the intercom.
“Roger that. Crystal Palace, Saber One-One. Bandits across the river?” Goalie called.
“Negative, Saber One-One. Wait one,” The AWACS controller called. “Saber One-One, Crystal Palace. They've crossed the river. Bandits now 040 for 25.”
That's it, Guru said to himself. Fight's on. “Two, this is Lead. Looks like we get to play for real after all. Drop tanks and fight's on!”
“Copy, Lead. Fight's on,” Kara replied.
In both back seats, the WSOs had their radars up, trying to pick up the bandits. Quickly, both backseaters had the MiGs on their radars. Then AWACS called again.
“Saber Flight, Crystal Palace. Bandits now on your nose, fifteen miles.”
“Roger that, Crystal Palace,” Guru called back. “Judy.”
With the Judy call, both Phantoms were now in control of the fight. Guru called Goalie and told her to go Boresight, which linked the radar to the gunsight. All he had to do was put the pipper on the target, and the system would lock. Or so he hoped. The AIM-7 was still notorious for unreliability, though the Eagle drivers were now swearing by them. Then he heard a tone in his headset. Missile lock. He pressed the button on the stick. “Fox One!” He waited a moment, then pressed the button again. “Fox One again!”
Two AIM-7s were now streaking toward their target. In the lead MiG-23, the Soviet flight leader was trying to pick up both F-4s on his radar, so he could send the pair of R-24 missiles he had under his wings to one of them. Then his threat receiver lit up, and he called the break.
“Missed, damn it! Time for a knife fight, Guru.” Goalie called over the intercom.
“Got it. Going Heat.” He turned the weapons select switch to HEAT, and his four AIM-9 Sidewinders. Then he called Kara. “Two, Lead, how's it going?”
“Goose-egg, boss. Time to go heat,” she called back. “They're breaking right.”
“Got it, two. I'll take the one on the left.”
The two F-4s then broke for their targets. The MiG-23 was at a disadvantage in a turning fight, and had horrible rear visiblity, not to mention that its wing sweep had to be set manually by the pilot. Both F-4s took advantage of that, and ate up the distance. Inside of a mile, Guru put his pipper on the MiG-23, and got the growl of a Sidewinder looking for a heat source. Then the growl got shrill as the missile locked on target. “Fox Two!” He called, as he sent the first AIM-9 on its way.
The Sidewinder left its rail and tracked towards the MiG. In the cockpit, the MiG leader was turning his head, trying to see the Phantom that he knew was out there. Then he heard a bang, and as he grabbed for his ejection seat handle, heard another explosion. The last thing he heard as he was engulfed in the fireball was his screaming.
In 512, Guru and Goalie looked out as their missile flew up the MiG's tailpipe. There was a small explosion at first as the missile warhead detonated, then a larger one as the MiG's fuel tanks exploded. “Splash One!” they yelled over the radio.
Kara was in her own fight. As she heard Lead call Fox Two, she was trying to get lock on the second MiG. Her bandit was turning and twisting in the sky, trying to get the Phantom off his tail. And as he did so, he did two things: first, he was getting deeper into U.S. territory; and second, he was letting Kara close in.
Starbuck put the pipper on the MiG's tail, and as the growl came over the headset, said, “Come on. Come on, you.” Then she got the shrill growl in the headset that signaled lock. “Fox Two!”
Her AIM-9 streaked off the rail and tore the path of a rattlesnake across the sky as it sought out the MiG. In the MiG's cockpit, the Soviet pilot had heard his leader's death cry, and he was swinging his head left and right, looking for his attacker. He caught a glimpse of an F-4 to his left, and banked toward it. That was the last thing he did and saw, as Kara's missile flew up his tailpipe and detonated, turning the MiG-23 into a fireball.
Seeing the MiG explode, Kara yelled, “Two's a Splash!”
“Copy, Two. Any chutes?” Guru called.
“Negative chutes, Lead.”
“Roger that. Crystal Palace, Saber One-One,” Guru radioed.
“Saber One-One, Crystal Palace, go.”
“Splash two Floggers. No chutes.”
“Roger. Do you need a vector home?” The AWACS controller asked.
“Negative, thanks. We can find it,” Guru said.
“Copy.” With that, the fight was over. Both F-4s joined up in combat spread and headed west. In her Phantom, Kara thought about the fight just concluded. She had made her first kill, and in so doing, had been blooded. The fact that she-and her Lead-had each killed a man meant nothing. As far as she was concerned, the MiGs had come looking for a fight. And they had paid the price. She looked over at her lead's plane.
In 512, both WSO and pilot were talking.
“Well, Guru. What do you think about our new squadron mate?” Goalie asked.
“I'm thinking, I'm thinking.” he replied. “I thought. Two, this is Lead.”
“Go, Lead. This is two.” Kara responded.
“Welcome to the 335th. You just found a home.” Guru said.
“Thanks, Lead. Now I've got a question for your backseater,” Kara said, her voice showing her pride.
“Go, Two, What's on your mind?” Goalie said.
“What the hell kind of call sign is Goalie?” Kara wanted to know.
Beneath her oxygen mask, Lisa broke out in laughter. And so did Guru and Braniac beneath theirs.
“What's so god-damned funny?” Kara asked.
“The RTU,” Goalie said. “Every instructor WSO there tried to score with me. And they all failed. When I graduated, they gave me the call sign,” Lisa said, still laughing. And after a moment, Kara joined the laughter. Like her Exec had said, she'd found a home.
White Sands, NM: in Occupied Territory:
Unknown to any of the Phantom crews, a joint Soviet/Cuban SIGINT station was listening in on the tail end of the conversation. The Soviet operator, a young man drafted out of Moscow State University and chosen for his English-Language skills, was furiously writing down everything he heard. From their conversation, he knew that these Imperialists had just destroyed two Soviet fighters, and they were now laughing about it. Just as the Political Officer said, they have no regard for life, he thought. Suddenly, he lost the conversation. He took off his earphones and got up to take his notes to the duty officer to turn them in.
“So, what do you have, Comrade?”
“Some American fighter pilots laughing about their recent kills, Comrade Major,” the Sergeant replied, handing over the notes.
The GRU Major scanned them. Perplexed, he looked at the operator.
“What did this one mean, by 'score with me?'”
“Comrade Major, I have no idea. These Americans and their slang. It gets confusing at times,” the Sergeant said.