I examined my aircraft thoroughly before every flight like any good pilot should. I would run my fingertips over the bare metal as I inspected every nook and cranny of the little French jet. It was called a Super Etendard and was the only one at Area 88 and as far as I was aware it was the only one in the Royal Asranian Air Force. It was a small combat aircraft with a poor radius of action. It's stubby little appearance betrayed it's slow speed when compared to some of the other aircraft at the secret air base in the middle of nowhere. Nor could it carry a hefty warload and although quite a manouverable plane in a dogfight it was pretty much outclassed by all but the oldest Rebel aircraft such as the MiG-17F and SU-7.
So why then, you maybe wondering, is such a jet out here in the desert in the middle of one of the most brutal conflicts in living memory? Well the answer is that while the aircraft may hardly be 'all things to all men' it does have one unique skill that no other aircraft at Area 88 posesses. It is the only one capable of carrying the famed Exocet anti-ship missile. The same weapon and aircraft combination had gained notoriety just four years earlier in the Falklands War by sinking the British warship HMS Sheffield. Now it was being called upon again as the civil war in Asran raged on.
It was an arid morning as the sun began it's climb into the sky amid an orange glow on the horizon. I watched the ground crews as they towed the Exocet along the tarmac to the awaiting Super Etendard. The Exocet was a big weapon for the little jet to carry and watching it being loaded onto the starboard wing one wonders why the French Navy didn't opt for the Jaguar M instead? I glanced down at my watch and noted the time. I knew at this moment precisely where my target was and where it should be when I make my way out over the sea. Every detail of this mission had been carefully planned out and I had received an extensive briefing off Saki, the base commander, the night before. The whole operation was as timed to perfection as a Swiss watch.
With the Exocet securely attached beneath the wing I examined the groundcrew's work before thanking them for a job well done. With just a few minutes before the operation was to commence I climbed into the cockpit and fastened the straps around my torso before fitting my helmet and oxygen mask. Essentially I became one with the aircraft. A single entity. I was the brain and the aircraft was the body. As the Atar engine howled into life it signalled the end of the creature's slumber and heralded another day of death and destruction in this Hell-on-Earth. Whether my mission was a success or failure there would be death on this day and there forever lingered the possibility that it might be my own.
After taxiing out to the main runway I applied full military power as I began my take off. The Super Etendard needed over three quarters of the length of the runway in order to reach it's take off speed when carrying an Exocet and a single external fuel tank. The situation was made worse by the fact that the aircraft lacked an afterburner but an afterburner would have had the downside of burning up the small fuel capacity even faster. As I pulled back on the stick I could feel the weight of the missile and the single external tank under the port wing fighting with the aircraft's desire to get airborne. No sooner had the wheels left the ground I had them folding up into the fuselage to negate their drag on the aircraft and improve the flying characteristics of the jet.
Clear of the runway and passing over the boundary of Area 88 I turned the aircraft on an easterly heading towards the coastline before pulling back on the stick and beginning my climb to thirty thousand feet. The higher altitudes where the air was thinner helped conserve fuel during transit. Nevertheless I was still going to need a refuelling before I commenced my attack on my target. Just beyond the coastline waiting for me to arrive was a modified C-130 Hercules tanker. Unlike the dedicated KC-130 versions the Royal Asranian Air Force were using standard cargo versions fitted with a refuelling pallet in the cargo bay. The refuelling hose was literally reeled out through the open loading bay doors.
Transiting to the tanker gave me time to think about my mission that was before me. Looking out at the Exocet on my wing I began to picture it slamming into the side of a ship. The damage it could do to a vessel if used properly was extensive to say the least. An incredible fact about the sinking of HMS Sheffield in the Falklands was that the missile's warhead didn't even explode but rather started an uncontrollable fire. The Argentinians were not the best at making their weapons work but I knew the groundcrews at Area 88 were. I had every confidence that when my missile hits it's target it will explode and because of me some unsuspecting merchant sailor is going to die! My target is not a warship! That would be something at least. My target was a cargo ship bringing supplies to the Rebels from Eastern Europe. It was called the Zeitsev and was flagged as a Bulgarian ship but carried tanks, ammunition, supplies and even parts for the Rebel MiGs all made in the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that the ship was entering a warzone it relied on its nationality for protection and in the past this had worked to the point where shipping from the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain felt confident enough to just wander in and out of Rebel held ports as if they were back in their own countries. But not anymore. The Rebels had forced the hand of the legitimate Asranian government after they had sunk several of the government's cargo ships. Thus the order was given to send a message that anyone who supports the Rebels is a target for the government. The Zeitsev was going to be that message. I was going to deliver it sealed with an Exocet.
It took nearly twenty five minutes to reach the refuelling box; an imaginary box in a piece of sky near the coast where the C-130 was orbiting waiting for my arrival. As I arrived in the box I squinted in the sun as I searched for the Hercules. The glare forced me to lower my tinted visor to help protect my eyes from the sun and I began to look again. Sure enough I could make out the Hercules as a dot apparently no bigger than a stamp on my two o'clock low position flying almost parallel to my own aircraft.
"Green One-Seven-Five this is Striker! I have visual on you at my two o'clock low. Confirm?"
I waited momentarily for the tanker crew to confirm they had a visual on me and when they did they gave me permission to form up on the port side to await refuelling. Whenever you refuel in mid air the tanker is always in charge. The tanker crew effectively control their immediate air space and nobody does anything in the vicinity without their permission. As I banked gently towards the tanker I saw that it's size was obscuring a pair of new Tornado ADVs on the other side of the aircraft about three miles away so as not to interfere with the refuelling. No doubt these aircraft were on CAP to protect the tanker from attack it was after all a very vulnerable target. The Tornados belonged to the regular Royal Asranian Air Force to replace the ageing F-4 Phantoms in the air defence role that were now filtering down to the mercenary units. The regular units always had the best equipment despite the reliance on the mercenary units.
"Green One-Seven-Five I am on station and ready to receive!" I said into the microphone inside my mask as I raised the refuelling probe from the nose of my Super Etendard which now stood to attention waiting to receive fuel. With that the loadmasters aboard the Hercules, whom were just visible standing in the rear of the aircraft through the open cargo doors, began reeling out the hose. I watched as the shuttlecock-like drogue extened further and further from the aircraft until it was the same length as the tanker itself. My radio then crackled into life, "Striker, you have a wet hose. Cleared to proceed."
"Roger!" I replied and I pulled back on the throttle to slow the Super Etendard and allow the Hercules to get ahead of me. Once the drogue had passed out to the front of me by several yards I banked to the right to position myself immediately behind the Hercules. The Super Etendard buffeted slightly as it passed through the slipstream from the Hercules' engines. The squared off windscreen of my aircraft now had a view immediately into the open cargo bay wih the drogue directly ahead of me. I increased throttle until my closure speed was just a few knots and the drogue slowly crawled nearer and nearer my aircraft's probe. The Super Etendard offered an excellent view for refuelling since the probe was immediately in front of the pilot to allow him the best view when guiding the probe in towards the drogue. I could see that the drogue was slightly below my probe and so I compensated by gently dipping the nose. The risk here was to over compensate and the pilot starts dancing his aircraft around the sky 'chasing the basket' as its called. As the drogue appeared to rise back up the windscreen my probe caught the centre of the basket and the slackened hose flapped in acknowledgement. A green light on the fuel transfer panel signalled that it was a good hook up and I eased off on the throttle to match the speed of the Hercules as it pumped fuel into my aircraft.
Sitting in the Super Etendard as it refuelled I kept a careful watch on the Hercules to make sure it didn't make any sudden moves without me otherwise it might tear the drogue from my probe. Once I had taken on enough fuel from the Hercules I applied the air brakes and the Super Etendard lurched away from the Hercules which pulled the drogue from my probe. A small spray of excess fuel glazed my windscreen as it separated but the high speed head wind quickly brushed it off and the probe retracted back onto the top of the nose. With the distance between my aircraft and the tanker now almost a mile I rolled the aircraft to the right and pointed the nose out to sea. I looked down below me as the orange beaches of Asran gave way to the beautiful blue and green sea. This was it! I was on my way!
I looked down at the map that sat in my the transparent pouch on my left leg. The route of the Zeitsev was marked out with a time penned in every so many miles. This indicated to me where the vessel should be at any given time. Due to the apparent lack of a threat the Captains of the freighter vessels had kept to specific routes and tmetables. They were as regular as clockwork and it was this arrogance that would seal their fate.
I identified my position on the map and checked the time. It was 0745hrs. The Zeitsev was to the north and my journey time to intercept the ship's course was thirty five minutes. I checked where the Zeitsev would be at 0820hrs and found that it would still be just north of my current heading. I dipped my aircraft to the left until I was on course before I did a half roll and dived the aircraft sharply towards the sea. I completed the roll until the aircraft was upright but maintained the dive. After dropping over twenty thousand feet I levelled off at just below four hundred feet above the water which now passed underneath me at high speed. The low altitude was necessary in case the Rebel forces had any MiGs roaming the area. While they could detect my aircraft if I was at altitude their MiG-21s and MiG-23s lacked look down shoot down radar and I could pass underneath them almost unnoticed. Nevertheless I wasn't careless and I spent much of my time with my eyes out of the cockpit scanning the sky for contrails from a jet engine or vortices generated from the wingtips of a maneuvering fighter but thankfully saw nothing except the usual commercial traffic.
Although not immediately obvious at this moment in time I was in fact one aircraft of a two aircraft mission. I knew that somewhere out there was a Royal Asranian Air Force S-2 Tracker maritime patrol aircraft that was using it's powerful search radar to track the Zeitsev. Although part of the mission the S-2 was ordered to only break rado silence if the target deviated from the route that intelligence had laid out in the briefing. If all went according to plan then the two of us would never half to see or speak to one another.
Less than ten minutes from the interception point a small fishing boat passed my right side at less than a quarter of a mile away. The thought ran through my mind that there was always the possibility that it was in fact a Soviet intelligence trawler and could very well warn the Zeitsev that I was coming not that there was much they could do at this point.
Eight minutes! My mouth began to feel dry from the cold air that was blowing on my face through my mask as I continued to approach the target. Seven minutes; this is it! I activated the aircraft's Agave radar set and began a surface search out to a range of thirty five miles ahead of me. The beam swept from side to side on the leather curtained display in the cockpit. As it passed the left side of the screen for about the fifth time a small dot appeared at extreme range. That was the Zeitsev! I removed the guard from the Master Arm switch and flicked it across. The Exocet, as well as my guns, was now armed and ready for deployment. I switched the radar from search mode to attack mode and highlighted the the blip for target illumination. Simply put the radar was now targeting the ship and I waited for the audio confirmation in my headset that the Exocet was locked on. As the target was now on my ten o'clock position my headset growled in confirmation that the Exocet was locked up on the target and a small triangular icon appeared on my HUD indicating the position of the locked up target.
All that was left to do was wait for the missile to get into range. Being at such low level meant that the missile's range was reduced due to the lack of energy from a higher altitude launch. Just thirty seconds to go before firing and I did something unexpected; I prayed. I didn't pray for a sucessful hit but rather I prayed for forgiveness for what I was about to do. There were people on that ship and here I was with the power to take their lives away and I was about to do just that! Twenty seconds to go. The thought of having such power would be humbling for anyone but even more so for me at that precise moment. This wasn't my country. It was my war by default in that I was being payed to kill these people. There was no honour in this. Ten seconds. I made sure that the Exocet was selected and not my guns and squeezed the trigger holding it closed. The missile would only fire when I released the trigger, the reason for this method of firing was so that there was the opportunity to cancel the launch even at the very last minute. Five seconds. God forgive me!
My finger just lifted off the trigger as if of it's own accord. There was a hefty clunking sound from underneath the aircraft which suddenly felt lighter and more responsive. A long grey line of smoke lead by an orange glow of fire rushed from the right side of my aircraft. Before I could even react the trail of smoke protruding from my now weaponless wing was off into the haze of the horizon. I held the aircraft firm for several seconds as I kept the radar illuminating the target for the missile to follow until it was within a mile of the Zeitsev. From then on the Exocet could target the ship on it's own. I switched off the radar and pulled the Super Etendard into a hard right turn back towards Asran. The G-forces from the turn pinned me to my ejection seat making it harder to apply the right yaw pedal to keep the nose. from climbing before I finally rolled out of the turn and headed west to meet back up with the tanker. I never saw what happened after I fired the missile.
The journey back to Area 88 seemed even longer than the one to the target. I succesfully refuelled once more from the tanker and before long I had met up with Shin Kazama in his F-5E Tiger II with the unicorn emblem on the tail and Kim Aba in his green camouflaged Sea Harrier, a veteran of the Fallands War like my own Super Etendard. They had come off an early morning patrol that had proved fruitess and decided to escort me back.
Sitting in my aircraft high above the desert my thoughts lay on the Zeitsev. What had happened? I never saw the missile hit. For all I know it may have malfunctioned and failed to track? It could have landed harmlessly in the sea? But no matter how comforting those thoughts might have been I knew that in all likelihood it had hit the ship and exploded. If it hit in an empty section of the ship or perhaps in the engine room then the explosive force could have been deflected away from the armaments and the crew would have had time to get off. If it hit the main cargo hold however...