Strofortress Joyride. Short story

 

Logline: It begins as an innocent nostalgia flight, becomes a challenge, and ends up placing the USSR and the US on a red war alert. Then the jaunt gets really scary.

Synopsis: The ancient Stratofortress – was taken and flown by two retired-USAF officers-not pilots, approaches the Soviet border. Fuel’s low and they’re lost. Four USAF F-18’s have orders ‘to destroy’ before it crosses the border. Foxbats loiter soviet side. The Russians want the Stratofortress. Submerged are two submarines, a US Trident, and USSR Delta cla

Aircraft Bone Yard. Part-Stratofortress area.

 

Foreword.

On April 15 1952, the World’s biggest Intercontinental Bomber took off on its maiden flight. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress resembled a giant prehistoric Pterodactyl as it accelerated down the rain-soaked runway at Boeing’s plant in Seattle, USA.

The Russians had nothing like it. They wanted one for evaluation, their equivalent ‘Bison’ (NATO-code-name) was seen only once at the 1954 May Day air display. Thirty-eight years later they still want a Stratofortress.

Then what started out as a nostalgia trip for a couple of retired-USAF officers, and two 12-year-olds gave the Soviets an opportunity to get their hands on one, no fiction writer could have dreamed up. The bonus was the latest United States Nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine. A Trident

One had violated their air space. The other was submerged north of the International Date Line in the near freezing arctic waters and ready to surface. Hoping to pick-up those unofficially on board the giant plane, then somehow destroy the evidence that the United States Navy and Air Force had ever been there.

Four of the latest Russian long-range Mig-25’s all-weather interceptors (NATO Code Name Foxbat) loitered above the activity but without eyeball contact because of the seasonal low cloud base weather. Less than 120 miles away and surfaced at full speed was a fully deployed Soviet ‘Delta’ class submarine, with orders to fire on any sea or air-borne intruders.

The Pentagon denies all knowledge of the incident. Adding their Bomber inventory is intact. None are missing.

The time is March 1991, one year after the end of the Gulf War.

The location: – Monthan US Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona.

At Monthan 4000 retired US Air Force Jet Fighters & Bombers are neatly parked in a vast open desert graveyard. Fighters are designated by the letter-F. Bombers by the letter B. B-52’s are the heaviest aircraft used by the US Air force. Each B.52 up-grade is initialed by letters A to H. several hundred are stored at Monthan. Now the older of these giants cast only massive prehistoric like shadows in the setting desert sun. These stored planes; mainly the fighters are used for spares and some foreign sales. Being an operational base Monahan’s graveyard area does not warrant a top security rating.

Around several miles, long perimeter fence retired Air Force maintenance officer John Sheppard cycles every day to keep fit. He stops abruptly early one morning noticing the faded serial number 10024* on a Stratofortress’s tail. It is the plane designated B-52A. Every time the Air Force updated many of the 744 planes built-to keep pace with technology. 10024 was the guinea pig and flight test bed. It never saw active service, because as one re-fit was complete Boeing the designers and builders, or the US Air force came along with yet another update. Until the final bombers designated B-52H completed the production of the heaviest bomber the US Air Force used. Several hundred remain in service, they are still flying 43 years after their maiden flight*

Retired Major John Sheppard knew more about the maintenance of Stratofortress than did any man alive. After every up-date, he got a flight on the first test run, there in the cockpit looking over the pilot’s shoulder. Sadly he never got to fly one, but by God, he felt he knew how to get that 200-ton baby into the air. As he reminisced he heard the contract wrecker’s crane drop the huge weight onto the center of another fuselage snapping it in half After men climbed all over the giant and began cutting it up. 10024 was not that far away from their torches.

He discovered the Government hires the lowest bid from local scrap metal merchants to hack up and cart away six B-52’s at a time. From that moment on he cannot resist the temptation to let 10024 have a day of glory before the oxyacetylene torches start carving her up. His activities do not go unnoticed, two 12-year-old boys spot him whilst doing field research for a school project, and excitedly he explains what he is doing. Their grandfather on summer vacation is also a retired Air force man Sam Hunter he meets Sheppard and reluctantly agrees to help him.

Because of 10024’s history, it requires only minor work; even the fuel tanks are partially full. The reason for its condition being it was readied for action during the Gulf War as back up but was not deployed to a Royal Air Force base in England. Finally returned to Monthan where it slipped through the de-commissioning procedure. It would, however, be checked for fuel, stripped of avionics, engines and other vitals a few days before the torches begin.

Eventually, she is ready for take-off, Hunter has by-passed the fence electronic surveillance system. Now it’s down to luck and Sheppard’s memory, a slice of the fence has been hinged back, and within a few minutes, the 200-ton monster is slewing and crabbing down a lonely Sonoran desert road rapidly approaching take-off speed.

Hunter decides to fly due west to California then turn north along the coast toward Alaska. He estimates 5-6 hours maximum, but a high-thick cloud base stretches from northern California to Alaska. Unknown to the joy riders, Monthan and other Airbases cannot make radio contact. So several fighters are scrambled in pursuit, but sighting are impossible owing to the cloud.

Heading north toward Alaska they will cross the International Date Line. At their present 400 mph cruising speed, they will cross it in 1hour 55 minutes. Three seconds later they will be invading Soviet air space. Soviet satellites warn of any approaching unidentified aircraft, but the trigger happy Russians are still smarting from when in the early morning of September 1, 1983, they blew up a fully loaded Korean Airlines 747, which had strayed over their air space so they claimed. Until now the Pentagon has only speculated just how efficient the Soviet’s early warning system is. 10024 is the best chance they’ve ever had to discover how bad or good it really is, but that has tremendous diplomatic problems.

On board 10024 all is far from well as Sheppard learned some hours ago Hunter knows absolutely nothing about any navigation he originally claimed. So now they are lost in dense cloud and unsure of their position, more importantly, how far is the Russian border.

Unknown to anyone aboard and since Sheppard began his task, a drifter has been sleeping on the plane out of the near freezing desert nights. Right now he is at the rear under a tarpaulin emerging from another hangover. His name is Robert Fleming and he flew Boeings from England in WW2, but a veteran B17 crate is a piston-engined plane and a far cry from this giant. He is the only hope they’ve got, and by now the cold is getting to his bones, and his head is throbbing from the hum of eight jet engines.

Confused, cursing and angry he stumbles into the flight cabin, believing it’s all a nightmare, as a weather front begins breaking up the high cloud. After a shouting match, the boys quieten down the three elderly men. Eventually, he realizes it is not a hangover. Still unsure what to make of the predicament he waves his arms and begins to leave the cockpit as the plane drops through an air pocket. Picking himself up, he wipes the trace of warm blood from his forehead; he knows this is no hangover.

“’Jesus. How did you guys get a license? He waits for an answer, and then adds shaking his head. “I thought so.”

They are lost, without radio contact, until one of the US pursuit planes drops alongside them after realizing they have a defunct radio, so the pilot uses the drill every one is taught in such circumstances. Unfortunately, Fleming is in no condition to respond positively.

Hunter jokingly suggests it’s the Russians playing a game so they can get their hands on a B-52 for evaluation not realizing how near the truth he is and how near the frontier is. “That plane alongside merely has US Air force markings. What’s the difference between an F-15 Eagle and Russian Mig 25?*

It is 12-year-old Pete who reads the pursuit pilots frantic waving and hand signs, eventually, he tunes 10024’s radio to the right frequency, but static and interference continually breaks up the two-way conversation. In frustration, Pete holds his pocket radio to the inside of the cockpit casing and again picks up snippets of instructions. Unfortunately not only is time running out for 10024 but also so is their fuel.

Unless they believe the pilot and quickly the four fighters will have to break off and hover around their side of the US/Soviet border. The Soviets do not want a repeat of the Korean Airline disaster so they have scrambled six of their latest interceptors, who are already patrolling their side of the border for positive identification.

In no condition to familiarize himself with the bevy of controls dials and levers, Fleming starts experimenting to find which lever does what, making the monster Boeing dive, climb, and turn as if out of control. 10024 has just cleared Norton Sound and is flying out across the near freezing Bering Sea. The Russian border is less than 200 miles away-barely thirty minutes flying time.

The four US planes have orders to destroy the bomber at their discretion, but each is a family man and has returned the boys waves. One of who is scribbling large letters on pieces of cardboard and holding them against the cockpit window, hoping one of the pilots can make out the six-inch-high letters.

The weather changes for the worse as they approach the Arctic Circle, 10024 will need in-flight refueling, therefore, a KC-135 tanker needs to be airborne and on its way, but one isn’t. In any case, such an operation is risky at these freezing latitudes. Fleming needs to shut down four of his eight engines to reduce power and conserve fuel, simultaneously reduce the height to nearer 10,000 feet.

Suddenly the cloud shuts down any visual communication; Fleming after hot black coffee banks the giant plane to port/starboard (left) straightening out when completed a 360-degree turn, and starts his descent. Through thick grey clouds he holds the shuddering giant level, and then banks (left) toward the Alaskan coast.

The nearest US Air Base is four hours flying away. The nearest tanker base is at Seattle eight hours flying away, but a half-full tanker could with good following winds make a rendezvous with only minutes to spare. Their following wind becomes 10024’s headwind, and with this cloud base the chances of a “Hook-up” are remote.

The nearest runway able to take the B-52 is back in Russia, but without the B-52’s monster 32-foot drag chute to pull them to stop, the landing would have to be textbook stuff, and it is 45 years since Fleming made any sort of landing. Apart from which the Russians have less than twenty minutes to be persuaded about the non-hostile aircraft. So as the line from the White House to Moscow runs hot. Fleming banks the plane and turns back to Russia unsighted by his turn, the US fighters have to abandon their mission for lack of fuel.

Except for a few scattered small runways in mountainous Alaska, Fleming knows there isn’t one runway long enough to take his unwelcome charge. Just now he is nearer the small US island of St. Lawrence in Norton Sound, unfortunately, that’s nearer Russia than Alaska, apart from which he has no idea what its terrain is like. At worst a dry flat ice field will do. He guesses there is sufficient fuel only for a single pass over it, so any decision will have to be based on first sightings and gut instincts. If he passes up either, the Chukchi Peninsular is less than 30 miles away. It is Russian territory; he has no idea of its terrain, and of the six Migs cruising the border. Or if President Bush and Comrade Gorbachev have patched up their differences.

If St. Lawrence Island is negative, and he chooses the Yukon rather than the Chukchi Peninsular. He is praying the 40-year-old fuel gauges are accurate, and the landing hydraulics have not blown a joint or a vital rubber seal has perished. If either blows, all that lies beyond is the vast wilderness of the arctic Icefields. They do not know it is too far south and too early in the winter for the ice to be thick enough to take the bomber. And in this whiteout, it is all guesswork and luck, and anything but a smooth surface will shred the tires on impact.

In the blinding ‘White-out’ background 49-230 is virtually out of control. The plane quickly began losing height and without the essential steadying influence the boost of full thrust to ease her onto the ice-field, quickly followed by full reverse thrust, coupled with full flaps and the all-important chute to pull her up. The five frightened passengers buckled themselves in, shielded their eyes and hung on. At 150 miles an hour the 200 tons of metal tore the ice to shreds, the two forward four-wheel bogies smashed on impact, nose tip forward slewing the plane sideways, then as the rear four-wheel bogie collapsed under the added strain. Sparks and metal from the fuselage’s belly was torn off as it rapidly slowed down.

Fleming called “All out.”

Quickly the five were unbuckled and crawling from the cockpit roof escape ejection hatches; directly above the navigator’s seat. As they slide down the nose –random, the blast of freezing air caught each’s lungs. None heard the sheet of fringe ice snap from the main field. Only when it rocked, settled in that tilting position did they realize the ice was not thick enough. Minutes later there was a thunderous snap, which shook the ice again, it then creaked and settled at a steeper angle. In the meantime, the frightened people hung onto jagged ice shards and prayed.

With a steadily increasing slope, keeping the boys and themselves cheerful was in short supply. The wind chill factor was rapidly freezing the hands that prevented each from slipping into the icy water, wherein a few seconds they would die. Above the screech of several jet engines in slow mode could be heard above the strengthening arctic wind. The first voice anyone heard came from below them down the ice-slope. Without the megaphone, they would not have heard anything. The Parka clad man was waving his hands from the tossing inflatable. He wanted them to slide down into the water, where it is hoped they would be plucked before freezing or drowning to death or drop into the craft.

Without hesitating Fleming let go and dropped straight into the rubber boat, the others quickly followed, then they noticed the dark outline of the submarine’s conning tower less than a hundred yards away.

The sub Captain and his exec officer watched on a computer monitor their sub rise up and under the ice, titling it. The screech of the giant winged bomber gathering pace as it slides down the ice and through the murky water several hundred feet away. Confirmed it was out of the soviets grasped. The submarine dropped quickly out of sight, then headed toward the safety of United States territorial waters at full speed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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