© Paul Kupperberg
Chapter One/ Wiesbaden, Germany
Airman Sean Jordan was on a night time training exercise in the densely wooded forest between Wiesbaden and Frankfurt when his new orders came through. Loaded down with almost fifty pounds of protective gear and equipment, the 18-year old E2 was about to lunge from the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter as part of the advance squad sent in to survey and establish a forward area refueling point (FARP) for his group. The chopper had been on the ground twenty-five seconds already, its rotors slicing the cool night air, ready to take to the sky again at a moment’s notice, while the first five men had unloaded, scrambling themselves and their equipment to cover. Sean was the last man out, his M-16 locked and loaded while his eyes swept the LZ on the lookout for bad guys.
The goal was to have the chopper back in the air inside of 45 seconds. Sean intended to be out the door and waving it away in less than that. Every second the massive black machine was motionless on the ground was another opportunity to attract enemy fire. And even though the worst that could happen in a training exercise like this one was to be “killed” by the laser-sight on an opponent’s weapon triggering a sensor on the helicopter or his bulletproof Kevlar combat vest, the blond airman did not like to lose.
Losing meant failure and the fact that Sean Jordan was merely a passenger on the Hawk instead of her pilot meant he had failed enough already.
“We’re clear,” crackled the voice of one of his team mates’s in his helmet’s radio headset.
“Roger that,” Sean replied and took a step toward the hatch before a hand clamped down on his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.
“Not so fast, airman,” Senior Master Sergeant Rasmussen said. Though the sergeant was right behind him in the chopper, it would have been impossible to hear the older man over the thunderous noise of its beating rotors without the radio headsets they all wore to communicate in the field.
The internal countdown in Sean’s head told him they had been on the ground for going on forty seconds. “What, master sergeant?” he snapped, impatient to be on the ground to his own time-table.
“New orders, airman,” the craggy-faced black man said. “You got a plane to catch back at the base.”
The young Air Force enlisted man was confused. “But we’re in the middle of an exercise, master sergeant.”
“You’re not, not anymore,” Rasmussen smiled. “Dispatch just radioed. Your packet’s come through. You got your transfer, kid.” Then, to the chopper pilot, he said, “Take her up.”
Airman Sean Jordan watched the dark ground fall quickly away from him through the hatch in stunned disbelief.
Over his helmet radio, Sean one of the men he was leaving behind at the LZ asked, “Where you off to, dude?”
As the big machine surged forward at over 150 miles per hour, Airman Sean Jordan stepped back from the crash of air sweeping by the Hawk’s hatch and smiled.
“The big show, bud,” he laughed. “See you guys around!”
* * *
Wiesbaden Air Force Base, Wiesbaden, Germany:
Sean had just twenty minutes to race back to his billet, shower, jump into a clean basic daily uniform (BDU), pack his gear, and hitch a ride back to the flight line.
“We got you deadheading on a Herc leaving at 02300 for Wheeler-Sack, flying light,” the 2nd lieutenant who had met Sean at the chopper pad with the airman’s orders had told him. “You’ll fly commercial the rest of the way to Nellis, reporting no later than 0900 day after, local.” Sean had saluted as he mentally translated the lieutenant’s air force jargon into English: he would be riding an empty C-130 Hercules cargo plane that was returning empty to the States. It was leaving at 11:30 that night for Wheeler-Sack Air Force Base, Fort Drum, in Watertown, New York. From there, Sean would fly a commercial airliner to Los Vegas, Nevada, where he was to report to his new duty at Nellis Air Force Base by 9:00 A.M., local time, the day after tomorrow.
Sean couldn’t believe his luck. The young airman had joined the Air Force with every intention of becoming a pilot. He had assumed that he had a lock on flight training—he was already a flyer, having taken lessons starting when he was 14-years old, soloing in single-engine craft since he was 16. His father and brother were both active duty U.S.A.F. pilots, his grandfather a retired three-star general and Korean War ace. If anyone had ever been born to fly, it was Sean Jordan.
Except, it turned out, he wasn’t, at least not for the Air Force.
While he had the family history, the reflexes, and the skill, what he didn’t have were the eyes for the job. A routine eye exam during his physical work-up for flight training revealed that Sean suffered from a mild form of something called “night blindness.” The docs explained that his vision, though 20/20 in daylight and under well-lighted conditions at night, was inadequate in blackout conditions, like those he would experience on night combat missions. His eyes just didn’t adjust quickly enough or well enough to the dark for it to be safe for him to fly.
What good was it to be in the Air Force if you couldn’t fly? With his grandfather, father, and brother all decorated combat pilots, he felt like the Air Force was the family business, a proud and elite firm that he wanted, desperately, to join. But while those who came before him were the executives, the guys on the front lines who made the business tick, he wasn’t qualified for anything more than a job as the janitor, part of the ground crew that cleaned up after the men who did the real work. Heartbroken by this turn of events, Sean had considered running out his enlistment and giving up on a military career. But his grandfather had sat him down and set him straight: flying may have seemed to Sean like the one and only glamor job in the Air Force, but there were more ways to serve heroically and with distinction than from the pilot’s seat of a fighter.
“Matter of fact,” his grandfather had chuckled, “compared to the fellows on the ground, the pilot’s got it pretty easy, flying over where most of the shooting’s taking place.”
Sean knew that wasn’t so. Pilots were constantly at risk from anti-aircraft fire, from surface-to-air-missiles, and attack by other aircraft. But he got the message, especially when grandpop started telling him stories about the Air Force special forces units, the men the pilots ferried in to hot zones to engage in ground combat or handle missions that couldn’t be dealt with from the air.
That was all Sean needed to hear. Maybe he couldn’t be a pilot, but that didn’t mean the only jobs left for him were ground crew or maintenance. He asked his grandfather what the best and toughest Air Force combat special forces unit was and the old man answered without hesitation, “R.A.P.I.D. Force, airman. Reconnaissance Air Patrol and Immediate Deployment! There’s not a dirty job you can think of that those boys would back away from.”
Sean had his papers in for R.A.P.I.D. before the end of the next day and now, six months later, he had orders in hand and was on his way to join up with that very unit.
Sean showed his orders to the loadmaster at the tail ramp of the C-130 and hustled up into the belly of the massive aircraft. It was, he noted, one of the new C-130J-30s, almost 35 meters long by 3 meters high of cargo space with a nearly 40 meter wingspan supporting four Rolls-Royce AE2100DS turboprop engines that delivered 4,700 horsepower. This baby had it all, including an advanced two-pilot flight station with fully integrated digital avionics, color multifunctional liquid crystal displays and head-up displays, state-of-the-art navigation systems with global positioning system, fully integrated defensive systems, digital moving map display, and an enhanced cargo-handling system. Fully loaded she could carry about 75,000 kilograms, or 164,000 pounds of cargo at a speed of around 360 kilometers an hour. If her cargo were human beings, she was big enough to handle 128 combat troops or 92 paratroopers.
There wouldn’t be anything like that many aboard tonight, he noticed. A single pallet of seats had been bolted to the deck, offering seating for six, maximum. There was only one other man aboard, already buckled into his seat. He could only see the back of the man’s head, brown-haired flecked with silver, probably an officer, Sean guessed as he stowed his gear in the webbing along the side of the bulkhead.
The man must have heard Sean behind him and turned his head. It was an officer, and Sean didn’t need to see the man’s brass to know he was in the presence of one-star, a brigadier general. Sean snapped to attention and threw a salute.
“General,” he said smartly.
“Airman Jordan,” the general said with a smile as he returned the salute. “How are you, son?”
Sean stayed at attention and said, “I’m fine, dad. How are you?”