Thursday, 27 December 2012

Bandits at 2 O'Clock! What do I do until then?

I remember it like it was yesterday (even though it was over twenty years ago). I'd launched from a small airbase on the eastern border of Finland, the one it shares with what is now Karelia - But was at the time, as far as we were concerned, just another part of the western USSR. I was flying low and slow, trying to minimise my radar signature, not easy in such a mountainous region.

The sanctioned mission was simply to destroy a train, transporting tanks and ammunition to fortify the small, but strategically important town of Onega, but, as ever, I had maxed my weapons loadout, as there were always brownie points available for hitting targets of opportunity. It took me almost an hour of flying over barren steppe to find the target, it was on an uncharted line just west of Pavlovskaya. I could just see SAM sites on the edge of the detection range of my passive radar, not close enough to bother me of course, but worth remembering all the same.

looping around to bring myself onto an intercept vector, I thumbed the weapons select switch until the AGM-65E(i) came on-line, my centre MFD showed an image of the train below and I checked the range. 20 Clicks, within range but only just, I waited for a few seconds until I'd closed to 15, rotated the stores bay open and then launched the first missile. No matter how many times you do it, the jolt of the munition dropping away and the roar as the rocket engine engages is something you never get used to.

The small screen showed me the weapon's track as it sped towards the target at over 1,000 KpH. Seeing as I wasn't paying, I thought that I'd send in another one to keep it company. I launched the second Maverick, rotated the bay closed and turned south-east, realising that the air would soon be filled with MiGs looking for payback. The first missile chose that second to hit and I saw the plume of flame, the screen changed to show the track of the second missile, just as it detonated inside what must have been the ammunition storage car, this second explosion dwarfed the first and caused the almost instantaneous derailment of the entire train.

Looking down at the battlemap, I noticed that I'd received a message from an E-3 orbiting high overhead. It seems that my secondary target had been confirmed as a Typhoon class nuclear submarine due to be launching from the repair-base at
Severodvinsk - I had to destroy it before it made it to the safety of the polar ice-cap. I set the waypoints and headed north towards the coast. As I cleared the foothills of the mountains and started across the vast swages of pine forest, I detected several mobile SAM sites blocking my way to the north, I should have known that it wouldn't be that easy.

I lost altitude again until I was skimming the treetops, knocking the powdered snow from their top branches with the vectored exhaust from the turbo-fans, I canted gently to the left and headed out over the White Sea. The missile launch alarm caught me completely by surprise, I hadn't seen a radar site come online anywhere close enough to detect me. I'll admit that I panicked, I'd become complacent after a ten completed mission streak returning a plane to base without a scratch had earned me a place in the base's Sierra Hotel... Big mistake!

The threat classification system identified the inbound as a Grail, with passive infrared guidance. That explained why I hadn't seen a SAM site come online, somewhere behind me was a Russian soldier who just happened to have a Grail-launcher with him, and no doubt a field radio. Things were going to get hotter from now on. A barrage of flares confused the rocket for long enough for me to try to get out of range, in case he had a similarly equipped friend. I knocked the throttle forward and ordered the terrain-following autopilot to hug the waves, coming around in a long, slow loop, I set course south-east again, intending to fly right down the throat of the sub-pens.

It only took a few minutes for my forward cameras to make out the base, there wasn't much to see, a collection of hardened concrete boxes descending into the water, huge steel pressure doors blocking their entrances. All except one, one door was wide open and in front of it floated the massive, 40,000 tonne bulk of the target. My radar showed SAM sites lighting up all around the docks like killer Christmas decorations and I realised that a low-altitude run might be the best way to take out the target, but it would leave me with around twenty four S-75s trying to tear chunks out of my rear end as soon as I ran for it.

I targeted the sub, and selected my single ASALM missile. As soon as I had a positive lock, I rotated the weapons bay open, pulled back on the stick and lobbed the munition into the air, over a tonne of ordinance leaving the plane changed the flight characteristics fairly sublimely and I had to fight to keep from turning turtle. As soon as I had hit vertical, I rolled the plane through 180 degrees and pulled back on the stick, pointing myself back at the base, but this time upside down. Performing (even if I say so myself) a perfect snap-roll, I targeted the four closest SAM sites and launched Mavericks, then let loose the two CSW's that I'd had the quartermaster load on a whim, I'd never used them before, not really trusting the new, so called 'Smart' weapons.

It must have taken only two or three seconds from the start of my attack to the start of my exit run, but it felt like years, everything slowed down almost to the point of stopping, I could see my MFDs refreshing themselves. And I was hammering the chaff and flare release buttons so quickly that I didn't notice the 'OUT' indicators until I was 5 Clicks south of the site.

Three SAM sites had managed to get off a shot before they'd been wiped out in the firestorm (I learned to trust Smart weapons after that) and I was out of countermeasures. There was nothing I could do but get as close to the deck as possible and hope that I could evade them until they either hit something solid or ran out of fuel. I started to jink but the missiles continued to close. This was it, there was no way out, they had three times my speed and they were seconds away from being in detonation range. I pulled hard left and realised they weren't following me... Of Course! how could I have forgotten that the S-75 was guided from the launch station, the same launch stations that were now burning piles of twisted metal.

My self-congratulation was cut short as two of the missiles detonated behind me, luckily their approach vector was too oblique to tear any major chunks out of me, but they caused some minor damage to my control surfaces and as my port engine swallowed some shrapnel, I lost thrust.

There was nothing left but to set a direct course back to base, I had virtually no weaponry left, no countermeasures, no hope of escaping using engine power or maneuverability. My only chance was to keep the plane in the air long enough to make it back over the border to Finland, it didn't matter what happened after that.

Unfortunately, a flight of MiGs had different ideas, I'd made it as far as Lake Onega, not so far from where I'd hit the train. The threat detector was solid red, the air was full of Aphids and Atolls and I made the concious decision not to spend the rest of my days in a soviet prison. The end, when it came was in a riot of alarms and bright colours and if I'm honest, the pain was more from the realisation that I wouldn't be able to get credit for the disabling blow I had dealt.

I leaned back into my chair and stared at the screen, it said 'Retry Mission?' I pressed 'N' and turned off the Amiga - I'd forgotten just how much I enjoyed playing F29 Retaliator

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