Excerpt from THE PRESIDENT’S PILOT
Sam Fornier hated this shit. The young officer was pacing the narrow passage between the desks in the duty office, waiting for Cassidy to call. Sit tight, the general had said. Talk to no one. He’d get right back.
That was ten minutes ago. He hadn’t gotten back. It was just a matter of time before the combined wrath of the United States military descended on this place. Fornier snatched the cell phone off the desk, keyed the “recents” tab, and was about to punch the entry with Cassidy’s number.
And then stopped. Could they trace this cell phone? It was one of the phones issued by the air wing. It was designed to be trackable—but not with the hack that Fornier had recently applied. Now the damned thing was about to get Fornier into unbelievably deep shit. The best move was to trash the hacked phone. Get rid of it and run like hell.
The phone was buzzing.
“Captain Fornier,” blurted Sam, thinking too late that this might not be a good time to use real names.
The same gravelly voice came on the line. Fornier guessed that the general either had laryngitis or was a heavy smoker. As Fornier held the phone with one hand, scribbling Cassidy’s message with the other, a mounting wave of anxiety swept over the young officer. Well, Fornier, you’ve done it. You’ve gotten yourself in it this time.
When Cassidy had finished, the captain took a deep breath. “Yes, sir, I understand the urgency. I’m sending it right now
Libby was in the cockpit, still in the jump seat behind Brand, when Manning burst through the door. Wordlessly the sergeant handed the print out to Libby.
Libby felt a cold chill come over her as she read the message. She passed the sheet around the back of the seat to Brand.
From: Catering officer, 89th AW, Andrews AFB
To: A/C commander SAM 28000
Cassidy sends urgent warning. You have been tagged as a hijacked aircraft and considered hostile. An F-15C has been scrambled with orders to engage over international airspace between Greenland and coast of Canada. Cassidy urges you exercise all available options.
“How do they know where to intercept us?” said Libby. “How do they even know we’re alive?”
To her surprise, Morganti answered. Until now the copilot had been silent and sullen in the right seat. “Sergeant DeWitt,” said Morganti. “The security detail let him escape back in Narsarsuaq. Now he’s telling the whole world that we’re alive and headed for the U. S.”
Libby detected the hostility in his voice. Morganti still worried her. Where did all the hostility come from? “Are we headed for the U. S.?” Libby asked. “Or someplace else?”
Brand answered. “We’re headed for North America. Depending on what we learn from Cassidy, we either land in Canada or continue offshore to some point in the U. S.” Brand paused, then added, “With your concurrence, Madame President.”
With your concurrence. Libby couldn’t tell if Brand was saying that for the benefit of the others or not. It didn’t matter. She had no idea what they should do. The whole situation seemed incomprehensible.
She looked at the message again. “What does he mean by ‘all available options?’”
Brand exchanged a quick glance with Switzer. “We have the ATADS,” said Brand. “Air-to-air defense system. The trouble is, it isn’t working.”
“Maybe,” said Switzer. “The ATADS is tied to a different module from the comms. I can give it a try.”
“Go for it. Lou will cover the engineer seat.”
Libby watched the engineer leave the cockpit, canvas satchel in his hand. Batchelder settled himself into the seat facing the engineer panel. None of this was making any sense to Libby. Someone was going to intercept them. The engineer was going to fix something. “What does this ATADS do?” she asked.
She nodded, her eyes widening, as Brand told her.
“No,” said McDivott. “You shouldn’t be sworn in. It’s too early.”
McDivott was taking a break from the claustrophobic command post at the Briar Club. He was standing in the corridor outside his office, listening to Fred Atwater’s whiny voice over the scrambled phone.
“It will reassure the nation,” Atwater was saying. “The American people need to know someone is in charge.”
“Someone is in charge,” snapped McDivott. He felt like reminding the dumb shit that the someone in charge definitely wasn’t Fred Atwater. Nor would it ever be. But this wasn’t the time. McDivott forced himself to wait a second, then he said in a conciliatory voice, “It’s too soon, Fred. We have to be meticulous about the rules of succession. You have to get a majority of the cabinet to sign off on designating you the acting President. That’s as far as we want to go at this time.”
Atwater still wasn’t buying it. “I know the rules of succession, and I’ve read the 25th Amendment a hundred times. My lawyers tell me that it’s clear enough. I can be sworn in now. The Supreme Court can make it official later.”
“Tell your lawyers to take a hike. We need to have evidence that the President is dead. So far she’s only missing. We need a body or clear proof of death.”
“And when will that be?”
McDivott didn’t answer immediately. There was no point in telling Atwater that not only was the President not dead, the traitor was in the air, headed westward. The removal of Libby Paulsen had still not been accomplished.
But it would very soon. Vance McDivott still commanded the most powerful air force in the world. No way was Air Force One going to reach the United States.
“Very soon,” said McDivott. “It’s being taken care of.”
The blip appeared just outside the hundred mile ring on Slade’s APG-70 radar. He swung the nose of the F-15C thirty degrees to the left to establish an intercept course.
Colonel Tom Slade—call sign “Blazer”—sucked a lungful of oxygen through his mask. On the Plexiglas of his canopy Slade could see the dancing reflections of the northern lights over the Labrador Sea. He shifted his position on the hard pad of the ejection seat. Slade’s butt was already numb and it would be more numb by the time he’d executed the mission and returned to his base at Westfield, Massachusetts.
Slade had been surprised—and pleased—when he received the scramble order back at fighter wing headquarters. His mission was to intercept Angel—the name assigned to Air Force One—which had somehow not crashed in the Atlantic and had been reported airborne after a stop in Narsarsuaq.
Airborne to where? The U. S.? Which base? The Capella command post reported that Angel was headed westward across the Labrador Sea. Looking at the APG-70 display, Slade saw that they had reported correctly.
The F-15C was a big fighter. It was sixty-four feet long, weighing over 60,000 pounds fully loaded. It was armed with heat seeking missiles and two varieties of radar-guided missiles—the AIM-7 Sparrow and long range AIM-120. More than enough firepower for a mission like this one. The conformal tanks and three externally-mounted ferry tanks provided enough fuel to execute the mission and return to base without inflight refueling.
Slade knew that most fighter pilots would find this mission abhorrent. Killing a fat and unsuspecting target like Air Force One violated their code of honor. Tom Slade had sworn allegiance to a higher code. His loyalty was to God and country, not to a left-wing traitor like Paulsen. A traitor who wanted to destroy everything that Slade and patriots before him had fought for.
Early in his Air Force career, when Slade was still a captain and Vance McDivott was his squadron commander, Slade had been recruited into Capella. It was a natural fit. To a man like Slade, patriotism was a warrior’s highest calling. Slade had often prayed that if Capella were someday forced to save the United States, the task would fall to him.
Tonight his prayers had been answered.
Slade would not get maudlin about the innocent passengers and crew aboard Air Force One. Some of them—White House staffers and bleeding heart liberal congressmen and the Middle East ragheads Paulsen collected—weren’t so innocent. The others, well, God had placed them there for a reason. Slade would not question the will of the Almighty.
The UHF tactical channel was quiet. Unless Slade received an abort order from headquarters, there would be no radio communications. No target report, no kill verification. After he’d acquired and identified the target, he would execute the mission in radio silence. He’d fly a pursuit curve, swooping around to a close trail position, slowing to the target’s speed. He’d descend to the transport’s altitude, which the APG-70 was showing to be 29,000 feet.
At this closure speed, nearly 1,200 nautical miles per hour, he’d engage the target—Slade did a quick calculation—in five minutes. He reached down to the multi-function display on his panel and toggled the screen to the weapons page. He selected the box labeled “AIM-7.” A semi-active radar-guided Sparrow missile.
Morganti saw it first. “There it is. We’re lit up.”
It was the first time the copilot had spoken since they’d gotten the warning from Cassidy. Brand snapped his attention to the overhead panel. Morganti was right. The amber warning light on the RWR—radar warning receiver—was blinking. An air-to-air radar was tracking them.
Whose radar? Where? It was what Brand had been expecting—and dreading. Hundreds of miles before they approached U. S. airspace they would be picked up on radar. And intercepted. Had to happen.
But not yet. Not out here over the Labrador Sea.
If everything had been working on Air Force One, the situation display on the instrument panel would show the position of any radar-emitting aircraft in the vicinity. The screen of the situation display was blank, like every other screen on the panel. All victims of DeWitt’s sabotage.
Brand kept his eyes fixed on the RWR light. Maybe it was just sensing magnetic disturbances up here in the northern latitudes. He’d seen it before. Something to do with the aurora borealis. The light would flash intermittently, then it would go out.
The light kept flashing. The flashes were coming quicker.
“Eyes outside,” said Brand. “See if we can spot this guy. Lou, go to the cabin and get people looking out both sides. Maybe we’ll see who it is.”
The amber light was flashing in a steady pattern. Amber meant they were being tracked by a search mode radar. It could be any kind of military aircraft. Patrol plane, tanker, another transport. Anything equipped with radar.
A flashing red light was something else. Red was a target acquisition warning and it meant one thing. A fighter had locked on to them. The radar warnings were among the few systems Switzer had been able to restore. They were part of the ATADS, which included the radar receivers, chaff dispensers, decoy heat-emitters, and the battery of tail-mounted AIM-9 Sidewinder heat seeking missiles. The ATADS emitted no electronic signals. Nor did the heat seeking missiles.
Okay, the RWR light worked, Brand thought. What about the rest of the air defense system? Would the decoys deploy? Would the missiles fire? He wouldn’t know. Not until they were needed.
Brand peered into the milky darkness outside his cockpit window. It was like staring into an empty void. The sea and the sky melded together in a velvety blanket. He saw nothing except the twinkle of stars. He tried shifting his gaze back into the cockpit, refocusing his eyes, then outside again.
If it was a friendly fighter, Brand figured, he would show himself. He’d have his navigation lights on. That was the procedure. He’d fly alongside, flash his lights, then escort the radioless aircraft to a suitable airport.
What was that? Something, a gray-hued shape, swimming in and out of the gloom. To the left and slightly behind. Brand saw it, then he didn’t. He tried refocusing his eyes inside, back outside. Nothing. The shape was gone. Which meant . . .
Batchelder came through the cockpit door. Directly behind him appeared Libby Paulsen. She was wearing her blue jump suit with the presidential patch. Her hair was tousled and she wore little make up. Her gray eyes looked more serious than Brand had ever seen them.
Libby said, “We spotted something out the left side.”
“What did it look like?”
“We just got a glimpse. Definitely an airplane, all gray, maybe the size of a fighter jet.”
“Could be an F-15,” said Batchelder. “Hard to say. No lights. While we were trying to ID it, the thing disappeared.”
“Disappeared in what direction?”
Brand nodded. That was bad. If a fighter were that close to them, he’d have no problem identifying them. He’d be coming alongside, flashing his lights, exchanging signals. This guy didn’t want to be spotted.
Something caught Brand’s eye. He swung his attention back to the RWR panel. The amber light was extinguished. The red light was flashing.
There was no mistaking that shape. Like a giant whale, thick-bodied, wings nearly invisible against the night sky. No navigation lights, and only an occasional dim flicker through the cabin windows. But the dancing glow of the aurora borealis offered enough illumination to make identification easy. Slade had no problem making out the American flag on the vertical stabilizer. Clearly visible was the blue and white paint scheme. Just as visible was the lettering emblazoned on the fuselage: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
It was as positive an ID as Slade needed. He didn’t want to remain in view any longer than necessary. Even in the darkness, the glow of the aurora might make him visible to anyone who happened to be looking outside. Slade eased the throttles back and slid the F-15C into trail a quarter mile behind the 747.
He could see all four engines suspended beneath the nearly-invisible wings. In the center of each tailpipe glowed a yellow plume of flame. Unlike the heat seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders, the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow would home in on the dense mass of the 747’s fuselage.
Slade took his time. He toggled the Master Armament switch to “On.” On the multi-function display he superimposed the target acquisition box over the radar symbol of the 747. Slade eased the fighter slightly higher and into an offset trail position. Enough to keep him clear of the debris field. He’d ripple fire two missiles, then observe the results. If by any chance the aircraft was still flying, he’d shoot again.
Whatever it took.
It was happening too fast for Libby.
The red light on the overhead panel was flashing like a fire alarm. “The sonofabitch is targeting us!” she heard Morganti say.
Brand turned to Switzer. “Arm the ATADS.”
“Already done.” Switzer was wearing a grim expression as he pointed to the console. The latched door that covered the console was open and Switzer had the switches armed. “Ready to shoot,” said the sergeant.
Libby felt as if she were watching a bad movie. A sci-fi drama with fake technology. She remembered a briefing on Air Force One’s air defense system. She recalled hearing about the ATADS, that it was some kind of last-ditch ploy against an unanticipated air threat. They told her that it had only been used in test platforms, never to fire real weapons. She knew that Air Force One had some kind of anti-missile system as well as protection against the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear blast. Somewhere in the tail section of Air Force One was a battery of missiles. Each missile had its own self-contained guidance system. All the missiles needed was a positive heat signature from a target somewhere behind the aircraft.
And a command from the cockpit.
Switzer had his hand on the firing button. His eyes were fixed on Brand, waiting for the order. Brand turned to lock gazes with Libby.
Libby looked back at him. She hated this. She hated the decisions that went with this job. Brand was still looking at her, giving her a nod.
“Yes,” she said.