Out Of The Dark – Snippet 18

Chapter .XII.

Major Dan Torino, call sign “Longbow,” loved the F-22 Raptor.

At 5’8″ he was no towering giant (few fighter pilots were) but he had a compact, squared-off frame, a solid, hard-trained muscularity, heavy black eyebrows, a proud nose, and intense gray-green eyes. In many ways, he was an easygoing sort of fellow, but those eyes told the true tale, for the killer instinct of the born fighter pilot ran deep in his blood and bone, as well. Even his dark hair seemed to bristle aggressively when he thought about flying. Well, to be honest, it bristled most of the time, if he ever let his usual “high-and-tight” get out of hand. In fact, it was just plain unruly, and his wife Helen loved to run her fingers through it and tease it into tufts and laugh whenever he let it get a mite long. She called it his “crabgrass tiger look.”

But crabgrass or not, he loved the F-22.

He knew the party line was that the F-35 Lightning II was the way to go, and he was willing to admit that the Joint Strike Fighter Program had (finally) produced a capable medium-range ground support aircraft — which, after all, was what “strike” fighter was all about, wasn’t it? But the sacrifices and trade- offs in the F-35 left the “fighter” part of its designation sucking wind in Torino’s opinion. It wasn’t turning out to be all that much cheaper by the time the dust settled and all the cost overruns were in, either. In fact, if the total buy on the F-22 had been as large as the projected total buy on the F-35, its fly-away price tag per aircraft would actually have been lower.

By any measure he could come up with, the Raptor was still the best air-
superiority fighter in the world. It had the lowest radar signature, it had the
best airborne intercept radar, its new infrared detection system had taken
the lead in IR detection and targeting away from the Russians, and in “supercruise” it was capable of “dry” supersonic flight, without the enormous fuel penalties of afterburner operation. It was seventy-five percent faster than the F-35 in “dry” flight, which gave it a far greater operating radius; in afterburner it could break Mach 2.0 without raising a sweat; and it was just as capable of hitting ground targets — and even better at penetrating defended airspace in the strike role — than the F-35.

Not to mention the fact that the F-22 had been fully operational since 2005 and the F-35 was still lagging behind (badly) on its projected deployment rates. And likewise not to mention the interesting news stories that Congress was now thinking about capping its total production numbers because of cost concerns, as well. In Torino’s opinion, there was a certain bittersweet, ironic justice in that possibility, although anyone who was really surprised by the final outcome of this particular little morality play probably liked to buy bridges and magic beans of questionable provenance, as well.

The truth was that the real reason Raptor production had been capped at less than two hundred aircraft was that no one had expected to be going up against other fifth-generation fighter operators anytime soon. They had expected to be dropping bombs and precision guided munitions on ground targets in lower-intensity conflicts in places like Afghanistan, however — thus the emphasis on the Lightning and its ability to defeat ground defense systems, like SAMs and anti-aircraft fire, rather than other fighters. Besides, with only so many dollars in the till, not even the U.S. military could afford to buy everything it wanted, and the F-35 had a lot more “jointness” going for it. The Navy and Marines badly needed a replacement for the A-6, F/A-18, and Harrier, and this way they got to buy at least some of their aircraft on the Air Force’s nickel. Then there were all of the other nations which had been brought into the procurement program, helping to spread the cost burden, whereas Congress had specifically prohibited the overseas sale of the F-22.

All of which explained why “Longbow” Torino had felt incredibly lucky when he found out he was going to be one of the pilots who actually got to fly the aircraft. He’d taken Helen and the kids out and blown the better part of two hundred bucks on a celebratory dinner when he found out he’d been assigned to the First Air Wing’s 27th Fighter Squadron. After his wedding and the days his children were born, it had been the greatest day of his life.

A life which suddenly felt unspeakably empty as he sat in the uncomfortable plastic chair, staring down at his hands, trying to wrap his mind around the impossible.

He and three other pilots had been unceremoniously turfed out of their billets at Langley Air Force Base three days earlier. Colonel Ainsborough, the First’s CO, claimed he’d chosen Torino to lead the four-ship detachment because the major was the best man for the job. Personally, Torino had been inclined to take that with a grain of salt, but he hadn’t complained, even though it did mean he was going to miss his older son’s birthday. In the wake of what was rumored to have been a truly massive penetration of DoD’s secure databases (and, if the even more quietly whispered rumors were accurate, almost all of their allies’ databases, as well), it made sense to deploy at least some of their air defense assets to bases that weren’t in any of the upper tier contingency plans, and somebody had to take the duty.

Which was how Torino, Captain “Killer” Cunningham, his wingman, two other 27th Squadron pilots, and a maintenance section had found themselves “stationed” at the Plattsburgh International Airport. Once upon a time, Plattsburgh International had been Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Most of the Air Force buildings were still there, although they’d been converted to civilian use, and its twelve-thousand-foot concrete runway was more than adequate to the needs of an F-22.

And because it was, Torino and his fellow pilots were still alive . . . for now, at least.

Funny how that seemed so much less important than it would have been three days ago.

He raised his head, looking around the improvised ready room. The other three pilots sat equally silent, equally wrapped in their own grim thoughts. None of them knew how bad it really was, but they knew enough. They knew Langley and the rest of the wing — and their families — were gone. They knew Washington had been destroyed, and that neither the president nor the vice president had gotten out. They knew Shaw Air Force Base, the Ninth Air Force’s home base, had been destroyed, taking with it the command-and-control element of the eastern seaboard’s air defenses. They knew Vandenberg, Nellis, and at least another dozen Air Force bases were gone. They knew Fort Bragg was gone, along with Fort Jackson, Fort Hood, Fort Rucker, Navy Air Station Oceana, NAS Patuxent River, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, MCAS Beaufort….

The list went on forever. In one cataclysmic afternoon of deadly accurate, pinpoint strikes, the United States of America had been annihilated as a military power, and God only knew how many millions of American citizens had died in the process. Against that, what could a single woman and three children matter… even if their last name had been Torino?

He looked back down at his hands. As far as he knew, he and his three pilots were all that was left of Air Combat Command. They were it, and against whoever had done this, four fighters — even four Raptors — weren’t going to stop them when they followed up their attack.