As we dropped altitude and closed in on the beachhead, the Spectre groaned as Cowboy banked hard to the left. The call sign suited him well. He always wore an old straw farm hat, and those non-issue chrome plated sunglasses. I could never figure out how he got away with having them. He was always smiling, and he was the best pilot I had ever known.
Tommy the crows nest operator tapped me on the shoulder, and as I turned, I noticed a screen shot of the area we had just past. He shouted to me over the roar of the cannons.
"Do you recognize this geographic?"
"Yea we just flew by it," I called back to him.
"First CAV is about to get a rude awakening down there. We got Cubans flanking from the left, looks to be 30 or 40 men. The CAV's pinned down hard right now, and the Cubans are closing fast. When we make the next pass, paint the mark."
"Got it," I shouted.
"Remember, we are gonna be in close proximity to the big red one, so make sure you don't hose the whole place down."
"Give me a shout when we reach the mark," I said. I was exhausted from strafing the area with the chain gun. The vibration of the ship melded together with the constant side-to-side motion from the 105 mm howitzer, and the cannon fire could wear a man out in no time. Not to mention that god-awful hole at my feet, a result of the last burst of flak. It was making a horrible sucking sound now, as if it wanted to take my very soul.
Tommy motioned me again and said, "Here goes, sport. Be ready."
I blinked to clear my eyes and peered into the sights of the gun. The ground movement looked like a group of tiny ants marching in unison. It seemed as if they were going to make a single mass movement towards the first CAV. I didn't think they had a clue as to what was in store for them.
Tommy shouted "FIRE!" and I squeezed the trigger. Every seventh round was a tracer, but the Vulcan fires so quickly all you can see is a single arch of red light from its barrel. The frantic movement on the beach instantly stopped.
Tommy said, "You got 'em all man! No movement on FLIR!"
I felt a momentary sickness wash over me. Yes, I knew what they had planned to do. I couldn't let them massacre our people on the ground. My only thoughts were I had just done to them what they had wanted to do to us. I had to forget it. Clear my mind for now.
The Spectre shuddered hard from a violent blast of flak, and the aircraft waffled wildly from side to side. The tail rudder had been hit but the damage was minimal, and the ship slowly regained its posture.
The VOX radio channel crackled, and I heard cowboy tell the control aircraft we were heading to a higher altitude to re fuel. We started to climb and the AC130 moaned loudly. I wondered how much more we could take once we returned to the beach.
The Raven was a late 60's model, and I had no Idea how much combat repair she had undergone during Vietnam. I knew the fuel cells were still weeping from the botched repair at Hulbert Field, and I worried she might split her tanks at any moment.
Silence filled the ship as we rose above the 3000-foot mark. The looks of the faces on board were varied at best. The cannon operators were sweeping shells up, laughing, and joking. Tommy surveyed his information and went over charts with his usual conviction. Tipper, the loadmaster seemed nervous as he looked at various hard mounting points and checked the landing gear. I did some light maintenance on the Vulcan as I crossed myself, thankful I was still alive.
VOX crackled again as the KC135 tanker operator urged Cowboy to hold the Raven as still as possible to avoid a collision. It was plain to see this was not as easy as it sounded. The tail section must have been damaged worse I thought. After some harrowing moments, the connector was uncoupled, and we pulled away.
The Raven banked right and started her descent. If anyone had told me that I would be here 3 days ago, I would have laughed aloud, but it was real, and we were in the thick of it all.
Tipper's voice shattered the silence. "Are you alright Ark?"
"Yea buddy," I said. "I'm just trying to rest a moment and re group before we head back into the storm."
"Ok brother" he said. It looks as if this ol' girl has seen better days."
"What do you mean, Tipper?" I said.
"I think the Raven is damaged worse than any of us realize." he said. "We're leaking hydraulic fluid from the main and secondary cylinders, and I noticed a lot of slack in the tail rudder control wires."
"Thing is Tipper, This bird has never let us down unless you count the fuel cell repairs at Hulbert." I said. "I'm sure if we were in any kind of real trouble, Cowboy would find a nice soft place to set her down."
Tipper smiled and shook his head.
"No place to soft land here, kid." He said.
He headed off towards the rear of the Raven, and left me alone with my thoughts. I hoped he wasn't right, but he always was on this sort of thing. There was no way we could set down on the runway at Salinas. The Cubans still had ground control, and it might be hours or even days before anyone could land there. With all the ordinance we had dropped in that area, it might be damaged so bad that it was impossible to land on the island.
We dropped altitude again and Cowboy circled to the right. I checked the Vulcan and loaded a fresh volley of ammo into the breach. Everyone seemed anxious to get back, and I was worried about the lack of ground support since we had left to refuel. With only two spectre's circling the island, the "Crow" was the only one there at the moment. Sure, one spectre could do a lot of damage, but two were guaranteed to keep the wolves at bay.
We dropped the last few hundred feet and started to circle the island again. Immediately the flak burst and anti aircraft fire lit up the sky all over again. The next few hours seemed to race past as we continued to try to keep the enemy off the backs of our troops on the ground. We took several hits, but managed to stayed air born.
Suddenly I heard ground control's radio message to Cowboy.
"Areca to Raven" the controller said. "The runway is clear for you to land."
I waited for the reply from Cowboy, but there was only silence from the cockpit.
"Areca to Raven" The controller called again. "Do you copy? The runway is clear."
Again, the mic was silent. A million things went through my mind at that moment.
Did Cowboy not hear the radio transmission? Could everyone be dead in the cockpit? What was going on?
I unbuckled my harness and tapped Tommy on the shoulder. "I'm going up topside." I said.
Tommy looked around and said, "Hope everyone's alive up there"
I climbed the crew ladder slowly not knowing what I might find. If they were all dead, we were in a world of trouble. We all had a few hours of flight simulation, in the event that we had to limp home without a pilot but I prayed none of us would have to find ourselves in that position.
I looked around the cabin bulkhead, not wanting to see what I might find. As I looked I was thankful to see them all alive. The co pilot and Cowboy were having trouble controlling the plane and the navigator was frantically pouring over his charts trying to find the right approach to set the Raven down.
Cowboy looked back and saw me standing there, scowling.
"Why the sour look, Ark?" he asked in his usual unconcerned way.
"What the hell is going on up here, Cowboy?" I shouted.
"I ain't gonna lie to you," he said. "We are in a world of shit right now. The outside starboard engine is about to give out, and we've got major prop damage on the rest of them."
I could see that they were doing all they could to try and steer the Raven, but it looked like a loosing battle. We had too much damage, and there was no way we could stay in the air much longer.
At that moment, the engine died, and the prop feathered to a halt. As I looked out the starboard window, I could see the engine smoking lightly. Cowboy hit the extinguisher switch and the smoke dissipated into the slipstream. The prop on the engine was bent and chewed up, as if a huge dog had used it like a chew toy.
"You had better get strapped in back there, Ark." Cowboy said. "We are gonna try and set this big bitch down at Salinas."
I made my way back down the crew ladder and Tommy was standing there waiting for me. I didn't want to tell him or the others, but there was no turning back now.
"What's going on up there?" he asked.
"I gotta tell everyone." I said. "Listen to your headset"
"Listen up guys!" I said as I keyed the mic. "Were done up here. We've lost an engine, and we got major prop and control damage. Everyone needs to secure there weapons and strap in. Looks like we are gonna have to brace for impact at Salinas."
Jack, the new kid that operated the 105mm howitzer, said, "Crash? Damn man you got any good news to tell us?"
"Sorry kid" I said, that's all I got for the moment.
"I didn't sign up for this shit!" he whined.
I secured the Vulcan and buckled myself into the jump seat. I could not believe this was happening. Yesterday I was at Hulbert field happy as hell, and now I was going to crash into some god forsaken Caribbean runway and die in a thousand pieces. I thought about all the things I would miss. I could not believe I wouldn't live to see my son being born. All of this was just too much. I knew Cowboy would do everything he could to set the Raven down in one piece, and freaking out now wouldn't do me any good.
I though about what Para Rescue had done for me. It had taken a small town kid with no real direction, and turned him into a good man. I had learned so much about myself in the last few years, and I was proud to have been a part of all this. If I died and never got to see my son, I hoped someone would survive to tell him that I had tried to make a difference in people's lives. Tell him his dad had died doing what he loved. I hoped he would know that I loved him more than anything and that I had given my life freely so that he could live in peace.
We started our descent towards Salinas's airport. The ground control operator told us that the runway was clear, but that wasn't the case. The sky lit up around us as we rolled into position for the landing. I knew they were doing all they could down there to help us get down in one piece.
"Hold on to your asses!" Tipper cried out. "I can't get the rear landing gear all the way down. This shit is gonna hurt!"
The Raven slammed down hard onto the tarmac. The impact jammed me upwards towards the ceiling, but the jump seat straps held fast. I felt as if I was being compressed into a small box. Cowboy threw the turbo props into full reverse, and the sound was deafening. [At that moment, the nose gear gave way, and the Raven pitched downward towards the ground, the nose gear tore into the asphalt and shook the ship violently.]
"This is it." I thought. "Once the sparks from the gear start hitting those leaky wings, we will burst into flames."
Thankfully, this never happened. The Raven had slowed a bit, but not enough to make a complete stop on the runway. We missed the last stop markers, and plowed into the sand breakers at the end of the runway. The Raven continued along, and the jungle was closing fast in the cabin windows. To this day, I don't know how he did it, but Cowboy pulled up just short of the tree line. The AC130 ground to a screaming halt, and he killed the ships power and switched to auxiliary. The Raven would never fly again.
Cowboy called out "Report in! Is everyone alright back there?"
Everyone had survived the crash, maybe a little banged up, but OK. The emergency lights and warning signals made the inside of the Raven look like a Christmas tree. Cowboy killed all the alarms, and we all got ready to exit the plane.
"There's a lot of gunplay going on out there." Tipper said. "Everyone get there flak jackets on and be ready to run for shelter. Get your game plan ready before I lower the rear hatch!"
Small arms fire was hitting the side of the Raven. We all huddled into the tail section.
Bill, the other howitzer operator was an old veteran to this sort of thing. He looked at me and said, "You want to make it out of here alive?"
"Is that a trick question?" I said
Don't be a smart ass boy!" he said. When the hatch opens, I'm gonna flank right with grazing fire, and Tippers gonna flank left. All of you need to stay low and head straight out the back of the plane. Intelligence told us there is a bunker that we control about sixteen to twenty yards right behind us."
Jack said, "Hey old man, I can fend for myself. I'm gonna run to the left and take cover behind those sheds we saw coming in."
You'll never make it there, kid." Bill said. "You'll get shot before you get ten feet."
"I'll take my chances." Jack said.
"Suit yourself!" Bill said.
"Ark you run as fast as you can towards that bunker," Bill said. "If you do what I tell you, then you'll make it there. We can't loose our only medic."
"You don't have to tell me twice!" I Said. "I got you the first time."
Tipper hit the release mechanism on the tail bulkhead, and the door hydraulics started to whine. This is it, I thought.
All the training and hard work had come down to this moment. I had never been so scared, yet so alive in my life. There was no time left to contemplate any of this. It was time to go. I said a silent prayer as light streamed into the cabin. The bi fold doors opened even wider.
"God, please let me make it home alive."
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