Chapter Sample: The Air War Begins
04 May, 2018 | General News
1555 MSK, Sunday 13 February 1994
Crane Flight, Over the Gulf of Motovsky, Norway-USSR Border
Major Sasha Mitroshenko of the Soviet Air Force, called the VVS, or Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily in Russian, concentrated on keeping his twin-engine Sukhoi Su-27 air superiority fighter level above the choppy, gray waves of the Barents Sea, which were zipping by in a blur a mere three hundred meters below the light-gray painted underside of his aircraft. He had just led his tight formation of eight fighters—callsign “Crane”—in a gentle, low altitude turn to the west after taking off from their base at Kilp Yavr on the Kola Peninsula a few minutes before. The pilot’s concentration, however, did not prevent him from savoring the raw power of the two Saturn AL-31F turbofan engines that were pushing his sleek fighter forward at over five hundred knots.
The Soviet pilot was intensely proud of his bird, and of his elite position within the VVS. Being selected to fly one of the Su-27s, codenamed “Flanker” by those in the west, was a mark of the service’s regard for his skill as a fighter pilot. The advanced Sukhoi interceptor had been designed to challenge the American F-15 Eagle for control of the sky. The F-15 was supposedly the best air superiority fighter in the world, Mitroshenko knew. We will have to test that theory soon enough, won’t we? he thought grimly.
Not yet, though. Right now, the advanced Soviet fighters and their pilots would be opposed by a small number of piddly single-engine Norwegian F-16s. Ten to twelve at most was the estimate in the mission briefing. Those Norwegians jets are out of date and out of time, he thought, feeling ever more the predator. His flight of eight Su-27s, and a second flight of eight crossing the frontier further south near the Finnish border, would swat the F-16s from the sky. Their real mission was blinding the NATO defenders in the critical opening moments of the offensive by shooting down the AWACS airborne radar aircraft that was now circling off the northwest coast of Norway.
The fighter pilot pulled back on his stick slightly, gaining elevation as he and his seven compatriots flashed over the barren, white Rybachy Peninsula, their last terrain checkpoint before crossing into Norwegian airspace. The flight of Flankers were paralleling the north coast of the Kola on a heading that would take them over the east-facing Varangerfjord, a course that would allow the aircraft to penetrate deep into Norway over nominally international waters before finally violating Norwegian airspace. Mitroshenko was also banking on the rocky walls of the fjord to hide his low-flying jets from NATO radars until the last possible moment.
The snowy western coast of the Rybachy Peninsula flashed by underneath, yielding once again to the dark waters of the Barents Sea. Mitroshenko’s pulse quickened as he keyed his radio and said, “All Crane elements, this is Crane Lead, final checkpoint. Three minutes to the border.”
1357 CET, Sunday 13 Feb 1994
Viper Two-One, over Banak Air Station, Lakselv, Finnmark, Norway
“Viper Two-One, this is Magic,” Jan Olsen heard the controller on the AWACS call through his helmet speakers, “you have multiple bandits heading your way. Bearing one-one-two degrees true from your location, range eight-five miles, speed five hundred-plus, angels one. You are clear to engage if they cross the border. Over.” The E-3 Sentry’s large, rotating radar had detected multiple unidentified contacts to the east of Olsen’s position. “Angels one” signifying that the contacts were at approximately one thousand feet of altitude. The disturbing message was delivered in the emotionless monotone practiced by crewmen of control aircraft, meant to calm nerves in stressful situations. Situations like this, Jan thought.
“Roger, Magic,” he responded, “turning to intercept.” Olsen then keyed his radio again, calling his wingman, whose jet he could see several dozen meters off his wing outside his bubble canopy, and saying, “Viper Two-Two, hard-right zero-nine-zero, dropping to angels ten. Switches hot,”—this referred to the six AIM-9L Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles attached to his wings— “on my mark…execute!”
My God, this might be the real thing, Olsen thought, as he banked his nimble F-16, or “Falcon,” to the east and dove, settling onto a reciprocal course to the oncoming Russian jets.
“Bjorn,” Olsen said, calling his wingman again, “it looks like they’re coming up the Varangerfjord. We’ll do it like we talked about this morning. Follow me down.” He heard two clicks over the radio as Bjorn acknowledged without speaking. Jan’s right hand applied slight forward pressure to the video-game-like sidestick to put his jet into a shallow dive. He watched the cockpit dials spin downward with the altitude while also scanning the sky ahead through the glass of his heads-up display and canopy.
As the two Norwegian F-16s closed with the approaching bandits, Olsen heard the AWACS controllers ordering, “Viper Base, Viper Bases Two, Three, and Four, this is Magic, scramble ready flights,” instructing all the ready F-16s, dispersed to fields around Northern Norway and sitting on the tarmac, into the air. The controller continued, giving orders to the other pairs of F-16s west of Olsen, “Viper One-One, vector zero-four-five, angels thirty. Viper Two-Three, support Viper Two-One…”
This is the real thing! Olsen realized, as the controllers in the E-3 calmly began to maneuver the Norwegian jets into position to parry the coming blow. Viper Two-Three, the flight of two F-16s patrolling over the North Cape to the north of Banak, would come south to support Olsen’s flight, while the two Falcons of Viper One-One moved to intercept a southern group of bandits that had just appeared on the sentry crew’s radar scopes.
Across northern Norway, pairs of F-16s converged on the two groups of Su-27s that were hurtling towards the frontier, the Norwegian pilots excepting Olsen and Bjorn keeping their fighters at high altitude, while the Russians hugged the wavetops of the Barents Sea and the rugged arctic snowscape of the Kola. In the north, Viper Two-Three was replacing Olsen’s flight over Banak, directly in the path of the first group of Flankers, while Olsen and Bjorn went into a steep dive for the deck, heading east.
“Magic, this is Viper Two-One,” Olsen said, tension giving his voice an edge as he bottomed out his dive, two hundred feet above the tundra, “range to those bandits?” They were speaking in English, standard practice when dealing with the multinational crews aboard the NATO AWACS.
“Five-zero miles, Viper Two-One,” replied Magic. “Count is eight bandits headed your way.” At a closing speed of over a thousand miles per hour the two groups of sleek, modern warbirds would cover that distance in less than three minutes.
“Magic, this is Tasman,” Olsen heard over his radio. “Tasman” was the callsign of the Norwegian electronic countermeasures aircraft that was aloft to support the AWACS and the patrolling fighters, “we’re detecting multiple emissions. We have good tracks on at least five Su-27 fire control radars from the group east of Banak, four more from the group one-two-five miles to the south, over.”
Flankers, thought Olsen, this is going to be tough. The Sukhoi was a formidable aircraft, not quite as nimble as his own smaller F-16, but capable of carrying more missiles, including the radar-homing AA-10 “Alamo” that far out-ranged his own heat-seaking Sidewinders.
Olsen edged his stick slightly to the left, taking his aircraft just to the north of the Varangerfjord, down which the approaching Soviet jets were hurtling at near-wavetop level. In moments he was over the broken, low shrublands and snowfields of the Varangerhalvøya National Park, a low string of hills masking his two Falcons from the Russians over the fjord southeast to their right.
“Magic, range!” Olsen demanded.
“One-five miles to your South-South-West, Two-Two,” was the immediate, monotone reply.
The plan they had worked out called for the two F-16s of Viper Two-Three’s flight to remain over Banak, drawing the attention of the Russian pilots, while Olsen and Bjorn used the rough terrain of the park to swing around to the north and get onto the tail of the intruders. It was a good plan, but they hadn’t really anticipated four-to-one odds against Su-27s in this opening engagement.
Engagement! Realization hit Olsen as he came to grips with the incredible changes turning his world upside down. Time seemed to slow down in that moment into a long, silent pause—but he was ripped out of the moment by the reality of his situation. The Norwegian was suddenly and intensely aware of the frigid air rushing past the glass bubble of his canopy, of Bjorn to the right and slightly behind his own fighter, the brown scrub and white tundra below, and the Soviet fighters out of sight beyond the hills to his right. Just two days ago he had been preparing to take the weekend off and enjoy the national celebration that the Olympics provided. That he was about to launch missiles at Soviet fighters invading his country was surreal. What on earth is going on?
Olsen shook himself back onto action. The bewilderment pushed to the back of his mind, the pilot now reacted on instinct, allowing his training to take over, speaking in rapid-fire commands.
“Viper Two-Two,” Olsen called to Bjorn, “hard right and level. Now!”
Both fighters stood on their right wingtips in unison and rocketed through a gap in the low hills to their south, flashing over the coast mere meters above the small fishing village of Vadsø, then out over the dark, choppy waters of the fjord, continuing to bank until they had completely reversed their course and were flying east, in the same direction and behind the Russian fighters.
Now Olsen began scanning the sky above and to his front. There! He could see the dark spots of…four? There should be eight. Where are the others?
“Eight miles, directly ahead of you, Viper Two-One,” called Magic, a note of tension starting to creep into the normally unflappable controller’s voice now. “One is gaining altitude!”
“Bjorn, afterburners. Now!” Olsen ordered. Both men pushed their throttles all the way forward, accelerating their aircraft through Mach 1 to close the range on the tails of the Soviet interceptors.
In seconds, the Norwegians had pulled within missile range of the onrushing Flankers. Olsen could see the glow of the Sukhois’ powerful, widely-spaced engines as he and Bjorn edged up, below and behind the bigger jets. Then he heard it.
“All Viper flights, this is Magic. Bandits have crossed the international border in force. Clear to engage. I repeat, you are clear to engage. Good hunting, and God be with you.”
Jan Olsen took in a sharp breath of the oxygen flowing through his mask as he flipped the safety off the trigger on his joystick and completed the arming of his Sidewinder missiles. He swallowed, then called, “Bjorn, you take the right two, I’ll take the left two. Engage on my mark.”
Two clicks in his headset signaled Bjorn’s acknowledgment.
Olsen looked through his heads-up display as the box indicating his first missile’s infrared seeker settled onto the center-left Flanker, which was growing larger in his field of view by the second. The growl in his ears told him the missile was locked on. The Norwegian took another breath, whispered a brief prayer, and squeezed the trigger on his joystick, while at the same time announcing, “Fox Two!”