(Part 8: Convergence here)
Steeljaw 604, airborne, Eastern Caribbean
â€œHere comes another oneâ€ passed the ACO on the ICS.Â Flashing the position of the video paint on his and the others scope via the Intercom Mark function. â€œRight where the others have all been coming from â€“ they must be using that cape as their final nav check before heading out over the waterâ€
The CICO silently nodded his head as he prepared to make the report via SATCOM to Panther.Â At least tonight the Customs P-3s were up â€“ both the dome and the slick.Â The Dome (AEW variant) P-3 was following a contact 603 had picked up earlier that appeared to be headed stateside.Â An ancient DC-3 with no markings, it was likely destined for a final resting spot in some remote backwater in the southeast US after delivering its cargo â€“ except tonight the trap was being prepared and the crew in the dome P-3 were busy orchestrating the bust on SATCOM.
During a break in the traffic between the dome P-3 (callsign Omaha 50) and Panther, he managed a quick report that was acknowledged by Panther.
â€œSteeljaw, Panther.Â Be advised no more F-16â€™s tonight, Omaha 51 will be your interceptor for track 1556.â€
â€œPanther, Steeljaw roger, break, Omaha 51, meet me button 3 secureâ€
â€œOmaha 51, switching.â€
And with that, the hunt was on, again.
Beech King Air (C90B) â€“ Colombian Registry HK-1135V, airborne, 50 nm north of Isla de Margarita.
â€˜So, here I am again, after last monthâ€™s adventure, out over the water and not sure of what awaits me at the drop point â€“ againâ€™ the pilot thought to himself.Â â€˜This is the last one Iâ€™m flying â€“ yes, they paid well, especially after all the problems on the return from that abortion a month agoâ€¦â€™
Images swam into his distant conscience from that flight â€“ the sudden appearance of the DEA helicopters, the bright light, struggling at the controls with a spooked copilot, but worst of all was the return when he found his landing site under a heavy rainstorm.Â Fortunately he recalled an outlying field near the border that was basically a long dirt strip carved by the army out of the jungle for troop support.Â The air force also used it for emergency landings and it was remote enough that on this night he could get in without any questions being asked and leave at dawn before anyone showed up.Â El Jefe had cocked an appreciative eyebrow as he vented the following day and added a couple of extra bundles of dollars to his flight bag.Â â€œYou did wellâ€ heâ€™d said â€œand you have been rewarded accordingly.Â Weâ€™ll be in touch again soon.â€
Indeed they had and when he had demurred, the conversation had taken a particularly nasty turn that convinced him heâ€™d need to sever contact with this group.Â Maybe he could head north and pick up a job with an airline in Mexico or Canada â€“ the US was just too much trouble and there was always the possibility of this aspect of his past being brought to light.Â One thing was for sure â€“ his chances were markedly less in this battered and beaten old aircraft.Â Well worn inside and out, it was still basically airworthy, but with badly fading paint and an interior that reeked of aviation fuel fumes from the extended range tanks that were installed in the cabin.Â His copilot and cargomaster on this nightâ€™s flight was equally dismayed, if body language could be believed.
â€œOmaha, Steeljaw â€“ contact on your nose at 67 miles, angels 23, primary only.â€
â€œRoger, keep the calls comingâ€ was the response from the P-3.
Equipped with radar and FLIR similar to the F-16, the â€œslickâ€ P-3 had an advantage in being able to stay airborne and track a suspect for much longer periods.Â Additionally, they could remain further from the contact for identification via FLIR than the F-16s as well.Â The only problem was one of availability as they usually operated with the dome P-3 and were slower than the F-16s in consummating the intercept.
â€œLooks like this one is going to be holding altitudeâ€ the RO passed.Â With a surplus of aircrew for this last week in Curacao, there were enough NFOs for a full backend â€“ a bit of overkill with the few assets for control and limited sector for surveillance, but it was good training just the same in understanding the basics of operating the radar.
â€œGood, I donâ€™t want to have another flailex like the other nightâ€ the CICO replied.Â Three nights previous, a suspect aircraft was hugging the deck, flying below 100 ft and had blundered into a CV battle group that was in the middle of work-ups, and this was the night they were all EMCON A and practicing deceptive lighting.Â Heâ€™d striven, almost in vein, to warn the carrier of the approaching aircraft and when the radar and lights came up, the suspect aircraft had radically altered course, almost flying into the water according to the trailing P-3.Â It had then gone on and tried, unsuccessfully, to locate its drop, eventually turning back to the south and what they had later found out only this morning, was a â€œwarmâ€ welcome from the Venezuelan authorities.Â Tonight the battle group was still in the same position and conducting flight ops â€“ heâ€™d already warned his counterpart in the VAW-126 E-2 that was airborne of the suspect aircraft even though it looked like it was going to miss the area.Â The return offer of a couple of Tomcats to do a close aboard flyby in afterburner was briefly considered, but turned down â€“ he wanted to nail this guy and his partners in the boat tonight.
Checking the handheld GPS position, he looked at his watch and made some mental calculations about time to go.Â â€œWeâ€™re almost to our descent pointâ€ he announced to the copilot, â€œanything on the VHF yet?â€
The copilot, who had been listening to the handheld VHF, shook his head no.
â€œOKâ€ he sighed, â€œIâ€™m starting down.Â Give them a call and let them know weâ€™re coming in.â€
â€œThere he goesâ€ said the FLIR operator, â€œLooks like heâ€™s started his descent.Â Letâ€™s call itâ€
â€œOmaha 21, Omaha 51, suspect has begun descending.â€Â The P-3 mission commander passed their location so the slower UH-60s could begin their flight inbound.
â€œSteeljaw copies suspect in descent â€“ say ID, overâ€
â€œRoger Steeljaw â€“ suspect is a Beech King Air, looks like Colombian registry but unable to confirm.â€
â€œCopy â€“ Omaha 21 and 22 inbound at angels 1.8â€Â Theyâ€™d had some problems of late with the UHF comms in the helos.
â€œSuspectâ€™s turning left and descending faster â€“ I have a possible surface contact on the FLIRâ€ came the follow-up report from the FLIR operator.
â€œSteeljaw, 51, have the helos hold at 10 miles out.Â Weâ€™re anchoring current posit, angels 8.Â Good FLIR on suspect aircraft and boat.â€
It hadnâ€™t taken much prompting on the radio â€“ the delivery boat had quickly responded and a small patch of light had appeared â€“ fishing lights apparently.Â The copilot had gone back and opened the aft door as he began his first run.Â Slowing as much as possible, he dropped the flaps and throttled back, calling out the distance to go over his shoulder to the copilot.Â Two, three, four passes later and the cargo was all gone.Â It looked like a good delivery â€“ no helicopters tonight.Â Climbing back to cruise altitude he set course for the recovery field â€“ different than where heâ€™d launched from, but still in the heart of the Colombian back country. And he began to relax.
The captain took one final count â€“ four bales, just as heâ€™d been told.Â This pilot had been a good one and, quickly crossing himself, no sign of Americanos.Â A quick command to douse the fishing lights, stow the gear and he set course for the mainland
â€œPanther, Steeljaw.Â Suspect 1156 has completed air drop to a fishing vessel and is now headed 225 @ angels 24.Â Omaha 51 in trail, request entry clearance for 51.Â Fishing vessel is tracking 065, estimating 12 knots.Â Omahaâ€™s 21 and 22 tracking and cutter inbound.Â Estimate rendezvous in one five mikes.â€Â The CICO completed the report with a grim smile.
â€˜Looks like everything is lining up just right tonightâ€™ he thought.Â Just as well since he was off for the next two days to wrap-up ops on the island.Â The XO and himself were then off to Howard AFB, Panama (â€˜and didnâ€™t that bring back old memories,â€™ he thought), hitching a ride on a C-130, to provide an outbrief and report to SOUTHCOM.Â From there, a long C-12 flight back to join the rest of the squadron in Roosey to wrap up the deployment.Â A solid bust tonight would be a good way to wrap-up things.
USCG Valiant (WMEC-621)
â€œThatâ€™s her Captain, 1500 yards on the port bow.â€
The cutter, home-ported in St. Petersburg, Florida but deployed these past five weeks to the eastern Caribbean on counter-drug patrol, was moving towards an intercept of the suspect fishing vessel.Â â€œOK, bring the helos in and call away the LE teamâ€
The night suddenly lit up as helicopters closed on the ship.Â He had no sooner made to increase speed when off his bow came a searchlight and a command floated across the water:
â€œEste es el Cortador de los Estados Unidos Valiente. Usted es sospechado de traffiking ilegal en narcÃ³ticos. Corte sus motores y dispÃ³ngase a ser alojado.â€
â€œThis is the United States Cutter Valiant.Â You are suspected of illegal traffiking in narcotics.Â Cut your engines and prepare to be boarded.â€
On either side of the boat, helicopters hovered close, menacingly close.Â Looking across the water to the lit up cutter he could see a boat rapidly making its way to his vessel.Â Sighing resignedly he cut the engines and with a wave of his hand, indicated the crewmen in the deckhouse to put down their weapons.Â It was going to be a long nightâ€¦
â€œFlight, CICO.Â Letâ€™s RTB, but keep me at mission profile.â€
With the acknowledgement of the front end, the Hawkeye began a shallow turn to take up a heading to Hato.
â€œSteeljaw, Omaha 51, Panther.Â Panther passes that Omaha 21 has overflight clearance, check-in on 123.42 for altitude and squawk assignment.â€
â€œOmaha 51 copiesâ€
As the coastline slid by below, the pilot checked the fuel gauges again, for what had to be the ten thousandth time this flight.Â It was going to be close, awfully close.Â Fuel consumption was running ahead of what heâ€™d planned, even with the steps heâ€™d taken to conserve.Â Still, having made it back over Venezuela, it looked like everything was going to be OK.Â A little over an hour to the Colombian border and another hour to the airfieldâ€¦a small trickle of sweat worked itâ€™s way down between his shoulder blades as he shifted in his seat.
â€œRoger, confirming we are 5 miles in trail of the suspect aircraft.â€Â That was the mission commander talking with the ground controllers.Â Given the time of night, they were the only traffic in the skies west of Caracas headed southwest.
â€œOmaha 51, Panther.Â Clearance into Colombia has been refused, say again, negative clearance into Colombiaâ€
â€˜Well,â€™ thought the P-3 MC, â€˜Means one of two things and in either case, they donâ€™t want us there to see itâ€¦â€™
â€œPanther, Omaha 51 copies negative clearance for Colombia.Â We will detach 5 miles prior and steer north to recover at Hato for fuel.â€
The CICO heard the last over SATCOM as they were making preparations for landing.Â â€˜Too bad,â€™ he thought â€˜would have liked to see this closed out on both ends.â€™ He concluded with a mental shrug.Â â€˜Guess weâ€™ll see if thereâ€™s anything provided in the outbriefâ€™
USCG Cutter Valiant
â€œThatâ€™s it Captain â€“ 4 bales and 5 suspects including the boatâ€™s captain.Â No fish.Â We also confiscated several automatic weapons and a hand held VHF and GPS.Â Prize crew is onboard and will follow us into port.â€
â€œThanks XO, good haul tonight â€“ at least we netted something this at sea period.â€ The CO replied.Â â€˜Eight bales,â€™ he thought â€˜ roughly Â 227 kilos per bale – figuring it was uncut, that would place the street value at a little over 18 mil â€“ not the biggest haul, but still enough to put a serious dent in someoneâ€™s production.Â And odds were that someone was going to be very unhappy and would make life for those around them very unhappyâ€¦â€™ Turning the deck back over to the OOD, he headed below to make his reports.
Dragon 27 (FARC A-37)
â€œTarget is ahead, 1 mile. You are cleared to open fire when in rangeâ€
The words of the controller had barely faded in his headset as the A-37 pilot centered the pipper on the wing root.Â The 7.62mm minigun made quick work of the Beechcraft as it briefly blossomed into an angry orange and red and then darkly fluttered to the jungle below like so much confettiâ€¦
It came as a sudden shock, the aircraft violently, briefly shook and before he could register a single, coherent question, everything went darkâ€¦
The sun sat low on the Andean mountain ridgeline as the last of the bales was loaded.Â Checking the auxiliary tanks, the pilot gave a quick nod that all was satisfactory and hurried to the cockpit â€“ it was important to get airborne before the deep jungle valley turned completely into shadow.Â Those who had failed before â€“ well, their testimony was partway up the mountain, an unrecognizable pile of aluminum slowly being claimed by the jungleâ€¦
Hard on the brakes, he ran the engines up to full power.Â One final look â€“ all was in order.Â Brakes released and the Cessna 421 leapt forward, gaining speed down the rough-hewn runway.Â Two thirds of the way and it reluctantly climbed into the air.
el Jefe watched the plane as it turned slowly to the east and caught the last beams of the setting sun.Â With a shrug, he walked back to the waiting truck and headed back into the jungle.