Intercepting a bunny

Captain Liland shuffled over to the small table in the ready room, periodically glancing down on his full mug of instant coffee, up towards the respatex table again, carefully balancing himself and the coffee mug back to kill more time.

The room was clad in fake paneling, had uncomfortable steel tube chairs, dog-eared magazines with done crosswords and a never ending supply of bad instant coffee. Lined up along one of the walls, their day-glo survival overalls hung like carcasses waiting for reanimation. Nobody goes swimming at 67° northern latitude in December with only your government issue flight suit protecting you from the cold, unrelenting sea. Along the coast of northern Norway there’s a lot of very cold, unrelenting sea, especially in the middle of December.

The ready room was in the alert area outside the cavernous hangars east of the runway, housing four guys waiting for the Badgers, Blinders, Bears and SIGINT Cubs on their routine Wednesday milk-run down the Norwegian coast. Amidst aircraft recognition posters and foreign squadron memorabilia, the pilots waited for the next inevitable high-speed trip out into the Arctic Ocean in their F-104G Starfighters.

Out to meet the Soviets in a high-speed, high-tech capoeira, snap a few black and whites with their Leicas and head back home, hopefully reaching the airfield while the last remaining pounds of fuel provided reassuring thrust and lift. If the Soviets turned around, they would let them mind their own business. Should they continue south, it was time to alert the Keflavik Phantoms or their UK counterparts in Leuchars. You can only fly so long in a tiny Starfighter without air-to-air refueling.

The room’s only phone rang.

“This is Yankee”, the businesslike voice at the other end said.

“Scramble two eff-one-oh-fours, vector three-one-zero, angels two-eight-zero, gate, contact Yankee channel one seven, backup one niner.”

Liland immediately pushed the alarm button to alert the line crew. He looked over at the orange suits on the wall and felt the tingle of adrenalin while listening to the last of the controller’s message.

They wallowed in their fluorescent suits out to the planes, Liland and his wingman, hurriedly crushing their cigarette butts just outside the barrack door. There would be no chance for another one for several hours.

“Whatcha think?”

“Naah. It’s Wednesday so it’s probably just one of the Cubs. They’re waiting for us up there, just like we’re waiting for them. Let’s go and say a big capitalist hello from the Royal Norwegian Air Force. No need to let our Russian friends bore themselves to death. I’ll bet you a tenner it’s 03 today.”

“You’re on!”

Minutes after strapping the plane to their backs, they were ready to go. The crew chief pulled away the wheel stops and they taxied out into the blistering Arctic cold. It was going to be a long afternoon in the fastest office in the world.

During the climbout, Liland got directions from AOC telling him where the zombie was and were it was heading. Under each wing he had a Sidewinder missile with a red band painted around the body. Hot missiles with real explosives inside, doing real explosive damage in real Soviet planes with real people inside. It was all a game, but this particular game had no referee and nowhere to turn if things went bad. There was no rule book either, except everyone’s sense of sportsmanship and the wish to get back on the ground. One wrong move and it could go wrong in more ways than it was possible to imagine.

Yankee vectored them perfectly onto the Cub’s tail, a transport plane with a ridiculous amount of ventral antennae. The weekly Soviet SIGINT flight was well underway, just as the weekly interception of it was. Another day on the job.

Liland’s wingman fell back to cover the intercept and photo session. Although the Cub had very little in the way of armament, the twin 23mm cannons in the tail could rip the Starfighter into shreds in a matter of milliseconds. But like an F-104 Starfighter isn’t bulletproof, an AN-12 Cub is neither bulletproof nor Sidewinder-proof.

320 knots at 28.000 feet. That’s not a particularly pleasant flight regime for a manned rocket with almost laughably short, razor thin wings. In order to match the Cub’s cruising speed, Liland had to fly with an angle of attack nearly that of landing.

Liland sweated under the survival suit while simultaneously balancing a near stalling aircraft on a thin jet beam while fiddling with a camera. Nobody got to sit in the ready room and wait for the phone to ring unless they had a perfect understanding of the government issue Leica. Their photos adorned publications in every part of NATO that had any interest in showing what Soviet aircraft looked like. In the portholes in the Cub flying a couple of hundred metres away, Liland’s 104 was photographed too, but they were in for a much smaller treat than Liland was.

Liland bled off a couple of knots to get a better view of the Cub’s tail when he saw the tail gunner waving at him, almost cheering. He snapped another two pictures.

“Huh? What on earth is that?”, he said to himself, muffled by the helmet and the deafening noise of the jet plane. The tail gunner was holding something up for him to see, but he couldn’t make out what it was, however much he squinted behind the helmet visor. A message? Did they want to defect with the spyplane? Was he being ridiculed in cyrillic? Instinctively he wanted to rub his eyes, but forgot all about it when the wingman came on, crackling through the ether.

“Lion two four. We’re bingo. Let’s go home.”

During the numerous intercepts he’d been flying lead on, not a single time had the Soviets attempted any kind of communication save for the occasional waving through their plexiglass windows. Now that they did, it was by the tail gunner in one of the slowest aircraft in the Soviet inventory.

“Liland? You took the pics of the Cub yesterday? You simply gotta see this!”

Liland recognised the photo interpreter’s voice on the phone, but he sounded like he was about to burst into laughter instead of his usual grave tenor.

“Yeah, I gotta see that. A smiling intel guy”, Liland grinned to himself while he mounted his bike to pedal down to HQ and the waiting spooks.

“I took a picture of WHAT?”

In front of him on the cluttered desk, the magnification of the tail gunner’s window showed a familiar sight, but Liland couldn’t believe what he saw. A naked woman suggestively soaping herself with a sponge.

“Ester Cordet”, the spook said, louder this time.

“Ester who?”

” I did some … er … research … on my own. Ester Cordet. Last October’s Playboy centerfold.”

This is a true story (with a lot of artistic license) from the NATO northern flank in the 1970’s, although I couldn’t find out exactly when it happened. Capt. Liland was a real pilot flying Lion 26 at the same squadron, but he flew an F-16 in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He was my parachute instructor in 1989. My apologies to him if he should ever read this.

You can see a photo of a RNoAF F-104 intercepting a Cub here:

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