Alex moved to the pilot’s seat and was casually leaning on the upright when he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. He wiggled into the small space between the seat and the side panel and craned to see backward as the plane flew sedately on. His heart was pounding loudly in his ears; Alex held his breath till the Herc had made another circuit. Sure enough, the smoke was where he had seen it before.
“Skipper, look!” he said excitedly.
As the aircraft came abreast of the indicated area, the aircraft commander looked to where Alex pointed, his fingers quivering with excitement. A thin stream of smoke could be seen, as well as light reflecting off some kind of metal. The pilot twisted around to face Alex, and pulled the earpiece off his ear. Alex did the same.
“You want to take a look?” The disbelief in both his face and voice was plain.
“The Otter pilot said he was forced down, maybe he was … literally,” Alex whispered back, holding his hand over the mike in front of his mouth.
The pilot nodded and pulled the earpiece back on. A few minutes maneuvering brought the Hercules over the smoke. All the men in the cockpit craned to look out the left-hand window. “Shit” or “Look at that” could be heard as jumbled voices talked excitedly over the headset. A deep black gouge mark melted in the ice, running a fair distance. Bits of metal lay in the snow. Whatever had hit, was buried in tons of fallen snow except for the last ten to fifteen feet of smooth hull. Four engine pods could be seen protruding from the back. The smoke was drifting from one of the pods; even now it was almost gone.
“Skipper, can you get lower?” Alex couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice.
“Damn right we can. All right everyone look alive, we’re dropping down for a closer look. Frank, plot this spot.”
The navigator nodded vigorously.
As the plane dropped lower, the turbulence from below began to toss them about. Even though the pilot was a bit slack on discipline and protocol, he was a damn good flyer. With skill and ease, he brought the jumping, bouncing plane lower, and circled the wreck. He even had time for a look. The headsets were alive with wild, excited talk. The only one not participating was the co-pilot. He was monitoring the height and air speed. Suddenly an alarm shrilled.
The engineer’s head snapped upward to the overhead panel. “Fire warning, number two, light now steady.”
“Pull the handle. Charlie, take a look!”
The engineer pulled the T handle. In the back, the Loadmaster hurried to the after paratroop door, stumbling over the cargo rollers in his haste and looked out.
“Skipper, we’re burning, flames from the turbine section!”
The co-pilot had already pulled back the engine throttle and feathered number two engine.
“Fire the bottle!” the pilot barked.
With a quick push of the toggle switch the fire extinguisher spurted into the engine.
The engineer grimaced, “No go!”
“Skipper, we’re going down,” the co-pilot rasped.
The Hercules was too heavy flying on three engines at reduced power. The plane lurched alarmingly. Alex stumbled between the seat and cockpit side; Anderson pushed the other three throttles to their stops.
The aircraft commander muttered through clenched teeth, “Like hell we are,” and pulled the yoke back to his stomach. “Come on, baby, don’t let daddy down now.”
The whine of the engine was deafening.
“No good,” the engineer replied anxiously.
The co-pilot snapped, “1500.”
“Fire bottle two, jettison fuel.”
“Damn you, do it!”
“Come on sugar, mama’s waiting for daddy at home.”
The engineer hit the dump pumps. Fuel began spewing from the trailing edge of the wing tips. The Hercules slowly came up.
“Height?” he asked.
“Eight hundred feet,” the co-pilot choked.
“Fire’s out, skipper.” The engineer reported sighing deeply.
The navigator jumped in, “Highest peak twelve hundred feet, dead ahead!”
Anderson grunted, sweating profusely as he and the co-pilot pulled back on the yoke and banking left, slipped the C-130 to the side of the towering granite spire looming ominously in front. Once clear, the pilot straightened for a gentle climb back to where the C-130 belonged, still trailing smoke from their damaged engine. The laboring aircraft cleared the jagged slope with a dozen feet to spare, the prop wash blowing the dusting snow from the rocks. Painstakingly, they climbed for altitude and they headed for the South Pole.
Sinking back in his seat with a sigh of relief, the pilot said, “Relax a minute, then report damage.” He turned to his cockpit crew, forcing a smile. “Good job, just like in training.”
Everyone noticed he was sweating badly and his hands shook a bit, but then so did the others. To the aircrew, the other crash was forgotten in their need to get their own aircraft home. But Alex, rubbing the bruise on his forehead, was staring out the side window, watching the tiny thread of smoke until they moved beyond his line of sight. A UFO, they had really found a UFO.
Papa Golf Zero Four, a C-130, N model built in 1996 was still the best transport, for both range and cargo that money could buy. But at that moment, Lt. Commander Paul Alexander didn’t care. She was the sweetest thing flying and the crew listening to him talk could have sworn he was actually talking to the plane itself. Two thousand pounds of fuel isn’t a lot for three hungry engines. Shortly before landing, number four coughed, roared again, and slowly died. They managed to make a two-engine landing with number one slowly winding to a stop as they taxied into the fuel pits. When the remaining engine was shut down there was eighty pounds of fuel left. The South Pole had no maintenance equipment so a bright yellow D-8 dozer was backed in under the after part of number two engine. The flight engineer and Charlie the Loadmaster, mechanics by training before applying for aircrew school, climbed on the dozer hood and were quickly checking out the damage, the big cam shell covering, once open, revealed a mass of scorched metal and burnt wiring. The co-pilot fuelled the Hercules; a job normally done by the engineer. But, between the lieutenant and the South Pole fuelie, they finally got it done.
Team Four, and Lt. Commander Alexander were ensconced in South Pole radio room after tactfully getting rid of the operator. In spite of the exciting news, the pilot’s first concern was for his plane. Twenty minutes went by while the damage was talked about with McMurdo Station, well, MacCenter to be exact as the operations room was referred to. Another Hercules was being scheduled in case they needed to bring parts and personnel down; they were just waiting for the damage report.
The door opened and his engineer, a chief petty officer, came in wiping his hands on a dirty, greasy towel. “It’s no good Skipper; it’ll have to come off.”
For the first time he didn’t care about being grounded, Paul had other ideas.
“MacCenter, the chief says the engine will have to come off.”
“Roger, we copy. As soon as the storm breaks we’ll get a Herc airborne.”
“You socked in again?” Paul sounded almost hopeful.
“Damn right we are; the Herbie came in so quick we had shit scattered all over.”
“No one missing is there?” Paul asked with genuine concern.
“Not now. We’ve a few in the hospital with exposure.”
“Mac, how long will the storm last?”
“The experts say one to two days, but hell, you know the record has been ten days. It really is anyone’s guess; this Herbie is a real bitch.”
“Okay McMurdo, tell Ops while we’re stuck here, we’re going to take a look at a wreck we found.”
The MacCenter operator was instantly concerned, “One of ours?”
“No McMurdo, not ours, we’re going to borrow one of the South Pole Otters and find out who’s it is.”
“Will pass on the message, good hunting. McMurdo Station, out.”
Everyone stood watching the pilot sitting there with a smile, he looked as happy as a pig in shit.
“Let’s go people. We have to see a man about a horse.”
“Skipper, give me twenty minutes to move Zero Four to another spot. I would like to come with you.”
“Okay, Dan, you’ve got the time. But only us six, the rest of the crew can wait.”
As they left, Chief Henry gave the pilot a piece of paper. “Frank thought you might want this.”
Paul read it. It was the crash location from the Hercules’s navigation computer.
Two hours later the Otter was winging its way north, well any location from South Pole is north. The station commander was quite happy to loan them the plane after hearing about the wreck, and the fact that they had found his other plane when it went down. The one hour flight was uneventful, mind numbingly boring; the tiny plane seemed to strain every rivet, jarring their eye teeth. After the perceived spaciousness of the C-130, the Otter was cramped and small, and very noisy. The wreck was circled a few times, while the men, with no headsets, shouted to each other about what they were going to do. It was finally decided to set down in a branch canyon, half a mile from the site. Chief Henry produced two items; a Geiger counter, he had borrowed from a scientist and a .45 automatic. He put the clip in the handle, pulled back the barrel, cocking it. Then, put the safety on, returning it to a holster which he strapped around his hips.
The chief, seeing the inquiring glance from Jason said, “My old man flew in the Gulf War. Shot down twice. He said to always have one just in case, and so I have. Besides I was a Boy Scout.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”