Keller knocked on the door of Admiral Warren's quarters, and heard the loud command to enter. Warren rose and came around from behind his desk. Captain Keller saluted and said, "You asked to see me, Sir?"
Warren ran his hand through his silver hair and said, "At ease, Captain Keller."
He went to the door and locked it. He said, "How's my girl?" There was a firm swat on Keller's behind as he added, "Weren't you supposed to be here at 1600 hours?"
Captain Keller started to say something, but Warren unzipped her flight suit. It hung for a moment on her hips and then with a shimmy it fell to the ground around her ankles. Admiral Warren dropped to his knees and yanked her panties down with his teeth. Keller reached down and grabbed her panties and said, "Warren, first I've got a question."
"Anything," said Warren, from between clenched teeth.
"What are you calling Alezio's death?"
"Alezio wasn't driving a station wagon to a PTA meeting."
"Are you saying Alezio was out of gas?"
"Fireball. Plenty of gas."
"So what happened?"
"Did you order in an independent naval investigator from the States?"
Admiral Warren opened his mouth, stood up, and said, "I'm leading the investigation."
"Doesn't this qualify as unusual circumstances?"
Admiral Warren leaned back against his desk. He took out a cigar, lit it, and as he blew a trail of smoke said, "Alezio is dead. We'll probably never know exactly what happened up there. For lack of a better answer, there will be pressure to call it pilot error and blame the female fighter pilot. Alezio was a damn good fighter pilot. I was proud to have her on my carrier. If I don't lead the investigation, all female navy fighter pilots presently in an active military operation will have their competence seriously questioned."
Captain Keller was the only female navy fighter pilot serving in an active military operation. Admiral Warren crushed out his cigar. He took Keller by the shoulders and pushed her slowly down onto his desk.
Captain Keller left Admiral Warren's office once again assured that he was going to leave his wife. Warren shut the door behind her, then looked down and zipped up his fly. He ran both hands through his gray crew cut, took a deep breath, walked to his desk.
His phone rang, and he picked it up, cradled it against his chin, and spinning around on his maroon leather chair, said curtly, "Warren here."
"Andrew. How's the weather in Washington?"
"Forget the weather, Warren. You still on board to keep us out of the Balkans?"
"Doing my best. But as far as I know, someone in D.C. has more responsibility for these decisions than myself."
"It's my job to make sure we're all reading from the same script. The spin here is to say bombing alone can do nothing to control the Balkan conflict."
"It would take me twenty minutes to bomb the Serbs back to the Stone Age," said Warren. "But if the Joint Chiefs of Staff want to hear we can't do shit, that's what you'll hear from me."
"Excellent," said Carmichael. "That is what they want to hear."
"Now tell me what I want to hear, Rear Admiral Carmichael. What does your script say about the INVEX funding as of this moment?" Warren had a quid pro quo with Carmichael--his job was to keep the lid on the Balkans; in return Carmichael was to get the green light on a variety of at-risk naval appropriations, specifically including development funding for the top-secret INVEX SATNAV, a technology with a billion dollar long-term commercial aviation market.
"INVEX funding is secure, so long as you help keep us out of the Balkans. Got to run, Warren."
Warren put the phone down, spun around in his chair. He stopped the spinning by slapping his hands down on his desk and dialing Harry Ingrams at Smith Barney in New York City.
"Ingrams, this is Warren."
"Admiral, how's your little Balkan war?"
"Ingrams, I want you to sell half my portfolio."
"INVEX has a green light?"
"So long as we stay out of the Balkans, and as long as I'm in charge, there won't be any jets leaving this carrier for Sarajevo."
"I'll call Doherty in Eleuthera right now and have him start buying into INVEX for you."
Warren put the phone down, picked it up again, and then placed it down. He pulled his family's photo out of the desk drawer, and returned to spinning in his chair. There was a knock on the door, and Admiral Warren yelled out, "Enter."
Captain Romny came in and smiled at the admiral. Romny went to the bar and poured himself a scotch. He sat down in a leather-back chair, crossed his legs, and said, "Admiral, do you want to watch the video of last night's highlights down in the Minotaur Club, or should I just leave it here so you can watch it at your pleasure?"
"What do you have?"
"A lot of deep-throat footage. Some two-on-one."
"The last stuff was too damn dark. Couldn't see shit. I want to see faces. You get some more lights down there yet?"
"Bright as day."
"How about that little dark one with the big tits. The one with the foreign name. You got her on tape again?"
Captain Romny took a slow sip. "Alison Mervik's off for a few days."
Captain Wendy Keller, wearing shades, checked wearily that evening at the operations desk to confirm her next mission and schedule.
Keller was scheduled for a routine Bosnian airspace flyover the next day at 1400 hours with Captain Romny on lead. She sat down to listen, as if in a trance, to the motherhood, the basic principles for the sortie. Captain Meredith nodded to Keller and covered the operating standards, the contracts as flight lead and wingman, the radio procedures, contingency and emergency plans. He ran through the weapons under the wings and body of the aircraft: two air-to-air missiles on the wingtips; two air-to-air missiles and two laser-guided bombs at the underwing pylons; a 20 mm Gatling gun mounted in the fuselage; and the electronic countermeasures radar-jamming devices affixed to the belly of the F-16. The drone of old facts calmed Keller down.
Captain Meredith started to run through the squadron's search-and-rescue procedures: "After maneuvering to a safe position, fix your location on the GPS and then come up on Alpha to report your coordinates. . . ."
Although no pilots had yet been shot down in Operation Peaceful Endeavor, NATO had called in air strikes against a munitions depot in the Bosnian Serb town of Pale. The humanitarian airlift to Sarajevo had been halted, and the Serbs were now threatening to shoot down a plane. The Serbs had anti-aircraft artillery, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Most of the SAM sites were near the forty-fifth parallel around Bihac and Banja Luka, and the pilots were flying over it daily.
Keller stood to leave and Captain Meredith said, "Keller, you want to stick around after I finish with this briefing, I've got some things I want to go over with you. The LSO asked me to go over your landing last night on the tape."
Keller smiled. There had been nothing wrong with her landing, even with the seas running at twenty feet and a twenty-five-knot crosswind: she had a clear "meatball," a large orange "sun" in the middle of a string of horizontal green lights on the Fresnel lens. Meredith knew she had a "meatball," too. The other pilots assumed Meredith was trying to pick her up and laughed on their way out.
Meredith shut the door, and sat down and rubbed his fingers over his face. He said, "Did you read the Balkan Watch memo I gave you?"
"What do you want from me?" said Keller. "You know I stay clear of politics."
There was a knock on the door. Meredith let in and introduced Alison Mervik, who said, "Captain Keller, thanks for seeing me."
Alison Mervik's black hair looked as if it had been hacked off with a pair of dull scissors. There were dark bags around her eyes, and her hand shook as she held it out. Captain Keller took it and said, "I'm sorry, Mervik. And I'm sorry I didn't see you earlier when Larabee told me you wanted to talk."
"I understand, Sir," said Mervik. "I'm here because Ann Marie--Captain Alezio--spoke very highly of you. She said you were a straight arrow. She told me if anything should happen I should come and talk to you." Alison Mervik hesitated, and glanced at Captain Meredith. He left the room without another word. Mervik moved closer and whispered in Captain Keller's ear, "Sir, I have to know that what I'm about to tell you will remain between us even if you don't believe me or don't want to do anything about it." Captain Keller backed off, bothered by Mervik's warm breath on her ear, and said, "Mervik, if this has to do with your personal relationship with Captain Alezio . . ."
"It's not that, Sir," said Mervik. "But I need to know it goes no further unless you can take some action. If it goes further than this room, it could get me--or even you--killed."
Captain Keller thought of Alezio and said, "You have my word."
Mervik closed her eyes. "I have reason to believe that Captain Alezio was killed by Captain Romny on the orders of Admiral Warren."
Captain Keller stared in disbelief. "Why would Captain Romny and Admiral Warren kill Ann Marie?"
"There's a whole ring of them. Sir, you don't know what they've done to me." Mervik suddenly threw her arms around Captain Keller and said, between sobs, "You have to believe me. Please. Don't say a word. They'll kill me next if they think I've talked to you."
Mervik was trembling uncontrollably, and Captain Keller slowly wrapped her arms around the woman and whispered, "Shhh. Alezio was my friend. Whatever it is, I'll help you." As she spoke, Captain Keller heard her own voice saying, Don't eject, Alezio. Don't lose your bird. She felt a wave of nausea, and pulled herself from Mervik's arms.
Once airborne for the 1400 tour of Bosnian Serb airspace, Captain Keller checked her vertical velocity, attitude to the horizon, and altitude. The flight-path marker on her head-up display checked out. With Captain Romny as lead, the two followed a standard straight-on routing from the USS Eisenhower toward the rocky Croatian coastline.
She locked onto Romny with her radar, and fixed her airspeed and direction to follow one mile--ten seconds--to the rear. Once tied, she radioed Romny using her wingman's flight position number: "Two is tied."
Over the Balkans, Romny was lost to Keller in cloud cover at 12,000 feet, and at 14,000 feet the two jets cleared to sky again. Keller called as she spotted Romny, "Two is visual."
Romny replied, "Clear to rejoin."
Keller pushed her throttle forward to full military power until she was five feet off Romny's port wing. Her job as wingman was to serve as lookout, using both her radar and her eyeballs. After testing each other's onboard defensive systems by dropping flares and chaff, Romny jiggled the nose of his F-16 up and down and Keller followed the signal and broke starboard until she was in standard formation, a mile and a half off and a thousand feet above Romny.
The two jets crossed over the gorge that forms the boundary between Croatia and Bosnia, and were in for their first vulnerable or vul time at 22,000 feet.
Romny silently set up an oval pattern for their combat air patrol. Each leg was thirty miles long. After the third lap, Keller detected four low-flying aircraft at 10,000 feet, coming from the direction of the Serb-controlled Udbina airfield, headquarters of the Krajinan Serb forces. Romny radioed the USS Eisenhower, relaying the sighting, and asked for confirmation. There was no confirmation, and the four MiGs were moving deeper into northeastern Bosnia.
"We're going to lose radar contact," said Keller. "Bandits in attack descent. USS Eisenhower confirm bandits in attack descent."
"Wait for confirmation," said Romny.
"Roger, Flight Leader, we sit on our asses and watch the MiGs boogie again."
"Right, again await authorization from Admiral Warren."
"Are you losing it, Keller?" said Romny. "First you kick me in the head, and now you're questioning Admiral Warren. Get a fucking grip on yourself, or I'll have your wings stripped."
As if in answer, Captain Keller pushed her stick to starboard and broke formation. Within seconds she was a half mile away from her flight leader and had broken the cardinal rule: never leave your lead. She saw the Serb planes ahead of her dropping rapidly in altitude, trying to pull her down within range of their ground artillery.
She felt her hand push the stick around and she pulled five Gs making a fishtail turn at Mach 2. The blood curdled down in her guts. Another ten seconds and she was back at the wingtip of her flight leader. Romny looked over at her shaking his head as the USS Eisenhower radioed in forbidding them to engage with the Serb planes, but to trail them out of their radar range, which was eighteen miles.
Keller felt sweat on her forehead: she had never broken formation before. She was sure her foray was watched by radar back on the USS Eisenhower. Why was no one questioning her? There was just an eerie silence, as if it had never happened. There had been an action, but no proper reaction. Keller wondered for a moment if she had broken away at all.
Captains Romny and Keller circled outside of the radar detection limits of the four Serb MiGs, and were able to confirm on radar as the MiGs bombed the Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica. After numerous requests with no response, the USS Eisenhower finally vetoed their request to engage. There was no cloud cover, and Keller noticed a massive antlike motion on the ground far below.
Without requesting permission from the USS Eisenhower, Keller again left her position as Romny's wing man and dropped down to 6,000 feet. There were thousands of men running in a ragged column stretching seven or eight miles. She reported the refugees from Srebrenica to the USS Eisenhower, and was told to return immediately to her designated mission altitude. Keller asked for a confirmation of the order, and returned to altitude after her third request was met by silence. She tapped her radio with her finger. Soon after returning to altitude, she spotted five more MiGs heading for Srebrenica.
Keller requested permission to engage four times, until Admiral Warren came on the line and confirmed her request had been rejected. Orders were to take a dip--to refuel--from an airborne tanker, and return to the oval circling in their original position twenty miles to the southwest. Keller repeatedly tried to raise the USS Eisenhower, with no response. She tried to radio Admiral Warren by name, and was told, "His orders are to refuel and complete your mission." She repeated her request a minute later, but was met by silence.
After slowing to 330 mph, Keller parked next to Captain Romny beneath the tanker. As the operator lowered the boom from the tanker's tail and plugged it into the top of her plane, Captain Romny told Keller to go to a secure channel, and then said, "Are you trying to lose your commission, Keller?"
Captain Romny shook his head at her, and switched back to the operational channel, and passed the time as he was refueled chatting with the tanker crew, discovering an old friend from his former squadron, the 555th, "The Triple Nickel," was piloting the plane. The pilot asked about Captain Alezio's crash, and Captain Romny said, "The bitch couldn't read her fuel gauge."
The second half of their vul time was spent patrolling a region outside of suspected SAM rings, with Captain Keller a thousand feet below. The two jets circled in opposite directions. Again Keller spotted Serb MiGs heading toward Srebrenica. The USS Eisenhower denied permission to intercept, but ordered them to observe out of MiG operational radar range. Again the Serb MiGs were seen to drop into attack formation.
After repeated requests from Keller, a new static-filled voice broke through on the USS Eisenhower's frequency and identified itself as NATO Command in Vicenza, Italy. The French-accented voice quietly confirmed that according to both Dutch ground commanders and satellite the Muslim civilians in Srebrenica were under heavy air and ground attack. Keller requested permission to intercept from NATO directly, and after a static-filled pause was told by the USS Eisenhower to keep to her assigned pattern. For three minutes Keller circled and tried repeatedly to raise the NATO voice that had confirmed the attack on Srebrenica. At the end of their four hours of vul time Captain Romny broke formation and the two jets headed back to the USS Eisenhower.
On the return trip, just after entering the thin strip of Serb-controlled Croatian airspace before the Adriatic Sea, Captain Keller's threat warning system gave a verbal spike, warning that enemy radar was locking on her jet from the ground.
"Showing spike," said Captain Keller.
"Not likely," said Romny. "No SAMs in this area."
Captain Keller's plane again buzzed with a spike warning.
"Repeat," said Captain Keller. "Spike warning."
"Don't cry wolf, Keller. It's broad-beam search radar."
"Negative, Flight Leader," said Captain Keller. "This is tracking SAM radar."
A mechanical voice called out in her cockpit, "SAM radar tracking you, bearing 1-9-0. Suggest preliminary evasive action." Keller looked for the white smoke plume of a SAM rocket motor, all that is visible before a SAM's motor automatically shuts down and the missile silently drives toward the underbelly of the jet. The audio warning system suddenly snapped off, but the video remained on the screen, indicating there was a continued but decreased threat. Keller's throat tightened, she felt her hands shaking on the stick.
"Negative," said Captain Romny. "Flight Leader naked. Show no acquisition radar alert. Suggest unpinch asshole, Keller, or take a desk job like Captain Prozac."
The two pilots continued back over the Adriatic to the USS Eisenhower and waited for the word from USS Eisenhower's airborne early warning system as it tried to determine if there was a sign of SAM radar tracking activity west of Croatia's border.
Just before receiving clearance to land, the USS Eisenhower reported, "Keller, your SAM lock-on report was uncorroborated."
Captain Romny said in a falsetto, "Somebody please help me! I think I'm out of gas!"
Go To Page: 1 2 3 4