Bogies in the Storm
by Michael D. Burnside
Michael D. Burnside is a graduate of Ohio University. By day, he earns a living as a systems analyst, helping customers figure out what they need from their software. His interests include gaming, science, computer technology, history, politics, and, of course, writing. His fiction writing includes steampunk, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His stories have been featured in multiple anthologies, including Fossil Lake: An Anthology of the Aberrant, Fossil Lake II: The Refossiling, Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths Vol. II, and Ink Stains Vol. 8. His short stories have also been featured in magazines such as Devolution Z, Outposts of Beyond, and Gathering Storm Magazine. One of his latest stories, “The Devil of Greystern Castle,” appears in the Spring 2023 edition of Dragon Gems. Michael lives in Dayton, Ohio, with his wife and lots of cats. Read more nice things about him, as well as some free stories, at www.michaelburnside.com.
As rain splattered against the canopy of his F-14 Tomcat, Lieutenant Tom “Thud” Thornton focused on taking long slow breaths. He wasn’t prone to seasickness, but the storm causing the flight deck of the Nimitz to rise and fall was really testing his limits. He and his radar intercept officer, Alan “Ears” Elliot, were on hot alert. Their large fighter sat primed and ready to taxi to the catapult at a moment’s notice.
“There’s no way we’re launching in this shit,” muttered Alan over cockpit intercom.
“They’ll launch us if Tex and Boingo run into anything at all,” replied Tom. “No matter how shitty the weather is.” Despite how miserable he felt, Tom didn’t envy his squadron mates who were up there in the soup flying combat air patrol. It wasn’t the flying he dreaded, It was the idea of trying to get back aboard in this miserable weather.
“The Libyans aren’t dumb enough to fly in this crap,” said Alan.
Tom nodded even though his RIO couldn’t see the gesture. The Libyan air force had shown aggressiveness in the past. Indeed, two Libyan SU-22’s had fired on a pair of Tomcats the previous year. That had resulted in both SU-22’s being shot down. Since then, the Libyans had stayed clear of US Navy fighters. They certainly hadn’t shown any inclination to fly at night or into nasty weather. The Nimitz was sailing along the “line of death,” an imaginary boundary drawn by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in his misguided attempt to illegally claim all of the Gulf of Sidra. The US response to this had been to sail a series of task forces in freedom of navigation exercises that crossed into the gulf.
Tom took a deep breath. It was amazing to think about how international tension and decisions made at the highest levels of power had led to him sitting in a hot and humid cockpit on a pitching deck, trying not to throw up.
The radio crackled and the deep voice of the air boss filled Tom’s ears. “Slate two-one and two-two, taxi to catapult three and four. We have an odd radar contact we need you to identify.”
Tom’s stomach did a flip flop even as he responded. “Wilco. Taxing to cat three, slate two-one.” They were really going to take off in this crap weather. Worse, he was going to have to land in it.
Tom released the Tomcat’s parking brake as his wingman chimed in. “Taxing to cat four, slate two-two.” Tom glanced over to the Tomcat on his left. The carrier’s lights illuminated the skull and crossbones painted on it tail fin. At least they wouldn’t be going alone.
Tom keyed the intercom. “How we looking, Ears?”
“Looking good,” replied Alan. “Everything’s green.”
Tom’s wingman suddenly spoke up on the radio. “Our radar powered down and won’t come back up, slate two-two.” The air boss responded. “Slate two-two, do you need to scrub?”
“Affirmative, slate two-two.”
“Slate two-one, proceed with launch,” ordered the air boss.
A chill crept over Tom’s skin. They were going alone after all. “Wilco, proceeding to cat three, slate two-one.” His voice sounded steady on the radio. It came from years of practicing false bravado.
“No worries, Thud,” said Alan. “You’ll get us back home.”
Alan’s reassurance might have helped Tom’s confidence if his RIO had left out Tom’s call sign. When civilians asked why he was called “Thud” he told them it was his punishment for expressing admiration for the old F-105 Thunderchief. Admiring an Air Force only jet was sacrilege to his Navy brethren, so they started calling him “Thud.” That was a lie though. In truth, he was called “Thud” due to the hard landings he made on the carrier deck. In the movies, pilots always have cool call signs. In reality, call signs were usually assigned to mock someone’s appearance, accent, name, or to call out some screw-up. Tom’s call sign reminded him that he wasn’t great at bringing his plane back aboard, and now he was going to have to do it in terrible conditions.
Through the pouring rain, Tom saw a crew member wearing a bright yellow shirt jog in front of his plane. The crewman’s features were obscured by a helmet and goggles. The man’s shirt was soaked through and clung tightly to his body. Tom made an effort to feel a bit less sorry for himself. The deck crew were out in the storm surrounded by howling jet engines and spinning propeller blades.
The yellow-clad crewman signaled Tom to advance. Tom moved the throttles. The rumble of the F-14’s twin TF30 engines grew louder as the aircraft rolled forward. As soon as Tom’s aircraft was clear of the planes parked on either side of it, the crewman motioned for Tom to make a right-turn. Tom switched the nose wheel steering to high and gingerly pushed on the right rudder pedal. The Tomcat was a large fighter, as big as a World War Two medium bomber. Maneuvering it aboard a crowded carrier deck was no easy task.
The Tomcat rolled over the landing strip markings and up to the right-hand waist catapult. The crewman ordered Tom to halt just shy of the catapult’s shuttle and then spread his arms wide. The F-14’s were stored on deck with their long wings folded back. Tom reached down with his left hand and moved the wing control knob all the way forward and pressed it down. He then shut the wing control cover in place, clicked the reset button, and set the wings to automatic.
“Wings coming forward,” said Alan.
Next came a control surfaces check. When that was complete, the crewman motioned for Tom to apply power. The Tomcat rolled onto the shuttle. Tom then disengaged high nose wheel steering and compressed the nose wheel strut. The Tomcat’s nose dropped eighteen inches. Beneath him, more crew members attached the nose gear to the catapult shuttle. At the same time. a crew member in a green shirt held up a box that displayed the weight the deck crew believed the Tomcat was at. Tom checked his fuel load, added it to the weight of his weapons load, and found it matched the weight displayed. He flashed the crewman a thumbs up.
The deck crew near the tomcat cleared away. The catapult officer, the shooter, gave Tom the signal to apply power. Tom eased the throttles forward. The jet’s engines howled, a sound that became even louder when the afterburners kicked in with a tremendous thump that shook the entire aircraft. The tomcat strained against its confinement.
The shooter threw Tom a salute which Tom returned. The shooter then did a visual check to make sure everyone was clear of the launch rail and plane. He knelt, raised his arm, and pointed down the length of the carrier.
Tom held his head up straight, pushed his back into the seat, and braced himself for what was coming. The catapult activated, slinging the aircraft down the deck and shoving Tom back into his seat. Two-and-a-half seconds later, the Tomcat leapt into the sky.
Tom retracted the gear and eased the flight stick back causing the fighter to climb. Mist and rain enveloped the jet. The aircraft shuddered as wind shoved the plane around. A gray blanket covered the canopy.
Alan’s voice, stuttering from the plane’s vibrations, called out, “Do you have any visibility?”
“Negative,” replied Tom. “I’m trying to get us above this mess.” He glued his eyes to his instruments and ignored the disorientation that threatened to overwhelm his senses. His brain told him the plane was rolling, that they were falling out of the sky, but the artificial horizon showed them as climbing steadily. For thirty seconds the world grew darker as they climbed through the storm. Pale green light from the fighter’s instruments illuminated the cockpit. Then the blanket covering the canopy lightened from dark gray to white cotton. Wispy ivory strands of cloud peeled away from the windscreen and the jet broke out into a clue blue sky.
Tom breathed a sigh of relief as he leveled off the jet.
“It’s nice up here,” commented Alan.
“Roger that,” agreed Tom. He switched the radio frequency to contact the airborne radar aircraft. “Overlord, Slate two-one at angels twenty, ready for tasking.”
Overlord was an E-2 Hawkeye, a twin turboprop aircraft with a large rotating radar dome. It served as a watchful eye high above the carrier task force.
“Slate two-one, identify bogie BRA three-zero-zero, one-hundred, under angels one.”
Tom responded to Overlord’s instructions with “Wilco, Slate two-one.” The radar plane’s terse call had identified the bearing, range, and altitude of an unknown aircraft, As Tom turned his fighter west, he understood why he’d been ordered to launch. Slate one was covering the carrier to the south. They couldn’t move that combat air patrol without leaving a corridor open from Libya to the Nimitz. “Under one-thousand feet,” said Tom to Alan over the intercom. “No one that low this far out in the gulf has good intentions. You got anything on scope yet?”
“Not yet,” replied Alan. “The storm below us is blocking everything. You better warm up the missiles.”
Tom clicked the missile ready buttons in front of him but left the Master Arm switch set to safe. Overlord had identified the bogie as being one-hundred miles away. That range counted down quickly as the Tomcat tore through the sky.
“Tell me you got something soon,” said Tom over the intercom. “I’d like to know who this guy is before we merge with him.”
“The TID is filtering everything out. I’m trying to pick up something with pulse search,”
Tom grimaced beneath his face mask. The TID, or Tactical Information Display, was intended to build a clear picture of what was in front of the aircraft by using the plane’s powerful radar and filtering out all the messy returns that weather and surface contacts could generate. If Alan couldn’t pick up the bogie using the TID, it meant the system was filtering too much out, possibly including the contact they were searching for. Pulse search meant that Alan was looking directly at the radar scope, but spotting a radar return amidst all the noise the storm was generating would be incredibly difficult.
The range to the contact clicked down to fifty miles. With a hint of desperation in his voice, Tom asked, “Anything?”
“Still getting a lot of interference,” replied Alan, “but there’s something flying below us. I can’t get a lock or identify it, but it’s big.”
“What’s the angels and speed?”
“About five-hundred feet. It…it doesn’t appear to be moving.”
“Must be a helicopter,” suggested Tom.
Tom heard uncertainty in Alan’s voice. “Must be the world’s biggest helicopter or a swarm of them. I’m getting returns that suggest something’s out there that’s the size of a city block. There’s likely huge waves down there. The radar might be reflecting off the water or maybe a ship. I don’t know. There’s so much interference from the storm, I can’t tell what I’m seeing.”
Ahead and below the jet swirled a writhing tempest of clouds. Green and purple light flashed out from the swirling cauldron. Tom felt his pulse quicken. “This isn’t any kind of storm I’ve ever seen.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alan.
Tom rolled the jet slightly so his back-seater could see the seething clouds below them.
“What the hell?” exclaimed Alan. “We can’t fly down through that.”
“How else are we going to identify the bogie if the radar can’t lock onto it?”
“Yeah, but lightning is bad,” protested Alan. “I’m sure in flight school they mentioned flying through a thunderstorm with live weapons is a bad idea. And as for green and purple lightning? I’ve no idea how to quantify that.”
An eddy of clouds spun off from the storm. Its swirling mist generated a gap of clear air.
“I see an opening,” said Tom. “I’m going for it.” Concerned that break in the clouds would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, Tom eased the throttles all the way forward. The F-14’s engine nozzles opened all the way and filled with flame. The Tomcat’s long wings swept back as the plane hurtled forward.
Tom rolled the plane inverted to avoid taking on any negative G and pulled the throttles back as he drove the plane down through the small opening in the wild weather. They flew through a corridor of gray clouds that pulsated with unnatural colors.
Breaking free of the clouds, Tom rolled the plane upright again. He expected his windshield to be hit by a barrage of rain, but no raindrops struck the canopy. The sight in front of him caused him to gasp into his mask. Beneath a massive cloud that pulsed with green and purple thunderbolts hovered a spacecraft twice the size of an aircraft carrier. It resembled an upside -down Hershey’s Kiss with red lights that circled its wide top. A cone of brilliant white light shone from beneath the craft illuminating a sea trawler caught in its beam. The fishing ship was rising up out of the sea. Water dripped from its exposed hull as its crew stood upon its deck staring at the alien thing that had seized them.
The central display in the cockpit flickered to life and showed a picture of the unknown object in green. Alan had focused the plane’s FLIR, or forward looking infrared, camera on the craft. “What the fuck is that?” yelled Alan.
“I don’t know!” called Tom. No one was going to believe this. The flickering image of the UFO in his cockpit triggered his training. “Recorder on!” Now there’d be a video tape of it.
“Whose ship is that?” asked Alan.
Tom realized that Alan was referring to the fishing vessel and not the spaceship. “I don’t know, but it’s in, or was in, international waters. That UFO is acting like a pirate. Can you get a lock on that thing?”
“Negative, Thud. It’s jamming us.”
“I know, the radar should burn through, but that thing is generating a ridiculous amount of interference. It may even be causing this weather.”
Tom frowned beneath his mask. Even if they could lock onto the UFO, he wasn’t sure they should attack it. Besides the rules of engagement being unclear in this bizarre situation, damaging the spaceship might cause it to release the fishing vessel, and that potential fall was getting worse by the second.
Tom tried to radio Overlord. They needed assistance, or at least some kind of guidance on how to handle this bizarre situation. He got only static. The UFO was apparently jamming radio waves as well as their radar. He could try heading away from the site to get clear of the radio jamming, but he didn’t want to lose sight of the thing. They couldn’t interfere, but they could at least record what was happening.
The F-14 swept along the starboard side of the spaceship with less than half-a-mile of separation. The red lights that surrounded the UFO didn’t appear to actually be connected to the craft. They floated alongside it like stationary fireflies. Tom flew five miles past the strange craft, slowed the plane down, and turned around to give the camera beneath the nose of the Tomcat another look at the incredible scene.
Tom clenched his jaw in frustration as the fishing vessel rose into the sky. He was watching an abduction and was helpless to stop it. He considered attacking the UFO with his cannon. Even if that caused the fishing ship to slam back into the ocean, perhaps that fate was better than what awaited the crew aboard the alien ship. He reached out to the master arm switch, hesitated, and then returned his hand to the throttle. He couldn’t bring himself to gamble with the lives of innocent sailors.
Suddenly, Alan called out, “Thud, down to the right! Something’s coming out of the water!”
Tom looked over and down, A silver orb, twice the size of his Tomcat, rose out of the sea. Water poured off the object as it climbed into the sky. “Now we’re dealing with two UFOs?” exclaimed Tom.
“That recorder better be working,” said Alan. “No one’s going to believe a thing we say about this.”
As the smaller object rose, the larger object shuddered. Something had changed. The fishing ship held captive in the massive UFO’s beam of light began to descend.
Tom glanced at the FLIR. Invisible to human eyes, an intense beam of heat had shot out from the small UFO and connected it to the larger craft.
Alan called out, “I got a lock on the big ship!”
Tom, shook his head in amazement. “That smaller ship is painting the target for us.” He watched the fishing boat settle into the water. “And reversing its tractor beam somehow.”
The larger UFO did not take kindly to the interference. In the FLIR, Tom saw it unleash a barrage of intense energy pulses. The smaller UFO must have also degraded the aggressive UFO’s targeting capabilities because its weapons fire was all over the place, but there was enough of it that some of it struck home.
The smaller UFO lit up with shimmering circles of light where it had been struck. “Holy crap, they have shields,” muttered Tom. “This is like something out of Star Wars.” The smaller ship returned weapons fire of its own. The larger ship’s shields flared as it was struck. Tom couldn’t see any of the exchange with his own eyes, but the attacks glowed bright green on the Tomcat’s infrared camera.
The Tomcat zoomed in close. The fishing vessel, now free, churned the water into a white froth as it hastily sped away to the West. Tom decided it was time to join the fight. He switched master arm on, thumbed the weapon selector switch on his joystick to guns, lined up a shot on the big UFO, and pulled the trigger.
The Tomcat’s twenty-millimeter Vulcan cannon spat out a hundred shells for the second that Tom held the trigger. The shells slammed into the alien ship, leaving large ugly orange welts across its hull. The ship’s shields didn’t seem able to stop solid projectiles, but the large craft appeared to absorb the damage with no ill effect.
Concerned that his attack might draw return fire, Tom shoved the throttle forward. Afterburners roaring, he zoomed his fighter passed the ship.
“Ears, I’m going to head out five miles and bring us around. When I do, I want you to establish a lock on that big bastard as fast as you can,” instructed Tom.
“Got it,” replied Alan.
Tom toggled the weapon switch on his flight stick. “I’m selecting a phoenix.”
Phoenix missiles were massive, long range air to air missiles intended to destroy enemy bombers up to one-hundred miles away. Costing around a million dollars each, Tom’s aircraft only carried a pair of them on its belly.
“What?” responded Alan. “That’s an expensive choice.”
“Nothing else we have has a warhead capable of bringing something that big down.”
“Pretty short range shot for an AIM-54.”
“I know. The rocket will still be burning when it impacts. I’m hoping that increases the damage. Can you make the shot?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Alan. “As long as our alien allies keep painting the target.”
Tom jinked the fighter about, just in case the hostile UFO tried to take a shot at them. Five miles past the target, he pulled the throttles back before pulling the Tomcat into a tight turn. The warbird’s wings spread wide and bit into the night air. Despite the reduction in speed, the force of the turn shoved Tom into his seat. He grunted from the effort required to keep his head up.
The massive alien ship slipped into view. Tom pointed his fighter’s nose right at the beast and rolled his wings level.
“Locked up!” called out Alan.
Tom squeezed the trigger and yelled “Fox Three!”
For three long seconds nothing happened, then Tom heard a loud clunk from beneath his plane as the heavy missile released. The missile zoomed toward the hostile UFO trailing a brilliant white plume of fire that left a searing afterimage in Tom’s eyes. Seconds later it slammed into the large spacecraft.
A burst of purple and green light lashed out against the night sky. The craft wobbled as a shower of golden sparks cascaded like a waterfall down the side of the ship and into the sea. The UFO rose and spun, slowly at first and then with tremendous velocity. In seconds the ship had vanished into the sky.
“He bugged out!” exclaimed Alan,
The remaining, smaller, UFO bobbed in the air twice then sank back down beneath the sea. The fishing boat they had rescued continued its escape to the West.
Tom brought his fighter back above the clouds. The storm had abated. He tried contacting Overlord and wasn’t surprised when his call made it through.
“Overlord, request picture. Slate Two-one.
“Picture clean. Did you make contact?”
“Roger, bogie bugged out, returning to mother, Slate Two-One.”
By the time they returned to the ship, the rain had vanished. A pale moon lit the carrier as it sailed on an ocean so smooth it looked like glass. After the intense events he had just been through, landing on the ship seemed routine. Tom put the big fighter down safely.
Drenched in cold sweat, Tom shut the Tomcat down, raised the canopy, and clambered out of the fighter. Moments after his feet hit the steel deck, Alan clasped his shoulder. “We’re going to have to give you a new nickname if you keep making landings like that!”
Tom grinned, but then felt eyes watching him. He turned and saw the crew chief staring at him as a red shirt checked the empty missile rack beneath the Tomcat. “Looks like you’re a Phoenix short, sir.”
“That’s right, chief,” replied Tom. He turned to Alan and said, “Ears, grab the tapes.” By the time Alan had retrieved the video recordings of their flight, an intelligence officer had come out to summon them.
Alan didn’t get to hold onto the tapes for long. Moment later, Tom and Alan found themselves pacing an isolated corridor inside the ship while the tapes played for a cluster of officers, including the CAG, commander of the air group.
“Man, I hope the cameras caught everything,” mumbled Alan.
Tom nodded and picked at his damp flight suit. He wished they’d had a chance to change.
The metal hatch in front of them popped open. The intelligence office, looking a bit flush, waved them inside. The officer secured the hatch again the moment Tom and Alan stepped into the cramped media room.
The CAG stared at them with his arms crossed. His thick moustache accented the stern look on his face. “All right you two. Looks to me like you performed your duty as best you could under extraordinary circumstances. We’re going to write this up as you damaging and chasing off an unknown hostile that was attacking a civilian ship.” He pointed his finger at each of them. “That’s all you are to ever say, understood?”
Tom and Alan replied with a quick, “Aye sir!” Then Alan shrugged and mumbled, “No one would believe us anyway.”
Despite the promise, in the decades that followed on stormy nights when the beer was flowing, sometimes Tom would regale select audiences with the tale of that strange night. But Alan was right, no one ever believed a word of it.