Vixen 03 dp-5, page 1part #5 of Dirk Pitt Series
( Dirk Pitt - 5 )
1954. Vixen 03 is down. The plane, bound for the Pacific carrying thirty-six Doomsday bombs — canisters armed with quick-death germs of unbelievable potency ― vanishes. Vixen has in fact crashed into an ice-covered lake in Colorado.
1988. Dirk Pitt, who heroically raised the Titanic, discovers the wreckage of Vixen 03. But two deadly canisters are missing. They're in the hands of a terrorist group. Their lethal mission: to sail a battleship seventy-five miles up the Potomac and blast Washington, D.C., to kingdom come. Only Dirk can stop them.
Buckley Field, Colorado
The Boeing C-97 Stratocruiser bore the look of a crypt. Perhaps the image was bred by the cold winter night, or perhaps it came from the gusting snow that was piling an icy shroud on the wings and fuselage. The flickering lights from the cockpit windshield and the fleeting shadows of the maintenance crew served only to exaggerate the chilling scene.
Major Raymond Vylander, United States Air Force, did not care for what he saw. He watched silently as the fuel truck drove away and vanished into the stormy darkness. The loading ramp was dropped from the rear of the great whale-like belly, and then the cargo doors slowly swung closed, cutting off a rectangle of light that spilled onto a heavyduty forklift. He shifted his gaze slightly and stared at the twin rows of white lights bordering the eleven-thousand-foot Buckley Naval Air Station runway that stretched across the plains of Colorado. Their ghostly luminescence marched into the night and gradually faded behind the curtain of falling snow.
He refocused his eyes and studied the weary face reflected in the windowpane. His cap was pushed carelessly back, revealing a dense thicket of umber hair. His shoulders were hunched forward and he wore the taut look of a hundred-meters runner poised for the starter's gun. His transparent reflection, bleeding through the glass into that of the aircraft in the background, caused him to shiver involuntarily. He closed his eyes, pushed the scene into the far reaches of his mind, and refaced the room.
Admiral Walter Bass, who sat on the edge of a desk, neatly folded a meteorological chart, then patted his sweating forehead with a handkerchief and nodded at Vylander.
"The weather front is moving off the eastern slope of the Rockies. You should break out of the overcast somewhere over the Continental Divide."
"Providing I can get that big-assed bird off the ground."
"You'll do it."
"Lifting a heavy plane with a full fuel load and a cargo weighing seventy thousand pounds in the middle of a blizzard with a thirty-knot crosswind from a ground altitude of five thousand feet isn't exactly a garden-variety takeoff."
"Every factor has been carefully considered," Bass said coldly. "Your wheels should leave the earth with a margin of three thousand feet of runway to spare."
Vylander dropped into a chair like a deflated balloon. "Is it worth risking the necks of my crew, Admiral? Just what is so damned vital to the U.S. Navy that it has to drag an Air Force plane out in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night to haul some junk to an island in the Pacific Ocean?"
For a moment Bass's face flushed, and then it softened. When he spoke, it was gently, almost apologetically. "It's painfully simple, Major. That junk, as you call it, is a top-priority cargo destined for a highly classified test program. Since your Stratocruiser was the only heavy transport within a thousand miles that can do the job, the Air Force consented to put her on temporary loan to the Navy. They threw you and your crew into the bargain, and that's all there is to it."
Vylander shot Bass a penetrating stare. "I don't mean to sound insubordinate, Admiral. but that's not all, not by a long shot."
Bass walked around the desk and sat down. "You're to consider it a routine flight, nothing more."
"I'd appreciate it, sir, if you'd throw me a bone and enlighten me as to what's inside those canisters in my cargo cabin."
Bass avoided his eyes. "Sorry, it's highly classified material."
Vylander knew when he was licked. He swayed wearily to his feet, picked up the vinyl folder containing his flight plan and charts, and walked toward the door. Then he hesitated and turned. "In the event we have to ditch — "
"Don't! If an in-flight emergency develops," Bass said solemnly, "you ride her down into a nonpopulated area."
"That's asking too much."
"I'm not making a formal request; I'm giving an order! You and your crew are not to abandon the aircraft between here and your destination, regardless of how dire the circumstances."
Vylander's face clouded. "Then I guess that's it."
"There is one more thing."
"Good luck," Bass said, his lips edging into a tight grin.
It was a grin Vylander didn't like, not one tiny bit. He pulled open the door and, without replying, walked out into the cold.
In the control cabin, slouched so far down that the back of his head rested a good foot below his headrest, Lieutenant Sam Gold, Vylander's copilot, preoccupied himself with a flight checklist while, behind him off to his left, Captain George Hoffman, the crew's navigator, fiddled with a plastic protractor. Neither man paid the slightest acknowledgment to Vylander as he stepped through the bulkhead door leading from the cargo cabin.
"Course plotted?" Vylander inquired of Hoffman.
"All the preliminary dirty work has been figured by the Navy experts. Can't say as I agree with their choice of scenic routes, though. They've got us flying over the most desolate country in the West."
A worried expression came over Vylander's face, which didn't go unnoticed by Hoffman. The major looked over his shoulder at the huge metal canisters strapped down in the cargo section and tried to summon up a vision of their contents.
His contemplation was interrupted by the Buster Keaton-deadpan face of Master Sergeant joe Burns, the flight engineer, peering around the cabin door. "All buttoned up and ready for the wild blue yonder, Major." Vylander nodded without taking his eyes off the sinister-lo o king canisters. "Okay, let's put this chamber of horrors on the road."
The first engine turned over and sputtered to life, followed quickly by the other three. Then the auxiliary-power unit was unplugged, the chocks holding the wheels were pulled, and Vylander began taxiing the overburdened aircraft toward the end of the main runway. The security guards and the maintenance crew turned away and scurried for the warmth of a nearby hangar as the prop wash lashed their backs.
Admiral Bass stood in the Buckley control tower and watched the Stratocruiser crawl like a pregnant bug across the snow-swept field. A phone was clutched in his hand and he spoke quietly into the receiver.
"You may inform the President that Vixen 03 is preparing for takeoff."
"When do you figure its estimated time of arrival?" asked the stern voice of Charles Wilson, Secretary of Defense, through the earpiece.
"Allowing for a fuel stop at Hickam Field, in Hawaii, Vixen 03 should touch down in the test area approximately 1400 hours Washington time."
"lke has scheduled us for 0800 hours tomorrow. He insists on a detailed briefing of the upcoming experiments and a running report on Vixen 03's flight progress."
"I'll take off for Washington immediately."
"I don't have to paint you a picture, Admiral, of what would happen if that plane crashed in or near a major city."
Bass hesitated in what seemed a long and terrible silence. "Yes, Mr. Secretary, it would indeed be a nightmare none of us could live with."
"The manifold pressure and the torque read a shade low across the board," announced Sergeant Burns. He watched over the engineer's panel with the intensity of a ferret.
"Sorry, Lieutenant. Internal-combustion engines won't perform in the thin mountain air of Denver like they will at sea level. Considering the altitude, the gauge readings are par for the course."
Vylander gazed at the strip of asphalt ahead. The snowfall had lightened, and he could almost see the halfway marker. His heart began to throb a little faster, keeping time with the rapid beat of the windshield wipers. God, he thought to himself, it looks no bigger than a shuffleboard court. As if in a trance, he reached over and picked up his hand mike.
"Buckley Control, this is Vixen 03. Ready to roll. Over."
"She's all yours, Vixen 03," the familiar voice of Admiral Bass scratched through the headphones. "Save a big-chested native girl for me."
Vylander simply signed off, released the brakes, and shoved the four throttles against their stops.
The C-97 pushed her bulbous nose into the blowing snow and began her struggle down the long ribbon of pavement as Gold began calling out the increasing ground speed in a monotone.
All too soon an illuminated sign with a large number 9 flashed by.
"Nine thousand feet to go," Gold droned. "Ground speed seventy."
The white runway lights blurred past the wing tips. The Stratocruiser lunged onward, the powerful Pratt-Whitney engines straining in their mounts, their four-bladed propellers clawing at. the rarefied air, Vylander's hands were cemented to the wheel, his knuckles twisted white, his lips murmuring intermingled prayers and curses.
"One hundred knots… seven thousand feet left."
Burns's eyes never left his instrument panel, studying every twitch of the gauge needles, ready to detect the first signs of trouble. Hoffman could do nothing but sit there helplessly and watch the runway dissolve at what seemed to him an excessive rate of speed.
Vylander was fighting the controls now, as the vicious crosswind attacked the control surfaces. A trickle of sweat rolled unnoticed down his left cheek and dropped into his lap. Grimly, he waited for some sign indicating that the craft was beginning to lighten, but it still felt as though a giant hand were pushing against the cabin's roof.
"One hundred thirty-five knots. Kiss the five-thousand-foot marker farewell."
"Lift baby, lift," Hoffman pleaded as Gold's readings began falling one on top of the other.
"One hundred forty-five knots. Three thousand feet left." He turned to Wander. "We just passed the go, no-go point."
"So much for Admiral Bass's safety margin," Vylander muttered.
"Two thousand feet coming up. Ground speed one fifty-five."
Vylander could see the red lights at the end of the runway. It felt as though he were steering a rock. Gold kept glancing at him nervously, anticipating the movement of the elbows that meant the major had engaged the controls for the climb. Vylander sat still, as immovable as a sack of Portland cement.
"Oh God… the one-thousand-foot marker, going, going, gone."
Vylander gently eased back the control column. For almost three seconds, which seemed an eternity, nothing happened. But then with agonizing slowness the Stratocruiser slipped the ground and staggered aloft a scant fifty yards before the asphalt stopped.
"Gear up!" he said hoarsely.
There were a few uneasy moments until the landing gear thumped inside their wheel wells and Vylander could feel a slight increase in airspeed.
"Gear up and locked," said Gold.
The flaps were raised at four hundred feet and the men in the cabin expelled a great, collective sigh of relief as Vylander banked into a shallow turn to the northwest. The lights of Denver blinked beneath the port wing but quickly became lost as the overcast closed in. Vylander didn't relax fully until the airspeed crept over two hundred knots and the altimeter showed thirty-five hundred feet between the plane and the ground.
"Up, up and away," sighed Hoffman. "I don't mind admitting I had a couple of tiny doubts there for a while."
"Join the club," said Burns, grinning.
As soon as he broke through the clouds and leveled the Stratocruiser out at sixteen thousand feet on a westerly heading over the Rockies. Vylander motioned to Gold.
"Take her. I'm going to make a check aft."
Gold looked at him. The major did not normally relinquish the controls so early in the flight.
"Got her," Gold acknowledged, placing his hands on the yoke.
Vylander released his seat belt and shoulders harness and stepped into the cargo section, making sure the door to the cockpit was closed behind him.
He counted thirty-six of the gleaming stainless-steel canisters, firmly strapped to wooden blocks on the deck. He began carefully checking the surface area of each canister. He searched for the usual stenciled military markings denoting weight, date of manufacture, inspector's initials, handling instructions. There were none.
After nearly fifteen minutes he was about to give up and return to the cockpit when he spotted a small aluminum plate that had fallen down between the blocks. It had an adhesive backing, and Vylander felt a tinge of smugness as he matched it to a sticky spot of stainless steel where it had once been bonded. He held the plate up to the dim cabin light and squinted at its smooth side. The tiny engraved marking confirmed his worst fear.
He stood for a time, staring at the little aluminum plate. Suddenly he was jolted out of his reverie by a lurch of the aircraft. He rushed across the cargo cabin and threw open the door to the cockpit.
It was filled with smoke.
"Oxygen masks!" Vylander shouted. He could barely make out the outlines of Hoffman and Burns. Gold was completely enveloped in the bluish haze. He groped his way to the pilot's seat and fumbled for his oxygen mask, wincing at the acrid smell of an electrical short circuit.
"Buckley Tower, this is Vixen 03," Gold was yelling into a microphone "We have smoke in the cockpit. Request emergencylanding instruction. Over."
"Taking over the controls," said Vylander.
"She's yours." Gold's acceptance came without hesitation.
"What in hell's gone wrong?"
"Can't tell for sure with all this smoke, Major." Burns's voice sounded hollow under the oxygen mask. "It looks like a short in the area of the radio transmitter."
"Buckley Tower, this is Vixen 03," Gold persisted. "Please come in."
"It's no use, Lieutenant," Burns gasped. "They can't hear you. Nobody can hear you. The circuit breaker for the radio equipment won't stay set."
Vylander's eyes were watering so badly he could hardly see. "I'm bringing her around on a course back to Buckley," he announced calmly.
But before he could complete the hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, the C-97 started to vibrate abruptly in unison with a metallic ripping sound. The smoke disappeared as if by magic and a frigid blast of air tore into the small enclosure, assailing the men's exposed skin like a thousand wasps. The plane was shaking herself to pieces.
"Number-three engine threw a propeller blade!" Burns cried.
"Jesus Christ, it never rains… Shut down three!" snapped Vylander, "and feather what's left of the prop."
Gold's hands flew over the control panel, and soon the vibration ceased. His heart sinking, Vylander gingerly tested the controls. His breath quickened and a growing dread mushroomed inside him.
"The prop blade ripped through the fuselage," Hoffman reported. "There's a sixfoot gash in the cargo-cabin wall. Cables and hydraulic lines are dangling all over."
"That explains where the smoke went," Gold said wryly. "It was sucked outside when we lost cabin pressure."
"It also explains why the ailerons and rudder won't respond," Vylander added. "We can go up and we can go down, but we can't turn and bank."
"Maybe we can slue her around by opening and closing the cowl flaps on engines one and four," Gold suggested. "At least enough to put us in the landing pattern at Buckley."
His announcement, was greeted with stunned silence. He could see the fear grow in his crew members' eyes, could almost smell it.
"My God," groaned Hoffman. "It can't be done. We'll ram the side of a mountain for sure."
"We've still got power and some measure of control," Vylander said. "And we're out of the overcast, so we can at least see where we're going."
"Thank heaven for small favors," grunted Burns.
"What's our heading?" asked Vylander.
"Two-two-seven southwest," answered Hoffman. "We've been thrown almost eighty degrees off our plotted course."
Vylander merely nodded. There was nothing more to say. He turned all his concentration to keeping the Stratocruiser on a lateral level. But there was no stopping the rapid descent. Even with full-power settings on the remaining three engines, there was no way the heavily laden plane could maintain altitude. He and Gold could only sit by impotently as they began a long glide earthward through the valleys surrounded by the fourteen-thousand-foot peaks of the Colorado Rockies.
Soon they could make out the trees poking through the snow coating the mountains. At 11,500 feet the jagged summits began rising above their wing tips. Gold flicked on the landing lights and strained his eyes through the windshield, searching for an open piece of ground. Hoffman and Burns sat frozen, tensed for the inevitable crash.
The altimeter needle dipped below the ten-thousand-foot mark. Ten thousand feet. It was a miracle they had made it so low; a miracle a wall of rock had not risen suddenly and blocked their glide path. Then, almost directly ahead, the trees parted and the landing lights revealed a flat, snowcovered field.
"A meadow!" Gold shouted. "A gorgeous, beautiful alpine meadow five degrees to starboard."
"I see it," acknowledged Vylander. He coaxed the slight course adjustment out of the Stratocruiser by jockeying the enginecowl flaps and throttle settings.
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