This is the edge of the world, where all light ends, she thought.
There are many shades of darkness, and now she faced the deepest, blackest shade of all. Not a single flicker of light penetrated the abyss – not a car, a house, not even a camp fire. Starved for light, the ghostly green image in her night vision goggles sparkled and flickered.
The copilot still wasn’t comfortable wearing the aviator’s night vision goggles. Suspended from her helmet, they looked like two toilet paper rolls duct taped together. They transformed the blackness beyond their lenses into a fuzzy fluorescent green universe, denying night her ancient cloak of secrecy.
At over a hundred and thirty miles per hour, the helicopter skated over calm, frozen air. She felt as if floating motionless in a green ping pong ball. The lack of vibration and apparent motion denied her brain the sensations it craved. Through the goggles, only a blurry line separating two different shades of dark green betrayed the faint horizon. It, and an occasional glance at the softly-glowing instruments, provided her only clues to the universe beyond the cockpit. With this trickle of sensory input a 120-pound woman kept the ten-ton helicopter right side up and pointed toward its destiny. The copilot’s universe consisted of the image the goggles fed her hungry eyes, the cockpit gauges’ soft glow, and voices filling her head.
She shared the helicopter strapped to her back with three other crewmen. Before the mission they had real names, but were now only known by their roles: pilot, right gunner, and left gunner. They had ‘compartmentalized’, existing only for this moment, this mission.
The Team sat on the cold metal floor against the aft bulkhead, knees pulled up against their chest in casual misery. Not a part of the crew, these men were tonight’s customers and cargo. Cradling their weapons, they kept their night vision goggles flipped up. This part of the mission did not belong to them. Powerless to affect its outcome, they preferred not to watch, satisfied in the dark, each alone with his thoughts until their moment for action arrived.
“Altitude and airspeed are good. Heading is good,” the pilot announced over the intercom as he spat chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup. The faint, tobacco sweet odor permeated the cockpit, but no one ever complained about his minor infraction of regulations.
The copilot relaxed her vise-like grip on the control stick, called a cyclic, and flexed her right hand. With a deep breath, she lightly placed two fingers back on the cyclic.
“Okay, crew, what’s next?” the pilot said.
The moment upon which the rest of the mission depended rapidly approached.
“Gotta finish the checklist, sir,” the right gunner chimed in.
The copilot couldn’t see the right or left gunner. They sat sideways, immediately behind each pilot, gripping heavy machine guns and scanning the darkness out each side. To the copilot, they were disembodied voices crackling in her helmet, blending with the helicopter’s roar.
“Alright, let’s finish the checklist,” the pilot said.
“Probe…extend,” the right gunner read mechanically from his checklist. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the right gunner’s arm, dimly reflected in the instrument lights, reach forward over the console for a switch.
A clunk reverberated under the floor, and the refueling probe slowly extended from the right side of the helicopter’s nose. The tip jutted into the copilot’s peripheral vision like a lance, until it halted with a thunk a meter beyond the whirling rotor disc.
“Extended and locked,” the pilot replied as he adjusted a dial. In response, a feeble ray of light brightened the probe, revealing how uncomfortably close the rotor disk and probe tip were to each other. Beyond the probe, a shape caught the copilot’s eye.
A gauntlet of snow-capped granite slowly materialized to either side. Her brain feasted on the visual references, providing a jolting awareness of how high and fast she flew. As if on cue, turbulent eddies of air rolled off the peaks and jostled the helicopter.
“A little chop, crew.” Her voice cracked slightly, betraying rising anxiety. The turbulence, while expected, made her job even more demanding.
“Checklist completed,” the right gunner said. “We’re ready.”
“Roger,” the pilot replied. “I’m visual with the tanker. He’s at our 10 O’clock, 2 miles, high, and closing.”
The copilot glanced left in time to catch a dark blur zoom by in the opposite direction. Over a mile away, the giant tanker airplane appeared to scrape the canyon walls as it banked hard to swing in behind the helicopter.
“Tanker is 8 O’clock, three miles, and in a tight turn,” the left gunner informed the crew. The copilot knew the gunner poked his head out the window by the sound of the wind roaring across his boom microphone.
Okay, the pilot is going to take the controls anytime, she thought. There’s no way he’ll let me fly this.
The pilot remained silent.
“Tanker is at our six. Left gunner’s lost visual. Right gunner, you should see him now.” The roar momentarily stopped as the left gunner withdrew his head into the helicopter, but quickly resumed as the right gunner stuck his head out the helicopter’s opposite side.
“Got’em. He’s at our five thirty, two miles and closing fast,” the right gunner called.
She tried to breathe, struggling not to tense up. The long years of training were over, and now real consequences lay before her. This mission would last several hours, but its success pivoted on this one moment.
The helicopter needed gas, and only this tanker could deliver it.
“Tanker is half mile and bringing it in tight, almost on top of us.” The roar over the intercom ceased as the right gunner withdrew into the cabin and closed his window.
The pilot remained quiet, and off the controls.
He’s actually going to let me fly the refueling, she thought in amazement.
“Tanker is abeam, damn tight. Start your climb now. Co, call visual,” the right gunner called.
Her moment had arrived. The copilot pulled up on the collective, the power lever in her left hand. Her right hand nudged the cyclic, and the helicopter obeyed with a sluggish climb.
She briefly scanned across the cockpit, expecting the tanker to emerge a few dozen meters outside the pilot’s side window.
It didn’t. In the faint light, she saw the pilot grin around the tobacco bulging in his cheek. He pointed up. She followed his finger.
In the overhead window, an enormous shadow swallowed the stars as it passed directly overhead. Deep bass concussions, sensed more than heard, pounded through the rotor blades.
“Shit, he’s on top of us!” she blurted, but quickly regained her composure. “Copilot is visual with the tanker.”
“Gooood tanker pilot,” the pilot chuckled and spit in his cup again. “He did you a favor. Now you won’t have to work so hard to get into position. Okay, Co, get in there and get some gas.”
The copilot guided her flying machine to a position just outside the airplane’s left wing. A cargo plane converted to a flying gas station, the tanker’s four giant propellers clawed the thin air, wallowing a razor’s edge above stall speed. Five miles an hour slower, and it would spin out of control, any faster and the helicopter couldn’t keep up.
Through her goggles, she watched smooth jets of green flame dance from the tanker’s exhaust nozzles, each brightening or dimming as the tanker pilot adjusted his throttles. Allowing herself a brief moment to admire the scene’s beauty, she took another cleansing breath.
I can do this.
“Ground fire, 2 O’clock, five miles!” the left gunner barked.
She snapped her goggles left in time to see twinkling flashes arc into sky on the other side of the valley.
Training and instinct instantly kicked in, along with a burst of adrenaline. The copilot keyed the microphone to tell the tanker to break away due to the enemy fire. Before she could act, the pilot spoke up.
“It’s not aimed,” he spoke with slow, deliberate calmness before spitting again. “It’s random fire. They can’t see us, just shooting at echoes. If the tanker ain’t worried, neither am I. Press on.”
The tracers, and her adrenaline, burned out and vanished into the cold night.
A drogue parachute, about a meter across, popped out from a pod near the left wingtip. It blossomed in the slipstream, revealing a metal receptacle the size of a tea saucer at its center. The drogue slowly pulled a hose from the pod until it extended 30 meters behind the wing, where it danced a wicked figure-eight pattern abeam the tanker’s tail.
Beyond the drogue, a lone sentinel stood on the tanker’s open cargo ramp, only inches from the edge. The loadmaster, this moment’s gatekeeper, would signal the helicopter when they were cleared to refuel.
He must be freezing, she thought. Motionless behind his night vision goggles, the loadmaster betrayed nothing.
The cockpit heater switch remained off because it robbed the helicopter’s engines of precious power. The cold soaked through the helicopter’s thin skin, and into the copilot’s fingers.
Darkness their only shield, the odd formation hung suspended above the valley floor. Built to fly high and fast, the tanker usually sought refuge among the clouds. The helicopter found safety hiding behind hills, and skimming over the trees. Like soldiers from another war, they found themselves in a ‘no man’s land’, exposed and vulnerable between trenches. Here, a few lucky bullets could doom them both. The safety of both aircraft depended on finishing the refueling quickly, so each could return to where it belonged.
The loadmaster flashed a light so dim she almost missed it.
“Green light,” the right gunner said. “Cleared down and right. Understand pilot has the controls?” The last words burned in her ears.
“Negative,” the pilot responded. “This is the copilot’s plug.”
“Uh….roger,” the right gunner responded.
Determined, excited, resigned, terrified…she tried to tamp down the conflicting emotions and focus on her first combat aerial refueling.
With the slightest pressure on the controls, she slid the helicopter right until it settled immediately behind the tanker’s wing, and only a couple feet behind the drogue. From this perspective the copilot could better see the turbulence jostling the tanker, its wingtips rocking up and down, whiplashing the refueling drogue. The rotor blades whirled only a few feet from the tanker’s thin aluminum skin. Unconcerned, the sentinel on the cargo ramp continued his vigil.
“Pre-contact position,” the copilot announced, trying to sound cool and confident.
Just like training, she reassured herself and tried concentrating on the tanker’s wing as she’d been trained. Counter to what she knew she should do, her eyes followed the drogue’s maddening dance and not the relatively stable wing. Her hands followed her eyes, and the helicopter shook and shimmied as she struggled to align the probe with the erratic target.
“Rising terrain, left side,” the left gunner called as the valley floor slowly rose to meet them. In her goggles the ground came into focus, reminding her how little time remained. The peaks closed in with every mile. The helicopter couldn’t climb higher, and soon the valley would be too narrow for the tanker to turn around.
She continued to chase the drogue. Lights across the instrument panel flashed yellow warnings, as the engines strained to deliver more power.
“Hey, Co, do you hear that whistling sound?” the pilot asked.
Over the screaming engines she barely detected the new sound.
“Yeah,” she said tensely, the task threatening to overwhelm her.
“It’s the wind whistling through the right gun. It means you’re out of trim and over-controlling the aircraft.”
She bit her lip at the realization she’d allowed the helicopter to cock slightly sideways, dragging the big tail rotor through the slipstream, costing precious power and airspeed.
“It’s always best to keep your scan on the wing, just glance at the drogue every once in a while and relax. You’re doing great.” Without a hint of impatience or concern, he sounded more like a coach than a combat-seasoned aircraft commander.
She remembered to breathe and forced her eyes back on the tanker’s wing. The tail resumed its proper place directly behind the helicopter, and the right gun ceased whistling. Some of the bumpiness went away, but not all.
“Okay, good. Now, go for the plug.”
“Roger, going for the plug.” She nudged the helicopter forward and picked up speed. The probe inched toward the drogue, and, for a moment, appeared as if she would score a bulls-eye. The basket snapped to the right at the last second, and the probe missed by a few agonizing inches.
“A miss.” She lowered the collective to avoid crashing into the wing only ten meters ahead, and settled the helicopter behind the drogue again.
“Going for another plug.” She advanced toward the refueling drogue again, and missed.
Another miss, then another, and then another.
“Terrain is getting close on the left side, sir,” the left gunner reminded the pilot. The copilot knew what he really meant. Please take the controls and get this shit over with.
Frustrated, she dove at the drogue. Instead of the metal spokes leading to the inner receptacle, the probe caught the parachute material’s edge. The drogue chute collapsed around the probe tip, and the metal spokes slammed against the tip in a shower of green sparks. A momentary puff of fuel sprayed the helicopter’s right side. A brief whiff of kerosene mixed with the tobacco aroma, and she wondered if she’d damaged the probe.
She knew if the drogue didn’t re-inflate, it would shred against the probe or, worse, entangle them. The tanker and helicopter would then be stuck together, unable to turn or climb out of the valley.
“Come straight back, nice and slow,” the pilot warned.
She eased the helicopter backwards until the hose extended and flattened. With a slight jerk, the drogue released and re-inflated. Filled with relief, she let her concentration slip for only a moment.
The helicopter drifted insidiously to the right…toward the tanker.
“Stop right! STOP RIGHT!” The right gunner screamed.
She felt the pilot snatch the controls and jam the cyclic left. Sucked in the twisting vortices generated by the plane’s giant propellers, the helicopter shimmied violently and tried to roll into the tanker.
The sentinel on the cargo ramp took one step backwards.
“Pilot’s controls,” the pilot firmly commanded. “Pilot’s controls.” The copilot confirmed the pilot had the controls and released her hands.
She mentally kicked herself, realizing she’d blown an opportunity to prove herself.
Engines screamed and rotors slowed, as the pilot demanded every ounce of power to escape the tanker’s monstrous wake turbulence. Only his skill and a few seconds stood between the helicopter smashing into the tanker, or flipping upside down and disintegrating. He dove down to the left and found clean air, but not before the helicopter fell far behind the tanker.
She could almost sense the right and left gunners covering their microphones and sighing in relief.
It costs precious minutes for the helicopter catch up. The sentinel on the cargo ramp once again sent the signal, clearing them to refuel.
The copilot caught a whiff of another smell mixing with the stink of the jet fuel and tobacco. Someone on the Team had vomited.
Crisply and smoothly, the pilot placed the helicopter immediately behind the drogue, ready to attempt another plug. The right and left gunners craned forward for a better view of the probe, now just inches away from the drogue. She knew they desperately wanted the master aviator to complete the connection and finish the job.
Part of her wanted him to finish the job, too.
“Copilot’s controls,” he directed.
Over the intercom, someone stifled a groan.
“Copilot’s controls.” Once more, she took the machine’s reins.
“Listen,” the pilot said, “You’ve got one more chance then I’m going to have to do this, understand?”
“Yes sir.” He knows what he’s doing. He thinks I can do this, so I can do this.
“Just relax and remember your training.” His tone soothed her nerves.
Despite the low light, snow, boulders, and other details on the mountains gelled into disturbing crispness in her goggles. She tried not to think about how close they looked, instead, focusing on the rocking wing and trying not to stare at the dancing drogue.
“Okay crew, going for the plug.” She pushed her machine forward once again.
Wing, wing, wing, drogue…wing, wing, wing, drogue…, she repeated the mantra in her mind, …wing, wing, wing, drogue…wing, wing, wing, drogue…wing, wing….
Looking down, she saw the probe neatly lodged in the drogue’s center.
“Good contact!” the right gunner exclaimed.
“Son-of-a-bitch! Cleared up and left!” the left gunner responded.
The copilot flew the helicopter up and away from the tanker, to a station just above and outside the wing tip. Like an umbilical cord, the hose fed the helicopter precious fuel.
The right gunner ticked off the fuel status every few seconds, “20%….30%….50%…”
Relief flooded over her. She only needed to hold this formation position for a few minutes and it would all be over.
The fuel tanks filled and the helicopter grew steadily heavier, requiring more power to keep aloft. To compensate, the copilot made subtle, unconscious control corrections. Her corrections, however, weren’t quite fast enough.
She didn’t notice the growing whistle, this time coming from the left gun.
“80%….90%…,” the right gunner continued the countdown.
“You’re out of trim again. Give me a little left pedal,” the pilot said.
She pressed her boot against the left pedal, but with too much pressure.
“Gently,” he warned, but it was too late.
The nose jerked left. The snap, coupled with the damaged receptacle, caused the probe to disconnect without sealing.
A cloud of jet fuel completely enveloped the helicopter. The windscreen transformed into a milky blur, blinding the crew to the world outside, including the tanker only meters away.
“Come straight back…slowly….slowly,” the pilot coached. The copilot complied.
The right gunner must have opened his window to see, because wind’s roar of the wind increased, and the reek kerosene of became overpowering. “You’re good on the right,” he said.
“Clear left,” replied the left gunner as the helicopter slowly backed away from the tanker. The pilot reached up for the windshield wiper control and hesitated. If the windshield wiper motors so much as sparked, they would find themselves bathed in a fireball. He turned the dial and the milky veil parted, revealing towering peaks only a few miles ahead.
“We’ve got enough fuel,” the right gunner said.
“Roger,” the pilot responded. “Retract the probe, run the checklists, and let’s get out of here. Pilot’s controls, take a break.”
The copilot relinquished the controls and shook her aching hands.
“Good job, Co,” he added.
“Yeah, good job, ma’am,” the right gunner added.
“You didn’t suck too bad,” the left gunner said. “I’ve seen worse. Hey, how about a little heat back here? I think the vomit is freezing on the floor. I’d hate to see someone slip and bust their ass.”
As she reached up and turned on the heater, something warm trickled down her chin. She wiped it away and saw a dark smear on her glove.
The copilot tasted blood and realized she’d chewed the inside of her lip raw.
The sentinel on the tanker’s ramp had vanished inside the behemoth’s belly, the cargo door now closed. The drogue retracted back into the pod as green flames brightened and lengthened from the tanker’s engines. The airplane powered skyward, cleared the peaks and vanished into the starry heavens.
The pilot banked the helicopter hard right, and sliced down into the darkness. Skimming above the desert floor, the flying machine returned to its element.
The moment passed, but the mission had just begun.
Brian L. Braden is a retired Air Force pilot and intelligence officer. His articles have been featured in a variety of print and online publications and journals to include the Military Times, Air Power Journal and Oxford University Press. Brian has published several books, to include the epic fantasy novel BLACK SEA GODS. He is a co-founder of Underground Book Reviews (www.UndergroundBookReviews.