The Warriors Excerpt

A cold front swept across the steppes of Central Asia like an invading army. The wedge of dense, frigid air slid underneath warmer air, lifting the warm air higher until thunderheads spawned and stalked through Kyrgyzstan. The black clouds assaulted the terrain with lightning, and booms reverberated like the peals of distant air strikes.

At Manas Air Base–officially called Manas Transit Center for political reasons–Lieutenant Colonel Michael Parson stood in the control tower with American and Kyrgyz air traffic controllers. The controllers fretted about the weather, and so did Parson. His new job had him watching weather conditions pretty closely. He’d arrived in Kyrgyzstan only yesterday to start a year-long assignment as the base safety officer. Parson welcomed the noncombat position after seeing more than his share of action in Afghanistan and Iraq as a U.S. Air Force aviator.

Manas served as a major stopover for troops and cargo on the way into and out of Afghanistan, but at least the base wasn’t in a hostile fire zone. Parson considered the place a relatively laid-back outpost: You could sip a beer in your off hours. Even during the duty day, you could take a break and go to the coffee shop, get an espresso, and pet the big gray cat that always slept on one of the chairs. Parson thought he’d like Manas, except for the weather.

“Shall we call a ground stop?” a Kyrgyz controller asked in good English.

“Not yet,” the American tower chief said.

Neither man looked at Parson because Parson exercised no authority over the controllers. But he understood their dilemma. Cumulonimbus the color of wrought iron loomed to the north. The low-level wind shear alert system already indicated trouble near the approach end of Runway Two-Six. But a lot of traffic needed to come in today, and wind shear always presented a problem at Manas. Every chart for every approach carried the notation: Heavy turbulence with downdrafts and wind shear may be expected on final. You could eliminate the risk only by not flying at all.

The controllers had the tower’s VHF frequency on the speakers. A pilot with an Afghan accent called up.

“Manas Tower,” the pilot called, “Golay One-Three is Afghan Air Force C-27 on VOR/DME approach to Runway Two-Six.”

Parson recognized the call sign, though not the voice. He remembered his tour as an adviser to the Afghan Air Force, and he felt proud to hear an Afghan crew on an international flight. Parson wondered where they were going, what they were doing. During his year working with Afghan crews, he’d made a lot of good friends, but most of the pilots he knew flew helicopters. This C-27 Spartan was a twin-turboprop cargo plane.

“Golay One-Three, Manas Tower,” a controller called. “You are cleared to land, Runway Two-Six. Use caution for low-level wind shear.”

“Golay One-Three cleared to land,” the pilot acknowledged.

Parson peered through the tower’s windows, scanned for the Spartan. At first he saw only roiling clouds bearing down on the airfield. Large raindrops began to smack against the glass, and a gust of wind swirled dust outside on the tower catwalk. A controller raised his binoculars and pointed. Parson spotted the aircraft just under the cloud layer, in a right turn onto final approach.

The plane rolled out of the turn, leveled its wings. The landing gear doors opened as the aircraft descended, and the wheels came down and locked into place. The wings rocked a bit; Parson could almost feel the turbulence jolting the airplane. He’d made a few landings here himself in a C-5 Galaxy, riding down the glide slope with the jet crabbed sideways, dancing on the rudder pedals at the last moment, and always keeping his thumb on the GO-AROUND button in case the wind shear got so evil he had to abort the approach.

The rain fell harder. Drops pounded the roof until the sound rose to a dull roar. Water streamed down the tower windows, and outside visibility dropped by half. Parson could still see the C-27, though, now on short final. The aircraft continued its descent–a little too steeply for Parson’s comfort. The Spartan should have flown a nice, gentle approach angle of about three degrees, but this looked like six or eight. At this rate, Parson thought, the aircraft might even touch down short of the runway. Time to climb away for another try.

But the Spartan continued to descend. By standard procedure, the crew should have set up a stabilized approach by now: configured to land, on glidepath, within a few knots of approach speed, and descending at no more than about seven hundred feet per minute.

These guys weren’t even close to stable. Parson guesstimated their descent rate at around fifteen hundred. Harder to judge their airspeed, but the approach looked a good twenty knots hot. What the hell? All the Afghan pilots he knew could have done a better job. Their stick-and-rudder skills weren’t usually the problem. Parson had preached the fine points like checklist discipline, not basic piloting skills. But whoever was flying that C-27 couldn’t find his ass with both hands.

“Go around, you idiot,” Parson muttered under his breath.

Most crashes happened on landing. Airplanes were especially vulnerable to wicked weather on final approach. The nearer the ground, the thinner the margin for error. That’s why a good missed approach beat a bad landing any day of the week.

The pilot’s voice came over the radio again, the resin of tension in his voice:

“Golay One-Three going around.”

So the clue light finally came on, Parson thought. Perhaps he heard the aircraft’s engines advance, though the rain noise made it hard to tell. As the C-27 flew closer, he saw the landing gear retract and the nose pitch higher. But the aircraft did not climb. The Spartan’s descent continued, only at a slower rate.

Caught in a downdraft, Parson realized. Or maybe even a fully developed, honest-to-God microburst that could slam a plane into the ground. That’s why you don’t dick around in weather like this, he thought. Now cob those throttles and get the hell out of Dodge.

Lightning speared the ground. Veins of quicksilver spiderwebbed across the sky, so bright they hurt Parson’s eyes. The Spartan roared along the runway, clawing for altitude, gaining none.

Parson could imagine the scene in the cockpit: The pilot pulling back on the yoke, watching the flight director’s pitch steering bars. The ground prox warning system blaring DON’T SINK, DON’T SINK. And the vertical speed indicator still showing a descent.

Then came the moment when Parson knew what would happen, but could do nothing. The Spartan pitched up even higher, near the verge of a stall. The aircraft floated just a few feet above the pavement, seemingly in slow motion. Inevitably, the tail dragged the ground, and the C-27 pancaked to earth.

The propeller blades struck the pavement, bent backwards into fishhooks. The left engine tore from its mount under the wing. Flames blossomed as fuel and hydraulic lines ripped open. The engine shed its cowl panels and prop as it cartwheeled forward, ahead of a spreading, black and orange fireball. The grinding sound of metal across pavement joined with the boom and crackle of flames.

All four controllers rose to their feet, uttered epithets in English and Kyrgyz. As the aircraft continued to come apart, the tail section separated and skidded sideways out of the flames. The bulk of the wreckage slid forward along the concrete. Streamers of fire erupted from the exploding wings. Metal fragments shot clear of the smoke and bounced along the taxiway.

A Kyrgyz controller reached for a touch-screen computer and tapped a red icon marked PCAS. That button activated the Primary Crash Alarm System, and in seconds Parson heard the sirens of crash trucks. Three yellow and red Oshkosh trucks charged down the taxiway, red lights flashing. The first truck braked to a stop just short of the flames and opened a blast from its foam cannon. The other trucks positioned themselves around the front of the wreckage, sprayed white chemical onto the burning fuselage.

Firefighters in silver proximity suits jumped down from their vehicles. One man took hold of the plane’s crew door handle and pulled. The handle would not budge, so another firefighter lifted a crash ax from his truck and slammed the ax at the crew door. When the door finally dropped, smoke rolled from the opening. One of the foam cannons sprayed through the doorway, and two firefighters climbed inside, breathing from air bottles mounted on their backs.

Parson leaned on the back of a chair, closed his eyes. Felt his skin grow flush. He’d lost too many friends and crewmates in accidents and shootdowns. He didn’t know this crew, but he knew plenty of people like them. And he knew they all had family–spouses, parents, children. When one of the controllers made the next radio call, the words barely registered in Parson’s mind.

“Attention all aircraft,” the controller said, “Manas is closed for emergency operations.”

Parson then heard the controller talking to a KC-135 tanker jet, giving the crew instructions to enter holding over the Bishkek VOR.

Two ambulances converged on the crash site. Parson appreciated the quick response. He especially admired the courage of the firefighters, but he doubted they’d find anyone alive inside the Spartan.

The two firemen who’d entered the C-27 came back out carrying a limp body. They took the crewman well away from the smoke and flames and laid him down. The medics went to work, but in a few moments Parson could tell from their gestures that the man was dead.

The same thing happened when the firefighters brought out the other two victims. Though Parson watched from a distance, the appearance of their clothing suggested that at least the crew had not burned to death. Their Nomex flight suits still held the original desert beige coloring. When exposed to fire, flameproof Nomex would not burn, but it would discolor to nearly black. Apparently all three–pilot, copilot, and loadmaster–had died of some combination of crash force trauma and smoke inhalation.

Part of Parson’s mind was already investigating, analyzing. Though powerless to prevent the crash, now he would lead in determining causes. He had hoped he would pass his time as safety officer without handling anything more serious than a maintenance guy falling off a stand. But sadly, his new assignment began with a Class A mishap–defined as an accident causing loss of life, loss of an aircraft, or more than two million dollars in damage. This crash covered all three.

Parson sighed hard, looked at the floor. Ignored the chatter on the control frequencies. When he looked up again, he saw three arcing streams of foam attacking the tallest flames–those rising from the tangled metal of the wings. No one remained alive to save, but the crash team kept working, making sure fire and cinders spread no farther to threaten aircraft on the ramp. The three parabolas of foam seemed a grotesque tribute to the lives just lost.

Life seemed so fragile now to Parson. He used to consider himself master of his own fate, someone who steered events instead of merely reacting to them. But time and time again, he’d seen events overcome even the strongest and the most skilled aviators–let alone boneheads like the crew who’d just flown that Spartan into the ground. The Air Force talked about risk management as if a hazard were something you could get your hands around. Choke it and drown it in a bathtub. But a hazard needed little opening to cause harm. Just a miscommunication or a failure of equipment. A moment’s inattention, an ounce of bad judgment.

Parson struggled to turn off his emotions the way he might use an isolation switch in an airplane to de-energize a bad electrical circuit. He had a lot to do, and his feelings would only get in the way. First, he needed to identify witnesses and make sure the crash site didn’t get disturbed any more than firefighting required. Even though he’d seen the disaster himself, he wanted to record the statements of other onlookers. Then Parson would turn to the big picture–examine the size and shape of the debris field, take photos, establish a grid to pinpoint where all the parts had come to rest. As a safety officer he was not an expert. But he would gather evidence and information, call in experts as needed.

He thought he already knew the cause of this accident: a wind shear event, with an unsuccessful recovery. Tragically straightforward. A major contributing factor: stupidity.

However, he couldn’t help thinking maybe the crash was a little too straightforward. Avoiding the accident would have been so easy. For now, he would just let the evidence tell its story. And he felt that story might lead to places where he didn’t want to go. Parson had expected this assignment to turn out easier and safer than some of his previous deployments. But this part of the world had long served as a crossroads of continents. Down through the centuries, East invaded West; West attacked East. All sorts of trouble had ebbed and flowed across these steppes that led the way to Europe.