Authors: Jim DeFelice
Copyright © 2001 by Jim DeFelice.
All rights reserved.
This book may not be reproduced
in whole or in part, by any means, without permission from the author, except
for short quotes in reviews or discussions
Never leave base without your wingmate.
You can never be too ugly, too low, or too slow.
Pay attention to the plane, not the explosion.
If God wanted you to fly higher than five hundred feet, he’d have given you an
For every action by the enemy, there is an opposite and disproportionate
reaction— be sure to administer it harshly.
The hotter the target, the better the bang.
If you can’t read the sign, you’re not close enough to smoke it.
Never fire your cannon when taking off unless absolutely necessary.
Under no circumstances should you attempt to eat anything with pits during a
KING FAHD ROYAL AIR BASE, SAUDI ARABIA
27 JANUARY 1991
“Skull” Knowlington stepped out from his office in the ramshackle trailer
building known as “Hog Heaven”— headquarters for the 535
Fighter Squadron at King Fahd Royal Air Base in eastern Saudi Arabia. The cold
air of the desert night stung his eyes closed; the Devil Squadron commander had
to stop and rub them open.
began to walk again, ignoring the soft glow of the moon above, pretending he
didn’t hear the uneasy murmur that came from the nearby hangar area where his
A-10A Thunderbolt II “Warthog” fighter-bombers were resting after a long day of
bombing Iraq. A few mechanics tended to battle damage; here an engine was being
overhauled, there a wing was being patched. The workers might account for some
of the noise, but not all of it— the A-10A had always seemed more animal than
machine, and tonight a distinct murmur rose from the parked planes, as if they
were rehashing their missions in a late-night bull session. In a few short
hours, the planes would be back at it, loaded with missiles and bombs and
bullets, jet fuel packed into their arms and bellies. They waited now in the
shadows, metal bones shrugging off fatigue, green skins still sparking with the
electricity of the day. If any warplane could be said to be more than a simple
machine, it was the Hog, a two-engine stubby-winged dirt mover so ugly most
pilots argued she
to have a soul. Aeronautics alone would never have
gotten anything that ungainly off the ground.
ignored the Hogs. He ignored the moon. He ignored the cold. He ignored the
acknowledgment of the security detail. Like the planes and their pilots, he was
due a few hours in the sack. More, actually. He’d been strapping planes around
his narrow frame for just about thirty years now, and if it weren’t for the
fact that he was a bona fide, decorated war hero with tons of friends in high
places and could be a serious SOB besides, Michael Knowlington would be retired
by now. He was due a long, long rest— the kind of rest where the most important
thing you did all day was check the obits to make sure you were alive, then went
back to bed.
people wanted him to take that rest. There were reasons beyond length of
service, the same reasons that kept him a lieutenant colonel when most of his
peers were either long gone or wore stars on their uniforms. But Skull had
never been good at resting, much less reading obituaries. He wasn’t even very
good at sleeping, especially not when there was a war on, especially not when
he had an enemy on his ass and gravity was pinching his face and chest from all
was how he felt now.
flashed in the sky behind him. The muscles in his neck snapped taut but didn’t
flinch. He walked on, moving stiffly through the shadows, pushing toward a
large parking garage at the other end of the base. He skirted the edge of Tent
City, a mass of tents and temporary housing units where many of the base
personnel— and all of Devil Squadron— lived. He walked quickly and with purpose
but without fear. More importantly, he walked without desire.
Michael Knowlington, fear and desire had often walked together. Not fear of the
enemy, not desire for glory. It would be wrong to say that he wasn’t afraid of
dying, or that he didn’t like the honor of recognition. But from the very first
day in Thailand eons ago when he had wedged himself into the cockpit of a Thud
and taken off for Vietnam, neither the enemy nor glory had haunted him.
fear he felt was much more basic. He’d been afraid of letting others down. And
let others down: as a wingman: that time when his mate nearly got
shot down by a trailing MiG that Knowlington should have handled; as a leader,
when his flight got nailed by a battery he should have scoped out before the
mission; as a squadron commander, when one of his boys had gotten in over his
last had happened three times, once in Vietnam, once in the States, and once
and its guilt— fueled a deep, unquenchable desire. It was mundane, it was
ordinary, but if was very real. For much of his Air Force career, Michael
Knowlington desired, thirsted, for alcohol. It had tugged at his athletic frame
and dulled his reflexes; it had rounded the sharp edges of his brain. Worst of
all, the thirst had fueled the fear, which in turn increased the thirst.
it was gone now. He’d been sober for only 22 days, and had come perilously
close twelve hours before to falling back. But as he walked across the darkened
base, ignoring the moon, ignoring the planes, nose stinging with sweat and jet
fuel, he realized he didn’t want a drink.
that was good, though nothing to bank on.
Hummer carrying two Air Force MPs shot out of the darkness as he finally neared
his destination. As the Humvee pulled up alongside him, a sergeant leaned out
and spoke in a pseudo whisper, as if raising his voice would wake some sleeping
excuse me,” he said, “but there’s a Scud alert. Sir, I have to ask you to take
nodded but said nothing, continuing to walk. The MP started to repeat himself,
but his words were drowned out by a loud shriek in the distance.
kept walking. The ground rumbled. It was an explosion, but nothing that
threatened him. He knew that from experience.
his first tour in Vietnam, Knowlington had manned a machine-gun post with a
frightened E-5 whose specialty was developing recon photos. Guerrillas had attacked
a small base Skull was visiting on a liaison mission; he and the sergeant had
worked through ten belts of ammo while ducking at least five grenade attacks.
During his second tour in Vietnam, Skull had spent two nights at the Marine
base in DaNang when it came under rocket attack— as sure a glimpse into the
bowels of hell as ever offered a live human being. Distant explosions didn’t
impress him; he kept his pace and ignored the comments from the Hummer, which
vanished back into the darkness.
two Delta troopers standing guard at the entrance to the parking garage wore
the blank expressions of stone statues as he approached. Though both sergeants
instantly recognized the Air Force officer, they challenged him as fiercely as
if he were an Iraqi infiltrator. For the humble parking garage was the Saudi
home of the Special Operations Command; its officers were running a variety of
top secret operations north of the border. And while Lieutenant Colonel Michael
Knowlington was one of the handful of men permitted access to the “Bat Cave”
inside, even General Schwartzkopf himself would have had to withstand the
ritual humiliation of passing the Delta boys’ sentry post.
that Schwartzkopf would have done so as quietly— nor as quickly— as Skull. But
then, Skull tended to hold the D boys in higher esteem, and the feeling was
through, Knowlington proceeded to the operational headquarters, a collection of
sandbags, filing cabinets, and desks in an area that had once housed the car
collection of a minor prince. Skull got about as far as the former parking spot
of a yellow MG roadster when one of the general’s aides accosted him.
General’s not available, sir,” said the lieutenant, who despite the hour and
locale could have cut himself on the creases in his uniform.
he is.” Skull made sure his gravelly voice carried well through the complex. “I
talked to him a half-hour ago. He’s either on the cot over there or sitting at