EXCERPT FROM THE MAN WHO FLEW THROUGH FIRE (UNPUBLISHED NOVEL)
Eglin Air Force Base, Florida
The voice in Warrant Officer Will Spaulding’s ears was clear, urgent and familiar: It belonged to Captain Greg Chastain, his flight instructor. “Bluebell Four, drop down and take a good, close, look at that area east of Turtle Creek,” Chastain said. “Watch for the high bluff along the southwest bank, it’s got some real tall trees.”
“Wilco,” said Spaulding. He stood on the left rudder pedal while easing back on the cyclic, watching the stars move across his windscreen and feeling his OH58D Kiowa Warrior, otherwise known as the Bell Advanced Scout Helicopter, slide into a sharp left bank.
At 500 feet indicated, peering through night vision goggles and mist rising from the forest floor, the terrain appeared in other-worldly shades of greenish white. There was the creek, on this cold winter night warmer and thus brighter than the wooded land on its banks. Spaulding throttled back, bleeding airspeed as he descended, watching for the bluff that Chastain had warned about.
After crawling along the watercourse for half a minute at ten knots, he decided that there was something odd-looking about the water. Glancing around to make sure he was clear of obstacles, he descended to a slow hover. At a hundred feet, the water was bright, as he expected, but some small areas seemed to be even a little brighter.
At twenty feet over the deep, sluggish creek, he realized that the brighter spots were men—and that only their heads were above the water. Men floating down the river past the friendlies whose flanks and rear Bluebell Scout Platoon was screening. Spaulding eased back on his collective, slowly ascending as he counted the bright spots below.
He put his bird into a tight right-hand turn, watching his altimeter. Meanwhile he flipped his radio transmit switch to FM, the tactical frequency.
“Oxbow, Bluebell 4, over,” he said into his lip mic.
The reply was a whisper in his ear: “Bluebell, Oxbow 6 Alfa, go.”
“Swimmers in the creek at your six. I counted eleven. Might be more.”
“Roger. Thanks. Out.”
Spaulding put his bird into a slow, tight, climbing right turn, away from the high bluff, grabbing some sky. At 300 feet and clear of the trees, he headed back up the creek, looking for where the swimmers came from. Less than half a mile upstream, his display showed dozens of hot spots scattered between the trees on either side of the watercourse.
“Bluebell, Bluebell four, over,” he said into his lip microphone.
“What do you have, Bluebell Four?”
“Company-sized formation upstream half a mile, in the trees. Request permission to attack, over.”
In wartime, Will’s aircraft would be equipped with either a pair of Hellfire missiles or a cluster of 2.75 inch unguided rockets. But this was a training exercise, and he had only two .50 caliber machineguns, both loaded with blanks.
“You want to clean those guns before you go to sleep tonight, Bluebell Four?”
“Roger,” said Will. “If that’s what it takes.”
“One pass. Stay above 500 feet indicated.”
“Roger. Wilco. Out,” said Will.
At 350 feet, well above the trees, he leveled out. Before him was the target area.
He flipped off the safety, tilted his nose down until the targets appeared on his screen, pulled the throttle to nearly maximum, and opened fire.
The white dots became an ants’ nest of confusion, men running every which way.
“That was fun,” he said aloud, radios off.
Will pointed his nose skyward, and headed eastward. Flipping his night vision goggles up and out of the way, at a thousand feet the night sky was revealed in all its glory, a vast carpet of glowing lights that always filled Will with awe. Far to the northwest, low on the horizon, a new moon was setting; he smiled as he took in its dim, ghostly portion. It was moments like this, he thought, that confirmed his decision to put his career in law enforcement behind him and become an Army aviator.
He had made the right decision, he told himself. Back home in Barstow, he’d been a police detective. On the streets he was a prince of that small California desert city, rewarded with respect and sometimes admiration by the honest citizens. But in Barstow, he was also the only son of the chief of police, forever in his father’s ambit, always under the influence of his name and family. Here, in the sky, he was on his own. And in the Army he had found an almost pure meritocracy. There were the usual assortment of ass-kissers and court jesters, he’d discovered, but he was nevertheless free to soar as far as his talent, energy and desire could take him.
Snapping back to reality, Will pointed his aircraft toward a patch of sky a few miles to the east, where the rest of Bluebell Scouts flew figure eights in trail formation at 4,000 feet.
A minute later and miles behind his aircraft, the woods along Turtle Creek erupted with flashes. The sound of rapid gunfire came through Will’s radio speaker as background to the brief messages exchanged by Oxbow 6, the commander of a Ranger company, and his platoon leaders.
“Nice work, Will,” said Chastain’s voice in Will’s ears. “Everyone: Form up in echelon right, we’re calling it a night.”
“More like a morning,” came the voice of the irrepressible Jim Moretti, like Will a student pilot at Fort Rucker, Alabama, 80 miles northeast of the enormous training area beneath them, the swamps and forests of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
“We did good!” yelled Ethan Andrews.
“Knock off the chatter,” Chastain barked. “Report fuel status.”
“Bluebell 1, a little under a quarter tank.”
“Bluebell 2, about the same.”
“Three, a little more than a quarter.”
“Four, almost half.”
“On my command, come right to 195 degrees. We’ll refuel at Hurlburt Field.”
In seconds, the five helicopters headed southwest toward Hulburt at a hundred knots.
Off to the west, miles away, an enormous flash lit the night sky.
“What the hell was that?” shouted Moretti over the air.
A few seconds later, a second, even brighter flash lit the same area. In the distance, the flickering light of flames reflected from high clouds.
“That’s probably Pensacola,” said Chastain. “Bluebell 4, go take a look. Stay on VHF, and monitor guard channel. And watch out for low-flying aircraft, especially news copters.”
“Roger,” said Will. “Wilco.”
“Don’t loiter, but see if they need help,” added Chastain.
“On my way,” replied Will, banking to the west and separating from the formation.
Headquarters, Fort Rucker, Al
The conference room was on the spotless ground floor of post headquarters. Inside, Lieutenant Colonel Roland Gilbert, Judge Advocate General Corps, swarthy, mustachioed and undersized, immaculately turned out in his dress blues, stood at one end of a long, polished wooden table, At the other end, seated in comfortable chairs, were five Army colonels, each wearing the wings of a Master Aviator over the left breast pocket of their flying suits.
“Gentlemen,” began Gilbert. “This board of inquiry has heard testimony from Captain Chastain, from Warrant Officer Moretti, and from Captain Jefferson and Sergeants Higgenbotham and LaCroix of the Pensacola Police Department. Warrant Officer Willson Spaulding has submitted a written statement, and is prepared to answer any questions that you may have. First, however, we will view evidence submitted by the City of Pensacola, Florida, in the form of video from local television news broadcasts.”
Gilbert nodded to the young sergeant seated in a corner behind him. The noncom left his chair and wheeled a large cart to the table. On it was a 60-inch flat screen television receiver. The sergeant took a USB flash drive from his pocket. He plugged it into a receptacle on the back of the television, and took a sheet of paper from the cart. Then he moved to a position against the wall from which he could view the screen, pulled a remote out of his uniform pocket, consulted the paper, and pointed the remote at the screen.
“This is from Station WEAR, Channel 3, Pensacola,” he said.
A young man with long sideburns and wearing a business suit appeared on the screen. Behind him was an image of the Pensacola waterfront. “Early this morning, a gigantic explosion rocked Pensacola,” he said, looking into the camera.
The screen went dark, then showed a brilliant flash of light from low on the horizon, momentarily illuminating a high rise towering over a tract of modest homes. The camera zoomed in on an enormous ball of fire rising hundreds of feet. In a matter-of-fact voice; the announcer continued: “This footage courtesy Channel 15, WPMI, Mobile.”
The scene changed to a street-level view of a jumble of railroad tanker cars from which enormous columns of orange flames boiled skyward. The announcer said, “A train carrying several tank cars, each filled with more than 30,000 gallons of jet engine fuel, derailed as it passed the Crowne Plaza Pensacola Grand, at 15 stories, Pensacola’s tallest building.”
The images changed to show the fire from several angles, including from a news helicopter circling high overhead.
“Most of the hotel’s guests and staff were evacuated safely,” the announcer continued, while on the screen people in bathrobes and pajamas filed out of the hotel or milled around a parking lot.
“However, several guests attending a roof-top party, including a nine-year old boy and his dog, were trapped by the fire, which blocked the door to the only stairway. An emergency slide on the roof was disabled by flames reaching higher than the roof. The Pensacola Fire Department, in a statement released minutes ago, said that they have no equipment capable of reaching more than eight stories high.”
An aerial view from a circling news helicopter shows a raging inferno surrounding several people huddling in a small rooftop swimming pool.
“A Pensacola Police helicopter piloted by Sergeant Raymond Delacroix attempted to rescue the trapped guests.”
On the screen, a helicopter lands on the roof; five people scramble into the back, leaving the boy and dog in the pool. The chopper hovers off the roof and flies to a grassy area a few hundred feet away.
The announcer said, “Sergeant Delacroix put down near the Bay Center parking lot long enough to let his passengers out.”
Illuminated by bright, flickering firelight, the rescued people scrambled off, and the helicopter immediately takes off.
“A Police Department Spokesperson explained that the helicopter normally seats five, including two pilots. They said that the boy, identified as Ronald Rhenquist of Alpine, New Jersey, refused to leave his dog.”
On the screen, the police helicopter circles for altitude, then heads back toward the roof. The viewpoint shifts from the ground to that of a news copter above the fire. The police aircraft flies through flames surrounding the roof, flares for a rooftop landing, then bursts into flame and lands hard near the center of the roof. Both pilots jump out and run toward the pool.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the announcer, his voice breaking with emotion. “Upon witnessing this, News Three Pilot Lester Scruggs requested permission to rescue those remaining on the roof, but was ordered to remain at altitude.”
Suddenly a smaller chopper enters the picture, Board members immediately recognized the distinctive silhouette of an OH58D Kiowa Warrior by the thin mast above its rotor, topped by a spherical dome that held a sophisticated weapons sight. By this time, the hotel roof is completely obscured by flames and smoke. The Kiowa Warrior descends in an arc to a spot directly over the roof, then seems to drop straight down, vanishing as it enters the flames.
Pictures from a second news helicopter, hundreds of feet higher and south of the hotel, show the Kiowa surrounded by flames as it hovers down to the roof. Before it touches down, a man wearing an aviator’s helmet leaps up and grabs one skid. The helicopter tips, then rights itself, drops a little lower, and a second man, also wearing a helmet, grabs the other skid.
The announcer wisely remained silent.
The helicopter hovers straight up until it is high above the flames, then, as if suspended by a rope, slowly pivots 180 degrees and moves horizontally until well clear of the building, then descends toward the grassy area. When the helicopter is perhaps ten feet off the ground, the men hanging from the skids release their grip, drop to the grass, and roll away.
The announcer breaks in. “Sources tell us that this new helicopter is an Army OH58, possibly based at Eglin Air Force Base.”
Pictures from a different news helicopter fill the screen. The caption “Courtesy WALA Channel 10 Mobile” runs under the pictures. The Kiowa Warrior heads back toward the burning roof. Flames envelop all four sides of the hotel. The helicopter circles for altitude, then plummets straight down to disappear behind the flames.
The pictures change to the viewpoint of a second news chopper still high above the scene. A caption at the bottom of the screen acknowledges that the pictures are courtesy Channel 15, WPMI, Mobile.
The Army helicopter lands in a cluttered area in the corner of the roof opposite the swimming pool. Without shutting down the engine, a man leaps out, sprints to the pool, and grabs the boy, stuffs him under one arm and the dog under the other. He runs back to the helicopter, shoves boy and dog into the front seat, then climbs in.
As the helicopter lifts off, it bursts into flame. Nevertheless, it continues to rise until it is well above the flames, then climbs at a steep lateral angle for several seconds. Several hundred feet above the fire, it plummets almost straight down for a few seconds, before tilting forward to flare for a bounce landing on the grass. As the pilot jumps out, the aircraft is burning savagely. He grabs the boy from the passenger seat. The dog follows, and they run from the burning aircraft.
Seconds later, the helicopter explodes in a ball of flame.
The announcer’s face returns to the screen. “The fire at Crowne Plaza Pensacola Grand continues to burn. Fire officials say that it is still too hot to approach.
“The rescued boy has been hospitalized for treatment of smoke inhalation. His dog, a three year old American Bulldog named ‘Dick Grayson,’ is under a veterinarian’s care.
“The pilot of the Army helicopter was identified as a student pilot from Fort Rucker, Alabama, who was on a night training exercise at Eglin Air Force Base. He was treated by paramedics at the scene, and then left the area. He has not been identified by name and cannot be reached for comment.
“We go now to Pensacola Police Chief Armand Grant.”
A heavy, graying man with four stars on his blue uniform collar looks into the camera.
“We’ve just witnessed a miracle. No one was killed,” he says.
The announcer returned to the screen. “Chief Grant said that there are unconfirmed reports that several people living near the Crowne Plaza reported hearing two small explosions just seconds before the train derailed. The cause of the derailment is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Florida Highway Patrol.”
The sergeant turned off the television and rolled the cart back to a corner.
Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert returned to his end of the conference table.
“The board of inquiry calls Warrant Officer Willson Spaulding,” he said, and the door to the corridor opened. Clad in a blue dress uniform, a man in his late twenties with piercing blue eyes, of average height, an athletic build and fair hair clipped almost to his skull, entered the room, stopped short of the table, came to attention, and saluted.
“Warrant Officer Willson V. Spaulding reports to the president of this board of inquiry,” he said.
@ 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.