❯ The Colours of War: The Pilots – Part 1 of the Kessel Raid ( Chapter 1 )

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The Pilots
Part 1 of the Kessel Raid
The summer afternoon sky was a brilliant deep azure, the blazing sun lancing straight through Karl Marken’s shades. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. His Thunderbolt, Serial 743, was running perfectly, all systems green.
“Cutlass flight, this is cutlass leader. Turn 40 degrees right on my mark. Mark.”
The 12 planes of cutlass flight, 38th squadron, neatly rolled right in perfect unison and settled on their new heading.
“Cutlass flight, Cutlass 1. Very smart, people. Keep it up. We’ll be in the mess at GEAF Kessel before you know it.” Thorsten’s gruff voice was cracked with boredom. He hated routine peacetime patrols. Marken, on the other hand, loved every second airborne, be it on a three hour patrol or a low flying exercise. And he knew he was hot stuff, able to go against pilots years his superior in the flight simulators. He had served for two years as a Pilot Officer and the Green Earth Air Force (GEAF) was his life.
600 kilometres away from Cutlass flight, the sun glinted on black metal. 90 Talon fighter jets and 30 Bastion Heavy bombers roared onwards in 3 formations of fighters and 3 of bombers behind them. Each formation’s contrails appeared as a solid white carpet stretching out behind them, the plane’s paint studding the perfect sky with black darts. They roared implacably onwards in close formation, wing tip to wing tip, an armada of giant proportions moving onwards with one purpose. Destruction.
“Cutlass flight, Cutlass Cutlass 1. Bear right 110 degrees. Time to go home.”
On Thorsten’s command, Cutlass flight slowly banked round until it was on the home heading. Marken slowly pulled the stick over, enjoying the simple manoeuvre. Shadows rose up his wing as they changed their direction. He remembered to keep checking his radar and maintain visual scanning. Blue Moon and Orange Star were at war, however Green Earth had a neutral stance and no hostiles were anticipated in this area. Netherless, patrol sweeps and early warning protocols had to be maintained by Green Earth bases on the boarder with Blue Moon. GEAF Kessel was the largest fighter base on the western border, so had to take most of the burden of guarding Green Earth’s airspace. Most pilots hated this duty, but Marken was simply happy for any opportunity to fly.
“Keep it tight, Cutlass 9.” Thorsten cautioned. Marken glanced at Dieter Erdhardt’s jet. It was about half a meter below the rest of the formation.
“I’ll hand in my wings when we land, lead.” Dieter replied coolly. Marken snorted. Dieter Erdhardt was 38th Squadron’s priceless practical joker, but infuriated Thorsten by backing it with a precise flying style. Cutlass lead was about to tear a strip of him when a sudden transmission crackled on the radios.
“This is GEAF Kessel Operations to all aircraft. There is a large unidentified formation approaching. All aircraft return back to base immediately. Be advised, they may be-” the transmission chillingly ended with the speaker half way through his sentence.
“Well, that was well timed. Keep your eyes open, Cutlass flight. Looks like Blue Moon or Orange Star are out to play.” Thorsten’s voice had lost its bored tone. Suddenly everything looks serious and we’ll have a ton of paperwork to fill in, Marken thought.
“Cutlass lead?” That was Cutlass 5, Paul Hauser’s bird. Hauser was Marken’s closest friend in the Air Force and they had joined up together.
“Go ahead Cutlass 5.”
Hauser spoke calmly, yet his voice was as grim as death. “There is smoke coming from Kessel.”
Like a black slash in the perfect sky, a long plume of smoke was drifting from GEAF Kessel.
The black armada roared onwards, ignoring the urgent transmissions from the Green Earth Air Force base. A pair of Thunderbolt fighter aircraft climbed desperately towards the formation and each received three missiles for their trouble. The first jet was blown out of the air in seconds, but the second somehow managed to flick over the angry heat seekers and dived desperately away, the pilot frantically hailing operations. Two black Talons chased after him and finally finished him off. As the first formation roared over the Green Earth base, an air raid siren sounded and the personnel began to flood to the shelters, far too late. 30 Talons, in one perfect movement, rolled over and dropped.
The 11th of June would remain in the memory of Karl Marken until the end of his life. It was know in the History books as the first Black day. When the days of the four nations petty squabbling ended and the new age of unity began to face the greatest threat in the history of Wars World. All Karl Marken was thinking at the time though was what the hell was going on.
He swallowed hard. He had just seen his first enemy jet. A small black speck, climbing away from the burning wreckage of a hangar that it had just gutted with a 1000lb bomb. His hand tightened over the control column and he shifted his feet up the rudder pedals. He glanced at his position in the formation again to make sure that he was in line with the rest of the formation. Cutlass was racing to intercept the second wave of attackers as the first group swept over Kessel, dropping bombs and firing their cannons. Marken guessed that Thorsten had decided to let the first Wing go, if he showed his back to the second wave it would be suicide. Marken looked back to the second wave. They were closing fast. At the moment they were just radar contacts, but in less than a minute they would come into missile range. This is it… he could not believe he was in combat. He was going to kill or be killed. He was going head on with enemy fighters. GEAF Kessel was under attack from unidentified jets. He tried to clear his head and concentrate on flying. The bile rose in his throat and he felt light-headed.
“Cutlass flight, Cutlass leads. Go for radar locks now.” Thorsten ordered.
Hand shaking slightly, Marken activated the missile toggle on the control column. His onboard computer would do the work now, all Marken had to do was point 743 in the right direction for enough time for the radar to lock on and guide his missile to its target. A green reticule appeared on Marken’s head up display and a harsh metallic bleeping filled the cockpit. On off on off on off- as the computer closed in on it’s target. Cutlass flight started to call in radar locks. This was the deadliest part of air combat, as each formation went straight on, head to head, gun to gun, locking on to each other as the distance dropped to firing range, the groups prepared to unleash a volley of fire. Cutlass was now calling in radar lock-ons.
“Cutlass 6, locked on.”
“Cutlass 8, locked.”
“Cutlass 2, I got him.”
“Cutlass 10 locked on.”
“Cutlass 4, locked on.” Hauser called in.
The tone changed to a constant note and the green reticule changed to red. Marken keyed the coms.
“Cutlass 5, locked on.” He stammered.
“Cutlass 1, locked on.” Thorsten said.
“Cutlass 3, locked hard.”
“Cutlass 11, locked on.”
“Cutlass 9, locked.” All humour in Erdhardt’s voice had vanished.
“Cutlass 12, locked hard.”
“Cutlass 7, locked on.”
Marken blinked sweat out of his eyes and looked at the radar screen. Above the chaos of the aerodrome, the two formations of aircraft closed in, each travelling at over mach two, 680.58 meters every single second. The black Talons were visible now, specks on the horizon. Marken watched the range wind down to the 11km firing range. He was dripping sweat and the cockpit reeked of rubber and metal. He concentrated on the numbers disappearing. 11.
“FIRE!” Thorsten roared as Marken’s finger dug at the firing button. The Snakebite 4 air-to-air missile shot from 743’s wing blazing a trail of exhaust gasses and fire. In seconds, the GEAF flight had dispersed. As Marken dived off, he saw a black dart shriek past him and Cutlass 10, Manfred’s jet, simply cease to exist in a ball of fire. The radio went crazy with warnings, alarms and battle cries. He glanced in his mirror and saw Hauser on his tail as he fell on the rampaging Talons over Kessel.
The pitiful peacetime complement of anti-aircraft guns at GEAF Kessel were blazing away at the sky, throwing out streams of lead at the hostile jets. Most of the time, the lithe Talons lazily dodged the desperate gunners, but there were several burning wrecks littering the tarmac that weren’t grounded GEAF fighters. 50% of the first wave of attackers had bugged out or were blazing scars on the hard ground. However, the remainder of the second wave had joined the fray, and the final wave was approaching, along with three flights of heavy bombers. Facing them, were the few Thunderbolts lucky enough to get airborne before the main runway was destroyed, the alert flight from the 96th and a boarder patrol from the 38th, by chance returning to base when the blow was struck…
“Pick a target kamerad, I got your 6” Hauser called as the two Thunderbolts dived.
“Okay, see the pair over dispersal? Lets take `em.
“I’m with you.”
Marken changed course to drop behind the black pair and saw Hauser adjust in seconds. The enemy birds were going for one of the isolated hangers of the 96th. Marken had too much height and the range was dropping too fast.
“They’re too close for missiles. Switching to guns.” Marken flipped the cannon toggle. He preferred to use the Snakebite missiles, but at close ranges he might get caught in the blast, so he would opt for the powerful nose mounted Reinhardt 30mm cannon. The black Talons hadn’t noticed them yet and were leisurely lining up for their attack run. Marken went for radar lock. Almost immediately, the reticule turned red and the lock tone rang out.
“Cutlass 5, locked on.” He said.
“Cutlass 4, locked on.” Hauser called.
The Talons finally noticed their pursuers and had began to pull off, but it was far too late. 743 shuddered as the breechblocks in the cannon thumped and streams of powder smoke encased the GEAF machines. The Reinhardt could tear apart tanks with ease, and made light work of a fighter jet. Hauser’s foe’s right engine caught fire and suddenly the whole plane was a ball of fire. Marken’s shells tore along the Talon’s wing and it nose-dived into the ground.
“Nice shooting!” Marken called. “Those two won’t be going home.” Hauser was about to reply when a heated transmission cut in.
“All GEAF fighter units. This is Kessel Operations. Enemy heavy bombers inbound. Assemble at grid location 636436 immediately, Angels 8.”
Marken waggled his wings to alert Hauser of the move and started to climb. He could see the mass of Thunderbolts congregating on the designated rally point, as vapour trails converged from every corner of the sky. He could also see the ranks of Bastion heavy bombers and, crucially, their top cover of the final wave of Talons shadowing the larger planes.
“Come on Karl! Max throttle!” Hauser called.
“O.K kamerad. Lets go!” Marken reached out and slammed the throttle through the light seals to “Emergency throttle” The throaty roar of the two engines behind him swelled and 743 surged forward. Marken pitched up until he was climbing to the huge air-brawl near vertically, roaring onwards to 8,000, or Angels 8 as Operations coded the height. The distance wasn’t closing fast enough for Marken. They could miss the show. He checked his systems. 7 Snakebites left. Reinhardt cannon at 90%. He fixed his eyes on the converging jets.
“Cutlass 5, is that you?” A familiar voice filled his ears. Thorsten and Cutlass were in there!
“Affirmative, Lead. Cutlass 4 and 5 closing. Hate to miss the show.” Marken tried to keep the strain from his voice.
“Roger that, Cutlass 5. Drop in formation quickly now.” Thorsten replied. Marken and Hauser obediently slipped back into Cutlass flight. To Cutlass’s right was Indigo flight of 96 squadron and to his left was flight Alpha, a rag tag unit thrown together by Kessel operations. These three flights formed an ad hoc squadron.
“Indigo lead to Cutlass and Alpha flight, Bastions are closing. Prepare to attack. Go for the bombers. Lets make these bastards pay for attacking Green Earth!” Indigo’s leader, Squadron Leader Karsten was known as a gentle paternal leader on the ground, but a killer in the air. Marken was confident following him.
“Cutlass lead, Cutlass flight. Guns live. Check for attack.”
Marken checked his instruments. Guns, oil pressure, engine, radar, fuel lines, missiles, all good.
“Cutlass 4, good to go.” Hauser called.
“Cutlass 7, ready.”
“Cutlass 12, all systems go.”
Cutlass 2, on your command.”
Cutlass 5, ready.” Marken called.
“Cutlass 9, check and ready.” Erdhardt said.
“Cutlass 6, OK.”
Cutlass 11, Ready.”
“Cutlass 8, ready.”
“Cutlass Lead Okay.” Thorsten finished the Cutlass roll call, before hailing Karsten.
“Squadron Lead, this is Cutlass Lead. We’re ready.” Thorsten called again.
“Lead, Alpha flight. Good to go.”
“Okay,” Karsten said. “All units, attack attack attack!” and with that, he dived into the lumbering pack of Bastions.
Marken dived, noting Hauser faithfully covering him and lined up on a bomber that was hurtling towards him, at a lightening speed. He activated the radar lock and the reticule sprang up on his head up display. It quickly changed to red.
“Cutlass 5, locked on.” Marken said, before letting rip a missile. 743 shuddered as its snakebite lunged forwards. Marken saw other missiles and heard the lock calls from other pilots and the fireballs blossomed over the bombers massive frames. One bomber’s payload must have been ignited and it disappeared in a colossal explosion, taking the wing of the Bastion next to it. He hauled hard on the stick for another run.
“Talons! Here they come!” Someone called. The enemy top cover was engaging. Marken craned his neck to see the black jets falling vertically on the GEAF Lightenings.
The part of Marken that was listening for the dreaded kill-tone, the last thing a pilot heard, suddenly heard the machine shrieking at a pitch that hurt human ears, making him kick on the rudder bar and desperately yank the control column over the same instant the kill-tone keened inside his earphones. 743 tore away from Hauser, and in a heartbeat a black Talon shot past, its gun ports dotted with flame flash. The stream of metal barley missed Marken’s cockpit.
“Shit! That was close!” Hauser called. “Come around again.”
Marken pulled 743 up into a tight half loop until he was flying inverted. Then, he flipped over, now travelling in the other direction. This time, he dropped behind Hauser and they came at the bombers again. Now the air surrounding the diminishing Bastion pack was full of fantastic, glowing lines of lead, jet contrails and planes, GEAF Thunderbolts darting through the formation like sharks through a shoal and black Talons searing after them. A Thunderbolt from Alpha flight was hit from underneath by a Snakebite. The missile hit it below the cockpit and kept on going into the stratosphere. The now headless Lightening flew on for a second and then slowly fell to earth. Marken was drenched with sweat, his hands slipping on the stick. Hauser led Marken right into the middle of the now ragged bomber pack. Again Marken locked onto a Bastion and managed to loose off two missiles before swooping off. The radio was crazy with commands, warnings and shouts. He came around again and suddenly the sky was empty, black fighters flying off in all directions. The few remaining bombers jettisoned their loads and turned for home.
“Don’t know pursuit, Cutlass flight, were all low on fuel. Regroup, lets get on the ground.” Thorsten said.
Cutlass flight’s elation was dulled as the casualty list was read out. Cutlass flight had lost four jets, a miraculously low number for a battle of such magnitude, yet a devastating blow for the pilots of 38 squadron. Manfred VonBaum, Andreas Burr, Theodore Goodrich and Stefan Roderik, men who Marken had trained and flown with for over a year were dead. There was no radio conversation as the flight re-formed. Marken tried to think of something to say. “I guess we’ll have a lot of paperwork to do.”
“There won’t be any paperwork.” Thorsten replied sadly. “Were at war.”
Only when Marken roughly landed on a clear stretch of tarmac did the day’s events sink in. He awkwardly shut down the engines and began to climb out of the cockpit. The sight in front of him buckled his legs and he fell back down. GEAF Kessel was burning.