EC-97 Night Lark Chapter VI

“Murphy.” The program director mumbled. He was referring to Murphy’s Law, when it can go wrong it will. “We’ve had to wait three stink’in weeks to get a replacement engine. All because someone didn’t think our requisition was completed correctly because he didn’t recognize the funding code numbers. This has really created a SNAFU for me to explain to those at  the home office.”

“I told you we should have just had one of our birds pick one up from the depot in Kansas.” Said the Chief of Maintenance.

“Well its too late now. I sent a truck down to Osan to pick up the engine and bring it here. It should arrive in a couple hours. I want that aircraft flying tonight! Do you hear me! We’ve got good intel that our target is making the trip to Hanoi tonight.” The Director ordered.

The maintenance team worked at a feverish pace. It took some doing but they were able to remove the engine and install the new one in five hours. Given the primitive conditions and lack of proper equipment that was a feat in itself. All that was left was reinstalling the propeller and getting all the plumbing and the rest of the connections hooked up. They were going to run the engine as soon as darkness arrived. There was no time for a test hop to check the engine in flight, the crew would have to do what they could as they could during the mission. Murphy was watching this situation unfold with a smug expression on his face.

The aircrew was awaken by the EC-97’s engine barking to life. First the new engine was idled for several long minutes to warm up. Once the maintenance crew was satisfied it wasn’t going to seize the throttle was advanced and the engine roared. Once at the recommend setting to check pressures and flow rates, the mechanic in the copilot’s seat started to run the propeller through its cycle. All seemed fine until he cycled it into reverse pitch. The engine seemed to shake and buck feeling as if it was going to break free from its mounts. The mechanic quickly returned the lever to neutral but the propeller didn’t move.The whole aircraft shook and the engine protested against the propeller which was now fighting against itself.

ecfly1v2“CUT!” Yelled the Maintenance Chief as he make a cut gesture across his throat.  The mechanic in the copilots seat pulled the mixture control to full lean and the engine shuddered and went silent. The big propeller kept spinning until it couldn’t anymore.

It took the crew another two hours to find the cause, which meant pulling the propeller governor and replacing it with the one from the engine they had removed earlier. “Once we get this thing in the air, I want everything useful off that motor stripped off for spares.” The line chief said point to the old engine.

The next run up proved to be uneventful, so the crew started to close up the cowls and get the aircraft ready for its mission. Off in another area of the small compound the flight crew was also getting ready. Their gear was  packed having been so for weeks. Sitting in the at a large table they were ready for their mission briefing.

“Intel in Japan says that the flight is scheduled to leave at midnight. You’re not going to be able to make it to the normal rondezvous in time so you’re going to have to take a short cut.” The Field Director said.

Everyone of the crew was waiting for the other shoe to drop and it did. “We think we have a route across mainland China that if you can get to this point here, you should be free and clear the rest of the way.” He stated he pointed to a spot on the map.

The Navigator scrutinized the map closely. Then he leaned closer over the map as he reflected back on another previous clandestine mission he had been involved with. He checked the distances between two know radar stations. “We’re going to need to be dragging our propeller tips in the water from here to the coast and not much higher than 100 feet AGL from here to we exit this valley here.” He said.

The Pilot and Copilot just looked at him blankly. The rest of the crew was exchanging looks with each other and groaning in disbelief at what was being suggested. Flying alone into Chinese airspace without the cover of a target to shadow. Madness.

The Field Director broke in. “Our friend here has some experience with this route. We discovered it by accident while watching Chinese cargo planes practicing low level training through that area. We were able to fly all the way into that valley and back undetected. We have since  used it to drop supplies into a operative on the ground. It apparently is a blind spot in their air defense radar. If you can get in, you can fly the rest of the route as though you were one of their aircraft on a night training sortie.”

The Navigator asked. “Last time I was in that neighborhood there was speculation that the radars were being upgraded.”

“Our operative on the ground reported no such activity at or near the sites in the area. You should be fine. You’ll know if they have indeed upgraded as soon as you cross over their coast.” The Field Directer answered.

The crew continued with their preparations for the nights mission. Once everything was planned their attention turned to getting all their gear aboard the Night Lark. The maintenance team had everything ready, including stocking the galley. Which was a surprise to both of the galley rats.  Preflight went smoothly, engine start up did as well. The pilot and copilot took a little extra time doing the engine function checks, finding nothing wrong they taxied into position for take off.  Tonight to ensure their departure was stealthy, all ground and take off clearances were given by signal light. The big Boeing roared down the runway leaving K-13 behind yet again.

Instead of climbing high the EC-97 settled at an altitude of three thousand feet. It was on a west southwesterly course. The navigator was busy taking directional beacon plots from three Korean coastal stations to verify his course and location.  In the back of the aircraft the crew each took turns fixing themselves a quick snack. The two who were assign galley duty made coffee and filled thermoses, delivering one to the flight deck with some sandwiches. The copilot ate his quickly, he needed something other than just coffee in his stomach, it was feeling somewhat nervous tonight.

The pilot poured himself a fresh cup from the just delivered thermos and nibbled on a sandwich as well. The aircraft was on autopilot and he watched the sky ahead and scanned the instruments. They had about 90 minutes before they would be making the attempt to enter China’s airspace unseen.

“Bring your speed up to 300 knots and take a heading of two seven five degrees, standard rate descent down to fifty feet.” Stated the navigator.

“Roger.” Acknowledged the pilot as he switch off the autopilot and took a hold of the yoke and throttles. He didn’t ease the throttles back at first, he let the airspeed build a little in the shallow dive. “Radar Altimeter ON.” He said.

The copilot dutifully switch on the radar altimeter to use as secondary method to check the aircrafts height above the ground. Once it was on the needle kept bouncing ten to twenty feet. “Looks as if the ocean is rather rough tonight.” He said.

“Yeah, I’m feeling a little chop too.” Said the pilot.

The navigator exited his seat and grabbed a flashlight which was mounted on the wall next to his station. He pressed it up against the glass on the pilots side and turned it on making sure it was pointing downward. The bright light dimly illuminated the ocean below. “You can drop her down another twenty and hold her there.” He advised, then returned to his seat and strapped in tightly.

The pilot didn’t hesitate, he let the big Boeing ease down a little lower. “Set the altimeter bug!” He commanded. The copilot moved the little reminder indicator on the altimeter until it matched up with the needle on the gauge. The pilot did the same, using his right hand while concentrating on not letting the needle on the altimeter drop any further.  Fortunately the  Night Lark had been fitted with a very special altimeter, one that was more accurate than the standard one it had been originally equipped with. This one was accurate to plus or minus ten feet above 5o feet. So they didn’t have any fudge room, especially over a rough sea with swells up to fifteen feet.

“Landfall in two minutes. Firewall it now.” The nav said.

The pilot pushed the throttles to their stops. He didn’t worry too much about balancing them because speed was necessary. The Chinese radar would have a harder time pulling them out from the ground clutter even if they had spotted them. The big tail of the EC-97 was like a billboard as it reflected back the radar signal. Speed and course changes were necessary to remain undiscovered as well as avoid obstacles on the ground. The unsynced engines sent vibrations through the aft cabin area. All the crew could do was endure it. Fortunately they were already closely monitoring their equipment.

“Left ten, hold altitude.” The nav said as he followed his course plot on his map. Though it wasn’t there, he knew each turn of the route in his mind. He’d flown it twice before and had practiced it hundreds of times in his mind. His stopwatch was ticking away the seconds. “Right twenty and climb to nine hundred fifty.” He shouted.

The Night Lark’s nose quickly turned and pitched up to pop up to the altitude the nav had given. Both the pilot and copilot were sweating, they didn’t bother to look outside to see what was ahead, they just watched the instruments.  It took another forty minutes, but they had reached the end of the valley they first saw on the map during briefing. “Fly a heading of three zero zero, climb to nine thousand feet, ease back to a cruise speed of one ninety.” Said the nav and all three left out a sigh of relief. They were inside China and no one knew they were anything but a Chinese Air Force cargo plane on a routine flight.

An hour later a high pitched voice on the intercom got everyone’s attention…”WE’VE GOT A MIG OFF OUR LEFT WING!”

To be continued…

I’ve pretty much got the kit buttoned up. I added the flaps and the remaining engine nacelles. Installed the horizontal stabs and touched up the paint as necessary. Now all I need to do is settle on some minimal markings and install a few antennas. Then I’ll shoot it against a couple different backgrounds and work a little photo editing magic to make it look somewhat realistic in flight.

Back to Chapter V


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