This is the third short story set in the Fighter Ops sim.
Monday afternoon, 1445 local time
The twenty-vehicle convoy was naturally causing a traffic jam and it was only the rear-facing machine gun on the last Fahd APC in the group that kept the Omanis stuck behind it from doing anything other than beep their horns. It wasn’t like they could overtake on a single-lane highway.
The mountainous Musandam peninsula, the northern tip of Oman that faced onto the Straits of Hormuz, has always been a difficult place to get to. There are only the two roads (one from Muscat in the main part of Oman and the other from the UAE), the ferry or the small airport, shared with the military.
The latter was the purpose of this convoy. The strategic location of the airport meant that it was going to be a prime target for Iranian attack. Although the GCC were not planning to base anything more than a few helicopters there, for search and rescue purposes, reinforcing the base’s defences was a high priority – as well as putting artillery in place to assist in the clearing of the Straits. Quite why they were doing this today, when they could have done it yesterday, was a mystery. The drive had certainly taken a while, but they could have been flown in. Someone was being very incompetent here.
In the fifth vehicle in the convoy, a British-made Challenger 2 tank, Rafiq sat in his loader’s seat and continued to read an Arabic romance novel that he’d picked up on a market stall in Muscat. It was about as racy as you could get away with Oman, which wasn’t all that much on a relative scale, but it passed the time and distracted him from the heat… The air conditioning in the tank had gone an hour ago and they didn’t have the time to fix it until they got to the airstrip.
Rafiq was still ultimately a large child, having turned 19 the previous month. He’d followed his father and grandfather into the Royal Omani Army, but while his grandfather had been involved in the Dhofar conflict, his father had never seen action. Now it appeared possible that Rafiq was going to be fighting fellow Muslims, rather than the Communist guerrillas his grandfather faced. This didn’t concern him all that much… he knew Iran wasn’t a very nice place.
Still… he didn’t want to die. His Challenger 2 was safe from most enemy fire, but they only had to be lucky once – or carry a big enough weapon to render the Chobham armour moot. He was trying not to think about that.
The convoy continued moving at around 30 miles an hour down the road. They would be at their destination in about two hours. Until then, Rafiq had little to do, but read and sweat. The book was keeping the worry away – for the time being.
As the convoy arrived through the service gates at Khasab, Rafiq could see a twin-engine airliner powering up in the parking area. Some of the European ex-pats in Khasab and the surrounding area were being evacuated back to their home countries on a passenger liner that had been chartered specially for the occasion – this airport did not get a huge number of commercial flights.
They got closer and he could see this was some low-rent charter airline that charged you to guarantee a specific seat. He was also aware, from some distant news story that he’d read, that this particular airline had maintenance and safety issues, so was consequently banned from European Union air space. Still any port in a storm…
Those were words that he would come to regret in twenty minutes.
The convoy halted outside the terminal building.
“Everyone dismount!” the Colonel yelled as he clambered out of his command vehicle, getting out even before the engine had been switched off. Others began to follow, their officers and NCOs directly them to their positions.
Except for Rafiq and his tank. A terse radio command that he didn’t hear gave instructions to the tank’s commander and he relayed those (which he did hear) to the driver. They were ordered to take up a spot at the southern end of the runway and then entrench themselves; which would make them hull down.
It was also going to mean a lot of hard work for the crew in sticky conditions – the temperature had reached 40 degrees today and the heat was lingering. He was used to the temperature, but hot sweaty work like that was never fun.
Rafiq looked at his watch – 1526. Little did he know that the first shots of the war had already been fired. Following that, he clambered out of the tank and took a proffered ‘entrenching tool’, which was really a glorified shovel.
He started to dig, dry desert dirt flying behind him into a pile. This was going to take a while, but he needed to do it. He turned to the tank’s gunner and they started to chat about nothing in particular. In fact, the subject was football.
Suddenly, the tank commander heard his personal radio crackling. He pressed the talk button and acknowledged the call. It was 1536, although he wasn’t actually looking at his watch at this point.
As he listened to the call sent to the entire local net, his face turned ashen.
“Acknowledged. Over and out”.
He turned to the others.
“The shooting’s started and we can expect inbound missiles within minutes. When the klaxon goes, I want everyone back in the tank. Is that clear?”
There was a chorus of nods and acknowledgements from the tank crew as they tried to take that in. They’d been expecting something, but the air of unreality when these things actually occur still hit them hard. Rafiq said nothing further and continued to dig.
As he dug, he saw the aircraft begin to taxi from its parking spot, heading for the runway. As it could not go north, which would take it too close to Iran, it was taking off to the south, which was surrounded by raised brown hilly terrain. In addition, the climb would be bit steeper and corkscrew-like – just in case someone was hiding with a surface to air missile that wasn’t Omani – known as the Baghdad Airport Drill by some.
They would get a great view as it took off. Once the jet reached the end of the runway, there was a brief pause – the cockpit voice recorder showed that there was some question over whether to go for the take-off. Thirty seconds later though, the aircraft began to move forward, racing down the runway as it built up speed. Three-quarters of the way down, now fully committed, the pilot pulled back on the stick and it began to rise off the runway.
It quickly became clear that things were going very wrong indeed. The aircraft began to lose height just after it cleared the end of the runway and was clearly not going to be able to recover. Rafiq watched horrified as the inevitable began to occur; he’d only seen plane crashes on TV or in the cinema before now… and many of those had been fake ones.
He saw the plane try to turn to avoid hitting the mountain in front of it and go into the flatter valley to the side… but the engines had now gone and what the pilot could do was limited. It finally hit the terrain on the east side of the mountain, erupting in a ball of fire.
Just more casualties of war, he thought, then raced for his vehicle to try and save some lives.