What Scares Thriller Writer Tom Young?
As an Air National Guard flier, my fears have less to do with the enemy than with dread of failure. We have a saying in the military: If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. As an aircrew member, you know your crewmates trust you with their lives. The worst that could happen is to fail your friends.
An aviator’s war is surreal. You don’t hear the booms and cracks of the weapons fired at you. You hear only the chatter of the radios, the calls of your crewmates on interphone, the hiss of electronics. The metal thrown at you appears as a light show, especially on night-vision goggles: The blossoming spurts of anti-aircraft artillery, the stabbing needles of tracer fire, the corkscrewing ember of a shoulder-fired missile. If the lights don’t hit you, they don’t hurt. But they can connect with deadly effect, testing your preparedness, testing whether you deserve the trust of your comrades.
My closest brush with such a test came early in the Iraq war, in May of 2003. We landed our C-130 Hercules well after dark at the Baghdad airport, at that time only recently overtaken by the Third Infantry Division. With our engines still running, the loadmasters opened the cargo ramp and pushed the pallets off the airplane. In those days we flew a lot of ammunition and Meals Ready to Eat.
At the flight engineer’s seat, I consulted charts to check takeoff speed and distance. I managed to drink some water and take a whiff from my oxygen mask, to help keep alert. Before I had a chance to shrug out of my harness and stand up for a moment, the loadmasters said they were ready to go.
Sounded good to me. Other crews had warned over the radio that there was a lot of “activity” that evening. All of us–pilot, copilot, navigator, flight engineer, and two loadmasters–wanted to get off the ground and out of there as quickly as possible. With our lights off, defensive systems armed, night-vision goggles on, we shoved up the throttles and climbed away into a night of war over Iraq.
Just moments after takeoff, in the time it takes your heart to beat once, three things happened: A brilliant flash erupted outside the cockpit, and it washed out our night-vision goggles. The missile-warning tones screeched in our helmets. And the pilot whipped the aircraft into a steep bank.
Now we were momentarily blinded and pulling Gs. And I expected a fireball.
None came. I checked instruments: good power from all engines, good oil pressures, no fire warnings.
Insurgents had shot a heat-seeker at us, probably an SA-7 or something similar. The flash was our anti-missile flares ejecting automatically. From my seat, I never saw the missile. But the copilot saw it, and one of the loadmasters also said he saw it in the instant before the flares punched. Both thought the warhead missed us by about three hundred feet. At the speeds of airplanes and missiles, that’s way too close.
In near silence, we flew back to our base at Masirah Island, Oman. Other than checklist responses, no one had much to say. We were all trying to get our minds around the idea that someone had just tried to kill us.
And all of us, I’m sure, were thinking about what might have happened, and how we all needed to stay on top of our game. This time, at least, we’d met the challenge. The pilots had flown the right defensive maneuver. The navigator had operated the defensive systems correctly. I had checked gauges immediately for signs of battle damage.
But what if things had gone worse? What if that missile had detonated against the side of the aircraft? If we’d had to crash land, would I have responded properly? Would I have known what I should have known, done what I should have done? For the rest of that deployment, I spent part of every day studying the flight manual, especially emergency procedures.
In 2008 I published an oral history of my unit’s missions. In writing The Speed of Heat: An Airlift Wing at War in Iraq and Afghanistan, I interviewed about seventy of my squadron mates. To a man (and woman) they said their worst combat fear was of letting someone else get hurt.
My 2010 novel, The Mullah’s Storm, delved into those fears. The main character, Major Michael Parson, struggles with his choices after he must leave his downed crewmates and set off on a trek through the Afghan mountains with a Taliban prisoner and an Army interpreter. Parson has appeared in other novels since then. In each mission, Parson worries about doing right by those who depend on him. He has no great desire to sacrifice himself, but like nearly all real-life military people, death runs a distant second in his fears. What scares him the most is to let down his friends.
Editor’s note: Tom Young is the author of the military thrillers The Mullah’s Storm and Silent Enemy. Young is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. His newest novel, The Renegades, will be released July 19th, 2012. You can learn more about Tom by visiting his website.