The early spring night was unseasonably warm. By Pitcher’s estimate, the humidity was nearly 100%. Even the slightest movement caused perspiration to bead and trickle. Pitcher’s shirt was soaked through. Streaks of sweat had washed lines in his black face paint. His eyes stung from the salt of the perspiration. A mosquito landed on the back of Pitcher’s neck and began to gorge itself on his blood.
Pitcher pulled a book of matches from his pocket and tore one loose. He slid the paper match into his mouth and began to chew. Although there was no instantaneous effect on the mosquito on the back of his neck, Pitcher knew from years of experience that two or three matches a day kept the mosquitoes away. He’d taught the trick to any number of his fellow soldiers who were unfamiliar with mosquitoes prior to joining the Army. Those who were willing to risk the potential negative effects of the sulfur and other chemicals in the matches rarely suffered from mosquito bites.
In many of the locales where Pitcher and his comrades had worked, the potential damage that might be caused by chewing on matches was far more desirable than the instantaneous annoyance and lasting discomfort of dozens of mosquito bites. An added benefit of the matches was that they had no unnatural odor unlike the DEET spray often issued for missions into mosquito-infested areas.
They could cause a body to produce some unnatural odors … but then, so could MRE’s.
Tucking the matchbook back in his pocket, Pitcher chuckled to himself and then motioned to four of his team members to keep watch while he and Manny Colón began work on the security fence with bolt cutters. Within moments, the four other Rangers were laying down suppressing fire as Chinese soldiers streamed out of the buildings on the far side of the airfield. The fence must have been wired with sensors of some sort.
Interestingly, few of the U.N. assimilator forces seemed interested in engaging in a firefight with the Rangers. Most of them were headed in the opposite direction as they piled out of the structures on the far side of the landing strip.
Out of the corner of his eye, Pitcher noticed a pair of figures burst from one of the buildings. They appeared to be headed for the helicopters. Two of Pitcher’s team members had already redirected their fire at the men headed for the Blackhawks.
“Watch the choppers!” Pitcher shouted.
One of the shooters responded. Pitcher couldn’t hear what he said. Rather than worry about it, Pitcher hacked away at the links in the fence. Manny was working just as fast.
In the back of Pitcher’s mind, the sound of bullets slapping against distant metal registered.
“I told you guys to watch the choppers,” Pitcher yelled as he clipped the last link in the fence opening a hole large enough for himself and his men to slip through.
“You want us to let ‘em fly off, Sarge?” the Ranger who had made the shot through the cargo hold of the Blackhawk responded.
“Pappy wants at least one of them in one piece,” Pitcher responded simply. “You want to be the one to tell him that you disabled one of them?”
“No thanks!” the Ranger chuckled as he ran toward the landing strip in a combat crouch.
As the team scrambled forward, one of the helicopters lifted from the tarmac and spun in the Rangers’ direction.
“He’s coming after us!” Manny shouted a warning.
The Rangers broke their formation and dove for cover. Pitcher picked up on the distinct sound of a Hellfire missile and buried his head in the dirt. Off to his right, a huge explosion assaulted his eardrums and buffeted him with its blast wave.
Pitcher snuck a look in the direction of the blast. One of the helicopters was engulfed in a ball of flame; black smoke obscured the few stars that had previously managed to penetrate the dense atmosphere.
Manny broke radio silence, “I’m headed for the closest chopper.”
“I’m with you,” another voice followed Manny’s over the Rangers’ radios.
The two men were up from their cover and sprinting for the two Blackhawks almost before Pitcher could react.
“Cover and follow,” Pitcher shouted into the mic of his radio.
The remaining members of the Ranger squad fell in behind Pitcher, rifles at the ready.
Manny reached the bird seconds before his fellow Ranger. He scrambled into the pilot’s position while his comms specialist opened the door on the co-pilot’s side. Both men had completed the Army’s helicopter pilot training at Ft. Rucker earlier in their military careers. Before they received permanent duty pilot orders, they were awarded U.S. Army Ranger School slots. Both made the difficult decision to enter Ranger school before becoming experts on one of the Army’s helicopters. They had time in the Army’s helicopter simulators and in the Army’s TH-67 trainers, but neither had ever flown a Blackhawk before.
“She’s a little different from the 67,” Manny shouted over the sound of the engine as it came to life.
His co-pilot simply nodded as he surveyed the instrument panel and looked at the collapsible collective stick between his legs.
The four remaining Rangers piled into the cargo area of the chopper and took up defensive positions. They were no strangers to Blackhawks.
“Buckle up, boys,” Manny yelled back over his shoulder. “This could be a rough ride.”
The four Rangers gave a thumbs-up sign and clipped the chopper’s attachment lanyards to their full body harnesses.
Pitcher could see that the tide had turned outside the helicopters. The U.N. soldiers were headed back in their direction with weapons. It dawned on Pitcher that they must have been making their way to the armory – not running away.
“Get this thing in the air, now!” Pitcher yelled. “We’re about to take incoming.”
Manny briefly poked his right thumb in the air and then gunned the Blackhawk’s twin T700 General Electric engines. The chopper’s composite rotors picked up speed lifting the bird from the ground. The Blackhawk yawed first to the port side and then starboard as Manny and his co-pilot struggled with the twin power control levers.
With far more power than either Manny or his co-pilot had ever experienced and different controls, the chopper spun and bucked like a bull at a rodeo. Pitcher and the three other Rangers in the cargo hold grabbed onto anything they could find to keep from being tossed about.
The chopper’s port side landing gear banged against the ground and then the bird surged with incredible force as Manny powered-up the rotors.
They were airborne!
Bullets smacked the fuselage as Pitcher manned one of the M240 machine guns. He laid down a withering rain of 7.62 mm projectiles until the bird rotated away from the airfield taking away his field of fire. Another Ranger picked up where Pitcher left off, firing the second M240, the tracer rounds guiding his targeting in the black night.
The nose of the bird pitched slightly downward as Manny and his co-pilot accelerated away from Lawson Airfield toward the Chattahoochee Forest.
Pappy would have his whirlybird.