"Oh, five, black," the radio crackled, "position report..."
"Reception's shit tonight," Mladshiy Schpagin, commented. "Ah, oh, five, black, level 270, bearing 120 magnetic, Red Control... Red Control? Damn!"
"What's the matter, Schpagin?" Starskiy Borodin asked from the front cockpit, known in AV-MF parlance as 'the office.'
"I keep losing the signal, sir," he replied.
"Atmospherics?" suggested Leytenant Yung in the second seat.
"Americans!" replied the chief.
"Try switching channels? My guess it will clear then start to break up again."
"They will need to be close to do that?" Yung said.
"Boys?" Borodin spoke into the intercom, "are you detecting any aircraft in our operational area?"
"Ah, not sure, sir," the reply came after a pause.
"Well, sir, we had a suspicious contact but we, ah, lost it, sir."
"Ok, last known?"
"East 20, approximate level 290... that was 6 minutes ago, sir."
"Mischa, you telling me you detected a close contact 6 minutes ago and thought not to inform the captain?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but we weren't sure. It was fleeting, sir, and thought it might've been a ghost of some kind."
"We're having radio interferrence, you?"
"IR and MAD working normally. ELINT reciever, ok, but the FLAR is behaving, well, inconsistantly."
Borodin sighed. "Micha, how is our radar working 'inconsistantly?"
"Ghosts, snowing, some flecking. I'm not sure what's causing it. Maybe the weather?"
"And maybe the Americans are jamming us, Mischa? One of your 'ghosts' might be an EC-135?"
"Yes, we thought of that. Feodor thinks he might be able to burn through?"
"Let me know the second you establish any contact. I want to know exactly where this American is, if he's out there?"
"Sir?" Yung asked, concerned, "don't you think we should switch on the lights?"
"Why? If the Americans want to play games, maybe they should switch on their's?
"Precautions, sir," Yung insisted, "if there's an aircraft in our operational area..."
"Then they should reveal themselves to us.
Tupolev Tu-142M2 '05 black, ' continued on out into the Sea of Japan - its crew straining at the aircraft's screens to establish the whereabouts of this suspected American spyplane. It was second pilot Leytenant Yung who brought the attention of Starshiy Borodin to the worsening weather.
"Winds increasing... cloudbase falling down to eight zero..."
"Schpagin? I need a weather report?" he asked his navigator in the rear seat.
"Still can't get through, sir," he replied.
"Right," Borodin said, frustrated, "it looks clearer to the south," he continued to his second, "I think if we turn to 180 we may skirt around it?"
"The American?" cautioned Yung.
"Mischa? What was the last known position of the ghost?"
"To the north, sir..."
"See? He's heading north, Yung. Increase speed to 400 knots, let's outrun it?"
"Sir?" queried the Mladshiy.
"400 and let's take it up to, say, level 320?"
"Sir? I recommend maintaining course and speed until we have our search radar working properly?"
"And what if it doesn't?"
"Then we must turn back and abort the operation."
Borodin was silent for a moment as he considered the advice. Yung wasn't a man who could easily be ignored, but he was somewhat over cautious, in his view.
"Yung? What if we were at war with the Americans?"
"And we were on an important operation that may prevent a strike against our fleet?"
"Sir? I hardly think..."
"Would you recommend turning back and risking the lives of our sailors?"
"Well, ah, no, I probably wouldn't."
"Then we must treat these operations as if there's an emergency situation. That is the point of all our training."
"Well, I suppose..." Yung replied, unconvinced, "but if there's a possibility of another aircraft nearby, surely the prudent course..."
"Prudence doesn't win battles. Boldness! That's what allows us to succeed."
"Well, we should turn on our anti-collision lights..."
"As I said before, let the Americans turn on theirs."
"Sir? If that's your decision, may my recommendations be noted?"
"Noted, Yung, now let's turn, shall we?"
The Tu-142M2 vibrated noticably as the four, huge, Ivchenko turboprops wound up to full power. Borodin banked the aircraft to the right, then pulled back on the column. The pilots felt themselves being pressed down as the big plane ascended.
"290," Yung informed the captain, "295..."
Suddenly, the aircraft shuddered violently.
"What the... ?" Borodin said in surprise.
"Sir?" Yung said loudly, "that felt like a wash."
"It did!" Borodin looked back at him in shock.
"Starshiy?" Mischa shouted from the 'back room.' "He's right above us!"
"I'm trying, I'm trying!"
"Cut engines, cut engines..."
Yung grabbed all four throttle controls and slammed them back. Cutting the autopilot, Borodin pushed the control column right forward. Fearfully, both pilots stared out through the windows into the dark night.
It appeared to be a lifetime before the aircraft responded to the controls. The enormous engines and their eight, contra-rotating propellers slowly, ever so slowly, began to whine down - the characteristic snarl of the props decreasing in volume.
Borodin saw it profiled against the last glimmer of evening. He saw the high tail and the wings with four podded jet engines hanging below. He remembered thinking it must be an EC-135 out of Kadena, perhaps observing the Soviet response to the combined fleet exercises off the coast of Japan. He remembered thinking they'd be just in time and they'd sweep underneath the American - just a near miss to go into the record books.
He remembered glancing at Yung's face - his brass coloured features now the colour of snow - eyes wide and full of terror.
Then there was the gut churning jolt, which seemed to whip through the long fusilage. He heard on his intercom a babble of voices - warnings, shouts of panic, and of questions. Yung seemed to be shouting, but he couldn't make out a word.
A wave of calm then overcame him. 'Okay, ' he said to himself, 'that is the situation, now let's see what we can do?'
"How are we?" he asked of his second officer.
Yung responded professionally. The captain's reassurance bringing the Siberian back to his senses. "Rolling left," he said, "the wing?"
"Lateral control?" Borodin said to himself. He worked the pedals with his feet and found no resonse. "Rudder's jammed," he informed Yung, "or we've lost the fin?"
"Still rolling... stick right, stick right..."
"I need some help, here," Borodin said, "get the wing down."
"Port outer gone," Yung said, "port inner vibrating badly, starboard engines on idle."
"Give me power. Starboard spoilers? Try them and see if she'll stop rolling?"
"Sir?" came Mischa's voice from the back room. It was strained with panic. "Sir? We've, ah, lost half of the port wing. I can see it. And the outer engine... it's not there!"
Borodin looked at Yung and saw he'd recieved the information. They both understood the ship was doomed. Even if they could level it out, it would be impossible to land.
"Mischa, blow the hatch and get everybody out. You, too, Schpagin, get out!"
"Mayday's sent, sir!"
"Good, now get out!"
The two pilots fixed their face masks before there was a loud bang from behind them. The air screamed, tearing the clipboard from its hook and launching it rearwards. The boys in the back room will be tumbling out their escape hatch, Borodin thought, legs tucked, forward roll, then out into the freezing night air.
The plane lurched to the left as its wounded wing failed to provide enough lift. Borodin managed to compensate, only to see the plane begin to roll to starboard. Soon the damaged aircraft will stall completely and start to tumble. They must get out before that happens or risk being struck by the wildly careering wreck as they ejected.
In front of him, through the mist, a dozen warning lights screamed at him. 'Explosive decompression, extreme fuel loss port wing tank, falling hydraulic pressure, stall warning' - this system failing and that - and the master warning telling him there was a critical emergency.
The two pilots looked at each other - Yung looking comical in his mask. Borodin nodded urgently and his co pilot shot him an enquiring look. Suddenly, Yung yanked the D ring above his head and the hatch above blew out with the crack of the explosive bolts assailing their ears.
Then Yung was gone - shot upwards with the force of a small explosion - leaving a swirling mass of escaping gas in his place.
The nose of the Tupolev began to sink - the amber stall warning now flashing red. Soon the aircraft must go into an uncontrollable dive, perhaps tumbling end over end. Borodin must eject now before the plane's plunge made it too risky.
He began to think he might still be able to save his ship. Perhaps there's something he hasn't tried? Most of all he didn't want to leave, to let go of the plane and allow it to die.
Common sense reasserted itself. With a heavy heart, he pulled the D ring then...
... woke up to the searing cold wind. Despite being bundled up in his coverall and immersion suit, it still stung his body causing him to become alert, to remember his training. Quickly, he punched the release on his chest and felt the seat drift away from his body. Below him swung his survival pack and one man inflatable on a three metre length of sturdy nylon cord. He'd little idea how far below was the chill water of the Northern Sea of Japan, but, nevertheless, he braced himself for the sudden shock of the cold.
He looked around with the limited vision available from his goggles. He hoped to have one last glimpse of 05 Black as she entered the last throes of her death. Sadly, even that small mercy was denied. There was nothing but the empty blackness punctuated by the needle sharp rain.
This was it, he thought, the last time he'd be flying, the last time he'd be commanding an aircraft. Military justice was ruthless on its commanders who lost their ship. The committee of enquiry will no doubt cite several serious breaches of operational procedure. But these chairborne Admirals had little idea how things were out here on the cutting edge of the Cold War. They didn't see that sometimes one has to ditch the rulebook to achieve greater objectives.
How do they think intelligence is gathered? Do they imagine the Americans and their NATO allies hand it over to them? Have they any understanding of the risks involved? He'd collided with another aircraft, while disregarding the most basic of precautions, but will the tribunal understand? Not a chance! Borodin turned this over in his mind as he drifted down to the cold water.
What of the six others of the crew, he next thought? He hoped they made it to the water unscathed. They were his responsibility, along with the ship, and he didn't want to have to write to their families.
Of the American aircraft he felt little. The EC-135 was operating closer to Soviet airspace than was usual for the last 18 months. The preflight briefing at Vladivostok had emphasised this point. 'American aircraft have not been seen within 50 kilometres of the Eastern Air Defence Area. We believe they now have a very powerful Side Looking Airborne Radar that doesn't require them to be in too close.'
What was the American doing so near the border, he thought? They know the normal corridor the AV-MF use for operations out of Vladivostok. How dare they flout conventions? And that interruption to our communications and radar was flagrantly irresponsible!
He was below the cloud base, now, and Borodin could faintly see the whitecaps. The wind was rising and he thought he'd have a hard time getting into the liferaft. He'd trained and trained for this, however, and was confident he could do it with his eyes shut.
Shortly, the line below went slack. He hit the water a lot harder than he expected and it felt like an electric shock. He allowed himself to sink - confident the lifejacket would shortly inflate and send him shooting to the surface.
He rose with water trapped behind his goggles - stinging his eyes. Wrenching it free, he tugged desperately on the umbilical that connected him to survival. Relieved, his faced bumped against the synthetic wall of the inflatable. Hooking his foot into the legrope attached to the side, he rolled up and into his salvation. Quickly, he attached the fly and clipped it up. Zipping the door into place, he took a moment to catch his breath before continuing on with the routine.
Around the inner wall water should be packed in flexible plastic containers. There ought to be a flashlight, flares, ration pack, spare battery and emergency radio. Borodin checked each item in turn, hooking the flashlight to the roof with a clip placed there for that purpose. Around the leg of his coverall was the emergency first aid kit, accessible through a double flap in his immersion suit. A knife was strapped to his outer right thigh and an automatic pistol under his left arm. All these items were supposed to enable him to survive for two days, the maximum predicted time a Soviet airman was expected to remain in the water before rescue.
Only after Borodin had completed the routine did he start to relax. There was now nothing to do but wait till morning when he expected the sky to be filled with rescue choppers.
He became aware of the strong, sickly-sweet stench of aviation kerosine. He can't be too far from where the Tupolev hit the water. That was all to the good, he reasoned, for that would clearly be where his rescuers would first look. Already, his locator beacon would be chirping out its pulse. Borodin was confident he would spend no more than one night in the drink.
The sea was rising and the little inflatable was starting to bob wildly about. In an emergency, two crew could squeeze into it, providing they were not oversized. With the fly sealed, it should be safe in the most severe of storms - even capsized, it would have plenty of bouyancy.