Targets of Opportunity (1993)

Targets of Opportunity (1993)
Weber, Joe
Published:
2010

Targets Of Opportunity

Joe Weber

*

Book Cover:

Hailed as "one of America's new thriller stars" by Tom Clancy, author Joe Weber captured national attention with his riveting debut, DEFCON One, a New York Times bestseller. A former Marine Corps pilot, Weber turned firsthand experience into explosive human drama, charged with gripping authenticity.

Now, with Targets of Opportunity, Weber soars to new heights. The Vietnam War has reached a crucial turning point. Marine aviator Brad Austin (introduced in the bestselling Rules of Engagement) is assigned the most dangerous mission of his career. Recruited by the CIA, Austin must master the controls of a North Vietnamese MiG jet-then, stripped of his military identity and disguised as a Russian pilot, fly the MiG behind enem y l ines. If he succeeds, the enemy will be easy prey. If he fails, the U
. S
. government will deny any involvement--and Brad Austin will no longer exist ....

Tense, powerful, and frighteningly real, Targets of Opportunity is a masterwork of military fiction--Joe Weber at his electrifying best.

Chapter
ONE

DA NANG AIR BASE, SOUTH VIETNAM

Brad Austin shoved the throttles forward to military power, then simultaneously released the Phantom's brakes and spoke to the control tower. "Rhino One and Two are on the roll."

"Roger, Rhino. Maintain runway heading and contact departure control when safely airborne."

"Rhino One. "

Rhino was the tactical call sign for the Alert Five Hot Pad marine fighter crews. Responding to any threat, the flight crews were responsible for scrambling into the air within five minutes of an alert.

Pressed back into his ejection seat, Captain Brad Austin scanned his engine gauges and selected afterburner. His feet momentarily lifted from the rudder pedals during the sudden surge of acceleration.

Twin white-hot flames belched from the fighter's jet exhaust as the F-4B Phantom blasted down the runway. The blazing afterburners kicked up spray from the rain-drenched concrete.

Holding the control stick in the full-aft position, Austin watched the runway markers flash by. The nose gear began to extend as the F-4 accelerated past 120 knots. Four seconds later the main tires lifted off the wet runway.

Snapping the gear handle up, Brad tweaked the nose down and raised the flaps as the powerful fighter thundered over the end of the runway.

Passing 300 knots, Austin pulled the throttles out of afterburner and established a normal climb attitude. "Hang on, guys," he said to himself "The first team is on the way."

"Rhino Two closing," Austin's wingman, First Lieutenant Stew Robinett, radioed as he slid into parade formation.

Robinett, who was supposed to begin his takeoff ten seconds after his flight leader, had commenced his roll after waiting only three seconds. The lieutenant had a reputation for expediting his running rendezvous.

"Button Four," Brad ordered, checking his instruments and master caution light. Button Four was a preselected radio frequency for Da Nang Departure Control.

Stew Robinett, following normal procedures, switched frequencies without acknowledging the call.

"Departure," Brad said as the fighters crossed the beach, "Rhino Lead is with you."

"Roger, Rhino One," the controller answered in a staccato manner. "Radar contact. You've got two fast movers at ten o'clock, three miles. They're descending out of one-one-thousand . . . and have you in sight."

Austin quickly searched the sky to his left, then sighted the black exhaust trails behind the inbound Phantoms. "Tally--no factor."

"Rhino One, maintain your present heading and contact Casper Two Seven on Black." Casper Two Seven was a two-seat TA-4F Skyhawk tactical air coordinator.

"Copy, button Black," Austin replied, gazing at the descending F-4s. "Rhinos, switch."

Glancing at Monkey Mountain, Brad keyed his intercom and spoke to his radar-intercept officer. "Randy, keep me honest . . . if we have to scud-run." Scud-running was flying under the low monsoon rain clouds.

First Lieutenant Randy Wyatt, checking Robinett's Phantom for leaking fuel or hydraulic fluid, swiveled his head to the front. "You can bet on it."

After inspecting Austin's F-4, Stew Robinett drifted into a loose combat cruise formation while the fighters clawed for altitude. "Rhino One looks good."

"You, too," Wyatt answered.

"Casper Two Seven, Rhino One is up with two Fox-4s carrying snake and nape." Both aircraft, loaded with Snakeye bombs and napalm, were configured for close air support.

"Copy, Rhino. We'll keep you feet-wet until we have permission to drop."

"Okay," Brad replied evenly in an effort to conceal his contempt for the restrictive rules of engagement.

"Come left to three one zero," the tactical coordinator said with a sense of urgency in his voice. "Anchor on the Quang Tri one zero five for fifteen at base plus three." The F-4s would remain over water east of the navigation aid at Quang Tri.

Surveying the swollen rain clouds, Brad eased the Phantom's nose down. "Roger. What have you got?"

"Stand by. I'm on the other horn."

Brad clicked his mike twice, then looked down as Hai Van Peninsula passed under his left wing. "Well, the Cong is really taking advantage of the monsoon season."

"You got that right," Randy Wyatt replied, shaking his head in resignation. "The bastards are keeping us humping . . . day and night." "Rhino, Casper Two Seven." The voice sounded metallic.

"Rhino," Brad answered, checking his armament panel and engin
e g
auges.

"We've got a recon team trapped in a valley. Their Huey was shot up when they landed, and a second gunship is trying to extract them. The helo pilot is in contact with the recon lieutenant."

"Copy," Austin replied, leveling the flight. "What's the ceiling in the valley?"

"Thumper One Nine," the Skyhawk observer radioed to the marine helicopter crew, "say ceiling."

Brad heard a garbled reply from the low-flying Huey. He also detected the rattling sounds of machine guns. "It sounds like they're in deep shit."

"Yeah," Wyatt cautiously responded. "I hope we're not flying into a setup."

"Rhino, they estimate between five and six hundred feet. It's ragged, with light rain."

Brad studied the coastline, judging the tops of the overcast to be 2,500 feet. He peered down at the flat, greasy-looking sea. "Can we get in?"

"I think so," the coordinator responded in a confident voice. "I've already eyeballed the entrance to the valley, so we'll lead you in for the first run."

."Okay." Brad inched the throttles forward. "We'll be with you in six minutes."

"Roger," the tactical coordinator replied, then explained the urgency of the situation.

The Huey had been hit while the marine reconnaissance team was exiting the helicopter. The pilot had attempted to lift off, but lost control and crash-landed when the tail rotor had been blown off. The recon lieutenant, two of his men, and the helicopter flight crew were injured. Both aviators were in critical condition and needed immediate medical attention.

The gunship pilot was trying to extract the trapped men, but two machine guns were making it impossible for him to approach the landing zone.

The recon lieutenant had reported that the enemy troops were slowly surrounding their position. Every time the gunship stopped firing, the soldiers advanced a few meters closer to the stranded men.

Worse yet, the helicopter was running low on fuel. The tactical coordinator had been in contact with an army helicopter, but the pilot would have to refuel before he could relieve the Huey gunship. The situation was rapidly becoming desperate. Brad and his wingman were the last hope for their fellow marines.

"Casper, Rhino One has you in sight at eleven o'clock. Come starboard and we'll join on the inside."

-Ah . . . roger, we've got you," the backseat observer replied as the Skyhawk banked into a shallow turn. "You're cleared in hot. Out of the turn, we'll lead you up the valley. Call the helo in sight."

"Copy," Brad replied, flipping his master arm to ON. "Dash Two, switches hot, drop in pairs." Each pilot would drop two bombs on the first pass.

"Switches hot," Robinett acknowledged. "What kind of pattern are you going to use?"

Brad glanced at the entrance to the valley. The dark clouds extended across the opening, obscuring everything but the tops of the mountains. Christ, who knows?

"We'll just fly in," Austin radioed as he banked steeply to rendezvous with the Skyhawk. "I'll work on a plan as we go. Drop back in trail--half mile--and keep me in sight."

A long pause followed.

"Brad," Stew Robinett replied as he surveyed the thick cloud cover, "are you sure about this? We're going up rising terrain . . . with a low overcast and poor visibility."

Austin thumbed his mike switch. "We've got stranded marines up there. Keep me in sight."

Robinett slowly exhaled. "We're hanging on."

"Thumper One Nine," the Skyhawk pilot said as he crossed the coastline, "Casper is rolling in with two Fox-4s."

"Bring 'em in!" The gunship's vibrating rotor blades made the pilot sound as if he was beating his chest while he talked. "We're taking heavy fire."

The three airplanes dove, screeching low over the hamlets on the east side of Route One.

"Thumper," the Skyhawk pilot radioed as they passed over the highway, "we're entering the valley. Mark the target with Willie Peter."

"Roger," the Huey pilot responded, turning to fire a white phosphorus rocket at the front line of the advancing enemy soldiers.

The streaking projectile impacted twenty meters in front of the nearest machine gun. Smoke rose through the trees while the Vietnamese retreated several meters.

"Drop your ordnance," the gunship pilot said over the beating rotor blades, "at twelve o'clock for thirty meters. We're clear to your right."

"Roger," Brad acknowledged, "twelve at thirty." This is going to be close.

Seconds later, Austin detected a wisp of rising smoke to his right. "I've got a visual . . . at one o'clock. Dash Two, we'll pull off vertical." "Two," Robinett responded, gulping oxygen.

"Nail 'em," the Skyhawk pilot radioed, pulling straight up into the dark overcast.

Brad let his Phantom drift up to the base of the thick clouds. They would not be able to use their normal bombing approach. He had maintained 450 knots, but there was no way to establish a thirty-degree dive from 600 feet above the ground. Brad and his wingman would have to rely on their pilot's instincts.

"Thumper," Brad said, breathing rapidly, "tell them to get their heads down."

Austin heard the whump-whump from the gunship when the pilot replied. Brad hesitated a moment, calculating his release point. He savagely popped the Phantom's nose down, released the Snakeyes, then snapped the stick back.

"Ohhh ... shit," Randy Wyatt groaned under the g load as their F-4 plunged into the low rain clouds. "This is totally insane . . . I'm telling you.

The Phantom shot out of the clouds at 2,800 feet. Brad pulled the fighter through the top of a loop, let the nose drop below the horizon
,
then rolled the F-4 right side up and leveled off "Dash Two, I'm on top. You'll be out at two point eight."

"We're clear," Robinett responded, observing the tops of the surrounding mountains protruding through the overcast, "and I've got you at twelve."

"Roger," Brad replied, looking for the Skyhawk. "Thumper, call the hits."

"You're both a little long--'bout twenty meters, but you got their attention."

Brad swore to himself before keying his radio. "Okay, we're coming in with napalm . . . one minute apart. Suggest you try to extract them after the first pass."

"Roger that."

"Dash Two copies," Robinett said, selecting his napalm stations. "I'll roll in at sixty seconds."

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