To Cradle A Brother

by Paul V. Tomascik

COPA / Canadian Flight

The fighter plane bristled with ordnance. Nose high, wheels down; it slid in front of the ultralight. Flying slowly, the heavy jet spewed its black exhaust into spiraling swirls. Instinctively, the pilot of the smaller aircraft, a Challenger II, climbed to avoid the wake turbulence, knowing that the menacing vortices would break away and drift downward.

Too late, the ultralight's 30-foot wingspan was grabbed by some violent air which flicked the Challenger into a barrel roll before its pilot could react. Remarkably, the fabric, tube and gusset airframe held together with no apparent structural damage. Regardless, the pilot throttled back and turned towards home as a precautionary measure.

The Challenger pilot's head was now on a swivel looking for the bogey that had threatened his life. Visibly shaken, he double-checked his location. Was he violating restricted military airspace or was this a case of a near miss? Although convinced that he was flying in friendly skies, he nevertheless radioed flight service about the incident and queried the specialist about any other traffic. None was reported.

He was angry. He would file a complaint when he landed. Composing the words in his mind, a shadow fleetingly wiped across his cockpit. The jet fighter breached his flight path again. This time it broke away to the right in a descending spiral. The Challenger pilot followed the jet with his eyes as it came around for another pass. Was he being intercepted? He tried to hail the fighter on several radio frequencies without success.

The military pilot was now aware of the detrimental effects of his wingtip vortices on the Challenger and was careful to maneuver his plane without disturbing the ultralight. The fully loaded fighter plane could not match the airspeed of the small plane. Their respective speed ranges did not overlap making it impossible to fly in formation. Even at full throttle, the Challenger could not reach the fighter's stall speed. But the jet persisted.

The ultralight pilot elected to follow the fighter after its third pass. The jet headed for a clearing in the forest, rocking its wings as it passed over it. It would take the ultralight another few minutes to get there.

Approaching the clearing, the pilot of the light plane could see thick black smoke rising above the trees. Was he being led to a crash site? He could see the fighter circling in a wide arc. Reducing power and then reaching for the flaperon crank, the Challenger pilot extended his combination ailerons and flaps to slow his ship down. Heading into a moderate headwind, he flew alongside the clearing, avoiding the heavy smoke and putting the Challenger into a near hover. His gut tightened.

As if in a slow motion newsreel he was viewing a burning wreck with its aviator still strapped in it. The fighter pilot was slumped over as if looking into his lap. Oddly, his helmet lay on the ground. The warplane, or what was left of it, was similar to the intercepting escort.

The cockpit was intact but the pilot was motionless. Was he unconscious or dead? He must have succumbed to the impact but not before opening the canopy and removing his helmet. Why didn't he eject? If he was alive, how serious were his injuries? And there was another problem.

The plane was on fire. The empennage was disintegrated and the left wing was covered with boiling flames. The right wing had broken off and by the look of it the plane had been heavily laden with weapons and fuel.

The Challenger's nose dropped gently producing a momentary negative-g in the pilot's stomach. He was so busy surveying the carnage that he had allowed the ultralight to stall. He quickly recovered, noticing the flying interceptor in his peripheral vision.

He realized that with all the firepower, horsepower and raw speed at the fighter pilot's disposal, the man was helpless in rendering aid to his fallen comrade. That military pilot was looking to him, a fellow aviator in the most basic of aircraft to assist in a rescue. A mayday was most likely sent but there was no sign of imminent help. The ultralight pilot had to act quickly. The downed pilot would soon be consumed by fire.

He surveyed the scene one more time taking stock of his landing options. The clearing looked like a tiny natural meadow surrounded by trees. There was enough landing space for his Challenger but unfortunately the ground was covered by a debris trail. The wrecked plane had taken out some treetops at the edge of the clearing. Its pilot was probably trying to slow himself up before touching down in the confined area. Despite this effort, his speed after impact carried him to the far edge of the field.

The Challenger would have only one kick at the can. The pilot knew he wouldn't be able to fly back out. A steep approach would be needed to clear the trees. The runway to be was scattered with airplane parts. A slight crosswind would keep the smoke out of his face on the final approach but he'd have to slip the plane in.

Once down, he'd get to the fallen pilot and drag him free of the wreckage before it exploded or fire engulfed the fuselage. One last look for a search and rescue helicopter proved fruitless. It was now or never.

Tightening his harness, he circled around in a close circuit to quickly line up for his final approach. Despite the cool temperature, he was soaked in sweat. Deploying the flaperons and cross-controlling his aileron and rudder inputs, he heeled the plane well over into the crosswind. The doors buffeted noisily as the Challenger slid sideways on its steep glide path.

The plane seemed to drop almost vertically as he passed by the treetops. Straightening out with a healthy application of rudder, the pilot was prepared for the wind shear effect as he entered calm air in the sheltered meadow. A perfectly timed application of backpressure on the stick created an angle of attack just right to arrest the descent and make a three-point landing. Unfortunately his landing roll was not as smooth.

The tall grass concealed a lot of mangled parts that the fallen jet had left in its path of destruction. Almost immediately, the Challenger struck some unrecognizable hardware, shearing off the left gear leg, sending the whole assembly bouncing through the wing. The plane groundlooped to the left and slid sideways for another twenty feet, forcing the right landing gear to tear through the plane's belly.

His beautifulr aircraft was now a mess. But thanks to the low touch-down speed and the roll-cage-like protection of the cabin, the pilot was unscathed. His trusty Challenger's short field landing capability had got him into a spot where only a chopper could land.

There was no time to waste. He kicked out the door to his plane. Running towards the disabled pilot, he repeatedly fell over jagged metal, shredding his pants and cutting his hands. The fighter's remains were more grotesque up close with huge flames licking at the crew compartment and choking smoke billowing skyward.

He couldn't reach the pilot. There was no foothold on the fuselage and the metal was hot. He leapt for the cockpit and pulled himself over and into it. The injured pilot was unresponsive but breathing. One arm looked broken. The harness was undone, clear evidence that the pilot was conscious for a while after the plane came to rest and that he had tried to extricate himself.

The ultralight pilot's heart was pumping rapidly. The heat was so intense that the hair from his arms was turning white and starting to curl. He worked furiously to disentangle the wounded man, planning to drop him gently to the ground and hoping that he wouldn't aggravate his injuries further. The burning wing exploded.

The orbiting jet stood on a wing for a closer look. The downed fighter erupted into a swelling fireball with such force that the shock wave collapsed surrounding trees. It appeared that everything within a thousand feet would be incinerated. But something was out of place.

On the upwind edge of the clearing was a hunchback-like figure stumbling to safety. It was the Challenger pilot carrying the injured airman.

By this time a helicopter came into view, its rotor wash beating down the grass. The undulating meadow surrounded the rag and tube aviator cradling his fellow flyer. The fighter escort screamed past, a savage bird, and rolled in obvious glee.

Exhausted, the ultralight pilot looked over to his own avian mount at the far end of the field. The Challenger appeared to struggle in defiance of its injuries.

It raised a mangled wing in the buffeting wind, a salute to its owner's valour.

Webmaster's Words: Well, dear reader, Paul got you again! Like "Ice Floe Rescue" this too is a work of fiction!

Paul is continuing to acquire and assemble his Challenger in sub-kits - hopefully he won't have to sacrifice C-IPVT to effect any dramatic rescues!

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