Matt Gannon looked down the line at his SEAL companions, assembled in jump order on the starboard side of the C-130. Each of the other seven men in the team exhaled a foggy vapor that dissipated in the reaches of the red-lit interior of the aircraft. The CIA field agent rested his arms and upper body against the bulky equipment bag which was strapped to his body, along with an MC-5 parachute. Despite the heaters running at full, the interior of the compartment was chilly. The arctic winds outside the aircraft were undiminished as they swept down from the old USSR across Uzbekistan. The icy air from the steppes of Siberia whistled through unbroken strings of desolate, rocky peaks, stretching frozen tentacles 150 miles southward toward Kabul.
The team all sat on the starboard side of a US Air Force MC-130H Combat Talon II on flipped-down aluminum framed seats. Their aircraft was on loan from the Sixteenth Special Operations Wing, home based at Eglin in Florida. It was on temporary assignment to the Ninth Special Operations “Night Wings” Squadron. The hand-picked crew had been flying combat support missions out of the Dalbandin airbase in Pakistan for five months and would rotate home in another four weeks. The missions of the squadron—recon, remote resupply or clandestine insertions for the most part—ranged over the east and northern reaches of Afghanistan.
The men of the team were a tight knit group, aware but dismissive of their own mortality, who trained and worked as an exclusive unit. The members were a strong fellowship, their bond more akin to blood-brotherhood than most biological families. They appeared relaxed as the vibrating transport bore into the black sky. The spongy yellow earplugs proffered by the crew chief at takeoff diminished the din, but even, so the men of Alpha team had retreated from banter as they had taxied out, acknowledging their defeat to the engines. Now they just sat quietly, each man with his own thoughts amid the noisy roar of the four 4,910 horsepower turbine engines hurtling them forward into the predawn darkness. A few of the team appeared withdrawn and almost introspective, absorbed, as they bounced through another patch of turbulent air. Nonetheless, and despite outward appearances, all of them were at full alert—focused on the operation, anticipating the danger of a difficult night jump and what lay beyond.
Matt glanced at his watch. He considered their position, overlaying it on a mental image of the missions profile map. The plan called for the SEAL team to be in position on the western side of the target village before the sun touched the highest peak behind the mountain settlement. Gannon was to perform as a rifleman to augment the firepower of the team for this mission. In addition to the semi-automatic M4A1 rifle, Matt carried his personal 9mm Browning Hi-Power Standard, which he wore in a soft calfskin holster clipped to the inside of his trousers at the center of his back. Only the butt, which held the thirteen round magazine, and part of the trigger guard were exposed above his belt. He calculated they were about twenty minutes or so from the DZ.
At 250 mph and a little over five and a half miles above sea level, the bulbous-nosed Hercules thundered from the southwestern skies of Pakistan. Just a few moments ago, it had made a subtle course change. The plane no longer paralleled the Afghani border. The aircraft had crossed an imaginary border line and was now flying into the stark beauty of the isolated mountain province of Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan.
A change in the pitch of the Allison T56-A-15 turboprops announced that the engines were being throttled back in preparation for a lower parachute speed. Matt recalculated. The headwinds must have diminished, he thought. The shrill ring of the jump bell declared proximity to the drop point. Each of the men fumbled to fasten his personal oxygen mask in place, anticipating depressurization of the cargo compartment. In mere moments, the whine of twin hydraulic-electric motors which controlled the rear ramp of the Combat Talon II drew all eyes to the aft section of the aircraft. The motors pushed the overhead upward, creating a maw-like opening across the tail of the plane. As the ramp eased open, it exposed a cold, forbidding void, an inky-black alien world. At 30,000 feet, the wind whistled at a temperature well below zero. The chill refrigerated the interior of the aircraft instantly as the dimly lit space glowed against the fathomless black sky.
The jump warning light flashed on and burned with a steady red light.
The team leader, Navy Lieutenant Calvin Watts, a twenty-nine-year-old Academy graduate and four-year SEAL veteran, rose and turned to face his men. He extended his arms outward and moved them in a rising motion while he mouthed the words, “Stand up.” The men stood, turned, and waddled toward the rear of the plane to form parallel lines, port and starboard, along the outboard edges of the ramp. Their equipment bags, slung securely between their legs, rendered them penguin like in their movement. They stood humped over, clumsy under their packs, gear, and parachute harnesses. Unexpectedly, the Hercules bucked on a sudden mountain updraft and staggered the awkward balance of the jumpers, who had to steady themselves against the framing of the cargo compartment and seats.
Watts tugged in exaggerated fashion at the chute, straps, and gear strapped to his body, and the others mimicked his actions for one final check. Sucking on the cold, bottled oxygen, each jumper took a last visual inspection of the gear of the man next to him. Each man was pumped, ready to go, one eye on the jump light anticipating the switch from red to green, the other on the black void into which he would leap. High Altitude, Low Opening, or HALO jumps as they are known, although routine for a SEAL team, were always dangerous due to the lengthy free fall time. Night free fall jumps were even more hairy—even when jumping from a static line, where there was an interval between jumpers. This jump would be dicier, due to the terrain and variant mountain canyon winds, and the fact that it was a group free fall leap into darkness amid immense mountains.
The crew chief of the C-130 pointed to the jump light, which flickered red, and then to his watch. He extended one finger and then pointed to the completely opened rear of the aircraft. They were less than a minute out.
Shaukat Pashwar-Khan, one of the three Pakistani air traffic controllers on the eleven-to-seven graveyard shift at the Islamabad International Airport civilian tower, yawned and looked at the clock on the drab-tinted wall. The time was 0242 hours. He yawned again, squinted, and rubbed his eyes with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand. As he swiveled back into a more relaxed position at the air traffic control console, he drew his forefinger across his well-manicured, jet-black mustache.
Despite the altitude and chill of the April night, the closeness in the cramped operational area of the control tower amplified the odor of human sweat and sour clothes. The smell overwhelmingly permeated the equipment-laden space. A blue haze of tobacco smoke filled the confined air. The smells mixed with odors of hot electrical wiring and stale, burnt tobacco which rose from the remnants of long-extinguished cigarettes. The butts spilled over the several ashtrays scattered about the observation and radar deck of the tower. A delicate white-gray residue dangled from the end of Shaukat’s Player Gold Leaf cigarette. He ignored the ash as it fell from between his nicotine-stained fingers and onto the radar console faceplate. The faded gray-green circular screen mounted at his station was blank, except for the searching linear pulse of the radar which rotated over the display. Like the laser saber of a Star Wars Jedi Knight, Shaukat romanticized. The movie was fresh in his mind. He was a Star Wars fan, and earlier in the day he had taken his son, Radni, to see Episode I, The Phantom Menace.
These rotations through the dog-hours shifts were almost always dull and tedious. Shaukat was bored.
A single bright blip, an echo, drifted onto the lower left quadrant of the screen. The green dot tracked against the terminal’s background from the southwest and moved closer to the center of the screen in a general east-northeast direction, parallel to the Pakistan-Afghani border. The dot, with a military transponder code, captured the controller’s avid attention. When he mentally back-tracked the radar return southward, Shaukat surmised the origin of the aircraft as Dalbandin.
Dalbandin was an infrequent adjunct port of call to the Pakistan Air Force Base at Samungli, located at Quetta. Constructed by the British in the 1930s, the airfield was operated by them at an early stage of World War II, and since the mid-1960s had fallen into disuse. The base had deteriorated and remained dormant until the Americans had come in ever-increasing numbers. Now, once again, Samungli was very active. Shaukat knew the base as one of three provided by the Pakistani government to allied forces for the support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The other two bases—at Pasni, on the coast of the Arabian Sea, and Shamsi, in the Kharan district—were used mostly for American helicopter operations, and didn’t fit the flight profile for larger fixed wing aircraft such as the C-130s or more modern military transport jets.
Yes, he launched from Dalbandin, Shaukat Pashwar-Khan decided. He glanced at his watch. An hour ago, perhaps more.
The air traffic controller watched the blip move across the faded luminescent screen and puzzled at the course of the aircraft.
This is strange, indeed, even for the Americans, he thought.
He perched forward in his chair and punched at the push-to-send button on his radio headset to call the flight, but then stopped to reconsider. Stroking the transmit key with a thick thumb, Shaukat contemplated the implications of several scenarios that twisted through his mind. The Pakistani military air traffic controllers at Rawalpindi, the Pakistani Air Force Base on the other side of the civilian terminal’s main runways, would have the flight on their monitors as well. They were no doubt in contact with it. Would it not irritate the Pakistani Air Force for Shaukat, at a civilian facility, to question an obviously sensitive military flight?
The controller tightened his jaws and worried a betel nut between his gums and cheek, the red juice of the mild narcotic mixing with his saliva, staining his teeth and mouth.
Arrogant giaou, shit-eating Americans. They come and go at any time they please—as if they owned Pakistan—as if this was their own country.
Aggravated, the controller swiped at a rivulet of perspiration which had escaped from behind his ear and traced a path down his neck. The grit and dirt on his exposed skin, a result of walking to work earlier in the evening through the ever-present smog of the city, clung in his perspiration as he tracked the flight. He reached to the console and dialed in a longer, wider-ranging radar sweep. The aircraft continued to fly parallel to the border east of the Indus River. He watched and re-adjusted the scope back to a shorter range. The new radar pass illuminated the controlled airspace surrounding Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan.
Shaukat observed the blip of his annoyance as it danced along the edge of the screen. The green dot executed a subtle, gradual turn and took up a new northeasterly course, converging toward the Afghani border. Unless there was another change of direction, the track would take the aircraft just east of Konar and deeper into the Hindu Kush Mountains, on a direct path toward an inaccessible region of Afghanistan.
The antenna of Shaukat’s curiosity was now altogether engaged. This new, crazy routing would project the Americans’ flight across the border at an especially remote location.
Very unusual. Certainly not a supply or photo reconnaissance mission—not at this hour. Why would the Americans be flying an obscure route from Dalbandin into a sparsely populated area at such a strange hour? This is exceptionally suspicious indeed.
The air traffic controller worried at the question in silence for several seconds as he mulled the possibilities and turned them over in his mind as the aircraft bore down on one of the rugged mountain strongholds of Osama bin Laden.
The answer came to him in a flash of insight. Shaukat had heard the rumors that there were many elite American troops stationed at Dalbandin.
Perhaps they have found bin Laden and are sending a team of assassins to kill him. Al Qaeda pays well for such information.
Shaukat Pashwar-Khan took a final drag from the cigarette and ground the stub out in the over-brimming ashtray, a nervous smile on his face. He removed his cell phone from his belt and placed an urgent call.
Miles to the north, an anesthetizing chill cut the thin, high-altitude air. The cold had penetrated even the insulated black uniforms before the red jump light, mounted on an exposed rib of the C-130’s airframe, flashed to green. Watts gave a thumbs-up, turned, and executed a clumsy belly flop dive from the starboard side of the extended, open ramp. The leap into space was mimicked quickly by the remaining seven men. They jumped from the starboard and port corners of the ramp one by one, until all had disappeared into the bottomless black empty space, suspended between misshapen, cloud-shrouded mountains looming below and the brilliant shining stars far above.