Library of Congress Control Number: 2014943172
THE PALADIN EMERGED from the brick, steel, and glass fortress called Hangar Seven and scowled at the eastern horizon. It would be another hazy summer day -- no clouds, just haze. He felt the same resentment that he always felt when his stockbroker’s “sure winner” turned out to be a surprise loser. The sun had quietly climbed above the horizon without producing any of the brilliant colors he expected as compensation for being up so early. There was not even a mitigating morning breeze to herald the sun’s arrival.
His appearance was similar to a paladin of medieval times. His chain mail was a flame resistant international orange Nomex flight suit. His legs and lower torso were encased in the armor of an olive green “G” suit. Under his arm he carried a white flight helmet emblazoned with his family’s coat of arms appropriately displaying three falcon heads on a shield under a knight’s helmet. The flight helmet was equipped with a descending smoked Plexiglas face mask designed to protect his eyes from the shards of a shattered windscreen, or from the dense ultra violet rays of high altitudes, or God forbid, maybe even some protection from the blinding flash of a very distant nuclear detonation. For a moment The Paladin allowed himself to reminisce about a place from his past in the land of Kipling where mornings always bring cool dry sea breezes “and the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘cross the bay!”
The heavy haze would at least mean a long delay. He had hoped to get this hop flown and debriefed before noon so that he could spend Saturday afternoon doing something that he could fool himself into thinking was fun, but now he instinctively sensed how the day would not go well. The Search and Rescue helicopter would report that the lack of visibility over the Atlantic would jeopardize a potential water rescue, and the mission would have to wait until the haze dissipated. They would probably sit around until noon before someone would finally notice that visibility over the water east of Montauk was sufficient to continue operations.
As he approached the flight line, he could see Luke already prowling around the sleek and ghostly airframe. The EF-111A Raven stood motionless dressed in its dull gray glare resistant and radar absorbent paint. Its insignia and markings were over sprayed making them vague and identifiable only at close range. The near fog-like haze added to its blurred appearance giving it the aura of a supernatural apparition. The Raven stood in silence with its pivoting wings pulled back against its fuselage resembling a huge bird of prey still asleep at its roost.
Luke was flitting around the dormant airplane like a nervous English nanny looking after a royal child. Two Grumman technicians gripping their clip boards followed patiently prepared to note any discrepancy that Luke might identify while repeatedly assuring him that there were none to be found.
LtCol. Mitchel J. Wardlow, USMC, call sign and nickname “The Paladin,” after his boyhood television hero, momentarily halted his approach to observe his partner, LtCol. Lucas K. Barney, USAF, call sign and nickname, “Cool Hand.” This was “Business Luke” at work. Luke had been twenty minutes ahead of The Paladin all morning. Even though they lived in the same house, they had not yet had a conversation on this early summer morning. The Paladin was still in bed when he had heard Luke banging around the house. By the time The Paladin had finished his shower, Luke had gone to the office. He had been too late to catch Luke at the office, or at the locker room, or at Grumman Flight Operations. Luke was so intent on his inspection, he didn’t seem to notice his friend’s arrival. He had his nose inserted through a hole in the fuselage left by a removed inspection plate, and he was cross examining one of the technicians with the tenacity of a criminal prosecutor on a hostile witness in an effort to discover whether the fellow really knew what he was supposed to know about the condition of the system at issue. It was the familiar old battle of “absolutely” and “positively” versus feigned clairvoyance and skepticism.
As he had done so many times, The Paladin marveled at the dichotomy of his friend’s personality. He had last seen him the previous evening when Luke had assumed his alter ego. Luke’s first and last great love had always been beer. Away from work, it would be difficult to find him away from his mug. Beer allowed him to compensate for the fastidiousness of his natural personality. Last night, as usual, Luke had been a flippant and frivolous Mr. Hyde. This morning he was a meticulous, worrisome Dr. Jekyll. It was his sole responsibility to determine if this aircraft met the specifications necessary for acceptance by the United States Air Force. He alone would be the one who would be placing his signature on the Department of Defense Form 250, which in essence, was a check for $25,000,000 drawn on the account of the American taxpayer.