If you're looking for a factual on the SA-10 Grumble SAM system, please go here. For a vaguely-related fictional, read on.
When a helicopter fire mission ends prematurely, it's frequently due to ground fire. Anything from MANPADS to mechanical hill dwellers and artificial amphibians can take you down in one if you're not paying attention, and sometimes even if you are. I've experienced this uncomfortable phenomenon more than once. This is one such, tenuously relevant occurrence from my time in Azerbaijan. Date and time do not exist.
Iran had invaded. I forget why, to be honest. We'd been in country for a while as part of the effort to push them back from their fortifications in the mountains. Their defences were well dug in and we were having a great deal of trouble making headway, not least because our flights in defence of our excruciatingly-slowly advancing ground units were constantly threatened by surface to air missiles as well as various combat helicopters, the latter of which also threatened our tanks in at least equal measure.
Some of our missions had nothing whatsoever to do with the ground war and were merely attempts to make things a bit safer for pilots supporting it. Most air defences were themselves little threat to our infantry and armour but as long as we weren't getting blown out of the sky, our clattering, grumbling and griping charges would be permitted a slightly longer life. Maybe.
This was one such mission. Me, Mac (my copilot/gunner), Drummond (my wingman) and our Longbows were to perform a sweep and clear mission, ahead of a planned advance by the brigade of armour we were supporting. Our waypoints would take us in a northerly pill-shaped course, reaching apogee about three and a half clicks behind the front line. We were to blow up any air threats or air defence we came across in range of the patrol route.
Now, I've got to concede we'd been warned in particular about SA-10s long before being briefed for this mission. Properly. They're quite potent, they told us. "Potent", like trying to defend yourself against one of them is like putting up your fists to an oncoming freight train. Like missiles that can manoeuvre at mach 7+ and intercept cruise missiles, that can shoot down a helo then go on to destroy the world in time for tea.
That said, anyone in a practical profession will tell you that reading about something in a manual or being told about it is no substitute for experience with it; not that the description we got was particularly conservative. Yeah, we'd all flipped through the Jane's reference books and field manuals. We knew what the fuckers looked like and that they could kill you but that was it. We didn't talk about that last bit. We were (okay, I was) young, relatively ignorant and wanted some more action. Not to mention that this whole situation had an air of unreality about it.
Given my rank I had the best ship, a rough-around-the-edges AH-64D Longbow with the flattened steel balloon on top of the rotors, a radar inside it. Drummond flew a slightly inferior AH-64A. Don't misunderstand, an armed AH-64A is still one of the most feared sights for an enemy tank commander but the AH-64D is an altogether more potent killing machine, that is also several million dollars more expensive.
When our commanders tried to push the line forward our efforts would often be supported by one or more wings of helicopters (other Apaches, Kiowas for reconnaissance, Black Hawks for troops, etc...) or our missions would be flown in concert with theirs, so backup was never too far away. For this one we were alone, save for the huffing great RC-135 giving us AWACS support. Great.
The two of us took off, heading north. Blades of metal cut the air above at hundreds of miles per hour. Swarms of photons streamed at us from the distant sun: sometimes they bounced off the metal above us, other times they were allowed through and bounced off us instead. Our uniforms, instruments and armour flipped shades tens of times per second.
We didn't see much of note for most of the northbound leg of our patrol, though it was hard not to admire - with the eye that wasn't constantly checking the sensors and gauges - the immense, fogged ranges of rises and falls, the curves and crags, their extremities often obscured by dense tree cover. Or the thick haze that made the sky an aerial swamp. Unreality. Our Apaches skipped and bounded over the ripples in the ground with control, shadows warping as they slid over the passing ground. Multi-shaded streaks of green rushed below, briefly resolving in sight then stripping away behind us.
The only interruption was a contact with some Mi-24s that were heading towards our line. They were too far away to be a threat to us or to go out of our way to engage, so we directed fast movers in to deal with them. They did so.
Apaches and Mi-24s have almost identical roles - they're both gunships - but the Hind is a real lumbering pig in comparison to the Apache (even though it is the fastest helicopter ever made). It's actually a bit smaller than the Apache in extremis but is very fat and squat as the fuselage takes up much more of its dimensions. Its engines have several hundred horsepower more than the Apache's but it is not as sophisticated an aircraft, so barring pilot skill, anything but a straight dash is slightly in the Apache's favour. Pit an Apache against an Mi-28 Havoc or a Ka-52 Hokum, now there is a spectator sport. But I digress.
Our furthermost waypoint was to the north of a large 'n' shaped ridge. Approaching, it looked like the top of a glacial valley that had been relocated, missing the miles of carved channels below it. The walls rose up on either side, the curved end blocking any view behind or beyond. We flew the west side of the ridge, clearly able to see the empty, pitted centre.
Slowing as we reached the ridge, I briefly flipped my FCR into air-to-air mode, made a couple of 360° sweeps then flipped it off again. Radar can announce itself almost as well as it can announce others. Satisfied we were clear for a minute or two, I switched the FCR back to air-to-ground mode and, nudging the collective to increase, poked my Apache's radome up from behind the ridge. As I performed some more scans the moving map display refreshed tens of times a second, but no new striations were added by the horizontal and vertical retraces of the display's cathode ray tube. It looked clear. I slowly ascended further for a brief survey of the terrain ahead. The FCR only covers 22.5° either side of centre in air-to-ground mode, so I had to rotate a bit left and right for a sufficiently thorough scan.
The 'n' had almost uniform width all the way around from what I could see and a smaller offshoot ridge flowed away from us slightly to the left, an arm and shoulder of rock. This forked into two smaller fingers about half a mile away. To the right, the backside of the ridge we hovered above curved around away from us and stretched about a mile, before jutting out sharply as a large cliff. Between these two walls was undulating, gently sloping scrubland. An arena. I drifted to the left to make sure the area immediately behind the left-hand ridge was clear, before pulling the cyclic stick back to reverse and drop to cover.
"Alpha seven-three, this is papa seven-three, we have enemy helicopters in your area."
Grimacing at AWACS' warning, I recalled hearing about these earlier on in the flight. We'd picked them up on radar but they were soon gone, though my radar had memorized the target: an afterimage of those short, coinciding lines of sight earlier in the mission. I had no idea if they or anyone else had spotted us and they could be anywhere by now. AWACS had just told me that they or someone else probably had spotted us in not so many words. They were there somewhere.
I didn't want the two of us exposed if these choppers popped up from behind either of the ridges that flanked us and wasn't about to have us fly astride either of them; "Cover the right side of the flat," I ordered Drummond. Confirming, the nose of his Apache dipped and the helicopter swung off to the right, skipping part-way up the side of this shallow canyon we had entered. When we were roughly parallel, I pushed my cyclic stick forward and moved in concert, my course mirroring his. His AH-64A blurred as its grey fuselage bled into the background of mottled hillside. The daylight was starting to dim. A clock.
As we traversed our respective canyon walls I continued sporadic FCR scans, flicking rhythmically between air-to-ground and air-to-air modes. There wasn't much open ground so I didn't expect the radar to see much more than I could, its emissions trapped by the current geology just like my view distance. We were about two thirds of the way along the bowl, when I noticed how sharply this outcropping to the right terminated. A ragged, chipped blade edge. The ground probably opened up again behind it as there was only a small suggestion of a rise in the terrain beyond. Glancing over to the right, I watched Drummond's AH-64A skimming the canyon wall, tracing sonic waves in the air as it rose and fell before the undulations it crossed.
I ordered Drummond to slow down as his side of the bowl was shorter than mine. We would rejoin as he reached the end of outcrop-
"Havoc - four o'clock high!"
Mac's voice in my headphones cut sharply through the rotor noise; in the pilot/gunner's seat in front, his head turned to the right to see one - no, two - Iranian gunships emerge from behind the ridge to our far right. How they'd avoided us and AWACS I didn't know, or care at this moment. I was going too fast to turn to an offensive posture and the Mi-28s had positional advantage from the moment they crested that ridge. Fuck.
"Cover!" I yelled to Drummond. The MiLs were already beginning to turn in my direction. I shoved the cyclic stick forward and to the right, steeply dipping the nose and banking to the right, increasing speed towards the steep cliff that jutted out ahead. Drummond's slowing Apache was only just to the right of the approaching Mi-28s and a good 60ft below them; I hoped they would overshoot him before spotting him as my eyes flickered over the blurred terrain less than twenty feet below me. Boulders flashed by underneath, dust whipped up in giant turbulent clouds and reflections rippled upwards on my canopy roof.
A horrendous grating chainsaw of sound ripped through the air from behind as one or both of the Mi-28s started firing 30mm cannon, completely blotting out the rotor boom from the canyon walls. I had no idea who they were firing at as I straightened briefly, until a burst of green tracers tore up the ground to the right, splintering rocks and churning the air with powdered debris. Tipping the cyclic forward further still and over-torquing the engines to keep aloft I increased airspeed further, eyeing the cliff as it closed. Five hundred metres. More cannon shells buried themselves in the terrain around me and the Apache's airframe shuddered. No damage reported. Three hundred metres...
I could barely hear Drummond's voice over the continuing cannon fire but it stopped within a second of him speaking. He'd fired a stinger at one of the Mi-28s and within two seconds the fading light outside my cockpit erupted behind me into a cascade of falling orange. Alternating light and shadow rippled down the canyon sides like glowing liquid, a waterfall of luminescence brightening as it neared the ground.
The target Havoc had dropped flares and the stinger had been spoofed, blowing one of them up. Evasive action over, the MiL turned to follow me in a wide circle as Drummond opened up with his Apache's 30mm machine gun, rounds walking a path along the opposite wall of the bowl, tracing the direction of the fleeing Mi-28. The other was also evading their new attacker, turning right to intercept my dash for cover less than two hundred metres ahead.
I was about to cross into virgin territory with no idea what was there. Preparations would almost be rearranging deckchairs; nonetheless I flipped the FCR into full-time air-ground scanning mode and set the Target Acquisition and Designation System (TADS) as the active targeting system. I'd be updated on FCR targets but could use the TADS' laser designator for targeting my Apache's machine gun, probably the most useful weapon right then.
The cliff was less than 100m away now and cannon shells were again raking the ground, impacting my helicopter's armour plating at shallow angles leaving stripped dents. Somewhere in my Apache's fuselage, uniform pitch black was shattered, the outside wall spidered and splintered as a foreign object crashed in. Air and light expanded to fill the new space, exchanging places with things that until then were doing important stuff, that soon took up new residence among dust and grass. My helicopter shook and concussions from the shell impacts permeated to the cockpit.
"BUCS. failure..APU. failure."
, clipped female voice of the Apache's on-board computer reported damage which I registered without reaction
. The backup flight controls
had failed and I couldn't restart
the engines if they cut. I flew on. The cliff face swept past in a mass of browns, shadows and edges, chipped splinters
and particles whipping up from my rotor downwash
and the cannon fire
from behind. It was indeed a thin wedge
of rock, with open terrain behind. Tall hills were to the far
north-west but directly ahead of me was a shallow rise
. Sheltered from the Mi-28s for a few seconds, my eyes flicked over the ground ahead and the targeting display.
I pulled the cyclic stick towards me, jerking the Apache's nose up. Lift that was making it go forwards started to make it climb instead. As the surface beyond the rise passed my eye level, the radar warning receiver flipped onto my left display, and the computer gave me some more good news:
"SA. Thirteen. Tracking. Eleven. O'clock."
"Drummond! GET OVER HERE!" I snapped as I dropped altitude and selected Hellfire missiles, switched them to fire and forget mode and, on hearing the instant solid tone of a good lock, fired one of the eight. As the missile sprang from the right wing pylon I felt the helicopter tweak slightly to the right, then pulled back on the cyclic and dropped the collective, applying right rudder. The white exhaust gas from the hellfire billowed back up from the ground and wrapped the cockpit as I rotated through it and turned my head, in time to see a huge net of black smoke fly towards me. A chaotic torrent of shattered debris catapulted outwards from the centre of the explosion to my right; rotor blades became spears thrown at hundreds of miles per hour, engine parts flew described arcs and cut the air with soft incisions, while small remnants plaited the threads of smoke from the larger lumps of wreckage as they flew and dropped, flaming, to the ground.
"Enemy chopper destroyed."
I sensed a slight release of tension and satisfaction in Drummond's voice; he had flown in a wide arc, following the invisible line of the cliff after it terminated, then banked sharply to face my pursuer. Both Havocs had overshot him as they crested the hill and after his manoeuvring he had a line of sight on this one. A machine gun isn't fooled by flares. I slid the Apache left, turning back to the direction I was going. We were still in unknown surroundings, though my FCR had not picked up any further targets yet. Far ahead, the hellfire descended almost vertically, suspended from a skyhook on a rope of white exhaust smoke, and impacted the SA-13. A black spider of flying wreckage and smoke formed, blurred by the haze, seeping away as I flew on.
Remembering that the cliff I was skimming rose and widened greatly further away from the tip I had rounded, I decided to check the area out in case any undulations obscured full scanning from our earlier position. Our course took us around the high portions rather than over them but I didn't want us to be cut down by some sneaky bastard hiding up there while we were flying back. I pulled the nose back and climbed up the side of the ridge, ordering ground cover from Drummond as he approached. Turning to the right I ascended straight up the side of the ridge, FCR seeker active. Smoke from the first Mi-28 was mixing with the air and thinning, sliding over the ridge with the smoothness of silk, pervading the surroundings as small fires burned below. I turned again to the right to scan the top of the ridge I had just rounded but was cut short as my TADS cameras pivoted right to re-acquire the second Mi-28.
Now outnumbered, the Mi-28 had widened its turn further and increased speed, flying almost perpendicularly away from us. It had crossed between me and Drummond as he turned to destroy its partner and was now itself banking back around to face the both of us. I was in rather a vulnerable position (almost stationary, facing the wrong way) on the top of the ridge so sideslipped left, aiming to duck behind the crest of the (unscanned) ridge and hand off the target to Drummond who made the small rotation to face the rapidly approaching Russian engineering.
I increased speed over the ridge top, aiming to drop behind the cliff and retrace my steps, rounding it and coming out behind my wingman to cover him so he could escape. This plan had just finished forming when a set of four thick, round towers that must each have been over twenty feet tall loomed out of the rock that was rolling beneath the Apache's fuselage-
"SA-10s are characterised by the four raised launch tubes. These are stored horizontally when the missile transporter is moving but are elevated vertical for launching missiles. Each of these sealed tubes contains a single 48N6E2 missile, seven and a half metres long and fifty centimetres in diameter. These things can carry a 145kg warhead at over mach 7 for 150 kilometres. The TELs can be towed by truck, but the more recent versions - the SA-10Bs - are all integrated with an eight-wheeled truck chassis."
Hmm, civilians weren't so stupid after all. Yeah, that was the bastard. Right there. I was on top of it, too close for missiles and too fast to hit it with the cannon; I had no choice but to scoot as fast as possible. A series of events coincided over the following 71,610 vibrations of caesium: first, the SA-10 installation through its radar network, detected me. Second, I was stupid enough to actually fly directly over those 500mm barrels. Third, the SA-10 operator fired a missile as I did so. Fourth, it missed.
My heart dropped from my mouth back to its rightful place and continued to pump adrenaline through my veins, with some blood for good measure. I should have been safe this close to the SAM battery (except from small arms fire) as long as it didn't have any partners nearby to hand me off as a target to, so I pulled back on the cyclic stick and dropped the collective. Slowing down, dust billowed and splintered the low sunlight into tapered rods and shards, reflections playing on metal. Turning, my eyes fell on the giant 'L'-shape of an eight-wheeled mobile TEL with four missile tubes (one of which was now empty), the smoke from the launch seconds before partially obscuring it.
Then the Havoc crossed over the top of it.
Either it had got Drummond or ignored and avoided him. Less than 300 metres away it started firing hundreds of explosive 30mm shells at me. I was barely moving. Now I was rearranging deckchairs.
From their position in the Apache's nose, the TADS cameras pivoted to acquire the new target, then I activated and immediately fired my Apache's 30mm machine gun, which had been following the whole acquisition from its position just under Mac's seat. The quickly-repeating recoil bucked the Apache's nose and punctuated the new complaints of the on-board computer as it sensed the injuries of the systems it tended:
krr-kuh-BUCS. Failure.-kh-khh-kuh-APU. Failure-kkk-hrr-kku-PNVS. Failure.kah-kkr-ksh-FCR. Failure.-kkshh-krkk-kss-Hydraulic. Pressure. Low.
"GET US OUT OF HERE!!", Mac yelled as I swung the Apache to face the MiL, pushing the stick to the left in a feeble attempt at evasion. The helicopter protested, responding sluggishly to my control, losing blood but grudgingly obeying and continuing to fire. Metal rounds raked the pointed fuselage of the Havoc, fragments flew and shots ricocheted, cutting tiny vortex tunnels through the curtain of smoke beginning to emit from both of our aircraft.
As the MiL tilted further towards me, Drummond's Apache sprang in pursuit through the smoke shrouding the SA-10, a further puff of smoke from one of the stubby wings announcing the launch of another stinger missile. No flares were going to stop this one. The thousands of components of the MiL broke formation and the whole helicopter simply burst with the ensuing explosion. A fireball bloomed less than one hundred metres away as the MiL disintegrated, spraying hundreds of pieces of spinning and burning wreckage, trailing smoke and orphaned flames. Crashes, grinding and splintering sounds from above entwined with the computer's insistent wail and tonal warning buzzers, as debris smashed into the rotors and entered the engine intakes. Circuits were crushed, twisted and cracked, systems decapitated, hoses amputated, components bled energy.
Tail. Rotor. Failure..APU. On. Fire..Right. Engine. Failure..Fuel. Pressure. Low.
The world began to spin and rise, as the Apache ceased to be able to keep itself aloft or control its own torque. Somewhere in there the radar warning receiver popped up on the single remaining operating CRT and another solid tone added itself to the cacophony as the display showed a missile approaching my position, a green diamond flickering and circling the screen as the fuselage spun. As I struggled to control my dying helicopter I glimpsed Drummond's AH-64A whip around to face the SA-10, slicing its electrical and chemical arteries with a hail of cannon fire. It quickly succumbed, collapsing into destruction with a loud report, spilling thunder from its fuel and warheads, scorching and splitting the air with huge concussions.
My view was spinning faster and tilting both ways as I tried to descend and reduce the distance between myself and it, when a huge projectile crashed into the tail boom at over 7,000mph and blasted it off. The eruption from the rear resounded above all the warnings, fires and fears and shattered the world, tipping it over onto its side and spinning it at incredible speed before crushing it into me...
Pilot "Archie" has died. Do you wish to save?"
For fuck's sake.
Drummond was fine. I watched him fly home, the jammy bastard
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Another Jane's war story. If you didn't guess from the scattered clues, it is completely made up. Blah..similarity to actual events...blah blah blah coincidental..yak yak.
- Thomas, Craig; "Winter Hawk" (a bit of aerial battle inspiration)
- Jane's Information Group; "Jane's Land-Based Air Defense 1996-97" (various sections)