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[fic] Bus Driver
[fic] Bus Driver
And yet more, found on an old harddrive

With apologies to Brian Schul. A Roughrider gets an unwanted assignment.....


The Russians called the Foxhound the 'Air Battleship' in reference to the massive missile armament the original carried. In polite company, both of them would earn the nickname Grey Lady. But everyone knew them as the Bitch. Bitch to Fly. Bitch to Maintain. Bitch to Take-Off. Bitch to Land. Everyone's Bitch in a wargame. Ugly. Brutal. But Hard. She did two things well. The Bitch came with the first IDAR set fitted to a mobile platform, and could outrun bad news if given half a chance.

I was the first to fly one.

I signed up to fly the Sled. The worst moment in any Sled Driver's life is to be told it's time to move on to another jet. Those HABU - all caps - just have a way of getting their teeth into you, and you never want to fly another jet again. She slices through the sky, stretched forward, going a million miles an hour while sitting, leaking on the hangar. But all good things come to an end.

We'd ordered two Foxhounds from a small-time friend of Bens. Officially, the reason we were told it was because the Fox had a new type of interwave sensor that could detect drive fields. Unofficially, the scuttlebut said it was just a thing between friends - a little helping hand. So can imagine how I felt getting my orders to transfer. It felt like being asked to give up a limb.

But orders is orders. So, I hopped a ferry out to Frigga to be the first Roughrider to meet the Foxhound. My first inkling that this wasn't to be the usual assignment was meeting the mousy woman due to be my backseater on the flight out - Rico. I knew three things about her. She worked in intelligence. She had absolutely zero flight hours - not even a callsign. And even if she wasn't in command, she was the whole reason the jet existed in the first place.

I mean, I'd gone from Sled Driver, to Bus Driver. That's an insult! Okay, so maybe I hadn't met top marks for my flying skills but I still more than made the grade.

We met our jet on Frigga, and I must say, first impressions of the girl weren't good. She stood there, creaking, steaming and somehow managing to look twenty years old despite supposedly being brand new - my first thoughts were of all those old Eastern European cars rattling and banging and smoking their way around the Soviet Union. Most of all, however, she seemed Huge, more like something that battered the sky out of its way, rather than slice through it. Those big intakes reached up over my head.

Almost like she was reaching up after something.

I remember how the original MiG had been built to chase the Blackbird and think that I've been doomed to play second fiddle. I walked around her, taking stock of the welds on her steel skin, the rivets not ground down flush with the skin. She's crude, brutal and built to a budget.... I'm almost appalled at the idea of spending three times the cost of a new Sled on her. The smell of ammonia and jet fuel linger, making the eyes water. In every jet there's usually something you can bond over, something interesting or intriguing that makes you just that bit curious to get inside.

The Foxhound offered nothing. Even our markings looked just a little bit funny on the tail... more like a captured enemy jet than something built to wear them.

Jet - the builder - assured us they were both brand new, before handing me the flight manual. Twice the size of a Sled, and then some. In guest quarters I finally get an inkling of why I'd been paired up with the Foxhound. You've got a hundred pages on how to fly the jet, then another two hundred on properly managing the engines to maintain top speed without melting an inducer or shedding blades. And I'd always had an engineer's mind - it's what I did daneside before getting away from it all.

Rico earned her callsign - Chatterbox - by not shutting up about all the cool sensor gear she'd just been handed. Of course she objected - but that's the whole point of a first callsign, isn't it? You hate it, you moan about it, then your squadron thinks of something worse.

My first impressions of the Bitch. A finnicky, overstressed propulsion system inside a solid-steel spaceframe buldging with a sensor set from a starship four or five times it size.

The cockpit comes from 1984. Wireframe graphics on glass monitors packed into a sea of steam-gauges. It's tight, smaller than Piper-cub, with steel framing closing in around. Even the smell is decades old - a mixture of amine, engine oil, kerosene and ammonia. At least the flight suit's easy enough to lock into place. Just sit-and-latch and ready to go. But it's all solid, more like the cockpit was machined from a billet of steel than pressed and painted. Controls are tight. Switches 'thunk' and 'latch' positively. She likes to be touched, and rewards iumble and inquisitive fingers.

The flightsuit is light, tight and better suited to Chatterbox than your's truly but I can deal with that. We suit up for the ferry flight home while I grumble to myself outloud about why I couldn't have been given an F-37 ferry instead - those things are some sweet single-seaters.

The engines are given the traditional christening with the bottle of Jeremiah Weed before being fired up for the first time. Our relationship gets off to a great start when she kills her own batteries cranking, and they have to fetch a start-cart to crank the turbines. When they finally blast into life, it isn't the gutty roar of a J-58, but something sharper, shriller and harsher, more like the turbine blades aren't quite seated right and rattling loose. Ducts and bypass doors rattle and whisper.

Both engines cough and bang as they're pushed to take-off power, see-sawing between too-rich, too-lean and just right before finally settling down to something just a little rough and smokey.

Chatterbox is getting giddy as she works over the switches, while I'm trying to nudge it forward on brakes that have exactly two settings - on, and off.

I pilot it on out up to where the outer-marker should've been before Chatterbox locks in the autopilot and programs our course and speed for Atalante and I'm reduced to keeping the engines in tune.

I honestly begin to wonder who I pissed off to deserve the assignment.


HABU come with a mind - a personality. You have the Speeders, you have the Suicide Girls. You've got the mysterious Femme Fatales and the Blabbermouths. You get the odd grouch or gossip. It took a month of training sorties to really start to understand the Bitch. At first, I put her down as a bit of a hard bitch. Stern, abrupt and intolerant, above all, she was a cranky bird who didn't like being mishandled. Every flight had it's glitches and grumbles - stuck doors, engine surges or just plain taking too long to get into her stride and run.

I finally had my epiphany on a training exercise where we'd been tasked to run an intercept of two older Sled when she woke up and bared her teeth for the first time since I met her. She found her stride early and pushed harder and harder for the entire mission.

The original Foxhound had been built as a fighter, to chase the original blackbirds. Now, she'd been saddled with tons of reconnaissance equipment and asked to do a mission she'd never really be intended for, something that maybe lessened what she thought she was supposed to be.

Realising that became something of a bonding moment. Friendship through shared pain is something of a military tradition. The more I understood her, the more I could manage to keep ahead of her issues, to keep the whole machine in tune and running happy.

The cockpit dynamic in the Bitch is unlike anything we normally fly. Most of my time is spent working as a propulsion specialist, rather than pilot, managing the big Mig's big engines. The jet's driven from the back seat by the Information System Officer - who plots the route into the nav computer and let's the autopilot handle the directing..

Once takeoff and landing are done and she's locked into her autopilot, it's time to push her up to cruising speed, keeping the main engines in tune the entire way up balancing brute force against core inlet temperatures, all while juggling the neutron injectors, bypass doors and shock-ramps, then manually making the turn to keep the big jet on the black line because the star tracker got washed out by the sun again.

Holding it steady at .18 is constant, mind-numbing work. You're head's constantly inside the cockpit, hemmed in by four steel walls and tektite, with no time to look around because as soon as you do the Bitch turns around a bites. An engine unstarts, overheats, or a generator CSD goes out - anything to grab your attention. Hey, buddy, eyes down here please.

And then when you've mastered you realise that the reason it's been wandering around the sky so much is that the SAS failed on take-off and you didn't notice. You start to realise that you and the jet, you're getting along. Both of you need to work together the make shit happen. You find out what she likes and doesn't like, then run from there. It's a sort of mutual respect.


Chatterbox calls her the Grey Lady. Chatterbox still hates to be called Chatterbox. Chatterbox loves hacking things on the fly or haywiring up enemy air defenses, even on exercise. She doesn't shut up telling me exactly what she's doing either. So imagine my joy when we get called up to take on an actual combat mission with her the the Bitch. Normally, it's a specialist job, but we've had a maintenance failure so we're backup.

It's a real Wild Weasel run on a thionite waystation. She doesn't understand why the answer I gave Ben was 'You gotta be shitting me'

The Bitch doesn't carry a heavy combat load. It's not really supposed to be that kind of jet. You can get missiles on sure and Chatterbox spent the entire night rewritting the software with Red Rider to make it work with the anti-radiation missile we had in stock, but really, it just feels like an alround bad idea to intentionally take one of these things into a threat area. Meanwhile, I spent the day with the crew chief going through all the preparations such a comple and highly tuned machine needs to ake her go. Even the uprated engines get check-runs to make sure the heat rejection issue's been fixed.

Satisfied that all's well, I grab some shuteye before the big day.

Immediately on takeoff, it's clear she's a sick bird and not happy to be flying. Burning more fuel than she needs to, sluggish on the throttle and steering like a pig. Refuelling gets interrupted by a bounce off the tanker halfway thrugh and I'm holding her on a single afterburner and full right rudder just to take gas, then accelerate out to some godforsaken black rock that'd been kicked out of the solar system. I'm seriously questioning the spacecraft's ability to take the mission after an unstart sends me head-first into the canopy rail.

But we press on. The strike force is on its way and somebody needs to knock down the missiles before they knock down our friends.

She comes alive 2AU out from the target when the first probes reach us. We are not stealthy. At full burn, we can be seen clear across the solar system.

Chatterbox starts to sweat, calling out each and every new threat as it awakens to our presence. New drive signatures. New sensors. She battles each and every one of them, splitting us up first into an entire squadron, generating ghost craft circling wide, or braking missile longs by pulling their range gate. Missile after missile reaches up to say hello. They hit nothing but ghosts.

We've a good line on the enemy, but we're still an AU out of range of our own weapons.

The hardest thing in the world is not to just jam the throttles full forward. She'll blow her engines at this speed and temperature. Easing her up, I watch the speed and temperature indicators climb and I'm starting to wonder if maybe, just maybe, she wants to get us killed. I reach for the coolant injectors to accelerate her to maximum speed over the target, and something remarkable happens.

Immediately, she perks up. She finds her stride and she gains another percentage point of speed as she hikes her skirt up and the engines blast her forward. The first enemy fighters are coming to intercept but we're so goddamned fast we don't even see them. A few shots chase out wake but we're outrunning even missiles, chasing a little green spot on my HUD.

Chatterbox arms our missiles. She selects our target. 4 missiles. 4 SAM sites. Handy that. I push the trigger

The jet rocks as all four depart, immediately trailing behind us. We're faster than our our ammunition.

Chatterbox switches from ECM, to ECCM, guiding the missiles in even as the SAM sites try to jam. But they can't beat the Bitch's sensors - or Chatterbox pushing the buttons. She's been training with Red Rider.

We're long gone from the threat are by the time the missiles find their target. 100/100. Boom. Enemy fighters recede behind, unable to do nothing but watch. It's marvelous. Only then do I have the time to actually look down at my instruments.

Engine temperatures, hot but good. Door positions, full shut. Speed...... Holy shit.

I swear to the gods of speed the number I saw on that gauge started with a 2. Nobody fucking believes me, despite the track logs. Maybe it was just an error caused by our own information but I'm sticking to my story. And Chatterbox, bless her, she'll stick to it with me.

I'll be goddamned if she didn't go right back to being grumbly and sick as soon as we'd left the threat area, but she'd done exactly what she'd needed to do. Even the HABU were impressed.

The Grey Lady becomes her official nickname, and our practice missions change to line up with our new official role.

Suppression of Enemy Air Defences.

I think the Bitch likes that.


We're the unloved bastards. The dissapointment when we show up is palpable. Everyone wants to see the HABU. Sending us along to your local airshow is tantamoment to telling someone they aren't good enough to get a Blackbird. Whether it's intended or not, that's how it comes across to every small-holder out there in the belt. So, there's that subtle hostility ready to greet us, even behind the smile. Thanks for coming, but why no Blackbirds? We want the fast jets? Not that rustbucket.

But we do our best to put on a good show for the kids.

Never forget that when you're the one out there who has to inspire the next generation to take up the Roughrider Cause.

So you prep. You work. Chatterbox sits in the back with nothing to do but wave and take vide while I try to fly.

Now, the HABU show is perfectly choreographed and run to a tee. It's there to make you believe you can be the pilot of such a fantastic machine. It slices through the sky above your head, slow and elegant as a black lady, before roaring over fast and loud. Always graceful, always precise, like a razor cutting through the sky. Sleek. Elegant, graceful. The might do a quick flash on the cans, or occasionally a simulated engine-out takeoff, but rarely go full bore. Always like they're afraid to break the jet.

We tried doing the HABU flight once and nobody liked it. Even we hated it.

So, this next time up we came up behind the Valkyries - the Rockhounds one since this was a Greenwood station..

We promptly did the exact same run - the jet parts anyway.. In a craft that weighed three times as much.

Sure it lurched around the sky and we took a lot of the turns far-wider or faster, or on full flaps with the cans burning because we were so low on energy where the Valkyrie had been cruising. It was hot, sweaty and tough. You really feel how heavy she is when she gets slow. And when we'd shown up Greenwood, we just beat that airfield to shit blasting the crowd with the cans, backfiring and making high-speed passes before finishing with slow speed, low-altitude full burner pass.

Now, we came into the maneuver with far too much energy, so we have to spill it all while turning to slow it down, almost like a combat-landing and go-around. I've my head out of the cockpit watching the flightline to make sure we don't impinge on the crowd and she just starts to judder and drop. She's on the edge stalling off her wings without the power to keep herself aloft. She'll hold there at a high alpha thanks to the wing extensions and there's enough roll authority from both stabilators and ailerons to keep her level. Full-flaps, drop the nose, rock the wings - let people think we'd gotten it badly wrong. Bad things were about to happen.

Oh god, they're about to crash. Part of them wants to see it.

All according to the plan.

We're maybe a hundred feet away from the crowd and I jam the throttles from near idle into full burner, opening the coolant taps at the same time. Both turbines howl. She backfires on a surge as the bypass doors open, clears her throat and roars. You could feel the engines all the way on the other side of the asteroid. You'd never do it with a HABU - it's just not graceful. It doesn't fit the image, the brand, but we've no image to protect.

Flaps-up. She digs in and blasts off, roaring down the runway before escaping into a vertical climb.

They think you saved the plane. Maybe they never in believed you'd crash it - but part of them thought you would still makes them cheer. But goddamned does it make people cheer.

We head home, tanking gas. By the time we make it back to Atalante, the video footage as already outrun us. Chatterbox has been spreading her own cockpit video through the the Bitch's own interwave connection, while upvoting everything that came off that asteroid. The HABU are bubbling.

We land.

Crew chief walks up.

"The Commander wants to see you."

Ah shit.

Well, at least we'll never have to worry about being display pilots again.

Ben waits for us in his office, doing the Commander Ikari thing that warns you that you've really fucked up. The hands drop, revealing his true expression.

"You two...." he says with a smile. "That was one hell of a buzz-job."

Neither of us know what to say.


So yeah, I'm a bus driver. I fly the Bitch.

Maybe that makes me a son of a bitch.

But, in its own weird way she's started to grow on me. It's a jet that takes time to master, to get to know. It's a relationship built in moments, not all at once at first sight. Sure she's a bitch. But never once have either of them really dropped a crew in it. She'll have her breakdowns and keep flying. Her engines with bang and pop and rattle, then find their voice just when you need it. You start to think she'll always pull you through. People look down on us both, but we show them up nonetheless. Let her off the leash and she'll play with the best of them. blasting around like a dancing rhino.

Maybe its true what they say a bitching soldier is a happy soldier.
--m(^0^)m-- Wot, no sig?

The only way this could be even better is if Ben gets in one to prove a point. Wink
He's more than welcome to....

Sure, hasn't the gauntlet been thrown [url= ... t-oncedown already.[/url]

Also. Wikipedia and 9000hrs in MS point.

[Image: RF-155-Foxhound.png]

One seat or two?
--m(^0^)m-- Wot, no sig?
Well, from the story it pretty much HAS to be two, Silly. Cause I dont think the Bitch would really appreciate Chatterbox teasing her man like that.

Cause... biatches just be like that.
Hear that thunder rolling till it seems to split the sky?
That's every ship in Grayson's Navy taking up the cry-

-- "No Quarter", by Echo's Children
Blackbird hunting is best enjoyed with friends, indeed.

And while no SR-71 was ever shot down - they did stop flying wherever the 31's were deployed. Somebody certainly believed they were a capable threat. They were definitely capable of getting up that high and going that fast.
--m(^0^)m-- Wot, no sig?
Theoretically, the MiG-31 -was- capable of shooting down a Blackbird... with a Nuclear-Armed Missile.

And the Russians were batshit enough to do exactly that, and damn the consequences. I mean, Sputnik was launched by an ICBM - a fact that the Russians not only left open, but actually touted as a 'take that!' to the USA.

So yeah. I can definitely believe that we didn't fly Blackbirds in areas MiG-31's were known to be deployed.
EDIT:  Quirk between Blackbirds and Foxhounds

Unresolved Issues: It's not that they don't get along... but due to being former adversaries that never really discovered who was the better for certain, they have an icey respect for each other.  Small performance gains while deployed together in the field have been reported, along with a marked decrease in the severity of adverse quirks that would normally be in play.

Blackrider's Notes: "It's obvious that there's a very cool game of one-upmanship going on.  I really see no reason to worry - the girls seem to be enjoying their games, so let them enjoy them.  Besides, any day we can get through a mission with fewer shenanigans than usual is a win - even as amusing as some of it can be, it's not when you're dodging flak fields at point-one-Cee."
I'm sure Jet would've offered them on a level of discount, both out of friendship, and because she's secretely hoping Ben will be positive about them, and a well known face being positive about them might help raise the profile.

It must be noted, her main engines were developed using a fairly modified Blackbird spacecframe........
--m(^0^)m-- Wot, no sig?
I like that last one there in the list of clients...

'A mundane client based out of Palmdale, California'

Oh yeah. Sure. VERY MUNDANE. Big Grin
As for what the Skunkworks could have been doing with her, well..... *ominous cord*. The mundane powers are doing their thing. The profile photo was taken IRL in some Area in Nevada.

All we know is, every scrap of firmware on the thing had been erased when it came back.
--m(^0^)m-- Wot, no sig?
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
Nobody likes being told they’re shit. Nobody likes being reminded that they’re not the hero they think they are.

The problem with the wave, is that it makes everyone feel like a hero.

You want to be a Top Gun? A little bit of a handwave, and you’re merrily flying away in your Valkyrie fighter, cushioned from the reality of your ham hands and clubbed feet by some of the most powerful computer systems fitted to any spacecraft.

These fly-by-wire systems sit between you and the spacecraft, filtering your commands out into things that the spacecraft can actually do. You go full back stick, and instead of commanding the control surfaces to move as far as they can like you want, the computers work out how far they can be safely moved without breaking the limits on the spacecraft and give you that instead.

You can do catastrophically dumb things in it, and it’ll never spin, depart, or snap back at you. You can’t break it, no matter what you try do. You might still manage to kill yourself if you fly straight into a rock, or do something dumb in front of an enemy’s guns, but we try to train you to avoid that.

The point is, the skill floor is so much lower.

Anyone can fly one well enough to be effective and not die.

You’re the hero. And the more skilled you get, the more of a hero you become

Now, once you have the computers in there, you can do some utterly insane things with spacecframe design. You can build something so hideously dynamically unstable that no human could ever hope to keep it under control. Ever try and fly a Talon with the FBW system disengaged?

I managed to keep it under control.

For about half a second before it snatched and shattered itself.  

All these modern fighters are basically the same. You’re giving ideas to the computer and it’s turning them into reality – the only drawback being that maybe, these systems will prevent you from exceeding those limits on that one occasion where you might really need to

The Sleds take it to the next level, being fitted with an actual, physical intellect capable of recognising the incipient ‘Oh Shit’ moment and either saving your sorry ass from it or realising you’re trying to save your sorry ass and letting you do it – even if you bend the jet a bit in the process.

Hell, with the sleds, we used to trim it with the CoG so far aft they became dynamically unstable, just to pitch it into an evasive turn that little bit faster. Something that destroyed a real SR-71 fifty years ago gave us just that little bit of an edge when we needed it – and made for one or two black bananas in the process which never flew straight again.

Flying by wire is like flying on rails. Point and go.


Cut to the Foxhounds.

Which by design take completely the opposite philosophy.

It’s all up to you.

Let me say that again.

When you sit in that seat, it’s all up to you. The ship’ll try do exactly what you tell her to do. Whether it can or not.

Pull the stick too far back, and you’ve either an accelerated stall, or a buckled airframe.  Even a gentle roll is rewarded with a wandering nose and some adverse yaw – especially at landing speeds. Shoot a missile off a wing with just a bit too much bank on and it can snap into a roll. Overspeed the engines and it’ll start to overrun its own fuel pump’s ability to limit flow, leading to a frightening rocket-ride until either the engines destroy themselves, or you force an unstart. It will stall at low speeds and sabre-dance or augur in with the best of them. At speeds above .18 it’s reached the limit of it’s pitch trim and you’re holding it back manually to keep it from tucking in.

The point is – unlike maybe ninety percent of ships in Fenspace, the final authority is in your hands, pilot. All it’ll ever do is warn you that you’re about to break the limits. The controls either get heavy, or start to float – sometimes you feel it nudge a suggestion if you’re gonna get in real trouble but it never stops you doing what you want to do.

For better or worse.

On the one hand you get a great feel for what the ship is doing – you learn to read it well enough.  It never feels threatening. It’s enough to humble you as a pilot by revealing the limits of your skill. It’s enough to teach you how to start to become a better pilot by showing you the things the automated ships hide.

On the other – well – sometimes you can get surprised…. Especially if you’re not used to ships that can bite back.

The first squadron is given the people who actually know what they’re flying. We’re people who might’ve had real flight experience before coming up. A few ATPL’s or a few PPL’s with four-figure hours in their logbooks.

People who could understand why the Grey Lady’s behaved like they did with it rather than just gawk at ‘What the spaceship just did’ as it spiralled to the ground around them

The second squadron is transitioning from Veritechs and they’re all convinced they’re the hottest shit since Chuck Yeager.

Boy are they about to get brought down to earth. Hopefully without breaking the ship in the process…

All is going well at first, and we’ve a squadron of hotshots eager to get their hands on what is arguably* the fastest combat spacecraft in existence. Ground school and the training cycle sit in and we have to go back to some flight basics.

You’d be surprised at how many supposedly intelligent people are surprised that the fifty-ton lump of welded battlesteel bigger than most faction’s cruisers isn’t going to steer quite as quickly as their titanium veritech.

Anyway, we manage to score some proper earthside training time by renting a field in Nevada, pay a courtesy call to Beale to give a particularly noteworthy rider a chance to fly in the Sled’s great rival, and give our nuggets their first taste of true wing-and-air wave-free airmanship in a couple of flight-school 172’s older than they were.

Most importantly, they learn how to stall and recover a plane. And what causes an aircraft to stall.  The Cessna’s are docile enough that if you do absolutely nothing they’ll recover themselves, even from a full power, full-flap spin.

We spend a lot of money to rent an L-39 from a local flight training school. So yeah, this is what a real jet feels like in real atmosphere. We also get some practice in for some of the maneuvers we’ll get the Foxhounds to pull on the display line.

Including controlled stalls. Which is little more than a fall with style, where the airspeed is so slow the wing cannot produce enough lift to keep the plane in the air, so the whole ship just sort of mushes towards the ground

Now, the basics you need to understand is that it’s not the air speed across the wing that causes it to stall, it’s the angle of attack – alpha - against the air. The basic rule of wings is that, the more alpha you have, the more lift you get – up to a point. When the alpha gets too great, the airflow at the back of the wing detaches, the high pressure from beneath the wing flows back up over and you’ve suddenly got a big nasty load of turbulence, a lot of vibration in the airframe  and a whole lot less lift than you had a second ago.

The slower you fly, the higher an angle of attack you need to make enough lift to stay in flight – eventually you go too slow, the alpha gets too high, and the wing finally stalls. To save the airplane, all you need to do is lower the alpha – by either accelerating or lowering the nose.

Or preferably doing both.

This also works the other way around. Even at full throttle, high speed – once you reach that alpha limit – if you’re yanking and cranking at high G - the wing will stall.  That’s called an accelerated stall, which can be surprising if you’re not used to flying a ship that’ll do it.

The other thing you need to know is, sustaining a flight at really high angles of attack means that some of the wing’s lift vector is actually holding you back – you’ve so much more lift induced drag you need a lot more engine power to keep flying forward. We call it the Back side of the power curve – or the area of reversed control, where things start getting a little bit counterintuitive. Pulling up can cause you to sink.

As an exercise, it’s a great way of demonstrating how the ship behaves at the edge and how easy it is to get away from it. Both stabilitors mean you can hold it steady even when the ailerons loose their authority.  As a show manoeuvre, it’s thrilling for the spectator because they think they’re about to see an accident, right up until you save it by lowering the nose, trading some of your remaining altitude for speed and slamming the throttle. It has just the right appearance of danger and thrilling fire and noise to be a hit, with plenty in reserve to keep it safe.

Do it right and you never actually stall, as the alpha is always in limit.

So. Last flight of the day. I’m up in a two ship formation with one of the hotshots. Chatterbox is running the radios to get us a block of altitude to play around in while I’m giving instruction.

It’s myself in Foxhound 1-1, and our Hotshot who’ll remain namless in 1-2. Tail-number 024.

We both start bring down the power, easing back on the stick to slow down. So far so good.

We’re both nose up, tail down and steadily, we ease up on the stick just to keep alpha in limit. Almost level with the horizon, low enough to avoid a full aerodynamic stall. Both ships start to drop, not having enough lift to fly. A little bit of care with the throttle and we can hold it right there on the limit. Alpha’s okay.

Now, this is a fairly easy thing to do in a fly-by-wire electro-jet. The computers will never let you go through the alpha limit. In the Foxhound, you can feel the point where the airflow begins to separate – it makes the ailerons go light and you get a god-awful vibration up through the frame.

Just enough to warn you to stop it and balance it on that point with stick and throttle.  

Still, so far so good.

Now, time to lower the nose and power out. I give the instruction, releasing the pressure on the stick to let the nose fall below the horizon on my own ship before jamming the throttles to full. There’s a stomach in mouth moment with the negative G, but she grabs the air in moments.

024 just hangs there in the sky.

024 blasts up to full burner, pitching the nose even higher.

He’s got that thing so far off the back side of the power curve – further than we’d ever calculated possible - full burn is just about enough to keep it airborne through a triumph of raw thrust over physics. He’s got the nose aimed straight up at the sky and both engines screaming. The stabilitors are twitching like a turkey’s feathers trying to keep the stalled wings level.  

I’m yelling at him to just drop the nose and let it fly out of it, but he’s panicking. He’s surrounded by alarms, flickering warning lights and a ship that’s physically shaking itself apart screaming at him to stop and he freezes.

Instinct wins over and he just holds it full back to go Up!

Eventually, one of the engines surges, then the other. Both throttles retard to catch the surge, dropping the speed below that critical point where even the stabilitors can hold it. Gravity wins. The right wing lets go first and all fifty tons of ship just snap like one of the strings holding in the air had finally just broken.  

It corkscrews over onto its back, engines still driving it over into a full power-on spin. It screws itself through three revolutions in half as many seconds like a broken bottle rocket before orienting itself vertically nose down.

Still under full power.

Still spinning.

Still under full afterburner as the engines recover.

We’re calling in a mayday because there’s no way anyone aboard is even conscious and we’re sure we’re just calling in a cleanup crew for the inevitable mess. I’m thinking off the bad letters I’m going to have to write and the inevitable investigation and ramifications for interplanetary relations.

Meanwhile, 024 does something remarkable. It stabilises. All on its own. Score one for positive stability.  

It’s still going down like a dart, but it’s stopped spinning.

I’m holding altitude, watching the ship scream towards the earth. It’s already gone right through the sound barrier. I’m just watching for a chute – either the pilot or the ISO because there’s no way anyone’s recovering that thing.

Slowly, its contrail begins to curve, arcing away from the ground.

024 levels out at something like a thousand meters. 024 continues to pitch up into zoom climb, coming up like something NASA built.

She levels out at ten kilometres, trailing fuel vapour from a broken tank. A panting voice crackles over the radio.

“Uh…Foxhound 1-2. I’m stable. I have damage. Lost hydraulic pressure…uh….declaring an emergency,”

I remember thinking, That’s the sound of someone who just gave birth to last night’s dinner in their g-suit.

Both of us make it to the ground in one piece, despite the bits visibly hanging off 024.

Naturally I’m chewing his dumb ass out more out of relief than anger. Our earthside flying is at an end and we’ve got a report to fill out for the FAA explaining exactly what dumb thing we did.

The Hapless hotshot had been knocked-out by the first snap. He came around halfway down, and pulled hard back on the stick in a panic with a window full of Nevada ahead of him and the machmeter going through 1.8. Then blacked out again as the ship came through horizontal resulting in a zoom-climb with the helpless ISO screaming at him in the back seat until he finally woke up at 10,000 and stabilised.

The cockpit G-meter had pegged at 8 during the pullout. The flight recorder recorded 13. The Foxhound was rated to 5.

One of our mechanics checks the ship out, and it’s immediately clear she’s an expensive write-off.

The entire frame is warped so out of line it refuses to trim straight. Her wings are bent up nearly 6 inches at the tip. One of the rudders and both ailerons are gone – dropped somewhere over Nevada. Two of three hydraulic circuits are empty. The gear doors are missing and both engines have had their mounts cracked. Three of the fuel tanks are leaking where the seams split. One of the engine casings even shows marks from where the turbine blades hit it as the frame bent.

Anyway, the usual investigation follows. Interview boards. Briefing boards. A mountain of paperwork.

The FAA calls it pilot error.

We have some training questions to ask.

And the usual debate continues. If the ship’d had a fly by wire system, it might never have allowed it to try that 13 g pullout. It’d have pegged at 5G to save the airframe and we’d be dealing with a fatal accident. To which the ‘bus drivers naturally say a fly-by-wire would never have allowed it to get into that situation – which then ding-dongs back to the fact that FBW systems like to go into alternate law mode when they see anything they don’t understand – putting control back into the hands of a pilot who just doesn’t realise it’s back in their hands.

I’ll leave the control debate up to you. The lack of a fly by wire computer probably caused the accident. The lack of a true fly by wire probably saved the ship.

The fact that the ship was made out of welded steel and took a sustained 100% over-g probably had something to do with it too.

But if it was up to me, I’d make sure all the hotshots got a chance to fly something humbling – if only to remind them of what all that automation is doing on their behalf. Before all the skills we used to have get washed away by the wave and forgotten.


*arguably. Based on definition of ‘combat spacecraft’, how long it can sustain that speed, what load it can carry while doing so, whether it’s a prototype or something ‘produced’, what counts as ‘produced’, how fast it’ll go in an atmosphere, acceleration rate. and the phase of the moon. It’s a tossup with the Fearless, the Talons, the Blackbirds, The Firefox, and the Foxhounds and you’ll find a dozen arguments for each, and each will be equally valid which results in some truly glorious flame wars on certain boards.

I love the smell of rotaries in the morning. You know one time, I got to work early, before the rush hour. I walked through the empty carpark, I didn't see one bloody Prius or Golf. And that smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole carpark, smelled like.... ....speed.

One day they're going to ban them.
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
And more from the same mysterious pilot.....


Every year some of the Habu make a courtesy call to Beale AFB. It’s a sort of tradition – especially for new birds built in the previous year – to make their pilgrimage to the ancient home of the Habu. Newly qualified Pilots are sent to pay homage to The Jet.

It’s worked into a training rotation where we get our hours up in the soup learning all the weird shit real aerodynamics can do to fake planes. The rest of us get to fly out of an airstrip in the west of Nevada with barely enough space to stop and a warning hanging over our shoulders not to fly inside a particular box in case we cause an international incident by spooking the spooks.

So, I’m shaking the desert dust out of my flight suit in our canteen when a runner comes in with a new set of orders, direct from the top.

We’ve been asked to take a trip over to Beale on a courtesy call.

Okay. We’re kind of busy with a tight schedule, but I can make an overnight hop, maybe burn up the flight line with the cans. And then the runner tells me we’re picking up a rider for a trip – a nature photographer - “Promoting interplanetary good-will”

Now, taking riders aboard is one of the worst parts of the job. It’s something of a right of passage. You’re not a true fighter pilot until you’ve had to taxi some VIP from God-knows-What rock in the back seat for a sightseeing tour trying to sell a security contract, or a whole spacecraft, smiling through your teeth the whole time you’re going through the friendly routine while trying to make them feel like a flying God even after puking half their breakfast up.

Sometimes they can be interesting people, maybe even entertaining, but most of the time they’re just goddamned riders. Someone who’s either been invited along, or worse, paid for their time aboard.

I pray for a breakdown or a schedule slip. Sorry, no can do, we’re behind schedule as it is.

And then I get a name.

And now some riders you just got to take.

Either the chance to see even an imitation of the Sled’s great rival has piqued some curiosities, or someone somewhere thought it a good idea to stump up the appearance fee - But it’s a good way to get us some good publicity. There’ll be pictures. There’ll be blog posts. Do a good job with this celebrity and the Roughriders look good.

Now to get permission to land at an operational US facility, they effectively strip you naked. They want to know what your grandparents did and if they may have done something potentially illegal way back in history. No, I have not been a member of the communist party. I have never harboured terrorist sympathies and my parents were never illegal immigrants anywhere, and I passed a drug test.

And then you realise, they probably know more about you than you do.

Both for myself, and Chatterbox, even if she’s just running the Nav and Fish-Finder for the short hop over. And the guys with the ground starters since the batteries on The Bitch couldn’t start herself in the heat.

We’re under explicit instructions to fly inside a specific corridor at a specific speed that’s below the sound barrier. A pair of T-100’s come up to say hello and show us the way in and take pictures all the way. I remember thinking that, if I’m ever going to screw up a landing, it’ll be this one.

There’s the usual cultural communication issues between services trying to speak in the same language despite completely different procedures, but The Bitch finds her feet on solid ground again without even a bounce. Now follow the car to a secure area far away from anything, right over by those antennae over there.

I’m beginning to wonder if maybe this isn’t just an excuse to get a closer look at what we’re doing. All of our active sensors are shut down anyway to avoid accidentally microwaving people on the ground.

Our Habu start chattering about their sacred home being violated by an upstart. They’ve gathered their usual accompaniment of Jet Lice eager to get close to a legend – or the nearest thing to one still flying anyway.

Our VIP is waiting for us at the flight line, ready to meet and great.

And the first thing he does – after we get through the expected pleasantries and geeking over meeting an actual sled driver- is point at the Mig ask how old she is.

So I tell him straight up, it’s a six month old spacecraft. Brand new. With serial number 007 on the maker plate.

The question comes back in that boyish voice. Why is it rusting?

Because it’s made mostly of steel.

Now that raises some eyebrows, so of course, in a tense moment it’s natural for me to explain that somebody had bought most of the Soviet Union’s titanium supply right around the time they were building the original version.

That get’s me a laugh and breaks the tension. Everyone knows what I’m referring to. Like Tyrion said, use it as armour. It doesn’t feel right.

Still, there’s nothing like being talked down to make you determined to put up a good show. It’s the Pilot gene. You might call your jet The Bitch in private but in public when shit starts to get thrown, The Grey Lady’s were without parallel.

They think they’re so superior.

As far as we were concerned, in that moment, the only thing we couldn’t do was take turn inside an AU, and the only ship we couldn’t pass was a tanker.

For everything else, we had our squadron motto.

Alpha Mike Foxtrot.

Things got just that little bit heated in a friendly sort of way they usually do between rival pilots.

Of course, the Blackbird needed ultra-specialised, bleeding edge hardware to rivet and weld together. The Russian’s built washing machines on the Mig’s tooling when production orders became slow.

Something you got to remember about both aircraft is, for all that you can point to the top-line figures, they existed in entirely different worlds. Your Habu flew from an environmentally controlled maintenance hanger, to an environmentally controlled maintenance hanger. The Migs flew from concrete fields in Siberia., to deserts in Syria.

The SR was built to go up, and stay up, going as fast as possible when it got there. The Mig was built to get up there as fast as possible, and bring whatever was up there down.

Even the later Foxhounds we were based had an entirely different mission – they went up high where few could get ‘em, loitered until a ground-hugging target appeared below, dashed at high speed to intercept and dropped a missile or ten on it from 20km above. And potentially from a 100km away.

They denied whole swathes of airspace to the enemy.

To which, the natural response is that the Blackbird wasn’t stopped….

Our own Sled Drivers betray us, siding with the enemy. It’s Chatterbox and me defending the honor of the Grey Lady all by ourselves.

At which point, Chatterbox, demonstrating she came to us from an office chair rather than flight school decides to point out that we’re not flying a real Mig, and those aren’t real Blackbirds outside so the argument we’re having is no different from one about sports teams after the match.

Silence answers her.

Nobody feels good about home truths. Especially a former Bleacher Bum like myself.

We sleep on it in the guest quarters. Jeremiah is no longer permitted at official functions.

Morning. Chatterbox is giving our guest a run through of what he’ll need to do in the back seat. Here’s a crib sheet for the Nav. Here’s a crib-sheet for the Fish-Finder. She’s the only one of us that’s not in any way star struck.

He’s just another rider to her. She hands him the flightplan datacard with the TERNAV mapping and black lines on it, and a quick instruction on how to load it up into the ship’s brains. It’s probably the first bit of honest work done since yesterday.

She later tells me that he asked a lot of specific questions, just to go some way towards earning his passage into our world, by understanding what he needed to do back there.

Meanwhile, our guys are trying to impress everyone by eating the traditional breakfast. Most of us left the Steak and Eggs phase sometime after basic when we realised we impressed nobody. I take my cereal by myself with my own prep to do making pen lines on a kneeboard map and sketching out some waypoints for a borrowed 430 in case something goes wrong.

There’s time taken to fuel the bird and get our passenger suited up. I’ve got my flightsuit, but he has to use a standard bubble-suit since our stuff’s custom moulded. We have a set of spare harnesses for just such an occasion so it’s only a small hassle to fit them, but it does limit the experience.

The ship is fuelled and checked. Our guys sort a fuel leak from the left tank caused by a stuck pressure relief. Coolant tanks topped off. I walk our guest through the usual pre-flight ritual blessing by our lady of blessed acceleration.

You feel like a fool doing until that one time you don’t bother. Then you learn.

I help our guest strap himself in with one boot on the left console and both my hands around the seatbelts to pull them tight, then make sure he knows where the quick release is, where his emergency oxygen is and set the ejection seat into ‘rider mode’.

Or, if he pulls the chicken handles by accident, he goes on his own.

We flip through our checklists, taking longer than normal as he’s pecking at unfamiliar panels hunting for switches and keys. I remember thinking I wouldn’t want to take someone who didn’t have any sort of flight experience up in one of these.

My life’s in his hands if he makes a mistake.

We have one tanker with us and it is serving our trainees today, so if we go off the line and too far out over the brine and run out of gas, we’re swimming.

The engines are retuned and configured for air-breathing flight. Oxygen set. Fuel inerter. Batteries. Inverter. Ground Power. Hoovers hooked up to the right hand engine.

I give the signal and the starter turbine shrieks into life, the old Boeing APU giving everything it’s got to pump enough air into the right engine’s starters. The needles bounce up off their stop on the tachometer, turbine blades chattering and moaning in protest as they wind themselves up.

It’s like waking an old dragon from its slumber. These are big, high strung engines tuned for wide-open power and not much else. They don’t like being started, especially when cold. Raw fuel drains out the tailpipe onto the ground.

A nudge on the throttle adds a shot of Jeremiah Weed to the mix and she lights with a bang, flaring off the last of the fuel. The whine builds up to through a deep air-raid siren. Lights on the panels spark on as the VSD’s hook the generators up. Wreathed in smoke, the ship comes to life, rattling and humming, rising to a deep, whining moan that sounds like nothing else.

Starting the second involves motoring the first to the point where it’ll generate enough gas to drive over the second, without overreving on cold oil and scragging its bearings, or dropping off the generator and interrupting the computer.

It makes a change from the Three-Button-Start in a Veritech on QRA.

We both flick through checklists. He’s in the back getting acquainted with the complex parts of the NAV system, telling the ship what part of the universe it’s starting off in, and where it’s going to go and how fast it’s going to get there.

You can’t just kick the tyres and light the fires in this ship.

The brake hiss off and the ship lurches forward. We take our place in the flightline queue behind a flight of old Mudhens which, combined, weigh less than we do, and a KC-80 that also weighs less than we do. Our engines growl through the upper intake doors.

We park up at the start of the runway watching the tanker crawl into the sky.

Nobody lines up to watch us take-off. Nobody cares about a rusting Mig.

Oh well. I key open the mic to call for clearance. Best get the show started.

“Foxhound One-One request maximum performance take-off. Expedited climb to flight level niner zero zero. “

There is just that little moment where the controller wonders if we’re yanking him before he remembers we’re a fencraft that might aswell run on pixie dust and unicorn farts for what they can do.

I’m sure my passenger raises an eyebrow. But down here, we’re doing it with brute thrust and aerodynamics. We’re faster in atmospheric mode, with no fancy physics-warping in the way.

“Cleared for take-off, Foxhound One-One. Expedited to flight level niner zero zero. Wind Two-Three-Five at Two meters per second.”

I give a moment for Shephard’s prayer before pushing the throttles up. Both cans light off and the acceleration is hand-of-god instant. Not a kick, but a constant, irresistible push.

Equivalent airspeed hits 300. Nose up. And climb.

It takes 10 minutes and 16 seconds, from brake release, to level flight at Angels Ninety
It takes nearly half of our fuel load.

“It does get up some,”

I agree with a murmur, more focused on keeping it up there.

“I remember seeing those Migs come up. You’d pick ‘em up when they took off and five minutes later they were at seventy-thou and turning back because they didn’t have enough fuel,”

“Fuel’s our big issue too,” I say, “We use it for regenerative cooling in the engines, then dump it through the cans”

From the factory, she used refrigerant tanks. Using fuel gave us a little extra range on the cans, at the expense of a lot of range when off it.

With my head in the cockpit, I didn’t have enough time to say much more. There’s no headspace left for showing off like a typical rider flight. At full speed, the ship demands all your attention, rattling and moving, forever trying to inch itself out of your control. We do a few rolls, demonstrate some of our capabilities by tracking those Mudhens still scratching around the nap of the Earth, then grab a few pictures.

That’s Oregon. That’s Mexico. That’s Colorado. That’s someone’s Winnebago on the way to orbit.

I’d kind of readied myself for the whole ‘In the Blackbird we could…’ conversation, but it never comes. We’re each just that bit too busy, either taking pictures, or trying not to kill us both. The ship’s humming along, seemingly aware that she needed to impress.

Your old nemesis sits in the rear seat.

The director on the HUD switches, telling me we’ve passed the last waypoint. I tip the ship into a gentle banked turn swinging us around back to the coast – just to the North of LA.

Far below, a Cessna pipes up on the radio with a groundspeed call. The old game’s afoot when a King Air speaks up on the same frequency. Then a Lightning…. It’s a game that can’t have changed much in forty years, even if the aircraft involved have.

You know the story. I glance at the ground speed indicator and I think about making the call. I think about asking him if he wants to do it. I think, wouldn’t it be cool to replay that moment? I’ve got the guy with me and a chance to do the famous thing.

It’s sitting right there.

My finger finds the radio button.

“Centre, Foxhound One-One, good evening…”

“Foxhound One-One, Centre, go ahead…”

He sees us. He sees our ground speed. He knows what’s coming. Oh God, not one of these idiots.

“Centre, Foxhound One-One, request descent to flight level three-zero-zero. Vector to Beale,”

I think, after a week of dealing with our sled drivers he’s almost relieved. Someone just wants to get somewhere and that’s what he does best. We get our clearance with good cheer.

It’d be as crass as all those idiots badgering the guests at Cons. It’s just not our thing is it? Like badgering GRRM about who dies next at Convention, or wondering if The Winds of Winter would finally be released. This isn’t a Blackbird. And these days, scooting along halfway to orbit at 1900 across the ground just isn’t that big a deal.

Not when that Winnebago’s on its way to orbit.

It just wouldn’t have meant anything. It would’ve been gratuitous in the worst possible way. A hollow moment made possible by the wave - not entirely real.

I pull the throttles back from loud to quiet, force open the surge doors and point the nose down. Fun’s over, time to land before we need to swim. The Mig protests, wanting to show off some more. She creaks and groans the whole way down, superheated skin contracting as it hits supercooled air.

Fast descents make for some alarming noises. Like the Titanic sinking./

In amongst the mundane traffic, between an Airbus and a Boeing, with the ship set on autopilot and the GoPros off, we have a chance to actually talk. About the sort of missions we’re taking on, my time with our Sled, his time with the real one. Our first active mission. The differences between the original Blackbird and the Current ones.

Eventually he asks me why I volunteered to fly the Mig.

I have to admit that I didn’t This isn’t a ship our pilots volunteer for.* And he asks me why.

You’ve got three big groups of Pilots. You’ve got the Habu people – the people who read Sled Driver and hung models of that sleek black dagger above their bed at night and dreamt of reflected glory like I did, and the Tomcat people who dream of shirtless men, roofies and the Danger Zone and as far as they’re concerned the Third Group is made up of anyone not good enough to be one of the first two

(Some say there’s another group, consisting of the heavy bomber pilots, but what makes them get up in the morning is best not mentioned in polite company. And the less said about Hog-people, the better)

The point is, none of those are the sort of people who’re interested in being a bus driver for a geek, or flying the ship that so obviously came in second best to their Hero.

I give him the short version of that explanation. It just doesn’t fit the image of The Fighter Pilot they want to become.

To which he says, “Well it seems like you guys are starting to do a lot of exciting things. Maybe you just got to sell it to them,”

I don’t really think he gets it.

This ship can do so many things. The ones flying under the JLI flag keep up with Woodsman drones making attack runs, wasping up the enemy defences while designating targets to the drones. We don’t just do strategic reconnaissance – we’re into the Wild Weasel role because we can carry a few missiles while putting up a strong electronic attack and defense.

We can datalink and guide a whole group in, or spit our take back to base even while we’re still evading missiles so GJ can make the call on the moment whether to strike or not. Or with what.

But, ask us to engage in a dogfight and you’re asking us to die. Most targets that aren’t bombers can evade us and we can’t turn to follow.

The Habu guys see an aircraft that knocks out both Zigs before getting swarmed by optical missiles as it tries to get close enough to engage with anti-ship missiles. The Valkyrie guys see a ship that’s either going too fast it can’t hit them, or turns so slowly it can’t avoid them. We don’t have the ability to illuminate an entire solar system like the AWACS people, especially without a full crew to give guidance, and the Valkyries can do the Wild-Weasel thing when given the right FAST-pack – and take out far more bad guys in the process.

They see the workload in the cockpit to keep the big ship flying, how the pilot’s just there to drive while the back seater does the spy work, and the level of ground-crew work needed to get a mission going.

They don’t get to see the strategic stuff we do. They don’t realise that having us orbiting closer than an AWACs nearly trebles their combat effectiveness and SA, or that we’re the one’s spotting up all the targets they get to shoot while defeating all the missiles coming up to say ‘hi’.

We’re better off Buffing at the back, rather than Killing at the front. And that’s just not exciting.

The biggest problem we have is that we are not cool. We’re flying a big steel brute of a ship that rusts, not something elegant and sleek. I don’t know how the fastest combat aircraft in Fenspace could be as romantic and inspiring as a Communist apartment block, but the Foxhound manages it.

We are the hard work that goes unnoticed, alongside the tankers and transports.

There’s no glow to bask in. No radiation of awesome because of something its lookalike once did. It doesn’t make you feel awesome just by sitting in it. It doesn’t let you be your own image of the hero. It forces you to rely on your own cool, your own ego, while ruthlessly revealing the gaps in your skill when either of them don't measure up.

It doesn’t let you be the hero you think you deserve to be. It requires you to become the hero you probably aren’t yet.

For a people who’ve been gaining their awesome on handwaved credit for years, it’s quite the bump – a feeling like the Sherriff knocking on the door serving up the final reminder that you’re not as rich as you’ve been pretending to be.

When you’re used to being awesome with a wave of a hand, it just seems like so much effort, for so little reward.

It’s not something my passenger would understand. He comes from a different era where even the work we need to do would’ve been considered a handwave.

“It’s a cultural thing,”, I say. “We just don’t fit in with the Pilot culture,”

He gets that.

We were approaching the runway, with just enough fuel left in the tanks for a single go-around. Sure enough, the Habu are waiting warming up on the flight line for us to get out of their sky. They’re used to being the Kings. The Jet Lice, eager to get the image of a dozen of them taxiing away before launching as squadrons, are waiting too.

It’s a cool picture for an impossibly cool plane. Nobody cares about us. The only thing that important is that I don’t break the celebrity in the back. I glance at the airspeed.

Well. My finger finds the mic switch again.

“Tower, Foxhound One-One. Overspeeding. Going around.”

I don’t even wait for the confirmation. With the big boys dropped and the ship slow and configured for landing we’re well off the back of the power curve when I push up to full burner, guzzling twenty litres of kerosene every second, trailing columns of black smoke and dirty orange flame.

It’s a noise like something that launched an Apollo capsule. At less than a hundred feet, it borders on Seismic, rattling windows, deafening the Jet Lice and leaving a trail of terrified car alarms and blown iPhone mics in its wake. Dinosaurs long dead roar one final time as we swallow more fuel in a quarter mile than a top fuel dragster.

It is gratuitous. It is crass. It is one giant middle finger born out of frustration at being the ‘upstart’. You can’t do this shit in a Habu with an image to protect, but we can. With a little wiggle of the wings to say ‘Hi There!’ before banking it over the flight line.

I can hear laughter from behind. “I think I got a real good picture of that too.”

And I have to smile. “They just look so happy and sure of themselves down there, someone had to do it.”

Because if they want to look down on us, I figure I’m going to make them look up just this once.

Of course, the Tower is not too pleased, and neither are the Habu. The local Pilots loved it. The local Leaves hated it. Questions would be asked at official levels.

We land, and the passenger gets mobbed for his polite opinion while I get a warning. The Habu go off on their way, feathers ruffled, making as much noise as they can on the way up.

Of course it’s an impressive sight. It has to be. They can’t let the insult stand. Upstarts need to be taught their place. I knew I’d earned the unkindness of ravens, for a short while at least.

But, I think I drew a line in the sand. This is one upstart that’s not going to learn. We are not the jet that exists just to come in second, to be a killmark on a Valkyrie, or become a place for the washouts to finally washup.

We are here and doing awesome things too. And they belong to us and us alone.

Or as I explain to a bewildered Chatterbox, ‘It’s a Pilot Thing’

That’s when I knew I’d found my place.


*Russian members have since corrected me, with a barrage of transfer requests once it became clear we we’re building up to at least a full group of these with a squadron of the strike variant. And, I am told, there is vicious competition amongst the old crows to get away from the analysts desk and into the back seat. It’s nice to know that she does have admirers.

And a little Bird tells me there’ll be a book out soon, detailing the history of the Mig-25, 31 and 41. There’s a lot more to these jet’s than just being second fiddle to the SR-71. The Wings of the Red Star have their own stories to tell.

I love the smell of rotaries in the morning. You know one time, I got to work early, before the rush hour. I walked through the empty carpark, I didn't see one bloody Prius or Golf. And that smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole carpark, smelled like.... ....speed.

One day they're going to ban them.
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
(09-24-2017, 02:02 PM)Dartz Wrote: ...

I give him the short version of that explanation. It just doesn’t fit the image of The Fighter Pilot they want to become.

To which he says, “Well it seems like you guys are starting to do a lot of exciting things. Maybe you just got to sell it to them,”

I don’t really think he gets it.


I'm thinking that Noah Scott would reply similarly to the VIP here. "Do you do your job well? Then what's the problem?" Thus showing that Noah doesn't get it, either.
Rob Kelk

Sticks and stones can break your bones,
But words can break your heart.
- unknown
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
I know you really like the image of the 'nameless, faceless' line grunt pilot in these, Dartz, but I gotta ask...

Hear that thunder rolling till it seems to rock the sky?
Thats' every ship in Grayson's Navy taking up the cry!

No Quarter by Echo's Children
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
This fellow .

Flew the SR-71. Wrote a book. Became a nature photographer. Either got paid to make an appearrance and draw attention, or became genuinely curious.... Names are not mentioned out of courtesy.

I love the smell of rotaries in the morning. You know one time, I got to work early, before the rush hour. I walked through the empty carpark, I didn't see one bloody Prius or Golf. And that smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole carpark, smelled like.... ....speed.

One day they're going to ban them.
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
Not sure if anyone finds these interesting, but I'm playing with them...



Imagine you’re in a dark room. With a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. You know there’s someone else out there. You’ve got to find him and kill him, before he finds you.

So, you switch on your torch

And there he is.

Aiming his own gun at your beam.

That right there is the basic dilemma of Electronic Warfare.

It’s a game of shine and countershine. Trying to deceive enemy sensors, while trying to decipher the enemy’s deceptions. It’s about denying the electronic spectrum to the enemy, while mastering it ourselves.

It’s a game played by us Crows in test labs, long before the birds take to the air.

For your average pilot Electronic Warfare is what happens when he gets spiked by the enemy and pushes a little green button on his control column. An iPod slung under the wing records the spike, compares it to a database of signals it knows and hopefully starts playing the right music to answer.

The letter E flashes on the HUD and, if we Crows have done our job right, the missile arrives at where it thinks you are to find nothing but nothing.

We call that Electronic Offence. You’re attacking the missile’s sensors. Sometimes by straight up jamming it with raw radiated energy, but there’re cleverer things we can do that have a better chance of winning.

The missile will try and defend itself from your jamming. Either by switching frequencies or pulse rate, or, if it’s particularly sneaky, homing in on your jamming signal.

For most pilots, it’s magic. You push the button and it happens. But it’s pretty limited in what it can do. It doesn’t have the output power to jam some of the really dangerous weapons, or the smartness to defeat the really intelligent ones.

Or the ones it hasn’t been programmed with.

You can buy these for your personal craft, but be aware that they do get old quickly.

Going up a level in the technology game brings you to the Phantasmagoria pods produced by Orion and similar. These don’t just keep you safe, they let you attack the enemy directly. They’re basically just bigger, smarter and more capable versions of the basic iPod, with more power, more emitters and more receivers.

Fit them as a FAST pack to a Valkyrie-L and you have now have a spacecraft dedicated to finding and destroying enemy electronic installations, while doing its level best to avoid being killed in the process. These are the ones who fly in ahead of the main strike force, and kill the enemy defences before they kill your friends.

These sensor pods record what is hitting them, identify the type and model of sensor, and then train your anti-radiation missiles on the sensor, programming them with the right electronic solutions to home in on their targets.

A smart enemy of course, will realise the missile is riding their signal and defend themselves with the simple and effective method of hitting the ‘OFF’ switch, leaving your missile to either go ballistic or take its best guess at where the enemy used to be. Unless you’re using any sort of remote guidance this usually results in a miss.

Which is why your normal Valkyrie-L on an interdiction mission will carry other weapon types, based on either infra-red or optical guidance.

Which are both still technically part of the electronic spectrum.

These FAST packs do have the ability to record some data and so can be used for reconnaissance but in general, they lack the memory and sensitivity to do much better than record and identify what emitters are present.

Bellcom packs on their 1-L’s are a little different from ours – they’re far more capable in the electronic environment for a start, but that’s another story.

To actually get a ‘take’ which can be used to develop a useful electronic signature takes a dedicated spacecraft with the appropriate sensors and memory capacity.

The Peacemakers we used originally could be flying laboratories, but were too slow to escape if attacked so needed a full escort wing with them.

Some Blackbirds were refit for their former role, with the missile compartments, cannon emplacements and zigs replaced. We call them Ravens. Some people like to call them Senior Citizen – as most of the frames are original-builds from ten years ago.

With a full crew aboard, these are still the mainstay of our ELINT and MASINT forces. They are still the fastest spacecraft in their weight class, still have the best sensor capability of any spacecraft we operate, and have five people huddled in the rear compartment to operate that equipment.

Since we built them, they’ve been upgraded and refit as technologies have changed. We’ve just recently added manadynamic capabilities to them. New engines let them keep up with the majority of strike forces.

These are spacecraft more concerned with the ‘take’, with gathering the most information possible, from as far out as possible. They datalink information to friendly spacecraft to advise on what threats are out there, and then either enable friendly to engage those threats electronically, or do so themselves.

They’ve enough radiative power that they can work on countering multiple threats at once, as effectively as a Phantasmagoria could counter one. We always had someone onboard who could work up new solutions against hardware that’d never been seen before, and implement it there and then running on the main computers as a software module. We also had VI support to help anyone be effective in an emergency.

The majority of our systems worked in hardware. That is, somebody went and built a chip, or a discrete component, that performed a very specific task. An application specific integrated circuit. This is still the most efficient way. General purpose computers can do the same thing, but doing it in software requires much more processing power.

Far more than can be fitted in an iPod or Phantasmagoria.

So, when that Blackbird or Peacemaker comes back to base, its ‘take’ makes it to my desk, where I analyse it, filter it, and work through it to come up with a countermeasure, or combination of countermeasures, that can be programmed into the next generation of iPods. There’s dozens of us working either with mockups of enemy systems, or prototyping out countermeasures using either raw computing power or FRASIC’s the we can flash and which are almost as fast as dedicated chips, but are I-could-buy-a-moon expensive.

The Foxhound is a little like my desk in a spacecraft. That does .19C.

It has a similar level of computing power to the Raven – coming up just a little bit short by virtue of being smaller. It has poorer sensor resolution and less radiative power. The IDAR array is unique, but it can only detect active drive fields, so doesn’t help against silent targets or anything flying ballistic.

In terms of raw technical capability, its specifications on paper are nothing to write home about. Even the astonishing speed is as a result of compromises in the engines on life and manageability.

It demands a pilot who understands propulsion systems and engineering, with some knowledge of aeronautics.

What makes it special and interesting is the onboard databus system called ‘Central Despatch’ that basically turns it into a high speed mobile laboratory and test rig. Every single function of the onboard computers, every hardware item, every sensor, every emitter, the navigation and autopilot system – even the weapons – are mapped into the computer’s file system with their own namespace, communicating using a common data pipe rather than through dedicated individual protocols.

And all of it is on-the-fly reprogrammable through a visual function-block interface. With real-time feedback so it’s possible to see the results of your program as you generate them.

Running them in software takes a lot of computer power so limits the amount of – or the speed of - simultaneous work you can do – but it’s also possible to add dedicated hardware items to the bus to do some common work. The spacecraft’s hardpoints can be tied into the databus, letting you add external processing power, or additional sensors or emitters, as required. Even the comm-system, if you want to share data with another bird, or map a sensor on that bird to your own system.

If you need more speed on some common operation, you can even flash routines you’ve written to a quartet of high performance FRASIC modules. Or export them in VHDL when you get back to the lab to build a hardware module capable of doing the same thing, then add that to an external hardpoint.

It’s a multiplier for a single operator, letting me do the work of a full crew.

There are technical drawbacks, of course. There is a cooling load to consider, and the cooling systems are vulnerable to enemy fire, or to overload if you are not careful with your thermal management.

It also relies on having an operator– an Information Systems Officer – who knows what they are doing, and understands what each individual module is supposed to actually do. There’s no ‘push-to-jam’ or ‘push-to-analyse’ – only the tools there for you to do the work.

They turned to us desk jockeys and researchers to find the right people. Nobody sits in the back seat of one of these without being an Old Crow – preferably with a few papers to your name in the Journal of Electronic Defence. It’s easier to train someone with a Crow badge to act as flight crew, than it is to train someone with flight experience, to act as a skilled Crow.

Which is why you will see very few, if any, of these anywhere. They gather in places only where you find just the right combination of skills. Most of the people who have those skills, often have the skills and backing to have built their own personal tools already.

But that’s not what attracted me to the Foxhound.

For the first time in my career, I can feel the battles I knew I’ve been fighting. It’s exciting to see the effects of your work in real time. To guide a missile to a target, or feel the thrill of discovering a new type of hardware, and defeating it before it can shoot us down.

Everyone needs to get out of the lab once in a while, and I can think of no better way.


As a side note, if you’re feeling up for a challenge or would like a taster of what it takes to be a Crow flying one of these, try Aces High - a space combat simulator by the bird’s designer. A lot of what we do is heavily abstracted away, into a game of match the signatures, but there are still similarities. You still need to select the correct counter for each threat – although it does give you hints – and build up a program to link receiver through processes to output. And you need to watch your system loads, and how thin you’re spreading your capabilities. You can’t be effective against everything out there, as much as you’d like to try.
The real challenge in this mode is target identification and prioritisation. Some threats just aren’t worth defending against because they’re not really a threat. Others might kill you without you ever recognising the danger – like ARMS. It forces you to think and try to analyse.
But there is nothing more frustrating that not being able to apply a solution that I know works, but which the system won’t let me try because it’s designed for casuals.
You will also need to find someone to be your chauffeur. The AI pilot is a bit stupid.

I love the smell of rotaries in the morning. You know one time, I got to work early, before the rush hour. I walked through the empty carpark, I didn't see one bloody Prius or Golf. And that smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole carpark, smelled like.... ....speed.

One day they're going to ban them.
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
Ah, a look into the backseat. Good to see the other half of this equation, Dartz!
Hear that thunder rolling till it seems to rock the sky?
Thats' every ship in Grayson's Navy taking up the cry!

No Quarter by Echo's Children
RE: [fic] Bus Driver
The obituary of the dogfight has been written by wiser men than I dozens of times over.

And so we re-learn the lessons of the dogfight many times over, and realise to our amazement that, a century after the death of the man himself and ten AU from the Western Front, the Dicta Boelcke still holds true.

We train to dogfight every spacecraft we fly, whether it would normally be expected or not. If it carries a cannon and can fit a defensive missile, we train. Because sometimes you have no other option but to fight – no matter how ‘disadvantaged’ you are on paper. Because when to ships are in knife-fighting range pilot skill still makes the difference.

That said.

No sane pilot ever wants to get himself into a dogfight.

A true Ace, the truly gifted pilot, sneaks up on his prey and blasts them from the sky before they even know they are under attack. Their first warning of your attack should be the scream of their RWR as the missile you shot at them from an AU away finally goes Pitbull, followed by the sudden experience of drifting in their underwear through open vacuum.

If you know where the enemy is, and he has no idea you are there – you get to make the first move. Try make it the last.

If you spot the enemy after he’s spotted you, and you are aware of him, you can counter his move. You can then start creating problems for him to solve, make him work for the kill – and either stay alive long enough to get help from a friend, or to turn the table.

If you see nothing. You die.

It doesn’t matter what you fly, that simple equation means that the Pilot with better situation awareness will always last longer than the one who doesn’t.

75% of pilots die without ever knowing they were under attack.

90% of guys and girls die without ever getting the chance to fire back.

But sometimes, either through a combination of pooch-screwing and bad luck, you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to fight it out. Either you’ve misjudged your prey’s energy state and been forced into a fight you can’t disengage from, or you’ve been caught by surprise through some combination of technology, deception or just plain them being sneakier than you managed to be

Now, you’re into a proper dogfight.

We are the worst dogfighter in the Roughriders inventory. Even the F6D’s can out-energy and outmanoeuvre us and those things are slow, patrolling, missile-boats that plink their targets from an AU out and then RTB. We have the longest turn time, the lowest G-limit and the worst acceleration below .8C among things that can exceed that speed.

It’s also what makes the Bitch an utter Bitch to dogfight with. While we can start with a massive energy advantage from our sheer speed – it’s quickly eroded away, and once we get slowed down, isn’t very quick in coming back either.

If we ever have to knife-fight with an enemy fighter, someone, somewhere has drastically fucked up.

But we still train to do it. Because it will eventually happen. And when it does, the bad guys won’t accept ‘We didn’t train for this’ as an excuse.

I can tell you how this actually went.

It didn’t happen to us. It happened to the prototype, and an unfinished Attack variant, that had just been fitted with cannon and a reflector gunsight – and a basic radio set.

They’re on a transit flight, in a two ship formation with the original Prototype, Riding Hi-Streamer as the lead and the unfinished Rebecca Brown flying alongside, being escorted. They’re going by Foxhound Alpha, and Bravo

They enemy had previously been informed of the flightplan through a leak, so was able to make a close intercept without using active sensors. The enemy also had access to classified data on Hi-Streamer’s sensor and IDAR array through the same leak, and so had been able to mask their approach right up until the final moments.

As they cruised, fat dumb and happy on a simple milk-run., they were in the process of being surrounded by an enemy that couldn’t be detected by conventional sensors. And that enemy was moving into attack position. The situation is quickly assessed as five against two.

Or a pucker-factor of a full eleven.

Both ships are travelling at a slow cruise speed to conserve fuel – and so will struggle to out accelerate their opponents, and will definitely fail to out accelerate the first shot from the ones taking position ahead of them, or behind.

They are now Aware they are in a very bad situation. But now they can do something about it.

The enemy is missing a small part of the picture – but an important part. All they see is their prey, sitting fat dumb and happy. The lead ship, Alpha, is able to slave two missiles to its IDAR array through Central Despatch, then drop them from the rails.

The missiles invert, fly dead astern to where they’ve been told to expect the enemy lurking, and go mad-dog looking for anything to kill.

The two ships going dead astern die in a fireball.

The two biggest threats have been eliminated. The odds are now 3 to 2.

Both Foxhounds now try to disengage by throttling up. This builds energy, but also gives a chance of avoiding the fight entirely – always the better option. The enemy takes a shot at each, forcing them to maneuver, costing them energy and snarling them up

The enemy focuses on the Alpha, attempting to disable it or eliminate it as support – it’s the only ship with working sensors and comms so without it, they’re blind. The ISO aboard Alpha is able to defeat three fired missiles. Two are defeated by conventional countermeasures. A sixth and final, is defeated kinetically, leaving the lead low on energy, but still moving.

The enemy blew their missiles, hoping for a quick win and the quick kill bonus.

All five ships, some of the most advanced ever built, are down to throwing high speed lumps of metal at each other. This is sticks and stones stuff, the stuff of our grandfathers in Mustangs and Messerchmidts, or Sopwiths and Fokkers.

The Foxhound flight moves to an abeam formation, with Alpha providing radio updates to the Bravo.

Both pilots coordinate their efforts to set up a mutual defense. By running abeam and coordinating their manoeuvring into a crossing weave they are able to clear each other’s tail, spoiling an enemy’s shot, by forcing them to risk taking a hit in turn.

The enemy is able to out-turn, out energy and out manoeuvre them both, but just by mutual coordination they are able to defend themselves with their own cannon.

An enemy fighter closes in for a gun-kill, Pilot spotting an opportunity as the lighter Bravo gets out of step with Alpha. Alpha’s pilot makes another hard break, spending the last of their energy to stay alive for a few more seconds. It passes in front of Bravo trailing an enemy fighter going full fangs-out for the kill.

The pilot of Bravo, using only a reflector sight, lines up the shot and fires. The 30mm cannon dumps the majority of its ammo in a two second burst. The third bandit gets his fangs stuck in the deck – flying through the stream of cannon shells, gaining some terminal cockpit ventilation for his trouble.

The ghost of John S. Thach is probably amused to see his old tactic still effective.

It’s now two against two.

But taking the kill-shot has moved the second out of position, and left lead dangerously low on energy. One of the two remaining fighters moves in for the shot, approaching from beneath the cold six.

A snap-roll evades the worst of the fire, but still Alpha is damaged. One engine is smoking and losing oil pressure, they have hydraulic damage, cooling system damage and are leaking fuel from a hole in the left wing-tank It won’t be long before the damage becomes disabling.

Both Alpha and Bravo try again to disengage, Alpha’s damaged engine reduces her speed. They gain energy, but not separation.

Again, they revert to a beam defence, covering each other from both remaining enemy fighters. It’s a losing match. Both of them will run out of energy before the enemy, but the longer you stay alive, the more time you buy, either for the enemy to make a mistake, or for help to come.

Bravo’s pilot knows she’s low on ammunition, so passes up on some good shooting opportunities for better ones.

The enemy realise she’s not shooting, and start pushing their attacks harder on the damaged Alpha, scoring more hits.

The ship’s now crippled, leaving a trail of vapour through space. The damaged engine finally fails, leaving them to fly with one motor. Most of Alpha’s sensors go dark without power. Another hard break leaves them slow and floundering in the sky – but buys another few seconds of life.

Spend the energy you need to spend, to stay alive. There’s no use keeping your energy, just to take it to the grave. A few more seconds of life is worth all you’ve got.

A snapshot from Alpha’s guns takes chunks from an enemy’s fighter that got cocky and misread the roll, passing through the gunsight.

Bravo goes Winchester trying to finish the enemy off.

Alpha’s reduced to being able to make left turns, and just about fly straight and level with the stick hard over. The left engine’s welded itself together, the right is busy overheating from being held at full throttle for so long.

They’re basically dead. Out of ammunition. Almost out of time.

The cavalry arrive in the form of a full squadron of Woodsman drones, backed by the Simurgh. Both remaining enemy fighters promptly Go Away in quite spectacular fashion.

The Rebecca Brown survived the fight without damage.

The Riding Hi-Streamer made it to base under its own power, before suffering a gear collapse on landing which broke the damaged wing off. It was written off as irreparable.

These were two pilots with no previous combat experience and minimal training. The mercenaries who attacked them, were, on the other hand, were experienced fighters, but no real team training.

Individually paid by the kill – they were a squadron of lone wolves rather than a pack of hunters. They did not work well as a team, especially when the top dogs who’d gotten themselves into position for a killshot got themselves killed in return.

Both pilots survived, because they employed basic level teamwork and tactcs Just by employing basic fighter tactics and working together, they defended themselves against a superior force and stayed alive long enough for help to come.

So, when I get asked about why we even bother to do dogfight training in the one ‘fighter’ that should never, ever be taken into a dogfight – I point at the one time it happened, where the most basic level of pilot skill and ability to dogfight made all the difference.

I love the smell of rotaries in the morning. You know one time, I got to work early, before the rush hour. I walked through the empty carpark, I didn't see one bloody Prius or Golf. And that smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole carpark, smelled like.... ....speed.

One day they're going to ban them.

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