Lightning On The Moon
Capture In The Sky
Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota
September 15th, 1989
An extraordinary full moon watched over the airbase as the eerie sounds of an all-out scramble of fighter jets shot through the night.
Air raid sirens wailed, shattering the deep sleep of airmen and officers who tumbled out of their barracks to join the full alert. Forming teams that filled up jeeps and cars, they raced off across streets and runways, lights flashing like fireflies.
A fleet of vehicles carrying support crews screeched to a stop by the squadron of F-16 Falcon jet interceptors standing in readiness outside a darkened hanger. Flight crews poured out onto the tarmac, and two first-rate pilots climbed up, then jumped into the open cockpits, tripping switches to ignite their engines.
Streaking in fast and silent from high up beyond the outer edges of the base, an immense, shining circular craft swooped smoothly down low across the main runway and moved across the field to halt in position just above the control tower at the center of the facility. A shaft of blinding white light winked on beneath; the structures below lit bright as day. Moments later, the beam dimmed and the domed disc streaked straight up, moving hundreds of feet and stopped, then zipped away, zigzagging in a wide arc. An intense white flash radiated under the body of the craft as it jumped off to fly to a point many miles away where it came to a standstill, dazzling far brighter than any star visible in the dark skies beyond.
Instants later, the two F-16’s screamed down the runway at full throttle towards takeoff speed, afterburners thundering, and blazed into flight, soaring up into a steep climb. They turned into a tight right bank, starting to close in on the intruder hovering in the distance, as a parade of multi-colored lights pulsed brightly around its outer edges in repetition.
Inside the tower radar room, other airmen arriving were shaking off sleep, yet senior air controller Major Mike Lipton was in top condition, fully awake as he rushed in, saluting night watch radar man Lieutenant Greg Moore in a transfer of authority, discharging him from duty.
“Down in silo A-43, sir,” Moore said, “checking a security breach on a missile. Something’s set off all the alarms.”
“Get him up here,” Lipton directed the lieutenant firmly as he slid down onto the hot seat in front of the main radar display. “Now!”
“Yes, sir,” Moore replied. He grabbed the security phone to make the call that would work its way up through the chain of command and rush the general to the tower for any combat activity.
Lipton slipped on the headphones and observed the earliest stage of the swift interception racing across the big green screen. He peeked over the shoulder of Lieutenant Peter England, the altitude air traffic controller seated next to him. Lipton got a fix on the altitude of the intruder, then snap-calculated the closing distance of the fast-moving pursuit.
Moore huddled over Lipton to give him a quick update. “It buzzed the base twice in the last twenty-two minutes. From zero, it took off and we calculated it jumped to Mach 3 in a split second and, just as fast, the target came back here to perform some incredible maneuvers right over us, then raced out to the position on the screen,” he concluded. Moore leaned over to finish in a forceful whisper. “They’re here, Mike.” [i]
Lipton nodded. “I saw it,” he stated, then bluntly dismissed the topic to reset the main radar’s beam from making a full circular sweep to a beam that scanned a narrow, back-and-forth perspective which took in only the paths of the F-16’s and the target of their assault.
“Lipton here,” the tactics controller signed on crisply. “Check in, Demon Dogs. Squawk IDs.”
“Roger, Minot. Demon Dog One,” senior pilot Major Jim Cafferty came on. “Welcome to the late show, sir,” he added casually, his interceptor shuddering with the side effects of afterburner-assisted thrust, giving it all she had to reach supersonic speed.
“Minot. Roger, One,” Lipton followed up. ”We’ve got a very special guest for you fellas this evening. Look heading 52 degrees, 12 miles out and stationary at ninety-five hundred feet.”
“Dog One. Roger, Minot. Can’t miss him. Dog One out.”
“Minot, Demon Dog Two.” Captain Tom Shanker logged on as he neatly jockeyed his Falcon snug into the formation slot behind Cafferty’s. A young pilot, he fingered at the flip-top cover protecting the launch trigger for his weapons—six lethal sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Only Lipton’s go ahead for an air-to-air strike was needed. “Up for duty, sir!” he reported in.
Thundering through the darkness, the supersonic assault was covering ground fast. The Falcons scattered a deafening set of wide sonic booms over the quiet farmlands below.
“Minot. Closing,” Lipton said to estimate their separation from the UFO. “Six miles.”
Sidewinder missiles were heat-seekers and Cafferty seriously questioned whether the intruder target had any hot spots to seek. Their only other option was to radar-guide all the missiles fired into the large target blip displayed on the radar screens. “Dog Two, Dog One. Heat-seeking’s no good for this. Launch with radar,” he alerted his flight partner while activating his weapons system and switching it from a ‘heat’ to ‘radar’ function. “Locking to target. Copy me, Dog Two?”
“Dog One. Dog Two confirming,” Shanker followed suit on his own system. “Locked.”
In less than a minute’s steep climb, the jet fighters had reached an altitude slightly higher and above the motionless adversary.
“Minot. Closing…” Lipton reported, “…four miles.”
“Minot, Dog One. Penetration. Dog Two, cut the burners,” ordered the mission leader. “Maintain 800.” Throttling back from max speed, the aviators slowed to around 800 miles an hour, a feat that demanded very keen handling at night.
An aeronautical engineer by trade, Cafferty was a highly skilled flight instructor who’d qualified many a combat pilot. He shifted his eyes up from the dimly lit instrumentation to size up the spectacle ahead. Glowing softly a bright, pale yellow―at times orange―against the starry sky, the body of the invading craft featured a slowly paced sequence of red, blue, yellow and green lights strobing in regular sequence around its bottom rim.
“Dog One. Dog Two, we’re on top. Orient to target,” Cafferty signaled. Both men nosed their warplanes down slightly to position the Falcons into an attack attitude.
“Minot.Three miles. Dog One, Two—still movin’ in way too hot,” reasoned Lipton as his jets were open to pre-emptive attack. “Slow to 200. Flaps twenty-five.”
“Dog One. Roger, Minot,” Cafferty acknowledged. “Out.”
“Dog Two, Minot. Affirmative—they know we’re coming,” Shanker obeyed and broke his jet out to the side to safely execute the procedure. They eased back on their speed again and lowered their main wing flaps to the first setting to boost lift in the slower speeds. The savage howl of the whining jet turbines hushed down into a drone. The thrill of the sight rushed through Shanker.
“Amazes the hell out of me,” he commented on the air.
Cafferty looked down the sleek nose of his F-16 to take his first hard look at what they were up against. In more than twenty years of service as a fighter pilot, he’d racked up well over three thousand hours of flight time, but even with the constant intelligence training on foreign aircraft provided by the U.S. Air Force, the combat-hardened flyer couldn’t recall any known design to match what he was seeing. Nothing remotely close. Even watching the super-sized craft from a distance was an absolutely phenomenal experience.
“Dog One, Minot. Tell ya right now,” Cafferty said in hard-edged Texan, “there ain’t any Russians ridin’ in this one.”
The glimmering intruder took the form of a sharply-rising, arched dome that flowed smoothly up and over on all sides, creating a bulge at the bottom of the body that rested atop a shallow-bottomed disc. Cafferty’d always joked to other pilots that UFOs were ‘unconventional flying objects’ being flown by interplanetary stunt pilots. Secretly to himself―and like many other combat pilots with years of flight time―from time to time he harbored a hope to luck out with the rare opportunity to see one while aloft. Now here he was, coming up on what was, in his mind, a true dream baby of one. [ii]
“Dog Two. Big Dog, just what in hell are we talkin’ about here?” Shanker asked with wary reluctance.
“Stick around, Little Dawg,” Cafferty coaxed him on. “Might learn somethin’ new tonight, kiddo.” He came back on seconds later. “The size of it,” he radioed out awestruck as the craft’s details became more clear to him. “Gotta be fifteen stories tall.” Cafferty was certain it was a spacecraft, at once fascinating, yet intimidating―its intents unknown.
“It’s a little over half a football field wide,” Shanker came back. “It’s a monster.”
Cafferty didn’t dare chance second-guessing the capabilities of an opponent who likely possessed vastly superior weapons, kinds only imagined by the best minds in the nation’s weapon labs. Before he could carry out any offensive attack, standing orders required him as the mission leader to proceed by rules of engagement. Authorization for a strike had to be made by Lipton.
If they hit it with all they had, a debris field could spread out over an area much larger than the remains of the craft recovered at Roswell, a tale that had circulated among Air Force pilots for years.
Cafferty recalled the time he joined in with some other senior Air Force pilots in hallway talk that brought up the Roswell buzz, the wild story of a crashed flying disc that originated with transport pilots who once flew for the 509th Bomb Group based in Roswell, New Mexico. They were the aviators who dropped the A-bombs on Japan in 1945, then went on to recover the remains of an extraterrestrial spacecraft two years later in the northern part of that state. This once highly classified tale had rapidly spread among pilots and servicemen in other military branches.
In mid-1947, the Army Air Force hastily wrote a cover story about the apparent accident of a flying disc to create the impression that the thing was obliterated when it hit the ground during a furious thunderstorm. At the ranch north of Roswell, the fictional crash site was said to be three-quarters of a mile long and several hundred feet wide.
According to that version of the story, a remarkable example of spacecraft engineering actually had been discovered in the form of a fairly intact flying disc deliberately left for the Army to find just days prior to the Roswell event. This was found in a stretch of desert near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Barely damaged, only its engine was missing.
A doll-like alien mannequin was propped up beside the shell of the small, slender saucer like disc, which was then secretly dismantled and shipped to Washington where it was inspected, then shipped to Wright-Patterson airfield in Dayton, Ohio.[iii]
In comparison, the spacecraft confronting Cafferty and Shanker was enormous. At this altitude, Cafferty speculated that their missiles might decimate it into a million pieces―if they weren’t knocked out themselves first. The resulting devastation would rain down heavily over many square miles of the North Dakota farmland below.
Cafferty reached for his trigger gate. “Dog One. Minot, ready to confirm engagement,” he alerted Lipton.
“Dog Two. Minot, Dog One—ready to engage,” Shanker followed, sounding cocky. “Let’s bring in that big score.” The deadly rockets were radar-linked to the unidentifiable opponent, each pilot’s thumb tensed tight over their trigger, combat ready.
With no reply, Cafferty repeated, “Minot, Dog One. Major Lipton, are we cleared to engage?”
As Shanker’s comment hung in the air among the radar crew, tension notched up with every tick of the clock.
“Stand by men,” the major held them off, playing for time to strategize. Orders for an offensive operation required a commander’s decision, not Lipton’s. In the commanding officer’s absence, his duty was to assess the existing threat. How real was it? A seasoned tactical pilot himself, he had a background in precision tactics, but this situation posed many unknown risks on the ground, too, including possible civilian casualties that might occur on the many farms beneath the conflict. Above all, Lipton had to consider the security of the nuclear arsenal of ten intercontinental ballistic missiles housed below ground in their silos along the outer perimeter of the base. Why was the intruder playing such provocative games? What was its true agenda?
Suddenly, the whole instrument panel in Cafferty’s F-16 went dark, flashed on again in sections, then failed, starved for power. Flight system units came on separately for split seconds, malfunctioned—then died out.
“Dog One, Minot. Got big troubles here,” he notified the tower calmly, but loud enough to be heard above the shrill emergency alarms that had begun to sound in the cabin.
In Shanker’s cockpit, the same conditions erupted. Warning alarms buzzed frantically and a panic of flashing lights–red, white and amber–flooded the cockpit. “Dog Two, Minot..,” he blurted, his voice raised, “…something’s gone wild here, too!”
The severely garbled reports of the hectic crisis unfolding in the sky only amounted to noise in the tower, where they were only partly heard. Lipton knew some kind of hell had broke loose out there when he saw the F-16 blips begin to flicker, stalled in place on the large display. Concerned that both jets might have been hit and were falling, he conferred with the altitude radar man.
“England,” Lipton asked the captain at that other radar screen, “where are they?”
“Holding at 10,000 feet, sir,” England informed him.
In the pitch black sky, a severe shaking started to rattle the sturdy Falcons. The aircraft pitched around, wobbling up, then down, shuddering like they’d blundered into a gusty zone of air turbulence.
Right off, Cafferty knew better than to blame turbulent winds and searched through his intimate knowledge of F-16 operational features, unable to recall any known engineering flaw that would explain the symptoms. Cafferty suspected that both jets were being roughed up by some form of technical harassment.
Cafferty recalled the mysterious aerial entities that came to be called the Foo fighters by WWII airmen who saw them tagging along just off the wings of military flights.[iv] Other pilots tagged them ‘gremlins’. Perhaps, he theorized, similar unseen forces had come onboard. The gremlin-like beings from the spacecraft had invaded both jets and took over the sensitive flight control systems. They were directly manipulating the intricate electronic instruments that ran the F-16’s main directional control surfaces, beating the controls silly in a rapid-punch, one-sided fight that the spacecraft owners from afar were well equipped to carry out. Cafferty imagined one gremlin hard at work on his jet fighter, while another was playing havoc on Shanker’s.
Just then, Cafferty sensed a presence reaching into his mind.
The control yoke in Shanker’s hand wrestled against him viciously as he tried to override it. His feet remained firmly placed on rudders that wretched around on their own―command of his F-16 had been taken over by…who?
The threat posed by the spacecraft’s superiority left Shanker feeling despise for the power this force possessed. Second-to-second in the bright, double bursts of his strobe light, he caught snapshots of Cafferty’s jet careening, thrown around, wings swaying high. Suddenly, he caught sight of Cafferty’s wing moving in fast, the whole jet coming at his belly first—with one of his missiles about to be nicked by Cafferty’s wingtip.
In the darkness, Shanker’s jet shuddered as his missile collided with Cafferty’s wingtip. He rapidly applied all his might to wrenching the control yoke stick to the right, moving his jet away to avert what could have been a fatal collision. Shanker let out a breath of relief. Somehow, the young pilot had momentarily overpowered whatever was struggling against his fighter. Or, Shanker tried to recall, did he feel his controls released for seconds, long enough to bring his jet craft back into control―and save them both?
Cafferty was certain that, whoever was causing their torment, they intended to put them through a stress test, using extreme force to search for structural weak points which could create the destructive conditions able to tear apart a soundly built aircraft. Over the racket, he could hear his mighty engine gasping furiously for air–a sure sign that both F-16’s were at risk for engine flameout and loss.
“Dog One,” Cafferty shouted over the confusion, unsure he was heard in the radar room. “Controls lost!” he yelled.
In Minot’s radar room, only the word “…lost!” crackled from the speaker. Lipton looked at the second hand on the clock to time the emergency and then back to the pursuit on the screen.
“Powe…” Cafferty’s clipped-off message squawked into the tower. At first, Lipton chose not to cut into the cross talk between the pilots and what little could be heard of their choppy, badly broken-up messages. “England, how they holdin’ up?” he asked.
“Still at 10,000, sir,” the altitude man confirmed.
“Dog Tw….” Shanker’s words sputtered in.
“Stay wi…me, Thom.” Cafferty was heard, his words in pieces.
Lipton counted the seconds off. “Minot. Roger me,” asserted Lipton. “Steady in the storm, men. Roger me, Dogs,” he boomed, to be sure they heard him. “Check in, Dogs!”
Shanker knew the tower couldn’t help even if Lipton got their calls. Disruptions were interrupting electric and fuel supplies to the engines. The powerful jets pulsed off, then on again, buffeting each man around fiercely. [v]
Cafferty fought to tame his interceptor using the minimal manual controls still available to him. He saw his compass slowly revolving—an impossibility, since he’d kept enough of a visual fix on the target to know it hadn’t budged. Tossed around, Cafferty sharply cursed the intimidator.
All at once, his F-16 rolled over and stopped, turned upside down. Struggling with a roll system that was fixed in place, his face cringed in anger.
“…we launch?” Shanker’s tension-filled call for a strike echoed in the tower. By Lipton’s count, over fifty seconds had elapsed. He knew that each pilot’s defensive mood was building stronger by the second. To prevent them from firing at will, he had to issue an order tempered by restraint, remaining cool and composed―but would they hear him?
“Minot. Do not engage,” he instructed them crisply. “Repeat. Hold fire. Repeat. Minot. Do not engage. Minot. Hold fire.”
“Dog One. Affirmative, Minot,” Cafferty managed to respond amidst terrific disorientation. He hard muscled the tight control yoke that resisted his attempt to roll the jet back over topside. In awkward jerks, the F-16 tipped around to right itself again and he resumed the battle of manually maintaining the jet’s stability otherwise.
“Dog Two. Roger that, Minot,” Shanker replied loudly. Highly aggravated with the hassles, he felt his warplane waffling up and down nose first, a signal that the F-16 was about to snap up into a perilous flip and spin recklessly out of control. Seriously disoriented, then he realized that he no longer had Cafferty’s Falcon anywhere in sight.
Then, just as fast as it began, the chaos stopped.
Both engines roared back to life. Each F-16 started a recovery and stabilized in free flight, just as designed. All of their flight systems returned, fully operational, and the badly shaken pilots reacted instantly to take full control over their jets. They maneuvered each jet back into smooth flight.
“Ooowhee Doggies!” roared Cafferty in relief. “What a workout that was!” he shouted and scanned his jet’s readouts. “Dog One. We’re back in business.”
“Dog Two. What from hell was that?” screamed Shanker in a tizzy.
“Gremlins,” Cafferty teased Shanker, “out.”
“Dog Two. We’re sure earnin’ our pay tonight,” groused Shanker. Agitated, he looked around trying to find Cafferty and wondering what “Gremlins” referred to. “Dog One,” he snarled. “Where are you?”
In the tower, Lipton looked down from the second hand—just over a minute and a half had passed since the start of the crisis. He scanned the fighter jet radar blips as they were returning to solid signals, the men on track to the target again. But, in re-plotting the distance between the warplanes and their contender, he noted a major discrepancy—the F-16s had covered very little additional ground during the conflict. They were still miles away from their opponent.
Cafferty spotted the strobe and navigation lights on Shanker’s jet above him and began to maneuver his jet upward. “Dog One. Gotcha, Dog Two. Comin’ right up behind you,” Cafferty alerted his flight partner and they regrouped into a slotted formation.
“Dog One, we almost collided,” Shanker commented in aggravation as he inspected the wingtip damaged by Cafferty’s sidewinder as much as the strobe light would allow.
“Dog One. I didn’t see anything, Thom,” Cafferty shot back. “My eyes were shut.”
“Dog Two,” Shanker growled, his voice real edgy, “you lost a missile when you hit my wingtip.”
Surprised by Shanker’s frustration, Cafferty tried humor. “Uh Oh. We coulda’ hit a cow.”
“I almost had one,” Shanker called back, clearly annoyed.
Cafferty expected the snappy come back, like always, from his longtime buddy, yet the mission leader fretted over the other pilot’s mood change. He wasn’t taking it well at all. Years back, Cafferty’d taught Shanker every trick about how to remain stable in combat, under any conditions. The ordeals being thrown at them shouldn’t have continued to needle Shanker so badly—for so long. In times since, they’d flown together as a team in fighter squadrons at U.S. airbases the world over. Never once had Cafferty ever experienced any surly antagonism, nor ever heard a complaint or word of fear come out of Shanker—until tonight.
“Dog One. You OK, little dog?” Cafferty asked. Again, he was ignored. What was happening to the happy-go-lucky, good-spirited pilot that he’d always known his young buddy to be?
Shanker’s continued refusal to reply irked Lipton and he stepped in to inject his own inquiry. “Minot; Dog Two, confirm status.”
“Dog Two. Minot, Dog One, I’m recalibrating my instruments,” griped Shanker testily a moment later. Twice, his eyes made an anxious pass over the instrument clusters to detect any signs of erratic behavior.
Reliable instrumentation is the most trusted companion any pilot has in flight and he welcomed the readouts indicating the return of his aircraft’s stability once more. “Dog Two. My 16’s straightened up and flyin’ right again,” he reported half-heartedly. The Falcon was forgiving—but Shanker was not. As he got his bearings, Shanker took a quick glance at the glowing foe coming up, then looked up to the full moon. The glowing planet gave him the jitters, too—why, he didn’t know. “Dog Two. Out,” he muttered.
“Minot. Dog One and Dog Two,” Lipton corresponded while he rechecked his math. “Ninety seconds from target.”
Cafferty checked all systems again. They passed and his sense of confidence was refreshed—until he noticed that the huge target was missing from the radar display. [vi]
“Target’s vanished off radar,” disclosed Cafferty flatly. He guessed it was being jammed or that a quirk caused by the ruthless beating the jet took prevented the radar from seeing its own reflection of the target, the unit unable to put it onscreen. Was it just his radar?
“Dog Two. I have nothing on radar either,” Shanker reported, anxious again as he expected to face renewed trials by fire. “What’s this?” Shanker objected.
“Minot, Dog One,” Cafferty called Lipton, “do you have a target?”
“Dog One, Minot,” Lipton responded, “Affirmative. Positive on radar—a large blip.”
“These guys sure know a thing or two ‘bout playin’ defense,” reckoned Cafferty, holding onto his nerve with an edgy chuckle. “Maybe we should just circle it,” he followed up.
“This close, we don’t need radar to launch,” Shanker fired back, headstrong for a strike.
“Keep your hand off the trigger, kid,” Lipton had the last word on the dilemma.
Sulking to himself, the junior pilot answered quickly. “Dog Two. Roger, sir,” he answered obediently and kept the sarcasm to himself: This ain’t the type of combat I signed up for.
Lipton tallied the confusion of unknowns. The men had no other strategic defense against the frisky troublemaker and he had no other viable offensive tactics left to play. Nothing justified keeping the pilots in extreme jeopardy—it was time to call it quits.
“Minot. Demon Dogs. Scratch mission,” he ordered. “Return to base.”
“Dog One. Roger that.” Cafferty indicated. “Dog Two, fast break right on my ‘Go’, ” he ordered.
“Dog Two. Roger,” Shanker signaled eagerly, preparing to snap roll quickly to his right—then felt his control stick stiffen, like a rod set in cement.
“Home we go,” Cafferty loudly prompted the break as he muscled at his stick control, attempting to roll out to his left—but the yoke wouldn’t give. He jammed on his foot rudders in another useless effort. “Minot. Dog One. Controls seized up,” he admitted, unwilling to go another round in this uneven fight.
“Dog Two. Mine won’t budge, either,” Shanker bitched loudly, his efforts equally frustrated.
“Dog One. Locked up.” Cafferty blurted, yanking on the stiffened control yoke again and again, yet failing to get it to yield. Its resistance riled the veteran into exasperation.
“Dog Two. What’s this now, Dog One?” Shanker asked with resentment.
“Dog One. I dunno. A minute ago, we were in great shape,” a puzzled Cafferty remarked.
The ominous craft was approaching ever closer. The fighters were completely bathed in the luminous yellow-white glare cast off by their combatant which was less than a mile off, waiting as might a silent, confident hunter.
Then, as the airmen gazed at it, an amazing sight stunned both of them—a seam on the surface of the craft’s outer shell was splitting apart and tearing open. A wide doorway was opening, exposing the brightly lit interior inside.
“It’s opening up!” yelled Shanker. “A door…”
Cafferty witnessed a large section of the lower side of the giant object yawn apart and, during the same moments, detected the wild sensation of a presence emanating from within the craft that touched a place in his mind, enticing him with wonder―and with a feeling of being warned.[vii]
Up in the tower, static cackled around the pilot’s strained voices. The blips on the radar screen were closing in on each other steadily. Lipton recalculated—maybe forty-five seconds left.
In the rigorous life of a fighter pilot, these aviators disciplined themselves to expect the worst and then meet any and all dangers while performing with level-headed agility. But as this skirmish waged on, Lipton had little doubt that his best pilots were being pushed hard towards their desperate limits.
His mind raced to come up with a move they might use to rescue themselves—and he seized on an idea for an evasive plan, but not without also thinking: God forbid this is a mistake.
“Idle jets,” urged Lipton calmly. “Drop speed and full flaps. Gear down, nose down and bail.”
“Roger, Minot.” Not a second wasted, Cafferty and Shanker throttled down fully, idling the big engines. The familiar turbine whine eased down fast until a only a whisper of air could be heard rushing past the cockpit. Landing gear lowered and then they fully engaged flaps to quick-as-possible brake speed for a rapid drop. Lipton was betting good old gravity would take hold of the F-16s, allowing the fighters to sink down off their collision course. He also hoped that since they no longer posed a threat to their opposition, the spacecraft might set the controls of the F-16s loose and liberate his men for a flight to freedom.
“Go for a steep dive, get past under them fast,” Lipton advised with a firm confidence. “Let’s see if we can’t regain functions again. Otherwise, eject!”
Cafferty watched the airspeed needle dip lower, the F-16s barely above their slowest flight speed, and he was pleased to hear his stall warning sound. The interceptors were poised at the edge of plunging into that steep dive they needed to run for it.
Each pilot anxiously watched the massive spacecraft creeping slowly higher above them at little more than a thousand feet off. The pulsing lights close by on the craft’s rim scattered a rainbow of colors into their cockpits.
“Minot. Dog One. Dropping altitude,” Cafferty reported flatly.
“We’re outta here,” Shanker yelped with renewed joy, his hopes rising as he anticipated good riddance.
“Not yet,” Cafferty cautioned, even though he was encouraged by the increase in airspeed they picked up, an indication that a fast escape was somewhere just ahead. He was about to give their wily foe his goodbye shout when, there in the bay of the spaceship, he was amazed to see a pair of blue lights flaring up from deep inside and project out towards the jets.
“Minot. Dog Two. Lights are coming on inside it,” testified Shanker. He watched as the two separate blue lights became focused rays that lit the body of each F-16. The beams intensified and Shanker went on, his voice pitched up, near panic. “They’re shining down on us now.”
“Minot. Dog One. Blue searchlights,” Cafferty confirmed the event, remaining cool. In no time, both jets slowed and then abruptly swooped upward steeply, the F-16s forward speed braking fast. The planes were being held aloft while also transported towards the ship, floating as helpless as two small, fragile birds about to be sucked into the inlet of a tunnel no more than five hundred feet away. “We’re being pulled up into it,” the lead pilot radioed out. His voice remained steady while he watched as the airspeed needle fell to zero and another alarm whooped. Cafferty slammed off the alarm. He could feel the F-16s rise into a position above the opened bay.
In quick succession, first on one F-16 and then the next, the landing lights on their wings and wheel gears flicked on. A split second later in the cockpits the switches for the wing landing lights clicked on.
“Chrissake,” Shanker hissed to himself. Sweating heavily and further upset by the lights, his twitching eyes fell to the override switch. “What do they want with us?” he pleaded as the thought that they might not be able to escape took him over. His heart rate picked up by dozens more beats.
“Can you eject?” Lipton urgently asked.
“This’s a trap,” Shanker cried out. Enraged, he grabbed the handle under his ejection seat for the explosive charges that would fire the canopy and seat out of his jet.
Dead weight, the crippled planes coasted towards an empty bay less than three hundred feet in the distance, with just seconds to go before they were taken in. They could see over the broad polished metal deck of the bay, a band of bold, wildly unfamiliar symbols―the hieroglyphs of a highly advanced society―spelling out some dramatic purpose or acting as identification insignias for the concourse of this terminal.
Cafferty raised his hand to test the strength of the beam. The attraction exerted on his arm was so great he had to pull back hard—bad news for surviving a bailout—but he knew that option was their only way out now.
“Bail!” Cafferty insisted.
Both pilots yanked, set to escape.
“Charges won’t fire, Mike,” reported Cafferty in quiet futility.
“N…no!” stammered Shanker, losing strength fast as he jerked on a handle that refused to yield to his struggles. Exhausted and unnerved, his mind snapped. “No go!” he mumbled weakly. The gigantic spacecraft tipped gently towards the Falcons and stopped again, ready to greet the two fighters. The F-16s rotated to towards each other, nose to nose, a position that allowed the dazed pilots a look at each other.
Engines and instrumentation shut down next—except for the radios, the only device still lit. The men listened to the shrill hum of their jet turbine, then the engines whirred to a stop.
Cafferty was amused at the moves being orchestrated. The other F-16 moved into a small lead out in front of him as a last preparation needed to bring it inside.
Shanker’s heart rate quickened. His frenzied thoughts flashed to the time a Navy pilot gave him the details on what it was like to land on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, with landing crew boys guiding the jets back onto deck again, safe, home free. But just ahead, down on the wide bay deck full of inconceivable wizardry, no human stood by. There were no flyboys waiting, ready to wave him in to safety. He tried to subdue the horrible anticipation he had that he would be overpowered by was out there, some force ready to engulf his life.
“Can’t get out,” he muttered, his voice cracking.
“I’m with you, Thom,” Cafferty assured Shanker bravely. “Easy, guy. Listen to me, son—I’m right here with you.” He hoped that the boy recalled the point that he’d hammered home every time a chaotic situation emerged: Once you let fear in, you’re finished as a pilot.
In the despairing stillness, Shanker felt a deep sense of shame at losing control of his aircraft in the blur of bizarre events. Frozen in his seat, fear grabbed hold of him and held tight.
“It can’t be…” pleaded Shanker in the grip of horrified shock. His heart beat faster and his breath was short. Weakened, he felt for sure some undesirable predator would come out to take him captive. A lone tear streamed down his face as his thoughts ran wild.
Am I gonna die inside this…monster?
Or be a prisoner on some other strange world?
“Shanker,” implored Lipton gently, “never give into fear.”
Terrified, convulsive gasps for air were all that was heard. Mid-breath, Shanker’s radio quit dead out.
Cafferty witnessed Shanker’s jet settling gently to the deck. The tightly focused beam shut off. Not about to be defeated, the fleeting feelings of fear washing over him in shivers, head to toe, felt new indeed. Strong-willed, he’d never had a use for any scare. By nature, he always resisted letting fear take hold and Cafferty returned to the relaxed patience true to his outlook and his mind cleared. He quickly recovered and thought about how he might best prepare himself to enter this advanced, even magic, realm. Tapping sheer willpower, he reasoned through it all to a most basic point:
If they wanted to kill us, they already would have―they have much more in mind.
His F-16’s left wing blazed with colorful reflections from the bright lighting inside. Squinting, his eyes darted over the complexity of the spacecraft’s cavernous bay. The softest landing possible, his tires touched the deck one at a time.
“Minot. Dog One… Jim… Thom…Please check in,” Lipton pleaded.
Again Cafferty sensed that same powerful presence probing his mind, stronger this time— but, this time, the sensation was somewhat soothing. He held off on a reply to the base and took off his helmet, crossing his arms spellbound, immersed in the delightful sights, fascinated with the metallic maze of peculiar, sophisticated-looking structures, all the moving parts, the gangs of thick cables, all so spotless. It felt splendid—an aviator’s fantasyland. He yearned for a tour of the grand vessel.
Looking to the right, he had a good view from the angled deck out over the darkened flatlands of North Dakota emptiness. Thousands of feet below, a single backyard light way down on a farm below was the only reminder of the world he’d known as headlights lit a road in the deep of night.
He tried to adjust to the physical feeling that gravity felt perfectly level below him, even though he knew full well that he was tipped slightly to the side. Cafferty tried to reconcile that uneasy sensation and, at the same time, the starship moved to reorient itself into a level position again, normal to Earth’s gravity.
The stars and full moon appeared outside the sharp edges of the bay. In those instants, his first doubts about leaving Earth came to him. A longing and regret for never again seeing home or family again overcame him. Unless they let them go.
He turned to gaze in wonder, looking over the grayish-white mechanisms blinking everywhere, seeming to indicate an important, complex function for each. Lost in a state of pure bliss, a boyhood thrill came back to him. The wonder-filled memory of the birthday gift he opened at age seven, the completely assembled, over-sized scale-model jet fighter that instilled his earliest ambition to someday fly over earth. Now, he was enchanted with an even greater excitement, a chance to take flight among the stars. He returned to looking out of the bay at the sky. If he was forced to stay with them from here on, Cafferty imagined there was much to learn about worlds on the other side of the universe.
As he watched the field of stars, another astonishment began to make a very gradual appearance at the outermost rim of the ship, beyond his wingtip.
The entire superstructure of the metal bay door was starting to take shape in front of him, materializing first as a ghostly framework, and then becoming solid. As a parting wish, he grasped at the hope to see humanity again someday.
Not about to lose this last chance to radio out, he spoke up to warn them:
“Mike, don’t come after us,” he warned soberly. [viii] “Dog One…out,” he said softly, his final words faltering. The broadcast trailed off into a loud, garbled static that dimmed, slowly blocked out as the huge bay door became a solid mass again, filling in the hole as if it had never been there. Magically, the huge restoration was over and he realized his entire world had changed, with another world about to take him in.
Captured, Cafferty, the unexpected visitor, patiently awaited fate inside his dream baby. [ix]
Mike Lipton and his men stared at the screen in shock as the three blips fused into one, pilots and aircraft swallowed up, gone into some kind of harsh nightmare. The major rapidly recovered from his own disbelief to broadcast a hopeful appeal.
“Demon Dogs, check in.”
Silence gripped the room. A sadness swarmed over everyone, including the Air Police guard stationed at the entry who swayed uncomfortably.
Seconds more passed in feverish quiet.
“Mike, don’t come after us,” Cafferty’s warning came, jarring the gloom. “Dog One… Out.”
Lipton leaped up. “Jim!” he pleaded, wide-eyed. “Give another holler, Jimmy.” But Cafferty’s transmission went to static and faded gradually into silence.
“Jim, Thom,” Lipton tried again, the hope he had beginning to drain from his voice. “Lemme hear you guys.”
They watched in horror as the single blip on the radar display broke into motion and slipped slowly out and away on a path away from the base, taking the mission to a fateful close.
Greg Moore snapped out of the daze that had overtaken him in the moments it became clear the men had met some perplexing doom.
“We must notify NORAD immediately, sir,” Moore spoke up.
Ignoring him, Lipton reset the radar up to a full sweep again to provide a long range watch over the slowly departing invader. He shook his head in sorrow at the loss of his pilots.
“My God,” the major softly murmured.
Seeking personal comfort, Moore recalled the tribute he’d seen inscribed on a building at NASA’s Space Center in Cape Kennedy, Florida. It was dedicated to America’s astronauts: “We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness and pray that they return.” [x]
The passage resonated in his mind through the wait for any peep on the radio. A half minute must have passed with nothing said, then, Moore offered all gathered a condolence, a traditional moment of grace. “Let’s pray in silence for them.”
Mike Lipton nodded, agreeing through his despair.
“At-ten-shun,” announced the guard at the entry. Everyone moved stiffly to brace at attention as their base commander, General John Evans, took big strides into the control room as if he were ready to shake things up.
“At ease,” the general barked in a rich baritone on the way over to face Lipton. Following a light salute, Evans moved in closer to press Mike in a voice kept low and thick with urgency. “What in high heaven’s going on up there?”
“Sir,” answered Lipton solemnly, “the unauthorized flight entered restricted airspace and repeatedly demonstrated hostile intent.”
“And?” the general pushed on.
“Demon Dog squadron was dispatched to confront them, sir,” stated Lipton sharply.
“What’s their status?,” asked Evans directly.
“Sir, we’ve…” Lipton began, but he stumbled, no longer able to hide the grief. The major glanced down at the big screen to recoup and get through the statement. Gathering strength again, he spoke with renewed courage. “We’ve lost them, sir.”
“Lost them?” stormed Evans gruffly. His voice echoed, then fell off into the room’s dead silence. Iron fists closed tight, he bent over and extended his burly hands onto the radar console, placing the weight of his hefty body there. He held his eyes tight to the radar blip that was drifting off towards Canada. Without looking up, the general growled out his demand, his voice lowered again. “To who?”
“To a remarkably capable adversary, Sir. We don’t know who,” the major informed him listlessly. For the first time since he set foot in the room, Lipton trembled ever so slightly, then proceeded. “Major Cafferty and Captain Shanker reported that they were…” he said as he struggled to complete the thought, “…that they were taken aboard.”
Evans turned, glared rigidly at Lipton over his shoulder, saying nothing for a short spell. “Impossi…” he balked and cut his denial short. Lipton’s report was just too preposterous. By instinct in a crisis, the commander checked his watch. In just over thirty minutes, from just before the time he’d raced out of bed to that very moment, brazen alien jackals had overrun his base, taking them completely by surprise. All the nuclear failsafe measures that they’d anticipated and rigorously trained themselves to avoid happened―they’d been taken to the brink of a nuclear launch. The intruders left behind a messy trail of technical tricks that succeeded in turning a missile defense system on end, then hit and ran off with pilots and fighter jets.
The general briefly considered resorting to another pursuit of the culprits before they retreated fully out of range. But then, he thought about his pilots: If they were living, the beleaguered Evans pondered, might they be alive out there?
Years before, at top-echelon Pentagon huddles between the commanders of every Air Force base and a steely group of military officials, there’d been a series of highly confidential readiness meetings to alert the commanders to newly-formulated procedures that had to be followed in the event of an extraterrestrial confrontation at any airbase. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were also in attendance and conducted these ultra top secret briefings for the base generals. High on the list of concerns was a specific warning that aggressive follow-up actions against extraterrestrials carried the grave risk that, if they retaliated, the risk of widespread destruction was a certainty.
Evans rejected the proposition of going after them again. His thinking was also haunted by the inconceivable sight that had greeted him and his security detail when they arrived underground in the secret lair of the Titan nuclear missile silo. They found the security systems totally compromised―the missile was ready to launch towards whatever Russian destination it was set to hit.
He thought about the blame he’d have to shoulder from furious hard-liners far up on the chain of Pentagon command. On no commander’s watch was any failure to protect a defensive nuclear missile from harm ever dismissed without an exhaustive investigation. But if there was room for any mercy on his soul, he reasoned, the facts would nullify his critics—alien scalawags were the rascals behind it all.
Evans raised himself from the console and took a step out into the room to speak to the men. “Gentlemen, we all know how hard we were hit tonight,” he announced harshly. With sympathy edging into his voice, he proceeded. “Most likely, we’ve lost two exceptional pilots, two very valued lives.”
Lipton wasn’t listening—his mind had strayed to his one remaining wish:
If angels of mercy have come, maybe they’re still alive.
“With their disappearance,” Evans began again, “and as fully disheartened as we all are right now—as badly as I feel about our losses—there’s something else I must bring up with each of you.” In ending his impromptu eulogy, the general realized that the emergency required him to invoke the highest standing order for strict security on the books of every military branch. He summoned them around him, the guard included, gesturing to points where each should stand in a circle around him and proceeded with the directive, his tone growing more severe as he delivered it. “It’s something that will bring the burden of a secret to all of you,” he stated severely “and by that I mean you’re going to have to strictly respect the order I give you for the rest of your lives.”
Taking a small step past each man, Evans made his demand with great force. “Nobody ever tells anyone what happened here this evening,” he commanded firmly. “No one.”
Stepping back to walk in the other direction, he raised a hand and jabbed a finger at them in silence, one man to the next, his gaze piercing deep as his eyes passed, one by one, across the eyes of each of them–until he’d fixed the threat in their minds.
“Not a single soul.” [xi]