By Robert D. Buckingham


POINT ZULU: Gulf of Alaska


Gale force winds whipped across the dark, cold sea as another winter storm headed towards the West Coast. High above the wind driven snow and storm tossed clouds, two USAF interceptors thundered through the cold, star speckled sky, thoughts of Christmas cheer, Santa Claus and egg-nog far behind as they closed on their target with deadly intent.

"Viper. Do you still have the intruder?" Eielson Operations radioed.

"Aye, I still have the ‘Bandit’ on my scope, Eagle one."

"Wish I did, Viper."

"Your set still on the blink, Die Hard?" Mike Fletcher’s eyes flicking between the radar screen and the dark sky trying to get a visual on the bandit.

"Hell yes, its dead." Mike Fletcher’s wingman, Lieutenant Eddy Cortez, grumbled, muttering under his breath as he tried to get his radar to work.

"Damn!" Fletcher swore. "Eagle base, do you copy?"

"Loud and clear, Viper. Still nothing on our scope either."

"Eagle Base, I have a hard contact, and it’s not a ghost! He’s at 62,000 doing Mach 1.9 and heading South by East into our airspace!" There was silence for a moment, except for the wind and the slight crackle of static in his headset, then.

"Hunter leader, your bird has one of those new radar unit, and according to the manufacturer it can see around corner and give you coffee in the morning." The radioman laughed.

"Shoot, so can my wife, but I don't see you putting her to work."

Mike followed the comment with a dry laugh. Not that there was anything funny in it. The reasons he was flying on Christmas Eve was because his wife had seen round a corner, right at the moment he was kissing someone else. It didn't do him any good trying to explain she was an old girl friend: nor that the kiss was anything more than a good-bye and thanks for the memory type kiss. She just wasn’t in the mood to listen.

Now, after a tear filled argument he’d stormed out of the house, and she and their two children were a few thousand miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Eielson Air Base spending Christmas at her parent’s house in Seattle. He on the other hand was flying through a cold dark sky chasing a 'Bandit' when he should be at home drinking egg-nog and wrapping last minute presents in front of a warm fire. It was just his luck, that having volunteered to take over someone else's duty, they’d called a scramble as the Russians decided to put a ‘Bear’ in the air. The big four engine, long range Recon aircraft had a bad habit of deliberately intruding across the border into US air space, probably just to break the boredom of a long patrol, or piss off US Air Force tracking. Some Christmas present.

Elmendorf and Eielson AFB had an ongoing feud for years to see who could get to the ‘Bear’ first and chase him back across the line. Mainly, all they had to do was show up and shoo the bird back, nothing really hostile, sometimes waving and taking photos of each other. To date Eielson had come out on top. They’d beaten the guys from Anchorage three times out of four, even thought Elmendorf was closer to the US -- Soviet border. The alert broke up the Christmas party in nothing flat, not that he was a great believer in Christmas anymore. He’d left child-hood dreams of Santa Claus and reindeer behind him long ago.

There was very little magic left in freshly fallen snow, just cold, wet stuff he had to shovel off the driveway to get the car out in the morning. Life and war had removed any lingering illusions about December 25, seeing Christmas as nothing more than a way to get into his pocket. Nowadays, it was just a nice way to spend some quality time with his wife and children and relax, but not this year. Even so, it was sad to think he wouldn’t be there and see them open their presents, or receive the hugs and kisses and hear their squeals of delight. Instead, instead, he was chasing an enemy aircraft through the dark sky at better than Mach 2, wishing he were somewhere else than in this cramped cold cockpit.

To top it off, no sooner had they gotten into the air when the ‘Bandit’ went off the scope. They orbited the patrol area for half an hour before picking anything up. Or at least he had. No one else could see it for some reason, but ‘Bear's’ don't fly at Mach 1.9 or anywhere close to that. So who, or what, the hell was he chasing? And why didn't they respond to his, or Eagle Base radio calls?

"SHIT!" He heard Eddie muttered over the radio.

"What, you see him, Eddie?"

"Hell no!" He sounded disgusted, "I just got an engine over temp light come on." Eddy radioed back, sounding glum.

"OK, you know the drill," Mike sighed, "break off and head for the barn." Nothing was going right this week.

"I copy that, skipper. Good hunting and merry Christmas."

"You to Eddy, give my regards to Helen and the kids." A quick look over his shoulder showed the navigation lights of his wingman peel off and head down and way, heading for the closest airfield.

"Eagle base, Die hard is heading for the barn with engine trouble, and I’m still closing with the ‘Bandit’. What are the ROE’s now?" He had to know what the ‘Rules of Engagement’ were, as he didn't fancy getting into a fur-ball with some unknown aircraft solo, you never knew if some of his friends might show up.

"We copy that Viper. If the ‘Bandit’ crosses into our airspace you are to pull alongside and warn him off, if necessary fire a warning burst."

"And if he doesn't turn?"

"Fall in and escort him until we can get additional aircraft to your location, and either push him back across the line, or try to bring him down to one of our bases. Who knows, its might be one of theirs trying to defect?" It was more of a joke, as that hadn’t happened for many years. With the cold war over, they could look at any Russian aircraft they wanted, and fly it, for a price.

"I copy that, Eagle base." Mike Replied, nudging the throttle forward. He felt his aerial shark respond, the navigational lights reflecting off the red nose cones of the deadly 'Hawkeye' radar guided missiles nestled under each wing.

As he closed, he kept up a constant radio call, hoping the other pilot would respond, but the radio remained silent. Slowly the gap between the two aircraft closed, Fletcher jockeying the stick to move out of the turbulence of the others jet-wash. Strangely, he couldn't feel any, and he should, especially at this speed. At a thousand yards, the gap stopped closing as the other craft picked up speed to match his.

"Son of a .....!" He muttered.

Then the intruder made a hard left bank, with Fletcher right behind him. He pushed the throttle all the way to the firewall, kicking in the after-burner to close the gap, but it didn't work. As he picked up speed, so did the ‘Bandit’ until they were both screaming through the ether at three times the speed of sound.

"Viper to Eagle base."

"Go Viper, Eagle base here."

"Eagle Base, I have a problem. This turkey is up to Mach 3 and just made a turn into our airspace, and I'm running out of legs: he’s is still not responding to radio calls."

"Viper, hold..." Then. "Viper, this is General Malcavitch."

"Yes, General?" Fletcher looked up at the heavens, now old iron ass Malcavitch was in on the act, just what he needed to cap off a frigging perfect week.

"Viper, fire a burst along side the bastard and let him know you’re there!"

"Yes, sir, but I think he already knows that."

Fletcher kept the rest of his thought to himself, and checked his position as he flicked the stick control from missiles to guns, then squeezed off two short bursts. Every third round was a tracer, and he watched the steam of bullets vanish passed the other craft, to no effect. What ever it was ahead, the pilot was ignoring him.

"No effect, sir."

"We have you on radar, but not the ‘Bandit’ ahead of you, and I confirm, you are well with-in US airspace."

"I don't know why you can't see him General, unless its something to do with this new radar unit, plus I can see a glow that has to be his engine exhaust."

"Could be, Viper One, and I'm not doubting that you can see him. At your present speed, you’ll be over the coast in less than twenty minutes."

"Wish I could get a visual identification on him, General, but I don't have the legs for it."

"Understood, Viper. We have only two possibilities here, one, the bird you are chasing is some new Russian stealth aircraft, or…" there was a definite pause in transmission, "you are chasing a UFO!" At last, someone had said the forbidden word.

"I copy that, General. And the ROE?"

There was silence from the other end, and Fletcher could imagine the argument going on back there, weighing possibility again each other. It was a tough one, especially with only his assessment to go on.

"Viper, at the current speed, we can eliminate the possibility of it being a civilian aircraft, or just some lost Russian flyer out for a joy ride." That was an understatement.

"It’s definitely not, I repeat, not a civilian aircraft, General."

"Copy that Viper. That aircraft has failed to respond on any frequency, therefore you are instructed to use your missiles and bring the intruder down," General Malcavitch voice sounded strained, even over the radio, "I say again, for the record, Captain Fletcher, you will fire on the ‘Bandit’ and splash him!"

"Aye, Sir, message received and understood."

Fletcher swallowed hard; his face set in a tight grin. Reaching up, he pulled the tabs, tightening his seat harness. It was like being over the gulf again, except this time he didn't have to worry about SAM's and triple A coming up at him.

It bothered him that he couldn’t see the other aircraft and dispel the lingering doubt that is might be a civil bird. He tried to think of any civilian aircraft that could fly at Mach 3, but other then the ‘Concord’ there wasn’t any. Whoever, or whatever, was up ahead, it definitely wasn’t civilian, or one of theirs.

His mouth felt dry and coppery as he flicked the stick switch from Guns to missiles, the radar immediately starting to hunt for a target. Within seconds, he heard the screeching note of the radar lock and the continuous Beep! Beep! Beep! Tone change to a steady signal, indicating he had a lock.

"I have radar lock on the intruder, General, preparing to fire." He said it deliberately, just in case the old man wanted to change his mind.

"Fire at your discretion, Captain Fletcher."

"Aye, sir." Clenching his jaw, and muttering a silent prier, he pressed the control to fire the missile with a gentle touch, his eyes flicking down to watch the ordinance screen.

It showed the 'Hawkeye' drop from its pylon and a moment later the bright plume of the missile exhaust as it screamed from under his Starboard wing.


"What Viper? What happened?" General Malcavitch demanded instantly.

"The SOB just went ballistic at better than Mach 5!" Mike breathed in awe. Fletcher looking up to see the intruder accelerating skyward towards the stars, the 'Hawkeye' in hot pursuit. Both vanished into the darkness, with no explosion.

"That’s impossible!" The radio spluttered.

"Maybe so, General, but I've lost him, he’s gone." Both knew there was no way his ship could pull that kind of maneuver, and it was pointless to try.

"Understand Viper, orbit the area until reinforcements arrive, then return to base."

"Understood, General." Without warning, his ATA warning system started screaming its electronic head off as it picked up an incoming air-to-air missile, coming right at him from the rear. Without even thinking, he hit the 'Chaff' and 'flare' release, dumping aluminum foil and bright magnesium flared out the tail. "I’ll be damned!" He muttered as it hit him what had happened. The ‘Bandit’ had pulled a 360 loop, bringing his own missile back towards him.

Now it was locked onto his tail, despite the chaff, flares and ECM, the electronic counter measures. The almost continuous ‘Beep!’ of the alarm telling him, he was within second of getting his tail blown off. Fletcher pulled a hard left bank in an effort to lose the missile, gee forces pulling at his body, his vision turning red at the edges. It was still there, getting closer by the second.

In desperation he threw the aircraft across the sky praying for a miracle. Then the missile detonating behind him as it ran low on fuel, triggering its proximity fuse. The aircraft bucking in the shock wave, slamming his head against the top of the canopy hard, then left and right and he felt the controls go sluggish in his hand.

The steady note of the engine changed, becoming ragged as it rose and fell, telling him he was in deep trouble. At last, Fletcher got the aircraft flying reasonable straight and level, but he still felt groggy from the impact with the canopy, despite the protection of his helmet. The altimeter looked like a clock gone crazy as his aircraft lost altitude rapidly, sinking toward to cold dark waters below.

At that moment, he saw something out the corner of his eye and his head snapped round. No more than one hundred feet off his starboard wing two reindeer came into view, then two more, and so on, until six pairs were galloping through the dark sky beside him. All of them deck out in leather harness and sleigh bells. Fletcher blinked, shaking his head hard, as the reindeer came into view, he even imagined he could hear the bells jingling.

"I'm seeing things." He muttered, shaking his head again to clear his vision. It didn't help.

"What was that, Viper? We couldn't copy your last transmission, you are breaking up."

You can say that again, Fletcher thought, feeling his aircraft shudder, the engine note dropping again. Fletcher sat dumbstruck, unable to answer as an even more incredible sigh came into view. A big antique wooden sleigh, driven by a large man in a bright red suit, his white beard flowing in the wind, smoke from his brier pipe whipping over his shoulder. A soft reddish glow surrounded the whole apparition, accounted for the exhaust flare he'd seen.

"Ho, Ho, Ho, Fletcher my boy. Nice toy you have there." A deep booming voice chuckled in his ear. Fletcher shook his head again, but when he looked it was still there, as big as life.

"Who... what... who is this?" His voice sounding more like a croak, wondering if he was hallucinating from the hit on the head. He just couldn't be seeing what he thought he was seeing, that was just plain impossible.

"Oh, come, come Fletcher my boy, you know who this is." Then to make matter worse, two elfin heads popped up from within the mound of red sacks in the rear, waving to him.

"This is Patch and Match, two of my assistants." The man in red looked over his shoulder and smiled.

"That's not possible..." Fletcher stammered, "you aren't real! You're nothing more than a children's fairy tail!" He stammered.

"Oh really, then how come so many people think I'm real," He laughed, "you did until you were ten." That hit Fletcher hard.

He hadn't admitted to anyone that he still believed in Santa at that age. He watched, as the man in the red suit pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at it.

"Yes, yes, everything’s in order." He muttered, nodding to himself.


"Yes, Michael, I have to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything."

"Yes, of course." Mike Fletcher had no idea what on Earth he was talking about.

"Well, Michael, I have to be going now, busy night you know." He said with a happy chuckle. "You are going to have a very merry Christmas this year lad, and an even happier New Year." With that, he raised his finger, tapping the side of his nose.

The two elves waving as Santa slapped the reins, giging the reindeer, and with a last wave, the sleigh picked up speed. The last thing Fletcher heard was the soft ‘hohoho’ as it vanished into the darkness ahead.

"Mayday! Mayday!" Fletcher yelled, sweat popping out on his forehead. Frantically pulling the nose up.

"Message received and understood, Viper. What is your situation?"

"My own 'Hawkeye' came back and chewed up my tail," Fletcher felt a knot of fear grip his stomach, ‘that the hell! This can’t be happening’, he thought."

"Are you ejecting Viper?"

"No, not if I can help it! I'm still airborne, but my controls are sluggish and I'm loosing power." That was an understatement.

"Stay with the bird as long as possible, Captain, it will put you closer to the coast and we can get SAR chopper out to you faster."

"Understand, will stay with the craft as long as possible."

Fletcher shuddered at the thought of ejecting. He knew he wouldn’t last ten minutes in the frigid black waters of the Gulf of Alaska, and the SAR would only retrieve his dead body.

"Switch to emergency frequency Alpha One, now." Controller ordered.

"Switching." Fletcher turned the radio control knob around to the end position, setting it to the emergency frequency without looking.

The aircraft shuddered and bucked, as if about ready to fall out of the sky, vibrating like a blender on ‘crush ice’.

"Viper, this is Rescue, do you copy?"

"Yes, I copy you Rescue, four by four." Fletcher mouth and throat were as dry as a bone as he struggled to keep the nose of the aircraft up, his hand more than once moving to the ejector handle.

"You got lucky, Viper, we have you on radar and you are clear for a straight in landing, if you can make it."

"Straight in?" His mind blanked for a moment.

"Yes Viper One, you are on the glide slope for a landing on emergency runway 002 Right."

"That's impossible!" He immediately punched a button on the instrument panel, and to his relief watched his ILS came on in his HUD, the horizontal and vertical bars of the Instrument Landing System hunting and locking on.

Impossible or not, ground control was right, he was not only on the glide slope but also in sight of land. The shrill hum of the engine under him rose and fell, shaking the aircraft as he nursed the throttle, squeezing the last drop of power out of the dying power plant.

"Maybe so, but air traffic tells me they have you are on an approach vector."

Fletcher sat there, blinking, wondering if he was in bed just dreaming all this. There was no way he could be on a landing approach, nor this close to land, not with the maneuvers he’d pulled; yet he was. Sooner than expected the distant strobe lights of the air base came into view, his bird's engines almost dying at one point. Fletcher resisted the urge to grab the ejection handle and hung on, sweating, despite the cold.

"Viper, you have passed the outer marker." Fletcher shook himself out of the dream, and started his final check for landing, setting his flaps and prayed that they still worked.

"You are looking good Viper. Passing the inner marker, now on final approach."

Fletcher set his flaps down all the way and dropped his landing gear, feeling the aircraft close to stalling as the end of runway marker flashed by.

Even the bump of the wheels hitting the tarmac didn't really jolt him out of his dream as he shot by the emergency vehicles lined up along the apron.

Then the engine died completely, and he simply hung on, waiting to run out of runway, or stop, knowing his parachute brake was useless. At last, he put the brakes on, letting out a sigh of relief as he did, hearing the engine whine down and stops. He sat there for a moment, head back and eyes closed, trying to slow his pounding heart, shaking like a leaf. The repeated hammering on the canopy brought him round, and he released it and looked at the airman on the ladder outside.

"You all right, sir?" The airman asked, a concerned look on his face as he took Mike’s helmet and helped him out.

"Yes, I think so, thanks." Fletcher mumbled and climbed out on shaky legs. He stamped his feet the moment he touched the ground, mainly to restore circulation, also to make sure it was real.

Emergency equipment surrounded him, the nozzles of the foam cannon on top of the yellow fire truck pointing at him like an accusing finger, but thank God, there was no fire.

"Wow! Your bird took a nasty hit in the tail, sir, it’s a wonder you made it at all, let alone a landing."

Fletcher looked at the tail of his aircraft under the harsh glare of the emergency lights, seeing shredded metal and dangling wires. That sent a jolt through him, and brought him back to reality.

"Where am I." He asked, unable to remember what the control tower told him.

"Yakutat, Alaska sir." For a moment, Fletcher had to think where that was. "Air Operation has informed Eagle Base that you are down and safe, sir."

"Thanks." Mike answered and turned away.

"Hey, Captain, you forgot your presents." The airman called as he walked towards the waiting Hummer on shaky legs.

"Presents?" Fletcher turning back just as the man pulled three packages out from behind his seat. "I didn't put any..." He stopped, the presents were, or should be in his locker back at Eielson. A shiver ran up his spine that had nothing to do with the sub-zero temperature. "Thanks, almost forgot those."

He gingerly took the three packages from the airman, as if expecting them to explode, wishing the crewman a merry Christmas. With a shaking hand examined the packages, turning them over, looking for the small white card with the Christmas tree in the corner.

Each had a names printed on them in his neat handwriting, and sure enough, there was one of Richard, one for Christina, and one for his wife. He looked at the shredded tail again, then at the packages, knowing where he was going now. Climbing into the passenger seat, he turned to the driver.

"Can you tell me where I can get a ride." Sounding sure of himself again. "I need to go home."

"Home Sir?"

"Yes, Seattle, where my wife and children are." The driver scratched his chin for a moment, frowning, then his face lit up and he smiled.

"We have a service flight going down there in a while, sir, you can check with Operations, but you should be able to get on, as its usually empty at this time of night."

"Thank you Airman, you have a very merry Christmas." Mike Fletcher smiled as he got out and headed for the Operation Office to check in, and arrange his flight home.

At 5:30 am on Christmas morning, a US Air Force Staff car pulled up in front of a snow covered house on the outskirts of Seattle, and Captain Mike Fletcher stepped out, returning the drivers salute. He looked at the pristine whiteness around him and smiled, thinking of snow anglels.

"Thanks, you have a great Christmas." A broad smile on his face.

"I will, sir, you too."

Entering the house through the back way Fletcher looked around, seeing the decoration everywhere, smelling the residual odor of fresh baked cookies.

Cecilia and her mother had been up late as usual, getting things ready for Christmas day. Tip-toeing into the living room, he placed the three packages under the tree with the others, then on into the kitchen to make coffee. While stripping off his flight gear and waiting for it to perk, he thought about the man in the red suit and his parting remark.

All he could do was shake his head and smile. Once the coffee finished perking, he took two mugs, added cream and sugar and went quietly upstairs. The door to the spare bedroom, Cecilia's old room was slightly ajar, and pushing it open with his toe he walked in, seeing Rufus in his position on the foot of the bed. The dog wagged his tail in greeting and looked up with warm brown eyes as if to say 'welcome home'. Three tousled heads peeking above the covers, his wife in the middle, Richard on one side, Christina on the other. Setting the cups down, Fletcher patted Rufus and scratched him behind the ear before leaning over to look at all three of them.

‘God! What a stupid idiot I am for letting this walk out of my life.’ He thought, and mentally kicked himself for the fool he was.

"I love you and I'm so sorry." He whispered in Cecilia's ear. Unable to think of anything else to say at that moment, then he kissed her on the cheek.

"I love you too." She whispered back, sleepily.

She opening her eyes and looking at him a moment, searching his face for something, then she turned her head. Their lips met in a long, soft kiss, full forgiveness and promise. Nothing more needed to be said just then, maybe later.

"DADDY!!!" Christina shrieked, waking up and breaking the moment into a thousand happy pieces.

After that, it was a free for all as they dragged him down onto the bed, exchanging kisses and hugs, time and time again. Even Rufus getting in on the act, hot wet tongue competing with Christine’s wet kisses, until the children remembered what day it was. Then it became a mad stampede down the stairs as everyone made a beeline for the tree, and it wasn't until much later that calm descended. Then he had time to drink his coffee, sitting in an easy chair in front of the warm fire, feeling at peace. Christina and Richard sitting on each side of him snuggled down in his arms. He sat there, deep in thought about the man in the red suit.

"Did you get what you most wanted from Santa?" He asked at length. They both giggled and hugged him.

"Oh yes, its sitting right here between us." They said in unison, hugging him, laughing at some secret joke.

"You mean you asked Santa Clause for me?" He whispered in a stunned voice, catching on at last, seeing them nod. "Well, it looks as if Santa gave all of us what we most wanted for Christmas."

He hugged them back, thinking of Santa parting words. He looked at his wife, blowing her a kiss, seeing her return it through misty eyes. What ever there was between them he knew they could talk it out later, and put old girlfriends and the ghost of Christmas past to bed forever.

"Not that I believe in Santa Claus Dad." His son said, proudly. "I'm too old for that." Christina pouted, hearing that, snuggling deeper into his arm and poked her tongue out at her brother.

"I still believe in Santa, Daddy." Christina murmured.

"Of course you do," Mike Fletcher whispered, kissing the top of her head, "and so do I my love, so do I." ‘At least I do now’, he thought.

"I wrote a letter to him," she continued, hugging him tighter, "from all of us telling him that mommy, Richard and I wanted you home as our Christmas present."

"You did," He felt his heart skip a beat, remembering the piece of paper Santa looked at. His eyes blurred with tears.

"I'm glad he answered your letter." Realizing that Santa had given them all what they most wanted this Christmas.

"Silly, everyone know that Santa Claus is only a little kids story." Richard said, poking his tongue out in return.

"Son, that's what I thought, but let me tell you a little story, then maybe you won't think so."

"OK, Dad." His son looked up at him with a tolerant smile.

"Well, it’s about this pilot who was out on patrol on Christmas Eve...."

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Robert D. Buckingham



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