Tuesday, May 3, 2011

1992 Mission Foreshadows bin Laden

By Chester Campbell

My wife is a sporadic daytime TV watcher. She switches it on and off frequently. Most of the time it's to check the Dow or see what's new in the news. For the past couple of days, there's been little in the news besides the Osama bin Laden demise. It will probably continue to dominate the talking heads for another week, or until some other significant event occurs.

Air Force MH-53J Pave Low III

For mystery/thriller writers, what happened in a small town in faraway Pakistan is the sort of thing that makes us salivate. A helicopter-borne special ops mission into a hostile environment makes great reading. It takes me back to a book I wrote in the early nineties, after the Cold War ended. This was the third book in a trilogy about a former FBI agent who takes on an assignment with a CIA spin-off. One of the main characters, however, was a former Air Force special operations helicopter pilot whose mission was tragically terminated through a general's miscue.

The story took place shortly after Desert Storm. It involved flying an MH-53J Pave Low III special operations helicopter from Kuwait up the mountainous spine of Iran to a small village in the Zagros Mountains. Using its terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radar, the chopper could be flown almost at tree-top level at night without being detected. The mission called for transporting an Army Delta Force team that would pick up a man and his family at a landing area marked by CIA operatives.

The President was under intense pressure to get some American hostages out of Lebanon, and the helicopter's key passenger would be Iran's chief liaison with the Lebanese terrorists. With his brother marked for execution by a hardline mullah, he had made contact with the CIA to arrange his defection. The operation had been carefully planned and rehearsed like the bin Laden mission, and it had been given presidential approval.

This was twenty years ago, before all the technological wizardry that allowed the White House Situation Room to monitor the bin Laden operation in real time. The chopper in my operation would maintain strict radio silence. The only communication with it would be a secure signal via a FLTSATCOM (U.S. Navy Fleet Satellite Communications System) satellite on a national command authority channel that would alert the Pave Low commander to any change in plans. However, after the mission was under way, a problem developed with the alternate channel and it was shifted to a different satellite. Because of an onerous personal problem, the Air Force Chief of Staff neglected to pass on that information to the helicopter crew. When the situation room received information that the mission had been compromised, it failed to reach the aircrew.

There's much more to the book, titled Overture to Disaster, which follows the Pave Low pilot after his recovery from the crash and court martial. In fact, there was so much more that I had to make a lot of cuts before its acceptance by a literary agency. Unfortunately, the agency left it on the shelf for a long time. When they finally sent it out, a Tor Forge editor liked it but said it was too dated.

Now that post Cold War novels are back in vogue, I think I'll put it on Amazon for the Kindle and Smashwords for everything else. Joe Konrath and Rob Walker have had great success going this route. With the bin Laden venture fresh on everyone's mind, it could be a timely move.

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