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Methuselah Project S.O.S.

By Rick Barry

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Seated in the cockpit of his F-35 Shadow, Roger Greene grew irritated at the premonition forcing its way into his thoughts. Not on the fighter’s control panel, but inside his mind, a red warning light kept flashing.

But why? The day had been routine, the test flight over the Gulf of Mexico successful. No hint of trouble.
Still, the sense of foreboding clung like Velcro, as if an unseen enemy had a radar lock on him.

Concentrating on flying, Roger flicked off the Master Arm switch, halting his fighter’s ability to auto-release flares or chaff. He’d completed every test of the newly installed avionics. Time for Return to Base.

Just that quickly, the nagging sensation snapped right back, stronger than ever. Was his subconscious detecting something? Or maybe he was becoming a pessimist, a guy who couldn’t believe this blessed life as an Air Force pilot could last.

Per standard procedure, Roger took the avionics out of air-to-air tactical mode and put them into navigation mode. Slowing the aircraft to a more fuel-conserving three hundred knots, he banked the joystick to starboard, veering the fighter north, back to the Florida panhandle and Eglin Air Force Base.

As usual, he wished for more time in the sky. With reluctance he radioed in. “Eglin Mission, Scout 01 is ready for RTB.”

“Scout 01, Eglin Mission. You are cleared direct Eglin. Contact Approach.”

“Scout 01,” he acknowledged.

As Roger began a smooth descent, a downward glance revealed sunlight glinting from never-ending waves rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico. But earthward wasn’t the direction Roger preferred to look.

Up here, winging his way between earth below and the azure dome above, he soared in pilots’ heaven. Extensive reading during his decades of confinement in Germany had instilled an appreciation for words, but which description best captured the glorious emotions of piloting a modern Air Force fighter? Elation? Exultation? Exuberance? Bliss? All of those words rolled into one still fell short.

“Thank you, God,” he spoke into his oxygen mask.

Roger selected Eglin as his navigation steer point and aligned the F-35 directly with the field. Running through his descent check, he verified all switches in the cockpit were in their proper positions then switched his radio to the approach frequency.

“Eglin Approach, Scout 01 is thirty miles south VFR, with information Whiskey, request direct initial for runway 19.”

The voice that radioed back was a woman’s, one he didn’t recognize. “Scout 01, Eglin Approach. Cleared to descend VFR, direct initial runway 19.”

He chuckled. Female “airmen” was another contrast the modern Air Force offered from his Army Air Force days. Even though a female commander had already led the 53rd Wing, a woman’s voice on the radio still startled him. He keyed the radio. “Scout 01, cleared direct initial 19.”

That message done, he relished a few final moments of flight time. No other aircraft in sight. For this moment, the sky belonged to him alone.

Airborne freedom. Nothing compared. And to think he’d teetered on the brink of despair only a few years earlier, barely clinging to hope of ever glimpsing blue sky again. Now he not only saw it daily—he existed as an integral part of the heavens.

“Thank you, God,” he repeated.

Then, there it was again—the pestering impression his days were too serene, that something in his perfect life would soon veer off course.

When he was ten miles out, the female voice radioed back, handing him off to the next controller. “Scout 01, cleared to contact tower.”

“Scout 01.” He adjusted his radio to the tower frequency. “Tower, Scout 01 is VFR ten miles to the southwest, direct initial for 19.”

“Scout 01, Eglin Tower. Report initial runway 19.”

“Scout 01.” His acknowledgement may have sounded matter of fact to the controller, but Roger’s own ears detected the note of depression.

If you’re born to fly, what can be gloomier than landing? On the other hand, the water and the beach below looked inviting. Another advantage of balmy Florida in September. Too bad Katherine wasn’t in town.

The radioed authorization “Full stop” dispelled random thought. No daydreaming while landing. Down to an altitude of 1,500 feet, Roger pulled a turn while reducing power to the pattern’s airspeed.

Gear handle down. Three green lights flashed on, affirming his landing gear had lowered and locked. A final check of the cockpit showed hydraulics and fuel state normal. No warning lights.

The end of a perfect flight on a gorgeous day.

By the time Roger had touched down and taxied in, he’d forgotten his melancholy. Future days would offer more flights, all on Uncle Sam’s dime. He ran through the F-35’s shutdown list. Everything normal. So much for his gut’s feeling of danger.

However, no sooner had Roger set his foot on the ground than the 53rd Wing’s commander, Colonel William “Elvis” Jackson, appeared in his face. “Okay, Boy Scout, spill it. How did you screw up?”

Roger stared. One second under Colonel Jackson’s unflinching gaze proved the Wing Commander wasn’t joking.

“Sir, there was no screw-up. It was an absolutely perfect flight, from beginning to—”

“I’m not talking about the flight. I’m talking about whatever you did to get yourself called on the carpet by the Base Commander. If one of my pilots screws up, I take it personally. Now, you might be the golden-boy aviator, but this time you must’ve blown it. So I repeat: how did you screw up?”

Roger’s mind raced. Maybe the colonel had the wrong pilot? “Sir, I don’t know what to say. I’m not aware of any screw-up. I haven’t been in touch with General Clark.”

“Well, you’re about to be nose to nose with him. I received a call from the general’s assistant. He summoned you by name, and he wants your sorry-looking face in his office ASAP. As you might realize, General Clark never invites airmen over to share cookies and lemonade. I suggest you hightail it there, and whatever the problem is, you accept full blame. Got it? No blowback hits this squadron. Not one speck. Not on my watch.”
“Now? What about the maintenance debrief? And the ops—?”

“The message was ‘ASAP.’ If the commander’s fuse is burning, making him wait will increase the explosion.”
“My car’s in the shop—”

“Just get there!”

“Yes, sir.”

Roger tucked his helmet under his arm, spun, and broke into a run under the glaring Florida sun.
By the time Roger stood before the outer office of Brigadier General Adrian Clark, the combination of humidity and jogging in his flight gear had bathed his brow with perspiration. But those weren’t the only reasons to sweat. A base commander exercised more authority than a city mayor. He ruled a small kingdom. If a pilot fell out of the commander’s good grace, he would find himself grounded.

Roger reached for the door handle but stopped. He took a deep breath, then wiped his brow dry.
Uncharted territory. How exactly did one behave in the commander’s office? He turned the handle and plunged inside.

A couple of executive officers ignored him as they went about their duties, one talking on a landline telephone, another scrolling through information on a flat-screen monitor. Only the general’s administrative assistant, a middle-aged brunette, looked up to acknowledge Roger.

He swallowed. “Uh, I’m Captain Roger Verde. I just got word to report to the base commander.”

The woman’s gaze wandered from Roger’s face to his flight suit, helmet, dangling oxygen mask, and harness. All natural enough at the flight line, but not standard dress for a visit to General Clark’s office.

He allowed a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, I just landed. Didn’t waste time since the message said to come ASAP.”
The brunette—Barb Hazelton, according to the wooden desk plaque—nodded and picked up her telephone. “Captain Verde is here to see you.” A pause. “Yes, sir.” She tilted her head toward the inner door. “The general will see you immediately.”

“Any idea what this is about?” Roger whispered as he strode past her.

“No clue. But if you like, I can notify your next of kin.”

Roger froze mid-step.

For the first time, she halfway smiled. “Standard joke, Captain. Go on in.”

Hardly reassured, Roger drew himself ramrod straight. Two raps of his knuckles on the door announced his presence.

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