The Ice Queen—a sexy Nordic blonde with pouty lips and ice blue eyes—gazed down at Kuhn. Her lusty smile and the mink bikini that barely contained her physical charms were warm reminders of his past. Like a Vargas pinup girl, she sat atop a globe that displayed her frozen domain: Antarctica.
Kuhn ran his hand over the aircraft’s smooth aluminum skin, paying his respects. The patches on Kuhn’s weathered aviator jacket matched those on the aircraft: US NAVY VXE-6 SQUADRON. Beneath the side cockpit window, just above the rendered image of the Ice Queen, stenciled letters read:
CDR GREGORY KUHN
For almost a quarter century, Kuhn had piloted XD-10, the Ice Queen. She was a Lockheed LC-130R, a variant of the venerable C-130 Hercules transport equipped with skis mounted to her fuselage so she could land on ice.
As ungainly as she looked, the Hercules could actually fly and was designed to do one thing: lift heavy loads. Except for the cockpit, the fuselage of the Ice Queen was a cavern of empty space big enough to accommodate several large trucks. Ninety-eight feet in length, she sat low to the ground, like a cylindrical railroad car with a ramp in her tapered tail that folded down like a drawbridge. Her wings spanned 132 feet, and the Ice Queen used every inch of her lifting surface and every ounce of power from the four Allison T56 prop engines to propel her into the sky.
The Ice Queen and her sisters once formed the backbone of the VXE-6 Squadron. Since the mid-fifties, the squadron had fulfilled the mission objectives of the ongoing Operation Deep Freeze, providing logistical support to research stations in the Antarctic. It was a tough job that earned the unit the unofficial nickname Ice Pirates. VXE-6 had owned the skies over the frozen southern continent until the end of the 1999 season, when the squadron returned to its home base at Point Mugu Naval Air Station and was disestablished.
Like many veterans of VXE-6, Kuhn felt anger and a sense of loss when the squadron was phased out, its planes mothballed and its mission reassigned to a National Guard air wing. He’d flown over Antarctica for twenty-four years and had fallen in love with the icy untamed wilderness.
In the years since, the Ice Queen sat tightly wrapped in a plastic cocoon in the high desert air of Arizona. She was one of the hundreds of military and commercial aircraft that sat row upon row in the Boneyard, as the Aircraft Storage and Reclamation Facility was known.
“The old bitch looks pretty good, eh, Greg?”
Kuhn turned as Len Holland walked up.
“Is that any way to talk about a lady?” Kuhn asked.
Holland shook Kuhn’s hand, then looked over at the Ice Queen. “Hard to believe our planes have been sitting in the desert all these years.”
“No different than the day we left them here.” Kuhn nodded down the flight line at another LC-130R. “Polar Pete came out of hibernation just fine, too. Where’s the rest of the guys?”
“Right behind me.”
Ten men emerged from the flight operations building, all sporting aviator jackets similar to Kuhn’s. Each plane flew with a crew of six men— a pilot, a copilot, a navigator, a flight engineer, and two cargo handlers. Escorting the flight crews was a man in a button-down shirt with a bolo tie and a clipboard.
“Commander Kuhn,” the escort said warmly. “I’m Jim Evers, the manager here at ASRF.” Evers pronounced the facility acronym ay-surf. “Both XD-10 and XD-11 have been checked out, and all systems are flight ready.”
Kuhn pulled a thick envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to Evers. “Here’s our flight plan for this short hop to Waco.”
Evers pocketed the envelope. “Your planes are fueled, so once you finish your preflight you can get out of here.”
“Thanks.” As Evers walked away, Kuhn turned to the two flight crews. “You guys know the drill. Let’s get these old birds in the air.”
* * * * *
The Ice Queen and Polar Pete flew a low route across southern Texas, carefully avoiding civilian air-traffic control radar as they bypassed Waco and headed into the Gulf of Mexico. The flight crossed over the Yucatan peninsula, then turned south toward Honduras.
“I’m picking up the beacon,” the navigator announced. “Bearing two-one-five.”
Kuhn glanced out his window at the rain forest below, the thick foliage barely a hundred feet beneath the aircraft.
“About friggin’ time,” Kuhn said impatiently. He had wanted to land before sunset, but an unexpected head wind had increased their flight time.
Kuhn deftly turned the Ice Queen until his heading matched the one his navigator had given him. Five minutes later, he saw a gaping hole in the jungle canopy. The runway looked to be in good condition and certainly long and wide enough to handle a Hercules. Along one side of the runway, he saw a cluster of large tents, a few heavy trucks, a helicopter, and a tall pole with a windsock fluttering in the breeze.
“X-Ray Delta One Zero to X-Ray Delta One One, over.”
“One One, over,” Holland replied.
“I’m going to circle around and land. You follow me in.”
“Lead the way, One Zero. X-Ray Delta One One out.”
Kuhn piloted the Ice Queen in a smooth arc that aimed the nose of his plane down the length of the runway. Descending, he skimmed over the treetops and then dropped into the clearing. Sunbaked earth exploded into clouds of dust when the wheels touched down, the gray plume trailing the Ice Queen down the length of the runway. Holland waited until the dust cloud settled before making his approach.
“Just like riding a bike,” Holland said as he brought his plane down perfectly.
Once on the ground, Holland taxied Polar Pete behind a jeep with a sign that read FOLLOW ME and was led to a space beside the Ice Queen. A man with orange-tipped wands guided the plane into position and, once there, signaled Holland to cut his engines.
As Kuhn, Holland, and their crews stepped out of the planes into the steamy heat of the Honduran jungle, five brown-skinned men trotted out from the tents. Each grabbed a length of steel pipe from a large pile and began assembling scaffolding around the aircraft.
Kuhn turned as a tall, lanky man dressed in military-style khakis walked toward him. The man had thick black hair and a full beard that gave him the look of a left-wing revolutionary.
“Sumner Duroc?” Kuhn asked.
“Yes, it is a pleasure to finally meet you,” Duroc said perfunctorily in Gallic-tinged English.
“You cut this strip?” Kuhn asked.
“No, the Nicaraguan Contras cleared this area to receive supplies from you Americans. We merely restored it. Did you encounter any problems?”
“None,” Kuhn replied. “Everything went according to plan and both aircraft are flying perfectly.”
“Good. For the next few days I expect you and your men to work with my staff in preparing for our mission.”
“My men’ll be ready, but right now we’re in need of a bite to eat and some down time.”
“Tents have been assigned to you and your crew.” Duroc made a motion with his hand, and a swarthy man dressed in khaki ran over. “Commander, this is my executive officer, Leon Albret. Leon, show the commander and his men their quarters, then take them to the mess tent and see that they are fed.”
* * * * *
After finishing his dinner, Kuhn stepped out of the mess tent and walked back over to the planes. Both were now enmeshed in a framework of vertical poles, crossbars, and wooden planks. A diesel generator purred nearby, powering work lights attached to the scaffolding. At several points, tall poles rose out of the scaffolding to support a broad sheet of camouflage fabric that completely covered both planes. The fabric not only hid the aircraft from view, but during coming days it would also prevent the sun from heating the aluminum skin on the planes like a skillet.
Duroc stood alongside the Ice Queen, watching as the workmen began the tedious process of carefully stripping off the aircraft’s paint scheme and markings.
“Your men got this rigging up pretty quick,” Kuhn said as he walked up to Duroc.
“That’s what they were paid to do.”
“Do they know what they’re doin’ to my plane? I’d hate to have one of them break somethin’.”
“Like you, they were hired because of their skills,” Duroc replied. “These are not the first planes they’ve rechristened.”
* * * * *
“It’s gotta make you sick to see her like that,” Holland remarked, “all done up like she’s air force— a guard unit at that.”
Kuhn nodded as he studied the new paint scheme that decorated his beloved Ice Queen. In two days, the Hondurans had stripped her down to bare metal, removing the red-black scheme and her sexy namesake. Now she bore air force markings and her wingtips and tail were painted orange. Stenciled letters identified the Ice Queen and Polar Pete as Skier-98 and Skier-99— aircraft currently assigned to the National Guard unit that took over the Antarctica mission from the navy.
“Make you sick enough to turn down Duroc’s money?” Kuhn asked.
“Hell, no. I just don’t like flying false colors.”
“It don’t matter what she’s wearing on the outside,” Kuhn said, “underneath, she’s still the Ice Queen.”
“Looks like shit, don’t it?” Holland said. “Got no personality whatsoever.”
“Maybe,” Kuhn replied, “but for the first time in the history of VXE-6, we’re going to really live up to our nick-name.”
Duroc, Albret, and the rest of the two flight crews emerged from the camp and walked over to where Kuhn stood with Holland.
“Commander, are your aircraft ready to fly?” Duroc asked.
“Yes, sir,” Kuhn replied. “The tanks are all topped off and it doesn’t look like your paint crew did any damage.”
“Good.” Duroc nodded to Albret, who handed packets to Kuhn and Holland. “Here are the flight plan and the latest weather reports.”
Kuhn opened the manila envelope and glanced over the southbound route. From Honduras, the planes would fly along the Pacific coast of South America, landing at remote airstrips to rest and refuel. In the final leg, they were to cross over southern Chile into Argentina.
“I will meet you in Rio Gallegos,” Duroc said. “There, we will load the men and equipment required for the mission. Any questions?”
“Not a one,” Kuhn replied, holding out his hand. “I guess we’ll see you in Argentina.”
* * * * *
Duroc stood near the helicopter and watched the two LC-130s depart. The cargo planes circled the jungle airstrip once, then veered south toward the Pacific coast. Finding these unique planes and the crews to fly them was one of the more formidable challenges of this project, and he was pleased with his success. So far, everything was proceeding as planned, but Duroc knew that there was still much to be accomplished and many places where things could go disastrously wrong.
“The workmen are in the mess tent, as you ordered,” Albret announced. “They are eager for their wages.”
Duroc unlocked the cargo compartment of the Bell 427 and pulled out a Halliburton briefcase.
“Put the rest of our gear on board while I take care of the men,” Duroc ordered.
Albret nodded and jogged away as Duroc walked over to the largest tent in the compound. Inside, he found the five Hondurans laughing and enjoying the cold beer Duroc had provided. All eyes turned to him as he entered the tent.
“Gentlemen,” Duroc said, easily slipping into Spanish, “I wish to thank you for your excellent work over these past few days. As we agreed, here is five hundred thousand dollars in U.S. currency.” Duroc set the briefcase down atop the table where the men were seated and opened it so the contents faced the men. Inside, the case was filled with neat bundles of U.S. twenty-dollar bills. “It has been a pleasure doing business with you.”
Duroc shook a few hands and the rest of the Hondurans raised their bottles in his honor. One of the men picked up a battered guitar and began strumming— they were rich and it was time to celebrate. Duroc smiled and left what promised to be a wild day of drinking.
By the time Duroc returned to the helicopter, Albret had their gear loaded and the rotors turning. Duroc slipped on a pair of dark aviator sunglasses and climbed into the copilot’s seat. Albret ran through the rest of his checklist, powered up the twin turbine engines, and lifted off.
As the helicopter rose above the treetops and began to move away from the runway, Duroc keyed a command into the onboard computer that instructed it to transmit a series of pulses at a specific frequency. Less than two seconds later, a thin layer of plastic explosive lining the interior of the briefcase exploded.
The five men barely felt the searing heat from the blast or the shards of fragmented metal from the briefcase. Everything within fifty feet of the bomb disappeared in a fireball that incinerated the encampment. The explosion left a crater twenty feet across and ten feet deep.
Duroc’s helicopter sped over the rain forest toward Tegucigalpa, where he and Albret would board a private jet for Argentina.
Excerpted from Twisted Web by Tom Grace Copyright © 2003 by The Kilkenny Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.