Sometime in the near future…
GHALEH MORGHI AIR FORCE BASE – 3:30 am
Inside a small briefing room six officers of the Iranian Air Force, dressed in flight suits, are awaiting the arrival of a senior officer. The room is messy and unkempt, as if no one has paid it any particular attention for a few days. Two officers are scribbling data next to a crudely drawn map on the whiteboard. A few others are looking out the window at the light snow falling on the runway.
In a corner, and away from everyone else, sits Maj. Reza Ahangar, a tall, dark haired man in his early 40’s. His head is resting on his crossed arms on a small writing chair that he is sitting on. It’s late, and he hasn’t had much sleep in the past few days. He is drifting in and out of moments of sleep. He suddenly has a dream. It’s of his last conversation with his wife Mahnaz before he left home to get to the airbase.
Mahnaz is worried. She hasn’t had much sleep either. She is pleading with him…
“don’t go…don’t leave us. We, the girls…me, we need you”. She begins to silently cry.
“I can’t. I must go.”
“But what purpose would this accomplish? You are in danger. We can go to my uncle’s farm in Shiraz. We will be safe there…”
He interrupts her. “Safe? From what? You think they can’t find me in Shiraz? I am an air force pilot. This is the time that my country needs me. I must do my part. I can’t be consumed with self interest.”
“You know that it’s beyond that…”
Maj. Ahangar is awakened by a friendly shake from his colleague, Lt. Ali Parsaa, a young, gregarious pilot in his early 30’s.
Parsaa is standing over him and smiling.
“Don’t tell me you were dreaming already!”
Ahangar sit up in his chair. His body is stiff from the awkward position that he has been in for the past…he can’t remember. How long has it been? How long has he been sleeping? He collects his thoughts.
“I was, as a matter of fact. What is it? Is anyone here yet?”
“No, do we even know who’s in charge?”
Ahangar looks up at the whiteboard on the wall. He pauses for a moment to look at the missing picture frames above the whiteboard. The pictures used to give him comfort and a sense of security. But they are gone now. Many things in his life have changed in the past few days. Is it hopelessness that he feels? Perhaps. But he cannot really tell. He collects his thoughts again so that he could respond.
”God knows. I was told to show up for duty. They said we were on high alert. So, I kissed my wife and kids goodbye, got in my car, drove through all the damn checkpoints, and got here…The last thing I remember is my wife’s teary eyes. She begged me not to come. She even said that half the base would be empty and no one will show up…”
”She had a point.”
”I know…but I had to come.” He is silent again, and looks down.
”You know that I have been here for more than a day now, and with the phone service being down…I haven’t been able to talk to my family.”
”The whole phone network was sabotaged. They say that it may be a month before basic telephone service is up and running again in the country.”
Before Maj. Parsaa can respond, a man in his early 40’s whose flight suit insignia show to be a colonel, walks in. All officers in the room stand at attention, and then take their seats at the Colonel’s signal. The colonel nods and begins his presentation with a surprising show of confidence.
“Gentlemen, I am Col. Nazemi from the 3rd fighter wing stationed at Shiraz Airbase. I have just been appointed interim commander of the base.”
Officers glance at each other. Colonel sees the apprehension in the men’s faces, but ignores them and carries on.
Ahangar leans over to Parsaa, who is sitting next to him. “Do you know this guy?”
”Never seen him before.”
”We just received news that a civilian airliner, an Iran Airlines Boeing 727, just took off from Mehrabad Airport. Our intelligence indicates that the aircraft is carrying the top five of the nations’ most wanted list.”
Sighs and whispers fill the room.
Parsaa is annoyed and throws out a frustrated question. “How can they get to a plane, steal it and then just take off? It’s not like they’re stealing a pair of sunglasses from a store?”
The colonel, annoyed at being interrupted, still takes the time to answer the question. “Apparently, they ambushed the airport with a highly coordinated, pre-planned attack using heavy machine guns and RPG’s. They then went straight for the aircraft, which they had prepared for departure well in advance. They obviously took advantage of the chaotic security situation at the airport.”
”Let me guess, they have fighter escorts too?” Asks one of the other pilots.
The colonel nods. “Two F-14’s, fully armed.”
Crowd sighs again.
The colonel carries on. “They had them at the ready in a couple of hangers, and with the situation being what it is, nobody bothered to look. The good news is that with the limited time and resources they had, that’s all they could get airborne. They damaged the rest of the planes on the ground by firing at them so they couldn’t be immediately chased.”
The colonel notices the obvious anger on the pilots’ faces and decides to capitalize on their fighters’ instinct.
”We don’t have much time. We estimate that they are probably in this area (pointing to an area on the map with a pointer). We are pretty sure that they are heading north, toward Russian Federation’s airspace. You have the upper hand in speed over the old 727, and their fighters have to maintain speed with that aircraft. So, at supersonic speed, you should be able to catch up with them rather quickly. We want these men alive, but at the same time, they cannot be allowed to leave the country at any price. You have to use your best judgment up there. Major Ahanagar will lead this mission. May God be with all you men.”
Ahangar is surprised at being put in charge of the mission. Did the command come from higher ups in the chain? Is this pre-planned, or just a coincidence, a result of the chaotic situation in the operations center? His thoughts are interrupted again by a pat on the back from Parsaa.
“You’re in charge my friend.”
Ahnagar nods and smiles.
The pilots quickly, but quietly walk to the locker room and rustle to put their gear on as fast as possible. Ahangar is silent and is fixated on the details of preparing his flight suit. Parsaa is anxious and seems annoyed at Ahangar’s silence. He slams his locker door, grabs his helmet and turns to Ahangar with frustration.
“So now they expect us to go up against F-14’s with what we have sitting on the ground out there?” He then quiets to a whisper…”plus, aside from you, I don’t even know any of these other guys. They were just called into the base. How can I go into battle with them?
“Relax. We have the advantage in number and speed” says Ahangar calmly.
Parsaa is not convinced. “We’ll be sitting ducks.”
The pilots begin to run onto the runway and toward their aircraft. A skeleton ground crew is silently putting the finishing touches on pre-flight preparations.
Snow is still falling, and the pre-dawn air is cold. Smell of smoke fills the air. Ahangar looks up at the sky. The sky is lit with Tehran’s lights. He can see a few spiraling plumes of white smoke against the night sky. The smoke is from the center of Tehran, the city that he loves and the city that he grew up in. So many memories…parks, ice cream with his two girls. Is he going to see them again? He reaches a single seat Mig-29. there are two of them next to one another. He nods to Parsaa and points toward the other one.
“You’re taking that one”.
“Do I have a choice, Sir?” says Parsaa sarcastically.
Parsaa then turns and looks at the other aircraft. The other four pilots are climbing aboard two F-5’s. He begins to climb up the ladder to get into his plane, but stops for a second and turns to Ahangar.
“They’re sending us to slaughter…pinning us against those F-14’s with these pieces of Russian junk and those two museum pieces.”
Ahangar is getting into his cockpit. He looks down at Parsaa who is waiting on the ladder.
“True, but they are scared, and they will make mistakes”.
A few minutes later, all four aircraft blast off the snowy runway and with afterburners blazing, they soar into the sky. Ahanagr looks down at Tehran. He can see a few fires still burning, but other than that, the city looks calm…but doesn’t it always look calm from this altitude?
Back at the airbase, Col. Nazemi is sitting behind his newly appointed desk at the Base Commander’s office. There’s a knock on the door, and two military policemen, one a lieutenant and the other one a major, walk in. Nazemi is taken aback. Are they here for him? One can’t be sure these days. The major is carrying what looks like an air force personnel file.
“Can I help you gentlemen”? Says Nazemi anxiously.
“I hope you can colonel” says the major, looking at Nazemi’s rank insignia. “Are you the commander of this base?”
“Yes, but I was just appointed interim commander a few hours ago.”
The major hands Nazemi the folder that he has been holding. It’s an officer’s personnel file. The major nods to the colonel indicating that he can open the folder, which Nazemi does. He sees the photo and the name of the officer. He recognizes him.
“Is this officer here on this base?” asks the major.
“Yes, but he just took off on an emergency mission. Why do you ask?”