Thirty thousand feet above northern Iran.
Inside the cockpit of an Iran Air Boeing 727, two pilots are quietly maneuvering the passenger plane through the night sky. Captain Shahram Nasseri and his copilot Payman Izadi try to busy themselves with routine cockpit chores, but their tension is clearly visible. They exchange nervous glances at one another. Every few seconds, one of the men looks at his window to look at the two fighter escorts that are flanking them on both sides. Izadi’s headset is lowered and is hanging lose around his neck. A voice can be heard trying to repeatedly hail the flight. It’s an airport tower.
“Iran Air Boeing 727, can you hear me, over.”
The two men look at each other. Nasseri breaks the silence.
“They told us not to respond. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Izadi nods in agreement.
Suddenly, and without a knock on the cockpit door, a heavyset, bearded and tall man in his late 40’s walks in. Commander Assadollah Rahmati is tired and disheveled. He hasn’t had much sleep for the past two days, and his puffy and bloodshot eyes are a testament to his fatigue. He has come to check to the progress of their flight. He too is nervous. He keeps raising and lowering the satellite phone that he is holding in his right hand, as if he wants to make a call, but then decides against it. With his left hand, he keeps adjusting the strap on the Kalashnikov that is slung over his shoulder. He also has a sidearm clipped to his belt in a leather holster. He barks at the pilots with a stern tone.
“What’s your altitude?”
Nasseri responds without looking at him.
“Thirty thousand feet.”
Rahmati is furious. “But I told you to keep low. They can pick us up on their radars.”
Nasseri loses patience, and turns toward Rahmati with frustration. “It’s dark. There are mountains down there, and there is a severe weather system below us. I have to stay above that storm. Otherwise, we will hit something and will all die. What are those fighter escorts there for, anyway?”
Before Rahmati can respond, his satellite phone rings. He gives the pilots an angry look, leaves the cockpit and walks into the aircraft’s small services area and answers the phone.
After a few seconds of listening to the person on the other end of the conversation, the expression on Rahmati’s face becomes one of rage and dismay, and he starts to scream into the phone, loudly enough to be heard by the pilot and his first officer.
“What do you mean they are refusing us entry into Russian airspace? Has he forgotten about the five million dollars in cash that was delivered to him just a week ago?”
He impatiently pauses to hear the response, but then seems to interrupt the person.
“Circumstances have change?!! They have changed? You tell Sergey that he was paid just so that he could help us in case of this inevitable change.”
Izadi and Nasseri exchange wary looks inside the cockpit. Nasseri turns to glance at Rahmati, whose face is beet red and is now joined by two other Kalashnikov holding bearded men. He has hung up the phone, but is still clutching it against his face, and staring down at the floor, contemplating what to do next. The other two men are silently watching him.
Nasseri then stand up and tries to walk out of the cockpit. Rahmati sees him and achrges into the cockpit, pulling out his sidearm. He then points and holds the weapon at Nasseri’s forehead.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Nasseri is frightened, but remains calm. He can feel Rahmati’s breath on his face, and can see the beads of nervous swaet dripping down his forehead.
“I was going to the bathroom.”
Rahmati presses the barrel of the gun tighter against Nasseri’s forehead. “You will do no such thing Captain. Now listen to me and listen to me good. You’re going to sit back down in that pilots’ seat and fly this plane until I tell you to stop. If you don’t, I will put a bullet in your skull. Do we have an understanding?”
Nasseri calmly nods.
“Now sit back down!”
As Nasseri turns around to take his pilot’s seat again, he takes a glance at the passenger cabin through the cockpit door. There, he sees four turbaned clergy and a civilian. They are former top government figures, and he recognizes them all. He is astonished at the high value human cargo that he is carrying in his aircraft. There are also about a dozen other machine gun carrying men onboard, some of whom seem to be conversing in Arabic. This is the first opportunity for him to have seen his passengers as he was locked in his cockpit by Rahmati while they were boarding.
Suddenly, Izadi hears a communication in his headset. It is no longer the tower that wants to communicate with him. It is on a different channel. It’s the commanding pilot of the two fighter escorts. He asks to speak to Rahmati.
Izadi turns toward Rahmati, removes the headset from around his neck and extends it to him. “They want to speak to you”.
Rahmati grabs the headset from the pilot, placing on end on his right ear.
“What is it”, he demands.
The pilot responds. “We have company.”
Rahmati is startled.
The pilot on the radio remains professionally calm. “They don’t seem to be a match. It looks like a couple of Mig’s and a couple of F-5’s. We’ll take care of them.”
Rahmati nods as of the pilots can see him. The two F-14’s on either side of the plane then turn away from the 727 at a 70 degree angle, their bellies exposed to Izadi and Nasseri, revealing their missile loaded pylons.
A short while earlier.
With Ahangar’s aircraft in the lead, the formation of four fighter jets is speeding toward its target. The pilots’ silence is interrupted by an impromptu call from Parsaa.
“I think it’s best for us to maintain radio silence as much as possible. They are operating on the same channel as you know. Wouldn’t you agree Major?”
A few seconds go by, but there is no response.
Parsaa is impatient. He calls again. “Major, would you confirm?”
A few more seconds go by. Ahangar is looking out of his aircraft’s canopy at the night sky. He reluctantly responds over the radio. “I agree. Let’s cut the chatter to a minimum. We should also switch to our auxiliary channel. There is less of a chance that they will be monitoring that one.”
The other pilots respond almost in unison. “Acknowledged.”
As soon as that communication ends, two red lights begin to blink on Ahangar’s instrument panel and a loud alarm begins to go off.
Parsaa is first one screaming into the radio. “They see us. I’m lit up, their locking missiles, and we can’t even see them. Damn those F-14’s!”
The F-5 pilots call in their distress as well. “We’re lit to.”
Ahangar takes charge, and begins to sternly command his men. “I am too. Take some evasive maneuvers, release those flares and chaffs.”
Parsaa tries to yell out some instructions as well. “Climb, Climb, Climb.”
Ahangar shouts him down. “We have them on radar now. Stay on target.”
One of the F-5 pilots responds. “But they will fire soon.”
“Stay on target”, shouts a calm, but determined Ahangar.
Another buzzer goes off in Parssa’s plane.
“They just fired.”
Ahangar looks at his instrument panel. “I see it. It’s only one. They must not have a lot of missiles. Release those flares.”
There is a desperate call from one of the F-5 pilots. “Mine is malfunctioning. Flares aren’t working.”
“Get out of there… ” Before Parsaa can complete his sentence, a glowing stream of fire, metal and smoke zooms below, and to the starboard side of his aircraft, and heads toward the F-5’s in the rear.
Parsaa knows that one of the hapless F-5’s, more likely the one with the malfunctioning flare will be hit. He screams a frustrated scream into his radio. “It’s going to hit you, eject, eject, eject… ”
Within a second after Parsaa’s plea, the missile slams into the malfunctioning F-5 and transforms it into a huge ball of fire.
“Did they eject?” Ahangar’s voice is filled with anger and desperation.
“Did they eject?”
“Negative. I didn’t see any parachutes deploy.” The communication is from the other
Parsaa is screaming into his radio again. “That was a Phoenix that just went by. I saw it. I thought we didn’t have any of those anymore.”
“They must have kept a few for their rainy day.”
As Ahangar finishes that sentence, a buzzer goes off again in his aircraft.
“Incoming. They just fired another one. Take evasive action.”
The aircraft scatter in all directions.
The F-5 pilot is now calling for help. “It’s coming right at us. I don’t think we can get away.”
Ahangar looks to his right side after issuing the command. He can see the subtle glow of the two ejection seats as the two F-5 pilots shoot into the freezing cold of the night sky. There’s another strike, and the F-5 is pulverized in the air. The illumination caused by the explosion helps Ahangar see the two pilots parachuting to the ground below.
He radios to Parsaa. “Radio in their coordinates. And then follow me.”
“Yes, sir. I’m ready for these low lives.”
The two Mig’s rush toward the F-14’s.
“Both of those missiles were fired from the same plane. He’s out of missiles. We’re going to go for him first.”
“OK. But what about the other one?”
“I think he’s waiting to see whose side he should be on.”
“I see our target on the radar. He’s turning around and coming toward us. He is going to slam himself into us.”
“No, he’s going to fire his cannon. Get your missiles ready and fire on my mark.”
“He’s getting close.”
“He’s too close Major.”
On Ahangar’s mark, both men fire their air to air missiles at the incoming F-14. Two missiles slice into the air and zoom toward the F-14. At the same time, the F-14 opens up a stream of cannon fire. The rounds light up the night sky as they go between the two Mig’s. A barrage of cannon rounds strike Parsaa’s aircraft and slice through it, exiting on the other side of the palne. Thick black smoke begins to rise from Parsaa’s plane.
“I’m hit, I’m hit. Those sons of…”
The F-14 tries to evade the incoming missiles. It releases its flares and chaffs, but it’s too late. While one missile goes wide, and to the left of the F-14, the other one scores a direct hot into the craft’s afterburner. The F-14 is set ablaze and its two pilots eject into the night sky.
Parsaa is ecstatic. “Yes. That’s right you traitors. I hope you freeze to death down there in those mountains.”
Ahangar is more subdued. “You may want to control your excitement my dear Ali. You’re not in a much better predicament than those two poor souls.”
Parsaa turns around in his cockpit and tries to survey the damage to his aircraft. All kinds of lights and buzzers are going off in his cockpit.
“You may be right Major.”
“Go back to the base. You can’t do anything else out here, and pretty soon you will join those two bastards down there in the freezing mountains.”
“But I can’t leave you out here. There’s the other F-14 that’s still out there.”
“Listen to me Ali. You must turn around and return to the base. I will deal with the other one. Do it now before it’s too late.”
Parsaa is silent.
“Go now. That’s an order.”
Parsaa reluctantly gives in. “Fine. You take care out here… God will be with you.”
With that, Parsaa veers away from Ahangar’s craft and begins to head back to the base.
Ahangar moves forward toward the other F-14. Hs knows that he is outgunned, but deep down inside he also knows that the pilots of that aircraft will not sacrifice themselves for a lost cause. They have just been too quiet. He opens up a channel to them.
“To the unidentified F-14 pilots. This is Major Ahangar of the Iranian Air Force. I have been ordered to find, and if necessary destroy you. You may think that you have the upper hand in this fight, but know this: you will not live to see another day even if you shoot me down. Ground radar will track you down and you will be shut down. Don’t make a mistake. There is way out for you. Your superiors have fallen, and the last remnants of their brutality are being cleansed from our society. You have a choice to make now. You can either follow your masters to a dead end, or you can end this right here and right now. You can return to your family as men and not as murderers. You can also return that aircraft safe and sound to the people who own it… your people. The choice is yours. What will it be?”
There is no response. Ahangar braces himself for the inevitable volley of the Phoenix missiles. A few more seconds go by. No response. Suddenly, he hears the channel opening up.
This is Colonel Ebrahimi… and yes… I am part of the Iranian Air Force as well. With me is Major Khosravi… Major Ahangar, your hail is acknowledged… and appreciated. We will be returning to Mehrabad Airport.”
Ahangar smiles. It is a victory that he did not expect to be gained so easily. “Your country will appreciate what you have decided to do Colonel. I am sure that the authorities will as well.”
The F-14 veers off and flies back toward Mehrabad.
Ahangare whispers to himself. “Now for the real hard part.”
He can see the 727 on his radar. It is not too far. He gains speed and finds himself flying alongside it in a span of a few minutes.
Inside the 727, Rahmati is nervously pacing back and forth between the cockpit and the passenger area, waiting for news from the F-14 escorts.
Nasseri call him in. “You may want to come in and see this, Mr. Rahmati.”
Rahmati runs into the cockpit, followed by one of his men. Nasseri points out Ahangar’s Mig that is flying along the plane’s portside.
Rahmati is confused, and cannot quite tell the difference. “Has our escort returned?”
Nasseri smiles and shakes his head. “No, Mr. Rahmati. That is a Mig-29. Last I remember, our escorts were two F-14’s… this doesn’t look very good.”
Iazdi pulls the headset that is hanging around his neck to his ear, and after a small pause, turns to Rahmati. “We are being hailed by the pilot.”
“Give me that.” Rahmati grabs the headset and puts it to his ear.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“This is Major Reza Ahangar of the Iranian Air Force. You are ordered to turn around, head to Ghaleh Morghi Airbase, surrender your aircraft and prepare to be boarded.”
Rahmati smiles. “Or what?”
“Or I will fire my weapons and will blow you right out of the sky.”
Rahmati’s assistant, who has been standing next to him and listening in on the conversation motions to Rahmati to cut the radio, which Rahmati does.
“Did he say his name was Reza Ahangar?”
Rahmati is perplexed. “Yes, why?”
The man pulls Rahmati out of the cockpit and into the service area. He then whispers a few words in Rahmati’s ear. Rahmati smiles and walks back into the cockpit and grabs the headset.
“Major Ahangar, I don’t think you will do any such thing.”