Stephen Leather

False Friends

Seal Alpha stood up, bracing himself against the fuselage. ‘Lock and load!’ he shouted. ‘Five minutes and counting.’ His name was Adam Croft and he was the ranking non-commissioned officer and leader of the mission, a ten-year veteran of the Navy Seals who had spent half of those years serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were thirteen Navy Seals sitting on the floor of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. All the seats had been stripped out to keep the payload to a minimum. The Seals weren’t in any way superstitious and thirteen was the maximum number that could be squeezed into the belly of the helicopter. All thirteen had been hand-picked by Croft.

The Seals started chambering rounds as Croft and the Black Hawk crew chief readied the four ropes that they would be using to abseil down into the courtyard close to the main house. They were all dressed in the same desert camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests but their headwear varied. Some favoured Kevlar helmets, others wore scarves or floppy hats. Their weapons varied too. Most cradled M4 rifles fitted with noise suppressors but there were several Heckler amp; Koch MP7 carbines and one pump-action shotgun. They all wore noise-cancelling headsets to neutralise the roar of the Black Hawk’s two General Electric T700 turboshaft engines.

The co-pilot waved again. Three fingers. ‘Three minutes, guys!’ shouted Croft. He peered through a window. They were flying over houses and roads, but there were no street lights and almost all the homes were in darkness. Abbottabad didn’t have much in the way of nightlife and it was now almost one o’clock in the morning. He couldn’t see the second helicopter but he knew it would be close by, somewhere to starboard.

The helicopters were in full stealth mode, their engines quietened, their bodies covered with a radar- dampening fabric coating, their tail sections modified, including extra blades on the tail rotors. Pakistan was supposedly America’s ally in the war against terrorism, but no one in the White House took that alliance seriously and the Pakistani authorities had not been informed of the mission.

The turbines powered down and the nose pitched up as the helicopter transitioned into a hover.

‘This is it, guys — go to night vision!’ shouted Croft.

The men removed their noise-cancelling headsets and pulled on their night-vision goggles, pressing the button on the right-hand side that activated them. Croft pulled on his own and blinked as they flicked on, casting everything in a green hue. The Seals were from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group but everyone knew them as Team Six. So far as US special forces went, they were the best of the best. They had been training for the mission for more than six weeks in North Carolina followed by another three weeks at Camp Alpha, a highly secure area of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

The Black Hawk hovered about a hundred feet above the building. It was a manoeuvre the pilot had practised a hundred times over a mock-up of the compound at Camp Alpha. Contractors had built a replica of the compound and the three-storey building, complete with contents. He eased back on the power and the helicopter began to descend. He scanned the instruments but he was flying by feel, as if the helicopter was an extension of his own body.

‘One hundred feet,’ said his co-pilot.

The helicopter slowly dropped, the backwash kicking up dust in the compound below.

‘Ninety feet,’ said the co-pilot.

The pilot smiled to himself. He didn’t need the verbal reminder of how high they were; he could do this bit with his eyes closed.

‘Eighty feet,’ said the co-pilot. ‘All good.’

The pilot grinned. He knew it was all good. Compared to some of the missions he’d been on in Iraq this was a piece of cake. At least no one was firing missiles at him.

The helicopter began to shudder and he had to fight the pedals to keep it from swinging around.

‘What’s the problem?’ asked the co-pilot.

The nose pitched down and then just as quickly reared up. Both men scanned the instruments, trying to see if there was a technical problem, but everything seemed to be working perfectly; it was just that the helicopter was refusing to respond. It began to spin to the left as it continued to descend, faster now.

‘Seventy feet,’ said the co-pilot.

The juddering intensified and the pilot felt the rudder pedals banging up and down, beating a rapid tattoo on the soles of his feet. ‘I’m losing it,’ he said. ‘We’re going to have to abort.’

The helicopter continued to spin and the pilot pulled on the collective to increase power, then pushed the cyclic forward trying to get the helicopter moving forward.

‘We’re going down!’ shouted the co-pilot.

The pilot gritted his teeth as he fought to regain control of the helicopter but nothing seemed to be working. It bucked and tossed like a living thing and his hands were aching from the strain of gripping the controls. ‘Help me with the cyclic!’ he shouted. ‘I’m losing it.’

The co-pilot grabbed at the cyclic between his legs but it was too late: the helicopter was spinning out of control and losing height rapidly.

The pilot twisted round in his seat. ‘We’re going down!’ he shouted. ‘Brace, brace, brace!’

His words were lost in the roar of the turbines but the Seals knew that they were in trouble and they grabbed on to whatever support they could find.

The pilot turned back to the instruments but realised immediately that there was no point: if they were going to survive he’d have to fly by instinct alone. The helicopter was spinning in an anticlockwise direction so he pushed the cyclic to the right to try to counteract it and pulled the collective up to full power. They were going to hit the ground, he was sure of that, so all he could do was try to lessen the impact.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of the other Black Hawk. It was hovering just outside the north-east corner of the compound. He yanked the cyclic, trying to push the spinning helicopter away to the west. If he collided with the other helicopter it would all be over.

‘Thirty feet!’ shouted the co-pilot.

They were still over the compound, spinning crazily. The perimeter wall was eighteen feet high.

‘Brace for impact!’ the pilot screamed, though he knew that no one would hear him over the noise of the engines.

He saw the house flash by and realised that he was too far away to hit it but he still had to worry about the wall. The power was on full and the turbines were screaming but the rotor blades just didn’t seem to be generating any lift.

‘Twenty feet!’

Below him was the wall and then they were over it, but as he struggled to stop the spinning there was the sound of tortured metal and the helicopter lurched to the left. The tail rotor had slammed into the wall and almost certainly disintegrated in the impact.

The pilot reacted instantly, thrusting the cyclic forward so that the Black Hawk would hit the ground nose first. If they hit side on the main rotor would slam into the ground and the resulting crash would destroy the rotor blades and send lethal shrapnel through the cabin. He saw the ground rushing up at him and then they hit, hard, the cockpit shattering and the harness biting into his shoulders with such force that his right collarbone snapped. He could hear panicked shouts from behind him and then everything went black.

‘Go left, left, left!’ shouted the co-pilot of Helo Two but the pilot was already pushing the cyclic to the left to get it away from Helo One. He was also pulling the collective up so that they gained height. He concentrated on the instrument panel, which meant that he lost sight of the other helicopter, but the way that it had been spinning left him in no doubt that it had crashed.

A Seal appeared behind him. ‘What’s happening?’ screamed the Seal but the pilot ignored him and concentrated on flying the helicopter. The crew chief grabbed the Seal’s arm and pushed him down to the floor, then pointed a warning finger at the man. While they were in the air the aircrew were in charge and the last thing they needed was soldiers in full combat gear moving about when they weren’t supposed to.

The Black Hawk gained altitude and the pilot put it into a hover outside the compound, then turned it round so that he could see what was happening to Helo One.

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