Leg 34 Part one: SKBO Eldorado Intl (Bogota, Colombia) to MPMG Marcos A Gelabert Intl (Panama City, Panama.)
At the end of Leg 22 I found myself on the Pacific Island of Niue, I was bundled into a van and taken to a place called Turtle Lodge to wait for Joe to catch us up for leg 23. I was under secure guard as a hitman called Boris Storarovson was looking for me with a view to doing his job. The baton was duly handed over to Joe. There was suspicion in his eyes as he weighed up the Baton in his hands but he said nothing. He had the real Baton but had correctly realized that it was somehow different to the baton he had on his last leg.
Music to play when reading this:
Leg 34. The Hit.
We needed to leave Niue as soon as we could as we didn’t want to give anybody with evil on their minds a chance to find me. Niue International airport is only an international airport because you can get a plane to Auckland, New Zealand. This was a problem. MI6’s watchers had been watching the airport and had not seen anyone who looked remotely like Storarovson arriving. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t arrived already. It was the New Zealand flight that he would come to the island on. Any other unusual way would attract attention.
The issue was that the service was a once a day round trip. If I went to the airport I would be there when the flight came in from New Zealand and if Storarovson was on the flight in our paths would cross. Not good. The other end would be less risky as the aircraft wouldn’t be going back to Niue until the next day.
The bullet had to be bitten so to speak and so we set off to the airport to catch the flight. At the airport I was hidden away until the arriving passengers had cleared the terminal and then I was rushed onto the plane. I had a window seat and had a body guard in all the seats around me, next to me and in front and to the rear of me.
The Sebel Auckland Viaduct Harbour Hotel
It was deemed easier to protect me in Auckland than anywhere else on my route to my next Leg and so we checked in to the The Sebel Auckland Viaduct Harbour hotel and waited to hear where to go for my next leg.
The hotel was like any other tower block hotel, rooms off a corridor, reception and dining areas on the ground floor, lifts and stairs to all floors. The spooks had the stairs and lifts covered and a man in the lobby to observe people going in and out of the hotel. So I was safe enough for the time being.
I had left Jasmine on the aircraft carrier and was missing the comfort of her presence. But the body guards were doing their job and I was well looked after. My stay in New Zealand passed off without incident, it wasn’t long before news of my next leg came through from Joe. I was to fly a leg from Eldorado Intl, Bogota (SKBO) in Colombia to Fort Sherman in Panama, and I was to do this via Panama City. Apparently Joe needed something dropping off in Panama City, so it was necessary to break our journey there.
Columbia was a bit of a worry. Or at least my minders seemed to think so. Two reason, first Columbia was a fairly lawless place and known to be a haven for the criminal fraternity including drug dealers and assassins, and the second was that my minders had other commitments and I would be down to just two for my time there. This was effectively one as the second would be “off shift” at any one time. It was decided that we would stay in New Zealand for as long as possible.
The time came to leave, our flight left Auckland for Santiago Chili at 18:20 on a Latam airlines Boeing 787. After a two hour break between flights in Santiago, we were in Bogota by 19:00 the next day, again courtesy of a Latam Boeing, but a 767 this time. I was knackered so we went straight to our hotel for an early night.
The hotel in Bogota was different. Whilst clean, comfortable and with great food, there was a certain weirdness about it, as if the interior decorators were on drugs, perhaps not so improbable in Columbia I suppose. The lounge bar down on the first floor was decorated with a sort of controlled graffiti, as the photo below illustrates. Just slightly disturbing I think.
I had just gone to bed and settled down to read on my tablet. I switched off the light and read in the dark, the only light in the room was from the tablet and from outside’s glowing signs. All was silent, all was still.
Then there was a thud, and then another one. From just outside my rooms door. And then another sound, a dragging sound.
I glanced at the door, in the dim light I could just make out the door handle turning. Something was wrong, very wrong.
Silently I rolled out of bed and on to the ground, stifling a yelp as my knee landed on the gun that I had placed there before retiring. The bed was between me and the door. I heard the door open and there was a flash of light from the corridor as someone stealthily entered. The door clicked shut. This was not good.
There were two loud thuds and the bed erupted in a fountain of feathers, lucky for me I wasn’t still asleep! I grappled for my gun, found it, pointed it over the bed and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Fek fek, the safety catch. I moved the catch across and fired again. The silenced gun nearly deafened me. (I found out later that a silenced 9mm fire arm report is still about 125 db, that’s close to a jackhammer at 130 db). My ears were ringing, and I had missed by a mile, making a neat round hole in the ceiling. I fired again and missed again, this time the wooden skirting board splintered an inch from the floor. My would-be killer knew where I was now and it wouldn’t be long before he got to me. I fired again at where I thought he was and a small porcelain figurine on a table by the door exploded some distance from where I wanted my shot to go. I wasn’t getting any better at this.
Then there was a hush. Feathers floated down. Bizarrely a feather settled on the stumps of the truncated figurines legs and sat there like a hat. The room was dark save from the light from a flashing neon light outside the window, muted by the dawn curtains. A shadow flitted to my right, I pointed and fired, there was a loud crash as the en-suit toilet bowl shattered, my round had punched a hole in the cheap ply door to the bathroom and buried itself in one of Armitage Shanks finest. There was a loud cough from my right and the bedside phone on the table next to my head shattered. Silence fell again. Then a tinny voice spoke from the remains of the phone; “Hello reception, can I help you?...... Hello?.....Hello?” There was a click and the voice stopped. Suddenly a dark shadow loomed above me, the flickering neon picking out the light blond mop of Storarovson’s hair. Gulp, this was it then. I was done for.
Light flooded into the room, someone had opened my room door. The shadow above me was darker now as it was silhouetted by rectangle of bright light from the corridor, it paused and I sensed it turn to face this new intrusion, there was a very loud bark accompanied by a bright flash and something heavy fell on me. It was substantial and stank of cheap aftershave, and it was damp. There was a second smell from this smothering weight on me. It was the unmistakable metallic fragrance of blood.
“J.G. are you okay?” a voice I knew too well, and just then the sweetest sound a man could want to hear. The room light flicked on and I struggled to get out from under the heavy lump lying over me. A hand came down, grabbed me and yanked me to my feet. Thank God, Jasmine.
I looked down to where I had been cowering, there was a body there now, and blood, lots of blood, all matted in a shock of blond hair. A large portion of Storarovson’s head was missing. I ran to the bathroom and vomited over the remains of the toilet.
“Lucky I arrived when I did” said Jasmin, as I emerged from the devastated bathroom. “We need to go now, my guys will take care of this mess”. We left the room stepping past my guard who had a lump on his head the size of an egg and no doubt a headache to match.
Just then then my phone rang. It was Steph. She wanted to meet in the local Police Station to hand over the Baton. As safe as anywhere I suppose, although I was worried about the level of corruption local police, and, let’s face it, Putinfeld’s was always the one for exploiting that.
But it seemed that my fears were unfounded and a covert handover was achieved. As quick as we could we headed to the airport.
Jasmine announced that “our aircraft is being refueled as we speak, but first we have to pick up Joe’s package.” We went through security and headed to the posh peoples lounge, not a pleasure I normally get, and one P’s goons never get. Once inside we met a familiar face. I was to take Sharon to Panama City.
All of us went straight to the Planning room. We had to cross the Andes and we had two choices. Go high or hug the ground? Whichever way you look at it crossing the Andes meant flying high. Our start point of Bogota is 2640 meters above sea level, that’s well over 8,500 feet to those still back in Roman times, or well on the way to the crew having to use oxygen. However the height of the mountains was much greater than that.
We opted for a route that would allow us to be flexible. As it was we were high enough, but we didn’t want to get into trouble going over very high peaks, our options in that situation would be limited. So we opted for a plan that kept away from the mountains as much as we could to give us as much wiggle room as possible. It was just as well we did. We would leave Bogota and head North West to the town of Honda and from there we would fly north to the two lakes of Cienaga Grande and Cienaga Barbacoas. From the lakes we would turn North West again as far as Monteria and then West to Panama City where we would drop Sharon off. Then, for the second part of the leg, it was a small hop North West to Sherman. This route allowed us to fly high as we would like but with the option to change all of that if needed.
We left our planning room and headed to the gate, down the tube and into the aircraft, an RAF L1101 Tristar K1 tanker. Sharon was going to have to take the role of engineer. I think she had hoped to get a chance to get her head down for some sleep, but someone had to take the third crew position.
We climbed into the Tristar and as Jasmine settled into the co-pilot’s seat I fed the plan into the aircraft. Sharon mooched around in the back. It was raining outside but we would soon be above all that and the forecast for Panama was warm and sunny.
I wasted no time in getting the bird ready for takeoff, I wanted out of Bogota as soon as possible, bad things happened here. I raced through the Pilot Functionals, noting that the aircraft was light on everything that it could be, we had no tanker fuel no extra seating and fuel in the main tanks only. The runway wasn’t the longest here and being so high would have an impact. The Before Start checklists were done and I was on to the Engine Start Checklist at the gallop. Sharon was doing her bit managing the APU and soon as all engines were running she shut down the APU and we then raced through the After Start list.
Meanwhile Jasmine had obtained Taxi clearance and I was all over the Before Takeoff list. As we stopped short of the runway I was switching on the Landing lights, I set the antiskid on, Transponder on and set the Pack Flow. Take off clearance was obtained as I cast a roving eye over the instruments and we were soon lined up and opening the throttles.
As the Aircraft eased into the air, Jasmine smiled and said “I can see why you want to get away from here but that was done as if you were on QRA*”
*QRA – Quick Reaction Alert. High state of readiness. For example the V bomber force would have had at least two aircraft on QRA when they were the UK’s nuclear deterrent and were expected to be airborne in less than 5 mins.
We climbed steadily up to 26,000 feet and settled into the first leg, below us were the mountains and so we experienced a bit of turbulence but that was all. Out the window there were some beautiful cloud formation, some of which were typical thunderstorm “anvil” shaped formations. I took a picture of one with my phone but I was a bit slow with my camera, but you can just make out an anvil shaped thunder cloud behind the fluffy stuff.
Anvil shaped thunder cloud
For the first time since the incident with hitman I started to relax. I knew where I was in a cockpit, familiarity was a comfort. The mountains below petered out and we reached our first waypoint, the town of Honda. I turned the aircraft to 17 degrees and we flew along a broad valley between two mountain ranges Port and Starboard. In the valley the river Magdalena threaded its way northwards as did we as we followed it for 150 km to the two lakes that were to be our next waypoint.
An uneventful cruise took us to the Cienaga Grande and Cienaga Barbacoas lakes where we turned North West towards the town of Monteria, a 250 km leg. This leg would take us over a lot of Jungle and not much else.
We had just crossed the Rio Cauca near a town called Caucasia about half way through the leg when our radar warning systems went crazy. Sharon, who had settled in the engineer’s seat behind the cockpit shouted a warning over the intercom. “We are being painted by a P-15 Tropa” radar.”
I knew about this one, NATO calls it Fat Face, and it is associated with ground to air missiles, usually the Soviet S-125 Neva or Pechora SAMs, NATO designation; SA-3 Goa missiles. These are usually truck, trailer or track mounted weapons that come in pairs or fours. Old technology, radar guided SAMs that could hit an aircraft as low as 350 ft to as high as 60,000 ft. Main guidance was radar based but some had an auxiliary TV guidance in case of jamming. A good weapon, sold all over the world to potential enemies of the West, including some South American countries.
SA-3 Goa missiles
This was not good news. We needed to act now irrespective of the intentions of the Tropa radar operator, things had been bad enough to date and we couldn’t pussy foot around with this problem. We decided to go down low as soon as possible, hoping that, if a missile was fired at us our speed would help us and when down low ground clutter would hide us. I put the Tristar into a dive it was never meant to do.
Dive – One missile miss!
“Jamming”, and then “Missile launch!” Sharon’s voice was strained, “just the one!” - Thank God no salvo yet. - “The jamming is working I think, the thing is headed to where we were.” Just then there was a thud as Sharon fired off Chaff for good measure.
And then I saw it. To the left out of the window, a streak of white vapour spiraling away and upward away from us. We had defeated it.
By now we were at 10 thousand feet and loosing height rapidly. “What’s happening with that SAM site?” I shouted back to Sharon.
“It’s still painting us.” Not out of the woods yet then. 5 thousand feet. Sharon yells “Missile Launch….and another”, 2,500 feet we are pulling out of our dive. 1000 feet …. 500ft and we are level and skimming over the jungle. We have lost one of the two missiles as it went high and confused but the other was still behind us. Down to tree top level now at 550 kts, I see a dip and fly dangerously low into it as Sharon bangs out more chaff. Caught out by the dive and the chaff the missile streaks over us and detonates a half mile ahead of us. There is a bang as we fly into some debris but no warnings show on the panel. Vibration increases a little but there are no obvious problems with the aircraft.
“Radar lost contact.” We were free and opening up the range as fast as we could.
On the Deck. Note the tail damage!
We stayed at 500 feet or lower for the rest of the leg and continued without any other incident to our waypoint at Monteria and stayed low as we turned and headed to the sea and Panama City.
We were soon over the coast and flew over the sea more like an Ekranoplane than a Tristar we were so low. When the coast reappeared, we had to gain height to pop over the coastal mountains and then we were in controlled airspace for Panama City with ATC to guide us down to Marcos A Gelabert International airport. The weather was good as promised.
Landing. Another fine view of the missile damage.
We landed safely and taxied up to the stand. Going through the shutdown checklists we noticed a growing number of airport workers gathering around our aircraft, some of which were pointing at our tail. Shutdown complete and the aircraft made safe we make our way out into the sunshine.
I looked up to see what everyone is pointing at and saw that our tail plane is missing a chunk of its leading edge. We were lucky that whatever bit of the missile that did that didn’t damage the rudder or worse still get ingested into the tail engine. I said as much to Sharon and Jasmine. Sharon smiled and replied, “Thank God we were in an RAF aircraft with all those lovely countermeasures. If we had been in a civilian Tristar the first we would have known about the missile would have been us shaking hands with St Peter”. Now that was a sobering thought. It explained why we had no bother from Ps men at Eldorado Intl. It also meant that the game had changed. Putinfeld was no longer interested in the baton. He just wanted revenge!
Jasmine and I said good bye to Sharon in the terminal building and then went over to the bar. The K1 tanker wasn’t going anywhere soon with the tail damage as it was, and so we found ourselves bereft of an aircraft to complete the leg. Time for Jasmine to get on the phone again.
Part two to follow..........