This is the prologue to ‘Per Fine Ounce’ by Peter Vollmer, published by Acorn Books and available on Amazon.
Shrouded in the utmost secrecy, the mission was planned to chase the demarcation between night and day as this rushed westwards. The high-altitude spy plane was in a race with the rotation of the earth, attempting to close on its target out of the approaching night sky.
The aircraft had left the U.S. military rapid deployment base and rapidly climbed to seventy-five thousand feet, where it levelled out and accelerated to its cruising speed of Mach 1.6. It flew due west from the island of Diego Garcia, located in the Chagos Archipelago, which lies a thousand miles south of India.
It passed north of Madagascar, where it remained well out in the Indian Ocean, detouring around the Seychelles, and then turned southwest towards the Mozambican coast on a track that would finally cross central South Africa. Before entering Mozambican airspace, it descended to forty-thousand feet to rendezvous and refuel.
Against the velvet of the night sky, the boom operator seated in the tail of the U.S Air Force Lockheed Tristar K. Mk.1 tanker could not to see the Blackbird as it slowly approached. The recon aircraft’s matt fuselage and wings merged with the dark sky, the still secret matt black titanium, and carbon-fibre skin of the hypersonic SR71 designed to absorb most light and all radar waves. However, the hypersonic spy plane’s proximity radarscope clearly revealed the tanker.
The tanker operator’s earphones crackled.
“Boomer 2, Boomer 2, this is Shadow 1 approaching. We are a thousand feet behind you and fifty feet below your horizontal.”
The operator jerked upright in his seat, immediately fully attentive as he flicked switches. A brilliant cone of light stabbed out from below the tail, illuminating the dark shape that cautiously approached the tanker. Sinister and menacing, it emitted no light and reflected none, remaining difficult to see even with the illumination. It closed to about a hundred feet from the tanker, and slowed to match the tanker’s speed of 500 m.p.h. In the cold night air, now free of the usual daytime tropical turbulence, the two aircraft were vague silhouettes against the stars, seeming stationary and joined by some invisible force.
The boom operator felt a slight shudder passing through the aircraft.
“Contact… coupling confirmed. Commence pumping,” the Blackbird pilot said.
The boom operator hadn’t expected confirmation from the pilot. The black ops aircrews who flew the SR71 and U2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft never said more than was absolutely necessary. They were not inclined to friendly banter; they were all business, cocooned in their airtight suits and full-face helmets. They seemed to live in a world of their own
The operator was a skilled technician; he knew his job. Various lights lit up on his small panel confirming good contact. He immediately activated the pumps. Hundreds of gallons of jet fuel driven by high-speed electric pumps swiftly flowed through the boom into the large wing tanks of the recon aircraft, filling them in minutes as the spy plane kept meticulous station behind the air-tanker.
The moment the tanks were full, the boom operator disengaged and retracted the flying boom. Briefly, a vaporisedcloud of fuel appeared, which instantly was swept back over the spy plane’s fuselage, as the connection was broken. Immediately the Blackbird started to fall behind, and when well clear of the tanker, the commander advanced the throttles of the two turbojet engines to full power, leaving a string of pale-blue transparent doughnut rings of fire strung out behind each engine as the afterburners were lit. The aircraft’s nose then lifted towards the stars as it climbed, disappearing immediately from view.
The spy plane chased the rising sun before it, slowly gaining on the day-night separation as the aircraft overtook the speed of the Earth’s rotation. The plan was to penetrate the daylight from the dark side as they flew over South Africa just before the close of day, the aircraft approaching out of the fading darkness of the night in the east, making it and the possible contrail of the aircraft difficult to detect.
The spy plane crossed Mozambique and entered South African airspace, heading towards the industrial complex of the Witwatersrand. Its mission was to photograph the nuclear research facility at Pelindaba built among the foothills of the Magaliesberg Mountains on the outskirts of Pretoria. From there it would continue westwards towards Vastrap, an arid flat area measuring thousands of square kilometres on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert. The inhabitants had long been displaced, the area now was a restricted military training site, and weapons range where the South African government tested its latest weaponry far from prying eyes. It was also here that the CIA believed the South African Atomic Energy Board, together with the South African Defence Force, was sinking a shaft to be used to carry out an underground atomic test blast.South Africa had yet to test-fire any nuclear armaments on land and scientists considered this essential before the development of these weapons could be considered a success.British intelligence had it that a test firing was due to be carried out with their secret partners, the Israelis, which of course, both countries vehemently denied. The South African and the Israeli governments were not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
US Intelligence had it from reliable sources that the Israelis and the South Africans had co-operated in the development of a gun-type firing device required to detonate a weapons-grade uranium core. They had also learned that the South Africans proposed to arm Israeli Jericho-2 missiles with nuclear warheads. It was rumoured other bombs were being designed, these to be delivered by high-altitude English Electric Canberra bombers or Blackburn Buccaneers, and others, which would be fitted to the RSA-3 medium-range ballistic missiles developed in South Africans.
In recent years, the onslaught against the South African apartheid regime had gained momentum, and the country now faced threats on more than one front as it took on several enemies, terrorist groups, or freedom fighters, as they preferred to be called, they financed and armed by the Russians and Chinese. In the north on the border of South West Africa and Angola, black guerrilla movements backed by Cuban Communist forces threatened to overrun the country.
With its apartheid policy, South Africa was a pariah nation, and western countries faced the choice of which was the least evil – a nuclear armed pro-western South Africa, or a country overrun by Black and Cuban forces that subscribed to Communist ideology: Neither idea was pleasant.
South Africa had built a sophisticated radar network, which monitored and controlled its northern borders, and supported by a ring of airfields on which French Mirage F1 and IIIc interceptor aircraft stood ready to scramble at a moment’s notice.
However, for some inexplicable reason no interception had been ordered against the intruder that now streaked across the southern skies at sixty-thousand feet. The SR71 Blackbird’s warning systems remained silent. Were the South African forces even aware of the high-altitude intruder? It did not seem so.
It flew over Pelindaba, its instruments registering the complex as a source of atomic radiation. It was generally known that the South Africans had two pilot nuclear reactors for research and peaceful use, but it was rumoured that it was here that here the newly developed nuclear bombs were assembled and stored. The Blackbird’s high-definition cameras took hundreds of photographs, many in infrared. The aircraft then slightly adjusted its course for Vastrap, a new military base in the Kalahari Desert. It was here, far from civilization, that high-resolution photographs would reveal that a mineshaft was being sunk, the workings surrounded by military vehicles and temporary accommodation.
Finally, the aircraft turned south and within minutes was over flying a small town. At their briefing, the crew had been told by the chief of the CIA’s South Africa desk, that this was a mining town in the middle of the desert. They were also told that this town had sprung up seemingly overnight, no map yet revealing its location. Even from this altitude, a runway of unusual length was discernible. Satellite surveillance had put its length at ten-thousand feet, this sufficient to accommodate the biggest aircraft in the world. What purpose could this possibly serve in a sparsely inhabited desert?
Finally, its covert task complete, the spy plane sped high over the Namib Desert, rendezvoused three times over the Atlantic Ocean with U.S. refuelling tankers before it finally entered United States airspace.