No one knows what CIA desk jockey Zac Miller is capable of—including himself—until a routine surveillance job becomes a do-or-die mission in the Middle East.
When a commercial flight violates restricted airspace to make an emergency landing at a closed airport in Iran, the passengers are just happy to be alive and ready to transfer to a functional plane. All of them except one...
The American technology consultant in business class is not who he says he is. Zac Miller is a CIA analyst. And after an agent's cover gets blown, Zac—though never trained to be a field operative—volunteers to take his place, to keep a surveillance mission from being scrubbed.
Zac thinks it will be easy to photograph the earthquake-ravaged airport that is located near a hidden top secret nuclear facility. But when everything that can go wrong does, he finds himself on the run from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and abandoned by his own teammates, who think he has gone rogue. Embarking on a harrowing journey through the mountains of Iran to the Persian Gulf and across Europe, Zac can only rely on himself. But even if he makes it out alive, the life he once had may be lost to him forever...
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"Speedbird 337, maintain heading one-one-five. Contact Tehran Defense Radar on 127.8. Good day."
Inside the cockpit, First Officer Edward Blake responded to the Turkish air traffic controller.
"Roger that, Ankara Center. Speedbird 337 maintain heading one-one-five. Switching to 127.8."
He glanced to his left and caught Captain Sam Allard's eyes for a moment before turning the VHF radio to the new frequency. The British Airways flight, radio call sign "Speedbird," was closing in on Iran's Flight Information Region and needed permission to enter Iranian airspace.
"Tehran Radar, this is Speedbird 337 heavy."
"Go ahead, Speedbird 337."
"Tehran Radar, Speedbird 337 with you at flight level three-niner-zero, estimate crossing your FIR at 15:20 hours."
"Roger, Speedbird 337, squawk 0413 and proceed as filed."
The radio fell silent while the Iranian controller verified the radar contact and flight plan that the British Airways pilots had filed before taking off from London.
In peaceful times, the flight would have followed the great circle route through Uzbekistan and Afghanistan before heading south below the Himalayas on its way to Singapore. For the past decade, however, hostilities in the area led most airlines to divert their jets to the south, over Iran. The detour added a few minutes and several thousand dollars to the cost of each flight, but it was safer than flying through a war zone.
"Speedbird 337, identified, cleared for entry. Contact Tehran Center on 133.4. Good day."
"Roger that, Radar, Speedbird 337 cleared for entry, switching to 133.4."
Captain Allard adjusted the autopilot and the six-hundred-twenty-ton Airbus A380 banked gently to the right before settling onto its new course. He scanned his instruments and cross-checked his flight computer. Underneath the wings of the Airbus, four Rolls-Royce Trent 970 engines were running smoothly, each delivering over eighty thousand pounds of thrust. The radio in the cockpit chirped sporadically as air traffic controllers directed the other planes in Sector Two around Tehran. Most of the flights were domestic, but Emirates, Air India, and other international carriers were not uncommon.
The long-haul flight was on schedule as Allard gazed out the cockpit windows. The late-day sun was starting to form shadows behind the mountains below. It was his first flight over Iran. It was more rugged and beautiful than he'd expected, but his reverie was interrupted by the copilot.
"Captain, we have a warning light on the number-three engine . . . Exhaust gas temperature is spiking and oil pressure is dropping quickly."
An automated voice in the cockpit called out another warning and a message flashed on the centralized aircraft monitor inside the cockpit. Captain Allard silenced the alarms. He was already looking at the engine data on his own monitors.
"I don't think we're going to be able to keep it running. Give me maximum continuous thrust on the good engines and let's run the engine shutdown checklist."
Blake made eye contact with his senior officer and took a deep breath. "Yes, sir, commencing in-flight shutdown on the number-three engine."
Blake pushed the button for the Fasten Seat Belt sign while Captain Allard switched to the air traffic control frequency on his headset.
"Tehran Center, Speedbird 337 requesting immediate clearance to flight level two-seven-zero. Our number-three engine has lost oil pressure and we're shutting it down."
The radio was quiet for a few long seconds. Allard and Blake shut down the malfunctioning engine and trimmed the aircraft's rudder to compensate for the off-center thrust.
"Speedbird 337, you are cleared to flight level two-seven-zero, understand number-three engine out. Are you declaring an emergency at this time?" asked the controller.
Allard looked at his copilot. "Take her down to two-seven-zero as soon as we hit driftdown speed."
"Center, 337 leaving flight level three-niner-zero for two-seven-zero. That's negative, repeat, negative on the emergency. We don't know the cause of the pressure loss yet but the other three engines are running smoothly."
"Roger, Speedbird 337. Confirm you are an A380?"
"That's affirmative, Center."
"Speedbird 337, nearest capable alternate airport is Esfahan, approximately sixty miles northwest of your position. Would you like vectors to the alternate?"
"Center, 337, negative on the alternate. We are proceeding on course, descending through flight level three-six-zero. We're going to look at restarting our number three once we reach engine-out altitude."
"Understood, Speedbird 337. Maintain heading one-two-five degrees, flight level two-seven-zero, and keep us advised of your status."
"Maintain heading one-two-five, Speedbird 337," confirmed Allard.
When the aircraft started its descent, most of the passengers felt a touch of weightlessness before their seat belts pulled them down. Flight attendants walked down the pitched aisles, waking the sleeping passengers and enforcing the seat-belt rule. Questions from the passengers were politely deflected despite the clearly elevated vigilance on the part of the crew.
Captain Allard picked up the handset for the internal public address system as the aircraft descended.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. You may have noticed that we've slowed down and descended over the past few minutes. Everything is fine. We'll soon be leveling off at twenty-seven thousand feet where we're going to stay for a bit. One of our engines was acting up so we decided to shut it down until we can correct the problem and get it restarted. The A380 is designed to fly quite well with only three engines and can get by with two if necessary. In the meantime, please listen to your flight attendants and remain in your seats. We will keep you apprised of the situation. Thank you."
The pilots spent a few minutes preparing to restart the idle engine but the warning lights flashed again. The mood in the cockpit remained businesslike despite the mounting problems.
Blake spoke calmly. "We've just lost Yellow hydraulic pressure."
The forces involved in moving the control surfaces on such a large aircraft were enormous. Without hydraulics to move the rudder, ailerons, and elevator, the pilots would be unable to maneuver the plane. The hydraulic systems were so critical that the A380 had two systems, Green and Yellow, to prevent a single failure from turning into a catastrophe.
"OK. What's Green system pressure and quantity?"
Blake was already looking at his monitor.
"Green is at 96 percent." He paused for a moment. "Make that 94 percent. Quantity is definitely falling. We may have a leak."
The pilots ran through a checklist to locate the cause of the problem. Years earlier, a Qantas Airways A380 had suffered a hydraulic failure after an engine exploded just after takeoff. The explosion had also been preceded by an oil-pressure loss. Only the skill of the crew, and much good luck, had allowed the aircraft to land safely.
The air traffic controller had just finished handling a domestic Iran Air flight when Blake switched his radio back to the air traffic control frequency.
"Tehran Center, Speedbird 337 . . ."
"Speedbird 337, this is Tehran Center, what is your status?"
"Center, our number three is still out, we've lost primary hydraulic pressure and are running on our secondary systems. Requesting vectors to the nearest capable alternate."
"Stand by, 337," ordered the controller before the radio went quiet.
A minute later, the controller returned. "Speedbird 337, turn left heading three-one-zero and descend and maintain flight level one-eight-zero. Prepare for landing at Beheshti International."
Allard and Blake looked at each other. The captain smiled, then shook his head.
Blake keyed his microphone and calmly said, "Center, Speedbird 337. Unable to comply."
"Speedbird 337, this is Tehran Center . . . Please say again."
The radio was quiet.
"Speedbird 337, this is Tehran Center. Please acknowledge."
There was silence from the cockpit.
Area Control Center, Sector Two, was a cold, modern room dominated by computer monitors and communications equipment. The radio frequency handling Flight 337 was being broadcast over the loudspeakers and all eyes were on the air traffic controller working the flight. The veteran controller had worked planes with communications trouble, aircraft that had strayed off course, and even emergencies, but no one had ever disobeyed an instruction before. He looked over his shoulder for guidance from the sector chief.
"Why won't he divert to Beheshti?" shouted the chief.
The controller turned back to his monitor. Radar showed the British Airways flight continuing on course.
"They seem to be losing altitude and their course is oscillating."
"If they are going to avoid the restricted airspace they must divert now. Raise them again," the chief ordered.
"Speedbird 337, this is Tehran Center. Come in."
For reasons of national security, safety, or even recreation, most countries have restricted airspace. Some parts of the sky are simply off-limits to aircraft that don't have permission to be there, and the airspace in front of the struggling Airbus was most definitely off-limits.
"Speedbird 337, this is Tehran Center. Do you copy?"
The chief became angrier as the seconds passed in silence. "I am willing to believe we have an aircraft in distress if they communicate and divert, but they cannot simply ignore us. We have to assume a possible Trojan horse. Alert Western Area Command. Tell them we have an unresponsive aircraft and an imminent violation of the airspace around Sirjan."
The turbulent politics of the Middle East had led Iran to put military officers or reservists in control of its civilian air traffic control centers, and the Trojan horse scenario was one that all of their air defense specialists had studied. With air traffic control radar unable to distinguish an A380 on a routine passenger flight from a B-52 bomber intent on attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, controllers could only establish an aircraft's bona fides by assessing the pilot's communication, behavior, and pre-filed flight plan, all of which could be faked. This plane was already in central Iran and headed toward prohibited airspace, which was even more sensitive than restricted airspace. But the Iranians were ready.
With wars to its west and north, and unfriendly aircraft regularly patrolling the Persian Gulf to its south, Iran had fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles stationed throughout much of the country.
A technician in the air traffic control center picked up the third of several red phones on a console and spoke rapidly to the air force officer on the other end.
"Western Command, we have a foreign aircraft headed toward the Sirjan prohibited area, possible Trojan horse. Aircraft is one hundred and twenty nautical miles southeast of Esfahan, heading one-three-zero, twenty-five thousand feet . . . Aircraft has ignored instructions and is not answering its radio . . ." The technician listened for a minute. "I understand. One moment."
He held the phone at his side and pointed at the map on the computer screen in front of him as he spoke to the chief of center.
"In a few minutes they will exit the SAM net around Esfahan. If they continue on this course they won't be within range of the S-200 battery at Bandar Abbas or the HAWK battery in Sirjan for another twenty-five minutes. They're flying through a hole in our defensive net. They'll be in Southern Sector before Western can scramble fighters or launch a missile."
The chief scowled. "Raise Southern Area Command right now. Do we have any interceptors in Kerman?"
The technician spoke into another of the red phones and relayed his conversation to the chief.
"Kerman is still not operational because of the earthquake. Southern can scramble two F-14s from Shiraz in ten minutes, but their radar is down. They're asking us what to do."
The chief studied the digital map on the screen of the controller in front of him. With his finger on the screen, he traced the probable course of the violator.
"Tell them to launch the fighters and alert the SAM battery in Sirjan. We'll coordinate from here."
The technician relayed the orders and hung up the handset. He was a patriotic man, but he knew that the aircraft in question was almost certainly a civilian airliner with engine troubles. Shooting it down would kill the hundreds of passengers aboard. He stared at the computer monitor in front of him, willing the giant Airbus to turn around.
The very real threat of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities ensured that its interceptors were kept on a high state of alert. The fighters based in Shiraz were American-made F-14As that had been sold to Iran before the 1979 revolution. Despite its age, the F-14 was still a formidable air superiority fighter, and it would make quick work of a commercial airliner. Each of the two fighters carried a pilot and a weapons officer. In the thirty-second briefing they were given before they jogged to the flight line, the four aviators were told only that a foreign aircraft had disobeyed instructions, ceased communications with air traffic control, and was flying into prohibited airspace. No mention was made that there might be passengers aboard or equipment troubles. The fighters were to intercept the aircraft and await further orders. Typically they would force the jet to land at an airfield away from the forbidden airspace, but the fighters carried live weapons and the pilots were well trained. They would follow the orders they were given.
At the Seventh Tactical Airbase outside Shiraz, the lead fighter throttled up and lit its afterburners, sending cones of flame erupting from the engines as it rocketed into the afternoon sky. When the second fighter was airborne and formed up with his lead, the pair banked hard left and turned to their intercept course. The planes' variable aspect wings swept back to their high-speed positions and the fighters accelerated rapidly to just under Mach 1.5. They would cover the one hundred twenty-five miles to the Airbus in less than ten minutes. The big jet would be in missile range in less than five.
While the chief and the technician coordinated the intercept of the troubled airliner, the original controller tried repeatedly to raise the British Airways flight. In addition to the established VHF radio frequency, he broadcasted over the 121.5 MHz emergency-use frequency, which all aircraft monitored. The Airbus was nonresponsive.
The controller addressed the chief again.
"Sir, the target aircraft is ninety miles from Sirjan but has slowed and lost altitude. Airspeed is down to two hundred twenty knots and altitude is erratic around flight level two-forty. Their troubles may be worsening."
"Then why are they not descending and diverting to Esfahan as ordered? They are strictly forbidden to enter this area."
The technician was on the phone again. "Sir, the fighters are fifty miles out and have the target on radar. Southern Command is not going to let that aircraft reach Sirjan."
The chief hesitated. Every muscle in his face was strained.