The B Team



All characters that appear in this chapter of B-Team are my own except for Alex O'Whitt and Billy The Kid. Those two individuals, as well as the tiger striped T-38 aircraft, are the creation of and are copyright Tigermark, 2003, see Fire On High at The Tiger's Den. This story is a continuation of the original four part "B-Team". My special thanks to Tigermark for his continued assistance, participation, and encouragement in the crafting of this story.

The B Team is copyright The Silver Coyote
2003




The Competition

Joe, Steve, and Rick had done a thorough inspection of the nose gear bay and the one remaining door upon their shutdown at the Air National Guard ramp at Knoxville. It had taken very little time or effort to ascertain the reason for the nose gear door separation. The pivot points that the missing door had attached to were corroded and had snapped, first on the right side and then on the left, judging from the evidence on the airframe. The door had temporarily jammed itself in the gear extension mechanism, cycling the gear a few times had worked it loose. Once free of the impeding door, the nose gear had extended normally.

They had gone over the remaining door very carefully, even going so far as to partially remove it from the aircraft to inspect the pivot points. No corrosion was evident, and a fair amount of lubricant was observed on the pivots. They had reinstalled the one door on the airframe.

Joe was now seated at a small desk in a small office in the Tennessee Air National Guard's hangar. His first call had been to Jerry Kitt's cell phone, to advise him of the situation and seek his input as to whether The Bitch was still airworthy. Joe described the approach, and the current status of the nose wheel bay, the nose wheel struts and extension / retraction mechanism, and remaining gear door.

"I don't see a problem, Joe," Jerry had said. "If the hydraulic systems aren't damaged, you should be good to go. You might notice a slight reduction in airspeed for a given power setting due to some drag, and you may hear a bit more slipstream noise, but I'm not worried about it." Jerry paused, then asked "Where did the gear door fall?"

"No idea," replied Joe. He had been worried about that. They had been over a relatively rural area when the gear door separated, but there was no way anyone could tell where it came down until somebody reported it. He prayed that no one had been hurt, nor any property damaged by it's arrival at the surface.

Joe's momentary silence caught Jerry's attention. "Joe, if you're concerned about it, take 'er up and fly a couple of patterns before you head out for Tinker."

"Nah," Joe grumbled, "we've already wasted enough time with this. I trust you, Jerry. We'll keep on." Joe looked at his watch. The Marines had started loading over an hour ago. They were no doubt done by now, and here he was holding up the parade. "We've got to go, Jerry."

"Tell you what, Joe. My cubs and Sheryl are at a birthday party this afternoon, maybe I'll wander over to the shop and keep Angie company for a while, at least for your first couple of check-ins enroute."

Joe started to protest; it wasn't necessary for Jerry to put himself out like that. But Jerry was already ahead of him. "You know, Matt's got that old Citabria he's been needling me to look at, maybe I'll give it a quick once- over while I'm there."

Joe sighed. Jerry's mind was made up, there was no talking him out of it. "OK Jerry, I appreciate it. Thanks for all your help."

"No problem, Joe!"

"We'll talk to you in about ninety minutes or so, then. Catch you later..."

"Bye Joe."

Joe hung up the desk phone. Nuts, he thought. The Marines could wait a few more minutes. Using his own PCS phone, Joe dialed a long distance number. After the third ring a soft female voice answered "Hi, this is Annie."

"Greetings from Tennessee, my love!" Joe said quietly.

"Hi honey," Annie replied, her voice tinged ever so slightly with concern. She wasn't used to mid-operation calls from her husband as there usually wasn't much time for him to stand around with a phone in his paw while the charter was on. He always called at the end of the flight, but very rarely during one. She wondered if something had caused the job to be aborted. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah, we had a minor delay here, but we're getting ready to go. I just wanted to tell you that I love you, and that we'll be getting in to Hanford at least ninety minutes later than I originally anticipated, so don't worry about us." Joe didn't want to alarm Annie by telling her about the latest problems with Intermountain's C-130. She had been quite concerned about their safety after hearing the low down from him about the in flight fire he and the furs had experienced on arrival at Columbus the last time out. She had expressed some apprehensions about his flying this job today, but he had calmed her fears with reassurances about the quality of Jerry's repair efforts and further assurances of a very thorough preflight on the part of all crewfurs on this trip. "Are the pups OK?" he asked, hoping to change the subject.

Annie smiled at that. She knew what he was trying to do. "Josh is down the street at Ko's playing with little Cody. Marie is right here with me, helping me bake you some cookies."

Joe patted his stomach wistfully. "Great, just what I need, more weight to lift." He smiled as well, knowing that she could hear the tease in his voice.

"Hi daddy!" a tiny voice said in Joe's ear. Joe's tail wagged involuntarily.

"Hi sweetie. How's my little pup today?"

"Good. I'm helpin' mommy make stuff!" Marie giggled into the phone.

"You're a good helper, wee one. You be extra good for mommy while I'm gone, OK?"

"OK."

"I love you Marie, and I will see you tomorrow night." Joe paused briefly. "And don't eat all my cookies!" he growled playfully. He was rewarded with more giggles, followed by some scuffling noises. In the background he heard his daughter say 'Here mommy..."

"Will you call me when you get in? I don't care how late it is." Annie's voice would easily have been described as a purr had she been feline. He had no idea how his red fox could sound like that, but it had it's desired effect. Fortunately, the effect was counterbalanced by Marie's little voice in the background, calling between bursts of giggling "I'm gonna eat all the cookies, daddy! All of 'em!"

"You know I will, love. It may be pretty late, but I'll call as soon as we're down." He could hear his wife sigh quietly into the phone.

Annie smiled sweetly at the phone as she whispered "This bed is awfully big when you're not in it, Joe."

"I know, Annie. I'll be home before you know it. Tomorrow night, sure thing." Joe looked out the window into the hangar and saw Steve looking for him out by the hangar doors. "Honey, I have to go. I think we're loaded up. Steve's looking for me."

"Joe?"

"Yes..."

Her voice was strong. "Be very careful with that Bitch. Don't let her bite you guys this time."

"We'll be careful, love. I'll call you tonight." Joe could still hear Marie babbling in the background, but couldn't quite make out her words. Something about chocolate. "Kiss Josh and Marie for me. I love you."

"I love you too, Joe. Have a safe flight, say hi to the boys for me."

"I will, my love. Bye..."

Joe heard a noise in his ear that sounded very much like Annie kissing the phone just before the circuit disconnected. Shaking his head as he folded his phone and put it in a jacket pocket, he tried to put away for later any mental images of what that looked like. He looked up just as Steve entered the room.

"We're loaded up. Slam want's to have us all inspect before we depart." Steve paused, looking carefully at Joe's face.

"What..?" Joe asked, wondering why the scrutiny.

Steve chuckled. "You've been talking to Annie, haven't you?"

Joe was mildly surprised. He'd been flying with Steve off and on for several years now, so he shouldn't be surprised that Steve was learning to read his facial expressions, but he was just the same. "Yeah," he replied, "just for a couple of minutes. She and Marie are baking cookies for me."

"Great," said Steve, patting his stomach. "Just what we need..."

Steve followed Joe through the narrow office door into the hangar. Joe had a small smile on his face as Steve fell in step beside him. "Who said anything about you getting any?" Joe asked as they headed for the ramp.

###

The load was squat and plain looking. It appeared innocent enough, wrapped in ordinary plywood sheets. It looked about eight feet square and six feet high, just a big wooden crate on long steel skids. Joe and Steve walked up the cargo ramp into the belly of The Bitch, looking for Slam. The load crew was gone, the only Marine presence outside was a lone guard who had challenged them at their initial approach to the aircraft.

As they strolled by the wooden box they slowed their pace and passed one to each side of it. To Joe's questioning glance once they met on the other side of the box Steve replied "Nothing. No forms, no stencils, nothing."

They each stood there, facing aft, staring at the big crate."Me either," Joe said. There were no identifying marks anywhere on it. The only thing about it that could be considered slightly unusual was the small cable bundle leading from the wooden crate up towards the flight deck.

"Hi furs," a voice greeted them from behind as a paw clamped onto each of their shoulders. "Long time no see." The paws loosened their grip.

Slam was smiling at them as they turned. "Hey," said Joe, grinning, "how's our loadmaster?"

"Hi Slam," Steve offered. "Yeah, how'd you draw the loadmaster and guard duties? Where's Randy?"

Slam's expression became pensive. "Dunno... I hear he told Matt he needed a week off for some family situation. That's all I heard."

Joe and Steve glanced at each other, knowing smiles on each muzzle. "Melanie!" they said in unison.

"What?" Slam's eyebrows spoke louder than his words, puzzlement was plain on his face.

Joe grinned as he began to explain. "Randy accompanied Rick on a flight in the Lear a week or so ago. A fast cargo run, bank documents to New York La Guardia. In the course of casual flight deck conversation Randy mentioned a few interesting things to Rick, which he passed on to us. It seems that Randy and Melanie are an item these days."

"I hear there's a lot of that going around," Slam said with a wide grin, nodding towards the flight deck. "Rick was just now telling me the same thing about he and that squirrel he's been seeing for a while now." Slam paused, scratching an ear. "What was her name?"

"Dakota," Steve supplied.

"Yeah," Slam said, snapping his fingers. "Dakota. Pretty squirrel! I love her eyes."

"Keep your spring events calendar open, furs, I smell weddings in the air." Steve smiled at Slam. "What about you? Who was that vixen we saw you with?"

Slam looked mildy disgusted. "Dude, she drank fifty dollars worth of booze that evening, and I didn't even get a kiss!" He smiled ruefully.

Joe and Steve both laughed out loud. Steve struggled to speak as he laughed. "Maybe... she couldn't focus... well enough to aim at... your face!" They laughed harder.

Slam's smile didn't fade. "OK, wise guys, you want to hear about the load or not?"

###

Fifteen minutes later Joe was standing in the cargo bay with his PCS phone against his head. Steve and Rick were already going through the pre-start checklist on the flight deck. Joe's last official act as aircraft commander for the first leg was in the process of being completed.

"Matt? Joe. We're starting up right now. ETA Tinker..."

"What are you guys still doing in Knoxville?" Matt interrupted.

Joe heard the tenseness in Matt's voice. Cuidado, he told himself. "We had a bit of a delay," he told Matt in what he hoped passed for a casual tone of voice. "There was a minor problem with the aircraft on arrival here."

Matt sounded disgusted. "What now?"

"The starboard nose gear door separated from the airframe and jammed in the nose wheel extension mech. We had to cycle the gear several times before it cleared and we got a green for the nose gear."

Matt's irritation did not diminish. In his office he rubbed his paw over the graying fur on his chin, silently calculating how the tardiness of today's operation would affect his ability to land more contracts with this particular federal agency. "How's the aircraft? Airworthy?"

"Oh yeah," Joe said, wishing this conversation was already finished. He could sense Matt's frustration, and also felt that something else had already been going on to get under Matt's fur before he had called. "I had a talk with Jerry about it, he says it shouldn't be a problem to continue the flight minus the nose gear door."

"No other damage from the door as it fell away?" Matt was starting to sound a bit less stressed.

"No," Joe replied firmly, "a T-38 pilot happened to be in the area, he did a fly-by as we were cycling the gear. He saw..."

"A T-38?" The tone of Matt's voice as he interrupted a second time told Joe something bad had just happened. It had a razor edge to it. "Stripes?"

Joe blinked. "Yeah, how'd you know?"

Matt swore under his breath. It was a tip-off to Joe that their conversation had crossed another boundary, one he didn't want to be on the wrong side of. He'd never heard Matt swear before.

In his office Matt began to rub the back of his neck as he rotated his head a bit, an old pilot's habit designed to relieve stress. "Orange or white?" he asked wearily.

"Say again?" Joe asked. He hadn't understood the low growl Matt was now employing as speech.

"Orange or white?" Matt said with exaggerated slowness and clarity into his pawset. "The stripes, Joe. What color were they?"

"Black and white." Momentarily bewildered by Matt's seeming clairvoyance, Joe paused to reflect. Then, as a light began to glow in the coyote brain between Joe's ears, he asked "How do you know about this aircraft?" Joe suspected that he was getting a small glimpse of a much larger story.

Matt swore quietly again. Joe could hear him draw a breath and hold it. He spoke again as he slowly exhaled. "At least it wasn't Billy the damn Kid," Matt muttered quietly, as if to himself. He spoke a little more loudly to Joe. "You've just met Alex O'Whitt, Joe. He's a relatively new employee of Kentiger Air Service out of Lexington. That's his T-38, he built it himself. His boss, Billy Panelli, has one just like it except his has orange and black stripes. Rumor has it they'll be doing airshows with it before too long."

Joe had picked up on the key name. "Kentiger?" he asked, starting to put puzzle pieces together.

"Yeah, the same Kentiger that's been nibbling away at our contract base for months." Actually, this wasn't true, and Matt knew it. They had only lost one contract to Kentiger. So far. Matt was very old world in his business operation. His idea of marketing was to buy a drink for one or more of his old buddies by way of sealing a deal on some charter or other. Intermountain depended almost entirely on return business and word of mouth for generation of sales. The truth of the matter was that Matt wasn't a salesfur, didn't like salesfurs, and would not employ salesfurs in his operation. Thus no one outside of Matt's personal sphere of influence (large though it was) had any idea Intermountain existed. They had very little advertising outside of some trade publications. Most of their charter business was referrals.

Joe and the rest of Intermountain's high time crewfurs did what they could to advertise Intermountain's services and capabilities. Oddly enough, it wasn't the shiny speedbirds in the stable that attracted the most attention. While the company had a couple of Gulfstreams, a Lear, and a couple of Citations to boast of, it was the haggard looking old war horse Hercules that attracted the most attention from prospective new customers, and those new customers were almost always some government agency or other. They liked the idea of a non - eye - catching load lifter owned, operated, and piloted by furs who didn't ask questions as long as the cash came in liberal amounts.

"Well," Joe said nervously into the sudden silence at the other end of his phone circuit, "the pilot was cool. He flew our wingtip right down to the threshold and then bugged out like it was all in a day's work. Never even saw his face."

"You'll know Alex when you see him. He's a big one, taller than you. They call him 'Ice'. Ice blue eyes. Rare on a tiger, you know? A white tiger at that. He's ex Air Force, another fighter jock. Retired just recently a bird colonel, I think. He's the marketing arm for Kentiger." Matt paused again. He was calming down some. He realized Joe could have had no way of knowing who was flying his wing and helping his crew out.

"Matt, we used the company call coming down here. He knew who we worked for. He chose to help us anyway." Joe could sort of understand Matt's concern over the competition, but Matt was former Air Force himself! He'd been flying transports since Joe was in grade school! He should still remember that what happens up there, above the earth, transcends the common, mundane activities of ground pounders. Business notwithstanding, this was simply a case of one pilot helping another. Nothing more, nothing less.

Matt sighed and stopped rubbing his neck. "I know Joe. I'm sorry. It just bugs me that Billy The Kid's number one marketing mug had a ringside seat to our little show this morning." Unseen by Joe, Matt grinned slightly as he willed himself to relax.

"What's up with you and this Billy The Kid?" Joe asked. "Who or what is Billy The Kid?"

Matt reflected on old times for a moment. He sighed briefly, quietly. "That'll wait for another time, Joe. You guys have some cargo to deliver. Get on it. We'll have a beer and I'll fill you in when you get back to Columbus. When are you arriving at Tinker?"

Joe glanced at his watch. "1615, roughly. Depends on how fast we can get out of Dodge, here. Knoxville is getting busy with those thunderstorms coming up out of the south. Lots of IFR traffic inbound."

"Give it your best shot, Joe. Keep those youngsters hopping. We can't afford to f... ah, screw up this contract. Too many follow-ons at risk. Call me at 1300 hours with your status, OK?"

"OK boss," Joe said. "Call at 1300, here we go."

Joe terminated his call and hurried towards the flight deck. The big props were already turning, and he still had his navigation gear to set up.

 



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