Domodedovo International Airport,
The Present Day
The twenty-wheel main landing gear touched down first, followed in ten seconds by the nose wheels, as the half-billion dollar jet settled it’s six hundred ton bulk on the tarmac, still hurtling on at a nippy 220 knots. Almost immediately, the reverse thrusters on the two in-board engines came on, muffling the gradually receding whine of the two out-board turbines and creating a sudden drag that immediately began the process of bringing the large airliner to a halt, just short of the white stenciled outer markers at the end of the four kilometer long runway.
The lack of engine noise inside the cabin seemed eerie and it had been that way throughout the flight, despite the presence of four of the largest and most powerful turbofan engines ever built. The A380 was living up to it’s promise – being fifty percent quieter than the 747. The 789 passengers and crew felt just a mild bump and the sudden nudge of deceleration and of course the relief of finally having arrived after a ten hour long non-stop flight.
52yr old Captain Tuz Strassner, ‘Ace’ to his crew, is in command of the giant jet tonight. Ace also happens to be the direct translation in English, of the Russian word ‘Tuz’. There are still a good two hours to go before he can have his hot shower and martini. Two hours of briefing to the relief crew who’ll be taking over for the remaining leg, Moscow to Hong Kong. In addition, his employers, Lufthansa, have messaged that the Airbus Service Rep at the Domodedovo would like a quick inspection of the on-board systems and fuel status, a procedure not uncommon for aircraft that are still within five years of introduction. Airbus deems these audits necessary, especially with the A380 and it’s technological wizardry, the carbon fiber airframe, the avionics and the revolutionary GTL/kerosene hybrid fuel, just to name a few innovations that set the massive jet apart.
Strassner will have to turn in as soon as he checks into the Ramada Domodedovo. He has a fair amount of domestic travel scheduled for the next four days, which Lufthansa hadn’t hesitated to sanction, given the prestige involved. More precisely, it’ll begin with a dawn flight in a Russian Air Force IL-76 to the Ukrainian city of Krazny Luch, a thousand kilometers to the south. As a courtesy that is always shown to a fellow pilot, and in this specific case a show of respect, Strassner will be traveling in the cockpit jump seat.
During the next four days, Tuz Strassner will witness the exhuming of the remains of a woman at the Reyvkiya Cemetery in Kraznyi Luch and it’s careful transportation for re-interment at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. She will be the only woman ever to receive such an honor. The re-interment will be preceded by a lavish medal ceremony, right next to the grave itself, where the woman will be bestowed posthumously, the nation’s highest military honor, Hero of the Russian Federation, by the hands of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin himself. Later that evening, at a banquet in her memory, Capt. Tuz Strassner will be the guest of honor, seated at the same table as President Putin.
Tuz Strassner of course has never really met the woman being honored, having been prematurely extricated from her womb in the waning moments of her life. To be precise, an hour after she had belly landed her Tupolev-16 Badger, that bone-chilling May afternoon in 1960. The woman had been test-flying a newer version, the Tu-16KSR-2, a high-altitude launch platform for future strategic warheads.
Unknown to her, at approximately the same time, another aircraft took to the skies, from the US Air Force base at Badaber, outside Peshawar, in Pakistan. Painted jet black with a non-reflective varnish, with no windows or markings to distinguish it, the grotesquely long and ungainly plane resembled a reluctant albatross with a very long wingspan. The plane climbed rapidly and within twenty minutes, it had crossed into Soviet air space at an altitude of 65000ft, well above the reach of any of the Soviet interceptors or anti-aircraft ordnance of the time.
The Badger meanwhile completed it’s test parameters and was returning to base, a remote hub for strategic bombers in Bobrovka, Siberia, when it was directed to intercept the pencil-like sliver of an aircraft that was traversing Soviet airspace at 65000 ft and to bring it down with the Tupolev’s onboard KSR-2 missiles or it’s 23mm cannons.
However, when it became known that the Tu-16 was on a test flight and was not carrying any ordnance at all, she was directed to try and ram the intruder which she proceeded to do unflinchingly, knowing that she wouldn’t survive the collision. The Tu-16’s newly extended service ceiling was just about 65000 ft but that afternoon, the woman couldn’t get it up beyond 59000ft.
The intruding aircraft was eventually brought down, by a barrage of ground based Dvina missiles. It’s pilot, a 31yr old American by the name of Francis Gary Powers, bailed out and was captured alive. The plane was a U-2, an unarmed, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, recently developed at the American defense contractor, Lockheed. It was owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
As to the Badger, the stresses generated by the effort to attain the intercept altitude had nearly torn it apart. The window on the far side of the young co-pilot, Leutnant Yuri Gorshkov, exploded from the pressure differential. Next, his seat belt tore off from the pull as he got squeezed and sucked through the jagged opening like a sausage, his screams choked by the -65degree celsius whiplash of the wind and of course by his rapid demise. All the hydraulics systems failed simultaneously thereafter, literally shutting down rudder and landing gear control. Fortunately the elevators still had mechanical override.
The woman, her temperament cooler than the icy environs of the cockpit, single handedly managed to bring the massive bomber down from the edge of the stratosphere and coasted it in, gently setting it down on it’s belly at Bobrovka. She remained strapped in her seat while the plane hurtled down the tunnel of runway lights, out of control, slipping and sliding over the ice-slick tarmac. Swirls of stinging ice pellets whipped up from the tarmac, whistled in through the blown window and swished around the cockpit. The big jet plowed through a radar shack and came to rest just feet away from a massive canal, it’s surface frozen but unstable from the spring thaw.
The woman sat slumped forward, motionless, as if peering down at something on the floor between her feet. It was her helmet, split in two. A small lead lined unit, situated just behind her seat, containing flight test-related instrumentation, had come loose in the impact and telescoped into her helmet with such force that the helmet had cracked open like a walnut and the lead lining of the box had smashed into her medula oblongata, crushing the back of her skull, the jolt breaking her neck at the same time.
That evening, the base hospital records showed the birth by Caesarian section of a sickly underweight boy. The baby was immediately stuffed into an incubator. The mother, who had by then succumbed to her injuries, was well known around the base.
As a mark of respect bordering on reverence, the base personnel had draped her ribbons and medals on top of her casket and there they lay, almost completely covering the lid, so extensive had been her accomplishments. Of these, the Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star, Order of the Patriotic War were clearly visible.
During a brief period of three and a half years, between 1942 and 1945, the woman had been known in the skies above the Eastern Front, by her call sign – ‘Belyye Rosy’.