The Wingmen Are Back in the Caucasus

I wrote this one in 1993, a year or two after the breakup of the Soviet Union. A piece of alternate history, set in a world where flying mutant "wingmen" have been hated and feared, and at the same time used for centuries in the armies of central and eastern Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East.

Yerevan, Armenia (AP)-- After an absence of more than a millennium, the wingmen are back in the Caucasus.

Walking along the terrace of an outdoor café today in Yerevan, one is apt to see them sitting at a wrought-iron table, young men drinking a cup of coffee together. They wear the khaki fatigues of the Armenian armed forces. Over a shoulder is slung a semi-automatic weapon. Strapped to the right thigh is the traditional kerrass, or aerial knife. And over the back of the chair spill the wings which sprout from the young men's backs.

"We are the oldest air force in the world, come back to fight for our native soil," says twenty-three year old Václav Andreyev. Born in Prague, the young krylietz, or wingman, emigrated to Armenia last year to take part in the growing nationalist ferment of the Caucasus. He has seen action over the skies of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"No radar can pick me up," he brags. The wingmen can fly, barely above the treetops, far below the range of radar: stealth bombers of flesh and blood. They are invaluable as reconnaissance and espionage agents for the fledgling Republic of Armenia, in its ongoing war against Azerbaijan over the disputed territory.

And he boldly displays two notches on the handle of his kerrass. "Kryltzy from the other side." One he brought down from fifty yards with his Uzi. But the other... "Almost at arm's length. With my kerrass. Right in his chest."

The image of wingmen duelling in the sky, engaging in a hand to hand dogfight overhead, is one graven on the imagination of European art, ever since Albrecht Dürer's famous woodcut of Austrian and Turkish wingmen battling with pikes over the skies of Vienna in 1486.

By the shore of the Caspian Sea, near the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, twenty-six year old wingman Ismail Ibrahim walks in the surf. He has come to Azerbaijan from the Black Sea coast of Turkey. "They think they will push us back. They do not realize that, in the Islamic world, we wingmen have flown for centuries without fear of being shot down."

That statement is not the full truth. True, in the old Ottoman Empire, wingmen did enjoy a liberty, and a freedom from blood hatred, unknown to their ghettoized brethren in Europe. And they did rise into positions as senior officers, but only at the price of becoming eunuchs. In Kazakhstan to the east, now, on the far shore of the Caspian, are to be found wingmen who, except for the Communist era, dwelt very nearly as co-equals of the Kazakh cavalry. And nowadays, wingmen from Kazakhstan, too, are flooding into the mountains of the Caucasus. Coming back home.

In the ninth or tenth century A.D., they appeared coming north out of the Caucasus. Human beings flying in the sky overhead, on spread wing. The result of a radical mutation somewhere back in the mountains, the wingmen emerged with their own culture, their own language, and a physical feature which marked them off as surely as the mark of Cain.

They inspired fear and hatred wherever they went. And there was no way they could hide. Wherever they went, the wingmen were enslaved, the subject of bloody pogroms, confined to small ghetto villages. Their wings identified them, in the minds of the peasantry, with either angels or demons. A wingman found on the ground more than a few miles from his ghetto enclave was likely to be clubbed to death by an enraged mob.

Yet a man who could fly was too valuable a military asset simply to be sacrificed. The armies of the nations of eastern and central Europe provided protection to the wingmen's villages within their boundaries. And every spring, the military men would come to the villages, to examine the young wingmen, to take them away, to draft and impress them into the army. Many of the conflicts of Europe and the Near East, from Bohemia to the steppes, from the skies of Prussia to the seas west of the port of Aleppo, were fought with wingmen of various nationalities providing the aerial support.

In the eighteenth century, the wingmen won their way further west in Europe, but at a price. Many of the German military councils, and even the French general staff under Louis XVI, contained military experts who knew what a battle looked like as seen in war-game miniature. Experts who had seen it with their own eyes from hundreds of feet in the air. But who had paid a price to be admitted to the chambers of power. "Worse than the Turk fliers, worse than unmanned," said their brothers from central Europe.

The coup-ailé, they were called. The "cut-wings." Thanks to a surgeon's knife, they were able to walk the streets of Paris or Berlin just like other men, without fear of being set upon and stoned.

But the wingman gene remained. Some of them passed in ships across the Atlantic. And their children flew in the skies above Chesapeake Bay, above the Hudson River, above the Appalachians.

American literature tells of Daniel Boone, and of his friend Samuel Weiss who blazed the trail by flying in the skies over head. Fennimore Cooper celebrates the role of the wingman on the American frontier. In the Revolutionary War, General Washington received invaluable intelligence from the patriotic wingmen who overflew the British positions. In the War Between the States, wingmen clad in blue and grey fought with revolver and Bowie knife over Antietam and Bull Run.

In the First World War, wingmen armed with boxes full of steel spikes rained terror from the skies of Europe. The American wingman "Ace" Pierson downed five German biplanes by boarding them, armed, in mid-flight.

In the Second World War, Russian wingmen contributed to the defense of Leningrad. And the 109th Human Aerial Corps covered the landing Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy.

The sixties saw the emergence of a civil rights movement among the wingmen in the United States. Wingmen picked off out of the skies by rifle fire over the mountains led to mass demonstrations in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1965. And John "Hawkman" Smith became a counter-culture hero in the summer of 1969, weaving on wing between the skyscrapers of Manhattan, evading and toying with police helicopters to fly in the window of a New York hospital where his brother lay in bed, having been wounded in the air by sniper fire.

The wingmen of the 1990's are a new breed. They duel in the air, not merely with the traditional pike and aerial knife, but with the much-hated rifle. The Uzi. The AK-47. The Mini-14, a scaled-down version of the M-16.

They come from all over Europe and the Middle East. From Vienna. From Prague. From Cracow. From Ankara and Constantinople. From Moscow and St. Petersburg and Astrakhan. Back to the Caucasus they flood. Back to their homeland.

He declines to give his name. Already, he bears a jagged red scar up the length of his right bicep. He flexes and ruffles his wings out across the flagstones of the terrace, to their full fifteen-foot wingspan. Tomorrow, he will be back in the air. For the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia.

"I took a knife. In the air. On patrol." He wears the traditional kerrass on his thigh. "But tomorrow I go up with this." He hefts a Russian army surplus Kalashnikov.

This wingman came home to the Caucasus from Bergen, New Jersey.