The days had started to blur together. Some pilots had started calling it Operation Groundhog Day. Twice a day, a U.S. E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft would lumber down the single runway at Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey and head toward Northern Iraq, disappearing on the eastern horizon. Twenty minutes later, two tankers, a U.S. KC-135 and a British VC-10, would follow. Ten minutes after that, we would take off in F-15C Eagles (right).
The tactical departure was one of the most fun parts of the sortie. Because of the threat of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), we would take off in full afterburner, pulling the jets into a near-vertical climb at the end of the runway to get us quickly away from the threat. It always amazed me how the jet could climb so quickly when loaded with three 600-gallon external fuel tanks and eight missiles.
Our mission that day in March 1994, as it was every day, was to enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. We had orders to warn and then shoot down Iraqi combat aircraft above the 36th parallel. Two no-fly zones had been operating in both northern and southern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War. Along with a gaggle of over 30 U.S., British, and French aircraft, it was our job to enforce it. On a normal day, there would be F-16s and F-15Es for ground strike, F-4Gs for supression of SAMS, and EF-111s for radar jamming, with the Brits and French providing reconnaissance support.
By the time we leveled off, we were normally passing the tankers that had taken off 10 minutes before us. We’d lock them up with our radars and check our fire control and onboard identification systems, then start talking to AWACS.
AWACS was normally about halfway along the 50-minute, 500-mile drive from Incirlik to the border of northern Iraq. We’d pass him as he checked the systems that were tracking us and checked our Identification Friend or Foe squawks to make sure we would show up as friendly aircraft on his scope.
As the primary air-to-air fighters in Operation Northern Watch, we were always the first into northern Iraq, sweeping west to east, making sure that no Iraqi aircraft were laying in wait in any of the mountain ranges. Once we were on station, we would call “Picture clear,” to AWACS, and the rest of the pilots in the no-fly zone enforcement package would make their way into the northern Iraq AOR—“area of responsibility.”
This was my fifth trip to Operation Northern Watch. The first few times I looked down into hostile territory and saw the patterns of surface-to-air missiles arrayed to shoot me down, I felt a jolt of excitement. Now it was just a daily grind of six- to eight-hour missions.
We were busy coordinating with the other air-to-air combat patrols over in the west part of northern Iraq when the first signs of trouble emerged.
“Weasel 2, SA-3 active, bull’s eye 030/10.”
One of the F-4G Wild Weasel jets tasked to perform SAM suppression for the coalition aircraft had picked up an active SA-3 tracking radar near the city of Mosul, about 10 miles north of the 36th parallel. Since the end of the Gulf War, the 36th parallel was the southern extent of our northern no-fly zone. This required some serious concentration, so I put down the ham-and-cheese sandwich I had just taken out.
We’d had Iraqi radars go active a few times in the last few weeks. Intelligence thought the Iraqis might be testing new radar components they had been working with to upgrade their older Soviet SAM systems.
As with every other occurrence, about a minute later, the Weasel called “SA-3 down.” We all returned to complacency and I broke out my sandwich again. We refueled about every hour and were coming up on our fourth refueling of
Suddenly, another voice came across the radio. Because of its high pitch, I did not recognize it at first as my wingman, who was flying in a two-mile line abreast formation, but I could tell it was serious.
“Mud launch, right 3!”
There it was, out the right side of my bubble canopy. In various briefs, we had been shown videos of different SAM launches so we would recognize what one looked like. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. But when I saw the smoke trail emanating from the Iraqi desert, I flashed back to the space shuttle launch I had seen at Kennedy Space Center years earlier.
After chucking my sandwich for good, I reached down and pushed my combat jettison button to blow off the two external wing tanks. In the face of a SAM launch, our plan, which we briefed every day, was to first jettison our wing tanks to get better maneuverability to avoid the missile. If it later appeared that the SAM was tracking one of our aircraft, we would jettison a third tank, the one on the centerline of the jet, for last-ditch maneuvers.
As I watched the SAM begin to climb, it was apparent that it was not guiding on our two aircraft. If you could see movement along your canopy as you watched the missile, it wasn’t going to hit you. An object on a collision course, be it a SAM, another jet, or even a car, will have no apparent movement relative to you. My mind began to slow down a little and I began remembering critical things we needed to do.
“Rambo 1, naked.”
This call told my wingman that my radar-warning receiver was not showing any radars, air-to-air, or surface-to-air, tracking my aircraft. Since systems do fail, there was no guarantee that the shot was not launched at us, but it was much more reassuring than calling “Mud spike, SA-3,” meaning I was being tracked.
“Rambo 2, naked.”
Good. My wingman was not the target of the launch either.
“Magnum, magnum, SA-3, Mosul.”
The Wild Weasels were firing radar homing HARMs—high-speed anti-radiation missiles. According to Intel debriefs of past engagements, this was often enough to make the Iraqi radar site shut down. The Iraqis often monitored our frequencies and knew that “Magnum” meant a HARM had been fired. Late in the Gulf War, a common tactic among pilots was to call “Magnum” over the radio when a SAM radar locked them up, and the Iraqis would quickly shut the site down. There were reports that even B-52s and unarmed reconnaissance aircraft had used this technique.
Today, though, the Magnum call had been for real. We saw the contrails of the HARMs arcing across the sky above us until the rocket motors burned out and the missiles started their descent at Mach 3.
We were too busy tracking the airborne SAM to be able to follow the HARMs to impact, but reconnaissance later showed that they had taken out the tracking radar. Now the real show would begin. Though the HARMs had taken out the radar, our policy at the time was to take out the associated missiles as well.
“Sting, Duke, cleared in hot.”
Duke, the commander in the AWACS, had just authorized Sting, a flight of two F-16Cs, to roll in and attack the missile site with cluster bombs. We wanted to get over to the launch area to watch the strike, but we had been briefed by Intel that a SAM launch could be a diversion for some kind of Iraqi air-to-air action. We couldn’t let our guard down.
As we continued to sweep our radars downrange, looking for anyone trying to sneak across the 36th parallel, we could hear the F-16s rolling in. Both of the pilots were from our home base in Germany and we figured they must be having fun.
That opinion quickly changed when we heard the F-16 lead call the AWACS.
“Duke, Sting, not sure we got it. Recommend re-attack.”
We felt for the F-16 pilots. Nothing was more embarrassing than to miss with everybody watching. Their painful admission, however, allowed us to re-attack while the area of responsibility was still hot.
“Panther, Duke. Your turn. Cleared
The airborne commander had just called in F-15Es, the two-seat strike model, to roll in with their 2,000-pound “crowd pleasers.” This was going to be spectacular.
“Duke, Rambo, we’re going to reposition closer to Panther for a better look downrange.”
We moved about 15 miles to the west and were about five miles away as the F-15Es began their strike runs. Using laser-guided 2,000-pound bombs, it really wasn’t a matter of if they were going to hit the target, it was which window of the truck they wanted to guide the bombs through.
As the F-15Es pulled off target, we saw the bombs hit the missile site. While the remaining missiles on the SAM site cooked off, a black mushroom cloud billowed 5,000 feet.
“Duke, Panther, good secondaries.”
“Copy, Panther. Good work.”
We stayed on station for a few minutes longer as British Jaguar reconnaissance jets overflew the site and snapped some pictures. Then it was time to start the whole elephant walk of getting all 30 aircraft out of the AOR in an orderly fashion.
As I taxied into our hardened shelter at Incirlik, I looked down at the floorboard of my jet. I had one last call to make to operations.
“Ops, Rambo 1. Bring out some cleaning stuff. I’ve got ham-and-cheese sandwich all over the cockpit.”
“Rambo, ops, we’ll scramble the cleaners.”
That night at our tent city bar, everyone recounted their heroics. The F-16s accused us of trying to take out the SAM site by dropping our wing tanks on it and offered to give us lessons in bombing techniques.
This bought a quick response from the F-15Es, who came to our defense, thanking the F-16s for using their errant bombs to bracket the target so well that the F-15s had no trouble identifying it.
The F-4G pilots offered a theory that the Iraqis were trying to put a swimming pool in the area and figured that U.S. 2,000-pound bombs were the most effective way to dig the hole. The Intel officer described how the SAM operator would be all decked out in track clothes ready to push the button and then try to set a world record in the 400-meter “HARM evasion” event.
Finally, I received the final award of the night, from the Brit Jaguar pilots. Thankfully, there were no casualties, they said, so there would be no Purple Hearts awarded. But a little-known instance of collateral damage from the battle over Iraq had been the catastrophic failure of my sandwich, to which one Brit pilot added, “Oh, the humanity.” I was promptly awarded a pink heart, for incredible self-sacrifice in the face of enemy action.