It is an event all military fliers hope to avoid when flying into combat. At one moment you are a skilled technician in command of a sophisticated aircraft flying high and fast, prepared to wreak lethal havoc on an enemy. Then, suddenly, you are an ordinary human, scrambling on foot around unfamiliar terrain, trying to avoid people who may want to kill you.
That is what happened to the crew of an Air Force F-15E when their fighter went out of control on a night strike mission over Libya in 2011, during Operation Odyssey Dawn. The happy ending to the incident is a testament to the value of interoperability amongst well-trained military professionals and to the survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training most US military airmen receive before being sent in harm’s way.
The event started in the routine but careful preparation for a two-ship sortie of Strike Eagles from 492nd Fighter Squadron, RAF Lakenheath, UK, on the afternoon of March 21, 2011. It was the third day of air operations in the effort to protect the opposition from Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s troops.
The squadron’s aircraft had deployed to Aviano AB, Italy, for Odyssey Dawn as part of the air campaign.
The No. 2 aircraft for the mission, call sign Bolar 34, had Maj. Kenneth Harney as its pilot with Capt. Tyler Stark in the backseat as the weapon systems officer (WSO). Harney was rated as an “experienced” F-15E pilot with 1,469 hours in the Strike Eagle, 661 of them as a pilot and the remainder as WSO. He had flown combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stark was a novice aircrew member with 185 total hours, 167.7 as an F-15E WSO.
The Strike Eagle was heavily loaded for a long-endurance mission with air-to-air and ground-attack capability. In addition to its internal fuel, Bolar 34 carried two 610-gallon external fuel tanks under its wings and two 750-gallon conformal tanks nestled against the fuselage. It was armed with two AIM-9 Sidewinders and two AIM- 120 AMRAAM anti-air missiles. It carried three GBU-38s (500-pound GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs) on left wing stations, and four GBU-12s (500-pound laser guided bombs) under the right wing. The fighter also carried a 20 mm rapid fire cannon with 500 rounds in the right side of the fuselage.
The official Air Force accident report noted the F-l5Eis “inherently right wing heavy” because of the gun—a factor in the subsequent accident. The fighter also had LANT1RN navigation and Sniper targeting pods for the night-time precision strike mission.
Bolar34 and the flight lead, Bolar 33, received normal mission planning briefs and went out to their aircraft at about 5 p.m. Aviano time. The flight took off at 6:13 p.m. and climbed to altitude for the nearly 800 mile run to Libya. After in-flight refueling from a KC-135 tanker, the two fighters arrived at a designated holding point over Libyan airspace and waited for tasking. The airmen observed anti-aircraft fire “in their direction” and maneuvered away, according to the Air Force’s accident report.
When the command and control aircraft gave them a tasking, the Strike Eagles refueled again, from a KC-10, and departed at 30,000 feet for the target—an air defense site—at 10:04 p.m. local time.
About five minutes later, Harney reported to the flight lead that his right external tank was not feeding into the internal fuel system, and he descended to 20,000 feet to see if the pressure change would resolve the problem. When the tank started to feed, Harney climbed back to 30,000 to join his leader, but shortly told him the tank was feeding slowly.
Arming their weapon systems, the two fighters began their target run at about 10:19 p.m. Though they planned to attack side by side, with the leader on the left and both making left turns after bomb release, Harney moved about two miles ahead during the target run, the accident report said. Because of this, the flight lead told Harney to make a right turn after release, so he would not cross the leaders’ flight path and falling weapon.
At 10:27 p.m., Bolar 34 launched a JDAM against the target. The JDAM came off a left wing station. That added to the Strike Eagle’s weight imbalance, or “lateral asymmetry.”
The F-15E’s gun is on the right; the tank-feed anomaly meant Bolar 34 still had extra fuel in the right side external tank; and four bombs remained under the right wing.
After weapon release, Harney started a descending right turn with 100-degree bank and 330 knots (380 mph) airspeed at military power—full throttle without afterburner. About 90 degrees through the turn, the aircraft nose dropped unexpectedly. Harney released stick pressure to reduce aerodynamic forces, but the accident report stated that the fighter “departed controlled flight” and went into a left spin.
Harney attempted the normal spin recovery procedures to no effect and at 10:28 told his flight lead that “two’s in a spin” and radioed, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” the international air distress signal.
With the spin accelerating as the Strike Eagle approached the recommended uncontrolled flight minimum altitude, Harney told Stark to bail out and initiated ejection at an observed altitude of 5,715 feet, the accident report said.
The ejection seats worked properly as both parachutes inflated and the crewmen suffered only minor injuries on landing. The empty Strike Eagle crashed to the ground and was destroyed.
In the Open
The airmen came down in open fields near the town of Bu Mariem, about 24 miles east of Benghazi, the rebel capital, and about 30 miles in from the coast. When safely on the ground, Hamey’s SERE training kicked in. He shed his unneeded flight gear, grabbed his “hit and run” survival kit, and took off following prescribed escape and evasion procedures.
Within minutes, the downed pilot was contacted on his survival radio, apparently by his flight lead. He would be in almost constant contact with friendly aircraft for the nearly three hours he was on the ground.
Stark, who landed some distance from his pilot, sought shelter in a sheep shed, although SERE training advises against going near habitation to avoid contact with people. He was discovered shortly afterward by Libyans, who fortunately were sympathetic to the rebellion.
But Hamey’s Mayday call, relayed through the US command net, triggered the kind of recovery operation American military fliers have come to rely on when they go down in unfriendly areas. Although Air Force crews normally count on the services of dedicated Air Force combat search and rescue personnel, the nearest CSAR unit at that time was hundreds of miles away in Europe, too far to get to Harney in time.
Fortunately for him, help was a lot closer: aboard the US Navy amphibious assault ship US Kearsarge about 100 miles off the Libyan coast.
Odyssey Dawn began as a US-only operation, established by Army Gen. Carter F Ham, commander of US Africa Command, as Joint Task Force-Odyssey Dawn under the command of Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of US Naval Forces Europe-Africa. Within JTF-OD, the joint force maritime component commander was Vice Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of US Sixth Fleet, and the joint force air component commander was Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward, commander of 17th Air Force. The JTF-OD staff relocated to the command and control ship USS Mount Whitney in the Mediterranean off Libya on March 11, 2011.
Kearsarge was part of an amphibious ready group. The ARG operated with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, an integrated air-ground force equipped with AV-8B Harrier short takeoff and vertical landing attack jets, helicopters, tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys, and a Marine battalion landing team.
The aircraft were assigned to Marine Medium Tilt-rotor Squadron 266 Reinforced, and the ground marines were from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, both based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The Kearsarge ARG and the 26th MEU had been deployed since August, and had moved into the Mediterranean first in response to the uprising in Egypt and then to support Odyssey Dawn.
Every MEU has a team of aircrews and marine infantry trained to conduct a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) mission—the same Marine capability that rescued Air Force Capt. Scott F O’Grady from the midst of Serb troops after his F-16 was shot down by an SA-6 over Bosnia in June 1995. The 26th MEU’s TRAP team would get the call the night of March 21.
Maj. J. Eric Grunke, a Harrier pilot with the MEU, said he and another AV-8B flier were preparing for an armed reconnaissance mission into Libya when word of the downed F- 15E reached Kearsarge and they were told to launch the TRAP package. At about the same time, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, Marine Capt. Erik Kolle, an Osprey pilot, was enjoying a cup of coffee in the officers’ wardroom when his squadron executive officer yelled at him, using his call sign: “Brillo, get your butt in the ready room. We’ve had a jet go down.”
Grunke and his wingman took off first, clearing Kearsarge ‘5 flight deck for two Ospreys and a pair of CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters. Each MV-22 carried 15 reconnaissance marines to help in the pilot rescue, and the helos took 35 marines each as a backup force. The Harriers were airborne first, and the Ospreys took off about 30 minutes later.
Bomb on the Deck
While the marines were activating their TRAP team, Air Force fighters were providing cover and radio contact for Harney, with a series of F-16s replacing his flight leader.
As the Ospreys flew toward Libya, Kolle said he could hear the Air Force pilots directing the downed airman where to run, using their targeting pods’ infrared sensors to scan the dark ground below. “There’s a ditch 50 yards to your east. Go there, now,” Kolle said he heard. “There’s a little bush 100 yards the other way. Go there, now.”
Grunke also recalled hearing the radio exchanges between Harney and the covering F- 16s. Grunke heard Haney whispering that he could see people and vehicles approaching and could heard dogs barking and gunfire.
“That was really the first moment where I said, ‘This is really no longer training. That’s really a guy on the ground down there that is fearing for his life,” Grunke subsequently told reporters. In a video released later by the Air Force and broadcast on CNN, Haney said: “When you find yourself alone and you’re isolated in a country where there’s hostiles, you are scared.”
Grunke said that while still inbound from Kearsarge, an F-16 “had just done a couple of gun attacks to deter the pursuers.” Shortly after that, the Marine pilot took over as on-scene commander.
Within minutes of being on station, Grunke said he used his targeting pod to spot the approaching vehicles and told Harney that he had two 500-pound bombs. “Do you need them?” The Air Force pilot replied “Yes, yes I do:’ Grunke recalled. As he was maneuvering to drop a bomb, Harney came back on the radio and said: “Tell my wife I love her.” Grunke said he replied, “Don’t worry, I’m going to have a bomb on the deck in one minute.”
The Harrier pilot released a laser guided bomb and directed it to hit between the downed pilot and an approaching vehicle. When another vehicle continued moving toward Harney’ s position, Grunke dropped another bomb in front of it as well. He also selected a possible landing site for the TRAP package coming behind him.
At that point, Grunke and his wing-man were getting low on fuel and had to depart, but he instructed arriving F-16s to continue searching the area for intruders. It later was learned that the vehicles approaching Harney were rebel sympathizers friendly to the allies.
Meanwhile, Kolle and the lead Osprey, flown by Marine Maj. B. J. Debardeleben, were using the tilt-rotor’s 300-knot (345 mph) airspeed to close in on the area, arriving about 10 minutes after the Harriers left. Kolle told the News & Observer that when he had flown Ospreys in Iraq, the primary concern was small-arms fire, which they could avoid by flying high. But because Qaddafi’s air-defense radar, guns, and missiles were still a threat, they went in low, about 200 feet above ground.
The marines were talking to the Air Force pilots orbiting the scene, Kolle said, and “when we started to come in on short final, lead asked for sparkle,” meaning a laser spot that they could see with their night vision goggles. Kolle said they also could see the strobe light attached to Harney’s survival vest.
The lead Osprey, however, was right over Harney when the crew spotted him and had too much speed to land, Kolle said. But Kolle had been holding back to see if the leader would experience a “brown out,” the blinding dust clouds that rotary wing aircraft can kick up when landing in the desert.
Fortuitously, Harney had found an irrigated field, a spot of green amidst the surrounding brown landscape. “Leave it to an Air Force pilot to find the one area that looked like a golf course,” Kolle quipped. With the advantage of his trailing position, Kolle said he was able to land his Osprey around 50 yards from the downed pilot.
The recon marines in the back immediately ran out and deployed into tactical positions around the Osprey. In the Air Force-CNN video, Harney recalled, “As that back door opened, I see a group of young marine recon units jump out, and that was probably the best feeling I’ve ever felt in my entire life.”
To make sure the heavily armed marines did not suspect any hostile action, Harney put his hands up in the air. “At that point, I don’t care if they put me in cuffs. I don’t care if they throw a bag over my head. I know I just want to be on that helicopter,” he said.
Kolle had been on the ground for what seemed like seconds when his crew chief, Sgt. Daniel Howington, said over the intercom: “Hey, we got him.” Kolle replied, “Roger that, we’re getting out of here.”
But Howington told him the recon marines were not all back on board yet. When the crew chief said the marines were on, Kolle said he told him to count, then count again, making sure they left no one behind. After just minutes on the ground, Kolle lifted off and joined his leader for the trip back to Kearsarge, about 47 minutes after they had left the ship some 100 miles away. The CH-53Es, with the reinforcements, never had to land.
No Pilot Error
Kolle said when they landed on Kearsarge, Harney was rushed down to the ship’s medical suite for a checkup. When they talked the next day, Harney said the biggest thing to him was his radio. Kolle had nothing but praise for the Air Force pilots he worked with that night. “Talking to those guys was absolutely seamless.” Despite the different services, there were no problems with terminology or tactics. “It was all professional.”
For their part in the rescue, Kolle and his crew chiefs SSgt. David Potter and Howington received Air Medals, with the combat “V,” this January. Grunke was named Marine Aviator of the Year in April 2011.
Although Stark did not follow SERE procedure, he was fortunate the Libyans who found him were anti-Qaddafi rebels. In the USAF-CNN video, Stark recalled that he saw two vehicles approaching and someone called out to him. “I hear the voice a little bit closer, ‘American, come out, we are here to help,” he related.
“I get up and put my hands up and start walking to the voice. … Once I get there my impression is, ‘OK, you have to assume that they are the bad guys,’ so I approach them thinking ‘OK, I am caught. This is really not good. This is not where I want to be.’ And they said, ‘Hey, we are here to help.”
Stark was driven to a nearby building, still very much on his guard, but when he walked into the room he got a round of applause, he said. Stark was taken to a Benghazi hotel and cared for until he was returned to US forces.
The official accident report found that the loss of controlled flight was due to the weight imbalance on the Strike Eagle’s right side and the fact that Harney performed an approved combat maneuver—but at an untested altitude above 30,000 feet. The accident board said, “Ambiguous F-15E technical order guidance concerning maneuvering limitations with aircraft lateral asymmetry” contributed to the accident.
Although maneuvering with lateral imbalance was considered acceptable at moderate angles of attack, the flight simulator tests the board conducted showed that “an asymmetrically loaded F- 15E flying at high altitude is prone to depart controlled flight and enter an unrecoverable spin” at that angle of attack.
The board said the pilot was not at fault, but added, “Evidence suggests that the [crew] was overconfident in the maneuvering capabilities of the F-15E.