An F-117A Stealth fighter fired the Air Force’s opening shot of the war against Iraq, dropping a pin-point-accurate, laser-guided, 2,000- pound bomb through the roof of the general communications building in downtown Baghdad and into its communications center.
The single fighter targeting the facility operated with impunity over the Iraqi capital before Baghdad’s air defense system detected follow-on attacks by conventional allied aircraft. “The city was lighted up, with cars still in the streets,” recalled Col. Klaus J. Klause. Within hours, “Baghdad was blacked out, and they were sending up their heavy antiaircraft fire. We could see the lights of their flak twinkling all over the place.”
Pilots given the highly sensitive task of striking high-value Iraqi targets participated in unusually detailed mission planning beforehand, including a review of floor plans to focus pilots’ bombing priorities on key rooms.
Col. Alton C. Whitley, commander of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Tonopah Test Range Airfield, Nev., said planes from his squadrons carried out thirty sorties against eighty Iraqi targets in the opening hours of Desert Storm. Vivid videotape of the attack on the communications building adjacent to the Tigris River showed the bomb slide precisely through the center of the roof of the multistory building before exploding.
Desert Storm threw hundreds of American flyers into their first combat missions, often under the tutelage of commanders who had seen action in Vietnam. For younger pilots, learning to work in the stress of combat was unforgettable.
Colonel Whitley told his pilots what to expect. “It would seem a little bit like fear,” he told his men, “perhaps a little bit like anxiety. But not to worry, because we are well equipped. ” Going into targets in Iraq, including Baghdad, pilots hunkered down in their high-tech cockpits. “You get as small as you can get,” said Colonel Klause. “You sit down low in the cockpit, concentrate on the gauges, and don’t look out.”
One 37th TFW pilot, who identified himself as “Greg,” dodged a storm of antiaircraft fire after the relatively calm first-in, first-out missions over Iraq the first night. “There’s always what we call the ‘golden BB’–the aimed or unaimed bullet that you run into because there are so many bullets,” recalled the 1973 Air Force Academy graduate. “They fired more bullets than I thought were ever made in the history of the world.”
When a target was hit and the trip home began, the relief was palpable. “Coming off the target and knowing you’re safe is one of the most exhilarating feelings I ever felt,” the pilot said. “It’s such a feeling of relief I made it through a spot I didn’t believe I was ever going to go into.”
An American woman mailed a teddy bear named “Jeronamo” to “Any Service Member, Saudi Arabia.” The stuffed toy animal quickly got more action than the sender bargained for.
SSgt. Brad Bowers, crew chief for an F-117A Stealth fighter known as “Invisible Thunder,” assigned to the 37th TFW, decided to give the bear the ride of its life. “I thought I’d fly it around, then send it back to her when it’s all over [and] let her know where it’s been,” the crew chief said.
The tan, eight-inch toy flew over Baghdad in the map case inside the cockpit on the allies’ first mission.
Day of the Weasels
Waves of F-4G Wild Weasels led the way into Iraqi-held territory for follow-on ground attacks by US Air Force and Navy attack planes at the outset of Desert Storm. “The Weasels keep the SAMs off the guys,” said Col. Merrill “Ron” Karp, commander of the 35th TFW, George AFB, Calif., which flew missions out of an undisclosed country in the Persian Gulf region. “The F-15s keep the MiGs off us, and the jamming planes deal with the radars.”
Selected to lead the Weasels into combat was Col. George “John Boy” Walton, a veteran whom Colonel Karp selected for the job because Colonel Walton had “respect for the enemy” but was “fearless.”
Upon returning from his first mission over Baghdad, a visibly drained Colonel Walton described in detail the antiaircraft firestorm US warplanes dodged over Baghdad. “I saw one of the most fantastic fireworks demonstrations I’ve seen since years ago,” he said. “Baghdad lit up like a Christmas tree.”
With his face still creased from his oxygen mask, he sounded a sober note of determination, knowing the kind of antiaircraft fire that awaited his squadron on subsequent missions. “Now we have to buckle down and prepare,” Colonel Walton said. “It’s not over. We just have to keep the pressure on until the President says, ‘Lay off.”‘
The predawn assault that opened the war was “the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” said British Tornado pilot Flt. Lt. Ian Long. “It was absolutely terrifying. You’re frightened of failure, you’re frightened of dying. You’re flying as low as you dare, but high enough to get the weapons off. We saw some tracers coming off the target down our left side. We tried to avoid that. As the bombs come off, you just run–run like hell.”
“Like New Year’s”
The months of waiting ended for American forces in Saudi Arabia at midnight EST (8:00 a.m. Saudi time) on January 15–the deadline the United Nations set for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Aircrews with the 53d TFS greeted the milestone at their air base with applause, cheers, and a dose of gallows humor.
“We rang it in like New Year’s,” said Capt. Mike Elliott. “The official 1991 Iraqi calendar had just come to an end.”
What Elliott meant was that the custom-made calendars prepared by the aircrews had dates only up to January 15–and a menacing blank thereafter. Tiny bomb bursts marked the spaces where the remainder of that week should have been. In the space where the following Sunday should have appeared, there appeared the words “Black Sunday.”
The squadron marked the day with a group photo of forty pilots before they all headed out for the high-tempo, high-risk operations. “Organizing forty pilots is a contradiction in terms ,” quipped Lt. Col. Randy “Bigs” Bigum, the squadron commander.
The pilots were confident. As Capt. Mike Miller, an F-15C pilot, put it, Saddam Hussein is “not going to have a country after this thing.”
Others marked the deadline’s passing more quietly. SSgt. Mike Thomas set his watch alarm to go off at 8:00 a.m., the hour the deadline took effect. An engine was turning when his alarm went off, so it wasn’t until a few minutes later that he realized the deadline had passed.
“I just had to stop and collect my thoughts,” he recalled. “Is today the day?”
Confirmation that Desert Storm had started came not from President Bush or Defense Secretary Dick Cheney but from Col. Ray Davis, chief maintenance officer at an F-15 base in Saudi Arabia.
“This is history in the making,” the officer told two combat correspondents.
Their report was filed at 2:27 a.m., January 17, 1991, Saudi time. It announced that “the war with Iraq began early Thursday morning as a squadron of US fighter-bombers took off from the largest US air base in central Saudi Arabia.”
“The first [planes] took off at 12:50 a.m.,” Colonel Davis told the correspondents. “We’ve been waiting here for five months. Now we finally got to do what we were sent here to do.”
The two-man F-15E crews walked soberly to their aircraft to board their planes for what was for most their first combat mission. “They know what the targets are,” Colonel Davis said at the time. “It’s pretty much mechanical.”
F-15s “Splash” Four
One contest less than two weeks into Desert Storm was an exhibition of US professionalism. The engagement between two F-15Cs flying combat air patrol about sixty miles south of Baghdad and four Iraqi warplanes took barely eighteen minutes on Super Bowl Sunday, January 27.
“When I realized I was about to engage them, time just seemed to slow down,” said a laid-back pilot nicknamed “Coma,” flying for the 53d Tactical Fighter Squadron, 36th TFW, Bitburg, Germany. Like many other pilots, he withheld his true name to prevent reprisals against his family back home.
The slow-motion perception of combat was a phenomenon common to pilots during the air campaign that started Desert Storm on January 17.
The two US F-15Cs, piloted by Coma and “O.P.,” had been aloft four hours and had just come off midair refueling when they got a call from an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
Hostile aircraft were approaching. The US interceptors flew toward the advancing Iraqi planes, picking them up on their radar at eighty miles. At forty miles, the Iraqis inexplicably turned tail, only to be pursued by the F-15Cs.
“It seemed like they were unaware that we were there,” said O.P. The US warplanes, flying above 27,000 feet, broke off radar contact and began to stalk their prey at 5,000 feet.
The F-15Cs dived on their targets. The Iraqi warplanes hit the deck, dropping as low as they could go. “From this point on, we just closed in on them,” 0.P said.
The US pilots Bred radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles and heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders. Two MiG-23s went down.
The F-15Cs turned to track the two other Iraqi warplanes, a MiG-23 and Mirage F. 1, downing the planes with Sidewinders. The two Iraqi planes hit the desert in plumes of flame.
Preparation had been more demanding than combat, said O.P., carrying a purple Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle scarf given him by his six-year-old son. “We train to a much tougher threat.”
Ground crews for F-15 flying combat air patrol over Iraqi-held territory worked night and day to improve on the “hot pit” turn-arounds designed for the workhorse warplanes.
One maintenance crew with the 1st TFW from Langley AFB, Va., repeatedly tried to–and sometimes did–beat the twenty- to twenty-five-minute wartime standard for refueling, reloading, and rechecking an F-15 and then returning it to action.
Capt. Brad Gallup, assistant officer in charge of a maintenance crew with the “Ironmen” of the 71st TFS, said his team always shot for the seventeen-minute turnaround. That way, he said, “we’ll have more planes able to go back out at them again and again.”
In combat with Iraqi MiG-29s or Mirage F. 1s it was a contest of technology. “It’s more my machine and how well I can run it vs. another guy,” explained Capt. Steve Adams. “You don’t look at it as beating that man. You look on it more as beating that machine.”
Capt. Steve Tate had never flown a combat mission when the flight leader for aircraft from the 1st TFW was assigned to fly combat air patrol over Baghdad at the outset of Desert Storm. Suddenly, beneath Captain Tate’s patrolling flight of planes, a French-built Mirage F.1 dashed down the runway of an Iraqi airfield and headed skyward to challenge American aircraft.
At 3:15 a.m., barely an hour into Desert Storm, Captain Tate fired a Sparrow missile at the Iraqi plane, piloted by one of Baghdad’s elite French-trained airmen. The plane, he said, vanished in “a huge fireball.”
Air Force ground crews scrawled a variety of messages on missiles and bombs bound for Iraqi targets as they readied American aircraft for missions over Iraqi-held territory. At an air base in Saudi Arabia used by two squadrons of F-117A Stealth fighters, the handwritten messages were typical.
“For all you do,” said one, “this bomb’s for you.”
Said another, “We care enough to send the very best, from the US.”
Writing something personal for Iraqi forces serving under Saddam Hussein “just makes you feel better,” said A1C Gina Maskunas, who scrawled the message derived from a greeting card television advertisement.
“It’s just a way of expressing yourself [and] of taking your aggressions out,” said Sergeant Bowers.
Sergeant Bowers said that so many messages adorned bombs to be carried by the stealth aircraft that, at one point early in the campaign, the weapons began to look pretty scruffy. “It looked like a New York City bathroom in the subway with all the graffiti,” he said.
As MSgt. Jerry Grace sees it, the job of the ground crews preparing ordnance for outbound aircraft is to have just about everything ready to go on a moment’s notice.
“It’s like a 7-Eleven,” says the Air Force veteran. “The pilots can get any bomb they like.”
Maj. Russell Richardson has responsibility for readying bombs for F-111F pilots flying missions against Iraqi targets from an air base in southwest Saudi Arabia. “We’ve only had duds in three days,” Major Richardson said seventy-two hours into Desert Storm.
Staying ahead of demand is the key task for the BB stackers. During the six weeks before the air campaign began, as many as thirty-one aircraft each day delivered bomb parts to the air base that was handling the needs of the three squadrons of F-111Fs. Even before the first bomb was dropped, Major Richardson’s crew assembled enough bombs for two days of around-the-clock operations. As Sergeant Grace put it, “We haven’t had any complaints.”
Buffs and Warthogs
America’s aging fleet of B-52 bombers, which entered service in the 1950s as part of a round-the-clock nuclear deterrent, handled a variety of Desert Storm missions, including attacks on the exposed positions of Iraq’s elite 150,000 Republican Guards. Twenty-six bombers, moved from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia to Oman at the outset of the operation, attacked Iraqi military targets day after day with routine payloads of 60,000 pounds of 2,000 pound bombs and smaller ordnance.
The Commander in Chief of US Central Command, the Army’s Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, said it was hard to assess bomb damage against Iraqi forces but that the impact of 2,000-pound bombs on his position in Vietnam many years ago was something he’d never forget.
“I was [accidentally] bombed by B-52s one time in Vietnam. They were coming toward us. They did a marvelous job of dropping all their bombs, and then one rack hung up and it released over my position.
“Being an infantryman, I certainly wouldn’t want to be under that type of attack.”
The fleet of ungainly, often-disparaged A-10 close air support aircraft, popularly known as Wart-hogs, earned high praise for their performance during the campaign against Iraq’s elusive Scud-B mobile missile launchers, used to terrorize civilian populations in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Finding the disguised mobile launchers was like “trying to find a semitrailer in Los Angeles,” said Capt. Becky Colaw, who serves with the 354th TFW, based at Myrtle Beach AFB, S. C.
The long-duration aircraft loitered over Iraqi territory, waiting for a signal from overhead surveillance aircraft and satellites to target newly found Scud-B missile launchrs. Pilots quickly tried to “walk that cat back” to the area where the missile was fired, explained Col. Ervin C. “Sandy” Sharpe, the commander of the wing, who also com-manded a huge forward air base a few minutes flying time from Kuwait.
The pilots’ motto? “Eyeball,” Colonel Sharpe said. “That’s how they find [the launchers]. The guy who finds it puts whatever ordnance he has on it. If there is still some left, whatever order aircraft are in they are called in, until all the ones we have found in a particular area are destroyed.”
The air campaign against Iraqi targets encountered unusually cloudy weather in the opening ten days, with more than a week of poor visibility obscuring targets assigned to a variety of strike aircraft. Squadrons of F-15Es became the work-horses called in to handle a variety of daylight and nighttime missions.
Cloud cover thwarted bombing missions by F-16A strike aircraft for several days, forcing many frustrated F-l6 pilots to return to base with ordnance still on board. “We wish the weather was a little bit better so we can go in and do our job,” said Capt. Ted Limpert, an F-16A pilot for the Air National Guard’s 138th TFS, based at Hancock Field near Syracuse, N.Y.
Capt. Deane “Dawg” Pennington, a pilot with the ANG’s 157th TFS, echoed this feeling. It was a delinite letdown, he said, to “fly all that way when the pressure is on, getting tensed up a little bit, to get to that point where you’re crossing enemy territory and then to have the weather become a big factor where you couldn’t get in and tind the target area.”
Iraq’s barrages of Scud-B missiles on Saudi Arabia barely interrupted the busy schedule of takeoffs and landings under way at US air bases. F-15 pilot 1st Lt. Steve Kirik was preparing to take off when he spied what quickly became a routine interception of an inbound Scud by a Patriot antimissile missile.
“I’m sitting in my jet getting ready to go,” said the pilot. “I looked over at my port engine, and there [the Patriot] was. It jumped off the ground, snaked back and forth a couple of times, and then boom. It was pretty spectacular.”
For a unit that had been guarding a major air base since the tirst hours of the US reinforcement in Saudi Arabia last August, the first combat “intercept” of an enemy missile by a Patriot was finally a chance to put the training–and waiting–to good use.
“We didn’t expect [the missile] at that moment,” said Army Lt. Col. Leroy Neel of Houston, Tex., commander of the Patriot battalion. “It was there. We reacted properly, and it was gone.”
Wins and Losses
Capt. Tony Mattox experienced a double lirst in Desert Storm. He flew his lirst combat mission in an aircraft that had never seen combat. Both the pilot and the A-10 Thunderbolt II performed admirably.
“I’ve been training for years and I was dad-gum glad to be part of it,” Captain Maddox said. “I mean we go for months just drooling to get a chance to shoot live weapons in peacetime. Yesterday we went out and shot more live weapons than I had in my entire career.”
Discovering that a comrade was lost in combat often came just as the “fog of war” was lifting. Col. Hal Hornburg, commander of the 4th TFW Provisional, based at Seymour Johnson AFB, N. C., recalled the way his pilots learned that the F-15E wing had lost its tirst warplane.
“The pilot was coming off the target. He was seen,” Colonel Hornburg recalled. “He made a radio call that he was coming off target, and then, as the formation regrouped after hitting the target and they checked in to make a roll call, he wasn’t heard from.”
Intense surface-to-air missile activity reported in the area at the time, as well as antiaircraft artillery fire, apparently claimed the two-man plane.
“We all feel bad that we have an airplane missing,” Colonel Hornburg said, “but at the same time, no one has lost his focus that we still have a job to do. I see fire in their eyes.”
For all the munitions illuminating the night skies over Iraq and Kuwait, with the allies bombing Iraqi targets and the Iraqis unleashing a lirestorm of surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery fire, an unseen war raged as well.
“There’s still a lot of war going on,” explained Lt. Col. Dennis Hardziej, commanding officer of the 390th Electronic Combat Squadron of EF-111 Raven aircraft based ‘ Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. “It’s not just ‘waltz in and waltz out.”‘
Iraqi activity in the early stages of the air war pressed US assets, forcing commanders to husband valuable resources for attack aircraft entering only the most densely protected sites. “There are a limited number of EF-111s in the region,” Colonel Hardziej said, “and there are always more missions than aircraft.”
F-111F fighter-bombers from the 48th TFW, based at RAF Lakenheath, UK, carried out pinpoint bombing missions with Pave Tack target-acquisition systems against many of the forty-four Iraqi airfields targeted for early interdiction.
“I went against a maintenance hangar,” recalled Col. Tom Lennon, the 48th’s wing commander, who led a wave of fifty-three F-111Fs into Iraq and led a flight of six aircraft against a large Iraqi airfield. “We put our bomb right through the side door.”
Colonel Lennon, a veteran of 390 combat missions in southeast Asia, spent just forty minutes in Iraqi airspace on his first mission. The early minutes of combat are crucial for hardening aircrews, settling nerves, and giving pilots and weapon systems officers confidence in their training, the veteran pilot said.
“I told [my pilots] the biggest threat is hitting the ground or running out of gas,” said Colonel Lennon. Capt. Matt Warren flew his lirst combat mission under Lennon’s lead-ership. “Just being over enemy territory– knowing we were 200 miles from friendly territory–the only way out is to fly out or punch out–it’s a tightness.”
Stewart M. Powell, national security correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has reported on defense and foreign policy in Washington and London for ten years. He was in Saudi Arabia throughout Desert Storm. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “Long Haul in the Middle East” in the March 1991 issue.