The first big turning point in Operation Desert Storm came when the Iraqi pilots began to flee rather than fight. Before the war was two weeks old, Iraq’s Soviet-and French-trained flyers began to decamp to Iran, eventually taking 150 fighters and transports with them. It was the best-maybe the only-way to survive the allies’ punishing, shelter-by-shelter bombing campaign.
At first, American pilots trained in the ways of Soviet-bloc pilots were wary about pursuing the fleeing Iraqi aircraft. “When we start to see the opposition go away from us, the natural instinct of an American lighter pilot is to say, ‘He’s trying to trick me,’ “said Lt. Col. Mike Scott, a pilot of “aggressor” aircraft and former commanding officer of an F-16 aggressor squadron at Nellis AFB Nev. “You’ve always got to watch for the decoy.”
A pair of F-15 fighters chased an Iraqi jet fleeing to Iran. When the US planes broke off the engagement and turned around, they encountered four Iraqi warplanes-three MiG-23s and one Mirage Fl. The Americans downed all four.
The Great Scud Hunt
For crew members of the F-15E squadrons assigned to the nightly “Scud Patrol,” nothing was more frustrating than knowing Iraqi missile crews were hiding beneath cloudy weather.
Iraqi missile crews often skipped clear nights, waiting for bad weather to roll in before making their next launches.
“One missile almost hit one of our guys recalled Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Turner, commander of the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron. “It came rocketing up through the clouds.”
“The weather precludes us from seeing where they actually launch the Scuds,” said Col. Dave Baker, deputy commander for air operattions at the largest air base in Saudi Arabia. “That is really frustrating for the guys who go on station out there.”
The better to locate Scud launchers, F-15Es often flew beneath cloud cover in a maneuver that exposed the fighters to antiaircraft artillery fire. For two F-15E squadrons that played a part in dousing the Scud threat, the mission was fulfilling. “It’s frustrating until you find some-thing,” said Colonel Baker. “Then it’s very rewarding, like fishing and getting a big strike.”
Scud Patrol videotape became a featured attraction for the crews of the F-15E dual-role fighters. A favorite of pilots, weapon systems officers, and ground crews were the tapes of the “Chiefs Greatest Hits”–named for Lt. Col. Steve “Chief’ Pringle. “When guys have been getting good film, we splice [shots] together,” said Colonel Pringle. The footage captured the drama of the darkened cockpit with the pilot handling the aircraft while his “wizzo” (weapon systems officer, or WSO) tracked targets on TV-like displays and navigated with a moving electronic map.
Highlights from one tape showed an F-15E moving in on a collection of Scuds and transporter erector-launchers (TELs), the tractor-trailer equipment that enabled Iraqi crews to fire the battlefield missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“Coming on the pickle button,” the pilot told his wizzo over the cockpit intercom.
“Fire the pickle whenever,” came the reply from the back-seat weapons officer. The Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system enabled the WSO to “lase” enemy targets from up to ten miles away while the pilot released the laser-guided bomb.
“Roger that,” said the pilot, pressing the bomb-drop button.
The F-15E flight knocked out most of the Scud missiles and launchers displayed on their consoles. “Those were ours,” Lt. Colonel Pringle said. “We got particularly lucky that night.”
“I Have Check-In Dreams”
Crew members aboard the Air Force’s fleet of E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft had what they call a “god’s-eye view’.’ of the war. Those in the cockpits saw burning Kuwaiti oil fields and the battleships USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin firing sixteen inch guns at targets in Kuwait. The crew members at consoles in the rear of the windowless plane relied on their screens and radio traffic to follow developments.
Capt. Laurie Whitman recalled “checking in” as many as 600 “packages” of allied warplanes dur ing one twelve-hour shift at the peak of the air campaign. “Sometimes at night,” she said, “I have ‘check-in’ dreams.”
Lt. Laura George vectored hundreds of warplanes toward dozens of aerial tankers for weeks on end. “You’d try to keep up with it,” said Lieutenant George. “But sometimes they’d come out of Iraq and would need a tanker real fast. It kept you busy.”
One of the greatest advantages enjoyed by American forces was advance knowledge of Iraqi air operations gleaned from eight years of eyeballing the Iran-Iraq war. Many AWACS crews from Tinker AFB, Okla., had experience operating from the Arabian peninsula off and on since 1981.
The experience was invaluable, according to Col. Gary A. Voellger, commander of the 552d AWACS Wing from Tinker. “As Patton told Rommel.” said Colonel Voellger, re-calling how the American general studied his German rival’s writings, “I read your book.”
Crews aboard the E-3 AWACS planes were constantly on watch for an “Iraqi surprise”–a surge of Iraqi warplanes against allied warships or vital targets in Saudi Arabia. Had Saddam ordered a counterstrike by the estimated 200 warplanes that remained operational, detection of the offensive would have fallen to the highly trained technicians manning consoles in the body of the converted, gleaming white Boeing 707 aircraft worth more than $190 million.
“They could launch,” said Colonel Voellger, who moved most of the 552d’s 3,500 people and two dozen E-3s to Saudi Arabia. “We would take them out. I’d like to think it would be 100 percent, but maybe five percent could get through to face our antiaircraft missiles.”
From their eye-in-the-sky perspective, AWACS crew members agreed that taking off in an Iraqi warplane was a one-way ticket to eternity. “When they show up and we can get a fighter on them, they’re gone,” said Capt. Donald G. “Dusty” Somerville, an Air Force Academy graduate piloting the AWACS codenamed “Okie Seven,” on the last day of the ground war.
Air-to-air engagements were tense affairs. Capt. Sheila G. Chewning orchestrated the interception of a pair of MiG-29s southwest of Baghdad in the first six hours of the air war. “The minutes between hearing the pilots say ‘contact, ‘ ‘engaged,’ and then ‘splashed’ seemed like a long, long time,” she recalled.
The Junkyard Dogs
To their base commander, they were unsung heroes whose behind the-scenes maintenance kept air-borne warning, command, and con-trol aircraft aloft. Within their own tight-knit ranks, they were known as “the junkyard dogs”-the men and women with dirty hands and smudged fatigues who swarmed around E-3 AWACS and EC-130 ABCCC (Airborne Battlefield Com-mand and Control Center) planes to repair and refuel them as quickly as possible.
“Those of us who get to wear the wings and get some of the glamor frequently get the recognition for flying these great pieces of equipment,” said Col. Charles M. “P. J.” Pettijohn, commander of 4409th Operational Support Wing, a unit supporting seventeen Air Force operations at Riyadh AB. Without the maintenance crews, Colonel Pettijohn said, “we could do absolutely nothing.”
Col. John P. Miller, commander of the maintenance squadron for AWACS aircraft, said his handpicked crews could turn an AWACS airplane in ninety minutes after a fifteen-hour mission. By keeping a backup plane aloft at all times and maintaining one on alert status, the AWACS wing did not lose a single minute of station time in seven months.
Though forward air controllers (FACs) lacked the “god’s-eye view,” they also directed airpower to where it was needed. On one war time patrol, Air Force Lt. Cal. Tom
Coleman was debating whether to carry out one more close air support mission or break off to refuel. “You got anything immediate?” he asked the FAC.
“We’re taking artillery fire,” came the reply. “Can you help us right now?” An allied unit, part of VII Corps, was taking artillery fire from an Iraqi battery two miles to the north.
Colonel Coleman, commander of the 706th Tactical Fighter Squadron, a reserve unit from New Orleans, decided to try to take out the artillery battery. “I figured I had enough gas to make it without going to the tanker,” he said. He radioed the FAC to have ground forces mark the Iraqi battery with their own artillery barrage. Then the A-10 pilot dropped two 500-pound bombs, silencing the position for good.
Close-quarters, nighttime war-fare put a premium on tight coordination between ground troops and aircraft providing close air support. To make sure friendly fire claimed as few casualties as possible, Air Force liaison officers traveled with armored battalions as fire-control officers.
Tanks carried special displays visible through night vision equipment. “Killing boxes,” defined by map coordinates, opened and closed depending on movement of ground forces. Any dispute between Army ground commanders and Air Force coordinates was referred to CENTAF in Riyadh.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this will work perfectly,” said Air Force Maj. Bob Baltzer, who was serving as the Air Force liaison with the 1st Infantry Division. “Some things will probably go wrong. But the main thrust of what we are doing is to make sure we get eye-balls on the right targets.”
The air traffic became so thick that officers divided the “killing box” over Kuwait to lower the risk of midair collisions. Sometimes pilots were ordered to depart from targets before they’d dropped all their ordnance. No allied aircraft were reported lost to midair mishaps.
Some allied troops did fall victim to friendly fire. The worst tragedy occurred in late January when a Maverick missile slammed into a Light Armored Vehicle, killing seven US Marines.
When AlC Edward Garey heard he was going to a “bare base” in Saudi Arabia, he had visions of living in shelter halves and sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag.
Far from it. The Air Force erected a city for 4,500 servicemen and -women in 650 sand-colored tents, each with electric heating and cooling units, plastic flooring, lights, desks, chairs, and cots. Similar tent cities dotted the Saudi desert. Said Airman Garey, “This is a lot more than I expected.”
The twenty-foot by thirty-foot tents, equipped with “environmental control units” to pour warm or cool air through the living space, featured a two-tiered roof with a fly separated from the tent roof by eight inches, which provided an insulating cushion of air. A canvas liner on the inside of the tent provided a second insulating layer of air to moderate the temperatures, which could swing from a damp, windy thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit in winter to a dry, punishing 130 degrees in summer.
The only down side was the noise. Ten turbine generators, operating around the clock, produced a roar equivalent to a taxiing jumbo jet on the outskirts of town.
Base security at Air Force installations was enhanced by guard dogs. Typical were the six dogs from Security Police units at Minot and Grand Forks AFBs. N. D. “Rapport between the dog and the handler is important,” said SSgt. William McAdoo, kennel master at Minot AFB, based temporarily at a remote site serving F-16s from Hill AFB, Utah, and Moody AFB, Ga. “The handler reads the dog like a book. You know your dog like [you know] your wife or children.”
Keeping the dogs trained required “Wrap Man”–someone covered hand to elbow with a burlap and leather sheath to protect him from the attack dogs, a Belgian breed resembling a German Shepherd.
“Attack,” ordered Duke’s handler. Duke seized the arm of Wrap Man.
“Out,” ordered the handler. Duke released the suspect’s arm.
“He’s a real lovable dog,” Sergeant McAdoo said. “In a real situa-tion, there’s no telling what the dog will go for.”
Search and Rescue
Saddam Hussein’s threat to move captured American flyers to Iraqi military sites didn’t cut much ice with US flyers. “It won’t impede our mission,” said a Navy lieuten-ant commander known as “J. P.,” who was flying an F/A- 18 Hornet off the carrier USS America in the Red Sea.
It was not that US flyers were un-concerned about captured com-rades. Once over enemy territory, pilots were too busy staying alive to worry about the possibility of col-lateral damage from their bombs. The Iraqi threat to use captured pi-lots as human shields merely made US flyers more determined.
“I know if I were in their place, I would be cheering when I heard the bombs coming down,” said one F-14 pilot who also flew off the America. “The [Iraqis] would be there with you, and you would know that you would take a few of them out with you.”
For radar surveillance technicians aboard planes and ships, the tension, exhaustion, and thoughts of home all came to a halt whenever an American pilot was reported as going down.
One day, word swept through the combat information center aboard the AEGIS-equipped cruiser USS Valley Forge that an F-16 pilot was in trouble coming off a target in Kuwait. The search-and-rescue operation played out on the AEGIS display screens.
Navy Capt. Ernest F. Tedeschi, Jr., tapped several buttons on his console deep inside the ship’s warfighting center, expanding the dis-play area to show where the F-16 was going down. It was off the Kuwaiti coast over the Gulf. A fixed wing aircraft rushed into the area to circle over the downed pilot. A slow-moving helicopter approached from the east, off an allied ship in the northern reaches of the Gulf.
Twelve minutes after the first sign that the F-16 was going down, a radio message reported that the Air Force pilot was safely aboard an allied helicopter. A cheer erupted in the close quarters of the ship’s war room. “They got the pilot,” a Valley Forge crewman announced. “They are outbound from Kuwait.” Locusts and Herky Birds It looked like a swarm of locusts pouring out of the blinding, sand-colored mist. More than 300 attack and transport helicopters from the 101st Airborne Assault Division stormed deep into Iraq in the largest operation of its kind in history. It was, said Army Maj. Dan Grigson. “a bold, bodacious action.”
Within hours, 2,000 assault troops carved out a sixty-square-mile staging area to serve as a fuel and ammunition dump for leapfrog helicopter assaults even deeper into Iraq along the Euphrates River. Artillery pieces, “humvees,” giant fuel bladders, and ammunition were ferried into the staging site by CH-47 Chinooks and other helicopters. Some of them were flown by the 101st’s twenty-two women helicopter pilots.
Troops didn’t miss the irony of mounting an attack in the cradle of civilization. “Where life was created is where lots of life is fixing to end,” said Sgt. Thomas Andricos.
Ungainly, unnoticed, and unsung, the Air Force’s fleet of Hercules C-130 transports carried out crucial resupply missions, as they have in almost every US operation in the airplane’s thirty-seven-year history. The “Herky birds” were visible at every allied airstrip, ready to ferry troops and materiel to some distant site.
Crews withstood winter storms. Summer temperatures rose so high that the thermometer in one C-130 cockpit exploded. The landscape offered few distractions. “It doesn’t matter if you’re at 5,000 feet or 20,000 feet,” said 2d Lt. Anthony Gordon, a navigator. “The view never changes.” The endless troop movements and resupply missions week after week offered little relief. “It never stops ,” said Capt. Scott Smith, a C-130 pilot.
To maintenance crews, the Her-cules was a troubleshooter’s dream. “Aboard planes using a lot of electronics, the job is a lot of box switching,” said SSgt. Joe Bechtold, a six-year veteran working on aircraft from the 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, Keesler AFB, Miss. “Here, every day is a new day in troubleshooting. This is a job where you have to be creative sometimes to make it work.” As operations over Iraq and Kuwait progressed, Air Force commanders stayed constantly alert for signs of overconfidence in fighter and bomber crews.
“It is becoming a routine, and that is something that we in the leadership are trying to tight,” said Col. Hal Homburg, commander of the 4th TFW, Seymour Johnson AFB, N. C. “Routine breeds complacency.” It was important, he said, to keep reminding his F-15E pilots that they were “not bulletproof.”
Each pilot has to be “right on the edge of his toes at a11 times,” Colonel Hornburg said. “You just don’t know where that golden BB’s going to be shot from.”
Beneath the cockpit window was a picture of the Pittsburgh skyline and the words “Pittsburgh’s finest.” The hometown pride expressed by the ANG’s 17 1 st Air Refueling Wing could be found in almost every Air Force Reserve and ANG unit.
Maj. David Baumann left his job as a commercial airline pilot to guide a KC-135 over Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and southern Iraq to refuel allied warplanes. His olive-painted tanker by then displayed fifteen red camels, denoting successful missions out of Saudi Arabia, and two inverted camels for aborted mis-sions. Twenty-two falcons were also painted on the fuselage, symboliz-ing missions conductedfrom anoth-er Persian Gulf country.
Commercial pilots “don’t have to be nearly as precise and on time as we do flying here on these missions,” said Major Baumann during a four-hour refueling mission in which his crew topped off three flights of four F-16A jets. “With the commercial airlines, it’s not critical if we’re not on time. Here, it is.”
Spring Break Is Over
As Iraqi troops laden with stolen property fled north from Kuwait City, traffic on the highways was bumper to bumper. The scene looked familiar to some of the carrier pilots attacking the enemy convoy.
“This was [like] the road to Daytona Beach at spring break,” said Navy Lt. Brian Kasperbauer, as he returned to the carrier USS Ranger to reload his A-6E attack plane with Rockeye cluster bombs. The only difference, said he, was that, for the Iraqi occupiers, “spring break’s over.”
The air campaign got so feverish at times that Navy ordnance specialists were loading just about any bomb they could find rather than waiting for the “weapon du jour” a Rockeye bomb with antiarmor cluster munitions–to arrive on the flight deck from below. The Iraqi vehicles were “basically just sitting ducks,” said Navy Capt. Frank Sweigert, commander of Ranger’s Silverfox bomber squadron.
Operation Desert Storm spawned GI slang every bit as profane, innovative, and colorful as that pro-duced by US troops in any bygone war. Rare was the sentence that did not contain a four-letter word as a first name, last name, nickname, noun, verb or adjective.
In the conservative Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where profanity is officially unacceptable, soldiers routinely masked their language behind the alphabet-laden chatter of the type used on field radios. “Foxtrot,” for instance, became one of the most widely used substitutes for a familiar Anglo-Saxon obscenity.
The GI dialect became a fast-changing mix of descriptions of local sights intermingled with the substitutions. A typical example: “Desert Cherries in a Humvee sped past Bedouin Bob and some Black Moving Objects heading downrange to find the REMFs in Riyadh. The driver got so Lima Alpha Foxtrot that it took hours to reach the destination.”
Translation: A pair of newcomers to the desert in a high-mobility multiwheeled vehicle passed a local in traditional dress and two women in black chadors while heading from Dhahran to Riyadh to look for rear-echelon personnel in the Saudi capital. The driver got so lost that it took longer to reach the capital than expected.
From their bunker, Golf Two, A1C Jake Myres and A1C John Dlugos had a keyhole view of the Persian Gulf War. The pair, manning an M60 machine gun at a Saudi air base, were assigned to intercept intruders or suspicious vehicles that penetrated the first line of defense and could threaten US tankers and other aircraft.
The only hint of combat was the occasional breathtaking departure of Patriot missiles to intercept in-bound Scud missiles, followed by falling Scud debris.
“In the United States there was not really a threat,” said Airman Myres, who served with Airman Dlugos as part of a ground defense force at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. “Here the threat is real. I feel like I have a real job, a real purpose.”
“They know when they see hostile actions they can engage,” said the pair’s supervisor. “They’ve got a lot of responsibility.”
Eyeballing From 10,000 Feet
For all the sophisticated satellite intelligence and reconnaissance photography available to pilots, it often came down to a pilot eyeballing targets.
Iraqi tanks and artillery pieces were so widely dispersed and well camouflaged that some US pilots flew with binoculars. Others relied on the eyes of younger wingmen to ferret out tank turrets for the daylight bombing raids.
F-16s dropped to about 10,000 feet to carry out bombing strikes with “dumb” bombs while staying above the reach of Iraqi antiaircraft tire.
Colonel Scott, the former “aggressor” leader, broke away from headquarters duty in Riyadh to fly eight combat missions at the height of the air war. “The way we assess a direct hit is whether you get a secondary explosion,” said Colonel Scott at the time. “If you get that, you know you hit something.”
Each day, the revised Air Tasking Order scheduled packages of aircraft, time over target, and inbound and outbound courses, but many pilots wanted more time to take action. “Sometimes we have bad boys that want to play longer than their time,” said one Air Force officer at Riyadh AB.
“In spite of the AAA and everything else, they’re there to blow something up and they want a chance to do that. They hate leaving with ordnance. They really get frosted about that.”
Stewart M. Powell, national security correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered defense for a decade in Washington and London. He was in Saudi Arabia throughout Operation Desert Storm. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “Voices from the War,” appeared in the April 1991 issue.