In Their Own Words #11: Eleven Stories For Veterans DayPaul Goddard flew 25 combat missions while serving in the RAF during the Gulf War of 1990-91. He currently serves as business director for Chemring Countermeasures.
I was going to the Persian Gulf with my RAF Tornado squadron for what looked increasingly like a war. Whether we actually believed that we were going to fight a war was by-the-by. We had to be ready for it, and we were.
There was a lot of hard work; if we weren’t flying we were hitting the books, learning about new enemy systems and threats. We were briefed almost to death by all sorts and sundry people about what equipment the enemy had. By the time we left for the Gulf, people were very knowledgeable, knew what they were looking for and were quite confident they were going to crack the problem when they got there.
On my first mission, my aircraft was No. 2 to that of Trevor, our formation leader. We were the first Alarm mission package in and, in fact, we believe we were the first two RAF aircraft over the border. The JP233 — airfield-denial weapons package — had also gotten airborne and gone for the tanker to refuel. Taking off after midnight, we went directly to the border and straight for the first target, Al Assad — one of Iraq’s newly constructed major airfields. Once airborne, it was at first difficult to remember that this wasn’t a training sortie. But of course then came the border — almost a physical barrier and, as you cross it, there is a mixture of relief, tension...you name it.
You’re terrified, and realize that it’s really going on. We flew up past Mudaysis Airfield, and all the runway approach and perimeter lights were on, indicating that the element of surprise was complete. We went past Mudaysis towards Al Assad.
Trevor fired his Alarm missiles a few seconds before we did, and two hit the ground unfortunately. We were flying at 200 ft. and Mike, my pilot and flight commander, initially thought that, for some reason, the missiles weren’t coping with the low level, so we had time to disengage the autopilot and climb up slightly. We fired from about 500-600 ft., hoping that would give the missiles a chance. It worked; we managed to get all three off. As the missiles come off the rails there’s quite a loud Whoosh; they go forward of the aircraft for a few seconds and then just climb vertically. At that stage, they haven’t locked on to a target. An Alarm does most of its searching once it reaches altitude, so it’s effectively “fire and forget.”
Then we turned to get out of the bombers’ way. It’s very difficult to know what the missiles’ exact effect is, because the perceived threat from a missile is also highly effective. If they knew that we had fired an anti-radiation missile and, as a result, they had turned off their radar, then the missile had already done its job, because without radar the enemy cannot see you. If they kept their radar on and we then got a hard kill on that radar, we had no way of knowing. All one knows is that the radar is not searching any more. Either way, the missile has done its job. On subsequent sorties, they knew that we were firing anti-radiation missiles. That had two effects: it meant that they switched off their radar, which was good; but it also brought up the flak immediately, and at low level you just see the airfield blossom into this big flower of flak. To counter this, we turned at low level. This was what we had been practicing — turning without the autopilot at low level at night, using just the terrain-following radar.
Of course, in the pitch black of night, we had to be very careful. Then we headed back home. We were first back on the ground. The thing you asked straightaway when you came in was if everyone had checked in. They had! There was a lot of backslapping, handshaking and smiles all around, but inwardly one was quite reflective. It was difficult getting to sleep afterwards with a bucket full of adrenaline still rushing around the body. Everything kept coming and going in a whirling dervish of thoughts and emotions.
The second mission was more difficult, because we knew what was coming, and certainly the worst period for us was sitting in the aircraft, engines running, before we went. It’s the worst time because you have to put some of the weirder thoughts out of your mind and say to yourself, “Come on, let’s just get on with it.” But once you taxi for takeoff, you’ve got too many other things to think about. All aircrews ought really to be born without imagination, because you can envision all sorts of things. The second sortie was slightly worse in that they were expecting us. War had been going on for 24 hrs. at this point. It was the first time that we’d seen flak, and there is a cockpit tape of Mike saying, “What the bloody hell is that?” It looked just like a fireworks display, and it seemed a lot closer. From 30 mi. away it looked as if it was almost underneath the wing tip. We were amazed at the density of it. With Alarm missiles, we weren’t going too close to it, although we came fairly close to another airfield that was also pushing it out, so we had to be a little careful. The flak was extremely thick. We fired off our missiles and then came back again. “How fast will this thing go without falling apart?” I wondered of my aircraft.
Coming out the second time was a little different because we knew we were being fired upon. And when there’s something behind you that’s trying to kill you, you get away from it as quickly as you can. Everyone came back from that one as well.
I can remember the first two trips, and after that for the first week it was a blur of sleep, fly, sleep, fly. Thereafter, we went up to the medium-level option. The only reason for going low-level is to avoid a perceived SAM threat. But there is also the fighter threat. At this time, the SAM threat was not as great as anticipated, apart from what was known as “SAM City” — the Baghdad area. The Tornado is a low-level beast, and that means a problem at medium altitudes. The speed and maneuverability that we had at the higher altitude were very limited. If fired at or locked on by radar, our capability to break that lock was diminished.
We were fired upon one night when we were going against a power station to the southeast of Baghdad. We saw what initially appeared to be an explosion, but then we saw the moving white light denoting a missile. It goes from a long flame into a sort of pencil dot, which means, basically, it’s coming right at you. That tends to focus your mind somewhat. In this case, to evade the missile, we rolled inverted, pulling down initially, and then rolling back up. All that time, the aircraft shook and shuddered because, at that weight and at that altitude, we were near an accelerated stall. The missile eventually exploded behind us. Immediately thereafter, we were concentrating on trying to get back on to the target run. Lights out, we were only about 20 sec. between aircraft horizontally, and, although we had maybe 1,000 ft. between aircraft vertically, we’d just descended and were now very, very close to the guy behind us — with him dropping his bombs and us just below him trying not to get hit by them. We released the weapons and Mike then pulled off to the right, hoping the other aircraft was left, and up and over. As we pulled up on to the escape track we saw two afterburners light up only 100 ft. beneath me — it was Glen, one of our squadron mates, trying to get out of it. If that small a clearance had happened in peacetime, there would have been a lot of sweaty brows around. There was very little to say about it on the ground. We were avoiding a missile, we got the bombs off, we avoided everybody else, and that was it.
On our next flight, targeting a refinery, we came down through the clouds, saw the target and aimed for the storage facilities. The bombs came off, and Mike pulled off left and did a level turn, rather than a climbing turn to get back above cloud — a bit naughty, but like any pilot, Mike wanted to see where our bombs had gone. Sure enough, we hit smack on the catalytic cracking plant, the one place where we had been told not to hit. That, unfortunately, is one of the penalties that you pay with this medium-level bombing: it is inherently less accurate. On another refinery bombing run, one of the aircraft suffered a computer dump, so he was flying on the wing of another aircraft and was to pickle the bombs off when the lead aircraft dropped his bomb. We dropped ours, the second lot dropped theirs, and then the third and fourth dropped together. Ours went effectively on target, and likewise the second aircraft’s. After the third drop, we saw one bomb go off in the river, which was very close to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, — another “Do Not Hit” target — and we thought, “Oh, dear!” Fortunately, the rest fell in a park and onto a double highway. So at least we missed the Gardens! Later, Nick, one of the wits in our formation, nicknamed two of the guys “River Killer” and “Road Driller” in honor of that episode. That’s typical of aircrew mentality: if you can’t make a joke of it, something’s wrong.
Another time we went against a Scud storage site. The storage sheds went up — an absolute treat! You get the initial explosion of the bomb going in, and that’s followed by a big shock wave, then a huge mushroom, and finally wreckage going this way and that, even straight up (we reckon to several thousand feet). It’s just like throwing a match into a box of fireworks. The accuracy we were getting with the medium-level bombing was not sufficient to go against point targets. We also went against ammunition storage in Kabala, which is a huge expanse of desert with bunkers quite well revetted and spaced out. There’s about 300 or 400 m between each bunker, and they were giving us individual bunkers to go for. In such circumstances, you can almost be guaranteed not to hit that bunker. But, for such a widespread military target there is no problem, since if you missed the target, you’d then hope to hit some other part of the facility. In this case, there was virtually no collateral damage; you either hit these bunkers or you missed them. If you missed them, they just ended up with a bit of sand thrown over them, even at a close miss, and, sure enough, we got nowhere — didn’t hit a thing. The more accurate laser bombs used by the Buccaneer aircraft became even more important.
Our blackest moments were spent after mates were lost and in worrying about what was going on at home. We tried to tell our wives that, while we were going to fly that night, everything would be okay, knowing that they weren’t going to sleep that night. Our formation didn’t suffer any losses. Only two people were lost from the group based at Tabuk — both in the same aircraft. We knew both of them very well. Some of the younger guys had not lost any friends before, and we think they were hit hard. Most of us who’d been around for a while had lost at least one friend in peacetime flying, and we’d learned to compartmentalize it. Still, it was a very sad element of the war, but it really strengthened our resolve. Fortunately, the trip which our two lost squadron mates had led — and on which they were subsequently lost — was a complete success, and the Iraqis had to evacuate one of their air-defense centers. So something came of that mission, and of course, the war was a huge success for the Allied Coalition. Our mates didn’t die in vain.