Friday, November 11, 2005

How to Win in Iraq

Debate about US strategy in Iraq has been heating up lately, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington advocating a strategy of establishing what are basically security zones within Iraq, rather than using military forces to go to a particular city, town, or area, "sweep out" the insurgents, then leave for somewhere, with the insurgency simply retaking control of the area.

One influential article of late is "How to Win in Iraq," by Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (the pdf of the story is located in the section "latest from CBSA"). Published in the September/October 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, the article advocates creating "security zones" where a sense of permanence is created. These zones would become like "ink spots," able to spread outward.

Perhaps surveillance assets, airborne or ground based, could help play a part in establishing such zones? Satellite imagery or UAV cameras may not work as well as contractors claim for detecting individual insurgents (see "Promises, Promises"), but when it comes to helping keep the peace, they seem to be quite helpful: think of all the video cameras on the London Underground. Then again...

Veterans Day

I have devoted 11 individual posts to accounts of veterans about their experiences in war. The accounts were previously published in JED, the Journal of Electronic Defense (I'm editor-in-chief of that magazine). Although Veterans Day is an American observance, I have included accounts of veterans from other nations as well: Great Britain, France, Poland, Denmark, and Israel. Today is also Armistice Day, the 87th anniversary of the end of World War 1.

I am not a soldier and have never experienced war. This makes me lucky. It also makes me blessed. Other people have put on a uniform and fought and killed and suffered and sometimes died. They served for many reasons. But one of the results of their service is that I never had to risk my life in war. The same holds true for veterans who never saw combat: Their service has kept me safe.

Thank you, Veterans.

I want to add one more story: the account of the late General Charles W. Sweeney, commander of the Nagasaki atomic bombing mission. I started Situational Awareness on August 9, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the mission that ended World War 2. Please spare a moment to read General Sweeney's story, too.

In Their Own Words #11: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Paul 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, 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.

May 2000

In Their Own Words #10: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Mike Gilroy served as a USAF EWO on B-52s, F-105s, F-4s and F-111s. He served two combat tours in Vietnam and flew a total of 119 combat missions, for which he received the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Purple Heart and eleven Air Medals. He later served at the Pentagon and, following his retirement, at Litton Applied Technology. He has served as the mayor of Gilroy, CA.

I was a "Wild Weasel" Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), flying a two-seat F-105F with my pilot, Glenn Davis. We had taken off from our base at Takhli, Thailand, about an hour before.

The other pilots jokingly referred to Glenn and me as Mutt and Jeff. Glenn was built like a fireplug, around 5'6" tall and weighed around 175 lbs. I, on the other hand, I'm 6'5" tall and weighed the same 175.

Glenn was one of the smartest people I have ever met, especially as relates to the F-105. Our F-105F had been modified with an array of specialized electronic equipment allowing us to find and destroy radars, especially those associated with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). It is a difficult, dangerous, but extremely important mission. We were in Vietnam to protect the Strike Force, the F-105Ds whose job it was to bomb the targets in North Vietnam. Our purpose was to protect them from the Soviet-designed SAMs. In the few months we had been here, Takhli's Strike Force losses from SAMs had dropped significantly. Wild Weasel losses initially were very high, some to SAMs, but mostly to the anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) protecting the SAM sites. Our losses seemed to be settling down as our experience level increased.

Glenn and I had paired up as a crew about a month ago. Glenn's Electronic Warfare Officer returned to the states because of family problems, and my pilot severely damaged his back in a bailout after an unsuccessful duel with a SAM site. So far, we had flown around twenty missions together and really made a good team. We had quickly developed that special rapport typical of the very best Weasel crews. It starts with mutual respect for each other's unique skills in an airplane and develops into strong friendship. Glenn and I were both low key people. We did our job and didn't talk a lot about it. The strike pilots were comfortable flying with us. We had a reputation for not losing wingmen, and more importantly, when we flew SAM coverage for the strike force, no one got shot down by SAMs. To paraphrase the verse from Proverbs: "Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil, for we are the meanest sons of bitches in the valley."

Our call sign that today was "Avenger," which had a good sound to it. It felt like it was going to be a good mission. The primary target was a military barracks area just west of Hanoi. However, the weather in the target area was forecast to be poor, and the strike had been canceled. The secondary target was in the northwest section of North Vietnam. That area might have been tough when the French were beaten at Dien Bien Phu, but as air missions went, it was a piece of cake. All of the missions into North Vietnam counted toward the 100 missions needed to go home. This one was going to be an "Easy Counter." Weasels were allowed a little more flexibility in doing their mission than the strike force. That didn't mean we were restriction free; everyone from the president down to our wing commander had put some limits on our fighting ability, limits that made no sense at all. We could drop our bombs on a road or bridge, but not on a power plant or fuel or oil storage area, unless specifically tasked to do so. Military airfields were off limits. You could attack and destroy an individual SAM site, but not the storage area near Haiphong Harbor, where hundreds of SAMs were stored out in the open in canisters.

Unless tasked against a specific target, you could not fly within 30 mi. of Hanoi or 15 mi. of Haiphong. If you flew past an airfield and saw an enemy aircraft taking off to intercept you, you could not fire upon him until his landing gear was in the wheel well. Whoever created these restrictions had probably never put his life on the line in battle. Those who enforced them were cowards.

As Weasels, we were allowed to go where we wanted in order to hunt down the SAM sites, except for flight into the restricted areas around Hanoi or Haiphong. Our plan this day was to accompany the strike force to the area of Dien Bien Phu, make a quick sweep of the area to ensure the North Vietnamese (NVN) hadn't moved any new defenses into the area, and then head east, over the flatlands south and west of Hanoi. That's where the heavy SAM defenses were. We'd see if we could stir up a little action. Our wingman was a captain from one of the other squadrons on the base. He had been at Takhli for approximately four months and, although he had flown Weasel missions before, he had never flown with Glenn and me. He was obviously looking forward to an easy mission, one where no one was going to shoot at him. When he heard our plan he wasted no time letting us know that he thought it lunacy. "You're going out on the flats, when you don't have to? You guys are out of your minds!" was followed by, "Don't you have to go where the rest of the strike force goes?"

This type of questioning didn't sit too well with either Glenn or me and shows that even among F-105 pilots there was an occasional candyass. We felt his questioning was almost a slur on our manhood: "Doesn't he know we're bulletproof?" He didn't win any points by questioning our plan, but once he had spoken he seemed to have sense enough to keep his mouth shut.

A pilot from Kadena was in the briefing room. The F-105 Wing at Kadena, Okinawa, sent their pilots to our base to augment the F-105 forces that were flying up north every day. They usually came for six weeks twice a year, and could complete their 100 missions during their three year tour of duty at Kadena. This fellow had arrived the previous week. He seemed to be a really nice guy. Several of us had had a few drinks with him in the Stag Bar a few nights before. When it came time to eat, he asked if there was any place downtown that served decent food. We didn't need much prodding, and soon were headed for the Main Gate, the One-Baht Bus, and the Takhli Villa, the best restaurant in the town of Takhli. Dinner at the Takhli Villa was great as usual. Fine French onion soup, Thai fried rice, a slipper lobster and a bottle of good red wine all for around $4. After a great dinner and a few war stories, most headed back to the base. Another fellow and I commandeered two pedicabs, coerced the drivers into taking the back seat and letting us pedal, and raced to one of our favorite bars and bath houses for a few more drinks, a hot bath and a massage. War is a bitch.

On this day's morning briefing, I chatted with the Kadena pilot for a few minutes. He said that he was glad that this mission was going to be an easy one. We joked around a little, and looked forward to another good dinner downtown. It was six o'clock in the morning when we finally headed out to our airplanes. Everyone was pretty relaxed. Unlike the primary targets where the defenses were always heavy, always waiting for us, and which always got three or four aircraft and crews, I expected that everyone would get back from this one. However, arrival at our airplane showed that we don't have a full ordnance load. Normally the weasels carried two AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles and either CBU-24s (cluster-bomb units) or two pods of 2.75-in. folding-fin aerial rockets (FFARs). We had the two Shrikes but neither CBUs nor rockets. The F-105s parked nearby were similarly armed. This was just another one of the many things about this air war that wasn't right; you risked your life going against the toughest defenses in the world with only a partial weapon load to deliver on the target. We'd all read in Stars and Stripes that Secretary of Defense MacNamara had been denying that there is a bomb shortage. That man and our president had a major lack of credibility with the aircrews. It's a good thing we were not going to our primary target that day.

"Sarge, did they download some of our ordnance, when the target was changed, or is this all we were going to get?" I asked the crew chief.

"That's all they were going to give you, Sir," he answered.

He was embarrassed, as if somehow he should have unilaterally been able to get a full ordnance load for his airplane. I really appreciated his attitude, but that didn't help increase the ordnance load. Damn, this sure was one screwed-up way to fight a war!

At any rate, the walk around inspection showed the airplane to be in good shape. Thank God for that. Easy missions like this one didn't occur very often and were no time to have a maintenance abort. Completion of one hundred missions into North Vietnam, easy or hard, was the price of a ticket home. Someone at the stag bar had recently passed the cheery news that at the current loss rate, everyone would be shot down three times before they finished their 100 missions. I only had two times to go. We didn't dwell on statistics or on the poor odds of living long enough to complete a combat tour. We were here doing the best job we could. Most of us thought that we were bullet-proof anyway, and enjoyed pitting our skills against those of the NVN, their Russian made weapons, and their Russian "advisors." All that aside, it was nice to get an easy mission every once in awhile.

We climbed aboard, cranked up the engine, checked out our systems, and taxied out to the arming area. Everything was looking good. With this "piece of cake" mission ahead of us, we might just return to enjoy the rest of it. It was a beautiful day at Takhli Royal Thai AFB, I was flying with someone I respected and trusted, we'd gotten a good airplane, a full load of gas, some missiles and a cannon, and were going to go kill some SAM sites. Life doesn't get any better than that! Our wingman still seemed a little pissed off since he made an obscene gesture to the Catholic Chaplain who is walking by blessing the aircraft and crews. The Chaplain smiled and shook his head. He was a pretty nice guy, but the severe loss rate for pilots seemed to be bothering him. The past couple of weeks he had really been putting away the booze at the Stag bar as if he were taking the losses personally. Most of the aircrews shied away from him. We didn't get maudlin about the losses and didn't feel comfortable with those that did. The support people at Takhli really cared.

We were next in line for takeoff. "Do you want to make the takeoff, Mike?" Glenn asked.

"Sure," I answered, not knowing if I could see well enough from the back seat (the forward visibility of the Weasel F-105F is almost zero), and as an EWO, not knowing if I could do so successfully. But, if Glenn had offered, he must've thought that I could, and I wasn't going to say no. There shouldn't be too much to it. Just go real fast and pull back on the stick. Glenn told our wingman that we would be making single ship takeoffs, and called the tower. Takeoff clearance received, I pushed the throttle to the stops and stroked it outboard to light the afterburner. With a kick in the butt and a satisfying roar, we were rolling. Glenn switched on the water injection, which adds extra thrust and we were now really moving. I was having a hell of a time keeping the aircraft centered on the runway - it seems to want to go from one side to the other, almost as if the nose wheel steering was still engaged. I cycled the nose wheel steering switch on and off and the aircraft settled down and smoothly tracked the center line of the runway. Must've been a malfunction in the switch. Glenn chose that moment to tactfully say that he probably should continue the takeoff. I really messed that up. I should have recognized and corrected that switch malfunction quicker. It was a little embarrassing, but no big deal.

We were airborne and climbing toward the rendezvous with our tanker. Our wingman was about 10 ft. off our right wing and I checked out my equipment. Everything seemed to be operating great. We would rendezvous with our tanker over Laos. It took about 35 min. to get there. I killed the time by flying the airplane. Glenn occupied himself by enjoying the scenery. He then called Red Anchor, the KC-135 that would be our tanker for the day. Red Anchor responded immediately and gave us his position. "I've got a flight of four inbound ahead of you," he said.

That would be Fosdick flight. I saw from the mission card on my knee pad that Fosdick two was the guy from Kadena, and a buddy of a friend. Glenn positioned us so that we were about a mile in trail behind the tanker and Fosdick flight, which was approaching the tanker. Just then, a bright flash! from the vicinity of Fosdick flight. The pilot of the KC-135 Tanker called over Guard Channel: "One of the fighters has just blown up!"

We then heard Fosdick lead calling on guard channel for the rescue forces. "This is Fosdick lead. Fosdick Two has just blown up on the tanker. No chute, no survivors!"

"Good Grief! What could have happened?"

"I don't know," replied Glenn. "It looks like his bombs just went off. What a hell of a way to go. What a waste!"

Consensus among the crews was that an arming wire that prevents the fuse from arming until the bomb leaves the airplane had worked its way loose - a defect associated with fuses that were not designed for high speed external carriage. Normal in-flight bomb rack vibration would allow the wire to come free and the fuse to spin down. From that time on, the bomb was armed and for detonation needed only a strong radar signal, which could be provided by a KC-135. The Rescue Command Post and Fosdick Lead continued to exchange information for a few more minutes.

Regardless, it was then our turn to move into position on the tanker, top off our fuel tanks and get on with the mission, though we all now felt a little hollow inside. We were losing enough people to the NVN defenses, made all the worse by the restrictive Rules of Engagement under which we are forced to fly. To be killed by a defect in your own bomb is really the pits.

Well, you can't dwell on those things, and must get on with the mission. Our flight of two aircraft refueled and headed north. Four other flights of four F-105s were visible off to our left and right. Glenn called to our wingman to switch to Channel 19. I tuned through the frequency bands on my Weasel equipment , and picked-up the first sign of NVN radar activity, a Soviet- made Barlock radar that would be passing to the enemy our altitude, heading, and the number of aircraft in the raid. My APR-25 vectorscope displayed the first of the precision tracking radars, a Firecan - Soviet designed, Soviet built and possibly Soviet manned - and one usually associated with one or several batteries of 57 or 85 mm anti-aircraft guns.

"Guns at 2 o'clock," I called. Glenn repeated this over the air, but the radar signal was pretty weak - probably the gun battery at Yen Bai, about 60 mi. ahead of us. The F-105s from both Takhli and Korat normally crossed the Red River in the vicinity of Yen Bai, in order to attack the targets in the Hanoi area from the North, where the more mountainous terrain offers some protection. The NVN (NVN) had moved that Firecan radar and its associated guns into position several months earlier. It was more of a nuisance than a threat. The gunners always shot but had been particularly lousy aims. The precision tracking of that particular radar, though, had passed vital information of our timing, intentions and strike force size to the rest of the NVN defenses. Thus, its presence had been a thorn in the side of the Weasels. Most of the Weasel crews had tried, at one time or another, to knock it out with Shrike missiles, with no success. We had speculated that the radar was probably very well reveted, making it particularly hard to damage with anything but a direct hit. A few days earlier, on a similar mission, Jerry Hoblit and Tom Wilson had tried something different (notice that I said "different," not "bright"). Back at Weasel School, we had practiced a technique that we called "Station Passage." The idea was, if you keep correcting your heading as you approach a radar site, so as to keep the radar signal directly off your nose, you will eventually fly a big arc that takes you over the radar. The equipment indicates the moment you fly over the site since the signal switches suddenly from off your nose to off your tail. Well, Jerry and Tom went through that drill with the Yen Bai Firecan. When they got station passage, Jerry lit the afterburner and pulled up into an Immelmann maneuver. Their idea was to fire their Shrike missile when their nose was pointed straight up. The missile should then continue on up for a bit before reversing itself and heading straight down onto the radar. Theoretically, it was a sound plan, and unlikely to miss. It was really neat to watch from a safe distance. It's always neat to sit safely by and watch your friends do dumb things. Up went the airplane. Off went the Shrike. Down came the airplane. Down came the Shrike. Up came the most intense barrage of flak any of us had ever seen. By some miracle, Jerry and Tom were able to fly out of there unscathed. To add insult to injury, the Shrike missed its target and the radar kept on transmitting. After that miss, we sort of left that Firecan alone. The guy shooting at us wasn't very accurate, and if we killed him, they would probably have replaced him with someone who could shoot better. Might as well leave well enough alone.

Back to this day's mission. We crossed the border into North Vietnam and turned almost immediately west northwest toward Son La and Dien Bien Phu. It is a short hop over there. Only about 15 min. passed until we were in the area, and looking things over. "Nothing on the scope, Glenn," I called.

"They must know that we are going to secondary targets today; there isn't much activity over towards Hanoi, either."

"Well," Glenn called back, "let's go over there and see what we can stir up."

"Avenger, is leaving the area," Glenn called to the Strike force over the radio.

With that, he pulled the nose of the plane around, pushed up the power and took up a heading of 120 degrees towards the flats south and west of Hanoi. There still wasn't much activity on the scope, just a few Firecans probably looking toward some Navy planes out over the Gulf of Tonkin. I turned up the sensitivity of my receiver and could just make out a very weak SAM radar from amidst the noise. It wasn't strong enough to generate an exact bearing, but common sense told us that it was directly ahead. Good. The SAM signal gradually grew stronger as we closed the gap with Hanoi at a rate of eight miles a minute. The signal was now growing strong enough for me to get a reasonable indication of its location. "The SAM site is at our 11 o'clock position, Glenn."

"Roger. It's probably that site just south of Hoa Binh. That's the one that hammered those guys from Korat, yesterday. Let's go pay him as visit."

Glenn then put the SAM site directly off the nose of the airplane. My job was to give heading corrections until we could launch one of our anti-radiation missiles. We also had to ensure we didn't get surprised by anything else while we are doing it.

The NVN radar network had apparently told the site that there were two aircraft coming in from the west. The radar signal increased significantly in strength, indicating it was now looking our way. I worked my IR-133 receiver, synchronizing the scan with that of the radar, and determined that we were almost directly in the middle of the SAM's azimuth beam. I moved to the elevation beam and got the same result. "He's tracking us," I told Glenn.

"I think we're close enough to put a Shrike on this guy," Glenn replied.

Seconds later the Shrike left the wing, trailing smoke as it roared towards the SAM radar. Moments later, the red "Launch" lights illuminated in our cockpits and the shrill screech in our headsets indicated that the site had launched missiles at us. "Valid launch off the nose," I told Glenn.

"Avenger flight has a valid launch. Take it down, Avenger," Glenn calmly announced.

He lowered the nose, pushed up the power and headed for the site. It was now a matter of visually acquiring the missiles and dodging them, while hoping that our Shrike found its way to the radar and put it out of commission. The Weasels had the edge in this battle - we could dodge; SAM sites can't. Of course, we had only a semi-dumb, short range missile with a 50-lb. warhead, while the enemy had a fairly sophisticated weapon system operated by a four men crew, with information fed to it from several other radars. One SAM site usually had another site providing overlapping coverage, as well as dozens of anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity. He also had six missiles which could go twice as far and twice as fast as our Shrikes and which had 300-lb. warheads. Still, we felt we had the advantage, as long as we didn't screw up by getting too high, too low, too slow, or too stupid.

The missiles came into sight. Glenn maneuvered so the missiles were coming at us from our two-o'clock position. They're easier to dodge when they are coming at you from the side. We could see two coming our way, although a third one may have been launched. Soviet launch doctrine, which the NVN used, went something like this: Shoot. Shoot. Look. Shoot. "I see the smoke from the launch site," Glenn said. "It's near the bend in the river."

Only fifteen seconds had elapsed since launching the Shrike. If it worked, and if we had been able to estimate our range from the site accurately enough, the radar should have gone off the air about then. I needed to look at my scope in order to see if that happened, but with missiles on the way, all eyes had to be watching for them. Glenn pulled up sharply and turned into the missile. Both missiles passed harmlessly below us and detonated in the distance. He rolled wings level to look for the probable third missile, as another site at our nine o'clock position launched at us. "Launch at nine o'clock!" I called.

"Roger," he said and turned hard to the left toward that site, temporarily forgetting about the first site.

A quick look at my scope showed the radar signal from the first site had gone off the air, indicating a probable hit from our Shrike; it was hard to tell as we were the center of attraction for several SAM and AAA sites, and the scope was cluttered with signals. "I see smoke from our Shrike at the first site," Glenn confirmed.

At least the radar was disabled. We could go in and destroy the vans and missiles as soon as we could stop dodging. "I've got two missiles in sight," called Glenn.

We descended to about 50 ft. above the ground, doing around 700 kts. This was too close to the deck to dodge missiles, but they wouldn't be able to track us at such a low altitude. Seconds later the first missile roared overhead. followed shortly thereafter by another. They were at least 500 ft. away, but looked a lot closer. "I'm going to climb a little and see if I can put a Shrike into this guy from point blank range," Glenn calmly announced.

"Go to it," I replied.

As we left the relative safety of tree-top altitude and climbed to 4,000 ft. to give the Shrike a better look at its target, two more SAM sites started tracking us strongly. "SAM sites looking at us at four and eight o'clock," I called.

"Roger," Glenn answered. "I'll just be a bit longer."

"Missile Launch!" I called. "It's the one at our four o'clock!"

"Avenger flight, missile launch," Glenn called on the radio.

He hung on a few seconds longer, and then sent the Shrike on its way. We were now diving back to the relative safety of the ground - down to where SAM radar would have trouble picking our aircraft out of the ground clutter.

"Where the hell is Avenger Two, Mike?"

"We lost him in the first SAM break," I answer.

"Avenger Two, where are you?" Glenn radioed.

"I lost you during the SAM break," Two answers. "I'm over on the Ridge."

Well that figured! Not only was the guy a candyass, he couldn't fly an airplane, either! "Well, head on home," Glenn directed him. "We've got some business here yet."

Neither of us could see the missiles from the third site and assumed that we were too low for them to track us. We were back close to our original heading, where we were first fired upon. We were going back to destroy the first site that fired on us. Glenn armed the 20mm Gattling gun-the best SAM-killing weapon ever devised. We were still about 50 ft. off the ground, but had slowed down to perhaps 600 kts. Forward visibility was not too great, as the combination of our speed and the high moisture content in the air created our own little fog bank on each side of the nose. Glenn climbed to about 4,000 ft. in order to get a better look at our target. Little red balls rose to meet us - harmless looking but quite deadly. They were tracers associated with some pretty fast shooting guns, and they were all around us. What didn't show were the multiple non-tracers amongst the visible rounds.

We could hear rounds hitting the aircraft. We seemed to be engulfed by a half square mile of anti-aircraft projectiles. Glenn maneuvered to spoil their aim. "I see the site," said Glenn. We had time, gas, and the inclination for just one pass and made good use of it. Our 20mm rounds stitched through one missile launcher, across and through the radar and control vans, and then out the other side through another missile launcher. We broke hard right. The explosions shook the airplane and orange smoke and fire belched hundreds of feet into the air. "Good shooting , Glenn!" "Thank you, sir!" he answered cheerfully. "Now let's get the hell out of here."

We descended back down to 50 ft. and stayed on the deck for another 30 mi., until we exited the heavily defended areas. Twice on the way out we again strafed gun positions which popped-up before us. Finally, we were able to climb back up to safety, take our oxygen masks away from our faces, and have a cigarette. We were both on an adrenaline high. It had been an exciting 20 min. "Did you hear that joke that Norm Frith told in the bar last night?" I asked Glenn. "No," he said, "tell me."

"Well, it goes like this: 'Do you know the definition of the world's greatest optimist? It's a Weasel who quits smoking, because he's afraid that he will die of lung cancer.'"

"Boy, we really stirred up a hornets' nest there," Glenn chuckled.

Yes, we really had. We had killed one SAM site, got a probable hit on another, shot up several anti-aircraft gun positions, dodged six missiles and thousands of anti-aircraft shells and had been the sole focus of the Hanoi defensive network. Just another routine Weasel mission and a lot of fun. Nine more just like it and we would earn an Air Medal.

July 2000

In Their Own Words #9: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Major General Patrick Cordingley, DSO, British Army (ret), commanded the 7th Armored Brigade ("The Desert Rats") during the Gulf War of 1990-91, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. In 1996, he published In The Eye Of The Storm, his account of commanding the lead brigade of Great Britain's most significant armored deployment since WW II.

Can you run an armored brigade from the turret of a tank instead of headquarters? Well, if you want to attack instead of retreat, maneuver instead of hide, and keep a watchful eye on green troops, then yes, it's just the thing.

I was in a Challenger command tank as we crossed the minefields into Iraq at about 15h00 on February 25, 1991. Although we were the 7th Armored Brigade, the famous Desert Rats of WW II North Africa, the desert was probably the last place I had expected to find myself confronting an enemy. And I hadn't expected to be moving forward -- in a tank, no less.

Before 1990, the British Army was designed, trained, and deployed to fight against the Warsaw Pact for the defense of Western Europe. Almost everything that we did with our training, especially those of us who were placed in Western Germany, was practice for GDP, the General Defense Plan. Our exercises, whether they be command-post exercises or field exercises with troops, basically were all rehearsals for how we would pull back from the inter-German border to the next defensive line as the Warsaw Pact rolled in and attacked us. Our brigades were thus designed, as was our equipment, for just such a battle in Europe.

The brigade headquarters -- arguably the last major tactical headquarters under those circumstances before divisional headquarters, which I would describe as an operational headquarters -- had a number of command vehicles that used to set up back to back allowing the commander a penthouse in the middle. If there wasn't a threat from the air, the commander and his advisors could assemble to discuss what was going on. As a commander, I would then retire into my own command vehicle, which was a tracked FV-432, to make my plan. My chief of staff would write with his staff the various control measures that were required to put that plan into being, and the orders would be given out. Then the battle would rage, and at the appropriate moment, when the Warsaw Pact were pressing too hard or they were pressing somewhere else too hard and endangering our position, we would withdraw to the next defensive line. This was all very carefully pre-planned, and it was essentially the same with our American counterparts in NATO, with minor variations in procedure. The brigade headquarters was split into three particular groups. Main headquarters would be mirrored by a step-up headquarters (or step-back, in this instance) with duplicate staff. All that would be needed to move to the next headquarters were the three principal commanders: myself, my chief of staff, and the deputy chief of staff. Then there was a third element that we used to call tac headquarters, which was a very small group where the commander could rove in his armored command vehicle with his senior gunner and senior engineer in order to look at a particular problem.

All along, we assumed our communications would be jammed. We had secure VHF nets both forward to the troops and back to divisional headquarters. We had insecure VHF forward and back, and then we had a HF backup. There was also the artillery net, which was a VHF net with a HF backup. We had clear procedures stating that if you were jammed, you would change frequencies on the quarter hour to find a free one, and then again. (No frequency hopping in those days.) So there were a number of possibilities. We never thought that we would be out of communication on every single net. Also, the GDP plan was moderately inflexible in many respects, and we all knew where the next defensive line was going to be. So a unit could safely make the assumption that it was all right to pull back to the next defensive line if all communications were lost. And there were always helicopters and dispatch riders and other old-fashioned ways of getting a message through.

If you look at the British tank, it was not actually designed to fight in a fast-flowing movement, a fight of maneuver. The Americans were in very much the same condition. That's how we were. So off we go to Saudi Arabia. Early on, during the buildup phase, I was an independent brigade commander, so you could argue that I moved in a personal position from being trained as a tactical commander to actually being an operational commander, despite the fact we were taken under the wing of the US 1st Marine Division. What also became clear, working with the Marines, was that we were perfect partners, because we had equipment that they didn't have, and they had equipment that we didn't have. We had Challenger 1 tanks, which were considerably better than the M-60 tanks of the Marine Corps, and we had greatly superior armored engineer equipment. We were perfectly placed to penetrate the minefields, and we made the assumption with the Marines that we were going to Kuwait, not into Iraq. The minefields between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were reported to be very heavy, and we understood that the British were to be used to go through the minefields and, indeed, that our tanks would be used to exploit the breach. In a funny sort of way, despite the fact that we were working within the 1st Marine Division, we were actually rather independent, because we probably were going to be the brigade that was going to push through first.

It also became clear that having the enormous baggage of command and communications vehicles would hold one back in a fast-flowing war of maneuver. This point became even stronger three months after the 7th Armored Brigade arrived, when the 4th Armored Brigade came out, and we were organized under the British 1st Armored Division, whose headquarters took much of the logistics responsibilities off my hands. The division, in turn, was joined to the US VII Corps. Whatever else was going to happen, even if we went into Kuwait, but certainly if we went into Iraq, it would be a war of maneuver. We would have to go long distances very quickly, and there was no way that we could have the luxury at brigade level of setting up command vehicles in the way we had prepared to do it in Western Europe. Could I actually command a battle from the tac headquarters? I immediately said no, that's not possible, because the FV-432 was not a particularly fast vehicle, and it didn't have much armor. This left only two possible command vehicles available to me in the brigade structure. One was a Challenger tank, and the second was the Warrior armored personnel carrier (APC), which had a decent amount of protection, and I could even put 4-5 people in the back with some maps, etc., without any problem. I actually reckoned during the exercises of the working-up phase that in many ways it was better to divorce yourself from the vast amount of information that was coming in, rather than having a lot of people talking to you at the same time. Because I was a Royal Armored Corps officer anyway, I opted to go for the tank.

Now, in a command tank we had three radio sets: a VHF insecure, a VHF secure, and a HF set. What that meant was that one could communicate forward on one VHF and backwards on the other or on the HF link. Nevertheless, from a brigade commander's point of view, this is limiting yourself enormously: You need a SCRA [Single Channel Radio Access] terminal to speak on the PTARMIGAN network. This is our mobile-trunk telephone-packet-switching equipment that works on UHF links and provides commanders on the ground with secure digital voice, telegraph, facsimile, and data communications. So along with this tank, I needed a dedicated communications vehicle with a SCRA terminal and also to have spare capacity to talk on any of the nets that I was unable to talk on from my tank, and that my staff could monitor. You could argue that this was a cop-out for not going into the Warrior, but I couldn't have gotten all the radio sets into the APC anyway. Now, the other thing I needed with me was my artillery officer, which was absolutely essential, and he had his Warrior with its own sets for the artillery nets. This makes us three vehicles. Under other circumstances I would have had an engineer with me in yet another vehicle, but I knew enough about the minefields we faced that I didn't require the advice, and the actual mine-clearing duties were to be taken over by the US 1st Infantry Division.

Once through the minefield, the plan was for the Desert Rats to go a hundred-plus kilometers to put in an attack on a particular enemy brigade position that we knew was there. In the actual event, we bumped an unexpected position that had to be dealt with first. One of the problems of the Gulf War was that there was a lack of detailed information at the tactical level. The information existed, but there was a dissemination problem. We had these wonderful downlinks - most of them American - from satellites, AWACS, and J-STARS all pumping the information into Riyadh. Although we obviously asked for information about certain areas and grid squares, the problem was that there was such a large amount of information in Riyadh, it was almost impossible to work out who wanted what and then disseminate it. When we went across the line of departure, we only had sketchy information about the brigade that we were going to have to attack. We were through the minefield going due north, and then we turned almost due east. Just south of the main axis of advance there was an Iraqi communications site that was protected by a company of infantry and about a dozen T-62 tanks. We hit those by mistake, meaning we didn't know they were there. We would have hit them in any event, but had we known, we might have been more cautious about it.

The night was pitch black, made particularly difficult because it was heavily overcast and raining. Curiously, we didn't have any of the artillery's guns unmasked and ready to fire. The battalion commander who made the unexpected contact with the enemy asked for some artillery, and I said, "Are you sure you need it? The Iraqis probably don't know you're there, because they don't have thermal sights and you do. Wouldn't it be better to just pick them off and see what happens?" And that's exactly what we did. We put the attack in at about 22h00. The thermal sights enabled our tanks to engage targets at a range of up to three kilometers, where naked-eye visibility was less than 50 meters. Once the T-62s started burning, there was quite a bit more light, and our infantry could get out and into the enemy slit trenches. We then put up artillery illumination (some of the guns were unmasked by then) so we could see what the hell was going on, and we had all these prisoners milling around. That became a feature of the next three days -- huge numbers of prisoners. The action had an important effect on our troops. The attack we put in was what we would call a quick attack, and the drill used was exactly the drill that we'd used in training -- and it worked. That was good for morale.

But I was in my tank throughout this, because I knew what our objective was, and anything else that cropped up meant that something needed to be done quite quickly by local unit commanders involved. When we bumped this unexpected position, I was perfectly happy in my tank to be able to talk to the battalion commander about what it was that he was doing, let him get on with it, and tell him that, if he needed any particular resources, I was there and could get them. There was no problem there, because my own staff in the main headquarters, which was static and being stepped-up by the other headquarters, was monitoring that net. The only difference between what we were doing and the traditional way was that I was very much closer in case I should be needed and also very much more mobile, because I had the same equipment and could keep up with the advance. I was in that state for 16 hours before I rendezvoused back again with my own headquarters.

While we fought the first battle, we were faced with the problem of getting my back vehicles out of the minefield bridgehead. The whole of the US VII Corps was waiting to get through behind me. The aftermath of a battle is never easy, no matter how quickly you do them. We had some soldiers wounded ourselves and a large number of prisoners to deal with. Sorting the thing out occupied a couple of hours. This became quite a nasty pause, with the whole of my brigade stopped and the divisional commander urging us on. You could have argued that the rest of us could have pressed on while the engaged battalion did its work, but none of us had ever done this before. We were all new to it. From my point of view, it would have been good to wrap up that one situation, get everybody back together again, and then say: "Right, now we're going to put in this next attack as planned." Of course, what the divisional commander said when I told him my intention to delay the time of the scheduled attack was, "Well, that's rather disappointing." I then understood that we were going to have to bypass the enemy position and leave the one battalion behind to clean things up.

I now had to take on an Iraqi brigade position with only two-thirds of my own brigade, which required me to make a revised plan in the middle of the night. I did this with my artillery commander, because basically what we needed was more artillery to make up for the shortfall in tanks and troops, and he was able to do that. Once that plan was set up and underway, I had no particular function to play. I didn't need to be with my forward troops as the battle was going on, so I went back to my brigade headquarters, which was about 15 kilometers behind at that point, in order to get together with my staff and plan out the next steps after the fight, which I thought should take through the night of February 26. The next two days were characterized by fast maneuvering. We destroyed some 300 tanks and APCs, and we took some 8,000 Iraqi prisoners.

There was a significant difference between the way we operated in Germany, where it was all static stuff, to being completely mobile in a war of maneuver. It became clear, which it hadn't been on the safer side of the line of departure, that a brigade commander really could work from a tank. I could tell my staff: "This is what the mission is, and this is what I want to happen. You put that plan together, along with the control measures. I'm back in my tank now and going to go forward again." I'm balanced, should we have a problem. I can go and see what it is and if necessary, I can come back to headquarters to set revised plans into motion.

There were three critical things that helped us dominate our part of the battlefield in the Gulf War. First, we had communications that worked. The desert attenuates the VHF signal, cutting it down to about two-thirds of its range. So we had to be careful to rebroadcast where necessary. But we weren't messed around by the enemy in terms of comm jamming. He had the ability to do it, but he didn't. I'm sure that by the time we put the main attack in he had lost interest in trying to jam us. The second crucial thing was the thermal sight. Even in daylight we were using thermal sights for gunnery, because we could see the target so much better than you could with a normal day sight. Psychologically, we had rather hoped to put our first attack in during daylight. If you haven't done something before, it is quite comforting to look out and see where people are all around you. With a thermal sight you can't do that; you can just see forward. But, as it turned out, all the advantages were with us at night. The enemy didn't have thermal sights, and we could outgun him by miles. The third battle winner was GPS. We went to Saudi Arabia without any GPS receivers at all, which is crazy when you think about it. But at the time, the only people in Great Britain who were using GPS were yachtsmen. We literally bought every commercial GPS set we could find. Communications that worked and thermal sights -- combined with knowing where we were, which hitherto in the British Army we'd never done -- gave us a huge advantage.

May 2002

In Their Own Words #8: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Lt Col Allen Lamb, USAF (ret.), is currently president of The Lamb Group LLC, an international industrial safety consulting firm based in Lumberton, NC.

The first SAM kill by Wild Weasels showed that good technology and solid tactics are fine things to have, but great teamwork is what gets the job done.

I was taking off from Korat Air Base in Thailand two days after Bob Trier became the first Wild Weasel killed in action. Bob and his pilot, John Pitchford, had fallen to a SAM site while leading a strike package of F-105s against the Kep airfield, located about thirty miles northwest of Hanoi. After punching out of their stricken F-100F, Bob had apparently shot it out with North Vietnamese militia and lost, while John would spend seven years as a POW. Of course, we didn't know any of that at the time. All we knew is that the Wild Weasels were off to a bad start.

It was December 22, 1965, and we hadn't killed a single SAM, yet. At least the mission we were rolling on that morning was more to our liking. It was a so-called "Iron Hand" strike, which was code for a Wild Weasel mission, with the objective of hunting and killing a SAM site, as opposed to leading a strike against a known target. Our F-100F was loaded with LAU-3 canisters of 2.75-in. HEAT and HEAP rockets and two external fuel tanks. Jack Donnovan, my EWO, had flown back seat to Bob Schwartz, the operations officer, on the day Bob Trier was killed. Their F-100F has been leading a second strike package against the same target. Like Pitchford and Trier, they were supposed to sniff out radar threats with their Vector IV and IR-133 radar-warning receivers. Weasels also carried the WR-300 launch-warning receivers, which could detect the increased signals when a SAM was about to launch.

The most dangerous threats were the SA-2 Guideline SAM sites with their Fan Song radars. This is what the Wild Weasels were born to tackle. These missiles had come as a nasty shock to US aircrews operating over North Vietnam in 1965. On July 24 of that year, a SA-2 exploded in the middle of a strike force of F-4 Phantom IIs, knocking down one aircraft and damaging all the others in the flight. Losses to SAMs became regular occurrences. Something had to be done about it.

I had been the first pilot picked for the Wild Weasel program per request of General Benny Puttman, who was commander of the Tactical Air Warfare Center at Eglin AFB. This is where the Wild Weasels would be pulled together. Col Charlie Joseph, Tactical Air Command Coordinator, had come down to Myrtle Beach AFB where I was stationed on September 15, 1965, to have lunch and ask me to volunteer for something without telling me what the job was. I knew Col Joseph from Misawa, and I said yes. He handed me orders TDY (Temporary Duty) to Eglin with variations in itinerary authorized (these carried me all the way to Nam).

I disappeared from Myrtle Beach the next morning, and the rest is history. The original orders said the assignment would be to fly a F-100F command post (another job for the two-seater), but Joseph told me after I was on board that I would be hunting and killing SAM sites in North Vietnam. Quite hush-hush on everything. One of the first pilots broke security by talking to a nurse at the beach club at happy hour. We were being watched. He was gone the next morning and lost his career. We were all chewed out and kept isolated from then on. There were to be two birds, but later this was upgraded to four in case we lost one and one was out of commission, etc. Ultimately, there were five crews assembled for the four aircraft. In the days before the Shrike anti-radiation missile, Wild Weasels attacked enemy SAM sites with cannon and rockets and initially fin napalm, although this latter weapon was the 7th Air Force's idea, not the aircrews'. We didn't like napalm, nor bombs for that matter, because the parameters for using dropped ordnance were more restrictive than for rockets. We could get off snap-shots with rockets, something we couldn't do with fin napalm or bombs. Iron Hand strikes typically consisted of a Wild Weasel leading four F-105s heavily laden with bombs or rockets or both for pasting the SAM sites. The "Thuds" didn't carry any special electronics for ferreting out enemy radars. That was our job.

Nevertheless, we didn't just mark the target, as some have claimed. We went in first with rockets and came back around with cannon even before some of the Thuds had started on a first run. The F-100F was an excellent hunter-killer in that it was very agile. I was very fond of it, and of my ability to fly it. In those days, I had "World's Greatest Fighter Pilot" printed on my helmet - backwards so I could read it in the mirror. No apologies for youth: That was the sort of attitude we all had. I just put my attitude in writing.

Jack Donnovan's contribution to the vernacular when introduced to the Wild Weasel concept was more enduring, and became the semi-official motto of the Wild Weasel profession: YGBSM - "You gotta be shitting me." This was the natural response of an educated man, a veteran EWO on B-52s and the like, upon learning that he was to fly back seat to a self-absorbed fighter pilot while acting as flypaper for enemy SAMs. What would you say?

Our flight that December morning was call sign Spruce, and our F-100F was Spruce 5. The F-105s - Spruce 1-4 - took off after right after we did. Everything was standard through form-up and and refueling at tanker over Laos. We took the lead at our pre-briefed initial point, and with two Thuds on each wing, we headed for the Red River Valley, a flood plain that was home to some of the best air-defense systems in North Vietnam. The mission parameters were fairly fluid after that. We didn't have a specific objective or a series of known targets. Our job was to probe the enemy's air defenses until they warmed up to take a shot at us.

There was complete radio silence after going to the strike frequency. A little after noontime, Jack told me that the Vector IV had picked up a Fan Song radar in search mode about 100+ nautical miles out. I pushed the engine up to 98 percent and locked the throttle. This gave us 595 knots airspeed, just under max while carrying ordnance. After I started homing in, I transmitted "Tallyho." That was it. I kept the SAM at 10 to 11 o'clock so he wouldn't get the idea I was going after him. When I could, I dropped into shallow valleys to mask our approach. Every now and again, I'd pop up for Jack to get a cut. This went on for about 10 to 15 minutes.

After breaking out into the Red River Valley I followed the strobes on the Vector and turned up with the river along side. The IR 133 had receiver antennas located on either side of the fuselage in line with the cockpit for homing on target. The strobes started curling off at 12 o'clock, both to the right and left. And I knew we were right on top of him. I started climbing for altitude and Jack kept calling out SAM positions literally left and right. The right one turned out to be a second site. I was passing through 3,000 feet, nose high, and I rolled inverted while still climbing to look.

Jack started calling the first site to the right. I said it was to the left, because I could see it below. "Right!" he said. "Left!" I said. "Right!" he said. "Look outside!" I said. Jack did and saw that we were inverted, so the signals from the left and right antennas were reversed. "OK, left," he agreed.

I rolled in to line up the site but came in way too low. Later, some of the Thud drivers told me they thought I was going to mark the target with my aircraft. My rockets hit short, but as I pulled off there was a bright flash. I figured I must have hit the oxidizer van for the SA-2s' liquid-fuel motors. I called out the site, and the F-105 lead, Don Langwell, said that he had it. He went in, and Spruce 2, Van Heywood, came after him, firing rockets on the site. We all broke the cardinal rule - "one pass, haul ass" - to assure the kill. I came back around for a second pass in front of Spruce 4, Art Brattkus (the F-100s were agile birds!), and went down in beside Spruce 3, Bob Bush, who was hitting the AAA along side of the Red River (Bob Bush would be KIA on a subsequent mission). On this pass I strafed the control van, and he went off the air. Each of the Thuds came around again, expending all their 20mm ammunition. Jack was now calling out the second SAM site, but we had nothing left to hit it with. But we really blew away the site that we did hit.

We got out of there, rejoined, and refueled. There was a USO show with Bob Hope that day at Korat, and we made a fly over with the F-100 leading and two F-105s on each wing. A number of people down there knew that meant we had made a SAM kill and left the show early to celebrate.

After landing, we debriefed and went to the club. What a party. Jack drank martinis. After a while, he started holding them by the rim with his thumb and finger. And began dropping them. The more he drank the more he dropped. The club was raising Cain as they were running out of glasses, so we taped a glass in his hand. After dinner he drank creme dementhe and went around sticking out his green tongue.

All six of us in Spruce Flight received the Distinguished Flying Cross for killing the first SAM site. Jack would fly twelve more missions with me before going stateside in February 1966 to get the ball rolling on what would become the Wild Weasel School at Nellis AFB. I stayed in Southeast Asia for a total of six months and received credit for two more SAM kills. When we flew together, Jack said he would sleep through my air refuelings and would tell me to wake him up on ingress for him to go to work. The only time he looked outside was when I told him to take a look at Hanoi and the flak. Jack and I were a very strong team; we lived together and flew together, and we always knew what the other was thinking, even before he thought it. We were closer than many marriages. Jack also named his second son after me.

October 2001

In Their Own Words #7: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Pierre-Alain Antoine served in the French Air Force. He was the senior marketing manager and operational advisor for the EW Systems Business Unit of Thales.

I was serving as a flight commander of a Jaguar squadron in the French Air Force during the civil war in Chad in 1986.

The Jaguar is an Anglo-French fighter-bomber, similar to the F-4 and armed with the French "Martel" anti-radiation missile (ARM). As flight commander in our squadron, out of Nancy Air Force Base, North East of France, I was responsible for half of the squadron during air missions.

At the time, Chad, a former French colony in Africa, was in the midst of a civil war between the nomadic Muslim rebels in the northern desert region of the country and the government, primarily Catholics of the much-greener southern region. France was supporting the government forces against the rebels and their Libyan allies.

Libyan leader Colonel Moammar al-Khaddafi had built an air base at Ouadi-Doum in the north of Chad, claiming that the base was being used to launch humanitarian mission to help the people of Chad. While the base was being built French Jaguars, specially equipped with recce pods, performed surveillance and recon missions over the Libyan base. The assessment: Yeah, the Libyans were using the base for humanitarian missions --but only if they were carrying food in fighter planes! In fact, some Il-76 transport aircraft arrived at the airfield with military materiel and personnel, presumably for an invasion of Chad.

Based on the information gathered by these recce missions, it was decided that French forces would attack the airfield at Ouadi-Doum. My Jaguar squadron -- along with Mirage F1Cs, transport aircraft (such as the C-160), C-135 tankers and a Breguet Atlantic I maritime-patrol aircraft of the French Navy, acting as an airborne command/ELINT post -- was detached to Bangui (in Central Africa) where we began preparations for the attack on the airfield. The attack wasn't going to be easy, though, since the base was protected by ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft guns, a Flat Face surveillance radar and three SA-6 surface-to-air-missile (SAM) sites.

There were really two missions. The first consisted of bombing the runway at Ouadi-Doum -- a task not as simple as it might sound. The runway was specially made for the sandy desert environment. It was built with no concrete, only oil (to stabilize the sand) and steel planks, called grating, built in East Germany. It was also very long -- more than 3,000 m. I prepared the strike mission, but another squadron actually flew it in February '86. The runway was destroyed, but not totally. It was quickly repaired and was even stronger than before. One year later, in December '86, it was decided that a second mission would be flown, this time to take out the base's air defenses -- the Flat Face radar and the SAM sites -- because by now, the government's forces were advancing North, well supported by French troops, of course.

Again, I prepared the mission, which meant finding a way to solve a dilemma: the Martel ARM does not cover the full frequency spectrum, and because the frequencies of the radars at Ouadi-Doum were different, we needed different seekers on the missiles for each target. I decided to equip three of the Jaguars with Martels fitted with the appropriate seeker for the frequency of the SA-6s' Straight Flush radars and one with the seeker dedicated to the frequency of the Flat Face -- four targets, four aircraft and four missiles. The mission would have to go perfectly.

Once again, I did not get to fly the mission. My detachment was replaced by another the week before the attack was to be carried out, and the mission went ahead without us. The Jaguars took off from Bangui (in Central Africa), but as it turned out, one of the missiles was inoperative. The three other aircraft landed at N'djamena, Chad's capital city, located in the southern region. They were joined by the fourth aircraft a day later.

Unfortunately, by now, there were no signs of radar activity from Ouadi-Doum. The Breguet Atlantic I, patrolling nearby, noted that all the radars were switched off. To lure the radars into lighting up, we launched two Mirage F1CRs (recce version) from N'djamena. It worked! Well, it worked partially anyway. The Libyans had turned on their Flat Face radar. Quickly, all the Jaguars were scrambled from N'djamena. Since only the Flat Face had popped up, though, only one missile was fired in the ensuing strike. The Flat Face was destroyed - coincidentally, by the same aircraft that had been carrying the broken missile the day before.

After the destruction of the Flat Face, the government troops overran the airbase, capturing the three SA-6s. It was the beginning of the end of the war.

Although we had come back from the front with the SAMs, we had no suitable transport aircraftto carry them, so a deal was struck between the French Command and the US Command. One USAF transport aircraft came to N'djamena to carry one SA-6 radar, one SA-6 missile and one BMP (Soviet-made armored personnel carrier) to France, while a second carried the same package to the States.

Ironically, while visiting Nellis AFB a couple of months ago, a US Air Force general said to me, "Hey, Pierre, look on the back end of the ramp. We have a Straight Flush radar, an SA-6 launcher and a BMP."

I said to him, "Hey, do you know where you got this SA-6?"

"No," he said.

I smiled proudly as I told him, "I was in the C-5A that carried it to the States!"

December 2000

In Their Own Words #6: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Lieutenant Yitzhak Zoran, Israeli Navy, received a special commendation for bravery for his selfless and effective efforts to save crewmembers when the destroyer Eliat was hit by Egyptian Styx missiles in October 1967. The citation accompanying his medal for bravery reads in part: "... after the sinking of the Eliat, Lt. Zoran began to assemble survivors in the water into groups and help care for their wounds. He saw that survivors were widely scattered and he continued to swim in all directions to assist them in getting back to the relative safety of the life rafts. He put his own life jacket on a wounded crewmember and remained in the water without one for over six hours in terrible sea conditions. He continued to search for and assist other lone survivors who would not have made it on their own. He was finally recovered by a missile patrol boat, but only after making sure that all the others around him were safe. He saved many lives."

Yitzhak, known affectionately by his friends as "Tze Tze," is currently the managing director of Marathon Venture Capital Fund LTD in Israel and the past president of Elisra.

Forty-seven crewmembers of the destroyer Eliat paid the ultimate price when the enemy was underestimated and the COMINT system failed.

I happened to be on the bridge with the Captain and we both saw it go off. I thought that it was a harmless signaling rocket, but he knew better.

It was about 5:30 PM on a lazy Saturday afternoon in October 1967, about four months after the cease-fire agreement had stopped the shooting in the six-day war between Israel, Egypt, and other Arab nations. I was the electronics and electrical officer on the destroyer Eliat, on a routine patrol mission, 12 to 14 miles offshore in international waters off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula opposite Port Said, the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal. Since the Egyptian navy had come away virtually unscathed in the war, we were there to prevent them from either re-supplying remaining forces in the Sinai or attempting an offshore bombardment of Israel.

The Eliat was a 25-year-old British WW II destroyer that had been taken out of mothballs and sold to Israel. One of a total three destroyers in our navy at the time, it displaced about 2,000 tons and carried a crew of about 150. As a 22-year-old navy lieutenant, this was my first assignment after getting my college degree in electrical engineering.

But back to that signaling rocket.

Visibility could not have been better. The Captain was pointing out the buildings in Port Said that we viewed through our binoculars when we saw the launch from the harbor. Earlier, he had witnessed test firings of our own Gabriel missiles, and so correctly decided that what we saw meant that a missile was headed our way. It turned out to be the first of four Styx radar-guided missiles launched at the Eliat . He immediately sounded the alarm, called for battle stations, and turned the ship in order to present the smallest target to the incoming missiles. In about a minute most of the crew were at their stations and I could hear the chatter of our machine guns firing at the inbound missiles. But it wasn't enough.

By the time I arrived at my battle station below decks at the electrical monitoring and distribution panels, both missiles had hit. The first, with its 200 pounds of high explosive warhead struck near the smokestack, about 30 feet away from where I was standing. By some miracle, I was unhurt - perhaps shielded by a bulkhead. I immediately saw that the lights were growing dim and realized that our motor-generators were hit and losing RPM. It was obvious that we were hurt badly.

All four generators were out, the ship was listing badly, and we were going down. The most horrifying realization was that no one else (except perhaps the Egyptians) knew of our predicament. Prior to the attack, we were under strict emission control. That meant we had not maintained radio contact with our Naval headquarters, or anyone else.

I had to get the word out. Before I could attempt to hook up the radios in the radio room to battery power, I had to find the radio operators who knew the codes needed to validate our distress calls. Back on deck, it took all my powers of persuasion to convince crewmembers to leave the comparative safety above-deck to return below in a sinking ship. They did, but to no avail. We got the radios working, but discovered that the antennas were gone, so no signal was getting out.

The good news was that someone remembered that we had a hand-held, battery operated radio used to communicate with Israeli land forces for training and special operations. It worked, and thus began the rescue operation about two hours after the first missile had hit. That was about the same time that the Eliat sank. The bad news was that the nearest Israeli vessel was four or five fast-steaming hours away.

The ships finally arrived about midnight. But our helicopters had gotten there earlier and airlifted the wounded from the water. Forty-seven men died that day, either killed in the initial blasts, or subsequently drowned. The hundred of us who survived were in the sea for many hours.

What went wrong? Did this tragedy have to happen?

A lot of thought went into answering these questions. Actually, we knew that the Egyptians had the SS-N-2 Styx missiles, but we didn't believe that these were either operational as yet, or that their forces knew how to use them.

Our operating procedures actually depended on both COMINT and ELINT to alert us to such dangers, but that time the systems broke down. For one thing, our COMINT operators (the ones who continually monitored radio traffic) were not aboard at the time. They had rotated ashore, and their replacements had yet to arrive. We later found out that our home based COMINT intercept operators had indeed monitored Egyptian radio traffic indicating an impending missile launch, but they (our INTEL assets) were not aware of any Israeli ships in the area that would be threatened, so no warning was issued.

We were equipped with a relatively capable and sophisticated ELINT system for its time, the tunable microwave APR-9 receiver of Korean War vintage. Using the system, we had seen an increased level of high PRF radar signals, which usually meant military rather than commercial applications, and increased activity. But the Styx was one of the first of the easy to employ fire-and-forget surface-to-surface missiles and its onboard targeting radar did not turn on until it was in mid-course to its target. That gave us less than a minute and a half to react. We probably had been painted by surveillance radars, but there were so many radars operating in the region of the Suez Canal, we were not aware of any particularly hostile ones. Unfortunately, I was there on the receiving end when the first radar-directed anti-ship missile was successfully employed in combat.

The event triggered a level of maximum awareness of the importance of EW in the Israeli Navy, and for me as well. For the next ten years, my sole preoccupation was to help us develop the EW systems we did not have when the Eliat went down; many of which are still in place today. As a result, our Navy was totally prepared for the Yom Kippur War. We now had missile patrol boats and we also had "smart" missiles. We also had the EW hardware and tactics that allowed us to win in every engagement where our much shorter range Gabriel missiles faced the Styx. We sunk over 10 enemy missile boats without sustaining a single hit.

April 2001

In Their Own Words #5: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

CDR John "Germ" Geragotelis, US Navy, is commanding officer of the VAQ-131 "Lancers," an electronic-attack squadron of EA-6B Prowlers based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA, that is part of Carrier Air Group Two assigned to the USS Constellation (CV-64). In addition to Operation Iraqi Freedom, CDR Geragotelis has flown combat missions in conjunction with Operations Southern Watch over Iraq and Deny Flight and Deliberate Force over Bosnia.

The first A-Day (Air Day) strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom, on the long night of March 21, had elements of the routine to it, but weird things come to mind while sitting on a catapult at night. There's no doubt in a Tailhooker's mind that if something goes wrong during that stroke, he is merely along for the ride.

I tossed and turned for five hours, then at 15:45, it was time to get out of the rack. The brief would be for the most important event of my career, the opening strike of the "Shock and Awe" campaign in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). If I smirk at the term shock and awe, it's because an Air Force guy coined it, said it was an essential "kick off" tactic for any war. As you know, the ground campaign preceded the air campaign by two days, proving once again that you should never use yesterday's tactics to fight tomorrow's war. After a quick bowl of oatmeal, I head to the Ready Room to check on our aircraft status and make sure everything is still on track for the big night.

Background for non-military readers: We get most of our information from TV, same as you. When the ground war started, we got the word that A-Day would be two days later. It just so happened that Commander CVW-2, my air wing, was given the overall lead for the first A-Day strike (commander of CVW-2 is called CAG, a hold over from the days when it was a carrier air group vice air wing). As all of you who have jobs know, stuff rolls downhill. So I took charge of the entire suppression effort. That's the Prowler specialty -- keeping the enemy's air defenses, their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and radar, from targeting our strike aircraft. Our first wave had about 80 aircraft directly involved. That's huge. To provide protection, we planned for EA-6Bs from five different squadrons (three from aircraft carriers and two shore-based), lots of anti-radiation missiles from Navy and Air Force jets, and lots of stand-off weapons deployed from outside the SAM engagement ranges. Of course, the plan looked great on paper, but no one knew how Iraq would counter. War is like a football game -- lots of reacting, improvising, and changing on the fly. The pre-game planning was done. We were ready to go.

16:45:00: CAG starts the brief right on time even though the admiral hasn't arrived. Our shoe admiral is fighting a different war. He is charged with defending over 100 Coalition ships in the Arabian Gulf. That keeps him busy. He arrives late and sits beside me in the front row. CAG's brief has evolved into more of a pep talk. He's longwinded, but I somehow manage to keep paying attention. There are some bigwig reporters in the room.

18:00: It's time to walk. I sense that my crews are a little concerned. I'm flying with Creepy, Jersey, and Donny. We've trained long and hard, worked up since June, and yet no one knows exactly what will happen. I have a very competent squadron, so I'm not worried. I tell the SDO to can the REO Speedwagon and put on the old stand-by, AC/DC -- oh yeah!

18:20: I salute my plane captain (PC) and preflight my jet. Realize it is pitch dark out, so even with my state-of-the-art, government-issue D-cell flashlight, I can't see much. The flight deck is a hazardous place, especially at night. My jet is parked so close to the round-down (the back edge of the carrier) that I dare not even walk under the tail for fear of slipping over the side. How embarrassing would that be? "First casualty of war: Clumsy Navy pilot falls off USS Constellation, lost at sea, CNN footage at 11." So I carefully climb into my jet and wait.

18:35: Exactly 40 minutes prior to launch, I hear the loudspeakers blare the mantra that brings kinship to every past and present Tailhooker. It is more of a prayer than a warning. "On the flight deck, aircrews are manning for the Event 1, Case 3 launch [Case 3 means night or bad weather -- unrestricted climb off the catapult]. Time for all unnecessary personnel to leave the flight deck. Those remaining get in complete and proper flight deck uniform, helmets on and buckled, goggles down, sleeves rolled down. Check one last time for chocks and chains and loose gear about the deck. Check your clothing and pockets for FOD. Now start all the go birds. Start 'em up!"

I close the canopies and light off the engines. At night, the PC and I communicate via light signals. My eyes haven't fully adjusted, so I see only his wands. After checking our systems, we are ready to go. The yellow shirt (yellow wands at night) signals our taxi. The ambient light from the superstructure aids in judging motion, but it is still very treacherous, moving a 27-ton aircraft around without any perception of depth or speed. I move slowly at night, especially since the non-skid has worn off from five months of flight ops. It's not unusual to slide about ten feet before stopping. I follow the director's wands to Cat 4. The Prowlers will launch first tonight; the mighty Lancers will kick-off Operation Iraqi Freedom for the Constellation Battle Group.

19:10: Weird things come to mind while sitting on a catapult at night. Very few things frighten me. Of course, I'm not counting those loser boyfriends my daughters dated, but luckily just the sight of a groomed, employed father scared them off. Perhaps helpless is a better description of how I feel, even after 300 night cat shots. There's no doubt in a Tailhooker's mind that if something goes wrong during that stroke -- engine failure, generator failure, gyro failure, etc., or worse yet, a catapult malfunction -- he is merely along for the ride. Most daytime catapult emergencies would be child's play for us Navy flyboys. But at night, if my copilot God doesn't grab the stick, our skill probably won't be sufficient to fly away from the water.

19:14:25: The director's yellow wands signal "take tension" to the catapult officer, and I feel the tug of the shuttle on my launch bar. I smoothly advance to full power and hear the roar of my two engines. "There's one, two, three good wipe-outs, oil and hydraulics in band, RPM, EGT, fuel flow in limits. Ready? [Consent by silence from my three ECMOs] Lights are on!"

I signal my launch by turning on the exterior lights, "touching the deck" as I watch the Shooter dip his wand down to signal our shot. "Here we go," I say just prior to bracing.

There's nothing outside, so I fixate on my attitude indicator and grunt "good shot" as we get slung into black. I can tell a good shot, because my head and torso are pressed into my seat so hard that I can't lean forward. It's the most comforting uncomfortable feeling in the world. "We're climbing," I call after I rotate the aircraft, still staring at my instruments.

In fact, there's no reason to look outside until I am well above 2,000 feet high. That's also when I start to breathe again.

19:20: Northwest bound with wingman in tow. We have an appointment with a tanker about 250 miles away. I can see tons of aircraft while driving up the "ocean parkway" (the name given to the route we take to Iraq). A few years ago, I would have been able to see only some stars and oil platforms. But now, we all fly on night-vision devices (NVDs). We call them goggles. Don't believe the movies; it is nothing like seeing in the day, and goggles don't work through clouds either. Everything appears greenish. Light sources can be seen for miles. They are sensitive enough to pick up headlights, campfires, etc. from miles away. I can see other aircraft from over fifty miles. On a moonlit night, it's easy to make out ground features, such as fields, roads, rivers, etc.

20:15: We arrive at our exit to the tanker track. There are planes all over the place. That's the downside with goggles: you can see everything. It used to be nice not knowing what was out there -- the old "ignorance is bliss" thing. Anyway, rendezvousing on the tanker is usually the most dangerous part of the mission. There is high potential to collide with someone else, because lots of planes are arriving from different altitudes and directions. It gets real sporty when the weather is bad, but tonight is clear. I locate our tanker, avoid a few planes, and join up on the portside, number four in line for gas.

20:35: Finally, my turn behind the KC-10. I "smoothly" make a last-minute full cross-controlled rudder slam to get the fueling probe into the basket. That's my trademark. Not only does it impress the guy/gal watching in the tanker, but it also wakes up my three ECMOs. Just kidding, of course. Tonight they are wide-awake, and all our radar- and communications-jamming systems are checked and readied. "Fill 'er up." Yeah, that's what I say. Pretty corny, huh? 10,000 pounds of JP later we are topped off and on our way north -- next stop Baghdad.

21:15: Somewhere just south of Baghdad. There are scattered clouds below us, but I can clearly see the capital. I can see bright Tomahawk cruise-missile explosions all throughout the city. To the right and left, I can see trails, like Roman candles, streaking toward Baghdad. I cannot see the aircraft launching the missiles, because at night we turn our lights off. We go "midnight" so the enemy can't optically target us from below. Although I cannot see any of the friendly aircraft, I know where they are. We originated from all over the world, from afloat and from land, travelling hundreds of miles, some thousands. We culminate as one tremendously lethal strike force -- on time, on target, on Baghdad. Fox News shows bombs exploding randomly for hours, and it may appear to be a free-for-all, similar to a "food fight." But there is very little randomness in the military. In fact, the larger the strike, the more precise. As I watch six bottle rockets (anti-radiation missiles) fired from two Hornets 10 miles to my right, and as I see the Tomcats above me tapping burner to accelerate at the ingress point, I know our execution is on time. I also know there is no evil empire on this earth that can defeat our awesome Jedi forces. All is good and right.

There's still plenty of work left for my crew and I as we watch streams and streams of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) rising from downtown and suburbia. We see numerous SAMs being launched. None will guide because ten venerable Prowlers are obliterating all enemy radar with a relentless storm of 'trons. But it is still unnerving, especially when we see a salvo of SAMs launched near us. My heart stops beating until we determine that nothing is tracking us. Seconds later Creepy calls, "Break left," directing me to turn the plane as hard as aerodynamically possible. Seems as if a barrage of AAA was exploding outside our starboard canopy. For over one-half hour we jammed, dodging fountains of AAA and sporadic SAMs, watching explosions decorate Baghdad like mosquitoes flickering into a bug zapper, protecting Coalition brethren from all over the globe. It seemed like only minutes.

22:20: There's not a lot of cockpit chatter on the way home. Of course, the radios have been squawking non-stop all night. The hundreds of planes airborne tended to make our controllers very chatty. I fly quiet. The satisfaction of surviving is enough to keep us comfortable as we head out to sea. Feet wet, I remove my goggles to regain 100% night vision, because I need all the help I can get on night traps. If I were only in the Air Force, aside from not knowing my parents, I would have no problems, just a simple landing on a two-mile-long runway. After de-goggling, all I see is black. Tonight there is no Commander's moon, as the JOs call it. In fact, it's darker than fresh cow dung on a moonless prairie night, darker than a dead witch's hat, darker than a black hole, darker than the backside of the moon -- not my lines, but you get the point. It's damn dark.

22:56:00: "503 commencing, altimeter 2-9-8-7," calls Donny, as we push downhill out of the marshal stack.

I ease our rate of descent as we pass through 5,000 feet. I don't want to add my name to that sad list of navy pilots who started their approach too soon and flew right into the water. Believe me, it's not a far stretch. There's nothing to see outside except black, so I padlock on the instruments. I level off at 1,200 feet. Jersey asks, "Hey, Germ, do you have your cheaters on?"

I guess he was sleeping when I announced that 20 minutes ago. After my laser surgery, I could see 20-15 in both eyes, but it's been three years, so I need cheaters (glasses) to see 20-20. Around the boat, vanity is not a welcome sidekick.

They've done studies on stress and found that night carrier landings increase a pilot's heart rate more than any other flight task. No! (Your tax dollars at work.) You think it would be cake after eighteen years, but in truth it was easier when I was young and fearless. At least now I am smart enough to know I'm not great, so I don't believe the seat of my pants (it will kill you at night), and I listen to paddles, the landing-signal officer (LSO) who watches and "waves" us aboard.

I am only ten miles behind the boat, but Donny doesn't see it. After lowering the flaps and landing gear, we slow down to 136 knots (about 150 mph). I drive into three miles and begin my descent. Donny says, "I got the boat. We're lined up a little left."

"Thanks, Donny. Let me know when we hit centerline."

Donny can look out the windscreen at the laser line-up lights, as well as the carrier droplights, which depict centerline. I have to "stay inside" on the instruments. Every night carrier approach is like landing with near-zero visibility, because there is no horizon, no approach lighting, and no frame of reference. Try turning off all the lights, then staring at a small point source. It will start to move, or does it? Or are you? That's why I stay inside on the instrument approach needles until just prior to touchdown.

"503, on glide slope, on course, three-quarter mile, call the ball," says the approach controller.
In case you were expecting the "Maverick has a ball" quote from Top Gun: "503, Prowler Ball, 6.8" is the correct call as Donny states our side number, aircraft type, Ball (meaning he sees a source light, or "meatball," on the glide-slope lens), and fuel state (6.8 thousand pounds). I stay inside on the needles but start peeking outside. When I can't stand it anymore, I look outside and tell my crew, "I've got a Ball, three down and locked."

I'm looking at a postage stamp with blinking centerline lights. I work my butt off to stay on speed, line up, and glide slope. I hear paddles click the mike, and before he even asks for "a little power," I've already jumped on the throttles. Now I'm too high and fast -- better than low and slow, but still not pretty. I squeak off some power until I see the ball starting to settle lower. Experience tells me I'm over the ramp. I don't spot the deck, much. (Spotting the deck means looking at the landing area instead of scanning meatball. Spotting the deck leads to ramp strikes. Those are bad and deadly. The night carrier landing is actually a surprise if done correctly. The pilot flies by scan until the plane crashes into the deck.) I add some power to break my descent, accepting a slightly low ball so I don't bolter. The jet touches down. I go to full power while simultaneously getting thrown forward into my harness straps. In seconds we come to a stop and get tugged back by the wire. I quickly turn off the lights and raise the flaps and hook. As we taxi out of the landing area, I finally take a full breath and tell my crew, "Good job, guys."

Knowing we did a good job is all the gratitude any of us need.

23:30: After post-flighting for battle damage and thanking our fine sailors, I make my way downstairs. Smiling ear to ear, I get stopped by a group of reporters in the P-way. If you saw the clips, you know it's true.

"What was the scariest part of the flight?"

"My landing."

"How do you feel?"

"I'm hungry. I've been waiting all night to grab a slider."

A slider is a hamburger, and it's tradition to eat a slider after a tough night trap.

00:55: "Double cheeseburger?" I ask at the kitchen counter.

There's a powerful energy throughout the ship. No one is watching the perpetually re-run ship movies, just news channels, and everything is going well. We will be launching and recovering planes until this afternoon: 18 straight hours of flight ops, and we'll get up and do it again and again. No planes shot down yet. That's what I care about. Slider and freedom fries on plate, I take my seat. Smiling, messy haired, red mask-faced, sweaty-collared pilots are enjoying lunch. The wardroom is bustling with combat accounts, wristwatches being shot down in all directions. Old folks like myself take it all in, while big-eyed twenty-somethings struggle to contain themselves. This is what carrier aviation, the Tailhook Navy, is all about. It is a night to remember but not a night to dwell on. "Hit the sack Donny. We're on again tomorrow."

"Aye, aye, skipper. Good night."

Footnote: One Long Night in March took place on the 21st. On April 17, the day I wrote this, we transited the Straits of Hormuz, leaving the Arabian Gulf behind. In cruises of the past 12 years, many carriers slipped out of these straits, happier with the fact they were departing than with the job they accomplished. I am here to tell you, this is not the case with us.

In the middle of the night on March 19, two days before the "Shock and Awe" air campaign even started, the VAQ-131 Lancers launched on short notice to support a Presidential-ordered strike deep into Baghdad.

On March 21, the Lancers were the first CVW-2 jets to launch off the USS Constellation for the opening air campaign of OIF. The Lancers flew 90 sorties in less than four weeks support of OIF. No enemy radar-guided missiles targeted coalition aircraft.

CVW-2 strike aircraft (F/A-18s and F-14s) flew over 1,600 sorties, dropping over 775,000 pounds of ordnance, destroying nearly 800 targets in less than four weeks of support of OIF. No collateral damage was attributed to CVW-2.

CDR Geragotelis was also kind enough to provide a declassified after-action report of "A-Day," reprinted below with jargon intact [definitions added].

ATO O, 21 March 2003 (A-Day) Package OBS

Per CFACC [Combined Forces Air Component Commander] direction, A-Day opening strike Package OBS Mission Commander (CVW-2) was also placed in charge of coordinating Package OCS due to the proximity of target time and location in the Super MEZ [Missile-Engagement Zone]. As SEAD [Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses] Commander for OBS, VAQ-131 (2 EA-6Bs, Callsign Owl 08 and 01) seized the opportunity to coordinate the SEAD efforts of Packages OCS and ODS/OES (follow-on strikes to targets north of Baghdad). Together, the coordinated SEAD assets from Packages OBS, OCS, and ODS/OES synergistically yielded a sanctuary for over 60 strike assets, 31 from OBS including 13 "stealth" and 6 conventional aircraft which flew directly over downtown Baghdad.

As SEAD Commander, Owl 08/01 coordinated stationing of 10 EA-6Bs (3xOBS, 3xOCS, 2xODS, 2xOES) and Package OBS ARM [anti-radiation missile] support from 4 F-16CJs, 2 F/A-18Cs, and 4 [UK Tornado] GR-4s including 32 Pre-emptive ARM shots and 6 retained for Reactive targeting. Owl 08/01 also deconflicted standoff weapon employment (stationing and frequency) of 2 F/A-18C (2 SLAM-ER), 8 F-15E (16 AGM-130) and 6 F/A-18C (18 JSOW) employment, and helped deconflict TOTs [Time On/Over Target] for all 28 OBS strikers, originating from 5 different locales including bases as far away as Whiteman AFB [Air Force Base]. OWL08/01 ensured proper jamming alignment for ingress and egress routes of 13 stealth and 6 conventional strikers on deep penetration missions over Baghdad. To ensure best possible accuracy of JDAM, Owl 08/01 devised the early destruction of Iraq's premier long-range ATC [air-traffic control] radar (LP-23) with a SLAM-ER, in order to alleviate the requirement for Band 6 jamming after its successful takedown.

After TLAM initial wave (TOT 1800-1810Z) Owl 08 and 01 were on station from TOT 1815-1845Z jamming in support of not only the 13 stealth and 6 conventional aircraft (OBS) which penetrated the heart of the Baghdad Super MEZ, but also protecting over 30 aircraft employing stand-off weapons, ARM and direct munitions in vicinity of Baghdad and Al Taqaddam. Concurrently, 8 other EA-6Bs surrounded Baghdad, in accordance with the overall SEAD plan, to completely obliterate Iraq's extensive array of EW and cueing radar, throughout the entire frequency spectrum.

At the time of A-Day, Iraq possessed over 70 radar SAMs, the majority of which were unlocated inside and outside the Super MEZ. Due to jamming and ARM, none of these SAMS were able to lock-on and guide on a coalition aircraft.

While on station within 30NM of Baghdad (FL260), Owl 08 and 01 were surrounded by AAA [antiaircraft artillery] for over 30 minutes and in numerous cases, had to maneuver to defend/avoid artillery bursts. On several locations, ballistic SAM launches were observed in the area. No strike/support aircraft except for stealth and conventional strikers with targets in Baghdad, were stationed longer or nearer to Iraqi air defenses (AAA, rockets, SAMS) than Owl 08/01 and the other EA-6Bs. Each aircraft held station until all strike/support aircraft (OBS and OCS) were safely clear of any threats.

Since Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, there has never been a "Shock and Awe" first strike that compares to the large-scale magnitude of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM A-day on the evening of 21 March 2003. The awesome responsibility of expertly planning and aggressively executing the takedown of the Baghdad Super MEZ was flawlessly orchestrated by Owl 08 and 01.

JDAM: Joint Direct Attack Munition
JSOW: Joint Stand Off Weapon
SLAM-ER: Standoff Land-Attack Missile-Extended Response
TLAM: Tomahawk Land Attack Missile

July 2003