Above & Beyond: Take a Left at Portugal
- By James A. Jimenez
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
Illustration F. Matthew Hale; Inset: SSGT WOODWARD/RAF
(Page 2 of 3)
Our last radar update point before the Libyan coast was a tower on the western tip of Italy’s Lampedusa Island. Our navigation system had been running sweet, but when Mike selected the tower, the cursors fell about one mile to the west. An error during the planning process had resulted in incorrect coordinates being issued to all crews. Mike recognized the error and did not use the coordinates to update our navigation system. His decision was probably the single greatest factor enabling us to hit our target: those who updated their nav systems based on the bad coordinates missed. What I remember most about the tower is that we passed well beneath its top. Just how high were we above the waves?
Between deep breaths, I fretted about a possible recall. What if we were the only airplane not to get the word? Then, as we approached the target, all hell broke loose.
The sky was overcast, and the moon had set about four hours earlier. We had flown the entire route “comm out;”our last weather brief, before takeoff, had forecast a 20-mph tailwind from Lampedusa to the target, but instead we were fighting a 23-mph headwind. If the winds were this off, maybe our forecast altimeter setting was just as wrong.
Without afterburner, the airplane’s max speed was 655 mph. Approaching the starting point for the bomb run, we were 10 seconds slow, so I selected afterburner to accelerate to 690 mph for two minutes. The airplane jumped at the chance to go faster, and I had to fight off vertigo to keep it level. When we hit the start point, I turned left toward the target, hacked my stopwatch, and again selected afterburner. Our target run was planned for 690 mph at 200 feet. We didn’t dare descend, but we had to nail the timing or we’d risk hitting someone else’s airplane or bombs.
The target run was a sensory overload. The terrain-following radars gave off an incessant, blaring “fly up” alarm. Even though we did not have them engaged, we didn’t dare turn them off, since the radar scope was picking up a faint return from the waves. On top of that noise, the radar warning receiver was sounding a constant “New-Guy Audio.” The audio was to warn us of a new priority radar threat. The Libyans were turning their search radars off and on and using their beamed tracking radars to search for us. Each search radar cycle or sweep of the target trackers triggered our radar warning. The end effect was like a broken record. I would have punched off the audio but was afraid I’d accidentally punch off something important, like the intercom or radio.
As we approached Tripoli, the sky was filled with tracers and surface-to-air missiles, but the real threat was of plunging into the water. With our unreliable altimeter setting and no radar altimeter, we didn’t know how high we really were, and at 700 mph, it wouldn’t have taken much of a distraction for us to smack the waves.
We arrived at our pull-up point, with 18 seconds to go to the target. Our tactic was to “toss” the bombs, do a wingover, and then remain at altitude to laser-guide the bombs. Just prior to pull-up, I de-selected the afterburner and reset the wing sweep to 54 degrees. At the pull-up point, I initiated a 4-G pull, concentrated on centering the steering, pressed the bomb release button (the “pickle”), and let the armament system compute when to drop the bombs. I relied on my training and acted on reflex. Chaff, pull, pickle, chaff. “Bombs gone.” Chaff/flare, wingover. “18 seconds to impact.” Chaff/flare. “10 seconds.” Chaff/flare. “5 seconds.” Chaff/flare. “Impact.” Chaff/flare.
Just after our bombs hit, I saw a large, napalm-like explosion across the harbor. It had to have been Karma 52, the F-111 that was lost on the raid. Neither of us could afford to dwell on our feelings; there was still too much flying to do. With the bombs gone, I swept the wings back and got out of Dodge as fast as possible without using the afterburner, since it had proven to be an anti-aircraft-artillery magnet.