Above & Beyond: Take a Left at Portugal
- By James A. Jimenez
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
Illustration F. Matthew Hale; Inset: SSGT WOODWARD/RAF
Operation El Dorado Canyon, the 1986 U.S. bombing raid against Libya, began for me with a phone call at noon on Sunday, April 13. I was a U.S. fighter pilot flying General Dynamics F-111F Aardvarks out of Royal Air Force Lakenheath in Britain. The caller told me to report with my flying gear to the 494th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which was odd, since I was assigned to the 495th. Flying out of a rival’s squadron could be like a bad date, with both parties hoping never to see each other again.
I arrived around 1 p.m. The pilots were assembled in the main conference room and briefed. For the first time since World War II, U.S. aircraft were going to launch on a strike mission from England.
Although the wing had been involved in planning various attacks against Libya since January in retaliation for Libya’s support of international terrorism, strike plans had been limited to four to six aircraft and a single target. Now, with 24 hours until takeoff, the Air Force plan had expanded to 18 F-111Fs aimed at three targets. (Off Tunisia, we would join forces with Navy aircraft operating from carriers in the Gulf of Sidra, which would also attack Benghazi, on the eastern side of the Gulf.) Three F-111s were to strike a terrorist training facility at Murat Sidi Bilal, six were assigned the military ramp at Tripoli airport, and nine of us (I was to be number 3 in this group) were going against the Bab al-Aziziyah Barracks in downtown Tripoli. France and Spain were not likely to grant us overfly rights, and there was a problem amassing enough tankers to keep us fueled for the longer flight.
I was probably the most junior pilot chosen for the mission. I had never flown below 400 feet at night; our mission called for a run to the target at 200 feet—and 700 mph. I had never dropped live ordnance; my jet was armed with four 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs. My previous longest mission had been 4.5 hours; the planned route around Spain and back would take more than 13. Moreover, I had never air-refueled from a KC-10 tanker, air-refueled under radio silence, or ejected chaff or flares (countermeasures to foil radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles).
Fortunately, I was paired with an experienced weapon systems operator. Mike and I stayed up late planning, then crashed in the base transient quarters, returning the next day, Monday, to the 494th, where we received the latest intelligence estimates, finalized the air refueling plan, got amphetamines from the flight doc, signed for our sidearms, checked out classified codes, and grabbed box lunches. I also grabbed plenty of piddle packs.
After the final briefing, we boarded crew vans. I sat next to the mission commander and confessed, “Boss, I’ve never refueled from a KC-10 before.” He looked at me like Ward Cleaver would at the Beaver. “Now’s not the time, Jim. You’ll do fine.”
Takeoff and rejoin went smoothly, and our armada turned south, flying along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. Just as the sun was setting, I watched as six KC-10 tankers each took on fuel from six other KC-10s, which had just been refueled by six KC-135s. Next to each of the KC-10s gassing up, three F-111Fs waited their turn. Flying south amid this spectacle, I hummed Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
After my 10th refueling, I disconnected from the boom, turned off our lights, and initiated a terrain-following radar descent. At 5,000 feet, we discovered a malfunction in the radar altimeter, a crucial instrument when flying over smooth terrain like water. I leveled off when the altimeter read 1,000 feet—based on the barometric pressure forecast we received before takeoff.
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.
About 90 minutes later, we latched onto the boom of a tanker with 2,000 pounds of fuel—about 15 minutes of flying time—remaining. We landed at Lakenheath and were towed into a shelter, where a caravan of cars pulled up. General Charles Gabriel, the Air Force chief of staff, was eager to welcome us back. I put my helmet in its bag and started gathering my other stuff: pistol and ammunition, maps, code books, checklists, an empty lunch box, water bottles, and two full piddle packs. I carefully rose from the seat and descended the ladder. As soon as I turned around, there was General Gabriel, his right hand extended.
Our eyes met. It was an awkward moment for me, but the general instantly understood. He immediately took the piddle packs with his left hand, while shaking my now-free right. The first time I met the chief of staff, I gave him two pints of urine.