Over the No-Fly Zone
Patrolling over northern Iraq in 2001 felt like driving through a small town with Hell's Angels.
- By Randy Gordon
- AirSpaceMag.com, September 22, 2009
SSGT Shannon Collins, USAF
(Page 2 of 2)
Patrolling around the airspace of northern Iraq was akin to being a roving Hell’s Angels biker gang driving through a small town. By design, intimidation of the enemy through our very presence was a large part of our tactics to force the enemy into compliance. Around me was a fleet of attack, surveillance, and jamming aircraft. As the air-to-air fighters in this fleet, our role was to busily sweep the airspace with our radars looking for violations of the No-Fly zone. We had more firepower at our disposal then most small countries. This was the “new normal” of global diplomacy through military peacekeeping. We were not there to save the world, but to simply function like police preserving the status quo via the threat of force rather than the actual use of force. After more than a decade of no-fly zone enforcement, both sides had become accustomed to the other side’s presence and tactics. Patrol was many hours of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement.
Cruising along at altitude, I noticed a curious formation of popcorn like small grayish clouds that had suddenly formed about 100 yards off my jet. Suddenly, the first string of popcorn was joined by another series just ahead and to my left, except this time I noticed the small explosions that preceded it. It was then that I realized that the Iraqi gunners far below had correctly calculated our formation’s altitude and speed. Now they were just honing their firing solution. My flight lead also saw that we were right in the middle of an Iraqi fireworks display and immediately called for evasive maneuvers. I slid the throttles to maximum power and began to aggressively maneuver. Steep dives and climbs, unpredictable sweeping turns to left and right, large changes in aircraft G force—anything I could do to spoil the Iraqi gunner’s solution.
The anti-aircraft explosions were still going off all around us but over time I could tell that they were gradually fading aft. Soon we were clear of the danger without so much as a scratch. I am now a firm believer in the statement, “Nothing is more thrilling than to be shot at and missed.” In the solitude of my single-seat jet, I laughed uncontrollably for a few moments. It is an awesome release of adrenalin when you’ve faced something you were anxious about and lived to tell the tale.
For the remainder of my NORTHERN WATCH missions, I learned that these sorties were a great test of endurance. Spending several grueling hours in the cramped confines of a fighter cockpit, flying formation, running the aircraft’s sensors, dodging the occasional anti-aircraft fire, and sucking almost 50 tons of fuel from an airborne tanker over several hookups strained the concentration of the best of us. Of course at the end of all this, you still had to land safely back at base. I never had any problems going to sleep after flying these missions.
I never did get my MiG. Then again, neither did anyone else during or even after my deployment to Iraq. Unlike our air-to-ground brethren who have an almost unlimited amount of things to attack on the ground, an air-to-air fight requires enemy participation. There simply wasn’t anything to shoot at. They knew better than to try their luck against heavily armed F-15Cs. I did, however, have the honor of getting shot at by Iraqi gunners on all but one of my missions. I also had the opportunity to fly top cover for a strike against an Iraqi surface-to-air site that had attacked one of our coalition aircraft. The site was obliterated in a massive fireball. Never again would it threaten coalition pilots.
On the last mission, after leaving Iraqi airspace, I raised my fist in defiance at the Iraqi surface-to-air gunners. I fully expected to one day return to Northern Watch. But a few months later, the terror attacks of September 11th would occur, forever altering the landscape of warfare. To date, NORTHERN WATCH was the last sustained combat presence of the U.S. Air Force F-15C.
Major Randy J. Gordon is an experimental test pilot for the “Red Devils” of the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He has flown combat missions over Iraq during Operation NORTHERN WATCH and over Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.