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The starboard engine on the author’s F/A-18D takes licking, keeps ticking after a February 21, 1991 Iraqi missile strike. (Courtesy John Scanlan)

“We’ve Been Hit”

F/A-18 vs. surface-to-air missile: Guess who won.

What were two Fast FACs to do?

Cheyenne came up on the com system and asked me if I would be uncomfortable leaving our altitude sanctuary of 10,000 feet and descending to strafe the targets.

“I’m four feet behind ya, Cheyenne.”

Cheyenne quickly briefed our wingman on the strafing game plan over the radio, then rolled inverted and dove for the ground.

What followed was an unnerving ballet of two F/A-18Ds strafing Iraqi tanks and artillery from barely 1,500 feet above the ground as tracers whizzed by our canopies.

We were pulling off a strafing run, and I was contorted to the left in the back seat, checking our seven o’clock position, when Cheyenne happened to glance back at our five o’clock and saw the tell-tale white corkscrew of smoke from a heat-seeking surface-to-air missile. He broke to the right, simultaneously ejecting flares. But it was too late. The missile flew directly up our right exhaust pipe and exploded. The jet actually shook.

Cheyenne—a man of few words—said, “Bubba. We’ve been hit.”

“Yep” (I was not much of a talker either, at least at the moment).

Instantly, Cheyenne pointed the nose toward the ocean. We began climbing back to 10,000 feet. After our wingman visually inspected our jet, he reported that our right “turkey feathers”—the drag-reducing, interlocking metal panels that surrounded the exhaust—were mangled. Other than that, he could see no external damage. We began numerous inter-cockpit checks and agreed to shut down the right engine for the return flight to Shaikh Isa.

We made an uneventful landing and rollout. As we taxied back into our line, there must have been a hundred enlisted Marines running out to our Hornet. They had heard that a wounded jet was returning. It brought tears to my eyes.

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