The days had started to blur together. Some pilots had started calling it Operation Groundhog Day. Twice a day, a U.S. E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft would lumber down the single runway at Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey and head toward Northern Iraq, disappearing on the eastern horizon. Twenty minutes later, two tankers, a U.S. KC-135 and a British VC-10, would follow. Ten minutes after that, we would take off in F-15C Eagles (right).
The tactical departure was one of the most fun parts of the sortie. Because of the threat of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), we would take off in full afterburner, pulling the jets into a near-vertical climb at the end of the runway to get us quickly away from the threat. It always amazed me how the jet could climb so quickly when loaded with three 600-gallon external fuel tanks and eight missiles.
Our mission that day in March 1994, as it was every day, was to enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. We had orders to warn and then shoot down Iraqi combat aircraft above the 36th parallel. Two no-fly zones had been operating in both northern and southern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War. Along with a gaggle of over 30 U.S., British, and French aircraft, it was our job to enforce it. On a normal day, there would be F-16s and F-15Es for ground strike, F-4Gs for supression of SAMS, and EF-111s for radar jamming, with the Brits and French providing reconnaissance support.
By the time we leveled off, we were normally passing the tankers that had taken off 10 minutes before us. We’d lock them up with our radars and check our fire control and onboard identification systems, then start talking to AWACS.
AWACS was normally about halfway along the 50-minute, 500-mile drive from Incirlik to the border of northern Iraq. We’d pass him as he checked the systems that were tracking us and checked our Identification Friend or Foe squawks to make sure we would show up as friendly aircraft on his scope.
As the primary air-to-air fighters in Operation Northern Watch, we were always the first into northern Iraq, sweeping west to east, making sure that no Iraqi aircraft were laying in wait in any of the mountain ranges. Once we were on station, we would call “Picture clear,” to AWACS, and the rest of the pilots in the no-fly zone enforcement package would make their way into the northern Iraq AOR—“area of responsibility.”
This was my fifth trip to Operation Northern Watch. The first few times I looked down into hostile territory and saw the patterns of surface-to-air missiles arrayed to shoot me down, I felt a jolt of excitement. Now it was just a daily grind of six- to eight-hour missions.
We were busy coordinating with the other air-to-air combat patrols over in the west part of northern Iraq when the first signs of trouble emerged.
“Weasel 2, SA-3 active, bull’s eye 030/10.”
One of the F-4G Wild Weasel jets tasked to perform SAM suppression for the coalition aircraft had picked up an active SA-3 tracking radar near the city of Mosul, about 10 miles north of the 36th parallel. Since the end of the Gulf War, the 36th parallel was the southern extent of our northern no-fly zone. This required some serious concentration, so I put down the ham-and-cheese sandwich I had just taken out.