We’d had Iraqi radars go active a few times in the last few weeks. Intelligence thought the Iraqis might be testing new radar components they had been working with to upgrade their older Soviet SAM systems.
As with every other occurrence, about a minute later, the Weasel called “SA-3 down.” We all returned to complacency and I broke out my sandwich again. We refueled about every hour and were coming up on our fourth refueling of
Suddenly, another voice came across the radio. Because of its high pitch, I did not recognize it at first as my wingman, who was flying in a two-mile line abreast formation, but I could tell it was serious.
“Mud launch, right 3!”
There it was, out the right side of my bubble canopy. In various briefs, we had been shown videos of different SAM launches so we would recognize what one looked like. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. But when I saw the smoke trail emanating from the Iraqi desert, I flashed back to the space shuttle launch I had seen at Kennedy Space Center years earlier.
After chucking my sandwich for good, I reached down and pushed my combat jettison button to blow off the two external wing tanks. In the face of a SAM launch, our plan, which we briefed every day, was to first jettison our wing tanks to get better maneuverability to avoid the missile. If it later appeared that the SAM was tracking one of our aircraft, we would jettison a third tank, the one on the centerline of the jet, for last-ditch maneuvers.
As I watched the SAM begin to climb, it was apparent that it was not guiding on our two aircraft. If you could see movement along your canopy as you watched the missile, it wasn’t going to hit you. An object on a collision course, be it a SAM, another jet, or even a car, will have no apparent movement relative to you. My mind began to slow down a little and I began remembering critical things we needed to do.
“Rambo 1, naked.”
This call told my wingman that my radar-warning receiver was not showing any radars, air-to-air, or surface-to-air, tracking my aircraft. Since systems do fail, there was no guarantee that the shot was not launched at us, but it was much more reassuring than calling “Mud spike, SA-3,” meaning I was being tracked.