Above & Beyond: Take a Left at Portugal

Above & Beyond: Take a Left at Portugal

Because France and Spain would not grant the United States overfly rights, the 1986 F-111 raid on Libya required a lengthy detour. (Illustration F. Matthew Hale; Inset: SSGT WOODWARD/RAF)
Air & Space Magazine

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.

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