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)
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The sky was overcast, and the moon had set about four hours earlier. We had flown the entire route “comm out;”our last weather brief, before takeoff, had forecast a 20-mph tailwind from Lampedusa to the target, but instead we were fighting a 23-mph headwind. If the winds were this off, maybe our forecast altimeter setting was just as wrong.

Without afterburner, the airplane’s max speed was 655 mph. Approaching the starting point for the bomb run, we were 10 seconds slow, so I selected afterburner to accelerate to 690 mph for two minutes. The airplane jumped at the chance to go faster, and I had to fight off vertigo to keep it level. When we hit the start point, I turned left toward the target, hacked my stopwatch, and again selected afterburner. Our target run was planned for 690 mph at 200 feet. We didn’t dare descend, but we had to nail the timing or we’d risk hitting someone else’s airplane or bombs.

The target run was a sensory overload. The terrain-following radars gave off an incessant, blaring “fly up” alarm. Even though we did not have them engaged, we didn’t dare turn them off, since the radar scope was picking up a faint return from the waves. On top of that noise, the radar warning receiver was sounding a constant “New-Guy Audio.” The audio was to warn us of a new priority radar threat. The Libyans were turning their search radars off and on and using their beamed tracking radars to search for us. Each search radar cycle or sweep of the target trackers triggered our radar warning. The end effect was like a broken record. I would have punched off the audio but was afraid I’d accidentally punch off something important, like the intercom or radio.

As we approached Tripoli, the sky was filled with tracers and surface-to-air missiles, but the real threat was of plunging into the water. With our unreliable altimeter setting and no radar altimeter, we didn’t know how high we really were, and at 700 mph, it wouldn’t have taken much of a distraction for us to smack the waves.

We arrived at our pull-up point, with 18 seconds to go to the target. Our tactic was to “toss” the bombs, do a wingover, and then remain at altitude to laser-guide the bombs. Just prior to pull-up, I de-selected the afterburner and reset the wing sweep to 54 degrees. At the pull-up point, I initiated a 4-G pull, concentrated on centering the steering, pressed the bomb release button (the “pickle”), and let the armament system compute when to drop the bombs. I relied on my training and acted on reflex. Chaff, pull, pickle, chaff. “Bombs gone.” Chaff/flare, wingover. “18 seconds to impact.” Chaff/flare. “10 seconds.” Chaff/flare. “5 seconds.” Chaff/flare. “Impact.” Chaff/flare.

Just after our bombs hit, I saw a large, napalm-like explosion across the harbor. It had to have been Karma 52, the F-111 that was lost on the raid. Neither of us could afford to dwell on our feelings; there was still too much flying to do. With the bombs gone, I swept the wings back and got out of Dodge as fast as possible without using the afterburner, since it had proven to be an anti-aircraft-artillery magnet.

About 90 minutes later, we latched onto the boom of a tanker with 2,000 pounds of fuel—about 15 minutes of flying time—remaining. We landed at Lakenheath and were towed into a shelter, where a caravan of cars pulled up. General Charles Gabriel, the Air Force chief of staff, was eager to welcome us back. I put my helmet in its bag and started gathering my other stuff: pistol and ammunition, maps, code books, checklists, an empty lunch box, water bottles, and two full piddle packs. I carefully rose from the seat and descended the ladder. As soon as I turned around, there was General Gabriel, his right hand extended.

Our eyes met. It was an awkward moment for me, but the general instantly understood. He immediately took the piddle packs with his left hand, while shaking my now-free right. The first time I met the chief of staff, I gave him two pints of urine.


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