In 1990, Edward Smith was an RAF pilot serving on a dream exchange posting, flying the F-16 with the 4th TFS at Hill AFB, UT. In August of that year Iraq invaded Kuwait, setting into motion a sequence of events which would see him flying missions during Operation Desert Storm alongside his USAF colleagues. Ed has kindly supplied us with the following gripping account of flying his first combat mission, along with some background to how he came to be in that position.
The wake-up call came at 4.30am. Bob, the Squadron Intelligence Officer, had been up all night as part of the Wing’s Mission Planning Team. They had been abstracting from the ATO sent by Allied Forces HQ in Riyadh, tasking for all of the Wing assets for the day ahead. His last duty was to call each of the early-wave pilots in readiness for the mission briefing. I stirred from a fitful sleep; it was 20 January 1991 but since arriving at the deployment base in the UAE nearly three weeks before I had been assigned to work-up training and then, as combat operations began, Supervisor of Flying duty in the Tower. Now, I was to join in the daylight strategic campaign but as yet I had no idea of the target.
Although I had been able to see my colleagues depart on the first missions as SOF and more importantly count them home, I had yet to experience the fear and exhilaration of that first mission for myself. Red Flag had nothing on this.
After dressing quietly to avoid disturbing Dave in his ‘pit’ across the room (he had landed at 2200 last night) I made my way to the bus where other pilots were boarding for the short drive to the briefing cabins. There was little talk, just silent personal thoughts. At the briefing room we took our seats according to the formation plan displayed. With the formation consisting of 40 aircraft it was important to understand just where you fitted into the “Balbo”. ‘Fish’, a Lt Col and today’s mission commander, introduced the Intelligence briefing officer and Ground Liaison Officer who told us the latest ground force dispositions (Iraqi situation unchanged and dug-in to defensive lines, and further allied build up along the frontier). Intel. had the latest on known fighter threats (those remaining that had not defected to Iran) and the very significant SAM and AAA defences. That did attract our attention and we were keen to see how far north this mission would take us.
Briefing absorbed us totally for one hour with reference throughout to carefully honed and refined standard operating procedures. We then split up into individual briefing groups of four pilots for flight-specific detailed plans. On leaving the cabins there was time to pass by the crew room fridge to stock up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a couple of cartons of juice before next stop, Life Support. Here we collected pistols and ammunition, G-suits, life jackets and an additional layer in the form of a combat survival vest. We prepared in near silence; none of the usual pre-flight banter, with each other or the technicians. They understood too.
Finally, stripping flight suits of Squadron and name patches we were ready to step out to the jets. The sun was up but low in the sky, shedding a pinkish light across the awesome sight of 24 Vipers in lines of six, facing outwards like two hugely powerful V12 engines.
Each was equipped with 2 under wing tanks on Stations 4 and 6, AIM-9Ms on 1 and 9, ALQ-131 jamming pod on the centre Station 5, Stations 2 and 8 clean and, today, 2 x Mk 84 2000lb HE GP bombs, daubed roughly with chalk slogans from the weapons techs, to bring fire-power to the still graceful but menacing F-16. Completing the load was 510 rounds of 20mm cannon shells for the internally mounted M61 rotary gun.
I was still in no hurry to board the jet. Fortunate because I, like the others, needed what was to become a ritual relief at the edge of the ramp; my last before I would have to resort to the plastic piddle packs for the next 6 hours. My crew chief welcomed me as I approached the jet from behind the massive tailpipe of the incredible GE F110 turbofan, producing 28,500lbs of thrust any time, any place in the flight envelope, carefree. I just thought I might be needing that today, long after the take-off was over.
Around the “wingtip” (which doesn’t exist really; it’s always ‘fenced’ by the missile rail which probably has an aerodynamic benefit well understood by the boffins and appreciated by the drivers), brushing the Sidewinder’s fins and wings, still with the safety pins in place; they would not be removed before the end of runway last-chance check. The power unit is rumbling away ready to provide electrical power to the avionics and supplement the battery for main engine start later.
Climbing the steps I take rations to stowages either side of the seat, gas mask (in case of landing at a forward base up country where the Scud threat is very real) down the left side, pee bags under the seat and bone dome resting on the step. I settle into the reclined seat (much less obvious and more natural inside than would be thought from descriptions of the well-known 30 degrees tilt) and set about a quick left to right scan of the panels. Armament switches SAFE, gear lever DOWN, radar OFF. Battery ON, and select power from the external unit.
After strapping in and closing the canopy the engine is started and a myriad of systems checks follow, along with loading mission and weapons data through the data transfer cartridge. The two multifunction screens and Head Up Display come alive and show that all is ready. This is to be a silent, “comm-out” departure and so at the pre-arranged time the leader eases from his spot, nose dipping as he checks brakes and makes his way to the end of the runway. I take my turn, waving off my crew chief and joining the line of screaming jets seemingly filling this tiny desert base. A crowd of personnel, even at this early hour, line the taxiway route and I am now part of a massive force preparing to take the war to the enemy…
Flying the F-16 was a privilege I did not expect to enjoy. I had joined the Royal Air Force in 1976 and was successful in my training through to fast-jets, operating first the Phantom in the air defence role in Germany and then, with a high demand for Tornado GR1 crews as the aircraft came into service I requested and was granted a type and role change. My nomadic existence continued when I went next to instructional duty on the Hawk but I had always hankered after the opportunity to take an exchange posting. The call came when I least expected it and was delivered by my Station Commander, “Is there any reason why you could not go to the States and fly the F-16?”.
The posting was even better than I could have hoped for, being assigned as a Mission Ready pilot to an operational Tactical Air Command squadron, the 4th TFS Fightin’ Fuujins; most exchanges were to training units. The deal was a nominal 30 month tour including training, and accompanied by my wife and young family. When I’d composed myself again the answer was a very positive “No, there’s not Sir!”.
I arrived at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona in June 1989 after a brief visit to my future base, Hill in Utah. I was to complete a TX course, a short course tailored to introduce experienced fighter pilots to the fundamentals of this truly capable multi-role combat aircraft. Having ticked a few of those boxes in my career to date (including the British version of an MRCA), and being still young enough to adapt to a new challenge, I thought I might just cope.
The course quickly took on the characteristics of a fire-hose in volume and velocity of information. I was learning about the Block 15 A-model, the coal-burner, much loved by all who flew her for being the original, the lightest and the best. In evolution terms and now looking back over the extraordinary development of this aircraft over 40 years, these were early days but it still seemed pretty darn good. After 4 weeks of intensive technical ‘academics’ and exposure to a fixed-base procedures trainer (a simulator being unavailable at the time) I felt just about prepared for the real thing, but in addition to what my compatriots had absorbed I also had to learn how the USAF ‘works’; how it operates aircraft out of and back into a base that was home to 200 F-15 and F-16 aircraft, operating from parallel runways to an array of carefully controlled air-to-ground and air-to-air training ranges. I was daunted at the prospect.
My first flight then was truly my first; no simulator preparation. After spending an hour under the intense and searing Arizona sun exhaustingly staggering through physical and system checks and under the watchful eye of my IP in the back, I was eventually ready to taxi this marvel of a machine, using some of the right words but in a foreign accent which I hoped the American ground controller would understand; they were sometimes not too good at that. On the runway I opened her up to Military power and, with only a little bit of skipping and dancing on the narrow track gear we soared away to the south and my first taste of a new form of flying.
It was like sitting in the open air, the bubble canopy right down to the forward frame was not apparent, just a plain unhindered view of the blue sky and desert floor. But I had work to do. Take it through basic manoeuvres and aerobatics. Begin to feel the G, nine of them available 1.5 seconds after application of full back stick, or at least 25lbs of pressure on a stick that moves an inch at the top.
It is a sheer delight; light as a feather, absolutely direct and stable and the engine delivers power in handfuls. Afterburner in a light configuration on the runway is too much so is not used. With initial familiarisation complete it is time for an instrument approach and into the circuit for landing practice. After a touch and go we accelerate ahead, request permission for a closed pattern and pitch downwind. A 4G pull from about 250 knots into a climbing turn is standard to arrive downwind where the checks are completed (essentially L/G…Down, Fuel…check) and position for another landing. I’m going to enjoy this.
My next two flights are intensive instrument procedures training and more general handling, ready for my first solo consolidation. Next the ‘check flight’ for an instrument grading which like all training solo flights is flown in the A-model with an IP in a chase position; off the tail, up to 1000 feet back and observing the student’s achieved performance. For me it was odd to adapt to this technique.
For the next 23 flying hours there was just no let-up. Basic Fighter Manoeuvres were introduced and practiced, in a much more structured way than the RAF but more logical and progressive. There was always one aircraft with a clear advantage and manoeuvres were set-piece to achieve a ‘kill’ solution or a successful defence. Then reset and repeat until one’s neck was well and truly mashed. Physical fitness training was not optional; upper body strength was vital to survive the course and everyone kept in shape. The attacking pilot had his hands full manipulating the radar via the controls on the throttle, acquiring and locking onto the target using each of several modes on the pulse radar set, the screen of which was tiny and down between the knees. The HUD provided confirmation of lock and weapon sighting guidance for missile and gun shots.
An opportunity was given to live fire the gun against a Dart aerial target towed behind an F-100 Super Sabre; another new concept for me, shooting at a manoeuvring target using a very smart sight. With an introduction to day and night tanking achieved as part of other flights I had to now get to grips with surface attack (bombing and strafe) to complete the course. Using a combination of radar and visual acquisition methods as well as a range of shallow and steep (up to 45 degrees) release angles my head spun through the complexity of weapon selection and sighting to achieve respectable results in two weeks of unrelenting pressure, heat and exhilaration. This truly was a remarkable, if somewhat basic, third generation fighter.
With that I said ‘au revoir’ to Luke and headed north to cooler climes; the temperature had been above 100° F on every day of my stay in the desert but we were going to have to reacclimatise to the coming winter in Utah. My arrival was greeted with great cheer, the Yanks had a new Brit to initiate and convert. Retaining RAF rank braid and headgear I was otherwise indistinguishable from the locals but first I needed a name. My predecessor had taken to calling all and sundry a ‘Wally’. Boomer, my Squadron Ops Officer, thought I might rather be a ‘Willy’ and it stuck, to everyone’s amusement. It soon adorned my beer mug which joined all the others in the crew room bar to be used when the ‘beer light’ was lit on Friday afternoons.
My private welcome by Scotty, my Squadron Commander, will ring in my ears for ever more. With certain restrictions in place on foreign access to National information, there were well known and continuing frustrations for both sides of this exchange. However, he assured me that if we ever went to war I would be given full and free access to all the information available and that I would need to participate as an equal. There was of course no suggestion at the time that these were indeed prophetic words.
Flying familiarisation was sporadic and disjointed, progressing slowly through the fall as the weather showed its hand and also the squadron placed some of its resources in an operational combat deployment outside the CONUS, the invasion of Panama, which I definitely was not going to be invited to join! Hill benefits from having large and unrestricted range space over the western Utah high desert and it was there that I was able to improve previous ability at intercepts, BFM and surface attack; the latter being the Unit’s primary mission. By Christmas I was declared Combat Ready, now with a total of just 50 hours on the coal-burner.
The end of this era was nigh; having been the first in the world to operate the F-16, the Wing had for some time been slated for conversion to the new Block 40 model and crews started travelling back south again in January to undergo the transition. Considering the leap in capability the training was minimal, a brief introduction and then return to unit to build experience. The radar was the new multi-mode APG-68, with Pulse Doppler search and track capability and advanced air-to-air and ground mapping modes. The cleverest is track-while-scan, which allows the pilot to track multiple targets together and launch simultaneous attacks from long range. The side-stick and throttle now became the means to play a whole orchestra of functions.
Once in battle one’s hands barely moved from these, controlling radar, weapons and countermeasures as well as the main modes of the multi-function displays. We quickly became proficient piccolo players and all individual pilot-preferred functions were programmed to the aircraft through the Data Transfer Cartridge during pre-flight planning. Massive amounts of information are displayed and the brain, hands and eyes somehow became tuned to respond to each other and successfully complete the task.
Two weeks after returning from my second but not last visit to Luke, I was tasked with my fellow Fuujin, K-9, to get ourselves down to Fort Worth and collect a pair of factory-fresh C-models. After an evening at a local steak house and staying in the palatial Bachelors Officers’ Quarters we headed out to the General Dynamics plant and arranged a short tour of the famous mile-long production line. I left with the impression that nothing was actually happening but sure enough, a complete F-16 was rolling out of the doors every day. To the flight-line to collect the aircraft from a team of very proud supervisors and workers.
The aeroplane shone in the clear and clean air of Texas. Having signed the acceptance forms I carefully boarded the aircraft, strapped in and closed the canopy. There was no apparent change to my view; the Perspex was crystal clear, having only been used for one check flight. After starting and joining with K-9 we took off in formation and made our way sedately and soberly to Buckley Field, Colorado to refuel.
From here K-9 was getting more confident and arranged with ATC for an unrestricted climb and briefed accordingly. After lining up for take-off and confirming we were visual with the Boeing airliner crossing the airfield, K-9 released brakes and selected full AB. I followed 10 seconds later in similar style, whereupon all hell broke loose. The 120 knots rotation speed was achieved near instantaneously and as I felt the weight come off the main gear I raised the wheels but stayed low and chased K-9 towards the end of the runway. He was just going plan form in a cloud of condensation before rocketing skywards. I checked to see the gear lights were out by 300knots (yes, just) and at 400 knots pulled hard to follow the dot ahead.
Lying on my back in a near vertical climb I burst out laughing to myself as the jet accelerated! At 25,000 feet I rolled over and pulled hard down to near level and set off after K-9 to re-join and continue to Hill. As we reached the cruise at 45,000ft I took time to look over my shoulder and watch my own contrail billowing out in my wake, the first time in this wonderful jet I had had time to appreciate the serenity of high altitude flight.
In the Spring my parents visited us and I was able to show them proudly this incredible fighting machine. They had of course followed my flying career from the beginning, seeing up close the Phantom and Tornado, viewing them with awe and probably with a good deal of concern for my safety. I assured them that if I ever had to go to war then this was the machine in which I’d want to do it. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Soviet Union that possibility seemed to be fast diminishing. We were certainly not paying attention to developments in the Middle East; they seemed far remote from the western States of America.
But then, on 2nd August 1990 Iraq, for a number of political and economic reasons, carried out its earlier threat to annex Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq. The invasion was met with an immediate condemnation in the United Nations. The United States in particular supported its crucial ally and oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, against the threat of invasion and immediately sent military forces to the country. The 388th TFW became a part of that force on 28th August, having achieved a quite remarkable preparation. From having little idea about the detailed geography of the region, let alone in particular, Iraq and Kuwait, the Wing was ready to deploy in less than 4 weeks, taking 48 aircraft and a full complement of pilots, maintenance and support personnel. Loaded with 3 external fuel tanks, ECM pods, AIM-9 missiles and a baggage pod the aircraft made for an awesome sight as they took the runway with the accompanying KC-10 tanker aircraft for the first stage of their deployment.
After a night stop on the east coast of the USA they went on to complete a record- breaking 16 hour non-stop flight to their deployment base in the UAE (where the first KC-10 landed ahead of them and used its TACAN as an emergency homing aid for the tired crews; the planners had thought of everything).
However, due to some significant political and protocol constraints I was initially prevented from deploying with my unit and it was not until the very end of the year that I was permitted to rejoin the 4th. By then the weather had cooled to a much more agreeable climate, a veritable city had been constructed to support the Wing and its aircraft operations and tactics had been refined to suit the expected and agreed modus operandi. The latest model F-16 with its GPS navigation system and superb high-altitude performance was about to prove its worth as part of the coalition forces.
My first mission was to be typical of those flown in the first period of the Air War. The force from the 388th was to be part of a much larger package consisting of tanker support for both ingress and egress, the all-seeing AWACS deployed somewhere south of the border, an ABCCC platform similarly located across the ether and then a sharp-end force of F-15s providing pre-strike sweep, Wild Weasel F-4 Rhinos for SAM suppression and EF-111 Ravens for wide coverage jamming support.
All of this made me feel more comfortable but it was not without some trepidation that I nosed my aircraft along behind Rob (RC), my flight lead, to the runway; he had the benefit of 2 previous missions under his belt. There is a standard line up procedure for a large force. The first 4 aircraft range across the runway 500 feet in, in echelon. The next 4 line up at the end in the ‘feed’ positions. As each lead aircraft rolls (all armed take-offs are single-ship) the feed aircraft rolls forward to the lead slot and another takes the runway. In this way 40 aircraft are launched in 10 minutes; the noise and drama for bystanders or sleeping colleagues is shattering but spine-tingling, I can remember the sound now.
Not a word is spoken in ‘clear’ on the radio and so I concentrate solely on positioning my aircraft in the flow, towards the back of this spectacle. 20 seconds after RC rolls I release my brakes, push the throttle all the way forward through the ‘gate’ and check for AB light-off as the speed starts to build. At 160 kts I ease the stick gently back and the F-16 settles into a 10 degree climb accelerating to 350kts climb speed, in MIL (non-AB) power. I join with RC and the other element for the first event; buddy checks. Easing alongside I receive the hand signal to commence and take my aircraft close up to lead and slide underneath examining from as close as I need to, all of the stores and panels to ensure everything is secure. Completing my inspection, we exchange positions and my aircraft is checked. Then a single flare release checks our self-defence systems are going to be there for us.
The Big Wing is now spread ahead of me in loose transit formations of 4 aircraft each. Onwards to the first tanker RV. I am able to use my radar to monitor the join-up but remain in position off the lead. The F-16 responds to a light touch and feels comfortable carrying its heavy load. Ahead and initially as a group of radar contacts, the tanker cell begins a manoeuvre to turn from a course towards us to a line-astern stack of 5 KC-135s (R models today) dead ahead. They are spaced sufficiently apart and 500 feet vertically separated to allow 8 fighters to join on each. Then the most spectacular aerial ballet begins.
Still not a word has been said on the radio but each receiver in turn slips off the innermost echelon slot on each tanker wing, alternately from left and right, to a close-in receive position behind. His place is filled by the other 3 moving inwards on his side. As my turn comes around I drop behind, ease forward whilst opening the refuelling door and drive directly at the tip of the boom at 3 knots overtake. As I bring the canopy almost in contact the boomer flies the boom to my right, around me and directs the extending section down the chute. Fuel flows immediately and he waves from his prone position just ahead. I have my hands full, maintaining fore and aft, up/down and left right position by reference to the markings and lights guidance on the tanker’s belly. After a few minutes my tanks are again full and I ease back and out to echelon.
At the assigned geographical position the mighty package draws back and makes a gentle climbing turn on course northwards. Now spreading to tactical formation, radars are searching in a pre-determined pattern to cover every inch of sky ahead but already the fighter threat has diminished with a combination of ‘kills’ of and defections by the defenders. The threat will come later in much more potent form. Crossing the border we “Fence-in”, arming weapons and preparing chaff and flare programmes to ‘Live’. F-16s are ranged ahead in clear skies at heights above 30,000 feet, appearing outwardly invincible but my own level of trepidation remains high. GPS takes care of navigation and I have time to keeps my eyes peeled ahead and around for visual signs of trouble. The RWR is beeping away with occasional search radar detections; nothing to worry about yet.
Suddenly, and from somewhere far below, a smoky trail forms in an extraordinary parabolic shape. It appeared to come from below and behind and slowly I realise its likely identity; a HARM possibly, or an ALARM, from another attack package, streaking towards a SAM tracking radar caught illuminating one of us. The missile disappears from view as it goes ballistic and homes to its target.
Peace again but soon however small black clouds begin to appear ahead and above the formation and I become fascinated by the sight, until I realise it is high calibre AAA exploding at the apex of its trajectory, probably unguided but lethal if the gunners get lucky. There is clearly no defence against that so I concentrate on maintaining formation and begin the diving acceleration towards roll-in for the target.
Selecting A-G Master Mode the HUD display changes to give target steering information towards the factory complex ahead and far below. By now the lead formations are off target and calling weather conditions for our attack; “clear”, meaning we can expect to switch from GPS guidance to visual aiming as we roll in to a high angle final dive. With aiming points memorised from pre-flight study and a glance at a photo on my kneeboard I follow Rob as he shows his jet in plan form and accelerates earthwards.
Now, concentrate; this is not the training range. A large building in a complex appears under the aiming diamond and I switch to CCIP (Continuously Computed Impact Point); a very basic aiming mode but effective, as it automatically selects the radar to a ranging mode to give a continuously updated release solution. I keep the aircraft steady at the 45 degree or so dive angle and adjust to bring the bomb line over the aim point. The “pipper” marches up to it and with a noticeable ‘clunk, clunk’ the 2000 pounders release and the jet automatically reverts to its fully capable Cat 1 manoeuvring mode, giving increased G limits. Mach number is high; this is going to take some pull but the jet responds and I am soon heading skywards again.
I had noticed a different cloud pattern below me; this one was made of many white elements and a picture of a ZSU23-4 flashed through my mind. Never mind the analysis now, switch back to air-to-air search (one of many switches under my left thumb) and seek out friendlies and hopefully pick up Rob visually for an accompanied long cruise south to the tanker and home. On the inbound leg post-tanker we press on up to above 40,000 feet, contact the Navy to let them know we’re friendly and after an hour make the long descent to base…
Ed went on to fly 26 missions during Desert Storm, including participating in the pioneering ‘Killer Scout’ programme, providing airborne FAC in the F-16, for which he was awarded both the USAF and RAF Distinguished Flying Crosses. He returned to the UK in 1992 for a further period of Tornado operations before retiring from the RAF in 1995 and pursuing a career in the airline world.
GAR would like to thank Ed Smith for allowing us to publish this account of his first operational mission. Look out for more F-16 related articles which will appear on GAR in the coming weeks.