No. 75 Squadron is a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter unit based at RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory. The squadron was formed in 1942 and saw extensive action in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II, operating P-40 Kittyhawks.
Port Moresby and Milne Bay
In February and March 1942 the Allied position in New Guinea was under pressure and Japanese aircraft had been sighted over the Torres Strait Islands and Cape York in northern Australia. As a result, priority was given to basing a fighter squadron at Port Moresby in New Guinea to defend the town’s important airfields and port facilities. The RAAF received an allocation of 25 P-40 Kittyhawk fighters in late February that were flown to Townsville, Queensland and used to form No. 75 Squadron on 4 March 1942. The need to reinforce Port Moresby’s defences was so pressing that the squadron was allowed only nine days to train with the aircraft before it deployed. Commanded initially by Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey, No. 75 Squadron’s advance party arrived in Port Moresby on 17 March and its aircraft followed between the 19th (when Squadron Leader John Jackson assumed command) and 21st of the month. At this time only four of the squadron’s 21 pilots, including its commander, had previously seen combat.
No. 75 Squadron took part in the Battle of Port Moresby between March and April 1942. The squadron scored its first “kill” on the afternoon of 21 March when two Kittyhawks shot down a Japanese bomber which was conducting a reconnaissance of the town. On 22 March nine Kittyhawks attacked the Japanese airstrip at Lae, destroying 14 aircraft (including two during a dogfight) and damaging another five; two Australian aircraft were lost in this operation though another three crashed in separate accidents on 22 March. The Japanese launched a retaliatory raid on Port Moresby the next day. No. 75 Squadron was in action over Port Moresby or Lae almost every day during late March and April, and was generally outnumbered by Japanese aircraft. As well as mounting their own attacks on Japanese positions, the Kittyhawks also frequently escorted a squadron of United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) A-24 Banshee dive bombers, which were stationed at Port Moresby. No. 75 Squadron’s casualties quickly mounted and were exacerbated by high rates of disease. Squadron Leader Jackson was shot down and killed on 28 April, shortly after he had destroyed a Japanese fighter. His younger brother Squadron Leader Les Jackson assumed command the next day. By the time two USAAF squadrons arrived to reinforce it on 30 April, No. 75 Squadron had been reduced to just three serviceable aircraft and a further seven Kittyhawks in need of repair. The squadron was withdrawn from operations on 3 May after losing two aircraft the day before. During its period at Port Moresby No. 75 Squadron was confirmed to have destroyed 35 Japanese aircraft, probably destroyed another four and damaged 44. The squadron suffered twelve fatalities and lost 22 Kittyhawks, including six in accidents.
The squadron departed Port Moresby to return to Australia on 7 May 1942. It was first located at Townsville and later moved to Kingaroy followed by Lowood to be re-equipped. During this period it also received a number of pilots who had served in Supermarine Spitfire-equipped squadrons in Europe. In late July the unit departed Queensland and returned to New Guinea.
A No. 75 Squadron Kittyhawk at Milne Bay in September 1942
No. 75 Squadron arrived at Milne Bay on 31 July 1942 where it joined No. 76 Squadron, which was also equipped with Kittyhawks. At the time an Allied base was being developed at Milne Bay to both protect Port Moresby and mount attacks against Japanese positions in New Guinea and nearby islands. Japanese aircraft made their first major raid on Milne Bay on 11 August, which was intercepted by Kittyhawks from both No. 75 and No. 76 Squadrons. In mid-August the Milne Bay defenders were warned that they might be the target of a Japanese landing, and on 24 August Japanese barges were sighted heading for the area. These vessels were destroyed the next day on Goodenough Island by nine No. 75 Squadron Kittyhawks. However, on the night of 25/26 August another Japanese convoy landed an invasion force at Milne Bay. During the resulting Battle of Milne Bay the two Kittyhawk squadrons provided important support to the Allied defenders by heavily attacking Japanese positions and intercepting Japanese air raids on the area. On 28 August the Kittyhawks were withdrawn to Port Moresby when the Japanese troops came close to their airstrips, but they returned to Milne Bay the next day. No. 75 and No. 76 Squadrons later supported the Allied counter-offensive at Milne Bay which ended with the remaining Japanese troops being evacuated in early September. Following the battle Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, the commander of New Guinea Force, stated that the attacks made by the two squadrons on the day of the Japanese landing were “the decisive factor” in the Allied victory. From 21 to 23 September No. 75 Squadron flew sorties in support of the 2/12th Battalion during the Battle of Goodenough Island.
In late September the two Australian squadrons at Milne Bay were relieved by two USAAF squadrons, and No. 75 Squadron was redeployed to Horn Island. It subsequently moved again to Cairns for a period of rest before returning to Milne Bay in February 1943, under the command of Squadron Leader Wilfred Arthur. During this deployment the squadron operated alongside No. 77 Squadron. No. 75 Squadron flew patrols over Milne Bay and Goodenough Island, and on 14 May a mixed force of 17 Kittyhawks from it and No. 77 Squadrons inflicted heavy casualties on a force of 65 Japanese aircraft bound for Milne Bay while only a single Australian aircraft was lost. This was No. 75 Squadron’s last major air battle of the war. From August to December the squadron was issued with two F-4 Lightning aircraft for photo reconnaissance tasks. No. 75 Squadron moved to Goodenough Island in October 1943 to support the Allied offensive in the Louisiade Archipelago and New Britain.
In December 1943 No. 75 Squadron became part of No. 78 Wing, which in turn formed part of the newly established No. 10 Operational Group. This group had been formed to provide a mobile organisation capable of supporting the offensives in and around New Guinea which were planned for 1944.During the first half of 1944 the squadron frequently moved between air bases to support Allied operations and was based at Nadzab from January to March, Cape Gloucester from March to May, Tadji in May, Hollandia from May to June and Biak from June to July. During this period its role was to provide close air support for Australian and US ground troops and protect Allied shipping from air attack. No. 75 Squadron was stationed at Noemfoor from July to November 1944 where it conducted long-range attacks on Japanese airstrips and shipping in the eastern islands of the Netherlands East Indies. No. 10 Operational Group was renamed the First Tactical Air Force (1TAF) on 25 October 1944; at this time No. 75 Squadron continued to form part of No. 78 Wing alongside No. 78 and No. 80 Squadrons. The squadron was ordered back to Biak by 1TAF on 2 November to provide air defence for the island, to the displeasure of the pilots who considered that they were “being taken out of the war”. Only 149 sorties were flown from Biak before No. 75 Squadron returned to Noemfoor on 11 December.
No. 75 Squadron and the rest of No. 78 Wing moved to Morotai in the Netherlands East Indies in late December 1944. The squadron arrived at Morotai on 21 December and flew 147 operational sorties that month during attacks on Japanese positions in the nearby Halmahera islands. Attacks on Halmahera and other islands in the NEI continued in early 1945, and No. 75 Squadron also flew sorties in support of US troops who were attacking the remaining Japanese on Morotai. These and similar operations were seen as wasteful by many of 1TAF’s fighter pilots and their leaders. On 20 April, eight officers including Wilf Arthur, now a Group Captain and No. 78 Wing’s commander, attempted to resign in protest during the “Morotai Mutiny”.
From May 1945 No. 75 Squadron participated in the Borneo Campaign. While the squadron’s ground crew landed on Tarakan with the invasion force in early May 1945, delays in bringing the island’s airstrip into operation meant that its aircraft could not be deployed there until mid-July rather than 3 May as had been originally planned. During this period No. 75 Squadron’s pilots remained at Morotai but conducted little flying, causing their morale to decline. Once established at Tarakan the Kittyhawks attacked targets near Sandakan and supported Australian forces during the Battle of Balikpapan in the war’s last weeks.
Following the Japanese surrender No. 75 Squadron flew reconnaissance patrols over prisoner of war camps and continued general flying. The Kittyhawks were later flown to Oakey, Queensland and the ground crew returned to Australia in December 1945 on board the British aircraft carrier HMS Glory. The squadron suffered 42 fatalities during World War II.
By the beginning of World War I in August, 1914, many military strategists had already predicted the possibility of combat between aircraft. At the time, military aviation on all sides was limited to a few hundred rudimentary aircraft that were expected to perform reconnaissance missions, artillery spotting, and courier duties. The low performance of available aircraft at the time made the carrying of effective weapons initially pointless, because their added weight made the aircraft incapable of climbing to altitude or of overtaking any opposing aircraft. Early in the war, there existed a camaraderie of the air. Pilots treated each other with a restrained civility, often saluting or waving at enemy pilots in passing. Piloting an aircraft was akin to membership in an elite gentlemen’s club.
As the value of aerial observation became apparent to ground force commanders, it soon became necessary to disrupt the enemy’s reconnaissance activity in order to wage successful land and sea campaigns. In short order, both pilots and observers began attacking enemy aircraft with rifles, revolvers, semiautomatic pistols, and steel-dart flechettes in attempts to down opposing fliers. As the possibility of being shot out of the sky while on a mission became a real threat, aggressive pilots and resourceful ground crews soon initiated rapid development in both aircraft and aircraft missions in World War I. The three technological developments most noteworthy in the early intensification of aerial combat include the design and production of more powerful engines and robust machines; the installation of lightweight machine guns, synchronized to fire through the propeller arc of single-engine aircraft; and long production runs of mass-produced, standardized aircraft that made possible the institution of formation tactics. As soon as more powerful machines were available, flexible machine-gun mounts were fitted to either the sides or the upper wing surface of the aircraft. This positioning was necessary because the sides, rear, or above the propeller arc were the only safe directions in which to shoot without possibly destroying the front-mounted tractor drive propeller. These early aircraft could not be pointed so both pilot and aircraft were in alignment with the targeted enemy, making for dangerous flying circumstances during an aerial battle. After several experimental attempts, the forward-firing synchronized machine gun was designed and fitted to the cowl of high-performance single-seat scout aircraft. The mission of these aircraft was primarily offensive, and they were employed to destroy enemy reconnaissance and bomber aircraft. These were the first true fighter aircraft. In an effort to protect airplanes on reconnaissance and bombing missions, groups of fighter planes began flying as escorts. Flying out to meet the enemy’s reconnaissance, bombers, and escorts was called interception. When fighter escort aircraft encountered fighter interceptors, an aerial melee, which became known as the dogfight, resulted. The sole purpose of the dogfight was to destroy as many enemy aircraft as possible before they could return the favor.
World War II.
World War II saw the most prolific application of interceptor and escort strategies. Air-to-air combat and superior dogfighting aircraft swung the balance of power and ultimate air supremacy toward the Allied forces. Aerial duels during the Battle of Britain (1940), the Allied daylight bombing raids on Germany (1942-1945), the Pacific Island campaign (1942-1945), and operations on the Russian front (1941-1944) established the doctrine of air supremacy as the key to victory in modern conventional warfare.
Some of the most recognizable and renowned aircraft in the history of aviation have been fighter planes. Many well-known aircraft were designed specifically for the air-to-air mission. World War I fighters included the Fokker Dr-I triplane, the Sopwith Camel, the Spad XIII, and the Albatros D-III. World War II fighters included the Spitfire, the Hurricane, the P-51 Mustang, the P-38 Lightning, the Corsair, the Mitsubishi Zero, the Messerschmitt Bf-109, and the Focke- Wulf Fw 190. MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre jet fighters were used in the Korean War. MiG-21 and F-4 fighters were used in the Vietnam War. MiG-23, F-15, F-16, F- 18, and Mirage fighters were used in wars in the Middle East during the last half of the twentieth century.
The duel between fighter aircraft to gain control of the skies above a battle theater has become a necessary command strategy. Control of the skies means unfettered access for one’s own reconnaissance and bombers to the exclusion of the enemy’s. The basic rules of air-to-air combat established during World War I have not changed since. Air-to-air combat, from its very inception, remains exclusively individualist. Early air warfare tactics were essentially individual in nature, evolved by pilots to reflect their own experiences and personalities and altered to suit the circumstances and the aircraft and its armament. Despite advances in technology, this warrior tradition remains in place.
During World War I, pilots learned that the key to success and survival in a dogfight was to gain surprise and get off the first shot. A protracted aerial dogfight, in which the advantage hinges on pilot skill, higher maneuverability, tighter turning radius, munitions, and greater speed, is not the optimum scenario. Drawn-out dogfights typically end in stalemate or random losses due to some unforeseen circumstance. The primary rule of all air-to-air combat is to take the enemy by surprise. Nearly all aerial kills are the result of the surprise attack, in which the attacking pilot obtains a favorable position, usually high and to the rear, and fires the initial attack. The victim usually never sees the attacker. The average aircraft-to-aircraft aerial duel takes less than ninety seconds.
An effective fighter pilot must not only be skilled but also must be able to apply those skills quickly under the intensity and pressure of a life-and-death struggle that takes place on a three-dimensional battlefield at incredible speeds. A dogfight is not a planned mission. Once the duel begins, all operational order is gone. One of the most common tactics in dogfighting is to force the enemy into elaborate maneuvers that deplete the enemy craft’s fuel supply and force the enemy to break off the engagement, at which point the enemy becomes exposed and vulnerable to follow-up attacks. Interceptor pilots defending air space have an advantage in that they require less fuel. Defending interceptors can linger in their air space longer, and, because they are closer to their bases, they can land, refuel, rearm, and return to battle if necessary.
In modern warfare, weaponry and personnel are likely to be somewhat evenly matched. It has been known since World War I that excellence in fighter aircraft design is more important than greater speed and that maneuverability and weapons technology are the keys to successful fighter design. Often, however, the outcome of air-to-air combat is influenced by factors other than aircraft performance and firepower, such as the pilot’s skill and morale, the tactical situation or mission, the weather, the balance of forces in the air, and intelligence data. Yet, to win a dogfight, the pilot must be equipped with an aircraft capable of keeping up with the enemy and must be trained to use the aircraft to its maximum potential. Superior aircraft coupled with inferior pilots is no match for skilled pilots in similar aircraft. Historically, about 5 percent of combat pilots account for more than 50 percent of all downed enemy aircraft during a conflict. Putting as many skilled pilots as possible into a battle theater is the most efficient way to gain air superiority.
From the beginning of air-to-air combat, spotting the enemy first, acquiring position, and firing the first shot have been the keys to success and survival. Although pilot skill remains an important factor, modern dogfighting is a matter of teamwork and applied technology. With the advent and application of long-range detection systems, weapons, and communications, pilots can detect, coordinate, and attack opposing aircraft from greater distances. In modern air warfare, the side with the superior detection systems usually gets the superior position and manages to fire the first shot. Early detection also allows for quicker adaptation to fluid battlefield conditions. Modern improvements in aircraft armament and sighting allow pilots to reach out and touch the enemy at greater distances and with a greater measure of success. A modern 30-millimeter cannon is highly accurate to 800 meters, compared with the 100 meters of an 8-millimeter machine gun of World War I. Modern air-to-air missiles have kill ranges of up to 200 kilometers and are highly reliable at ranges of 10 to 50 kilometers. Because of these long-range munitions, most modern dogfights often take place beyond the visual range of the combatants.
Bibliography Cooksley, P. G. Air Warfare. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1997. A well-illustrated basic book covering weapons, bases, personalities, tactics, and events in the history of air warfare, with a bias toward British aviation history. Gunston, B., et al. Fighter Missions. New York: Orion Books, 1988. A beautifully illustrated and informative book outlining the modern doctrines of air combat. Guttman, J. Fighting First: Fighter Aircraft Combat Debuts from 1914 to 1944. London: Cassell, 2000. A volume covering the important aircraft and fliers from World War I through World War II and recounting the most famous air battles of both wars. Park, E. Fighters: The World’s Great Aces and Their Planes. Charlottesville, Va.: Thomasson-Grant, 1990. A beautifully illustrated, large-format book that outlines the exploits and histories of the most famous combat aircraft and renowned combat pilots.
Mexico was one of only two Latin American countries (Brazil being the other) to furnish combat troops; Mexico provided the 201st Fighter Squadron, which was equipped with U. S. aircraft and trained in Texas. The 201st served in the Philippines Campaign and had two men killed in training and five in combat.
The name covered all pilots, mechanics, armourers and other personnel who were trained in the United States from July 1944 onward to take part in the conflict—the unit was previously known as the Grupo de Perfeccionamiento de Aeronáutica (“Aeronautical Training Group”).
On 29 December 1944, Mexico’s Senate authorised these troops to be sent into combat. Founded by order 8606 of the Dirección de Aeronáutica of the Secretariat of National Defense, the unit was officially made part on the Mexican Army on 1 January 1945. Its structure was organised as Command (Mando), Command Group (Grupo de Comando), Escuadrón 201 and Reinforcement Group (Grupo de Reemplazos), to be consistent with the structure of a U.S. fighter squadron, though the unit flew with its own markings and remained under Mexican command—Colonel P.A. Antonio Cárdenas Rodríguez (1905-1969) was appointed its commander.
Trained on various bases in the U.S., at the end of their training they were reviewed by the Under Secretary of National Defence, general Francisco L. Urquizo on 23 February 1945 at Major’s Field Airbase in Greenville, Texas. They sailed out of San Francisco in the U.S. Navy transport Fairisle on 27 March, to aid other Allied forces in the liberation of the Japanese-occupied Philippines. On arrival in Manila on 30 April, Colonel Cárdenas was welcomed by General Douglas MacArthur, supreme Allied commander in the southwest Pacific. The FAEM was then given a base at camp Porac, Pampanga, in the Clark Field complex on the island of Luzon, forming part of 58th Fighter Group, V Fighter Command, U.S. Fifth Air Force.
FAEM’s operational element—Escuadrón 201, commanded by 1° P.A. Radamés Gaxiola Andrade (1915-1966)— led 59 combat missions over Luzón and Formosa, of which 50 were deemed successful, making an efficiency of 85%, dropping 252 bombs totalling 1,000 lb (450 kg) and firing 138,652 .50 in (12.7 mm) machine gun rounds, with only five of its pilots killed in action—a high efficiency, since it was only in action from June -August 1945. At the end of the war, the FAEM returned to Mexico, where it paraded on Plaza de la Constitución in Mexico City on 18 November 1945.
A more important form of military cooperation was the U. S.-Mexico agreement permitting the United States to draft Mexican citizens residing in the United States and even to recruit in Mexico itself. As a result, some 250,000 Mexicans served in the U. S. armed forces during the war, with 14,000 seeing combat. Mexican combat veterans received some 1,000 Purple Hearts and 1 Medal of Honor.
The third production P2V-1 was chosen for a record-setting mission, ostensibly to test crew endurance and long-range navigation but also for publicity purposes: to display the capabilities of the Navy’s latest patrol bomber. Its nickname was “The Turtle,” which was painted on the aircraft’s nose (along with a cartoon of a turtle smoking a pipe pedaling a device attached to a propeller). However, in press releases immediately before the flight, the Navy referred to it as “The Truculent Turtle”.
Loaded with fuel in extra tanks fitted in practically every spare space in the aircraft, “The Turtle” set out from Perth, Australia to the United States. With a crew of four (and a nine-month-old gray kangaroo, a gift from Australia for the Washington, D.C. zoo) the aircraft set off on 9 September 1946, with a RATO (rocket-assisted takeoff). Two and a half days (55h, 18m) later, “The Turtle” touched down in Columbus, Ohio, 11,236.6 mi (18,083.6 km) from its starting point. It was the longest unrefueled flight made to that point – 4,000 mi (6,400 km) longer than the USAF’s Boeing B-29 Superfortress record. This would stand as the absolute unrefueled distance record until 1962 (beaten by a USAF Boeing B-52 Stratofortress), and would remain as a piston-engined record until 1986 when Dick Rutan’s Voyager would break it in the process of circumnavigating the globe. “The Turtle” is preserved at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola.
Early Cold War
Prior to the introduction of the P-3 Orion in the mid-1960s the Neptune was the primary US land-based anti-submarine patrol craft, intended to be operated as the hunter of a ‘”Hunter-Killer” group, with Destroyers employed as killers. Several features aided this task:
Sonobouys could be launched from a station in the aft portion of the fuselage and monitored by radio
Some models were equipped with “pointable” twin .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, most had a forward observation bubble with an observer seat, a feature seen in several of the images.
A Magnetic Anomaly Detector was fitted in an extended tail, producing a paper chart. Unmarked charts were not classified, but those with annotations were classified as secret.
A belly-mounted surface search radar enabled detection of surfaced and snorkeling submarines at considerable distances.
As the P-2 was replaced in the U.S. Navy by the P-3A Orion in active Fleet squadrons in the early and mid-1960s, the P-2 continued to remain operational in the Naval Air Reserve through the mid-1970s, primarily in its SP-2H version. As active Fleet squadrons transitioned to the P-3B and P-3C in the mid- and late-1960s and early 1970s, the Naval Reserve P-2s were eventually replaced by P-3As and P-3Bs and the P-2 exited active US naval service. VP-23 was the last active duty patrol squadron to operate the SP-2H, retiring its last Neptune on 20 February 1970.
At the end of World War II, the US Navy felt the need to acquire a nuclear strike capability to maintain its political influence. In the short term, carrier-based aircraft were the best solution. Nuclear munitions at that time were bulky and required a large aircraft to carry them. The Navy improvised a carrier-based nuclear strike aircraft by modifying the P2V Neptune for carrier takeoff using jet assisted takeoff (JATO) rocket boosters, with initial takeoff tests in 1948. But the Neptune couldn’t land on a carrier, so the crew either had to make their way to a friendly land base after a strike, or ditch in the sea near a US Navy vessel. It was replaced in this emergency role by the North American AJ Savage the first nuclear strike aircraft that was fully capable of carrier launch and recovery operations; it was also short lived in that role as the Navy was adopting fully jet powered nuclear strike aircraft.
Covert operations P2V-7U/RB-69A variants
In 1954 under Project Cherry, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) obtained five newly built P2V-7 and converted these into P2V-7U/RB-69A variants by Lockheed’s Skunk Works at Hangar B5 in Burbank, California, for the CIA’s own private fleet of covert ELINT/ferret aircraft. Later to make up P2V-7U/RB-69A operational losses, the CIA obtained and converted two existing US Navy P2V-7s, one in September 1962, and one in December 1964 to P2V-7U/RB-69A Phase VI standard, and also acquired an older P2V-5 from US Navy as training aircraft in 1963. Test flights done by lead aircraft at Edwards AFB from 1955 to 1956, all the aircraft painted with dark sea blue color but with USAF markings. In 1957 one P2V-7U was sent to Eglin AFB for testing aircraft performance at low level and under adverse conditions. The initial two aircraft were sent to Europe, based at Wiesbaden, West Germany, but were later withdrawn in 1959 when the CIA reduced its covert aircraft assets in Europe. The CIA sent the other two P2V-7U/RB-69As to Hsinchu Air Base, Taiwan, where by December 1957, they were given to a “Black Op” unit, the 34th Squadron, better known as the Black Bat Squadron, of the Republic of China Air Force (|ROCAF/Taiwan); these were painted in ROCAF/Taiwan markings. The ROCAF/Taiwan P2V-7U/RB-69A’s mission was to conduct low level penetration flights into mainland China to conduct ELINT/ferret missions including mapping out China’s air defense networks, inserting agents via airdrop, and dropping leaflets and supplies. The agreement for plausible deniability between US and ROC government meant the RB-69A would be manned by ROCAF/Taiwan crew while conducting operational missions, but would be manned by CIA crew when ferrying RB-69A out of Taiwan or other operational area to US.
The P2V-7U/RB-69A flew with ROCAF/Taiwan Black Bat Squadron over China from 1957 to November 1966. All five original aircraft (two crashed in South Korea, three shot down over China) lost with all hands on board. In January 1967, two remaining RB-69As flew back to NAS Alameda, California, and were converted back to regular US Navy P2H/P2V-7 ASW aircraft configurations. Most of the 34th Squadron’s Black Op missions still remain classified by the CIA, although a CIA internal draft history, Low-Level Technical Reconnaissance over Mainland China (1955-66), reference CSHP-2.348, written in 1972 that covers CIA/ROCAF/Taiwan 34th Squadron’s Black Op missions is known to be in existence but would not be declassified by the CIA until after 2022.
During the Vietnam War, the Neptune was used by the US Navy as a gunship, an overland reconnaissance and sensor deployment aircraft, and in its traditional role as a maritime patrol aircraft. The Neptune was also utilized by the U.S. Army’s 1st Radio Research Company (Aviation), call sign “Crazy Cat,” located at Cam Ranh Bay, as an electronic “ferret” aircraft. Observation Squadron 67 (VO-67), call sign “Lindy”, was the only P-2 Neptune aircraft squadron to ever receive the Presidential Unit Citation. VO-67 lost three OP-2E aircraft and 20 aircrew to ground fire during its secret missions into Laos and Vietnam in 1967–68. The ROCAF/Taiwan’s secret 34th Squadron’s RB-69A/P2V-7U ELINT/SIGINT aircraft flew a low level electronic reconnaissance from Da Nang, flying over Thanh Hoa province on 20 August 1963 to investigate an air resupply drop zone that turned out to be a set trap for a Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) C-123B airdrop mission 10 days earlier due to the air-inserted agents having been captured and turned. Next year, an air defense radar mapping mission was also flown by 34th Squadron’s RB-69A/P2V-7U aircraft into North Vietnam and Laos on the night of 16 March 1964. The RB-69A took off from Da Nang, flew up the Gulf of Tonkin before coasting in near Haiphong, then flew down North Vietnam and the Laos border. The mission was requested by SOG for helping plan the insert or resupply of agents. Seven AAA sites, 14 early warning radar sites and two CGI radar signals were detected.
The Argentine Naval Aviation had received at least 16 Neptunes in different variants since 1958 including eight ex-RAF for use in the Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Exploración (English: Naval exploration squadron). They were intensively used in 1978 during the Operation Soberania against Chile including over the Pacific Ocean.
During the Falklands War (Spanish: Guerra de las Malvinas) in 1982, the last two airframes in service (2-P-111 and 2-P-112) played a key role of reconnaissance and aiding Dassault Super Étendards, particularly on the 4 May attack against HMS Sheffield. The lack of spare parts, caused by the US having enacted an arms embargo in 1977 due to the Dirty War, led to the type being retired before the end of the war; Argentine Air Force C-130 Hercules took over the task of searching for targets for strike aircraft.
In 1983, the unit was reformed with Lockheed L-188 Electras modified for maritime surveillance; in 1994 these were replaced with P-3B Orions.
Other military operators
The Canadian version of the Lockheed Neptune (P2V-7) served in the RCAF Maritime Air Command from 1955, as an anti-submarine, anti-shipping and maritime reconnaissance aircraft, being fitted with just piston engines initially. In 1957, the Neptunes had two underwing Westinghouse J34 jet engine pods installed. This conversion provided additional thrust for an improved takeoff, increased endurance by allowing higher weights of fuel and generally improved the overall performance of the aircraft. Armament included two torpedoes, mines, depth charges, bombs carried internally plus unguided rockets mounted externally underwing. A total of 25 Neptunes served with nos. 404, 405 and 407 Squadrons. Upon unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968, the Neptune was re-designated the CP-122 and was replaced by the Canadair CP-107 Argus the same year.
The Royal Air Force Coastal Command operated 52 P2V-5s, designated Neptune MR.1s as a stop-gap modern maritime patrol aircraft until the Avro Shackletons could enter service. They were used from between 1952 and March 1957, being used for Airborne Early Warning experiments as well as for maritime patrol.
In Australia, the Netherlands, and the US Navy, its tasks were taken over by the larger and more capable Lockheed P-3 Orion, and by the 1970s, it was only in use by patrol squadrons in the US Naval Reserve. The US Naval Reserve abandoned its last Neptunes in 1978, those aircraft also having been replaced by the P-3 Orion. By the 1980s, the Neptune had fallen out of military use in most purchasing nations, replaced by newer aircraft.
In Japan, the Neptune was license-built from 1966 by Kawasaki as the P-2J, with the piston engines replaced by IHI-built T64 turboprops. Kawasaki continued their manufacture much later than Lockheed did; the P-2J remained in service until 1984.
Colonel Westbrook launched and recovered planes at RAF Lakenheath for Exercise Salty Nation until 1500 U.K. time on Monday, 14 April. After that time all planes taking off from the British base would be bound for Tripoli.
The F-111F mission crews started gathering at 48 TFW in the early afternoon, and those slated to bring up the rear in the nine-plane raid on Bab al-Aziziyah immediately checked to see if the plan had changed. None of them displayed any emotion when they realized that the plan had not been revised. The airmen then assembled in the crew room of the 494th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) for the final briefing on the critical details of the mission: weather, latest intelligence on Libyan defenses, radio communications, refueling procedures, altitudes, speeds, turn points, radar offset points, aim points, escape and evasion plans, and hundreds of other vital pieces of information.
After the formal briefing Westbrook took the floor and addressed his pilots and WSOs. He reminded them that of the twenty-four F-111Fs that would take off from Lakenheath only the eighteen best planes would proceed to Libya. If a plane developed an equipment problem it would return to base, even if it was being flown by one of the squadron commanders or the hottest pilot in the wing. Westbrook reiterated that the ROE were extremely clear and would not be relaxed. The risks to both U.S. aircrews and Libyan civilians had to be kept to a minimum, and therefore a bomber’s electronic systems had to be in full operating order or it would not deliver its ordnance.
Westbrook concluded his presentation by telling his men that another person present wanted to speak to them. He was referring to the chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. Charles Gabriel. Both events—Exercise Salty Nation and Gabriel’s visit to Lakenheath—had been scheduled well before 48 TFW began its Libya contingency planning. Gabriel had spent the day with Westbrook touring the base, observing the exercise, and gathering first-hand information on Operational El Dorado Canyon. The chief of staff strode from the back of the room to the front, catching many of the men by surprise. He told the F-111F crews that they were not being ordered to do anything they had not been trained to do. “If everybody followed the plan and no one tried to be a hero, the mission would succeed,” he said. “We don’t need any heroes. . . . They’re a liability.”
After the briefing the pilots and the WSOs attended to some very basic needs. They ate a high-protein lunch and packed a substantial “in-flight meal” of sandwiches, fruit, cookies, juice, and a bottle of water and then visited the latrine before climbing into their aircraft. During the long mission, if a flier had to relieve himself he could urinate into a plastic “piddle pack,” which contained absorbent material and could be tightly sealed.
At about 1600 Westbrook and General Forgan, the mission commander who had arrived from Ramstein earlier in the day, drove to Mildenhall where they boarded the KC-10A tanker that would serve as their airborne command post. Aboard the plane technicians were busy checking out the radio equipment that would enable the two officers to stay in contact with the other planes on the mission and with the command centers at Lakenheath, Ramstein, Stuttgart, and in the carrier America. Admirals Kelso and Mauz would operate from the tactical flag command center in the America.
The launch plan for Operation El Dorado Canyon was very complex. Its objective was to put nearly sixty bombers, electronic warfare planes, and tankers into the air from four different bases and do so without tipping off everyone in Great Britain that a large-scale military operation was underway. After the tankers began taking off the F-111Fs and EF-111As would commence launching in a “comm out,” or complete radio silence status. They would join their designated tankers, which would carry out all necessary communications with air controllers on the ground. The Aardvarks and Ravens would fly in close formation with their tankers, and keep their IFF—identification friend or foe—transponders turned off. The Air Force hoped that the strike force would appear to unsuspecting radar operators along the route simply as an unarmed flight of Air Force tankers.
The giant tankers were the first aircraft to depart for Libya. A fleet of twenty-nine KC-10A Extenders and KC-135R Stratotankers began taking off from their bases at RAF Mildenhall and RAF Fairford at 1713 U.K. time (1213 Washington time). The tankers attracted some attention, but with Exercise Salty Nation in progress the British press did not link the departing tankers with the crisis involving the United States and Libya.
At 1735, exactly four minutes after the command KC-10A took off from RAF Mildenhall, the first wave of eight F-111Fs began launching from their base at RAF Lakenheath. The Puffy element was the first to get airborne, since its target, the Tripoli Military Airfield, was the farthest away. Other F-111Fs followed at twenty-second intervals. If everything worked according to plan, in exactly six-and-a-half hours the crew of the lead Puffy aircraft would streak over the tarmac of the Tripoli airfield and drop twelve 500-pound bombs on a row of 1l-76 Candid transport planes. At 1805 the second wave of sixteen F-111Fs started taking off and, at 1831, the first of five EF-111As launched from RAF Upper Heyford. One of the Ravens was a mission spare.
The Aardvarks, Ravens, and tankers passed north of London, rendezvoused over southern England, and formed into their flight cells. The task force then proceeded southwestward toward the Atlantic. For ninety minutes the twenty-four F-111F crews checked and rechecked their aircraft systems and reported the results to their squadron commanders to ensure that the eighteen best planes continued the mission to Tripoli. The other six planes with their bitterly disappointed crews would return to Lakenheath. The departure of the unneeded aircraft would reduce the number of F-111Fs and EF-111As per tanker from four to three—one on each of the tanker’s wings and one under the tanker’s belly.
Near Land’s End the six F-111Fs (Remit-34, Elton-42, Karma-54, Jewell-64, Puffy-14, and Lujac-21), and one EF-111A (Harpo-75) were ordered to return to their bases. The strike force had seven fewer planes but it was nevertheless a sizeable armada, consisting of eighteen bombers, four electronic warfare planes, and twenty-nine tankers. Fliers called a force this size a “gorilla package.” Following the departure of the spare planes the force turned south across the Bay of Biscay. Flying over three hundred knots at an altitude of twenty-six thousand feet, the planes commenced their first in-flight refueling operation.
The dangerous operation was choreographed in advance to eliminate the need for radio communications. As the lead plane in each cell approached the KC-10A’s fueling boom, the other aircraft waited their turn in close formation. At night in radio silence the boom operator, who was lying face down inside the tanker, coached the pilot of the lead plane into position by flashing small signal lights located on the underbelly of the tanker. Once the plane was in position the boom operator guided the fuel probe into the receptacle located behind the cockpit of the fighter. After topping off his fuel tanks the pilot disengaged and slipped to the side, making way for the next customer. In the words of one 48 TFW pilot, in-flight refueling conducted at night with no radio communications was simple. It’s “just like day refueling,” he said, “except you can’t see a fucking thing!” Subsequent refuelings en route to Libya would take place off the coasts of Portugal, Algeria, and Tunisia.
During the long flight to Tripoli each pilot and WSO continuously evaluated his plane’s combat systems and electronics suite. They performed a comprehensive “fence check,” which automatically inspected the inertial navigation system, the terrain-following radar, the attack radar, the self-defense electronic warfare equipment, the Pave Tack FLIR and laser designator, and the switches on the weapons release panel. The crewmen held their breath each time they performed one of the checks. If a problem was detected they would have to abort the mission, considering the stringent rules of engagement. “The hope in every cockpit was that no last-second, hair-on-fire major malfunction would occur,” noted Colonel Venkus. If a problem cropped up it could mean a fourteen-hour, butt-numbing ride for nothing.
The arduous flight put extraordinary demands on the skill and endurance of every cockpit crew. “That’s a long way to fly formation,” the pilot of Remit-31 said. “My arm got tired. My neck got tired. . . . From time to time I would turn on the autopilot just to give myself a rest, but it couldn’t hold formation for very long.”
Earlier in the day, at approximately 1030 local time, the America and the Coral Sea battle groups had commenced high-speed transits from the Tyrrhenian Sea to their scheduled operating areas north of the Tripoli FIR. The Coral Sea and her escorts sprinted through the Straits of Messina, while the America battle group swept around the west coast of Sicily and passed south of Malta. Battle Force Zulu was operating under EMCON Alpha, the complete shutdown of all radios and radars. Mauz hoped that the combination of speed and strict radio silence combined with the onset of darkness would foil the Soviet surveillance vessels that were prowling the central Mediterranean in search of the American fleet. Both battle groups successfully eluded an intelligence-gathering trawler, a Sovremennyy-class destroyer, and a modified Kashin-class DDG that were operating near Sicily and a pair of Soviet IL-38 May patrol aircraft that were flying out of their temporary base in Libya.
While the carriers steamed to their launch areas—the America to the west and the Coral Sea to the east, in a line approximately 180 miles off the coast of Libya—flight deck crews spotted, fueled, and armed the “go birds,” and maintenance crews and electronics technicians performed preflight checks on each aircraft. For the attack planes “go” criteria meant a fully operational bombing and navigation system, mode IV IFF system, chaff dispenser, and radar homing and warning (RHAW) system. The chaff and RHAW systems were used for defense against enemy SAMs. Ordnancemen stenciled bombs with personal messages on behalf of friends or loved ones back home or slogans such as “To Muammar: For all you do, this bomb’s for you” or “I’d fly 10,000 miles to smoke a camel.” Meanwhile, the nuclear attack submarines Dallas (SSN 700) and Dace (SSN 607) established an invisible barrier to block Libya’s fleet of six Soviet-built Foxtrot-class diesel-electric submarines from reaching the battle force.
Consulting Congress, Notifying the Soviets, and Coping with the Media
At 1600 Washington time, President Reagan and his senior national security advisers met with House and Senate leaders to brief them on Operation El Dorado Canyon. “At the conclusion of this meeting, I could call off the operation,” Reagan emphasized. “I am not presenting you with a fait accompli. We will decide in this meeting whether to proceed.” After Reagan and his advisers spoke and after each congressional leader had an opportunity to ask questions and express his concerns about the operation, the president asked if any of the senators or representatives believed that the operation should be canceled. None did. Reagan thanked them for their support and cautioned them about the sensitivity of the information contained in the briefing. After the meeting the lawmakers avoided making comments to reporters that might jeopardize the operational security of the mission.
The Reagan administration waited until the mission was well underway to notify the Soviet government. The Soviet chargé d’affaires in Washington was called to the State Department where Secretary of State Shultz apprised him of the evidence of Libyan involvement in the West Berlin terrorist bombing, informed him of the operation, and assured him that the impending raid was in no way directed against his country.
Inevitably, several journalists examined the circumstantial evidence—Task Force 60 was at sea, Ambassador Walters had completed a tour of allied capitals, and Reagan had just conducted a high-level meeting with congressional leaders—and concluded that an attack was imminent. The flood of news reports coming out of Washington had a very unsettling effect on the aviators of Task Force 60. Commander Stumpf described their reactions thus: “These broadcasts listed target areas and proposed target times, which coincided almost exactly with the actual missions. Many believed chances for success without significant losses had been seriously jeopardized, since a major tactical feature of the strikes was the element of surprise. There was talk of postponing everything until whoever was compromising this vital information could be throttled. Aircrews whose missions would involve flying within enemy SAM envelopes were particularly alarmed by this breach of security.” Fortunately, the press was discussing U.S. military options and probable Libyan targets in very general terms. Crowe was confident that the element of surprise had been preserved. He remarked that “while there was a great deal of talk in the newspapers about the raid and so forth, we went to some effort, and I think we were successful in concealing the time of the raids and the actual targets.” Also reassuring was the fact that the press was focusing its attention on Kelso’s Sixth Fleet, not on the gorilla package plodding southward over the Atlantic.
Closing in on Libya
Shortly after midnight Tripoli time, on 15 April (1700 Washington time on 14 April), the carriers went to flight quarters. The America and the Coral Sea began catapulting their planes into the dark, moonless night at 0045 and 0050, respectively. The America launched six A-6Es and eight SAM-suppression A-7Es. A seventh A-6E developed a problem with its TRAM system and aborted on the flight deck. The Coral Sea launched eight Intruders and a half-dozen anti-SAM F/A-18s, but two A-6Es aborted due to malfunctions with their RHAW and TRAM systems. The carriers also launched other crucial support aircraft: four EA-6Bs and two EA-3Bs for the suppression of the Libyan air defense network; F-14s and F/A-18s for protection of the Tripoli and Benghazi strike groups, defense of the battle force, and support of SAR operations; E-2Cs—a pair for each target sector—for strike coordination, long-range surveillance, CAP control, and SAR coordination; KA-6D and KA-7 tankers for in-flight refueling; and SH-3 helicopters for “lifeguard” duty during launch and recovery cycles and potential SAR missions. In all more than seventy aircraft were launched from the two carriers. Although America-based aircraft flew primarily in support of the Air Force attack on Tripoli, three EA-6Bs and two A-7Es from CVW-1 supported the Navy strike on targets in the Benghazi area.
Flight deck personnel, air controllers, and aircrews carried out the launch in radio silence and with radars in standby or “non-radiate” status. Both launch cycles were completed by 0124. All aircraft planned to operate “zip-lip” until they reached the radar horizon of the Libyan air defense network.
Meanwhile, as the Air Force planes arrived over the western Mediterranean, the pilot of Remit-31 realized that the strike force had fallen more than ten minutes behind schedule and, during a routine radio check, called out the word “time” to draw attention to the fact that the mission was running late. The situation had to be corrected immediately or the entire operation would be placed in extreme jeopardy. In a strike mission employing two separate forces timing is critical, because all surprise vanishes as soon as the first piece of ordnance explodes. If the Navy attacked the Benghazi targets on time but the Air Force planes were late, the Libyan defenders would be fully alerted by the time the F-111Fs arrived over Tripoli. Furthermore, if the bombers were late getting to Tripoli the effects of the Navy SAM suppression efforts would be nullified.
The Tripoli strike force could have fallen behind schedule for a number of possible reasons. It took the EF-111As more time than planned to join the formation. The KC-135Rs experienced difficulties refueling the KC-10As, which caused the formation to slow down. The formation encountered headwinds stronger than forecasted. Perhaps the best explanation was that tanker crews routinely use air speed when planning their missions, while fighter crews rely on ground speed. The latter more accurately tracks a plane’s progress along a planned route, because it takes into account prevailing winds. Air speed equals ground speed only when no wind is present. Furthermore, during the final planning efforts no one from 48 TFW made it absolutely clear to the tankers that the bomber drop-off points in the central Mediterranean had to be reached on time. With drop-off points less than two hours away, urgent action needed to be taken to get the formation back on schedule. Agreeing with a recommendation from one of Westbrook’s staff officers, Forgan ordered the task force to increase speed and shave some distance off the planned route by cutting the next turn. These actions eventually made up the lost ten minutes, but the increased speed made the next refueling extremely difficult, since F-111F controls become very sensitive—or “goosey,” in fighter pilot jargon—at higher speeds. Venkus described the mood in the cockpits of the F-111Fs during this nerve-wracking phase of the transit to Libya: “As the delicate refueling maneuvers continued at airspeeds approaching four hundred knots, some F-111 crews silently cursed the tanker crews whom they mistakenly blamed for the entire problem. But they also breathed a sigh of relief as it became clear that they would make, though barely, their planned drop-off times. Because of the error, they would be operating at airspeeds much higher than normal for up to two hours. Flying night formation and refueling at these speeds was anything but fun.”
Off the coast of Tunisia the F-111Fs and EF-111As took their fourth and final pre-attack drinks from the tankers, still flying at twenty-six thousand feet. It was necessary to top off to ensure that the bombers had enough fuel to find their tankers in the dark or, if they were damaged during the raid, to fly clear of enemy territory. As each plane finished it dropped away from its tanker and started a gradual descent to its attack altitude of a few hundred feet.
Meanwhile, back at Lakenheath at less than an hour before TOT, General Gabriel, Lt. Gen. John Shaud (an officer on Gabriel’s staff), and General McInerney entered the wing’s command post to monitor the attack. Until about 1500 U.K. time the command post had operated in a normal exercise mode. At two hours before takeoff British personnel were asked to leave and status boards containing operational information about the mission were uncovered. The Statue of Liberty Wing was now operating on a combat footing.
Puffy-11, the plane slated to be the first to cross into Libyan territory, left its tanker at 0114, Tripoli time. With five F-111Fs trailing behind it Puffy-11 rushed toward the Tripoli Military Airfield, more than 350 miles away. The other F-111Fs formed into their attack groups after topping off their tanks: nine planes for Aziziyah and three for Murat Sidi Bilal. As the bombers neared Tripoli some Air Force crews detected the silhouettes of SAM-busting A-7Es from the America moving into their firing positions. When he reached fifty miles from the beach the pilot of Puffy-11 turned off his navigation lights, armed his 500-pound bombs, and performed a final test of his plane’s systems. Once over land he would depend on the TFR to carry him safely over the desert landscape that was speeding below. At 0152 Puffy-11 crossed the beach. The plane was southeast of Tripoli, sneaking up on the airfield through the back door. Just moments before that the WSO in Puffy-11 had updated the plane’s inertial navigation system (INS) by locking on to an offset aim point (OAP), a natural or manmade geographical feature discernible on his radar. Updating the INS before the plane entered Libyan territory was crucial, because the F-111F’s navigational system has an error rate of a quarter mile every hour.
Meanwhile, equipment failure and pilot error had reduced the Aziziyah strike force to seven planes before the force reached the Tripoli target area. In Elton-44 the pilot completed the fourth refueling but did not break off until his tanker had turned toward its holding station located near Sicily. The pilot should have directed the tanker southward to facilitate his reaching the drop-off point on time. He realized that he could not reach the target on time without depleting his safety margin of excess fuel. He had no choice but to abort the mission, thus depriving the Aziziyah raiding force of one fully operational jet. Just before reaching Tripoli Elton-41 suffered a major equipment malfunction and it, too, had to abort. Additionally, one of the EF-111As, Harpo-72, experienced an equipment failure and was unable to carry out its mission.
On the evening of 14 April the attention of the Qaddafi regime was still focused on the carriers of Task Force 60, not the F-111Fs approaching from the west, but that was about to change. As the F-111Fs and their support aircraft traveled the long way in getting to Libya, they were detected by early-warning radars in several countries. While the radar operators in France, Spain, and Portugal kept silent, their counterparts in Italy alerted Malta, a country sympathetic to Qaddafi. About thirty minutes before the strike the Maltese warned Tripoli of a formation of U.S. Air Force planes flying over the central Mediterranean. Nevertheless, this new information apparently had little impact on the level of readiness of Libyan air defenses. “The steady sequence of building pressure from 3 to 14 April did not produce increased Libyan vigilance but fatigue,” observed military historian Daniel Bolger, the author of Americans at War, 1975-1986: An Era of Violent Peace. “Tripoli evidently ignored the flurry of late afternoon and early evening conjectures as the American forces assembled.”
At 0150 Tripoli time, while the F-111Fs and A-6Es hugged the deck and bore down on their targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, the jammers and SAM busters went to work against what Secretary of the Navy Lehman described as “one of the most sophisticated and thickest” air defense systems in the world.30 EF-111As and EA-6Bs began smothering Libyan air search radars with powerful electronic noise, and a couple of minutes later the pilots of the A-7Es and F/A-18s, who knew the locations and operating frequencies of most of the Libyan SAM radar sets, began unleashing a devastating barrage of HARM and Shrike missiles. The missiles knocked out radars serving SA-2 Guideline, SA-3 Goa, SA-6 Gainful, SA-8 Gecko, and French-built Crotale SAM batteries, and opened paths for the attacking aircraft. Sixteen HARMs and eight Shrikes were fired at Tripoli air defenses; twenty HARMs and four Shrikes were launched at radar sites in Benghazi. The exploding warheads devastated active radar sites, shredding delicate antennas and raining hot, jagged fragments on support equipment and control facilities.
The operators of the SA-5 battery at Surt did not activate their radar until the strike aircraft had completed their attack runs and were outbound over the Mediterranean. Most likely the operators elected to stay out of the action, having learned their lesson the hard way on the night of 24–25 March.
Meanwhile, the mission commander of an America-based E-2C described the exhilaration he felt the moment he switched his AN / APS-125 radar from standby to radiate: “The excitement really started . . . when we actually started picking up the people on our systems, when we started seeing these guys coming in from the western Mediterranean. . . . One of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen is that large number of Air Force aircraft come in. Their timing was incredible—right on the money, within seconds of when they were supposed to be there.”
Comdr. Jay Johnson, commander of America-based CVW-1, observed firsthand the state of Libyan readiness from the cockpit of his F-14 at his MiG CAP station twenty-five miles from Tripoli: “I came in at a low altitude and popped up on the clock and said, ‘Holy Cow, this is a city that’s asleep!’ . . . They didn’t have a clue.” Streetlights were shining in both Tripoli and Benghazi, and in the capital floodlights bathed the largest buildings and the minarets of the central mosque. Stumpf discovered that the Libyans had not extinguished the runway lights of the Benina Airfield, “which provided a visual beacon for the bombing runs.” The shining street and runway lights could have led one to conclude that the Libyans did not think an attack was imminent, but the element of surprise did not last long.
As the bombers approached their targets the Libyans threw up a dense volume of SA-2s, SA-3s, SA-6s, SA-8s, Crotales, and radar-guided ZSU-23/4 AAA. To the low flying F-111Fs and A-6Es the most deadly threats in Qaddafi’s arsenal were the Crotales and AAA, both of which were far more capable against low-altitude targets than any of the Soviet-built SAMs. Luckily, most of the SAMs were not guided, thanks to the effectiveness of the U.S. jammers and ARM-firing aircraft. Errant missiles and wild AAAs streaked through the black skies over Tripoli and Benghazi, having little effect except to paint a terrifyingly surreal nocturne for the Air Force and Navy bomber crews as they bore down on their targets. “Once we proceeded inbound to the target, there were a couple of SAMs launched,” an A-6E pilot heading for Benina observed. “We were lit up, so they were looking for us, and they were shooting at us, but as far as I could tell. . . [the missiles] weren’t guiding.”
As seven F-111Fs pressed their attack on Bab al-Aziziyah at an altitude of a couple hundred feet and 600 miles per hour, adrenaline was pumping and tension was palpable in each cockpit. Several concerns occupied the thoughts of the pilot of the lead plane, Remit-31. He worried about the performance of the terrain-following radar, so he constantly monitored its performance to make sure it did not fly his plane into the ground. He worried that he was not going fast enough and would arrive late over the target, so he kept his hand on the throttle to adjust air speed. He worried that the wind over the target might have shifted, thus obscuring aim points for the bombers following him. He worried that his WSO would not be able to locate the radar offset point—an operation crucial to the success of the mission. And he worried about the Navy SAM-busters taking up their positions on time. “I had no idea whether the Navy had launched,” he said. “The first time I ever saw or heard another airplane was forty seconds prior to my bomb release, when I looked up and saw a Navy A-7 firing a Shrike at a radar emitter. And boy that gave me a warm, fuzzy, good feeling inside.”
A few moments later the instruments on the pilot’s console in Remit-31 indicated that the plane was 71,000 feet from Qaddafi’s headquarters-residence building. As the plane roared over Tripoli harbor the pilot noticed several boats firing off flares. At just that moment a beeping sound went off in his headset, which indicated that he was being tracked by Libyan fire control radar. To evade the radar he descended to an even lower altitude which, although a good tactic, made it more difficult for his WSO to acquire his radar offset point—a set of piers in the harbor—on his radarscope. The WSO had loaded into the F-111F’s computer the precise bearing and range of the aim point from the piers. If the WSO could lock his radar on to the offset point the computer would steer the plane automatically to the target. Therefore, for their attack to have any chance of success, it was essential that he find the piers. The plane’s current speed and altitude made the task extremely difficult. He urged his pilot to pull up, but an instant later he located the offset aim point. “Yeah, we’re looking good,” he told his partner. He was confident that they were heading for Aziziyah.
While Remit-31 was closing in on Aziziyah a number of network TV correspondents in Tripoli spoke over open telephone lines with their anchors back in the United States. It was exactly 0200 in the Libyan capital and 1900 on the East Coast. NBC correspondent Steve Delaney reported hearing the roar of a jet outside the window of his hotel room. Seconds later, millions of viewers of NBC Nightly News heard explosions and the crackle of gunfire. “Tom, Tripoli is under attack!” Delaney told Tom Brokaw, the anchorman in New York.
At the command center in the Pentagon Admiral Crowe and Secretary of Defense Weinberger waited for reports from CINCEUR headquarters in Germany and from the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. In the meantime they listened to the CNN correspondent in Tripoli describe the city as calm and quiet but very tense. Suddenly the reporter shouted, “I’m hearing bombs and gunfire! . . . I can see rockets! I think there’s an attack going on!” Crowe and Weinberger broke out in wide smiles. The strike was right on time.
As Remit-31 hurtled toward Aziziyah, the pilot asked his WSO for the range to the target. At first the WSO could not respond, because he had not yet located the target building using the FLIR camera mounted beneath the aircraft. “Range!” demanded the pilot. An instant later the WSO replied: “Target direct.” On his FLIR screen he could see Qaddafi’s headquarters-residence building with the air-conditioning unit centered on the roof. As the range to the building ticked down to twenty-three thousand feet, the WSO warned his pilot, “Ready.” When the range hit twenty-three thousand feet the WSO shouted, “Pull!” The pilot immediately initiated a Pave Tack Toss, pulling the nose of his plane up sharply and sending the four-ton payload straight to the heart of Qaddafi’s terror network. After the bombs were released the pilot wrenched his plane into a 4G left-hand turn. As he was the first plane over Aziziyah he had the luxury of making his attack before the Libyan defenders were fully alerted. Nevertheless, as he performed the evasive maneuver he watched as a stream of ZSU-23 tracers tried in vain to catch the bomber’s tail. To evade the AAA the pilot turned even tighter.
While the pilot performed the toss and escape maneuvers the WSO kept his head buried in his FLIR screen, struggling to keep the laser beam fixed on the target. He was able to hold the beam on the target until a second before impact. At that instant the plane’s sharp turn caused the laser to slip from the target. “You pulled too hard!” the WSO shouted. For the last second of their flight the bombs were in an unguided free fall. That single second made all the difference between a direct hit and an extremely near miss. At the stroke of 0200, four 2,000-pound bombs impacted a few yards from the building that served as Qaddafi’s headquarters and living quarters.
After the bombs hit the pilot immediately sought the safety of a lower altitude. “I’m going down,” he told his WSO, pushing the plane down to three hundred feet. “We hit ’em big time!” the WSO reported, his FLIR screen filling with billowing smoke and dust. Remit-31 was back over the Mediterranean in less than a minute. He reported “feet wet”—meaning he was flying safely away from the Libyan coast—to the Navy E-2C and the Air Force command KC-10A, then followed his statement with the code word “tranquil tiger,” which indicated a successful attack.
Realizing he was a few seconds behind schedule, the pilot of Remit-32 frequently used his afterburner to make up the time. He had almost reached the point twenty-three thousand feet from the aim point and was about to perform the Pave Tack Toss but was forced to abort when, at the last instant, his WSO realized he was targeting the wrong aim point—a problem caused by an equipment failure that had gone undetected. The pilot retained the four 2,000-pound bombs, took manual control of the aircraft, and performed a highspeed, low-level escape from downtown Tripoli. Remit-32 barely eluded the determined efforts of Libyan gunners, whose notice was attracted by his excessive use of afterburner. After reaching the Mediterranean he reported “feet wet” and “frosty freezer,” which meant that his attack had been aborted. He later jettisoned his bomb load at sea.
More than a minute after Remit-31 dropped its bombs, Remit-33 carried out its attack on Aziziyah. After the four 2,000-pound bombs were released, the WSO could not hold the target on his FLIR scope. The surface winds had shifted from their predicted direction and the smoke and debris thrown up by the bombs from Remit-31 obscured the target. Consequently, the bombs fell to earth unguided. Nevertheless, they still impacted a couple of hundred feet from the target: a large administration building within the Bab al-Aziziyah compound. Remit-33 also escaped just ahead of a heavy SAM and AAA barrage.
Although the 2,000-pound bombs dropped by Remit-31 and Remit-33 did not achieve direct hits, they did cause considerable damage to Qaddafi’s compound. The Paveways had collapsed walls and caved in the roofs of several buildings within Aziziyah. New York Times reporter Edward Schumacher toured the facility two days after the raid and counted eight large bomb craters extending in a line from the front of Qaddafi’s house to an administration building located atop the colonel’s reinforced bunker. He noticed that the line of bombs passed within fifty yards of Qaddafi’s ceremonial tent, knocking out a number of supports within and collapsing part of its cover. Schumacher reported that two bombs had hit within thirty yards of Qaddafi’s residence, devastating the building. The 2,000-pound bombs shattered windows, blew out doors, collapsed ceilings, and demolished the contents of several rooms. Washington Post correspondent Christopher Dickey also toured the compound. He guessed that one of the 2,000-pound bombs had exploded within sixteen yards of the front entrance of the residence, producing a crater four feet deep and fifteen feet in diameter.
Elton-43, the fourth plane in line to attack Aziziyah, developed a bleed air casualty to one of its engines when it was just short of the target. The problem disrupted the crew’s concentration at the critical moment of their attack run and forced them to abort.
Immediately after releasing their bombs, the pilot and the WSO in Karma-51—the fifth plane over Aziziyah—realized that the attack had not gone well. The WSO had been unable to update his plane’s inertial navigation system after the strike force took the shortcut to get back on schedule. After dropping away from the tanker he fixed his plane’s position using a small island in the central Mediterranean as a reference point, but unbeknownst to him the location of the island, according to the plane’s computer software, was off by several hundred feet. This inaccuracy, along with the pressures of high-speed, low-altitude flight, made it extremely difficult for the WSO to locate his offset aim point. Consequently, as the plane raced toward the Libyan coast he had inadvertently selected the wrong aim point. The computer placed the target in another location-one-and-a-half miles away—and it dutifully guided the plane to that position. As a result, Karma-51 dropped its bombs late and long. The pilot noticed that the bombs took a few more seconds to release than they should have, and the WSO searched his FLIR screen for the aim point in the Aziziyah compound but could not find it. In fact, nothing on the screen resembled Bab al-Aziziyah. Since he was unable to find the target, the WSO could not use the laser designator. Therefore, he had no choice but let the bombs fall ballistically. The four 2,000-pound LGBs smashed into a civilian neighborhood near the compound. The bombs demolished a number of houses and apartment buildings and damaged—ironically—the French Embassy. Unfortunately, several innocent Libyans were killed and injured in the regrettable attack. The Austrian, Finnish, Iranian, and Swiss Embassies also reported sustaining minor damage. During the attack the crew of Karma-51 had been in great danger. After their return to Lakenheath an analysis of their mission tape revealed that a Libyan SAM had locked on to their plane.
Several F-111Fs used their afterburners to get through the volleys of SAMs and AAA as quickly as possible. The airmen who had flown combat missions in Vietnam acknowledged that the Libyan AAA was not as dense as they had experienced over Hanoi, but the Tripoli SAMs were more formidable. Fortunately, due to the effectiveness of the jammers and ARM-firing aircraft, most Libyan air defense crews were forced to launch their weapons optically. Although the afterburners provided a tremendous burst of energy, the long sheets of flame spewing from the exhaust pipes provided a brilliant target for Libyan gunners. As the raid progressed the density of SAMs and AAA steadily increased, but none of the weapons hit the first five planes over Aziziyah. Each crew breathed a huge sigh of relief as their plane reached the coast. The sixth plane in the stream over Aziziyah, Karma-52, was not so fortunate. It was hit by either a SAM or AAA prior to reaching the target. Making a beeline for the coast, the plane caught fire and went out of control. The pilot, Capt. Fernando Ribas-Dominicci, and the WSO, Capt. Paul Lorence, ejected seconds before their F-111F exploded and the huge fireball slammed into the sea. Unfortunately, their ejection capsule hit the water before the chutes could fully deploy. The fliers were knocked unconscious and subsequently drowned. Karma-52 would not be declared missing until all surviving F-111Fs had marshaled with their tankers for the first post-strike refueling. Libya soon recovered the body of Captain Ribas-Dominicci but did not return it to the United States until 1989. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be drowning, not massive physical trauma. Although there is not enough information to determine exactly what caused the loss of Karma-52, the autopsy finding and the eyewitness accounts of several aviators who saw the explosion and the descent of the fireball to the sea support the conclusion that Karma-52 was shot down by a SAM or AAA. The fact that Ribas-Dominicci’s body did not contain evidence of fractures or internal injuries challenges the theory that Ribas-Dominicci simply flew his plane into the water due to pilot error.
Karma-53, the last plane in line to attack Aziziyah and the one slated to drop a second set of 2,000-pound bombs on Qaddafi’s headquarters-residence building, experienced a last-second combat systems malfunction and was forced to abort in the vicinity of the target.
As Karma-53 passed over Aziziyah the Jewell attack group commenced its strike on the terrorist training facility at Murat Sidi Bilal. The Libyan defenses were lighter there, because the target was located a few miles west of downtown, but the winds at the target, like those at Aziziyah, were significantly different from what had been forecasted. The first two planes to attack Murat Sidi Bilal—Jewell-61 and Jewell-62—delivered their 2,000-pound bombs using the Pave Tack Toss, churning up a tremendous amount of smoke, dust, and debris. Meanwhile, the third plane—Jewell-63—closed in on its target: the building that contained the swimming pool used to train commando frogmen. At a point exactly twenty-three thousand feet from the aim point, the pilot executed a Pave Tack Toss and released his four 2,000-pound bombs. As the bombs arced toward the laser energy reflecting from the building, the WSO coaxed his bombs on to the target: “This one’s for you, Colonel!” Then, an instant later he yelled out in disgust: “Ah, clouds, clouds, clouds!” The dust and smoke from the other bombs had interrupted the laser guidance system and had caused the bombs to fall ballistically. The bombs slammed into the base mess hall, missing the building containing the swimming pool by about a dozen yards. Post-mission damage analysis determined that none of the bombers of the Jewell group scored a direct hit. They did, however, severely damage the mess hall, a classroom building, and an administration-support building and destroyed several small training vessels.
After crossing the beach the six planes in the Puffy and Lujac attack groups flew a long overland route to the Tripoli Military Airfield, a trip that required full use of their terrain-following radars. As the TFRs guided the F-111Fs over the irregular Libyan terrain, the crews constantly monitored the performance of their “Auto-TF” systems. Each pilot kept his hand behind the stick and was ready to raise the nose of the aircraft in an instant, if it looked as though the TFR was about to fly the plane into the desert floor or at an unexpected outcropping. During the transit to the target the strike force was reduced to five aircraft when Puffy-12 developed a problem with its TFR and had to abort.
Flying with TFR over unfamiliar territory was very stressful, but the crews received one important break. As they approached the airfield they realized that they had caught the Libyans completely off guard and would not have to contend with a determined and effective defense. The crews were tempted to catch more than a fleeting glance at the huge fireworks display that was taking place in Tripoli to the north—streaking SAMs, AAA tracers, and exploding 2,000-pound bombs—but they had plenty of work to do studying their own consoles. The pilots kept an eye on the TFR, and the WSOs searched their FLIR screens for the parking ramp with the Il-76 transports.
At 0206 the airmen of Puffy-11 commenced their attack on the airfield. As the plane roared in at less than five hundred feet, the pilot observed the terminal lights ablaze and asked the WSO if he had the parking ramp on his scope. The WSO, his face pressed into the rubber hood covering his scope, responded affirmatively and aimed his laser beam on the middle plane of five transports parked on the flight line. Although the laser-designator system would not guide the 500-pound bombs, it provided crucial data to the pilot. It recommended the correct heading to steer and informed him when to drop his ordnance. Just a few seconds before bomb release the pilot came to the right to center his plane on the target. When the WSO saw the middle Il-76 filling up his FLIR scope, he exclaimed: “Oh baby!” “I’m on the pickle button,” the pilot stated an instant later, as he depressed the bomb-release button. “Here come the bombs.” A string of a dozen 500-pound bombs—each slowed by the ballute drag device—quickly fell behind Puffy-11 and immediately hit the transports parked on the tarmac.
The bombing run performed by Puffy-11 was immortalized by a few feet of videotape shot by the camera mounted in the belly of the F-111F. The exceptionally clear video, which was shown repeatedly on news broadcasts all over the world, displayed hard maneuvering (as the crew struggled to line up on the target), a line of bombs stretching downward toward one of the parked Il-76s, an explosion, and a huge cloud of dust and debris. After delivering his ordnance the pilot of Puffy-11 increased the throttle, turned west to avoid the SAMs and AAA coming out of Tripoli, then streaked north toward the safety of the Mediterranean and the orbiting tankers.
The Snakeyes dropped by Pufíy-11 scored several hits and touched off a number of fires and explosions. Two transports were destroyed and three others suffered considerable damage. As it turned out, Pufíy-11 performed the only completely successful attack on the Tripoli airfield. Minor equipment malfunctions and mistakes had hindered the performance of the other four crews, all of which had failed to score a direct hit on the transports. Instead they caused minimal damage to a number of helicopters parked near the transports and to an operations building.
On the other side of the Gulf of Sidra six Coral Sea-based VA-55 Warhorses bore down on the Benina Airfield. “A-6 crews . . . saw the incoming HARMs’ orange cones of destruction, smothering SAM sites in their paths,” Stumpf recalled. “SAMs that were launched created a sensational effect in the night sky but none guided effectively.” At exactly 0200 local time the Warhorses—one armed with Snakeye high-drag bombs, and five carrying CBU-59 APAMs—devastated the Benina Airfield. The Snakeyes cratered the runway and torched the alert MiG-23s, while the APAM submunitions blanketed the parking apron and battered several aircraft. “The last of the six A-6s across the airfield noted several airplanes on the ramp below burning furiously,” Stumpf said, and “as the Intruders raced for the ocean and safety, they could see the giant bomb explosions of the America’s A-6s on target near the city.”
The attack on Benina demolished three, possibly four, MiG-23 Floggers; two Mi-8 Hip helicopters; one F-27 Friendship propeller-driven transport; and one small fixed-wing aircraft. Damaged planes included one Mi-8, two Boeing 727 transports, one propeller-driven transport, two fixed-wing aircraft, and an undetermined number of MiG-23s, which were probably moved out of sight before the United States could perform a post-strike battle damage assessment (BDA). The Benina hangars received moderate damage, while four other buildings and several vehicles and pieces of ground equipment were destroyed. After the raid the airmen of VA-55 proudly called themselves “the East Coast’s largest distributor of MiG parts.”
An F/A-18 pilot flying support off Benghazi was profoundly relieved when he detected the lights of the city. “If the lights were out, we were in trouble,” he recalled. “It was all lit up like Norfolk or Jacksonville or any other major city.” At the exact moment the Warhorses hit Benina, six VA-34 Blue Blasters off the America struck the Benghazi Military and Jamahiriyya Guard Barracks. They had great difficulty identifying the barracks on radar, since the target was located in a crowded downtown area. Encountering a barrage of SAMs, each Blaster released a “stick” of sixteen 500-pound Snakeye high-drag bombs, which hit the barracks and an adjacent warehouse that served as a MiG-23 assembly facility. Four aircraft shipping crates were destroyed while a fifth was damaged. Unfortunately, two bombs fell a few hundred yards wide of the target and struck a civilian neighborhood, damaging two houses.
From an unparalleled vantage point off the coast the last U.S. aircraft to leave the target area—a pair of F/A-18s assigned to support SAR operations—saw the Benghazi “skyline ablaze with secondary fires from the downtown areas, backdropped by a softer glow from fires burning at the airfield which was several miles inland.” In Tripoli and Benghazi the Libyans kept up a vigorous fusillade in a desperate attempt to knock down what they thought were more attacking aircraft. Several nights would pass before the sporadic firings at phantom bombers would cease, a clear indication of the frayed state of Libyan nerves.
At approximately 1913 Washington time, Weinberger and Crowe received their first post-strike report. CINCEUR tersely stated, “Raid commander reports all aircraft feet wet.” Everyone in the command center was overjoyed. It appeared that the raid had been carried out without any American losses, but the elation was quickly doused when a very discomforting message reached the Pentagon: “First report possibly not correct. We cannot account for one aircraft. Polling our group again.” A follow-up report confirmed that one of the F-111Fs was indeed missing.
At 1920 Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, officially announced the air strike to the White House press corps and a national audience watching on television. On his way to the press briefing room Speakes had stopped by Admiral Poindexter’s office to obtain last minute details. Poindexter was joined by Shultz, and Speakes noticed that both men exuded “a mood of quiet satisfaction.” They were not jubilant—one American plane was missing—but they were obviously relieved that the United States had finally clobbered the world’s most notorious advocate and practitioner of international terrorism.
At 2100 President Reagan appeared on television from the Oval Office and informed the American public that units of the Air Force and Navy had conducted air strikes “against the headquarters, terrorist facilities, and military assets that support Muammar Qaddafi’s subversive activities,” and that according to preliminary reports the operation was a success. “Today, we have done what we had to do,” Reagan said somberly. “If necessary, we shall do it again.” He expressed hope that this military action “will not only diminish Colonel Qaddafi’s capacity to export terror, it will provide him with incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior.” Reagan emphasized that the United States had not attacked Libya in haste. “We tried quiet diplomacy, public condemnation, economic sanctions, and demonstrations of military force,” he stated. “None succeeded. Despite our repeated warnings, Qaddafi continued his reckless policy of intimidation, his relentless pursuit of terror. He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.”
In a speech before a group of business leaders the next day Reagan told his audience that “the United States won but a single engagement in the long battle against terrorism. We will not end that struggle until the free and decent people of this planet unite to eradicate the scourge of terror from the modern world.” He also sent a blunt warning to Qaddafi: “We would prefer not to have to repeat the events of last night. What is required is for Libya to end its pursuit of terror for political goals. The choice is theirs Colonel Qaddafi ought not to underestimate either the capacity or legitimate anger of a free people.”
On Wednesday, 16 April, Reagan forwarded to Congress a report on Operation El Dorado Canyon in accordance with the terms of the War Powers Act. In his letter Reagan stated that the air strikes on Libya “were conducted in the exercise of our right of self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This necessary and appropriate action was a preemptive strike, directed at the Libyan terrorist infrastructure and designed to deter acts of terrorism, such as the Libyan-ordered bombing of a discothèque in West Berlin on April 5.”
Getting Back to “Home Plate”
After the Air Force and Navy bomber crews dropped their bombs, their immediate attention was focused on reaching the safety of their post-strike marshaling areas as quickly as possible. Besides running the gauntlet of alerted Libyan SAM and AAA batteries, they were concerned about pursuit from Libyan fighter planes, some of which might be flown by Syrians or other foreign pilots serving with the LAAF. Nearing the coast the Air Force pilots and WSOs became gravely worried about transiting through the air defenses of Task Force 60 and avoiding a blue-on-blue incident. Fortunately, the battle force had constructed a very simple and effective “delousing” plan for distinguishing returning strike aircraft coming off the beach from Libyan MiGs trailing behind. By following a pre-briefed flight path, which stipulated specific altitude and airspeed parameters, the F-111Fs and A-6Es identified themselves as friendly aircraft to Battle Force Zulu’s antiair warfare commander. The procedures ensured that any LAAF fighters attempting to pursue the friendly planes would be intercepted and shot down by F-14s or F/A-18s performing MiG CAP duty.
By 0213 Tripoli time all Navy and Air Force strike aircraft, except Karma-52, had reported feet wet to the E-2Cs and, in the case of the Air Force bombers, to the command KC-ioA. The skipper of the Coral Sea, Capt. Robert H. Ferguson, remembered his crew’s reaction when he informed them over the ship’s 1MC (general announcing circuit) that all Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were heading back to their carriers. “You could feel the ship vibrate with enthusiasm and confidence that they had done a good job,” he recalled.
While the Hawkeyes and fighters guarded against an LAAF counterattack, the carriers recovered their strike and support aircraft. All Navy and Marine planes were safely on deck by 0253. The actions of a Coral Sea ordnance handler epitomized the concern all personnel in the battle force felt for the men who had just carried out a very difficult mission. “I stayed up all night and counted them as they came back,” the young sailor remembered. “It’s like family out here, you might say. You just don’t like to lose any of your shipmates.”
“The only disappointed pilots were those dedicated to the fighter missions in defense of the force,” commented Admiral Breast. “They had expected some opposition but the Libyan Arab Air Force had chosen not to fly that evening.” Lehman predicted that if the LAAF had gone into action “it would have been a real turkey shoot.” A few Libyan fighters took off but wisely decided not to pursue the retreating U.S. aircraft. There were reports that LAAF GCI radars had been rendered useless by the jamming, and that the commander of the Benina Airfield had deliberately disobeyed a direct order to attack the departing Navy bombers and fighters.
For the next three days Task Force 60 maintained a defensive posture north of the Tripoli FIR. It was ready to repulse a Libyan attack and carry out White House-directed contingencies. As the F-111Fs passed through the defenses of Task Force 60, their crews could not relax because they had to confront two monumental realities. First, several airmen witnessed what looked like an F-111F going down in a gigantic fireball. Did a missile or AAA hit one of the planes? If so, which crew was lost? The definitive answer would not be known until the F-111Fs had joined their tankers and the roll call of surviving crews had been completed. Second, many of the F-111Fs were getting low—desperately low, in a few cases—on fuel and had to find and rendezvous with their tankers as quickly as possible. The post-strike rendezvous procedures had been given very little attention at the mission briefings back at Lakenheath. “There was little said beyond ‘get a vector, head north, find your tanker, join on him, and get gas,’” recalled one pilot. According to the plan, the E-2C that served as the command and control platform in the Tripoli sector would give each F-111F a vector, or recommended heading, to its assigned tanker. In general the vectors proved to be very inaccurate, forcing several crews to rely on their tactical air navigation (TACAN) equipment, which provided them with the heading to a particular tanker broadcasting a unique code.
The pilot of Karma-51 captured the tension present in many F-111F cockpits with the comment that the anxious search for the tankers was “almost more nerve-wracking than the actual attack.” Most of the F-111Fs were below their projected fuel states because more afterburner had been used during the mission than anticipated. To make the search even more difficult, the tankers orbiting near Sicily were flying in the middle of several layers of high cirrus clouds. Discovering the inaccuracy of their vectors and realizing their tankers were hidden in the clouds, the pilots and WSOs nervously scoured the skies with air search radars and their eyeballs. No airman could breathe a sigh of relief until every bomber safely rejoined a tanker. Eventually, all surviving F-111Fs were back on a tanker, although not necessarily their assigned tanker.
A couple of incidents demonstrated just how low the fuel state was in some of the planes. In the first instance the pilot of Remit-31 came to the aid of another pilot, who was having difficulty locating his tanker, by doing “a little torching.” The first pilot dumped some fuel and ignited it with his afterburner, creating a huge explosion that both lit up the sky and pointed the direction to the tanker. For a few nervous moments many airmen thought that there might have been a midair collision. In the second case Puffy-11 successfully rendezvoused with its assigned tanker and was taking on fuel when another F-111F suddenly appeared alongside it, flying extremely close to Pufíy-11. The second plane was so desperate for fuel that it seemed to be trying to shove Pufíy-11 away from the tanker. After a few moments the pilot of Pufíy-11 dropped off the tanker, giving way to the other plane.
As the F-111Fs joined up with the tankers the officers in the command KC-10A performed the difficult task of determining whether or not a plane was missing and, if so, which plane it was. The pilot of Karma-51 notified the command plane that he never heard Karma-52 report feet wet. “I don’t think Karma-52 made it,” he said. Several radio calls to Karma-52 over the military distress circuit went unanswered, yet every man held out a slim hope that Karma-52 had only been damaged, that the damage had prevented the plane from communicating, or that the plane would show up soon either information or at one of the emergency divert bases in the Mediterranean area. As the minutes ticked by it became increasingly unlikely that Karma-52 would appear.
Venkus described what it was like for the pilots and WSOs as the process of identifying the missing plane dragged on. “In some F-111F cockpits, this somber delay was especially confusing and difficult,” he noted. “Some crews did not have complete lineup cards, so they were unsure which of their friends matched up with particular call signs. As it became clear that one aircraft had been lost, these crewmen listened closely to the repeated roll calls, trying to recognize voices in order to determine who was missing. Eventually they realized which crew had not returned, and their thoughts turned to their friends’ present plight.”
Meanwhile, one of the ships in Task Force 60 reported that it had received a very short series of beeps, possibly the signal from the downed F-111F’s emergency radio beacon, then immediately lost the signal. A Navy patrol plane flew over the area where the fireball had been seen, hoping to catch the signal from the F-111F’s emergency beacon. It heard nothing. For more than an hour the Air Force planes loitered in the skies near Sicily, hoping that Karma-52 would join up. By 0314 Forgan and Westbrook were certain that Captain Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Lorence were missing, and Forgan reluctantly ordered the huge strike force back to England. Meanwhile, back at Lakenheath Venkus organized two teams to perform the solemn duty of officially notifying the families of Ribas-Dominicci and Lorence that their loved ones were missing.
Kelso ordered a search and rescue operation for the missing fliers. The SAR effort, which included a P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and a submarine, found no traces of either of the men or their plane, and the search was terminated at 1700 local time, 15 April.
The Air Force mission was still long from over, and huge challenges still had to be overcome. The pilots had to perform seven hours of grueling, night formation flying and one more in-flight refueling. With the strike and the rendezvous behind them and with their adrenaline worn off, the airmen had to struggle to keep up their concentration and fight off the tendency to relax. A single instant of inattention could result in a midair collision. If an airman became tired he could take a couple of “go pills” or amphetamines that had been provided by the wing flight surgeons.
The early phase of the flight back to England proved to be very interesting for Elton-43. The bleed air problem that had forced the crew to abort their attack on Aziziyah had not been resolved. The “Wheelwell Hot” alarm light indicated that a pipe near the main landing gear was leaking very hot engine air. The emergency demanded quick action to prevent an in-flight fire and possible loss of the aircraft. With the problem showing no signs of improving, Forgan ordered Elton-43 to divert to the U.S. naval air station at Rota, Spain. The plane landed safely at Rota at 0524 local time. The engine was eventually repaired and Elton-43 finally returned to RAF Lakenheath at 2201 U.K. time on 15 April. Since the Spanish government was very concerned about negative political ramifications stemming from any association with the air strike, the emergency recovery of Elton-43 at Rota was not officially announced to the public for a number of weeks.
One at a time sixteen F-111Fs descended through the thinly overcast early morning skies over England and made their final approach to the runway at Lakenheath. At an altitude of one thousand feet their landing lights became visible to the hundreds of ground personnel waiting anxiously on the flight line. Many of those standing on the tarmac—jet engine mechanics, electronics technicians, ordnance handlers, refueling crews, and other wing personnel—had contributed directly to the success of the mission. Three generals—Gabriel, Shaud, and McInerney—also waited to greet the F-111F crews. As the planes landed and taxied to their hardened shelters they were greeted in a scene reminiscent of the B-17s returning from their bombing missions over Germany in World War II. Several individuals in the crowd waved signs, welcoming the fliers home and praising their heroic mission. A few of the pilots and WSOs, their legs very wobbly, needed a little assistance getting out of their cockpits.
Just seconds after climbing down from his F-111F and getting his weary legs back on solid ground, the pilot of Karma-51 was greeted by the generals, who shook his hand and congratulated him on his outstanding effort. Gabriel then asked the Vietnam veteran to compare the defenses over Hanoi to those encountered in Tripoli. The pilot graded Tripoli’s defenses as follows: “On a scale of one-to-ten, . . . the missiles were a fifteens!” He would probably have gotten little argument from the other men who had just flown the mission.
At 0810 U.K. time on 15 April, the last F-111F touched down at RAF Lakenheath. The longest fighter mission in U.S. history, lasting fourteen hours and thirty-five minutes, was over.
Honoring Captain Fernando Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Paul Lorence
According to Air Force regulations, in his capacity as unit commander Westbrook had both the duty and authority to declare Captain Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Lorence killed in action, provided there was a preponderance of evidence to support such a determination. After two days Westbrook concluded that the men were dead. He justified his decision on a couple of factors. First, the Navy’s SAR efforts found no evidence that either man had survived. Second, the men did not appear on Libyan television. No one doubted that Qaddafi would have displayed his prisoners for propaganda purposes. After making this weighty decision Westbrook compassionately informed the wives and families of Ribas-Dominicci and Lorence that their husbands and fathers would not be coming home. On Thursday, 17 April, the Air Force formally declared the two fliers killed in action.96 President Reagan telephoned the wives of the two lost airmen and in an attempt to temper their grief called the officers “heroes of our heart.”
On Monday, 21 April, a memorial service for Ribas-Dominicci and Lorence was conducted in a hangar at RAF Lakenheath. A huge crowd came to honor the brave men who had lost their lives in Operation El Dorado Canyon. Ambassador Price delivered a moving speech in which he lauded their courage, discipline, and devotion to duty. The emotional ceremony concluded with a formation of Air Force jets performing the missing man flyby—the traditional military salute to lost comrades.
Libyan Reaction to the Raid
The Libyan government claimed that its air defense forces shot down three American aircraft and went so far as to say that it had recovered an F-111F from the sea and was turning it over to the Soviet Union. In a desperate attempt to retaliate against the United States, Qaddafi ordered his army to launch two Soviet-built SS-1 Scud B ballistic missiles at the U.S. Coast Guard long-range navigation station on the Italian island of Lampedusa, located approximately 170 miles north of Tripoli. The missiles detonated harmlessly two miles offshore, sending two large columns of water into the air and shaking the homes of the island’s six thousand residents.
The Libyan government announced that the U.S. raids on Tripoli and Benghazi killed thirty-seven Libyans and injured ninety-three, but their figures do not specify how many of those individuals were civilians killed or wounded by stray American bombs, how many were military personnel operating Libyan air defense equipment, how many were people present at the five targets, or how many were persons killed or injured by SAM components falling back to earth. Qaddafi was reportedly in his underground command bunker at the time of the bombing while his wife and children were asleep on the ground floor of their residence within the compound. Qaddafi survived the attack on Aziziyah rattled but unharmed, but other members of his family were not so fortunate. According to JANA the attack killed Qaddafi’s fifteen-month-old adopted daughter and seriously injured his two youngest sons, aged three and four. The news about Qaddafi’s daughter surprised many Western analysts and journalists, because no announcement had ever been made that he had adopted a child. His wife supposedly had adopted a baby girl about ten months earlier. There was no denying that the U.S. air strike killed innocent men, women, and children, but a huge moral distinction can be made between killing Libyan civilians by accident and deliberately murdering Americans through acts of terrorism.
“Red Flag,” “Strike U,” and Results
The successful execution of Operation El Dorado Canyon can be traced to several initiatives taken by the Air Force and Navy to improve their strike warfare proficiency in the decade following the Vietnam War. Among the steps taken by the Air Force were the procurement of sophisticated weapons, the development of innovative delivery tactics, and the establishment in 1975 of the “Red Flag” training program, which emphasized “train as you fight” realism. Red Flag, the massive strike exercise conducted at Nellis AFB in Nevada, was designed to give bomber and fighter crews a training experience that was as close as possible to actual combat. During a typical exercise crews flew several sorties against a series of heavily defended targets. They practiced tactics designed to defeat enemy air defenses, elude enemy fighters, and put bombs squarely on target. The air warfare skills honed at Red Flag were heroically demonstrated in the night sky over Tripoli.
The Navy’s badly executed raid on Syrian antiaircraft batteries in Lebanon on 4 December 1983 spurred the service to revamp its strike warfare methodology. The raid failed to use tactics that would have taken advantage of new weapon systems and technologies developed after the early 1970s. Secretary Lehman, an A-6 B/N in the naval reserve, immediately identified the deficiency: “The Navy air wings produced what had been trained into them, and what had been trained into them was a twenty-year-old Vietnam daytime ‘Alpha’ strike, and it was totally inappropriate.” In a typical Alpha strike attack planes crossed the beach at twenty-thousand feet, gradually descended to ten thousand feet, dove to three thousand feet, released their bombs, pulled out, and ran for the coast. Those tactics did not fool Syrian gunners in the Biqa Valley.
The outcome of the Lebanon mission prompted Lehman to establish a naval warfare center devoted to the development of strike warfare doctrine and tactics—an attack aviation version of “Top Gun.” In May 1984 the Naval Strike Warfare Center opened at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California. One year later “Strike U”—as it is known throughout the Navy—moved to Fallon NAS in Nevada, where aircrews could enjoy wide open spaces and year-round, near-perfect weather while they carried out their training programs. Prior to departing on its overseas deployment a carrier air wing would spend three weeks at Fallon studying the latest doctrine, practicing all facets of a strike mission, and participating in a realistic, full-blown war game that provided an opportunity for the wing to practice the tactics and skills that Strike U had validated. With a training syllabus that emphasized night attacks, terrain-following flight profiles, and standoff weapons, Strike U had an immediate and positive effect on the Navy’s attack community. “When the navy flew over Libya in the spring of 1986, they knew their business,” wrote Daniel Bolger. Since the “Sixth Fleet planned the mission, the new Fallon mentality . . . permeated the operation.”
In addition to renewed Air Force and Navy proficiency in strike warfare, a number of important factors contributed to the operational success of Operation El Dorado Canyon, America’s strike against international terrorism. First, Admiral Kelso had been entrusted with control over nearly all of the operational aspects of the mission by his superiors in Washington and Europe. Kelso, his principle subordinate commanders—Admiral Mauz and Colonel Westbrook—and their staffs, planned the strike, marshaled their resources, and executed the mission when their forces were ready. A senior Pentagon official who testified before Congress on the lessons of El Dorado Canyon emphasized that one of the most significant elements accounting for the success of the operation was that command and control of the mission was entrusted to the onscene commander, Kelso. “The Sixth Fleet commander was given the time frame to attack, and he had the responsibility of putting it all together,” stated the official. “He also had the flexibility and authority to cancel the strike right up until the last moment if it looked like weather or operational factors could be a problem.”
Second, the precision with which the strike was conducted caught Qaddafi’s armed forces completely off guard. In a magnificent feat of planning and execution, separate Air Force and Navy attack groups operating from bases nearly three thousand miles apart struck their targets at exactly the same instant. In less than twelve minutes all targets were hit and all planes, except one F-111F, reached the safety of the Mediterranean. The 0200 TOT stunned the Libyans who, despite the warnings they had received for several days, were totally unprepared to defend against the raid. “Runway lights were on and continued to burn during the attack,” noted W. Hays Parks. “Although antiaircraft fire and missile launches were reportedly heavy at each target, the element of surprise, the darkness, jamming by the EA-6B/EF-111 force against the Tripoli defenses and by the EA-6Bs against Benghazi, and air defense suppression by the A-7 and F/A-18 support aircraft rendered the Libyan defenses ineffective.”
Third, coordinated planning between Navy and Air Force commands, dual service training exercises, and the exchange of liaison officers were instrumental in the flawless integration of a joint strike force in a radio silent, night attack against heavily defended targets. According to Lehman the success of Operation El Dorado Canyon “demonstrated the real cooperation, integration, and sharing of tactical training and know-how that is the real relationship between and among our armed forces.”
Finally, Kelso’s insistence on a large strike force insured that all five targets would be attacked with devastating results. During the planning phase the Sixth Fleet commander and his subordinates acknowledged that some of the strike aircraft would probably suffer equipment failures prior to reaching their targets. Therefore they assembled a potent force with enough redundancy to accomplish the mission. “Without Pave Tack, TRAM, and guided weapons, the entire operation would have been impossible,” stressed Daniel Bolger. “A few aborts did not detract from the advantages created by American technology.”
Many of the factors that accounted for the successful raid against Libya would be repeated five years later during the war to liberate Kuwait from the army of Saddam Hussein.
Task Force 60 and the Confrontation with Libya: An Operational Summary
The dispute between the United States and Libya in the 1980s demonstrated that the decisive application of military power could influence an adversary and facilitate the attainment of specific foreign policy goals without resorting to a war or a costly commitment of military forces. At the heart of American power arrayed against Libya was the U.S. Navy’s formidable Battle Force Sixth Fleet—Task Force 60. The battle force contained one or more battle groups, each consisting of an aircraft carrier, an air wing of advanced tactical aircraft, and a shielding flotilla of modern cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Owing to the overwhelming strength and flexibility of the battle force, U.S. ships and aircraft operated with impunity in the Libyan-claimed waters and airspace of the Gulf of Sidra and vigorously repulsed all attacks and threats of force by the Libyan military. In retaliation for Tripoli’s sponsorship of a terrorist assault on American citizens, Task Force 60 and units of the U.S. Air Force based in Europe planned and executed a devastating air strike on terrorist headquarters and support facilities in Libya.
President Reagan’s application of naval force against Libya was a modern example of “gunboat diplomacy.” It was limited in scope, it supported specific national objectives, it was carried out with few political costs and no losses to personnel, it frustrated the enemy’s ability to respond militarily, it secured favorable political outcomes in the dispute with a foreign power, and it was successful enough to forestall a large-scale military deployment to maintain those outcomes.
In August 1981 Battle Force Sixth Fleet, commanded by Rear Adm. James E. Service and consisting of the Nimitz and Forrestal CVBGs, carried out a major FON exercise in and near the Gulf of Sidra. The goal of the naval maneuver was to reject Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s illegal claim of sovereignty over the waters of the Gulf of Sidra south of 32° 30’ north latitude. When two Libyan Su-22 Fitter J aircraft attacked a pair of F-14 Tomcats over the gulf the Americans acted swiftly in self-defense and shot down the aggressors with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles in a dogfight lasting about a minute.
On three occasions during the first three months of 1986 Sixth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso dispatched Task Force 60 to the vicinity of Libya to defy once again Tripoli’s claim of sovereignty over the gulf and confront Qaddafi over his practice of sponsoring, supporting, and encouraging acts of international terrorism. In January and February the Saratoga and the Coral Sea battle groups conducted Operations Attain Document I and Attain Document II. In each event the battle force, commanded by Rear Adm. David E. Jeremiah, promptly achieved naval and air superiority in the Tripoli FIR. Navy and Marine Corps aviators performed nearly 150 intercepts on a variety of Libyan aircraft, but not one Libyan pilot achieved a firing position on a U.S. fighter plane. In March, following the arrival in the Mediterranean of the America battle group, the huge battle force (totaling 26 warships and 250 carrier-based aircraft) carried out Operation Attain Document III, a large-scale freedom-of-navigation operation that involved extensive surface and air activity below 32° 30’—Qaddafi’s “line of death.” When Libya attacked American aircraft with long-range SA-5 surface-to-air missiles and threatened the force with missile patrol boats, the fleet defended itself with quick and deadly precision. A-7E Corsair IIs disabled the missile battery with HARMs, and A-6E Intruders sank two Libyan vessels with Harpoon antiship cruise missiles and Rockeye cluster bombs.
In a daring act of retaliation for Qaddafi’s sponsorship of a terrorist bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that killed two American soldiers, A-6Es from the Coral Sea and the America and F-111F bombers based in England struck and severely damaged important terrorist facilities in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. In support of the joint strike Task Force 60 pilots skillfully performed several crucial missions. A-7Es, F/A-18s, and EA-6Bs suppressed enemy air defense systems; F-14s and F/A-18s protected the strike groups and the battle force from Libyan aircraft; E-2Cs performed long-range air and surface surveillance, strike coordination, and fighter control; and KA-6Ds and KA-7s provided invaluable tanking services.
Battle Force Sixth Fleet operations in the vicinity of Libya were conducted without suffering a single casualty. This remarkable achievement was the product of thorough preparation and a demanding training regime that achieved and maintained a high level of combat readiness. Of the many factors that contributed to the operational success of the battle force, a few are particularly noteworthy. First, flexible and unambiguous ROE were instrumental in neutralizing the Libyan armed forces. Frequent face-to-face discussions, timely approval of additions or modifications to the ROE, and the delegation of appropriate ROE ensured that commanders and aircrews knew what actions they could take in self-defense and under what circumstances. Second, employment of a multicarrier battle force permitted around-the-clock air operations for fleet defense while maintaining short-notice strike capability. Third, a streamlined command, control, and communications structure facilitated quick crisis response and avoided many of the C3 problems frequently associated with the operation of multiple carrier battle groups in close proximity. Fourth, during later operations the superior sensors and C3 facilities of the Aegis cruisers significantly enhanced the capabilities of the battle force’s antiair warfare and antisurface warfare commanders. Fifth, combat operations benefited from the superior performance of several modern U.S. weapons systems—most notably Aegis, the F-14 Tomcat, the F/A-18 Hornet, TRAM, Harpoon, HARM, and LAMPS MK III. Finally, the exchange of liaison officers and coordinated planning by Navy and Air Force staffs insured the complete integration of the joint strike force in a high-speed, low-level night attack.
The Reagan administration’s employment of U.S. military forces in conjunction with strong political and economic measures sent a powerful message to Qaddafi and achieved important results. Libya’s claim of sovereignty over the Gulf of Sidra was thoroughly discredited, and Qaddafi would wisely reduce his involvement in international terrorism. When tasked by national authority, Battle Force Sixth Fleet, unencumbered by the need to seek approval from foreign governments for its movements, established a powerful presence off the coast of Libya where it exerted a profound influence on Qaddafi’s regime, exacted “swift and effective retribution” against any element of Libyan armed forces that meant it harm and, in one instance, projected decisive power ashore. After fulfilling each mission the battle force withdrew safely over the horizon.
Before exploring aviation’s contribution to the Russian battlefield in 1916, it is important to consider some of the differences between the Eastern and Western fronts. The Western Front was much shorter, only about 400 miles, yet its combat zone contained a significant concentration of British, French, and German soldiers, accompanied by a massive number of artillery and machine guns that put in harm’s way almost every square yard of the elaborate trench system that ran from the North Sea southeastward to neutral Switzerland. At the same time, this much smaller front was home to far more aircraft than were assigned to the Eastern Front. In 1916 the French and Germans each maintained an inventory of planes that approached 1,500. During the Battle of the Somme, the British employed not just 4 air detachments, as the Russians might have done, but more than 27 squadrons, equipped with 410 aircraft. In short, there was a big difference between the air activity on the Eastern and Western fronts. The Germans, for example, claimed 7,067 air combat victories in the West, but they reported only 358 triumphs in the East against Russian pilots. In the West, when weather permitted, hundreds of air missions and a dozen dogfights occurred every day, with bombers, scouting craft, and fighters on both sides. Meanwhile, in the much more expansive Eastern Front, which extended from Riga in the north to Czernowitz (near Romania) in the south, there were some minimally contested areas that never drew a single airplane from either side.
The amazing thing about the Eastern Front is that by March 1916 Chief of Staff Mikhail V. Alekseev succeeded in rejuvenating twelve Russian armies. Facilitating his rebuilding effort was the Russian industrial expansion, which led to the manufacture of military hardware that put the Russian armies on a more competitive footing with enemy forces. But three critical factors enhanced the larger picture for the Russians. First, German and Austrian troops killed or captured 2.5 million Russian soldiers, whom Petrograd had to replace by enlarging the draft. Such horrific losses deeply undermined the morale of Russian troops, especially those who faced German armies in the north. Unsurprisingly, offensives on the Russian Northwestern Front faltered in 1916. Second, industry’s massive effort to replenish war materiel caused disastrous problems for the economy. Russian cities could not barter machine guns for grain and other agricultural products. Collapse of the urban-rural exchange system, coupled with a diminished supply of fuel through industrial use, ignited the Russian Revolution in 1917. Third, Russia depended on foreign imports for the war—and not just airplanes and aircraft engines. Between 1914 and 1917, for example, Russia imported 836 million dollars’ worth of products from the United States—then a fortune—including airplanes, aircraft engines, armored cars, barbed wire, boots, copper, cotton, dyes, electric machinery, gunpowder, harnesses, horseshoes, howitzer shells, lead, leather, locomotives, machine tools, medicines, nickel, rails, railroad cars, rifles, rubber, saddles, shrapnel, surgical instruments, trucks, wool, and zinc. Together, these imports and Russian industrial output helped create an army in 1916 that was better equipped than at any other time during the war.
In goods directly related to aviation, Russian industry built over six times more aircraft in January 1916 than it had in August 1914. The original monthly production for each of the 5 major Russian firms was 25 planes for Russo-Baltic; 35 for Lebedev; 40 for Anatra; 50 for Shchetinin; and 60 for Dukh. Six smaller workshops constructed and added 6 to 8 airframes to the monthly base of 217. As might be expected, the number of aviation laborers, ranging from those assembling airframes to those building propellers, more than doubled in 1916 to 5,029 workers. Even so, the shortage of engines continued; the French motor subsidiaries in Russia did not come close to manufacturing enough aircraft engines to match the number of airframes being produced. By year’s end France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States had exported to Russia via Arkhangel’sk or Vladivostok some 2,500 aviation engines, which greatly (but not completely) helped meet the empire’s requirements. By year’s end these countries also exported about 900 assembled aircraft to Russia. Despite these imports and Russia’s increased domestic production, the problem of supplying the Russian military with enough aircraft remained because monthly loss rates often approached 50 percent. Regardless, each of the 12 armies fielded several squadrons of planes, and heavy combat areas received additional special bombing and fighter aircraft detachments.
The Russian air forces and those of several other belligerents as well appeared to reach a degree of autonomy during that period. Before war’s end, Great Britain, for example, combined its Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), under Major General Hugh Trenchard as chief of staff. Theoretically, the RAF held the same status as the British army and navy. By mid-1915, Grand Duke Aleksandr commanded the Directorate of the Military Aerial Fleet. On November 24, 1916, with Order No. 1632 from the chief of the General Staff, the grand duke also took complete charge of all Air Force inspectors. In the case of Russia, however, true autonomy for aviation existed more on paper than in reality. In effect, aircraft operations continued to be administered by army field generals and navy sea commanders. (As mentioned previously, pilots could not be promoted above the rank of army captain. The lone exception was in the EVK.) When the Great Retreat forced Stavka to evacuate Baranovichi for Mogilëv, the grand duke shifted his headquarters to Kiev. Naturally he kept in touch with Stavka, but his autobiography reveals that he increasingly spent time interacting with the Romanov family and expressing concern about the tsar and the tsar’s future.
The grand duke admitted that he was in Petrograd quite frequently; he could justify the visits there, since three large aircraft manufacturing firms operated in the empire’s capital city. He remembered: “Each time I came back to Kieff [Kiev] with my strength sapped and my mind poisoned.” From his vantage point the rumors that were spreading across the capital city about Tsar Nikolai II and his wife, Aleksandra Feodorovich, were downright ugly and wicked. The grand duke noted false rumors alleging that the tsar had become an alcoholic; that he took Mongolian drugs that clogged his brain; that his prime minister was in league with German agents in neutral Sweden; that his German-born wife favored Russia’s defeat; and that she had had sexual relations with the uncouth and self-proclaimed holy man, Grigorii E. Rasputin. Rasputin’s unsavory reputation, though, was very real and well-deserved. He argued that salvation followed sin, and he sinned incessantly. He exerted influence over the royal couple—including their appointment of some of his “favorites” to high ministerial positions—because his calming powers had saved the couple’s only son and heir to the throne from potentially fatal episodes of severe bleeding due to hemophilia. Later that year Grand Duke Aleksandr said he had “felt glad to be rid of Rasputin” when the “holy man” was murdered after dinner in the home of Aleksandr’s daughter, Irina, and son-in-law, Prince Feliks Iusupov. But Rasputin’s death had come way too late to help save the Romanov dynasty.
The grand duke’s effectiveness as head of the Directorate of the Military Aerial Fleet was limited by his focus on Rasputin and the problems of the tsar. At the beginning of 1916, the Russian air force had reached the serious level of 53 squadrons—42 army corps, 8 fighter corps, and 3 special detachments to protect Imperial residences. The grand duke’s distance from Stavka’s headquarters and his uneven attention to aviation issues prevented the directorate from moving toward greater autonomy for military aircraft. And even if the grand duke had wanted to create a semi-independent air force, Stavka continued to prevent him from elevating the rank of pilots above the level of captain. Fortunately, the grand duke had nothing to do with the EVK, which he disliked; it remained in the hands of Stavka. The Il’ia Muromets aircraft, formidable weapons for their time, conducted 442 combat missions during the war. The reconnaissance-bombers destroyed 40 enemy planes, took 7,000 high-quality photographs of enemy positions, and dropped more than 2,000 bombs. By the end of 1916, their varied engines could be rated as high as 225 hp; they carried some armor plating, were equipped with protected fuel tanks, and housed 7 or more machine guns and occasionally a small-bore, quick-firing cannon. The plane represented an early version of what Americans would later call the B-17 flying fortress.
Once the EVK headquarters had been established at Zegevol’d, close to Pskov but not far from Riga in the north, Russian authorities created two other detachments for the 1916 campaign that were close to the middle and south of the Eastern Front—Stan’kovo, near Minsk, and Kolodziievska, near Tarnopol in the region of Galicia. It is easy to argue that Zegevol’d was the most important aerodrome for an EVK detachment. If the Germans were to capture Riga, the enemy would inherit a direct rail line to the empire’s capital in Petrograd. Riga’s extremely important strategic position helps explain why the EVK headquarters was stationed near that city. Understandably, Stavka wanted to do everything necessary to keep the Germans from taking Riga, which seemingly was the objective most desired by General Ludendorff, who planned the German campaign along the Baltic shore. Nevertheless, by the end of the German offensive enemy troops ended up stalled and dug in about twenty-five miles from that key urban center. During the later winter of 1916 when weather permitted the EVK detachment at Zegevol’d began regular photographic reconnaissance in Courland and the southwestern shore of the Gulf of Riga detailing the German positions for the Russian Twelfth and Fifth armies.
In April 1916 the photographs reinforced the need for the EVK detachment at Zegevol’d to repeat its bombing of the railroad station in Courland at Friedrichstadt, which supplied the Niemen Army. The EVK sent the tenth version of the Il’ia Muromets Model V, piloted by Lieutenant Avenir M. Konstenchik. Born the son of a Russian Orthodox priest in the city of Grodno (now in Belarus), Konstenchik completed his basic education by attending a Russian Orthodox seminary. Yet the young man chose not to continue his seminary studies, which would have led to priesthood, but rather attended a special military academy. After graduation, he served in the Thirty-Third Infantry Regiment, then transferred to aviation and became a pilot. His first aviation assignment took him to the air squadron attached to the Brest-Litovsk Fortress. In September 1914 Konstenchik was selected to be one of the first pilots to learn how to fly one of the ten Il’ia Muromets aircraft ordered by the military.
Those joining Konstenchik on the April 13 (O.S.) mission included the deputy commander, Lieutenant Viktor F. Iankovius; artillery officer and reconnaissance photographer, Lieutenant Georgii N. Shmeur; machine gunner, Sergeant Major Vladimir Kasatkin; and engine mechanic, Sergeant Major Marcel Pliat. Pliat had been assigned under an exchange program with France designed to help cement the military alliance between the two countries and enable them to share air combat techniques. Besides maintaining and repairing engines, Pliat manned the tail machine gun. He also was a special EVK member because of his Franco-African background. He proved to be the savior of the plane and crew in keeping a couple of Sunbeam motors in operation during flight. Imported from Great Britain, each Sunbeam liquid-cooled engine produced a rating of only 150 hp. Fortuitously, Sikorsky’s redesign of the big plane resulted in a craft that was so aerodynamically improved that it could carry crew and bombs to an altitude above 7,800 feet.
Being able to fly at higher altitudes kept the reconnaissance-bomber well above small-arms ground fire from the enemy. The first pass over the large Daudzevas railroad station near Friedrichstadt went smoothly enough as the Il’ia Muromets dropped a half dozen of its thirteen bombs. During the return pass to finish the bombing run and take photographs, the Russians discovered how much the Germans valued the huge station and its warehouses. The enemy protected the rail facilities with guns that fired exploding ordnance that could reach high-altitude aircraft flying at 15,000 feet. A shell exploded near the cockpit; metal fragments from the shell-shattered glass wounded Konstenchik and damaged three of the four engines. Shrapnel also struck the hands of the artillery officer and shattered the camera that he was holding. When the pilot was hit with pieces of metal, he fell from his seat and pulled the steering column backward. The result was an abrupt climb, which caused a stall. As the plane dropped toward the ground, Iankovius slid into the pilot’s seat. He was able to get the plane out of the stall and stabilize flight at about 3,000 feet as Kasatkin applied emergency first aid to Konstenchik. Fortunately, Pliat, in the plane’s tail, held on tightly to save himself from falling away from the plane as it dropped during the stall; when the aircraft recovered from its near-fatal descent, he worked his way forward through the fuselage to join the other crew members.
Pliat then climbed out on the wing and, ignoring grave danger to himself, managed to keep 2 of the plane’s 4 engines running. Limited power forced the Il’ia Muromets to continue flying only at a low altitude of 1,000 meters [about 3,075 feet]. For 26 kilometers (a little more than 16 miles) the plane flew over German troops, who took pleasure in firing rifles at the Russian plane, wounding crew members. When the bullet-riddled aircraft landed at a Russian aerodrome and came to a stop, its right wing dropped completely to the ground. Despite such obvious combat damage, the plane’s safe landing only added to the legend of the miracle survivability of the Il’ia Muromets. This mission resulted in a series of awards: Lieutenant Konstenchik received the Order of Saint George, Fourth Degree; Lieutenant Iankovius, the Sword of Saint George; and Sergeant Major Pliat, the Cross of Saint George. Sergeant Major Kasatkin received a commission as an officer.
Meanwhile, several of large EVK planes continued to aid the Russian Twelfth and Fifth armies in their defense of Riga by photographing and bombing German targets of opportunity. Then, in July 1916, came several extraordinary events that would have a major impact on the EVK. First, future ace pilot Alexander Seversky returned to combat duty—minus a major portion of his right leg—as part of Second Bombing-Reconnaissance Squadron. Although the squadron was headquartered at the naval air station at Zerel on the southern point of Ösel Island’s Sworbe Peninsula, it established an auxiliary base on tiny Runo Island, about forty-five miles east-southeast of Zerel, near the center of the Gulf of Riga. With Runo Island as a base, Russian pilots searched intensely for German submarines. In one of Seversky’s first scouting flights from Runo, in a Grigorovich M-9 flying boat, he shot down a German Albatros C.Ia. The German land plane had been converted to a seaplane by replacing its wheels with floats. The victory was a jolt to Seversky, his squadron, and the Baltic Fleet. It meant that the Germans had some type of seaplane base near the Gulf of Riga. Subsequently, another squadron member in an M-9 spotted an Albatros C.Ia seaplane taking off from Lake Angern. Less than a mile into the interior, the lake parallels the western shore of the gulf for ten miles. The Germans loved it because their seaplane base was completely invisible to vessels of the gulf’s Imperial Russian Navy.