15 April 1986
“We’re not going to make it,” US Air Force Captain Roger “Knife” North said matter-of-factly over the jet’s intercom to his pilot, Captain John Carter.
North got his nickname shortly after joining the 494th Tactical Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, in the southeast of the UK. It was a fitting moniker, since the tall, muscular 32-year old always carried at least three of them. North was the squadron’s top Weapon Systems Officer or Wizzo—completely at home staring into the infrared and radar screens arrayed in front of him in the cockpit of their F-111 Aardvark or Vark.
Unlike most tandem-seat fighters, the F-111’s pilot and Wizzo sit side-by-side, allowing each crewmember to watch what the other was doing during flight. Although the Wizzo had his own control stick and throttles, he normally spent most of his time with his head in the feedbag—the hooded enclosure containing two screens presenting radar and infrared views of the surrounding terrain. Working with these systems—while flying along in a maneuvering jet—was very demanding. It was a challenge for the Wizzo to stay oriented and keep aiming at his target while the pilot yanked and banked the aircraft on its trajectory towards the target area. Many a Wizzo had lost his cookies during the often-violent maneuvering during low-altitude flying.
Captain John Carter was grateful that his Wizzo for that evening’s mission seemed impervious to any of these problems. In fact, North was famous for chiding pilots into more aggressive maneuvering, and he was wont to say things like, “Come on you weak dick, put some Gs on this ole sonnova bitch! We’re gonna get our asses shot down if you don’t stop pullin’ like a damned pussy!”
The F-111 was not a particularly sexy airplane—built for speed, not agility—but those who flew the Vark learned to love the smooth ride. She rode like a Cadillac with under-inflated tires at 540 knots and only 200 feet above the ground.
“What’ya mean, we’re not gonna make it? We’ve got plenty of gas—or do you have to piss again?” replied Carter, glancing sideways at his Wizzo, a smile hidden behind his oxygen mask.
“Not gas, asshole, time!” replied North. “We’re almost three minutes late right now, and by the time we get to X-Ray, we’ll be even later. The HARM shooters will be finished before we even get there!”
Of the hundred-plus aircraft participating in tonight’s mission—code-named El Dorado Canyon—Knife was referring to the Navy’s F-18 and A-7 fighters. They would soon be launching off the catapults of the US carriers America and Coral Sea, flying to targets in Benghazi and Tripoli, on Libya’s north coast. These initial attack aircraft would be carrying High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles—HARMs. Their job was to knock out any Libyan radar facility that might track the attacking jets.
“Damn! Knife, why didn’t you say something sooner?” asked Carter.
“It’s this friggin’ comm silence crap. Everybody knows we’re late, but nobody wants to say anything! What’s the point of maintaining comm-friggin’-silence if the Libyans are gonna know we’re comin’ before we get there?”
Knife wasn’t particularly articulate, but his point was valid. If they didn’t alter course or speed up, the attacking F-111s would arrive several minutes after the HARM missiles had been launched—denying them the crucial element of surprise.
“Puffy Lead, Three,” Carter transmitted to his flight lead—breaking radio silence and making the first radio transmission of the night.
“Yeah, I know,” answered “Kaz,” his flight lead. “Break… Debol 45, Puffy Lead, I show us three late. We need to speed up and cut some corners,” he instructed the lead KC-135 tanker tersely.
Lieutenant Colonel Phil “Kaz” Kazakman was the only combat veteran in the formation. During the Vietnam War, Kaz had flown the F-111 during nighttime attacks on Hanoi. He was a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot, and he flew the pants off the airplane, winning nearly all the squadron’s top gun competitions, despite being twenty years older than the youngest lieutenants in the squadron. Tonight, as in Vietnam, he would be on time and on target.
In the cockpit of the lead KC-135, the subjects of timing, boom airspeed limitations, and upper-atmosphere winds had been the main topic of conversation for the last hour. The weather guessers had gotten it all wrong. Not only were the winds significantly stronger than predicted, they were in the opposite direction—giving the attacking formation a 75-knot headwind instead of a light tailwind. The lead tanker navigator had immediately noticed the difference in wind and had recommended a faster speed. They were leading the entire formation of KC-10s, KC-135s, F-111Fs and EF-111s. The tanker’s aircraft commander, however, had initially resisted flying faster than the limiting speed of the tanker’s air refueling boom.
The unpredicted winds were causing additional problems for the F-111s. Half of them had a weapons load of four 2000-pound laser guided bombs, while the others carried twelve 500-pound Mk-82 Airs each. All these weapons—hanging on the wings of the fighters—were causing a lot of air resistance or drag. That drag, combined with the increased airspeed to compensate for the winds, was causing the thirsty fighters to burn fuel at a much higher rate than they had planned.
“Booms, Pilot,” said Major Tommy Wilson over the tanker’s intercom, calling the plane’s boom operator in the tail of the lead KC-135. “I’m gonna push this sucker up as fast as she’ll go. Let me know if you’re havin’ trouble controlling the boom. For now, screw the boom limit, this is combat!” Everyone onboard the aircraft smiled at hearing those words. It was nice to be able to escape the rules of Mother SAC—the storied Strategic Air Command. They were determined to get their chicks to their targets on time; even if they had to break a few of Mother’s rules in the process.
In Carter’s F-111, the effect was immediate. The tanker, from which they were still receiving fuel, began to pull ahead of them and slowly banked to the left. Carter added power and matched the tanker’s turn to stay in position. While Carter concentrated on staying in the refueling formation with the tanker, Knife made some quick calculations.
“Shit Hot!” exclaimed Knife, over the Vark’s intercom. “They’re cutting the corner on Spanish airspace too! I now show us 20 seconds late at X-Ray.”
The governments of Spain and France had not allowed the Americans to overfly their countries to reach Libya that night. That had added a whole level of complication to the mission, and had almost doubled their flight time.
Of all the attacking F-111s, Carter’s squadron had to fly the furthest to reach their target—the military airfield on the east side of Tripoli’s international airport. After completing the final pre-attack air refueling off the north coast of Libya, they would continue east, past the city and outside of radar coverage. From that point, they would begin their descent to treetop level and head back through the desert toward Tripoli.
A particularly novel aspect of F-111 flying was the so-called TFR letdown. This maneuver could be particularly unnerving for those new to the F-111—especially when accomplished at night. Immediately upon connecting the TFR, the aircraft would rapidly pitch over to a nearly 10 degrees nose-low attitude. It would maintain this gentle descent until about 5000 feet above the ground, when it would pitch over further and begin screaming towards the black void below. For the uninitiated, this maneuver appeared near suicidal—especially when descending into mountainous terrain. During this maneuver, a pilot caught occasional glimpses of potentially deadly hills gliding past the cockpit canopy, while wisps of clouds or lines of trees on these summits would compete for his attention. A seasoned F-111 pilot was well trained, and learned to concentrate on the information presented on the many dials, gauges and screens in the cockpit—rather than the potentially deadly terrain racing by outside his jet.
Carter had successfully completed his own TFR letdown only minutes before coasting-in over Libya’s northern shoreline. As they streaked ever closer to their target, Carter pulled down his oxygen mask and took a sip of water from the small flask he was carrying in his anti-G suit. Ever since they had crossed over the Libyan coastline, he had begun to prepare himself mentally for what lay ahead. His stomach had been doing summersaults for the past several minutes, and the cool water helped calm him.
Carter and his squadron would be striking the east side of the airport, where the Libyan Air Force had its largest base. Satellite photography from the night before had shown that several Libyan military transport aircraft were parked on the tarmac. Would they still be there? How much anti-aircraft artillery (“Triple A”) would the Libyans fire at them? How many missiles would they launch? Would the missiles be guided? Will I make it through the target area alive? As Carter continued to go over the mission in his mind, he kept repeating the most important mantra of every fighter pilot: Don’t let me screw up!
As his F-111 continued along toward the target area—flying only 200 feet above the desert sands—Carter thought about his squadron mates flying along behind him. There was only one minute separating each jet in the formation, and all were heading to different targets around the International Airport. He wondered if their stomachs were churning as much as his was.
He glanced over at Knife—head buried in the feedbag.
“How’s it going?” Carter asked.
“System looks pretty tight. Pave Tack’s painting a great picture. I just saw a caravan of camels off to the right.” Knife seemed to be enjoying the view outside the aircraft provided by the Pave Tack infrared and laser-targeting pod. True to form, Knife seemed immune to any concern for his safety. His voice was steady and calm—as if he were flying a regular training mission. There was little indication in their voices that these two airmen were minutes away from bombing military targets on the east side of Tripoli’s International airport.
Carter tapped Knife’s arm to get him to remove his head from the shroud around his radar and infrared screens. He silently pointed ahead to the lights on the horizon—the city of Tripoli.
“Guess it’s too late to turn around now,” joked Carter over the intercom.
“We didn’t come all this way to screw it up or turn around,” replied Knife.
Suddenly, off in the distance, they could see violent flashes augmenting the nighttime lights of the city. The intermittent bursts of light were the work of the HARM shooters—softening up the Libyan air defense network.
Carter knew that at this very moment the pilots from the Wing’s other squadrons were on the final run to their targets in downtown Tripoli. The F-111’s radio suddenly came to life. After hours of silence, there was now a cacophony of radio calls: “Jewell 61, Feet Wet, Tranquil Tiger.” “Zulu Tango Four, up three looks good.” “Karma 51, Feet Wet, Frosty Freezer.”
As Carter listened to the frantic radio chatter, he tallied up the results. Jewell 61 and Karma 51 were calling “Feet Wet.” That meant that they were returning north away from Libya. “Tranquil Tiger” indicated a successful strike. “Frosty Freezer,” on the other hand, indicated an unsuccessful target run. The other gibberish about “Zulu Tango” meant nothing to Carter. Must be some Navy lingo, he thought.
“Left turn, heading 342, push it up,” barked Knife.
“Roger. Master Arm on,” replied Carter, pushing up jet’s throttles to increase the F-111’s speed to 600 knots for the final run towards the target area. Now was not the time to think about the other aircrews in his Wing; he had enough to do in his own cockpit—his own target to hit.
“One minute,” Carter said, calling out the readout from his heads-up display indicating the time remaining to weapons release.
In one minute, they would be over the airport tarmac releasing their twelve 500-pound, parachute-retarded bombs.
Carter watched the unbelievable light show unfolding ahead. It was almost beautiful, definitely surreal—but potentially lethal. Every single Libyan with a gun seemed to be firing wildly into the sky. Tracer rounds were scratching arcs of light all over. Eerily, he could see the bright illumination of the international terminal in the distance off to his left and could make out the individual civilian aircraft parked at the terminal. It would appear that no one on that side of airport was aware that an attack was underway and had not turned off any of the airport lighting. The attacking jets were fortunate; as it appeared that the Libyan gunners were shooting blindly. Carter realized that there was still an awful lot of lead in the sky ahead and he found himself fighting the urge to flinch.
Despite all the lethal mayhem around him, Carter’s training kicked in. He took a deep breath and scanned his instruments. Airspeed: five knots slow; speed up… Steering bars: very slight deflection to the left, ease the stick over in that direction to center it up... Altitude: steady at 200 feet... Threat scope: clear… TFR Radar: normal.
In the distance, a continuing series of explosions were lighting up the night sky over downtown Tripoli. Carter’s jet continued ever closer to the target; they were now within the airfield boundary. He could make out the blurred shadows of runways and taxiways whizzing by his speeding F-111.
“20 seconds,” Carter called out.
Chaff, chaff, Carter thought to himself as he clicked the chaff dispenser lever with the tips of the fingers of his left hand—releasing bundles of aluminum strips to confuse the Libyan radar operators. He continued to dispense chaff, knowing that from this point on, he must fly straight ahead without defensive maneuvering in order to get to the exact weapons release point.
Meanwhile, Knife was trying to decipher the unexpected picture he was seeing in his infrared scope. Seconds earlier, he had done his last-minute radar work—refining his position based on the placement of his cursors on the radar reflection of the control tower on the other side of the field. Although the tower was not their objective, he used its radar reflection to fix the position of the aircraft close enough to be able to find their intended target on his infrared scope. His pre-flight target study had told him that their target—the tarmac where the Libyans normally parked their transport aircraft—might not be visible on the aircraft’s radar. Seconds earlier, Knife had found the control tower on radar, and quickly updated the aircraft’s position.
With only twenty seconds remaining until weapons release, Knife was confused. He was not looking at the wide expanse of concrete he expected to see. Instead, he was looking at a narrow strip of concrete with stripes in the middle. In a flash, Knife realized they were flying right down the airport’s main runway, rather than the adjacent parking apron, which was his target.
With practiced skill, Knife’s fingers swiftly pushed a series of buttons to expand the field of view on his infrared screen. Near the right edge of the screen, Knife could make out the beginning of the military aircraft parking area. He quickly moved the jet’s infrared camera further to the right and could now see the wide expanse of the concrete apron. Knife knew that Carter would not see this change until he fired the F-111’s laser—updating the aircraft’s steering towards the target.
When the aircraft’s navigation system registered this last-minute change, Carter’s steering bars careened wildly to the right.
“What the—” was all Carter could get out before being interrupted by Knife’s reply.
“Break right! Go for it! Go for it!” screamed Knife, nearly blowing the oxygen mask off his face.
Carter slammed the stick to the right—reorienting the jet’s trajectory with the newly updated steering information. Just before the steering cue moved back toward the required position, Carter yanked the aircraft back to the left, rolling out on the perfect heading—while his right thumb pressed the pickle button, releasing their bombs.
“Oh Baby!” exclaimed Knife as the indistinguishable blobs on his scope transformed themselves into seven Soviet-built, IL-76 cargo aircraft neatly lined up on the ramp.
“Damn!” he blurted out, when his infrared screen erupted in a violent white flash of heat—the string of weapons exploding amongst the parked aircraft. Scores of weaponeers and intelligence experts would later evaluate his videotape to determine the extent of the damage. Although the battle damage assessment would happen later, Knife knew that most of those cargo aircraft would never fly again. Their flimsy aluminum outer skin no match for the explosive power of the string of Mk-82s he had just unleashed into their midst.
Suddenly, a violent explosion slammed the jet, tossing them brutally against their cockpit restraints. For the first time since their target run had started, Knife looked outside the jet’s canopy—half-expecting to see a wing tearing away from the fuselage. The video game he had been watching on his scope had suddenly turned all too real. They had definitely pissed off the locals who were now earnestly trying to shoot them out of the sky.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” he yelled, his voice betraying fear for the first time.
Carter was totally focused on doing just that. From the moment the last bomb had left the jet’s wings, he had been constantly jinking the aircraft and dropping metallic strips of chaff in an attempt to complicate the job of the Libyan anti-aircraft artillery gunners. Up to this point, Knife had been too intently focused on his Wizzo duties to appreciate—or even notice—the violent maneuvering that Carter was now commanding of their F-111.
As the jet screamed away from the target area, Knife switched off the Pave Tack system, causing the entire targeting pod to rotate back into its streamlined position in the jet’s belly. They both scanned the sky for further Triple-A fire or missile launches.
Later that night, after returning home to their base in England, they would learn that the explosion they felt over the target area was caused by one of their own Mk-82s going slick. Because its parachute had failed to deploy, the bomb had glided along just below and behind them, exploding dangerously close behind the tail of the jet. Carter’s textbook post-delivery hard turn had saved them from fragging themselves—from being blown up by their own bomb.
As the jet hurtled over the beach west of Tripoli, Carter could make out the twinkling of reflected starlight in the gentle waves of the Mediterranean. It was time for his delousing radio call.
“Puffy 61, Feet Wet, Tranquil Tiger,” Carter transmitted over the jet’s radio.
Once out of range of the Libyan defenses, Carter began a slow climb and scanned the instruments of his F-111 confirming his fuel status and making sure that the jet was still in good shape. The Libyan coast receding behind him and his heart rate slowly returning to normal, Carter took a deep breath and considered what had just happened.
Thank God! I’m alive… my jet is still flying. It looks like I did OK… I didn’t screw up.
Captain John Carter was a now combat veteran.
Copyright © 2008 John Cathcart
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