B-52 STRIKE ON IRAQ
January 16, 1991; 1900 Hours:
That simple announcement from “Moondog,” our radar navigator, triggered a flurry of activity. We were going to war with Iraq.
Jamming last-minute gear into our helmet bags and survival kits, we jumped on a crew bus, and headed for the mission briefing. As one of the designated lead B-52G crews, we had been on alert at Diego Garcia since deploying to the Indian Ocean island in August 1990. Twenty bombers were cocked and ready, already loaded with the first mission’s load of 36 UK-1000 time-delay weapons.
The bus trip was quiet, but there were lots of nervous glances exchanged. None of us had flown a combat mission before, and General Chuck Horner had told us a few weeks ago that the loss rate for a low-level B-52 strike was expected to be more than 30%. I kept looking at a picture of my six-week-old daughter, acutely aware that I hadn’t seen her yet.
Crews filed into the operations building for our “Mass Brief”–a last minute update of the latest intelligence on five airfield targets that would be hit simultaneously. For weeks, we’d been studying our target, an Iraqi dispersal airfield. Much later, we learned that Iraq’s 45th Mechanized Infantry Division happened to be located there.
The plan hadn’t changed–crank-up 20 Buffs and launch 19. Thirteen aircraft were designated as “primaries,” and six were airborne spares that would return to the island after everybody completed airborne systems checks. At the flightline, crews quickly finished their preflights and started engines. Soon, 19 bombers, plus 12 KC-135 and seven KC-10 tankers started the “elephant walk,” sequencing for takeoff. Hundreds of troops lined the taxiways, waving as we slowly rolled towards the runway.
Our B-52 was right at its maximum takeoff weight of 488,000 lb., so takeoff was squirrely. Tinker, our pilot, and Larry, his copilot, did one hell of a job, using every bit of runway and lifting off in the overrun. Impressively, all 38 aircraft were off in about 40 minutes–and with no aborts.
The fleet fanned out to designated tanker tracks, setting up for the first of three inflight refuelings that night. During the six-hour outbound flight to Saudi Arabia, we refueled twice, taking on 100,000 pounds of JP-4. Our first hook-up occurred very close to a bank of thunderstorms, adding another element of unnecessary excitement.
As we approached Riyadh, our pilots started a descent to stay under Iraq’s early-warning radar net. The five bomber cells split, picking up individual ingress routes. Three cells consisted of three aircraft; the other two were two-ships. Because Number-3 in our cell couldn’t get his radar warning gear to work properly, Tinker ordered him to wait for us south of Riyadh. We’d pick him up on our return.
By the time we crossed Tapline Road near the Saudi/Iraqi border, we were on our planned conditions–300 ft. and 360 kt. The intercom was dead silent, while Chappie, our electronic warfare officer, listened for the telltale rasp of radars searching for targets–our bombers. Gunner Bob, the tail gunner, also was listening intently, fingers poised by the chaff and flare controls.
The gunner’s radar and our terrain avoidance/mapping and Doppler navigation radars were turned off, keeping radio frequency emissions to a bare minimum. Both pilots were wearing night vision goggles–augmented by a forward-looking infrared (flir) system and radar altimeter–to enable flying an aggressive low-altitude profile through the darkness. We were all amazed to hear the number of aircraft checking in with AWACS. The air environment reminded us of a Red Flag exercise–except, so far, this was going a lot smoother.
At the pre-IP (Initial Point), our formation split into individual flight tracks, setting up for the planned multi-axis attack. Now the real work began. For a successful strike, we had to compress aircraft spacing as much as possible. We were dropping time-delay weapons, requiring 20-second spacing between B-52s crossing over the target. That meant that, after a 3,000-mi., 6-hr. flight, I had to ensure we crossed our target within ± 5-sec.
Timing was complicated by two restrictions–the B-52’s bomb door maximum airspeed of 390 KIAS, and the 370-KIAS minimum-release airspeed for UK-1000 bombs. My plan was to hit the IP 4 sec. late, accelerate to 390 KIAS, and cross the target as fast as possible–but on-time to avoid running into the other bombers.
About 5 min. from the IP, Larry saw AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) arcing up from the northeast horizon. We knew F-117 stealth fighters had hit Baghdad, and the AAA response was spreading like ripples on a pond. Larry kept narrating as the AAA got closer, and Tinker nudged the bomber lower until we were 150 ft. above the desert. When Larry yelled “Jink,” I knew we were taking fire. We hit the IP 4 sec. late and I called for a turn and acceleration to the target.
Tinker, in the midst of evasive jinking, asked for an airspeed check. I said, “barber pole,” meaning he could push the eight throttles up enough to match the Buff’s max indicated airspeed. With Tinker’s hands full of big airplane, Larry watched for AAA and infrared-guided missiles coming up at us, while adjusting the throttles to keep us on my timeline.
After flying 4 hr. without it, Moondog lit-up the radar to scan our target, and, for the only time during the entire Gulf War, got excited. The radar, GPS and inertial systems laid the crosshairs squarely over the target’s center. Moondog started yelling, “I’m on it! I’m on it!” Chappie and Gunner Bob kept calling “Clear,” meaning there were no threat radars or fighters tracking us.
At about 20 sec.-to-go, I called “Track,” and Tinker aligned the Buff to our inbound release track. We only had a ± 5-deg. tolerance. At 10 sec., I called “Committed,” the signal to pop-up to our 300-ft. release altitude and maintain wings-level over the target. As I started counting the seconds to release, Larry called, “Heavy AAA over my window,” but evasive maneuvering was no longer an option. At 2 sec.-to-go, Larry called “Hitting the tail,” followed by my “Release” call. The jet rocked side-to-side as 1,200-lb. bombs cycled off the racks.
I counted up to the “Stop Release Time”–which prevented bombs from spilling out of the target area–then called “EAR,” clearing Moondog to hit the Emergency Arm Release and dump any remaining weapons on the target. Checking that the release lights were out, I called “racks clear,” and Tinker dived back to 150 ft. We were getting the hell out of Dodge.
After what seemed like hours, the AAA fire died down, and we were able to stop evasive maneuvering. Our next tasks were to rejoin six other bombers coming off-target, get through the “de-louse corridor” to make sure an unfriendly aircraft hadn’t tagged along, and cross the Saudi border to safety.
At Tapline Road, Tinker started a slow climb. We were still wound-up emotionally, but the cockpit was quiet. Larry, whose dad was a Vietnam-era Green Beret and Medal of Honor recipient, broke the adrenaline spell and put our mission in perspective.
“You know what this means? Twenty-five-cent beers at the VFW!” With that thought, we settled in for a 6-hr. flight home.
After 15 hr. in the air, we led the strike force back to Diego Garcia’s crowded ramp. Incredibly, the only damage to our jet were holes in the left wing where a few 12.7 mm shells had found their mark.
A celebratory beer, 12 hr. of crew rest, and we were prepared to do it again. This was going to be a tiring war.