‘I immediately selected AB, rolled the aircraft inverted, and pulled. All this while keeping the SA-2s on the beam. I was at 25,000 [feet] when I started for the deck and levelled at about 10,000,’ Jim Schreiner, former F-4G Wild Weasel pilot.
The F-4G Wild Weasel was s dedicated SEAD variant for the US Air Force (USAF) with updated radar and avionics, converted from F-4E. The F-4G mission was to attack enemy air defenses, including surface-to-air missile (SAM) air defense radars.
Carrying AGM-88A/B/C High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), the F-4G worked in concert with other F-4Gs or as a hunter aircraft directing fighter-bombers, such as the F-16, against SAM sites. The F-4G carried a pilot and an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), who navigated, assisted with communications and coordinated attacks on the SAM sites. The F-4G Wild Weasel first flew in 1975 and was retired in 1996.
F-4Gs from George AFB and Spangdahlem AB were deployed to Sheikh Isa AB, Bahrain, for Operation Desert Storm in 1991. At the time the F-4G was the only aircraft in the USAF inventory equipped for the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) role, and during the conflict successfully protected strike packages from Iraqi air defenses.
An exciting F-4G sortie flown to protect a B-52 strike package performing a bombing mission over Iraq is described in Brick Eisel (a former USAF officer) and Jim Schreiner (a former F-4G pilot from 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron at George AFB who flew the aircraft during Desert Storm) book Magnum! The Wild Weasels in Desert Storm.
In the night of Jan. 19, 1991, Schreiner and his backseater, Dan Sharp, were flying as the #2 of a four ship, call sign Longhorn 31, flight led by Major Steve ‘Teach’ Jenni and Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), Captain Mark ‘Gucci’ Buccigrossi. Schreiner was Longhorn 32. As Eisel explains “the mission for the flight was to provide direct support for a cell of Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses dropping some fifty-four bombs weighing 750 lb each on the dug in positions of one of Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guard armoured divisions. The B-52, nicknamed since its Vietnam days as the ‘BUFF’, for Big Ugly Fat Fucker, had paid a fearsome toll to North Vietnamese SA-2s in the earlier conflict. Planners for Desert Storm wanted to ensure things went better for this fight. The Longhorn flight would go in ahead of the BUFFs and target and kill the SA-2s and any other SAM that had the altitude range to reach the bombers in their high 30,000 feet track. It was a high priority, do or die mission for the Weasels.”
Noteworthy, since their F-4G experienced a failure to its digital ARN-101 navigation system during the previous sortie, Schreiner and Sharp had to switch two spare aircraft a procedure that delayed their and Jenni and Buccigrossi take off. Schreiner remembers: “3 & 4 were long gone and lead, tired of waiting for us, decided to take off without us. I could tell he was pissed because as he taxied by, he twirled his hand above his helmet, telling us to hurry up. At the time, he didn’t realise we were on our third jet. Sweating profusely by this time, I rapidly completed the preflight and got the jet running. Fortunately, everything worked and we were out of the chocks in record time. I called tower for take off clearance and was told to wait for three aircraft landing. The last one was an emergency and might take the barrier and close the runway. Luckily, he didn’t and we were off, but twenty minutes late.I proceeded to the tanker as fast as the Phantom would go without using afterburner – about 540 knots groundspeed. Not bad considering a 50-knot headwind and all the shit we were carrying [besides the HARM missiles the aircraft had three 1,000 gallons external fuel tanks]. It was a little sporty at the tanker with him flying in and out of a cloud layer. The fact that I was a little nervous didn’t make it any easier. After taking a full load of fuel, we proceeded direct to the target area.”
Schreiner and Sharp made their target time and rejoined the flight. Then, as Eisel explains “at about 0207, Buccigrossi detected an SA-2 in search mode short of the BUFFs’ intended target. Needing to deal with this threat but not wanting to strip all Weasel coverage from the bombers, he directed Longhorn 31 and 32 dealt with this problem.”
Said Buccigrossi “We picked up the SA-2’s signal – first in search mode and then rapidly switch to targeting. We then pickled a HARM at it.”
Schreiner’s view of the event was: “At the TOT for the BUFFs, we saw many explosions on the ground as they salvoed. At the same time, we picked a ‘2 bar’ on the SA-2 from the APR-47 [‘2 bar’ was shorthand for saying the system had picked up strong, reliable indications of an SA-2D/E SAM, an improved version of the original SA-2]. It went from range unknown to range known to tracking indications to a firing indication in about as much time as it takes to read this sentence. Lead said he was working the signal so we didn’t shoot, although, in retrospect, we should have because it was the only chance we’d have.”
Buccigrossi continues his part of the story: “We were at medium altitude at around 350 knots. There was a cloud base around 1,800-2000 feet AGL [Above Ground Level]. We picked up an orange glow below the cloud deck at our nine o’clock. Popping through the undercast, we saw two SA-2s tracking towards us. Teach and I both saw them, so as he rolled the jet, I put out chaff and hit the switches for the ECM pod. Both missiles continued towards our six o’clock but climbed while we descended fairly rapidly. I watched the missiles explode behind us.”
According to Eisel seconds after avoiding that first pair of SAMs, the Longhorn flight was targeted again. Longhorn 31 saw a second pair of missiles arc toward them from their two o’clock position. Again, they evaded the SAMs, trading altitude and airspace for distance from the warheads. The missiles guided to just behind them and detonated with no damage to their F-4G.
Buccigrossi continues: “Immediately after those two exploded, we saw a third set on our left side, so away we went again, down and around, to avoid these guys. The missiles couldn’t turn hard enough to stay with us, so for the third time in about ninety seconds, they tracked behind us and exploded. The good news was that in less than two minutes, we’d avoided six SAMs and made that site shoot his whole wad, so they wouldn’t be able to shoot again at the BUFFs until they’d reloaded and that would take them too long. The bad news was that with all our turning and burning, we’d dropped down into AAA range. I looked down at our gauges and saw that we were below 10,000 feet and under 300 knots. I told Teach to climb or speed up and he said, ‘I’m working on it’.”
From Schreiner’s cockpit: “I looked in the direction of the launch indication on the scope and saw a sight I’d never hoped to see. SA-2 missiles were headed towards us! I immediately selected AB [afterburner], rolled the aircraft inverted, and pulled. All this while keeping the SA-2s on the beam. I was at 25,000 [feet] when I started for the deck and levelled at about 10,000. It was a standard manoeuvre we’d practised in training but for safety reasons weren’t allowed to try at night – amazing how physics and the airplane work the same at night as during the day. As I did this, I told Dan to hit the chaff and ECM pod. Apparently, the combination of all three did the trick because one by one, I watched them arc harmlessly away and self-destruct at the end of their life. After we avoided the SAMs, I rolled level and saw a blue glow outside. Our -47 wasn’t showing any threats, so I couldn’t figure out what the glow was. Then I realised I was still in afterburner, and the glow was the flames from my engines. What a perfect advertisement for our position! So I pulled the throttles back and started climbing so we could work that site again.”
Longhorn 31 had also used a lot of gas avoiding the six SAMs, and being as they carried only one tank they were short on gas and couldn’t hang around. They RTB’d (returned to base), flying due south into Saudi Arabia where they landed at a base, got gas, and flew back to Sheikh Isa.
Schreiner and Sharp, having taken the spare configured with three tanks, had more gas and stayed in the area, even after the B-52s departed, trying to nail the SA-2 site that had gotten their attention so dramatically. They landed at Sheikh Isa at around 0315.
As a result of their efforts in protecting the B-52s and avoiding the six SA-2s in those few seconds, (then) Major Steve Jenny and Captain Mark Buccigrossi were awarded the Silver Star, the third highest award for valour in the face of the enemy in the US military.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force