Aviation History

Former F-117 Pilot tells the story of when his Nighthawk was nearly shot down over Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm

“There was AAA everywhere, and I could see these big white puffs and red ropes getting closer and closer. They were gaining on me every second, and were now only 25-30 ft off my wing…” Capt James R Mastny, former F-117 Pilot

The end result of the USAF’s Have Blue programme launched in the mid-1970s, the F-1 17 was developed by Lockheed’s legendary Advanced Development Company. Embodying Stealth technology which made the jet virtually invisible to radar, the first of 59 production aircraft was delivered to the USAF in August 1982.

An F-117 stealth fighter aircraft takes off on its return flight to the United States following deployment to the region during Operation Desert Storm.

The last Nighthawk was delivered to the USAF in mid-1990, and in August of that year the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) deployed en masse to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. F-117s subsequently led the opening strikes of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.

By the end of the first day of Desert Storm, it was evident that Iraqi radar could not detect the F-117s. Nevertheless, the sites that had survived the initial onslaught that marked the start of the aerial campaign were doing their level best to aid in the shooting down of a Nighthawk. Radar operators could detect USAF tankers orbiting over the Saudi border, and assumed that they were refuelling the F-117s, as no other returns were received. When the tankers turned away, the Iraqis concluded that the `invisible’ bombers had crossed into their airspace. Timing the gap between that event and the first bombs falling on Baghdad would, they reasoned, be when they should start firing in the hope of hitting something, Capt James R Mastny (Bandit No 268) explained in Warren Thompson’s book F-117 Stealth Fighter Units of Operation Desert Storm;

`During the first couple of days of the war, when we were sending wave after wave of Nighthawks over downtown Baghdad, the Iraqis still had enough early warning radars in operation to see the tankers because we were refuelling only 45 miles south of the border. Once we had topped off our tanks, we had a strict time over target, which usually meant we would go straight there from the tanker. They could detect us while we were on the tanker, but when we broke of and completely stealthed up, we were invisible.

`During the first 48 hours of the war the Iraqi radar controllers must have figured out our target times, for all of a sudden, while we were lining our aim points up on the third night, all hell broke loose. They began firing everything they had straight up in the air. On earlier missions the firing didn’t start until the first bombs exploded, so we knew they couldn’t detect us.’

The first time this happened, the pilots reported it to their Intelligence people and a new tactic was devised — targeting Iraqi assets outside Baghdad. Sure enough, at the time when the Iraqis’ assumed the F-117s were overhead the city, the sky lit up, yet no Nighthawks were in the area! Having proven that the Iraqis were using flight timings when it came to targeting the stealth fighters, the pilots of the 37th TFW(P) never again flew to Baghdad in a straight line. This in turn meant that their arrival times over their targets varied significantly, suitably confusing the Iraqi defenders. Some waves would hit targets within the city while others would concentrate on areas outside the capital.

In order to survive the nightly AAA firestorm over Baghdad, the Nighthawks had to remain unpredictable. Yet despite changing their tactics, the stealth pilots still had numerous close shaves due to the sheer amount of tracer being fired blindly into the night sky. Capt Mastny was amongst those to think that his number had come up during an early mission over Baghdad;

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.  F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth) 49th OG, 8th FS “The Black Sheep Squadron”, HO/88-843, Holoman AFB, NM – 2008

`There was no way to describe the intensity of the fire coming up from the ground. They had an endless supply of ammunition. One night I was more scared than on any of the others. I thought this was when I was going to be hit and have to bail out. Moments earlier, I had put my bombs on the targets, and I was now leaving the city with my throttle wide open.

`By leaning forward in the seat, you could get a pretty good view to the rear. As I was looking back over the sweep of my left wing, I saw the sky light up soon after my bombs had hit the target. There was AAA everywhere, and I could see these big white puffs and red ropes getting closer and closer. They were gaining on me every second, and were now only 25-30 ft off my wing. I believe the gunners were tracking me by the sound of my engines — they were doing a very good job of it, but I doubt that they had radar-guided guns. They either caught a glimpse of my aircraft or were shooting at the sound. Just about the time figured I was going to take one, I evidently went out of range, and it aII drifted behind me. If they’d had bigger guns, I think they’d have ailed me.

‘My biggest fear was not dying, but being captured. The enemy would have given anything to get their hands on an F-117 pilot. The flak I saw on that mission was just about every colour you could imagine — red, yellow, green and white.’

An F-117A aircraft from the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (37th TFW) moves in for a midair refueling during Operation Desert Shield.

F-117 Stealth Fighter Units of Operation Desert Storm is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force 

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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