Military Aviation

Former F-14 Tomcat RIO tells the story of a tense mission flown during Operation Iraqi Freedom

“Our wingman F-14’ engine then stalled again, and in the ensuing melee I watched him cross-planform directly in front of the tanker — I instinctively ducked, waiting for the ensuing fireball that would kill us all,” VF-154 Black Knights RIO

Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was a huge success for the F-14 squadrons committed to the action. Tomcat pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs) flew myriad missions in their 52 jets, performing air defence, forward air controlling (airborne), strike coordination, reconnaissance and photo-reconnaissance missions and precision bombing across Iraq.

VF-154’s war was undoubtedly the most unusual of any of the Tomcat units committed to OIF. Deployed on its final cruise with the F-14A as part of CVW-5, the ‘Black Knights’ arrived on station in the far north of the NAG aboard Kitty Hawk on Feb. 26, 2003.

Prior to the squadron’s spring deployment, VF-154 had tailored its training to maximise its precision strike capabilities, including dedicated training in target acquisition in urban environments. During CVW-5 work-ups, the unit was directly responsible for developing standardised precision FAC(A) and CAS tactics for the entire air wing.

Once in-theatre, VF-154’s pre-deployment focus on the air-to-ground mission allowed it to work with many different assets as CVW-5 looked to expand its role both in Expeditionary Warfare and precision CAS in the combat environment. After short notice tasking from CENTCOM, VF-154 detached four crews (augmented by FAC(A) instructors recently drafted in from NSAWC) and four jets to Al Udeid air base, in Qatar. With combat operations looming, these crews quickly scheduled multiple training events to teach SCAR (Strike Coordination Armed Reconnaissance) to the inter-Coalition and inter-service assets based at Al Udeid. Whilst ashore, VF-154 worked closely with RAF Tornado GR 4s, USAF F-15Es, F-16CGs and F-16CJs and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F/A-18As.

A VF-154 RIO who was one of the FAC(A)-qualified naval aviators chosen to fly from Qatar provided Tony Holmes for his book U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the following account of a mission he participated in from Al Udeid on Apr. 3;

`It was supposed to be a six-hour “Black Knight” division FAC(A) flight in support of ground forces. Three hours prior to take-off, we received our intelligence update, and then briefed with our strike assets. Tonight, we’d have four F-15Es and two F-16CJs as our primary strikers. Three weeks of briefing with the same guys made for an expeditious proceeding. After the brief, we geared up and piled into the minivan for the drive to the flightline – while minivans may be good for “soccer mums”, they’re not very accommodating for eight fully dressed aviators.

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS

‘Ten minutes later we arrived on the flightline and quickly read the Aircraft Discrepancy Books. We’d been flying the same jets for the last three weeks, so we only gave the books a cursory glance. We then grabbed a few bottles of water and walked to the aircraft. After start-up we taxied out to the runway, each jet armed with four GBU- 12 LGBs apiece. One of the cool things about taking off from Qatar was the requirement to be  above 15,000 ft (thus negating the MANPAD threat) prior to actually leaving the airfield  boundaries! Two minutes after the first of our F-14s had rolled, we had all joined up at 23,000 ft and proceeded feet wet over the NAG on our way to Iraq.

‘An hour later the sun had completely set, we had finished our first airborne refuelling and we were proceeding west in search of our next tanker. Within 30 minutes all four F-14 crews had topped off for the second time and were finally ready to check in with our controlling agency. The latter informed us that we were still on schedule, and that the ground forces were waiting for us in central Iraq. For the purpose of continuity, we split into two sections so that we could constantly have eyes in the target area while the other section refuelled.

‘As the first section worked its way towards the specific element that we were supporting, it became apparent that the friendlies on the ground had taken some casualties from a car bomb that had been set off. Our first mission of the night would he to sanitise the area of any threats so we could medevac out the casualties. After reconnoitring the area, the lead section discovered a hostile vehicle driving towards the landing zone and eliminated it with a GBU-1 2. They then proceeded to fly high cover for the medevac helicopter, escorting it back to friendly forces.

‘The second “Black Knight” section then arrived on scene and proceeded to protect the ground forces from any threat proceeding from the lake side of the nearby Hadditha Dam, on which the friendlies had set up their defensive position. We were very concerned that the Iraqis would attempt to breach the dam in an attempt to flood the Euphrates River which ran through the valley below it, as well as Karbala to the south.

‘Right about then we were fired on by several AAA pieces from southwest of the dam. Using NVGs, and slaving the FLIR to the HUD, we were able to roll in on the AAA and destroy a weapon with an LGB. Wanting to save some of our ordnance for follow on “pop up” threats, we called in two F-1 5Es and guided their LGBs onto adjacent AAA pieces.

‘At about this time the lead section arrived back on scene, and after a FAC-to-FAC turnover, they relieved us. We then got word from our buddies on the ground that one of their reconnaissance units had discovered more AAA pieces at an airfield five kilometres south of the dam. They asked us to check it out, and after some searching, we were able to find about ten S-60 AAA weapons dispersed around the airfield. After dropping one LGB to mark the target for our USAF brethren, we turned the remainder over for them to destroy. Now reaching bingo fuel, the lead section headed for the tanker, and then home, as the second section arrived back on scene.

‘I don’t know if the Iraqis to the southwest of the dam thought we had left or not, but they started shooting AAA at it soon after the lead section departed. Quickly finding the AAA piece on NVGs and FLIR, we passed two sets of coordinates to a section of F-16s and told them to put a JDAM on each of them. We orbited overhead and watched on our FLIR as both JDAM shacked their intended targets. Having destroyed the remaining AAA pieces to the southwest, we passed off the FAC(A) roll to a section of A-10s and headed south to find our second to last tanker of the night.

‘Unfortunately the weather was now starting to roll in, and after some attempts to get the tanker to clear air, we finally gave up and rendezvoused in the “goo’. Our wingman, being lower on fuel, would tank first. Just as he was plugging in, he had an engine compressor stall and disappeared into the darkness below. Not having a lot of fuel, or time, to play with, we decided to tank while he rejoined. After a couple of minutes, and some radio calls, he magically appeared off our right wing. His engine then stalled again, and in the ensuing melee I watched him cross-planform directly in front of the tanker — I instinctively ducked, waiting for the ensuing fireball that would kill us all. Fortunately, he just missed the tanker and disappeared down our left side back into the darkness. I can honestly say that was the scariest moment of my life.

`Tragedy averted, we managed to finish refuelling our section and then headed back east towards our last tanker. After completing our final tanking evolution, we flew back out over the Gulf, turned south and tracked down the aerial highway to Qatar. Forty minutes later we checked in with Base Ops to ascertain the status of the field. Base Ops replied that they were in the middle of a huge sandstorm, and that we could try to shoot the approach or divert to a different base. We decided that we had enough fuel to try to get down at Qatar and divert if we couldn’t land.

`Surprisingly, we were able to see the field at 15 miles and set up for individual straight-in approaches. We could see the runway clear as day until we lost sight of everything when we flew into the sandstorm at a height of just 100 ft above the ground. Our wingman, one mile in trail, immediately told us that he had lost sight of us. It was as if we had flown into a tunnel. Just as we were about to wave it off, we picked up the runway’s centreline lights and landed. Relaying this information to our wingman, and calling out our runway positions, he was able to land behind us.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14A Tomcat VF-154 Black Knights, NH100 / 161866 / 2003

‘The sandstorm was so bad that we were forced to taxi back to our line at a snail’s pace, with lighting normally visible at a mile only becoming identifiable when directly abeam us. As it turns out, the “Black Knights” were the only aircraft able to land at Qatar that night. All of our USAF and Coalition buddies were ordered to divert and sit by their aircraft all night, before returning the following morning.’

While the specifics relating to what was bombed, and just how the Al Udeid detachment went about servicing its numerous targets, remain largely classified, it has been revealed that these crews were responsible for developing new tactics, techniques and procedures for operating with multi-service SOF teams. The five crews flew daily missions specifically briefed to support individual ground units, and in one 48-hour period the ‘Black Knights’ detachment flew 14 sorties, totalling over 100 hours of flight time.

According to VF-154’s post-cruise summary of its contribution to OIF, FAC(A) crews on the beach amassed more than 300 combat hours and delivered in excess of 50,000 lbs of ordnance (98 GBU-12s) in 21 days of flying with their five jets.

Photo credit: Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Todd Frantom, Mate 3rd Class John E. Woods and Chief Photographer’s Mate Spike Call

U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Artwork courtesy of

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.

Recent Posts

That time Thunderbirds delayed their display because they were scared by an SR-71 doing a low-level fly by in afterburner above their F-16s

The Blackbird The SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft was the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft and the most… Read More

5 hours ago

C-130 crew members explain why they didn’t carry parachutes to abandon the Hercules in flight

The ejection seat In aircraft, an ejection seat is a system designed to rescue the… Read More

2 days ago

Iconic USMC AV-8B Harrier jump jet flies final public performance at Cherry Point Air Show

AV-8B Harrier jump jet flies final public performance On May 11 and 12, 2024, Marine… Read More

2 days ago