Military Aviation

Intruders over Libya: former A-6 crew members remember their participation in Operation El Dorado Canyon

“They shot at least two missiles at us. I’m screaming at the pilot to get back down and move the aircraft, which he does, but not before one of the missiles passes right behind us, where it explodes. I’ve never seen anything move that fast in my life – from a dot on the canopy to a streak right by the aircraft: VERY FAST!,” Lt. Joe Kuzmik, former A-6 B/N in VA-34.

By January 1986 President Reagan had declared Libya to be an `unusual and extraordinary’ threat to the United States that had to be dealt with. Sixth Fleet now consisted of two carrier battle groups, USS Saratoga (CV-60) (CVW-17) having just returned from the ‘IO’, and Coral Sea (CVW-13), which had been on station for several weeks. Back in Norfolk, America (CVW-1) was preparing for a March departure to join them.

As told by Rick Morgan in his book A-6 Intruder Units 1974-96, Operation Attain Document, a large FONOP, began on 15 January. Libya placed its forces on ‘full alert’ and declared that America was `practising state terrorism against a small, peaceful country’. Fighter aircraft from both sides jousted over the Gulf of Sidra but there were no shots exchanged this time. A month later, on 12 February, Sixth Fleet returned for Attain Document II, its vessels sailing across what was now being referred to as `The Line of Death’ due to Gaddafi’s frequently dire statements. Through it all the two A-6 Intruder squadrons (VA-85 aboard Saratoga and VA-55 aboard Coral Sea) present conducted surface search and tanker support for both air wings. Attain Document III, which began on 24 March, now included the recently arrived America (with the Intruders of VA-34 aboard), increasing Sixth Fleet’s strength to 26 warships and 250 aircraft, many of which were now operating well into the Gulf of Sidra in what was clearly viewed as a provocative act by Libya.

Shooting started at 1452 hrs on the 24th when Libyan SA-5 missile batteries at Sirte launched SAMs at orbiting F-14 Tomcats. The US Navy responded with radar jamming and HARM shots. This pre-planned action, now referred to as Operation Prairie Fire, continued until evening when, at 2100 hrs, an E-2C picked up a single Libyan patrol boat headed north towards the three carrier battle groups. The vessel, the 250-ton French-built La Combattante II-class missile craft Waheed, was engaged by VA-34 Intruders, which fired Harpoon missiles for the first time in combat. A section of VA-85 aircraft followed up with Mk 20 `Rockeye’ cluster bombs, which finished off vessel.

While the Libyans continued to shoot he odd SAM at US Navy aircraft (none of which connected), at 2335 hrs a 560-ton Libyan Nanuchka-class corvette was engaged by Rockeye-dropping ‘Black FaIcons’, which held their Harpoons back due to friendly surface traffic in the area. The heavily damaged warship was able to limp back into port. Finally, on the morning of the 25th, another of the Soviet-built Nanuchkas was attacked, this time by VA-55 aircraft off Coral Sea. The vessel took a pattern of CBU-59 Anti-Personnel/Anti-Material bombs and then a Harpoon ‘chaser’ from a VA-85 A-6E. The corvette, burning furiously eventually sank.

The identities of the two Libyan corvettes have been confused ever since. Official US Navy documentation says the first ship was the Ain Zaquit and the second vessel — the one sunk — the Ain Mara. The authoritative Jane’s Group, however, states that the two names are reversed, and that Ain Mara was the first ship attacked and would subsequently travel to the USSR for repairs and eventually return to Libya in 1991 as the Tariq ibn Ziyad.

It was at about this point that both sides backed off and separated to catch their breath. Saratoga departed for home and the remaining two carriers went back to routine business. The apparent bloody nose his forces had received did not stop Gaddafi’s rhetoric, however, and he vowed to (paraphrase) ‘continue the struggle until victory’. On 5 April a nightspot in Berlin was bombed, killing two American, servicemen. Libya was immediately implicated and the stage was set for the next action.

Ten days later US forces launched coordinated strikes into Libya itself. Referred to as Operation El Dorado Canyon, the event would involve Intruders from both remaining carriers and USAF F-111s flying out of Lakenheath, in Suffolk. Targets would be in Tripoli and Benghazi. VA-34 would strike the al-Jamahiriya military barracks in downtown Benghazi while the ‘War Horses’ went after Benina airfield on the outskirts of Tripoli. The USAF’s goal was Tripoli airfield and specific political locations in the city itself. Backing up those going over the beach would be a huge array of support aircraft performing defence suppression, MiG CAP, tanking and command and control.

With the UK-based F-111s having already been airborne for several hours, America began to launch aircraft at 0045 hrs on 15 April — six ‘Rlue Blasters’ and an equal number of A-7Es (armed with AGM-45 Shrike or AGM-88 HARM) made up the strike group. While the Corsair IIs would remain over water keeping the Libyan air defence force’s heads down (they were ably to assisted in this role by the EA-6Bs of VMAQ-2 Det Y, which was also part of CVW-1), the ‘Blaster’ would go over the beach.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-6E Intruder VA-35 Black Panthers, AJ502 / 151582 / 1977

As reported by Mark Morgan & Rick Morgan in their book Intruder: The Operational History of Grumman’s A-6, according to Blue Blaster B/N Lt Dee Mewbourne there were a few immediate difficulties:

“We had some problems with getting good targeting information from the ship. There wasn’t much in the intell library on Libya or the targets in question. Still, we planned a high-speed attack, launched under EMCON, and performed a very interesting high-speed rendezvous. We went in as low and as covert as possible. The SINS wasn’t working and the radars weren’t lit off until we approached the coast.

“We managed to fly past Benghazi; as we turned into the coast we noted the radar predictions didn’t match what we were seeing. Aircraft one and three turned back north then east, and entered the target area as planned. The four others came in from the opposite direction and entered the target area as planned. The CO (Cmdr. Coleman, with Lt. Cmdr. Bill ‘Frog Balls’ Ballard) dropped the first bombs and No. 2 did a visual delivery. We did a backup delivery and got good hits on the target, as did everyone. The last three aircraft used Offset Aim Points and plastered the front gate.”

VA-34’s Lts. Joe Kuzmik and Bob Ayres were in dash six; Kuzmik has similar recollections of their squadron’s raid on Benghazi:

“I was a pretty junior B/N in VA-34 and didn’t expect to fly the strike. We’d spent a lot of time working up plans for a variety of targets, and only found out that the F-111s would be involved about two days prior. At that time we were told to expect only four Intruders over our targets in Benghazi, which left me out. About a day prior we were told to send six, and my pilot, Bob Ayres, and I were laid on as dash-last. The target was the Revolutionary Guards barracks in downtown Benghazi, which was directed by higher authority, as was the bomb load. Four aircraft carried 16 Mk.82 Snakeyes, the last two eight Mk.83 1000-pounders with high drag mine fins (true Snakeye fins being unavailable for the Mk.83 at the time). Our plan was to go in very low in a bomber stream, a series of aircraft in a line. We would be the last over the target and well after the Skipper, which meant the air defenses would be fully alerted by the time we got there.

“We covey launched from America with three bombers chasing a single KA-6D, executed a 1000-foot night over-water rendezvous, took gas, and setup for the push time. This sounds a lot easier than it really was. After the push we went in at 500-feet and were at 300-ft by coast-in. We weren’t even feet dry when we could see the skipper’s bombs going off, as well as some AAA and at least two SA-2s airborne. This was still five minutes before our TOT, so we knew things would be fully stirred up by the time we got there.”

Kuzmik and Ayres were absolutely right about the reception, as Kuzmik continues:

“From feet dry we were 15 seconds to TOT, so we elevated to 500-ft AGL and I found the predicted radar points, The FLIR was down, which was no big deal, since I wasn’t planning to use it in a fully lit-up city anyway. The bombs came off at the right time, and we made a 5G turn back to the water. I’d never seen that much ordnance explode at night before, and that — along with the flashes from our chaff squibs — initially made me think we were taking a lot of AAA; or maybe even on fire.

“It was during the egress that we ran into trouble.”

He adds:

“We got indications of SAM activity and started jinking. We ballooned up to 1,200-ft and immediately were locked onto by an SA-3 site. They shot at least two missiles at us. I’m screaming at the pilot to get back down and move the aircraft, which he does, but not before one of the missiles passes right behind us, where it explodes. I’ve never seen anything move that fast in my life – from a dot on the canopy to a streak right by the aircraft: VERY FAST! Meanwhile, we were headed back to the ground in a big hurry, and we bottomed out at about 150-ft with a 5G pullout. We’d almost hit the ground trying to dodge the SAMS but had made it.”

The Rob Weber’s Warhorses were scheduled to launch eight A-6Es from Coral Sea and strike Benghazi’s Benina Airfield, while Air Wing 13 EA-6Bs and F/A-18s kept the Libyan air defense units’ heads down. Two Intruders aborted after launch, in strict accordance with the ROE, the which required “fully up” systems to reduce the chances of bombs hitting civilian targets. The remaining six A-6s dropped their loads of cluster weapons dead on target and were credited with the destruction of three MiG-23 Floggers, two Mi-8 helos, and one Dutch-built Fokker F-27 turboprop transport. They also inflicted damage on several other aircraft and hangar facilities at the field while trashing the runways. Reports on the urban area targets were more mixed, but afterwards VA-34 reported:

“… (the squadron) struck Libyan terrorist barracks and aircraft storage facilities, inflicting over 70 casualties to the enemy and virtually eliminating Libyan MiG-23 spare parts inventory.”

The USAF F-111Fs hit their targets as well, and benefiting from a much better video recording system than the Intruder carried, had their FLIR imagery featured on news reports worldwide – a point noted by the US Navy. One F-111 was lost with its crew, while the remaining aircraft returned to England (with one diverting into Spain) alter an impressive 15-hour combat flight.

While the US Navy quickly stated that El Dorado Canyon had achieved its limited objectives, the US State Department would later say that Gaddafi continued his sponsorship of international terrorism — a view that was supported by the destruction of a Pan Am Airlines Boeing 747 over Scotland on 21 December 1988. The violent loss of a French airliner over Chad the following year was also traced to Libyan agents. Nonetheless the US government still asserted that ‘the United States had not only the means but the will to deal effectively with international terrorism’.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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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