On Apr. 14, 1986, at 5:13 p.m., U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-111F Aardvarks from the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) took off from Royal Air Force (RAF) Lakenheath on the orders of President Ronald Reagan.
As explained by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew, 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs, in the article Remembering Operation El Dorado Canyon: 30th Anniversary, the airstrike was in response to the terrorist bombing of the La Belle Discotheque in West Berlin on Apr. 5 that claimed the lives of two U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 200 people.
The operation, designated “El Dorado Canyon,” was the conclusion of extensive joint service and multinational military cooperation designed to ensure the complete and total destruction of terrorist training camps linked to the attack in the African nation of Libya.
Actually as reported by Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D., in his article 1986 – Operation El Dorado Canyon, the relationship between the U.S. and Libya was marred by accusations of terrorist activity and charges of weapons smuggling and espionage since the 1960s.
Tensions between the two nations came to a head in 1986.
In Jan. of that year in fact the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Libya. In Mar., the U.S. Navy retaliated after Libyan forces launched surface to air missiles at Navy aircraft. On Apr. 2, 1986, the U.S. government blamed Libya for the deaths of four people who were killed when a bomb exploded on TWA flight 840 over Argos, Greece. Finally, on Apr. 5, terrorists bombed the La Belle Discotheque.
The U.S. claimed “exact, precise, and irrefutable” evidence of Libyan involvement and launched Operation El Dorado Canyon.
Five EF-111s from RAF Heyford along with U.S. KC-135 and KC-10 tankers from RAFs Mildenhall and Fairford, joined the strike force as they embarked on their 7,000 mile roundtrip flight, operating in complete radio silence.
The F-111s faced a 3,500 mile flight with four aerial refueling each way due to flight restrictions.
As the aircraft approached Libya, two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, the USS Coral Sea and the USS America, launched A-6E Intruders, EA-6B Prowlers, F/A-18 Hornets and A-7 Corsairs to provide additional air-to-air protection and added air-to-ground support for the Aardvarks.
As Ball explains, the EF-111 aircraft commenced electronic countermeasures against Libyan air defenses, while the Navy support aircraft provided surface to air missile (SAM) suppression at 6:54 pm eastern standard time.
At 7:00 pm, the Navy strike aircraft attacked Benina Airfield and the Benghazi military barracks, while 13 F-111s struck the Aziziyah barracks in Tripoli and the Sidi Bilal terrorist training camp.
The final strike of the mission was conducted by five Aardvarks, that attacked the Tripoli military airport.
Unfortunately, only four of the F-111s successfully dropped their bombs. Seven others missed their targets, while six encountered mechanical problems or did not drop because of stringent rules of engagement (ROE).
After leaving the target area, one F-111, call sign “Karma 52” was lost over the Gulf of Sidra, claiming the lives of Captains Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence.
All Navy aircraft had returned to their carriers by 7:53 pm, while enroute back to England, one F-111 diverted to Rota, Spain, because of an overheated engine.
The mission was hailed as a success, marking the longest combat mission flown by a tactical aircraft for the Air Force at that time.
However as reported by Ball, it was not without controversy.
First the U.S. Navy claimed that the entire operation could have been accomplished using its assets.
Second, the 48th TFW commander believed that the original concept of a small group of F-111s had grown too large, leading him to believe that there was little chance to surprise the Libyan defenses and the number of aircraft would allow air defenses time to concentrate on the second wave of attackers. But proponents of the larger strike force believed it would do significantly greater damage to the targets and was worth the risk.
As a result of the attack 37 people were killed and 93 left injured. Moreover Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and appeared visibly shaken when he appeared on television 24 hours later to protest the strikes.
Today, an F-111 sits prominently at the air park at RAF Lakenheath, a symbol of the base’s proud heritage. Across from the 48th Medical Group hospital stands a monument dedicated to the men and women of the 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), with Ribas-Dominicci and Lorence’s names inscribed on a plaque in memory of their service and sacrifice.
The following video describes how Operation El Dorado Canyon was planned and executed.
Source: U.S. Air Force and Air Force History Support Division
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew / U.S. Air Force
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