Cold War Era

Remembering Operation Ghost Rider, the mock air strike conducted by USAFE F-111s to simulate Operation El Dorado Canyon

Many of the elements of Operation El Dorado canyon were tested and proven in Ghost Rider, including the vital coordination procedures with tankers — particularly the idea of keeping each F-111 element with a dedicated tanker throughout the mission.

For newcomers to RAF Lakenheath, the base Relocation Assistance Program video assured them that, “Your tour in England will be one of the most memorable of your Air Force career’. For some of the participants in Operation El Dorado Canyon in April 1986 that was probably a major understatement.

Tensions between the US and Libya that led to April 1986 attacks on Libya by UK-based F-111s and Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers had steadily increased since the mid-1960s, but the persistent support for terrorist acts by the Libyan leader, Muammar al Gaddafi, brought them to a head in the early 1980s.

Operation El Dorado Canyon in fact 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.

As told by Peter E Davies in his book F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat, Col Bob Brotzman was F-111 Program Element Monitor at the time, and in discussions with senior USAFE and 48th TFW staff the concept of coordinated attacks by A-6E and F-111F units was forged ‘We settled on 12 F-111s coming in from different attack headings, hitting several targets within a short space of time. One assumption was that we would get over-flight permission from the French’. Col Brotzman and a US Navy A-6 Intruder expert then gave a briefing on the plan in the Pentagon;

`There was a lot of rank in the room, including three and four-star generals from both Air Force and Navy. During follow-on questions we were asked how confident we were that the targets could be hit with reasonable collateral damage, as several were right in the city. The A-6 guy basically said he wasn’t that confident because their navigation/ attack system was older, and the lash-up between that system and the TRAM [target recognition/attack multi-sensor, housed in an add-on under-nose turret
fitted to the A-6E, with a similar function to the F-111’s AN/AVQ-26 PAVE Tack] wasn’t that great. I said I was pretty confident, and showed them a videotape of F-111F cockpit displays during a PAVE Tack bomb-run, right through to bomb impact. Jaws dropped around the table as they saw the quality of the PAVE Tack imagery. The next day the NSC was briefed and the F-111 option “won”. The plan was tidied up and put on the shelf, and eventually used with relatively few changes [during Operation El Dorado Canyon].’

Ford Aerospace/Loral AN/AVQ-26 PAVE Tack laser and infrared detection pod had a Texas Instruments AN/AAQ-9 FLIR to detect targets at a range of around ten miles, whilst its AN/AVQ-25 laser designator and rangefinder units on either side of the FLIR in its rotating turret head worked at shorter distances. It was usually extended from the weapons bay just before the initial point (IP) — the turning point immediately prior to reaching the target. The pod also contained drive motors, power supplies, electronics, a 16-bit computer and a video recorder. Former 48th TFW WSO Maj Jim Rotramel explained its use;

‘As the F-111F approached the target area the pod took a few seconds to rotate down into position and cue to the radar crosshairs, so good radar work was absolutely crucial when it came to enjoying success with the pod. Most WSOs moved from the radar screen to PAVE Tack [on the virtual image display (VID), with its six-inch screen — double the size of the radar screen — on which PAVE Tack imagery appeared] only when the aircraft was “in the pull” [climbing during its toss manoeuvre]. The WSO then acquired, and viewed, the target in monochrome on his video display, which gave only a five-degree field-of-view at its widest (like looking through a soda straw), selecting the optimum aim point for his LGBs. The pod’s cross-hair sight was duly placed on target, the latter then being “lasered” to provide precise ranging information to the weapon delivery computer right up to the point of bomb release.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-111F Aardvark 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron, LN/70-2391, RAF Lakenheath, UK, 1991.

`As the WSO manually tracked the target, the computer cued the pilot to “paddle off” [disengage] the TFR and perform a 4g pull-up about 20,000 ft from the target. The crew then “tossed” the bombs from an altitude of 650 ft with a 20-degree nose-high angle some 16,000 ft from the target. With the ordnance gone, the pilot began a turn away from the target, apexing at about 2000 ft in 110 degrees of bank, before eventually returning to TFR flight on a course about 135 degrees from the original heading.

‘During this manoeuvring the WSO continued to track the LGB’s desired mean point of impact [DMPI] on his VID using the six-inch screen, again the laser at the DMPI once the bomb entered its downward trajectory. This would cause the weapon to follow the laser “spot” until impact, steered by its guidance fins. While the bombs were in flight the WSO had to keep the laser spot focused on the DMPI while ignoring the sensation of falling inverted! While rain and dense smoke (probably from nearby bomb detonations) could blind the pod, haze was essentially invisible to it.’

Toss manoeuvres were usually made from a TFR approach at 200-500 ft and 540 knots (620 mph).

As the terrorist situation degenerated President Reagan severed economic ties with Libya and ordered the return to the USA of American civilians, including oil workers from five US companies still operating in the country. However, more conclusive proof of Libyan involvement in the Abu Nidal attacks was needed, even though Gaddafi’s increasing isolation from the rest of the world made those attacks more feasible than attempts to destroy the terrorists’ network elsewhere. On Dec. 27, 1985 a warning order codenamed Prime Pump had been issued to defence chiefs, outlining a long-range strike and seeking proposals.

A previous feasibility mission by the 20th TFW also contributed to the planning. Operation Ghost Rider, a long-range strike from the UK on a simulated airfield 100 miles southwest of Goose Bay, Labrador, by ten F-111Es (with four spare aircraft) was conducted on Oct. 18,r 1985. It involved flying in four-aircraft formations rather than the usual ‘two ships’ that were favoured due to the pilots’ limited visibility to starboard. The wing was given 46 hours to plan the top-secret mission, flying 3000 miles each way with eight inert Mk 82 retarded bombs per F-111E. Maintenance Officer Col Pat Barry selected the ten most reliable aircraft, which were to be flown by the most experienced crews. Brig Gen Thompson, the wing commander, was mission commander in one of the 17 accompanying KC-10A and KC-135A tankers. The F-111E elements were led by the wing’s three squadron commanders, Lt Cols Joe Narsavage, John Cain and Pete Granger.

Dropping to low altitude 150 miles from their first checkpoint in Newfoundland, the F-111Es conducted their attacks using classic single-aircraft TFR tactics — approaching at an altitude of 400 ft and a speed of 480 knots, one minute apart. Bombing was by radar in darkness, and the target was directly hit by more than 50 per cent of the bombs within a few seconds of the planned time-on-target after a six-hour flight.

Many of the elements of Operation El Dorado canyon were tested and proven in Ghost Rider, including the vital coordination procedures with tankers — particularly the idea of keeping each F-111 element with a dedicated tanker throughout the mission. In January 1986 Upper Heyford’s EF-111As would be added to the Lakenheath-centred plans for the Libya attack, although its F-111Es were not included it final strike.

There was another ‘rehearsal’ for the Libya mission in February 1986 that involved the F-111D-equipped 522nd and 523rd TFS/27th TFW at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. The 523rd TFS was led by Lt Col Bob PahI who recalled;

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

`A buddy of mine came in from TAG HQ and had us all get together and shut the door. He then said, “We need you to plan a mission that last around 12 hours. Halfway through it you will bomb the range at Eglin AFB at 0130 hrs with four Mk 84s each, and there must be at least five tanker hook-ups. You also have to fly up to Mountain Home AFB where you will meet up with some EF-111As”. So we planned the mission, loaded the aeroplanes, and got airborne in what [for Cannon] was miserable, cold weather.

`They had specifically said we want you to drop ordnance at 550 knots which in the F-111D meant using minimum afterburner. We had eight aircraft screaming around a hotel at Fort Walton Beach, in Florida. You can imagine the noise. Two of the aeroplanes had to make repeat passes. I’m sure they received a thousand calls to the base that night, but no there would have known much about the mission. I logged 13.5 hours on that sortie.

`A couple of months later as I climbed out of the cockpit after returning from a sortie, one of the maintenance folks shouted to me, “Hey bombed Libya! They had to fly around Gibraltar because the French wouldn’t let them in”. All of a sudden a huge “light bulb” switched on in everyone’s head — they anticipated months before that the French weren’t going to let them over-fly, and we had flown that mission to Florida to prove that it could be done.’

A final demonstration of the F-111F’s accuracy was mounted and filmed on Apr. 2, 1986 when two 493rd TFS aircraft each dropped four GBU-12s on a German range, scoring direct hits with all weapons.

F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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.

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