“I had at least two SAMs with my name on them! I was executing a full-up SAM defense when I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ as these two SAMs exploded right above me,” Lieutenant Colonel “Rico” Malebranche, F-16 Driver.
When asked what their favorite version of the Viper is to fly, most Viper Drivers unequivocally state the Block 50. Major “Cracker” McBrayer says his favorite is “the Block 50 because it has the biggest motor and does the Wild Weasel mission in addition to all the other missions. Killing SAMs when they are trying to kill your friends is probably the most rewarding mission besides CSAR [combat search and rescue].”
The first Block 50 was delivered to the US Air Force (USAF) in 1991, and reached initial operational status in 1994. The Block 50 F-16 is recognized for its ability to carry the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) in the suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD, missions. The F-16 can carry as many as four HARMs.
An avionics launcher interface computer allows the F-16 to launch the HARM missile. US Air Force F-16s have been upgraded to carry the HARM Targeting System, or HTS, pod on the left intake hard point so it can be combined with laser targeting pods designed to fit on the right intake hard point. The HTS pod contains a hypersensitive receiver that detects, classifies, and ranges threats and passes the information to the HARM and to the cockpit displays. With the targeting system, the F-16 has full autonomous HARM capability.
Colonel “Blink” Blinkinsop said, “While it looks the same on the exterior, it is a superior aircraft on the inside. The engine produces more thrust, the avionics and radar are superior, and the [SEAD] mission is honorable.”
As told by John M. Dibbs and Lt. Col. Robert “Cricket” Renner in their book Viper Force 56th Fighter Wing-To Fly and Fight the F-16, despite the stereotypical way Hollywood portrays fighter pilots as arrogant and overly self-confident, “Blink” exemplifies the Weapons School motto of “humble, approachable, and credible.” Most fighter pilots disdain talking about their accomplishments and “Blink” is no exception. However, one night in May 1999, in a Block 50 Viper over Serbia during Operation Allied Force, he would earn the Silver Star, America’s third-highest military decoration for valor in the face of the enemy.
He describes it as “a story of a stupid Wild Weasel playing with an overzealous SA-3 [Soviet SAM]. A large NATO strike package was heading to the Obrva, Serbia, area to perform nighttime bombing runs and my four-ship arrived early to find and suppress any air defenses. Just before the first package arrived, my flight came under attack by an SA-3 and large-caliber AAA. I directed my number three to engage it, but he was unable to respond due to his own defensive maneuvers. So, I turned my aircraft approximately 150 degrees in the opposite direction and fired a HARM at the SA-3 site. As I pushed the pickle button, I became the target of the SA-3 and 57mm AAA. After defending for what seemed like an eternity, I got the four-ship back together, moved to a new location (as a way of self-preservation), and synchronized our combat air patrol to provide maximum coverage for the second package of NATO strikers.
“The next wave had similar results—SAMs and AAA flying everywhere while I was simultaneously directing my wingmen to shoot their HARMs, dispense flares for MANPADs [man portable air defense systems—shoulder-launched IR SAMs] in the area, and reminding the entire four-ship to watch out for AAA and for the high terrain in the area. My second (and last) HARM shot appeared to shut down the SA-3 and quiet the area.
“After the NATO strike package cleared the area, we reformed the flight and made it back to ‘good guy land.’ Needless to say, I was very blessed to have three great wingmen that night – ‘Rico,’ ‘Gus,’ and ‘Czar.’ Their actions were incredible especially when one considers the entire engagement was performed at night without night vision goggles. They stayed in position, reacted appropriately for the threat, and kept their cool throughout the entire episode.”
Lieutenant Colonel “Rico” Malebranche was the number two in the four-ship on this sortie. At one time during the flight, he says they “had six SA-3s coming up at our formation. Myself, number three, and number four were defending against them simultaneously when ‘Blink’ rolled in and fired off a HARM at the SA-3 site. I was just getting ready to jettison my external fuel tanks when I broke the SAM line of site [meaning the missiles went stupid as he broke the SAM radar’s lock on him]. I had at least two SAMs with my name on them! I was executing a full-up SAM defense when I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ as these two SAMs exploded right above me.”
While they would say they were just doing their job, the bravery of Viper Drivers like “Blink” and “Rico” is unparalleled. Maximizing the Viper’s capabilities to effectively protect the rest of the strike package, they personify the Wild Weasel tradition of “First In, Last Out” to today’s generation of fighter pilots.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Srđan Popović Own work via Wikipedia