Although a full investigation into the incident was never carried out, it is possible that inexperience in handling the Strike Eagle with external fuel tanks was the primary cause of the accident.
Operation Desert Shield, the precursor to Operation Desert Storm, began with the deployment of F-15C/Es to the Persian Gulf region. On Aug. 9, 1990 F-15E Strike Eagle fighter bombers belonging to the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) ‘Rocketeers’ from the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base (AFB) flew into Thumrait AB, via Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia, the base in Oman already boasting stockpiles of weapons that had been stored by the USAF for just such an eventuality.
As told by Steve Davies in his book F-15E Strike Eagle Units in Combat 1990-2005, initially, confusion reigned within the 336th, as the unit, operating as the 4th TFW (Provisional) and led by Col Russell ‘Rusty’ Bolt, was without clear orders or directives. The reality of its situation was stark. Nine Iraqi Republican Guard units stood ready at the Kuwaiti border to steamroller south into Saudi Arabia, whose oil fields might also be in the sights of Saddam Hussein. It quickly became evident that the ‘Rocketeers’ were the only force that could delay and harass such an advance, although the price they might pay in the process did not bear thinking about.
By Aug. 11 the unit had 12 jets on alert, although this had not been achieved without considerable effort. Capt Mike `Smy’ Smyth arrived in-theatre on Christmas Day 1990, and he recalled that the Strike Eagle was only cleared to release 500-lb Mk 82 and 2000-lb Mk 84 LDGP (Low Drag General Purpose) bombs at that time, although other weapons had been tested by the Seek Eagle testing programme at Eglin AFB.
It was with some consternation, therefore, that the unit contemplated dropping the Mk 20 Rockeye Cluster Bomb Unit (CBU) from the jet, as it had not been fully tested from all weapons stations. These concerns were more than valid, as some crews had seen release test video footage of the Strike Eagle prototype being struck by a 500-lb bomb that had just been released from a CFT and whipped back up behind the wing into the horizontal stabiliser.
The Mk 20 Rockeye was an ‘area munition’ that released hundreds of cricket ball-size bomblets over an area as large as a football field, and was therefore far more effective in killing lightly armoured targets than LDGPs. The Air Force waived normal procedures and permitted the 336th to load ‘unauthorised’ stores onto the jet. The Mk 20 could now also be added to the F-15E’s arsenal.
Two F-15Es also stood ready to defend the base, or a strike package, from enemy attack, and these were loaded with AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
Morale in the squadron soon ebbed away as the crews sat for two weeks without full communication with Central Command Air Force (CENTAF) FIQ in Riyadh. This left the unit effectively grounded, being unable to fly unless Iraqi armour mobilised once again. Lt Col Bolt added to these problems by imposing a 300-ft minimum altitude training limit when the squadron did return to flying. Under considerable pressure not to lose an aircraft — the pre-eminent preoccupation of any wing commander — Bolt was probably fearful that losing jets in training would not only have a detrimental impact on the squadron’s ability to protect Saudi Arabia, but also lose him his command.
The training limit was subsequently broken by many of the crews, who felt that they needed to be below 200 ft if they were to survive the dense and coordinated network of Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) fielded by Iraq. This insubordination ultimately cost at least one pilot his wings.
Ironically, it was at this time that F-15E 87-0203 was lost on a sortie that had nothing to do with low-level flying. The Strike Eagle had been flying intercepts against a pair of RAF Jaguar GR 1s when it ploughed into the desert on Sep. 30 with the loss of its pilot, Maj Pete Hook, and WSO, Capt Jim Poulet. Although a full investigation into the incident was never carried out, it is possible that inexperience in handling the Strike Eagle with external fuel tanks was the primary cause of the accident. Al Gale, a WSO with the `Rocketeers’, elucidated:
`Aircrews are taught the various sensory illusions that can deceive you when flying. One of them is a lack of depth perception for your altitude when you are flying over a nondescript surface such as a smooth ocean or flat desert. The desert in the Middle East was extremely bad in this respect. The surface was often completely smooth sand with no vegetation at all. It looked exactly the same whether you were flying at 300 ft or 30,000 ft. Flying at night over the southern part of Saudi Arabia looked just like flying over the ocean. Although we were over the land, there were no visible lights as far as the eye could see in all directions. The only way to tell your altitude was to look at the altimeter, whether it be day or night. Pete and Jim were fine aviators, and their loss was both a shock and very sad for all of us’.
This loss was followed by the fatal crashes of an RF-4C (Oct. 8) and an F-111F (Oct. 11), both at low level. CENTAF HQ consequently issued a diktat directing that all aircraft, with the exception of the B-52, were forthwith restricted to a 500-ft minimum training altitude. It was greeted by Strike Eagle crews with a mixture of exasperation and incredulity.
Tactics subsequently determined in impromptu meetings by senior squadron staff proved ironic, as they consisted primarily of the ‘Pop’ manoeuvre, which had previously been banned due to its risky nature. Dive and Dive-Toss methods were viewed as alternatives, although the medium-altitude SAM threat would probably make these unrealistic options. A hastily created Mission Planning Cell (MPG) did what it could to prepare the aircrews for war, but a centralised input was really needed.
F-15E Strike Eagle Units in Combat 1990-2005 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force