“On my next pass, I aimed my remaining bomb at the intact portion of my original target. I tried to make it impact as close to the “Mi-24 Hind” as possible. When the bomb exploded inside the shelter, the overpressure blew out the heavy multi-ton steel door, crushing the helicopter in the process,” Capt Joseph A Salata, F-117 pilot during Operation Desert Storm.
The end result of the USAF’s Have Blue programme launched in the mid-1970s, the F-117 was developed by Lockheed’s legendary Advanced Development Company. Embodying Stealth technology which made the jet virtually invisible to radar, the first of 59 production aircraft was delivered to the USAF in August 1982. Issued to the top secret 4450th Tactical Group at Tonopah in Nevada, the unit achieved operational capability in October 1983.
It was not until November 1988 that the F-117A was revealed to the world by the Department of Defense, and a year later the jet made its combat debut during Operation Just Cause in Panama. The last Nighthawk was delivered to the USAF in mid-1990, and in August of that year the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing deployed en masse to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. F-1 17s subsequently led the opening strikes of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.
As told by Warren Thompson in his book F-117 Stealth Fighter Units of Operation Desert Storm, a spectacular mission against hardened aircraft shelters (HASs) at Tallil airfield was flown on the night of Feb. 8, offering testimony to the GBU-27’s destructive power (which was used in place of the GBU-10 that didn’t performed well in previous “HAS missions”). Although the base had been attacked on several previous occasions by F-117s, reconnaissance photos of the airfield revealed that there were still several shelters that appeared to be unscathed. Capt Joseph A Salata (Bandit No 295), who was flying aircraft 86-0839 MIDNIGHT REAPER, remembered how the attack unfolded;
`The Tallil complex AAA was always heavy. Even though we’d flown against it many times before, it was still a dangerous target. There were so many HASs scattered around the area that we had to go back and finish off the remaining ones. On this day, we had a chance to do just that. A combined attack of several types of conventional night precision droppers preceded us, and we sent about a dozen Nighthawks to take out what was left. I was in the last aircraft in the strike package. I could see the devastation caused by the jets which had already dropped their loads.
`On my first pass, I dropped a 2000-lb GBU-27 right through the eastern half of a double shelter. During the pass, I noticed the shape of what appeared to be a Russian-built “Hind” helicopter parked outside the remaining half of my target. Our Intel had discovered that the Iraqis were removing some of the aircraft from the HAS and parking them out in the open in the hope that they might survive. On my next pass, I aimed my remaining bomb at the intact portion of my original target. I tried to make it impact as close to the “Hind” as possible. When the bomb exploded inside the shelter, the overpressure blew out the heavy multi-ton steel door, crushing the helicopter in the process.
`Right after the war, Coalition damage assessment teams visited the remains of that particular HAS and found the charred wreckage of a destroyed MiG-25 inside. I ended up with my two bombs destroying both shelters and two aircraft.’
Another 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) pilot who flew numerous missions against HASs was Capt Robert Donaldson, whose father had flown fast jets during the Vietnam War. His recollections of his first mission in a later conflict, and the hours leading up to it, are very clear;
`Late in the afternoon of 16 January, we were told to eat a good meal and come to the aircraft shelter, where our briefings were conducted. Our CO, Col Whitley, quickly informed us that this was it — we’re taking it to them tonight. The atmosphere was very calm, professional and business-like — this was exactly what we’d been training for. All of us were ready to go right then, especially those of us who had been in Saudi Arabia since August.
`We took off in two-ship elements and did a “comm-out” (no communications) rendezvous with the tanker. Everything was done on timing — at this time you start engines, at this time you taxi out of your shelter area, at this time you meet up with the other aircraft in your element and so on. This was done every night for each wave, and there was no communication whatsoever.
`We took off in pairs, and the first attack wave consisted of 20 F-117s. We met ten tankers from Riyadh and all aerial refuelling was done in total radio silence. We split up at the border for our individually-assigned targets. The first bombs were dropped near the Saudi-Iraq border area by Maj Greg A Feest and his wingman. The overall plan for the first wave was to blast a hole along the border to ensure that non-stealthy aircraft could get through safely.’
Maj Feest was briefed to hit airfields in southwest Iraq so as to reduce Saddam Hussein’s chances of launching `Scud’ surface-to-surface ballistic missiles against Israel. Feest’s element also destroyed the Interceptor Operations Centre from which Iraqi interceptors and ‘Scuds’ were controlled. The coordination between his element and the other aircraft in the wave was a study in perfection. Minutes after Feest’s element had taken out their targets, the remaining Nighthawks commenced their destruction of downtown Baghdad.
On that first night of the war, F-117s ranged as far south as Tallil airfield, which was an important interceptor coordination centre covering Iraq’s extreme southern sector. The purpose of such a precision attack was to completely blind the enemy on a wide front, thus preventing the Iraqis from detecting the non-stealthy aircraft that were following in the F-117s’ wake. Capt Donaldson continued;
`The aerial campaign of Desert Storm systematically rolled back the Iraqi defences. Once the first bomb was dropped, they started firing everything they had into the air. Some of their radar units were still up, and they could see the A-6s, F-111s, tankers etc. on their screens. They were relaying all this information to Baghdad.
‘The F-117s which followed the lead element over the city were met by a firestorm of AAA and SAMs, but they were shooting blindly. They weren’t able to get any radar locks or visuals on anything that was up over the city. We never received so much as a scratch. As we flew through all of this, you could see the intermittent explosions of bombs from the aircraft in front of us.’
The mission Capt Donaldson recalled most vividly was when he hit a bridge in the Basra area;
‘This mission was flown well into the war, just as Iraqi troops started retreating out of Kuwait. Our command wanted to drop all the bridges across the rivers and marshes so that Saddam couldn’t safely evacuate his army and equipment. I put a GBU-10 dead centre on a bridge, which dropped the entire span. A truck was racing across at the time. It was all caught on film. Capt Salata dropped a huge bridge into the water using a single GBU-10. You could compare this feat to World War 2, when scores of bombers were assigned to attack a large bridge in Europe. It was a spectacular sight because the entire structure dropped in one piece. It was so big that it resembled the Golden Gate Bridge!’
Capt Joseph Salata remembered this target too; ‘That mission took place on 9 February — the night after I’d blown out the door of a HAS and destroyed the “Hind” helicopter with the same bomb. We had been sent out to destroy the July 14th Memorial Bridge. Maj Jerry Leatherman had hit it several minutes before I dropped my LGB.
`In preparation for the mission, both of us studied the reconnaissance photos and noticed that our target was a suspension bridge. We decided that in order to inflict as much damage on it as possible, we’d have to place a bomb right on top of one of the supports. We’d also been warned during the weather briefing that the winds around Basra were going to be extremely strong. On the run-in heading that we were going to use, the wind was going to be off our nose from the left.
`Maj Leatherman stated that he would aim for the top-centre of the near support and I would have to judge my aim point off his bomb impact. As I approached the bridge, I noticed that his bomb had missed slightly to the right due to the heavy winds. In fact, it looked almost like someone had taken a bite out of the right side of the support. For an instant, nothing happened after my LGB hit the support. I thought I hadn’t caused much damage. Suddenly, the entire bridge started moving downwards. In a matter of seconds it had hit the water, causing a massive splash on both sides of the river. It was spectacular, and I remember how anxious I was to get back to King Khalid to show the video to the rest of the guys.’
F-117 Stealth Fighter Units of Operation Desert Storm is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force