Ordered to return to the ship by the AWACS after dropping all of his bombs, Lt Sidbury told everybody – including a rear admiral and a USAF general – “No” because the guys in the ground were still taking fire.
At the forefront of the Global War on Terror from the very start, the venerable F-14 Tomcat led the first manned air strikes on Afghanistan in October 2001. Flying from aircraft carriers cruising in the Northern Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan, naval aviators flew their Grumman fighter-bombers on six- to eight- hour missions in support of Special Forces and Northern Alliance fighters engaging the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
After 9/11 terrorist attacks, Fighter Squadron 211 (VF-211) deployed with Carrier Air Wing Nine aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), in an accelerated schedule that had the Fighting Checkmates aircraft flying combat missions over Afghanistan by December. The Fighting Checkmates left their mark on Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) during a three-week battle named Operation Anaconda where they flew day and night sorties to defend coalition forces and eliminate al-Qaeda resistance.
As told by Tony Holmes in his book F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Enduring Freedom, VF-211 most memorable day of fighting in OEF occurred on Mar. 4, 2002 after a SOF team was ambushed soon after dawn as they attempted to insert themselves on the ridgeline of Takur Ghar. They were heading for Objective Ginger, which had a commanding view of the entire Shah-i-Kot Valley, but al-Qaeda forces in hardened, camouflaged, bunkers shot up their MH-47E just as it landed and forced the helicopter to hastily leave — crucially without Navy SEAL PO Neil Roberts.
When word reached Bagram that there was a soldier missing behind enemy lines, an Army Ranger quick reaction unit scrambled in two more MH-47Es. When the first of these touched down 50 metres from the top of Takur Ghar, the enemy again targeted the helicopter and shot it down through a combination of rocket-propelled grenade and machine gun fire. Four crewmen died and others were wounded, and survivors set up defensive positions just 150 metres from one of the snow-covered al-Qaeda hunkers. They were eventually rescued at 2000 hrs, having relied exclusively on CAS support to keep the enemy at bay. Their combat controller, USAF Capt Gabe Brown (call-sign ‘Slick 01’), later told his superiors that he had handled 30 CAS sorties that day. Flying one of the jets near Takur Char was VF-211 pilot Lt Dan Buchar;
`Shortly alter dawn, I launched as part of a division of four F-14s sent into Afghanistan in support of Anaconda, having been briefed to head to the Shah-i-Kot Valley to help troops in contact as they continued to battle with enemy forces. As we headed north, the SOF MH-47E was shot down near Objective Ginger. Shortly after that, our division lead, Lt Larry Sidbury, got a call from “Bossman” [the USAF airborne AWACS] telling him that our bombs were needed straight away. We had to refuel first, however, so each jet quickly topped off its tanks and then headed independently to the target area.
‘Lt Sidbury and his RIO, Cdr Tim Fitzpatrick, who were both FAC(A)-qualified, reached Takur Ghar first and made contact with “Slick 01”. The latter was pinned down near the wreckage of the MH-47 along with the survivors of the Army Ranger quick reaction unit. Lt Sidbury and his wingman, Lt Bryan Roberts, worked directly with “Slick 01”, and they dropped ordnance within 500 metres of the friendlies.
`Ordered to return to the ship by the AWACS after dropping all of his bombs, Lt Sidbury told everybody – including a rear admiral and a USAF general – “No” because the guys in the ground were still taking fire. He got the point where he turned his radios off, thus blocking out the distraction of the “return to base” calls. Eventually relieved on station, Lt Sidbury somehow made it to the tanker before running out of fuel and recovered aboard CVN-74.
`His CO was still flying at the time, but his X0 started grilling him about why he had ignored the calls to return. At this point CAG stormed into the ready room and started to tear strips of Lt Sidbury for disobeying a direct order. A few minutes later the admiral also walked in, and everybody immediately stood to attention. His first words to Lt Sidbury were, “That’s the best thing I ever saw. Don’t you ever do Any-thing different”!’
F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Enduring Freedom is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force