Home Aviation History The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm

The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm

by Dario Leone
The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm

‘It took courage to continue well past our refueling end point and fly closer to Iraq with CHOCTAW calling bandits airborne heading south, so John Boy’s Weasels had the gas to kill SAMs in downtown Baghdad,’ Mark Hasara, former KC-135 Pilot.

The following cool story, that exclusively appears on The Aviation Geek Club, is taken from Mark Hasara’s book Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit. For twenty-four years Mark Hasara operated one of the Air Force’s oldest airplanes, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. His career started during the Reagan Administration, carrying out Strategic Air Command’s nuclear deterrent mission. Moving to Okinawa Japan in August 1990, he flew missions throughout the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. His first combat missions were in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As a Duty Officer in the Tanker Airlift Control Center, he planned and ran five hundred airlift and air refueling missions a month. 

DRINKS FOR POOBAH’S PARTY

0115 Thursday 17 January 1991

King Abdulaziz International Airport

Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

“Real courage is being afraid, and going ahead and doing your job anyhow, that’s what courage is.”

–General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander of Desert Storm forces

Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.”

            —US ArmyGeneral George S. Patton

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!”

–General Dwight Eisenhower’s words to troops on D-Day, 6 June 1944

In January 2017, Desert Storm Vets celebrated the twenty-sixth anniversary of air operations over Iraq. Many of you watched Wolf Blitzer announce Desert Storm’s air campaign opening from the Al Rashid Hotel. Earlier that morning, my KC-135 crew launched from Jeddah Saudi Arabia’s massive King Abdulaziz International Airport. Leading three KC-135s in unison named after a delicious sushi fish, twelve vermin fighter planes using popular beer callsigns meet with three tankers over central Saudi Arabia. Three electronic jamming attack aircraft named after household tools joined us orbiting out of Saddam’s radar prying eyes. This formation of tankers provided critical airborne fuel to the big Baghdad Bash named after its creator: PooBah’s Party.  But expectations for losses on the opening night was high.  Ten percent of the force may not come home.  Maybe higher, like fifteen percent!

Strategic Air Command’s 99th Strategic Weapons Wing visited every tanker base across Saudi Arabia in December 1990 with this opening line in their briefing:

 “Look to your right… and now to your left. One of you may not be here at the end of this war.”

An odd motivational technique.

Iraq’s air defense system will destroy ten percent of the force according to Strategic Air Command analysts. Today, 17 January 1991, eighty-seven US Air Force tankers call Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport home. The 1709th Air Refueling Wing (Provisional), the largest tanker wing assembled in Desert Storm, launches one hundred thirty tanker missions or sorties over the next twenty-four hours, twenty-six the first hour. Thirteen tankers and fifty-two people are not coming back to Jeddah.

Today.

Iraqi radars detect my tanker cell formation penetrating their transparent early warning radar electron screen halfway through tonight’s mission. Two weeks ago, three Iraqi Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrums landed at Mudaysis airfield and began air defense alert, one hundred miles north of our assigned refueling track’s end point. For the first time in history, US Air Force tankers planned on being in harm’s way, providing coalition aircraft enough gas to reach targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait and return home. Except for the unfortunate ten percent. SAC’s refueling aircrews picked up their nickname Tanker TOADs during the 1960’s Cold War era. TOAD is not about a frog; it’s the acronym for Take Off and Die.

The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm
F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft of the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., are refueled by KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during the second day of Operation Desert Storm.

            No one in the tanker community trained for combat sorties like tonight’s. From the Cold War’s start, SAC’s focus is nuclear war with Soviet Russia, period. All of our training centered on launching on a moment’s notice and flying toward some point over the Atlantic Ocean or Canada transferring gas into bombers armed with nuclear weapons. No device on the KC-135 tells the pilots enemy aircraft or missiles lurk nearby. Aircrews relied on the E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System or AWACS high above the force to give us threat information. One additional problem. No tanker crew has ever practiced defensive maneuvers in the air or on the ground. All 1709th aircrews sat through lengthy briefings I helped create on how to perform defensive maneuvers, but none of us has accomplished the maneuvers in training. If Iraqi Fulcrums leaked through the F-15 Eagle’s fighter screen and attack, the tanker force performs descending turns toward flat desert terrain on a moonless night for the first time in their careers. After I hit the ground loaded fat with fuel, everyone should see the fireball from Tel Aviv to Tehran.

            One thing I’m not worried about is the aircraft. Stepping off the bus, KC-135A tail number 63-8019 sits in front of my crew. Vonnie, 8019’s Maintenance Crew Chief, has the aircraft forms under her right arm, her two Assistant Crew Chiefs standing next to the crew entry ladder.

“Good evening Captain Hasara. How are Y’all doing tonight?” Vonnie asked handing me the aircraft’s 781 maintenance forms.

My Copilot Kenny, Kevin the Navigator, and Rick an Instructor Boom Operator pass our gear up the crew entry chute and go upstairs for pre-flight inspection. Kenny and I fly the plane, but Kevin runs the mission. During refueling, Rick is the most important person on the crew flying the refueling Boom.

            I asked Vonnie one question, “Is this jet ready to go?”

“Captain Hasara, 8019 is ready to go! We’ve been here three hours preparing the aircraft for tonight’s mission. My crew came out yesterday during the maintenance stand down and fixed most small maintenance discrepancies. The jet is ready to go to war, Sir!”

All I needed to hear. 8019 was one of seven KC-135s from the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, the Young Tiger Tanker Squadron from Okinawa Japan, sitting with thirty-six other KC-135s. A six-foot tall Indian Squaw painted under the left cockpit window and the words Rolling Thunder written under her right foot adorned 8019’s nose, partially painted over by request of the Saudi government. Every pilot feels great flying your first combat sortie in a home unit jet maintained by the best Crew Chiefs on the ramp.

Walking around the jet doing the exterior pre-flight check Vonnie asked, “Captain Hasara, what are you guys doing tonight?”

Raising my head up inside the forward nose compartment, I inspected the high-pressure air bottle used to cut the entry door off if we bail out of the aircraft.

“Vonnie, your jet is going to make Air Force history tonight.”

The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm
An air-to-air left side view of two F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft at sunset during Operation Desert Shield.

She just beamed. “What’s it going to do, Sir?”

“Desert Storm’s air campaign began this morning when B-52’s left US bases for targets in Iraq. Eight will land here later this morning. Tonight, 8019 leads a three-ship cell, callsign TUNA 64 flight. Our two other cell mates are them… and them” pointing to planes parked behind us.

“It’s a party Vonnie, PooBah’s Party named after the Brigadier General who developed it. F-4G Advanced Wild Weasels and EF-111A Spark Vark jamming aircraft approach Baghdad from the south. Navy A-7E Corsairs, F-18 Hornets, and EA-6B Prowlers from aircraft carriers USS John F Kennedy and USS Saratoga in the Red Sea defend a large Navy strike package closing from the west against SAMs while attacking Al Taqaddum airfield. At 0350 Baghdad time, Weasels fire twenty-four High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles or HARMs at Baghdad’s air defense radars. Tonight, the Weasel Mission Commander named all his flights after beer; COORS, LONESTAR, and MICHELOB flights. We’re refueling COORS.”

Standing under the refueling Boom attached under the jet’s tail, I inspect the nozzle illuminated by my flashlight. Two black wings called ruddervators move the refueling Boom up-and-down and side-to-side while airborne. Inside the Boom a telescoping rigid pipe extends toward the receiver’s refueling opening or receptacle. A ball jointed nozzle at the end of the pipe mates inside the receiver’s receptacle. Toggles in receiver’s receptacles lock us together after contact, and a valve opens so fuel flows from plane to plan.  Continuing the aircraft walkaround inspection,

“Is the nozzle greased, Vonnie?”

“Yes Sir, we greased it again tonight.”

F-4 Phantom’s very small receptacle pops up in the middle of the aircraft’s spine. Extra grease is a thirty-year technique for better nozzle and receptacle mating. Continuing the pre-flight into the left wheel well,

“Three other receivers are EF-111A Jammers coming out of Taif south of us called Spark Varks. Electronic jamming fills radar screens with snow at the flip of a switch. Their callsigns are DRILL 71, 72 and 73. DRILL 71 is our fifth receiver. Each tanker transfers 85,000 pounds tonight. We’ll land around 5 later this morning.”

Standing halfway up the crew ladder, Vonnie handed me each red landing gear down lock which I passed up to Rick standing above me. Fifteen minutes later the pre-flight checklist is finished. Big windows surround me, but it’s too dark at 0130 in the morning, so my Minolta camera stayed in a helmet bag hanging behind my seat. Waiting for engine start, I had some time to discuss our mission with Kenny and Kevin. Three days ago my crew was chosen to lead this particular mission, giving fuel to the first Wild Weasel package penetrating Baghdad’s missile engagement zone or MEZ. If our receivers don’t get their gas, Baghdad’s MEZ remains alive and people die. I’m confidently nervous.

            Aircraft moved on Jeddah’s ramp based on an exhaustive timing sheet found inside our red mission binders. Twenty aircraft launch over the next fifteen minutes with no radio communications, a “comm out launch.” Intelligence analysts told us Iraqis are in Jeddah listening to airport radio calls. Scribbled neatly in boxes on my Lineup Card, an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper folded in half strapped to my left thigh, all mission essential information like callsigns, secure communications frequencies, code words, and modes and codes for radar identification are written down. On the back, a map depicts all key navigation points, compass headings, mission timing, and fuel offloads. I marked three important points in Iraq on the Lineup Card, called bullseyes: H2 airfield in western Iraq called “Manny”; “Ike” is an island in Tharthar Lake west of Baghdad; and “Jack” is Jalibah Southwest airfield in eastern Iraq. Threat calls from our AWACS radar controller callsign CHOCTAW uses these three geographical reference points to broadcast enemy aircraft movements by compass bearing, range from the point, and altitude they are at.

The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm

“Pilot, Nav… It’s time for engine start.” Holding down the intercom switch under my right forefinger, I ask Vonnie if she’s ready.

“Sir, chocks are in, fire bottle and fire guards are posted… you are clear fore and aft on all four engines.”

Eight minutes later all four engines run smoothly at idle. And we wait for our assigned taxi time, gulping fuel. Starting engines, taxi to the runway, and take off to flap retraction altitude of five hundred feet consumes twenty-five hundred pounds of fuel. I had my cockpit window open for some fresh air while waiting. Looking down at Vonnie, I pat Rolling Thunder’s Indian Squaw on the head and give her a thumbs up sign.

“Pilot, Nav… it’s taxi time.”

“Crew, Taxi Check”

Reaching up to the instrument panel, Kenny flashed the landing lights signaling Vonnie it’s time. Across the ramp in front of us, Vonnie looks both ways and then holds two lighted wands straight up over her head, and begins waving them forward and backward. Pushing the throttles up to get us moving I tap the brakes. Rolling Thunder moves forward a few inches as the nose dips slightly with brake pressure and continues rolling. Turning left out of parking, Vonnie snaps to attention and renders a perfect salute. Maintenance crew salutes are a long military tradition. 

It means “You guys don’t be part of that ten percent and bring MY jet back!” 

Talk to any Crew Chief whose plane did not return and see how critical their last salute was. Crew Chiefs die inside when their jet does not return, hoping and praying it’s not a preventive maintenance problem which brought the plane down. Kenny and I both raise our right hands returning her salute. It is a military bond to Vonnie’s excellent maintenance crew.

Looking south down the ramp, TUNA 65 and 66’s position are in exact unison with mine, moving toward the main taxiway out Ramp 6. Their top and bottom bright anti-collision beacons splash red light reflecting off concrete and washes across the tanker’s glossy light gray undersides. The Supervisor of Flying gives me a thumbs up after inspecting my aircraft as it taxis by his truck, meaning our aircraft is ready for takeoff with no leaks or problems he can see… at 1am on a moonless night. Chuck and his crew are 200 feet ahead of us, his crew are the very first 1709th tanker taking off tonight. Stopping behind Chuck short of Runway 34 Right, two Spare aircraft sit beside us on a large concrete ramp. Spare KC-135’s are an insurance policies. If a Primary tanker breaks, a Spare fills in immediately. Both Spare aircraft red collision lights flash bright and steady, engines running.

All this activity and no one said a word on the radio.

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East of Saudi Arabia on the island country of Bahrain, flood lights shone down on dark gray fighters in tall corrugated metal revetments. Two dark gray letters decorate each aircraft tail. Everyone in the Middle East respects the ‘WW’ tail code: it means Wild Weasel. Weasels are an air campaign No-Go item, like an armed gate pass into another country. Weasels kill Surface-to-Air Missile or SAM site tracking radars. Without Weasels, no coalition aircraft enters Iraq. A tall Texan callsign John Boy, and his Electronic Warfare Officer or EWO callsign Bud step off their bus, bags in both hands. John Boy’s Commander told him he would be interviewed by the media. He just didn’t expect it here… before the mission. 

CNN is waiting for them, anxious to know if tonight is the night, a big scoop for ratings if they find out first. At this point in an aircrews mentally rehearse flight critical items and want to be alone. Anything not mission related is like a mosquito you can’t swat. For the first night of a big air campaign, CNN’s correspondent asked a very irrelevant question,

“Colonel, are you a religious man?”

The question deserved a good answer. Walking past the correspondent, CNN’s camera records the bright yellow patch on John Boy’s helmet bag. A black Spartan helmet lays over a long vertical black sword. Two words, Wild Weasel, are written across the patch’s top banner. A smaller silver shield on John Boy’s helmet bag has GRADUATE across the top, a red bullet hitting dead center of a yellow target. It means the bearer of this patch is an expert, killing SAM sites. A somewhat curt answer was his perfect Weapons School Graduate answer to such an inquiry…

“I am tonight lady!”

Airmen, soldiers, and sailors have mistrusted the media since the Vietnam War. Truth sometimes is sacrificed for the big news scoop and better ratings.

Your high school science teacher lied to you. Water does burn. KC-135A Model Pratt & Whitney J57 engines produce 13,000 pounds of thrust by injecting water into inlets and combustion chambers. Six hundred and seventy gallons of demineralized water burns in about 125 seconds during a “wet thrust” takeoff. Aircrews can tell water injection is working by the quick engine pressure ratio gauge needle swings and a very noticeable increase in noise and airframe vibration. Wet thrust takeoffs and their 1950’s engines is why KC-135As are called “Water Wagons.” Water Wagons are too heavy for takeoff without water, and the crew stays home becoming the new Spare Crew watching everyone else go to war. US Air Force fights a 1990’s war with 1950’s engine technology.  

My aircraft was paid for by Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, that’s how old it is.

Chuck’s KC-135 rolls forward onto the runway. Two long puffs of steam from bleed valves under the cowlings indicate water injection operating on all engines. Releasing brakes, Chuck’s jet rolls slowly forward. We watched as Chuck accelerates down the runway, climbs and turns east. Jeddah’s war started at 0112 Thursday morning 17 January Baghdad time.

Kevin turns in his chair, “Pilot, three minutes to takeoff.”

The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm

Kenny calls Before Takeoff checklist while I taxi onto Runway 34 Right and stop. Holding the brakes, Kenny and I guide the throttles up to the takeoff thrust setting.  Needles swung on all four EPR gauges, and Rolling Thunder began shaking, water on all four. Releasing brakes the jet starts rolling forward and speed builds slowly, 272,000-pound aircraft pushed by only 52,000 pounds of thrust. It’s dead nuts on 0115 in the morning, 17 January 1991.

Pulling the yoke back 1500 feet from the runway’s end, Rolling Thunder is airborne. The runway end identifier lights pass under us and the radio altimeter indicates climbing through one hundred thirty-five feet. Kenny raised the gear handle and held it till the light went out, all three gear up and locked. Rolling Thunder accelerated to flaps up speeds once leveled off at five hundred twenty-five feet, roaring right over our Lockheed Compound apartment.

 Banking right and climbing again, Kenny turns in his seat to see if TUNA 65 and 66 are airborne. TUNA 65 is level and accelerating to flaps up speeds as TUNA 66 lifts off the runway, silhouetted against hundreds of bright airfield lights. All heavy wet launches are dangerous, one the most exhilarating experiences of tanker life.

Clearing the F-117’s PEACH and NIGHTHAWK refueling tracks above us, TUNA 64 flight climbed to altitude, turning off nonessential equipment emitting radio waves the Iraqis use to pinpoint our location. Reaching over his head, Kenny tuned Comm 2 Radio to Cherry 4, UHF frequency 360.7, the Airborne Battle Manager controlling tankers in CHOCTAW, our E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System or AWACS aircraft. Kevin radioed in,

“CHOCTAW, TUNA 64 flight of three tankers, mission number 5764 checking in, climbing to two one zero block two three zero, authenticate Whiskey Golf. Any updates for TUNA?”

“TUNA 64 flight, CHOCTAW authenticates November Echo. Picture clear to the north, continue as fragged.”

“Roger CHOCTAW, TUNA 64 flight continuing as fragged. Pilot, Nav… no mission updates, continue as fragged,” meaning proceed as previously planned.

“Roger Nav, how’s our timing?”

“Pilot, we’re right on time. Did you hear picture clear north?”

“Yea, you’d think they know we’re coming.”

Rick our refueling Boom Operator says from the back, “Pilot, Boom checks good… coming forward with oxygen.”

“Roger Boom.”

Entering the cockpit, Rick takes the red cushion out of his chair, walks back toward the galley and lays it on the floor. A red pillow under his head Rick stretches out, folds his arms over his chest, and closes his eyes. Rick does this every flight until it’s time to refuel.

Tankers use two types of refueling patterns: a left-hand oval like a NASCAR circuit called an anchor, or a straight-line track. LIME PRE refueling track is an imaginary airspace tunnel five miles wide and 4000 feet thick. Located over f central Saudi Arabia’s An Nafud Desert, LIME PRE points directly north at Baghdad, ending thirty miles south of Iraq’s border. F-4G Wild Weasels joining with the formation is easy: lock the tankers up on the Phantom’s air-to-air radar and fly to them, a “fighter turn on.” KC-135s use air-to-air range and timing over a geographical point called the air refueling control point or ARCP to bring us together.

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Turning north at LIME PRE’s entry point, the instrument panel clock reads 0215 local. Task Force Normandy, a combined Army and Air Force helicopter force, attacks two Iraqi early warning radar sites in thirty-eight minutes. Desert Storm officially begins in forty-five minutes when F-117s drop laser-guided bombs on three air operations centers and Baghdad’s telephone exchange, nicknamed “The AT&T Building.” Orbiting at the ARCP, Kenny calls for the Preparation for Contact checklist. I can feel the Boom come down and move causing the aircraft’s nose swings side-to-side by its movements.

“Pilot, Nav, there’s a aircraft train coming from the east, probably our receivers. Looks like about twenty miles out.”

CHOCTAW again broadcasts “Picture clear to the north.”

No enemy aircraft flying over Iraq…yet.

F-4G Advanced Wild Weasels are like your car’s fuzz buster but on massive steroids. A Weasel’s job is critically important but most hazardous; destroy the radars guiding the missiles shooting at them. Sensors all over Weasel’s airframe pick up radar signals SAMs use for guidance. EWOs monitor radar signals on large displays, sifting through electrons. Each electronic signal has a distinct beep, squeak, or tone identifying radar modes. Rattlesnakes… if EWOs hear rattlesnakes, SAM’s coming after you. Weasels have faster missiles than SAM, two fourteen-foot High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles or HARMs. When a radar emits, HARM seeks the antenna, ripping apart metal, control equipment, and anyone near the SAM with tungsten steel cubes.

Kenny sees the Weasel’s lights in the distance, “Here they come crew!”

Two Weasels joined on the left wing outside my window. Light shines on the big ‘WW’ and tail numbers 288 and 265. Rick called one approaching the Boom and the blue contact light illuminated on the instrument panel.  Kenny flipped two refueling pumps on and the offload totalizer showed gas leaving our fuel tanks. Two rows of lights on the tanker’s belly called Pilot Director Indicator or PDI lights illuminated on contact with receivers. Left row tells the receiver pilot to move up or down. The right row tells receiver’s move backward or forward. Bright neon stripes painted on the Boom telescoping pipe indicate the same. When the pipe’s bright yellow ball appears near the Boom’s ice shield, receivers are at proper extension, or “on the apple.”

“Pilot, Boom.  He’s rock steady in the envelope.”

Eighteen aircraft, three tankers and fifteen fighters, moved effortlessly through a moonless night as a convoy three miles long thousand feet tall at 317 knots or 492 miles an hour. DRILL 71’s refueling system checked good also, and he moved up on the right wing. Now we wait for the time to push north..

John Boy’s fighter world calculated mission timing on ground speed. SAC’s nuclear missions use true airspeed for timing.  Slight difference in the two speeds created large timing mismatches during long sorties. John Boy talked to Kevin two nights ago on a secure phone, passing his ground speed timing toward Baghdad: time crossing the Iraqi high early warning and ground control intercept, or EW/GCI imaginary line, and finally time dropping them off at the end point full of gas. John Boy was very specific about his timing.  He could not accept ten seconds early or twenty seconds late across the EW/GCI line. His last instructions were the entire package must arrive at the end point full of gas, 16,000 pounds or better in their tanks.

“Pilot, Nav, time to push north.”

 Rolling left at 0257 on the cockpit clock, I heard a voice over the radio just say “Turn.”

Kevin gave me a thumbs up recognizing John Boy’s voice on the radio. Eight minutes later our formation passed over the high EW/GCI line. TUNA 64 cell appeared on the top of Iraqi radar screens at exactly 03:04:55, five seconds earlier than John Boy asked.

And all hell broke loose on the radio.

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“CHOCTAW has multiple threats north, Manny 330 for 30, medium altitude turning south!”

RC-135 Rivet Joint airframe intelligence sensors and CHOCTAW’s big air search radar picked up enemy fighter activity near H-2 airfield west of Baghdad. My biggest concern was Mudaysis Airfield and a detachment of three MiG-29 Fulcrums launching off alert 125 miles in front of us. MiG-25 Foxbats launching out of Baghdad’s Al Assad was the next threat priority with their 1200 knot speeds, or twenty-four miles a minute.

“CHOCTAW has multiple groups of Fulcrums and F1s airborne. Fulcrums, Manny one two five for eighty-five, medium altitude turning south!”

Looking over my right shoulder at Kevin, his plotter moved across his navigation chart measuring bearing and distance off the Manny bullseye. Dropping his dividers on the table, he looked up wide-eyed.

“Pilot! Nav! That’s Mudaysis airfield! Those Fulcrums are coming out of Mudaysis!”

“CHOCTAW has multiple groups now Manny one three zero for ninety-five, medium altitude heading south!”

“Pilot Nav! Fulcrums are off our nose inside 120 miles coming right at us!”

 Tankers baited Iraqi MiGs tonight just like Jimmie Doolittle used B-17 bombers over Berlin, switching radio callsigns with the F-15C Eagles two days ago. Orbiting near the border west of us at 30,000 feet, Kluso’s four Eagles held next to a big thunderstorm listening to CHOCTAW’s threat calls. Fulcrums and Mirages are attacking the strike force earlier than planned. My crew did their job… kept heading north toward the Fulcrums till John Boy’s COORS flight is full as 

CHOCTAW continued calling out MiGs. Moments later, Kluso did his job. I heard one of the greatest radio calls of my flying career from underneath Kluso’s oxygen mask,

“PENNZOIL Check! Two! Three! Four!”

“CITGO Check! Two! Three! Four!”

“QUAKER Check! Two! Three! Four!”

“ZEREX Check! Two! Three! Four!”

Kluso instructed his Eagles, “Push Purple One now!”

All Eagles tuned to a separate AWACS air-to-air fight frequency. Fulcrums at Mudaysis took off just as SCUD-hunting F-15E Strike Eagles or Dark Greys named after cars passed east of Mudysis’ runway at 500 feet in altitude. PENNZOIL 63 launched a missile at one Mudysis Fulcrum on our nose and kills it at 0310. What seemed like seconds but was several minutes later AWACS broadcast,

“CHOCTAW, picture clear to the north.” All the MiGs are dead. I cannot describe the sense of relief. Kevin raises both arms into the air, shouting hallelujah.

Reaching LIME PRE’s end point right on time at 0315, John Boy’s Weasels are not full. COORS 34 is still on the Boom taking fuel. Knowing when John Boy’s flight is ready, they’ll just drop down and leave. My crew pushed north toward Baghdad, pumping gas. Kevin kneels in the jumpseat next to Kenny watching the Weasels so I don’t know how close we are to Iraq. Minutes later Rick excitedly says over interphone,

The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm

“The last guy just got a pressure disconnect and is moving left!”

I immediately turned looking over my left shoulder. John Boy waves as he and his wingman drop below us. Kenny confirmed his two Weasels and the Spark Vark are dropping down also. We’ve transferred 82,000 pounds of jet fuel.

Are TUNA 65 and 66 still refueling?

How close are we to Iraqi airspace?

Moments later COORS flight appeared in front of us. Their position and green formation lights headed north making them easy to follow, silhouetted against an 11,000 foot white cotton overcast cloud deck at near Iraq’s border. John Boy’s Weasels turned lights off about a half mile in front of us. We’re close to Iraq’s border if John Boy’s Weasels are turning lights off. Kevin knelt on the jumpseat watching COORS flight move out in front of us. DRILL 71 appeared out from under the nose passing right to left,  much easier to follow because of the Spark Vark’s light gray paint scheme. DRILL disappeared behind John Boy’s Weasels when his lights went off passing above the overcast. Outside Kenny’s window LONESTAR 41 flight passed 500 feet below us with MICHELOB 51 flight a quarter mile behind catching up.

Our mission is done.

Kevin motioned with a sweep of his right hand to turn south. I pushed all four throttles up to 340 knots, ten knots below maximum airframe speed. Tonight is going to be an epic news night.

“Guys, let’s get home. This is going to be on CNN!”

 Kenny pointed west out his windows to the next wave of strike aircraft passing north beside us. Hundreds of red flashing anti-collision beacons moved past us.

Hundreds.

            Lessons From the Cockpit: Courage

The first lesson from the cockpit from providing fuel for PooBah’s Party is you never forget your first combat mission. The first time you “see the elephant” as our first combat sortie is called, fear of the unknown in combat, you’re scared but somehow find the courage to continue and complete your mission. SAC’s day-to-day training did not prepare us for a conventional war, which was no fault of SAC in the Cold War era of the Soviet Union. The tanker force went into a major theater air war unprepared, and if it wasn’t for the five months of build up prior to the night of 17 January, I think outcomes may have been different. Few of us in Strategic Air Command understood how to operate in a convention war environment, controlled by AWACS and not SAC Headquarters. My crew was lucky to have the experience from flying at Kadena. Aircrews from the states did not. It didn’t help the 99th Strategic Weapons Wing briefed us 10% of us we’re not coming home. If we weren’t coming back it was because none of us had performed defensive maneuvers in the airplane. In spite of these obstacles, no air crew members at Jeddah refused to fly missions to my knowledge.

            The opening night of Desert Storm is an excellent illustration of courage by the many people flying their first combat sortie and maintainers launching their aircraft.  Every aircrew member knew MiGs would scramble to intercept us. Maintainers on the ramp knew SCUD missiles could rain down on them at any time. I know a number of people who were very emotional that first night. Many of us faced the fear of possible impending death forging ahead to accomplish our assigned tasks. Courage is facing your fears by preparing for events which will take place in your life. It takes courage to operate outside of your comfort zone and continue functioning in the face of tremendous odds. My take away lesson from the morning of 17 January is my crew displayed the courage to lead a three ship of tankers on a very critical mission supporting the Weasels. It took courage to continue well past our refueling end point and fly closer to Iraq with CHOCTAW calling bandits airborne heading south, so John Boy’s Weasels had the gas to kill SAMs in downtown Baghdad. Have courage to face your fears and operate outside comfort zones, even when the masses tell you the odds are against everything you are doing. 

The Incredible Story of the KC-135 Flight that Flew Close to Iraq to Refuel F-4G Wild Weasels the First Night of Operation Desert Storm

Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit is available to order here.

Photo credit: Mark Hasara / U.S. Air Force

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