The F-111F 70-2389 (callsign ‘Karma 52’), the sixth aircraft on Bab al-Aziza target, vanished in unexplained circumstances.
On Apr. 14, 1986, at 5:13 p.m., U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-111F Aardvarks from the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) took off from Royal Air Force (RAF) Lakenheath on the orders of President Ronald Reagan.
The airstrike, codenamed Operation El Dorado Canyon, was in response to the terrorist bombing of the La Belle Discotheque in West Berlin on Apr. 5 that claimed the lives of two U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 200 people.
All but one aircraft returned to base.
The F-111F 70-2389 (callsign ‘Karma 52’), the sixth aircraft on Bab al-Aziza target, vanished in unexplained circumstances. As explained by Peter E Davies in his book F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat, crews in several aircraft saw a fireball hit the sea in the harbour area and many surmised that the F-111F had been hit by a missile. The escape module containing pilot Capt Fernando ‘Nando’ Ribas-Dominicci and his WSO Capt Paul Lorence had not deployed by the time the jet struck the water. The crash was witnessed by the pilot of F-111 `Remit 31′ — ‘It was a smear across the water. It reminded me of having seen napalm in Vietnam’. It was also visible from one of the EF-111As:
`From our vantage point just off the coast of Tripoli we saw F-111Fs pass under us as most of them had their afterburners on as they ingressed at 550-600 knots. At the time Fernando went down I saw what appeared to be a fireball skipping across the water on ingress.’
`Karma 53′ (F-111F 71-0889), following moments later, saw a flash and fireball just ahead of them, and assumed it was an F-111 being hit by a SAM. They then had to turn sharply to avoid being hit by a SAM themselves.
One of the tankers waited in vain for ‘Karma 52’, orbiting for an hour before heading home as dawn broke. Searches by P-3 patrol aircraft and a US Navy submarine were called off that evening, and by Apr. 17 it was decided that ‘Karma 52’s’ crew had been killed in action.
It is possible that ‘Karma 52’s’ ECM pod failed to protect them. Post-mission checks revealed that many of the AN/ALQ-131 ECM pods mounted under the aircrafts’ rear fuselages for defence against missiles had failed due to the prolonged beating they had received from high-speed airflow during the mission. Indeed, parts fell out of many pods when they were examined later.
An autopsy after the return of the pilot’s body to the US via the Vatican in 1989 indicated that he had drowned in an unconscious state, although Capt Lorence’s final fate remains unknown — only his helmet was washed ashore. Capt Ribas-Dominicci had been part of Lakenheath’s elite Standardization and Evaluation section, and he had narrowly avoided having to eject from another F-111F the previous year when it suffered an undercarriage malfunction and then burst a main-gear tyre on landing, running off the runway.
Some of their colleagues felt that the decision to increase the Bab al-Azizia element to nine aircraft could well have contributed to the loss of ‘Karma 52’.
Actually Planners at Lakenheath much preferred a six-aeroplane attack on the relatively small Bab al-Azizia site, three against the training camp and nine to hit the much larger and more open Tripoli airport objectives.
The prescribed larger assault on Gaddafi’s compound would expose the aircraft to its heavy defences for more than four minutes. Lakenheath’s preferences were overruled despite objections from Lt Col Pastusek and Col Bob Venkus, vice-commander of the 48th TFW and a vital figure in the planning. The nine-aircraft strike on Bab al-Azizia was demanded in order to maximise the damage to this conspicuous target. Attack plans had to be re-thought at very short notice, while avoiding confliction with the carefully coordinated routing established with the US Navy. The refuelling plan was also expanded.
The deviation from the original plan presented the Libyans, as former 48th TFW WSO Maj Jim Rotramel put it, with ‘a succession of single-file targets — ducks in a row. This prospect caused anxiety levels to skyrocket at Lakenheath’. The chances of precision hits by aircraft following those that had made successful bomb drops were greatly reduced, while the risk to the last three-aircraft cell (`Karma) was increased. To his great surprise ‘Karma leader (a highly experienced Vietnam veteran) was told by the Third Air Force commander, who saw the numbers problem but could not change his superiors’ minds, that it would be permissible to abort his attack if the defences proved too effective. This complete reversal of normal USAF doctrine was shocking for ‘Karma’ leader. Clearly, the ‘Liberty Wing’ had to stick to the set plan even though it knew it had potentially fatal flaws.
Today across from the 48th Medical Group hospital stands a monument dedicated to the men and women of the 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), with Ribas-Dominicci and Lorence’s names inscribed on a plaque in memory of their service and sacrifice.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
F-111 & EF-111 Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com