“I had a moment of panic there. But, hey! the A-10s have those huge cannons. They opened up with their 30-mike-mike. By the time they each finished two runs there was nothing out there, just flames and dust, about 100 yd from me,” Lieutenant Devon Jones, former VF-103 F-14A(Plus) Tomcat driver
Lieutenant Devon Jones (pilot) and Lieutenant Larry Slade (RIO) from VF-103 Sluggers manned their F-14A(Plus) (as the F-14B was still designated in 1991), AA 212 (BuNo 161430), for an early morning escort mission on Jan. 21, 1991. Although it was the fourth day of the Gulf war, neither man had yet crossed the beach – actually gone on a strike. Today they were scheduled to escort an EA-6B Prowler of VAQ-132 near the big Iraqi airfield at Al Asad. The Prowler would shoot one HARM and turn for home. Lieutenant Jones described the mission in the book Gulf Air War Debrief.
“We had an early-morning strike, 0610, 5O miles into central Iraq, with A-6s dropping DSTs (Destructors – a form of delayed-reaction bomb) on the airfield at Al Asad. Our particular mission was to escort a single EA-6B with HARMS. Our Prowler was to go to 45 miles and take a prebriefed HARM shot, pressing in from a west-to-east axis. At 30 miles, on the same axis, he would look for a target-of-opportunity shot. If there wasn’t anything there, we’d turn around and egress. So, it wasn’t a CAP.
“We escorted the EA-6B in. The time and altitude were changed for weather. We had a lot of weather to contend with but I felt comfortable above the clouds. We got under 45 miles and he took his HARM shot. We pressed in to 30 miles. (The Prowlers generally carried two HARMs, for target-of-opportunity shots. If nothing came up, they would just jam whatever they could, like GCI, depending on the threat surrounding the targets, which varied.)
“We were working between 26,000 and 30,000 ft. There was no chance for a second shot so we turned left to egress. I tallied SAM coming up through the clouds. My RIO saw it, too. It turned out to be an old SA-2, like the ones used in Vietnam.
“I added power, rolled into the SAM as briefed, to give the missile tracking problems. As we rolled down, almost inverted, the SAM tracked us, came up toward our tail and detonated with a bright, white flash. The F-14 shuddered and kept rolling right.
“The impact ripped my mask off, which was a big distraction and very frustrating because now we were going down and the mask was flopping all around. Lot of eyeball-out negative g. I had my mask on, tightly, but the missile explosion ripped the bayonet fittings out of my helmet.
“Now, the plane was starting to go into a flat spin and I was getting thrown around, helpless. It was obvious that I was not going to recover the aircraft, so I pulled the handle just as my RIO was starting to go for the handle himself.
‘We bailed out at around 14.000 ft. I wasn’t in a very good seat position but the seat worked like a charm. I expected to get hurt since I was slumped over trying to get the handle. It took me a while to find the handle because I was getting tossed around and was hunched over. I was conscious through the entire ejection because I remember the blast and opening shock.
“The EA-6 saw us go down. They saw the smoke around our airplane and made a call. The strike leader made a call, and my RIO made a mayday call in the chute. He had a different radio, a PRC-112, from my PRC-90. The -112 is a newer radio with a direction-finding capability, but there was just one PRC-112 for each aircrew. “
“Once I collected myself, I used the four-line release. I looked over about 500 ft to the left, and I saw my RIO in his chute. We lost sight of each other as we disappeared through the clouds.
“My RIO did see the ground and prepared for the landing; he hurt his tailbone. I didn’t see it corning and was OK. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, I suppose. It was like a quarterback being blindsided; he’s loose, so he’s not going to get hurt as much. I wasn’t braced so I Just fell over.”
After the trauma of ejecting and the uncertainty of where he would come down, Lieutenant Jones took stock of his situation. “Now reality finally hit me, in a big way. I was down on the ground, inside Iraq. I could see my Tomcat’s crash site and the ball of flames.
“I thought, `Geez, I’m going to be a POW. My family’s going to go nuts. They’ll probably rip my finger nails out and shoot me!’ ” After that, though, some SERE School training started seeping through.
“I made a radio transmission. I said I was on die ground. OK, and heading west – as I walked east. I’d like to say- I did that to fool the Iraqis, but it was really out of confusion. (It was the first time I’d been shot down. after all.) Obviously, looking for terrain, looking for my RIO. trying to get him on the radio, in the dark. was confusing. I decided, finally, that it was time to move and I tried to get my bearings.
“Finally, I came to a little vegetation, small bushes. really, and a few small mounds. I thought the only chance I had was to try to dig into one of those mounds and hide.
“About 0900, I saw something blue and cylindrical, two miles away, like a parked car. As I approached it, I realized it was some sort of tank, maybe 20 ft long. It was time to stop and do something, so I went to a little wadi area, found a little mound and started digging with my hands. I took out my survival knife. The dirt was neither hard or soft, and I started digging a hole with my knife. I dug for an hour and ended up with a hole 4 ft long and 3 ft deep. My hands were blistered and bloodied but it was a pretty good-sized hole, about 1,000 ft cast of that blue, metallic tank.
“I probably finished the hole around 1000, but I’d done some dumb things. I had dug up a tremendous amount of dirt in an untouched area. All this upturned dirt would probably draw attention from the air. I decided to put dirt back into the hole and slide under it, like a blanket. Of course, that didn’t work and I had to take it all out.
“Then, I sprinkled light, sandy dirt on the darker earth. I got into the hole, took off as much scat as I could and scrunched down. I laid my radio on the edge of the hole and tried to get comfortable.
“About 1030, I guess, I heard the first sound. Actually I had heard two single jets high overhead before. I thought they were Iraqis on a training flight.
“`I hope they shoot them down,’ I mumbled to myself. It turned out later that they were probably F-15s, part of a RESCAP for me.
“Anyway, I was down in my hole, pretty well covered, when I heard a truck. Of course, I’d heard a lot of things that weren’t there, but it was definitely there. I was facing west. The truck came rumbling up to the tank. My heart was pounding. It was a blue, stakebed truck, obviously a farmer’s truck. Two guys got out, just working for Allah. Three minutes later, they went back. I thought the tank probably wasn’t fuel, but water.”
At a little after 1200, Lieutenant Jones tried again to raise someone with his radio.
“By now it was 1205. I had got out to dig some more. I turned on my radio just to listen. There wasn’t any reason to say anything as far as I could tell. We had a 10-minute block, on the hour, so I figured I’d listen to the last five minutes. I was still trying to contact my RIO, but I didn’t know that he had already been captured.
“Suddenly, I heard American voices! I was on 2828, the SAR frequency.
“`Slate 46, how do you read?’ “To my surprise someone came back with my callsign. That was the first time that I knew anyone even knew my callsign, or that there had been an ongoing SAR effort. I started thinking real fast.
“Anyway, someone started talking to me. I was having reception trouble, mainly range, I guess
“`Let me come a little closer so I can talk to you,’ he said.
“That was a real boost, but, I wondered, who was this guy? Dad we have Pave Low-equipped trios out here? Were the SEALS out here?
“He was basically coming north. ‘Look to your south, he told me. `I’ll pickle a flare.’
“I tried to find out what type of plane he was.
“’I’m 18,000 ft,’ he said.
“’Ok, now, I’ll come down to where you can see me.’ he said. Lo and behold was an A-10, a ‘Sandy’, like those guys in Vietnam, trained in combat SAR. He was ‘Sandy’ 57. I brought him in with standard aviator talk. He didn’t see me, but he flew right over me at 50-100 ft and dropped a waypoint in his INS.
“’I’ve got to get some gas,’ he called. ‘Minimize your transmissions and come back in 30 minutes.’ He headed south to the tanker track just south of the border. I found out later that he was talking to the helicopters. They had been up from 0600-0900 looking for us, but had given up because it was getting too bright. They had recovered at Ar’ar, an airfield just inside the Saudi border.
“The ‘Sandy’ pilot gave the helos a good cut toward me and they began heading for me. I also found out that the A-10 had a wingman. As the helos started out they heard MiGs being vectored toward them; so did the F-15 RESCAP just inside the Iraqi border. As soon as the F-15s got their vectors, the MiGs ran away. After they got their gas, the A-10s returned, caught up with the helos and brought them in.
“I heard the A-10s talking to the helicopters, telling them they had another 30 miles to my position. The helos were actually on the ground, waiting for the ‘Sandys’ to clear the way for them.
“They asked me to shine my signal mirror south, which I did, but they didn’t see it. Then one of the A-10s told me to start looking for a helo about 15 miles out as I looked south at standard helo altitudes – maybe 500 ft – I couldn’t see them. But I did get a tally on the A-10s flying in a circle. I talked them in.
“I had made a mistake earlier when I first contacted the ‘Sandys’. They asked me where I was relative to my plane’s crash site.
“‘About eight to 10 miles north,’ I replied. ‘About 1,000 yd due east of a blue tank.’ The Iraqis must have been listening to our transmissions, and, of course, they must have known where the tank was.
“As the planes came in, everything seemed to be heading to a big crescendo. About half a mile down the south road, I spotted a truck, an army truck, with the canvas covers – a grunt truck. I think we all saw it at the same time because the A-10 called, ‘We’ve got a fast mover on the dirt road.’ This guy was boresighting right at me, down in my hole. I saw a lot of dust and I thought I had actually seen two trucks. We’ll have to figure that out later.
“I had a moment of panic there. But, hey! the A-10s have those huge cannons, and the helos must have .50-cal. Within three to four seconds, the `Sandies’ set up a squirrel cage and rolled in on the truck, maybe 100 ft AGL, 200 ft slant range. They opened up with their 30-mike-mike. By the time they each finished two runs there was nothing out there, just flames and dust, about 100 yd from me. I guess the Iraqis had finally figured out where I was through all our radio talk.
“For the first time, I looked to the east and saw the Pave Low, about five ft off the ground, watching the A-10s. I started talking to him. I had never seen such a beautiful sight as that big, brown American H-53. [The helicopter was an MH-53J of the 1st SOW from Hurlburt Field, Florida.]
“He got about 50 yd away from me and I popped out of my hole for the first time. I grabbed my kneeboard cards and gear as he landed about 20 yd away. One of the special forces guys jumped out and waved me on. I jumped in and off we went, 140 miles to go at 140 kt, at 20 ft! Pretty impressive machine. Just what you’d expect from these special forces people with lots of guns hanging off them. As I looked out the back for the first time, 20-30 miles to the south, I saw the second helo. They had been flying cover for each other. Big spines on these guys, I’ll tell you, being 150 miles into enemy territory during the day, in a helicopter.
“They got me to Al Jouf. Believe me, I had a map out, watching the lat-long on their INS. I knew exactly when we were over the border. I had been on the ground exactly eight hours. The A-10s had been airborne eight hours for that mission, and the helos had been up three hours.
“Everyone took care of me. They were living under pretty harsh conditions. Carrier living looked pretty good compared to their situation, eating only MREs, one shower . . . but they had nurses.
“We had a big photo session on the tarmac. I don’t know who was happier, me or everyone else. It’s got to be a great feeling, picking someone up. I found out that the two ‘Sandy’ pilots were Captain Paul Johnson and Captain Randy Goff of the 334th TFW, Myrtle Beach AFB, South Carolina. They were on TV a few days later. I hope they at least get DFCs. They can have the Medal of Honor as far as I’m concerned. My CO wrote to their skipper as well.”
Lieutenant Devon Jones flew nearly 30 missions after his dramatic rescue by MH-53Js in the Iraqi desert.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com