Losses and Aviation Safety

US Navy F/A-18 pilot remembers the mid-air misses he had with two USAF F-16s and a B-1 during Operation Iraqi Freedom

‘Immediately ahead of me was the dark mass of a B-1, which was so close that part of the left wing was on one side of the canopy bow and a section of the right wing was on the other side of it!,’ Cdr Hubbard, F/A-18 Hornet pilot.

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The F/A-18 Hornet, in its various guises, was the ‘universal soldier’ of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), with some 250 seeing combat during the campaign from land bases and the six supercarriers of the US Navy that were committed to the war from the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG) and eastern Mediterranean.

The F/A-18 delivered hundreds of thousands of pounds of ordnance on a whole host of targets ranging from T-62 tanks of the Iraqi Republican Guard to the government buildings that housed elements of the Booth party regime in cities such as Basra, Baghdad and An Najaf. Aside from its ability to drop precision munitions such as JDAM and LGBs, the Hornet was also capable of launching anti-radar missiles and acting as an aerial tanker, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platform for other strike types.

On the night of Apr. 2, 2003 Lt Nathan White, a VFA-195 pilot, was lost during a ‘Blue on Blue’ incident when he was downed by a US Army manned PAC-3 Patriot missile. White became US Navy’s light strike’s sole combat fatality in OIF.

As told by Tony Holmes in his book US Navy Hornet Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom Part One, Cdr Hubbard, then VFA-151 CO, came close to becoming a statistic on the same night, too.

`About 90 minutes after the Hornet was lost, I walked into VFA-151’s ready room on the ship and was told by one of my pilots that an aircraft had been shot down right where I was heading on my next sortie. We launched and flew up there as planned, and on the way into Baghdad you could hear the various assets on the ground and in the air trying to coordinate a rescue effort in case the pilot had gotten out of his jet alive.

`Minutes after this, my wingman and I were heading north when my Hornet was rocked by a deafening explosion that temporarily blinded me. I happened to be looking out the right side of the canopy when a 105 mm round cooked off between my wingman and I — we were flying in formation, with a half-mile separation. I could not hear the radios, and the white flash had ruined my night vision. Slowly, my hearing came back, and my wingman checked in with me to see if I was alright. We quickly found our designated target — a communications site — and dropped our bombs, then headed back south as fast as we could.

`Having already had one close shave on this mission, we then almost collided with a section of F-16s heading in the opposite direction. Weather had forced us down, and we had ended up at the same height as these guys. We were so close when we passed that I could see the letters and numbers on the tail of one of the jets, as well as the reflection of the multi-function displays in the pilot’s face — he was heads down, fiddling around in his cockpit. They never saw us, as we flashed past each other with a separation of just 200 ft. My wingman also saw the guy that I almost hit, and then another F-16 almost flew into him.

`This incident confirmed what I was telling my pilots in their daily briefings — “the biggest threat out here now is us”. Height deconfliction was always going to be a problem, despite the various “highways” that were set up at different altitudes, as it only took some bad weather to throw these plans into disarray. And with the best will in the world, the AWACS crews cannot be expected to operate as air traffic controllers.

`I experienced a second mid-air miss several nights later while trying to attack some tanks travelling south-east of Baghdad. My FAC kept on changing the coordinates that we were supposed to attack, and I eventually told him that he had to settle down and give us the correct ones or we were not going to be able to drop our bombs.

`After six changes he finally came up with solid coordinates, and I was heads down typing these into the weapons computer when I got this weird feeling that caused me to look up and out of the cockpit. Immediately ahead of me was the dark mass of a B-1, which was so close that part of the left wing was on one side of the canopy bow and a section of the right wing was on the other side of it! I pushed the stick fully forward, and the negative G saw my helmet bag fly out from the back of the cockpit and my head smack the canopy very hard — I had loosened my lap belts earlier in the mission in order to get a little more comfortable. The impact with the canopy almost knocked me unconscious! My wingman asked me if I had seen the bomber, and I told him that I thought that it was a B-1. By then we were looking straight down its afterburner cans, which the pilot lit up as he powered away from us.

`Having missed the bomber, we confirmed with the FAC that we would be over the target in five minutes. ] was carrying two JDAMs and my wingman was armed with three JSOW, and we quickly identified six tanks travelling nose to tail in the open. We confirmed with the FAC that there were no “friendlies” in the area, and then I attacked with the JDAMs on the first pass and my wingman followed up with his JSOW on the second attack run. We got good BHA (Battle Hit Assesment) on all six tanks, with one of my JDAMs registering a direct hit and the second one missing by just 50 ft.’

US Navy Hornet Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom Part One is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F/A-18C Hornet VFA-131 Wildcats, AG400 / 165208 / 2009

Photo credit: Lt. J.g. Will Harris / U.S. Navy and Jim Haseltine / U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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