Tim Bennett’s War

Jan. 1, 1993
During Operation Desert Storm, Air Force Capt. Tim Bennett served as a flight leader with the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flying a total of fifty-eight combat missions in the F-15E dual-role fighter. Captain Bennett recounted the experience to Barry D. Smith.

We were based at Al Kharj AB in central Saudi Arabia. We lived in tents the whole time. The base was home to five squadrons of F-16s and F-15Es, so there were flight operations twenty-four hours a day. The noise and cold made it hard to sleep. After a while, I would get into a routine where I went to bed about 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., slept for eight hours, got up, took a shower, ate, and then went over the squadron plan for that night’s mission. We were slightly undermanned in our unit and, if you were a flight leader or an IP [instructor pilot], you flew a lot.

On the first night of the war, when you were stepping out to your plane, you thought, “Holy –, here we go.” You are obviously scared, but you know you have a job to do. We knew we were going to get shot at, but, at the same time, we didn’t know what that would feel like and whether or not they were going to be able to hit us. Once you got into the airplane, you had so much to do that things just flowed along.

I remember hitting the tanker and going across the border; everything just seemed-not routine, but these were things we had been doing over and over. The thing I remember most was going over the border just after the F-117s had hit and all the AAA [antiaircraft artillery fire] coming up. I looked out at that damn AAA, and my mouth instantly went dry. I just couldn’t believe the amount of stuff that was in the air. I thought to myself, “And I’m only seeing every eighth bullet!”

We went past Baghdad, to an airfield called H-2, to hit fixed Scud sites. We wanted to hit all the fixed sites before they could launch against Israel. H-2 was looking real bad because they put up some fighters that night to try to get us. We had twelve planes going in there. My wingman was about two miles behind, using his FLIR [forward-looking infrared] to keep us in sight. About eighty miles out from H-2, we got some radar contacts from some MiG-29 “Fulcrums” and MiG-23 “Floggers.” They knew where we were and were moving to get us.

Spiked by a Fulcrum

We got spiked by a Fulcrum radar, which was picked up on our radar warning receiver. We could see them coming down. They knew there were more than one of us and were trying to find the end of the train to work up the rear of the formation. We got spiked and lost it, got spiked again, and lost it again.

Everybody in our formation could keep pretty good track of them on radar and would lock a missile on to them as they approached. We didn’t want to shoot unless we had to so we wouldn’t give our positions away. We figured there were two Fulcrums and three Floggers out there.

One MiG-29 came down the left side of the formation. We could see him on the radar. He was beginning to move across our formation. I could begin to see his image in the head-up display [HUD], which displayed the FLIR image from the navigation pod. This gave me a small window to see the sky and terrain in front of me as if it were daylight. He didn’t know I was there, but he was trying to roll in on the F-15E about six miles in front of me. Then, all of a sudden, he just hit the ground and exploded. I could see the wreckage spread out along the ground.

It is unbelievably disorienting to fly low at night and work off of radar with only yourself in the cockpit. The MiG pilot was trying to converge on an aircraft moving at 600 knots at 100 feet altitude. He just got too low. It was pitch black, with no moonlight or lights from any cities. We would not even have seen him if not for our FLIR systems. We could see that it was a MiG-29 Fulcrum and that he just flew into the ground trying to maneuver behind the guy in front of me.

Another F-15 crew in the front of the formation had seen another MiG-29 come down on the right side. He took a shot at that one because the MiG had a radar lock on him. He was afraid the MiG was going to shoot missiles head-on at him at low altitude. The AIM-9 missile went stupid and missed the MiG.

After the mission, we put all the HUD FLIR tapes together to figure out what happened next. We think this MiG-29 came around and got into a beam position on us and lost his radar lock, but we think his radar was in automatic acquisition mode and locked onto one of the Iraqi MiG-23 Floggers. The Floggers didn’t have the systems to get down low with us and were up about 2,000 feet trying to get an infrared lock from the heat of our exhaust. The MiG-29 then shot a missile and destroyed the Flogger.

No Fun at All

There were some nights over there, especially during the first two weeks, when the AAA and SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] were really bad. I was on both missions when we had F-15Es shot down. Those weren’t fun at all.

The most memorable night for me was February 16, when we went into the Basra region with twenty-four airplanes. The first eight-ship was going north of Basra to hit bridges. Our eight-ship was in the middle, with our squadron commander, Lt. Col. Steve Pingle–a Vietnam vet and about as cool as they come-in the lead. Our target was a powerplant up a river near the coast. The last eight-ship was going to hit a petroleum refining and storage area in northern Kuwait.

We dropped off the tanker and went to low altitude to get down under the early warning radar. We flew just to the west of Kuwait, continued north, and turned east. As soon as we turned the corner, about fifteen miles from the target, after we had gotten past the SAM sites, we were going to pop up to medium altitude to get over the AAA.

The AAA was heavier than I had ever seen it. What we didn’t know was that two Republican Guard divisions had moved onto the road along our route of travel. I will never, ever, forget what that looked like. It was just a wall of AAA.

Down low, there was an illusion of going down a tunnel because the AAA just kind of parted in front of us and passed over the top of the aircraft. It was so thick I just squeezed down into my seat and waited to get hit. What else could I do? I couldn’t turn around. I couldn’t go left, couldn’t go right. My whole philosophy was, “I’m going to get through this stuff as fast as I can.”

You could tell when a strand of tracer was heading your way by the look of it, and you just jinked a bit to get out of its way. There was so much muzzle flash on the ground that it looked like daylight. I felt vulnerable as hell because I was sure they could see me in all that light.

Then we popped up to about 16,000 feet and got above most of the AAA. The 57-mm and bigger guns could still get to us, but it wasn’t as bad. Luckily, they never shot any SAMs at us. We were each carrying five Mk. 84 2,000-pound bombs. We rolled in and pounded that powerplant using the FLIR targeting pods.

When we turned to go home, we were only about six or seven miles from the southern group hitting the petroleum facility. Those guys had a really hard time because they had SAMs shot at them as well as AAA. That was where we had an airplane shot down and lost a crew. They were headed toward two SAM sites and did a loft delivery, where they use the energy of a climb to toss the bombs onto the target. We think they got hit in the climb. When the others got back and reviewed the FLIR tapes, the guy who was behind [the airplane shot down] had him on the FLIR and showed him taking a hit, rolling over, and going into the ground.

Bombing the Helicopter

On one flight, we used a laser-guided bomb [LGB] to shoot down a helicopter. This occurred on February 14, Valentine’s Day. The mission was a Scud CAP [combat air patrol] in northwestern Iraq. During the Scud CAPs, we would look around with either the FLIR targeting pod or the radar to find the mobile Scuds. My wingman had twelve Mk. 82s, and I had four GBU-10s-2,000-pound LGBs-four AIM-9s, and two external fuel tanks. I was leading the flight.

Our CAP time on this mission was 1:00 to 3:00 in the morning. We went up and hit the tanker and then proceeded north. Our patrol area started up at Al Qaim, near the Syrian border, and ran east about halfway to Baghdad, south to just beyond H-2, and then back to the Syrian border.

The weather was bad that night, with clouds from about 4,000 feet to about 18,000 feet. We were cruising above the weather, waiting for AWACS [an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft] or someone else to pass us some coordinates on some Scuds.

AWACS gave us a call and said that a Special Forces team was in trouble. They had been found by the Iraqis, who were moving to cut them off. We had ten to fifteen Special Forces teams in the general area looking for Scuds. This team was about 300 miles across the border.

Five Iraqi helicopters were in their area-about fifty miles to our west. As we headed in their direction, I put my wingman in a four-mile trail formation behind me because I had to go down through the weather. When I was about fifty miles from the team, Capt. Dan Bakke, my back-seater, began working the radar to look for the helicopters. We got contacts on them moving west to east, just like the AWACS had said.

Dan and I started talking about what we were going to do. We knew there were helicopters down there, but if we were going to shoot them down, we wanted confirmation that they were bad guys. We called up AWACS, call sign Cougar, and asked them if there were any friendly helicopters in the area. The AWACS controller said, “We don’t have any friendlies in the area. Any helicopters you find, you are cleared to shoot.”

We got a little closer and kept going down to get below the weather. I wanted to confirm, one more time, before we lost contact with AWACS, that these were definitely bad guys and not some of our Special Forces helicopters coming to get the team. We had a few based in Syria that would have been following the same general course and could have gotten to the area fairly quickly. AWACS confirmed there were no friendlies in the area.

We continued to press in and were down to about 2,500 feet along the major road between Baghdad and the Syrian border. That area was always hot with a lot of AAA. I was working the radar, and Dan was working the high-resolution FLIR in the targeting pod to find the helicopters. When we popped out of the clouds fifteen to twenty miles from the team, Dan could see the helicopters with the pod. They were moving pretty much abreast, with the lead out in front in the middle. They were still moving west to east. They were moving and stopping at regular intervals.

There was also a group of troops on the ground to the east of the team. We started getting AAA fire from these troops. To us, it looked as if they were trying to herd the team with the helicopters into the troops to the east. The helicopters were keeping an even distance from each other, and we figured they might be dropping off troops to help herd the team.

The image on the pod was good enough to identify the helicopters as probable [Mi-24] “Hinds,” five to ten miles out. Hinds can carry troops and are heavily armed with rockets and machine guns. As soon as the helicopters picked up and started moving, we were getting hits off them on the radar. The radar would stay locked on them when they were on the ground because the moving rotor blades were picked up.

Dan and I discussed how we wanted to conduct the attack. We decided to hit the lead helicopter with a GBU-10 while he was on the ground. If we hit him, he would be destroyed. If he moved off before the bomb landed, it would still get the troops he just left on the ground. It would also give the other helicopters something to think about, which might give the team a chance to get away in the confusion. We would then circle around and pop the others as we could. We passed our plan to our wingman and told him to get the first helicopter he saw with an AIM-9.

By this time, we were screaming over the ground, doing about 600 knots–almost 700 mph. The AAA was still coming up pretty thick. Our course took us right over the top of the Iraqi troops to the east of the team. We didn’t know exactly where our team was, but it was looking to us like things were getting pretty hairy for the Special Forces guys.

Dan was lasing the lead helicopter. We let the bomb go from about four miles out while the leader was on the ground. Because of our speed, it had a hell of a range on it-more range than an AIM-9. I got AIM-9 guidance going and uncaged a Sidewinder. I was ready to fire the missile as soon as we were in range.

Just as we released the bomb, the airspeed readout on the radar showed the target at 100 knots and climbing. The lead chopper had picked up and started moving. I said, “There’s no chance the bomb will get him now,” even though Dan was working hard to keep the laser spot on him. I got a good lock with my missile and was about to pickle off a Sidewinder when the bomb flew into my field of view on the targeting IR screen.

There was a big flash, and I could see pieces flying in different directions. It blew the helicopter to hell, damn near vaporized it.

We sat there for a few seconds, just staring. By that time, the AAA was getting real heavy and the other helicopters were starting to scatter. I told my wingman to put three Mk. 82 500-pounders on that same spot to get any troops that the helos dropped off.

We beat up the area with bombs and were going to circle around and come down on them again. I popped up above 10,000 feet and talked to AWACS to tell them what was going on. They said, “I understand you visually ID’ed that as an Iraqi helo.”

I said, “No, it’s still dark out here, but I saw a FLIR image of what I took to be a Hind.”

At that point, my stomach hit the floor. I told AWACS to get the AWACS commander on the radio. Dan and I were thinking, “We hit a friendly helo.” But when we got the AWACS commander on the air, he confirmed that there were no friendlies in the area.

With that confirmed, I told Dan, “OK, let’s go back down and get the rest of the helos.” We got down low and the AAA was just as bad as before. The helicopters scattered and were running north. My wingman and I were sorting them out and waiting to get within AIM-9 range. We were about ten miles behind and closing fast.

I was running in on them and getting ready to be a hero and knock a few more down when, all of a sudden, I started seeing flashes on both sides of us. I thought, “What have they done? Here we are in the middle of a bunch of SAMs!”

Then it hit me: Those weren’t SAMs. They were bombs! AWACS had sent another flight in and told them to drop bombs on a set of coordinates. Those coordinates happened to be us!

I figured we had pushed our luck far enough, and we got the hell out of there. AWACS gave the orders to that other flight on another frequency. If it had been on ours, I would have heard the bombers’ side of the conversation and could have canceled the drop. I decided we had had enough for one day, but our night wasn’t over yet. We still had fifteen minutes left on our Scud CAP and were directed to a site near H-2. We found a mobile Scud on a launchpad, attacked it, and then headed home.

The Special Forces team got out OK and went back to Central Air Forces headquarters to say thanks and confirm our kill for us. They saw the helicopter go down. When the helos had bugged out, the team moved back to the west and was extracted.

Barry D. Smith is a free-lance military writer in California.