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Dale Thompson

Operation Ghost Rider

Most of you have read the numerous articles written about the Libyan attack, El Dorado Canyon, on 14 April 1986.  You may not know that the JCS directed a dress rehearsal of that mission in October 1985, tasking the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing.  This is the Operation Ghost Rider story.

I was the 20th TFW DO from June 1979 to July 1980, the Wing Vice Commander from June 1981 to February 1984, and the Commander from February 1984 to July 1986.

By way of background, the 20th transferred from Weathersfield flying the F-100 to RAF Upper Heyford flying the F-111E in 1970.  Initially the wing only flew the nuclear mission, but slowly achieved conventional capability and weapons over the next few years.  We had major problems in the last half of 1976.  President Jimmy Carter withdrew virtually all the Air Force and Navy spares money and transferred it to social programs.  He even thinks he did the right thing to this day.  However, the effect of his action dramatically decreased the mission capability of our combat units.  At Upper Heyford, our MC rates were below 50%.  It was difficult to maintain our aircrew proficiencies and our maintenance crews worked overtime canning parts off aircraft to repair others.  The effect was most pronounced when I became the DO in 1979.  Meanwhile, the USSR became stronger each year and amassed huge forces along the eastern border of NATO.

In 1980, I attended a seminar presented by a number of prominent speakers at USAFE Hq.  One was the US Ambassador to NATO.  After his speech, I asked him what his and NATOs analysis was about our chances of a war in Europe in the next 2 years.  His answer:  50-50 between war and no war.  That was a sobering statement.  He also said that when the USSR felt they could win a quick conventional war, they probably would attack.

Fortunately, President Reagan reversed our spares problem very early and we began to get the parts we needed by about mid-1982. Our MR rate began climbing to 75% and then 85% by 1985.

When I became the Wing Commander in the spring of 1984, the USAFE DO suggested we should train to fly 4 ship formations to improve our conventional capability.  I readily agreed and said I had decided to proceed in that direction.  Up to that time we only flew the F-111 in 2 ship formation, principally because of the side by side configuration and reduced visibility to the starboard.  I called the DO back in 2 months and told him we were all 4 ship qualified and that I had recently led a 10 flight 40 aircraft formation.  I had not flown that way since my F-100 days.

In the summer of 1984 we deployed each squadron through a 2 week course at Red Flag at Nellis.  I must say it was a blast; particularly when I dropped 12 MK-82 retard high explosive bombs on a TAC range.  The training measurably improved our conventional weapons capability.

As USAFE increased their MC rates and aircrew proficiency in conventional deliveries, we began to match the Soviet conventional capability and that threat was reduced. 

At about 5:30 AM on the morning of October 16th 1985, I received a called from our command post on my bedside hot line.  We had previously been alerted for a NATO Active Edge exercise, a conventional munitions loadout, so I assumed we were getting the execution.  Sure enough, it was an Active Edge message, but my emergency action officer said it was an unusual message, and suggested I come up right away to review it.  It was in the command post in 15 minutes.  The message said the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing was excused from Exercise Active Edge.  I was totally surprised because Active Edge applies to all NATO assigned and earmarked units and exceptions were rarely made.  About that time, my communications center next door gave me a second message saying an aircraft was inbound to Upper Heyford, landing at 6:00 AM, and requested that I meet it on arrival.

I expected it was some kind of inspection team we had those all the time.  I called my Operations Officer, Colonel Bill LaTulipe, and Maintenance Officer, Colonel Pat Barry, and told them to meet me on the base operations ramp.  When the team of 5 officers got off their aircraft, they handed me a letter which directed the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing to bomb a simulated runway target at geographical coordinates 52-31.5N, 61-47.3W at 1016 ZULU on 18 October with 10 F-111Es loaded with 8MK82 retarded 500 pound inert bombs, and then return to Upper Heyford.  The mission was to be accomplished in the strictest secrecy and the team was there to assist in coordinating outside help as required.

I did not know where those coordinates were, so Bill LaTulipe and I walked into Base Operations and plotted them on the world-wide map on the wall.  To my surprise, the target was in Eastern Canada about 100 miles southwest of Goose Bay, Labrador, a remote wilderness area nearly 3,000 miles away.  1016 ZULU was just about sunrise in the target area.  After a bit of calculating, Bill and I concluded that it was about a 6-hour flight one way, and that we had less than 46 hours to plan the mission and to generate the aircrews and aircraft before we had to launch.  To my knowledge, no fighter wing had ever been tasked to perform a mission of this magnitude before on a no-notice basis.  It sounded like an enormous task, and it was.  The 3 of us went back to the Command Post, and I selectively recalled some of the senior battle staff.

Bill, Pat, and I drew up a quick outline of what we had to do.

In maintenance we had to identify our best night, TFR, low-level aircraft, get them in top shape, configure them to carry the munitions, get the bombs out of the munitions storage area and loaded on the aircraft, and plan for complete aircraft systems checks before take off. 

In operations we had to identify the aircrews, plan the route, arrange for aerial refueling, accomplish detailed low-level flight planning, build strip maps, develop radar predictions of the target, work up defensive tactics for the simulated enemy defense, develop a minimum communications plan, define pre-take off  and post-take off abort procedures, ground and air spare procedures,  and build a night taxi plan.  To meet out TOT, our aircraft would need to launch several hours before dawn from Upper Heyford.

In the support area we had to refine our base security plan, develop an air traffic control plan for com-out operations, and arrange for base quarters, meals, and transportation for our aircrews.  It was obvious that it was going to be a base-wide effort, ultimately requiring the assistance of virtually every squadron and agency in the wing.

There were some early decisions we had to make

First, which aircrews would we select?  From the beginning that was my most difficult decision.  My dilemma was whether I should lead the mission or serve as the mission commander from the lead KC-10 tanker as required by the tasking letter.  I finally decided to be the mission commander in the tanker with overall command and go-no-go authority, and that the DO would fly the lead F-111 aircraft.

My three fighter squadron commanders, L/COL Joe Narsavage, 55th TFS/CC, L/COL John Cain, 77th TFS/CC, and L/COL Pete Granger, 79th TFS/CC then volunteered to lead elements.  All were highly qualified pilots and super leaders.  We selected the most proficient aircrews from each squadron and one stan eval crew from the wing.  We decided to launch 4 airborne spare aircraft in case a primary aircraft experienced problems and back them up with 4 more ground spares.

The selected aircrews had to be notified and a 24-hour schedule built that identified who would plan the mission, conduct the mass briefing, build their low-level mission folders, eat, go into crew rest for 8 hours of sleep, then get up for the final breakfast, briefing, pre-flight, engine start, taxi and take off for each crew.

Preparation and planning Wednesday and Thursday were hectic, but we finally got it all put together.  The aircrews spent several hours working on their low-level mission folders and radar predictions of their turn points and the target area.  We conducted the mass aircrew briefing on Thursday afternoon and put the aircrews into early crew rest in the Bachelor Officer Quarters.

I was concerned about our ability to maintain the required security over all aspects of the mission, and we emphasized security to all those involved.  Unknown to me, USAFE Headquarters had dispatched a communications surveillance team to our base to monitor all our telephones and radios.  In their debrief after the mission they commended our security because no useful information had been intercepted.  The greatest potential compromise was through the Officers and NCOs Wives Clubs.  With so many of our people working on the mission and our aircrews cloistered into the Bachelor Officer Quarters, it became apparent to several of the wives that something big was going on.  The wife of our local OSI detachment commander told her husband something was happening, and he ran an independent attempt to find out what was going on, but didnt get any useful information either.  Our security was superb.

On Thursday night, I flew to RAF Mildenhall to brief my boss, Major General Tom McInerney, and the KC-10 and KC-135 crews who were supporting the mission.  At 0425 Friday morning the F-111s took off from Upper Heyford, followed a few minutes later by 7 tankers from RAF Mildenhall.  We had planned to rendezvous the force over Machrihanish Island in Scotland, about 250 miles to the northwest.  Due to an air traffic delay, our tankers got behind schedule and the F-111s were strung out ahead of the tankers instead of being in trail of them as planned for the rendezvous.  The fighter formation was initially in 2 ship elements separated by one minute or about 8 miles in trail.  That made the fighter string about 40 miles log.  We were using comm. out procedures and in and out of the weather so the rejoin was difficult and complicated.  I came very close to terminating the mission during that rejoin, but I finally broke radio silence and told the crews where we were.  Finally after about 40 minutes we got all 14 F-111s on their assigned tankers and cycled each one through for a refueling check of the aircraft systems.  Our 10 primary aircraft were all OK at this point, so I sent the 4 airborne spares home.

Two aerial refuelings were conducted over the ocean on the 6 hour flight to the target, and our F-111s had to change tankers after the first refueling.  We used 17 tankers in all, with 6 meeting us in mid-Atlantic from the U.S. on the way over and 4 coming out of Mildenhall, England, on the way home.  Each F-111 required about 70,000 pounds of jet fuel during the mission in 4 refuelings.

When we finally got settled down on track I discovered that we were 9 minutes behind schedule and then found that we had an unexpected 75 knot headwind.  We increased our airspeed to the KC-10 max cruise, and finally made up the deficiency by our last checkpoint.  The F-111s made their last refueling and descended to low-level 150 miles east of their first land check point at Bell Island, Newfoundland, where they went into a low-level timing orbit.  Each aircraft left the orbit point separated by 1 minute from the aircraft ahead and flew their night, low-level route as a single ship.  The route was flown at 400 feet above the ground and 480 knots on their automatic TFR systems.  Total communications-out procedures were followed all the way to the target which was about 350 miles from the coast in point.  The terrain in the target area was mountainous, covered by dense forests, and had many lakes and rivers throughout the area a low level radar navigation nightmare.  The target was a simulated runway outlined by 5 pairs of radar reflectors 250 feet apart and spaced at 2,000 foot intervals.  Each aircraft had a distinct aiming point, as we were trying to simulate cutting the runway into segments of less than 2,000 feet.  A special support team had erected the reflectors on the day before the flight, and had to rebuild 2 of them that were torn down by brown bears that night.  The team remained on site and observed each aircrafts bombing run, checked our timing, and scored each bomb that dropped.  They videotaped each aircrafts bomb run, but unfortunately it was too dark to get good video pictures.

Colonel Bill LaTulip was first across the target.  He was within 5 seconds of his scheduled TOT.  As I recall, all 8 of his bombs impacted with the simulated runway area for a perfect score.  The following crews were all close to being on time the worst was about 15 seconds late after a 6-hour flight.  Timing was critical because the bomb runs were 1 minute apart and fragmentation patterns from previously dropped bombs last about 35 seconds.  Even though our bombs were inert, we treated them as actual weapons.  Of the 80 bombs dropped, over 50% impacted the simulated runway for a pretty good record.  It was still nearly dark at TOT and the bombing runs were made on radar only.  A couple of the 500 pound bomb retarding devices failed and those bombs went long of the target.  One aircraft could only get one bomb off on the first pass because of a release malfunction, so he had to make a couple of jettison passes in the area since our aircraft didnt have the fuel to make it back to the United Kingdom with bombs on board the aircraft.  In the final analysis, however, the control team determined that we had cut the runway at each designated point.  The first 9 aircraft got joined back up with our tankers on schedule, but I had to turn the entire string around and go back to pick up the last aircraft with the release problem.  He was pretty low on gas when he got joined up, and Im certain you can appreciate the pilots voice when he reported, Im taking on fuel.

The flight home was very uneventful.  It was daylight by then and the clouds that bothered us earlier were gone.  My only concerns were aircrew fatigue and meeting up with the last 4 tankers in mid-Atlantic.  Neither concern proved to be a problem.

The F-111s landed at Upper Heyford shortly after 1600 in the afternoon and I got back a little later.  The crews were still enthusiastic and excited when we debriefed the mission.  We began our analysis of the mission that night.  Several important lessons were learned and documented, such as how much time you need to thoroughly plan such a mission, better fighter-tanker rendezvous procedures, and having each F-111 element stay on one tanker throughout the flight instead of moving them around at night in the weather in a large formation.  We also should have conducted better tests of each aircrafts weapons systems and bomb racks.  We prepared a detailed after-action report for USAFE that proved valuable for later missions.

During the next week, I received a message from General Charles Gabriel, then Air Force Chief of Staff, in which he praised our mission results and said it was the first modern long-range demonstration of the capabilities of tactical air power.  We also received congratulations from the USAFE/CC, General Charles Donnelly.

I learned later that our mission, designated Operation Ghost Rider was the dress rehearsal for the Libyan raid.  It was declassified at the end of the year.  The lessons we learned and documented came in very handy for that operation.

In late December 1985, the 20th Wing and our tenant unit, the 42nd Electronics Combat Squadron, along with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, received very sensitive warning orders concerning a possible air strike against Libya.  These orders came shortly after terrorist bomb attacks were conducted against the Rome and Vienna airports on December 17th in which 19 people were  killed, including 5 Americans.  Following these attacks there was much speculation in the international media about possible U. S. military retaliations.

On January 3rd 1986, we were all shocked when the U. S. national news media specifically identified F-111 bases in England at Lakenheath and Upper Heyford as possible units to be used in an attack on Libya.  The report, broadcast on CBS Evening News was shown on BBC TV the following evening.  The report was of great concern to me for 2 reasons:  First, it could compromise any possible operation from our bases, and second, it might make us targets of Libyan terrorist operations.

The Libyans had previously killed a British policewoman in London the year before, and were known to be capable of mounting an operation against our United Kingdom bases.  The publicity generated a great deal of public interest and both Lakenheath and Upper Heyford were immediately besieged by camera crews from the U. S. and U. K. major TV networks.  Their film, shown over the next few days, included a fairly accurate analysis of F-111 capabilities and possible tactics we might use in an attack on Libya.  We tried to keep as low a profile as possible.  News media inquiries were referred to higher headquarters without further comment, and I briefed our personnel not to make any personal statements to the press.  We were tasked to begin contingency planning for the retaliatory raid on Libya at that time.  Initially, only the F-111F models stationed at RAF Lakenheath were considered in the planning, but later our EF-111 tactical jamming aircraft, the Raven assigned to the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron was included and then the 20ths F-111Es were added to the planning operation.

Because of the extreme sensitivity of the mission, I used only about 25 key officers and NCOs in the planning process.  Many target options and different strike packages were put together over the next few weeks.  As you know, U. S. Navy carrier aircraft also participated in the mission.  Coordination between the Navy and Air Force was excellent and we even put several of our officers out on the carriers in the Mediterranean to enhance the interservice cooperation.

There were some speculations that the news leaks about the ability of our F-111s and Naval air power to inflict considerable damage to Libyan targets might deter further Libyan-sponsored terrorist attacks.  Unfortunately, that was not the case, and the terrorist activities continued.  On the 2nd of April a bomb exploded on a TWA airliner flying over Greece, killing 4 Americans, including a young woman and her infant daughter.  In the early morning hours of 5 April, another bomb exploded in the LaBelle Disco in West Berlin, injuring hundreds and killing 2 people, including an American.  These incidents were obviously targeted against Americans, and were clearly connected to Libya by a strong trail of evidence as disclosed by the President.  The disco bombing apparently was the final factor in the Presidents decision to execute the El Dorado Canyon mission.

When the final approval and execution message was received from headquarters, 18 F-111Fs from Lakenheath were tasked to do the bombing, supported by 4 EF-111As from Upper Heyford.  The F-111Fs from Lakenheath were chosen because they were equipped with pave tack pods which gave them excellent night visibility with their infrared system and laser precision guided bombs.

Quite by coincidence, both the 20th and the 48th wings had scheduled week long local training exercises to begin on Monday, April 14th.  The exercises were excellent cover for the mission preparations.  Our forces took off from Lakenheath and Upper Heyford Monday evening, with the supporting refueling tankers coming from Mildenhall and RAF Fairford.  Because both France and Spain had denied overflight rights to our forces, our crews had to fly southwest from England, over the Atlantic, and into the Mediterranean Sea through the Straits of Gibraltar.  The flight to the targets required 3 aerial refuelings and over 6 hours enroute.  Our aircrews dropped off the tankers and descended to low-level well outside of Libyan radar range.  A few minutes before the coordinated attack began at 0200 Tripoli time, the EF-111A Ravens popped up from low-level and began jamming Libyan radars.  Our Navy and Air Force crews began bombing precisely at 0200.  Our F-111s attacked targets in the Tripoli area in 2 waves, coming from the East and West to avoid early radar detection.  The crews apparently achieved near total surprise since no guns or missiles were fired at them until after the first couple of aircraft dropped their bombs.  Subsequent anti-aircraft artillery fire was ineffective and none of the aircraft were hit by hostile fire.  One F-111F and its aircrew was lost over water, inbound to the target, from unknown causes.

All the targets were struck with some degree of success.  As you could see on national TV later, some of the pave tack infrared systems were hampered by low clouds and smoke from previously dropped bombs.  Our crews had been briefed to avoid collateral damage to civilian areas and not to drop their bombs unless they were confident their bombs would impact on the targets.  To their credit, some of our crews did not drop their bombs because the targets were obscured by smoke or clouds, or due to equipment malfunction.  Those crews were really disciplined.  It took determination, training and will-power not to drop their bombs after a 6-hour flight, and while flying through a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire and missiles.  Im very proud of them.

The President and Secretary of Defense briefed the mission on national TV immediately following the attack.  It was still Monday evening in the U.S.  Within hours a host of U. K. and international news media teams were entrenched around our base at Upper Heyford.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher admitted to giving clearance for our F-111s to fly from England and was immediately criticized by the opposition parties.  But the coverage was generally neutral in the U. K.  Within a few days, film clips came out of Libya showing damage to several civilian targets.  I recall one in particular.  It was a shot of people pulling what the Libyans called a U. S. bomb out of the wreckage of a building.  The so-called U. S. bomb was actually and unmistakably the booster rocket from a Soviet-made SA-3 surface-to-air missile which had been fired by the Libyans.  Im sure that a great deal of the damage to civilian targets in Tripoli was caused by their own gunfire and missiles that dropped back on the city.

British public opinion was mixed.  The Labor and Social Democratic Parties strongly criticized the raid.  My office received about 400 telephone calls, of which about 40 percent were in favor and 60 percent against.  I also received over 300 letters, about one-half of which favored our actions.

Since we could not rule out the possibility of retaliation from the Libyans, we significantly increased security at all our bases in the U. K.

The El Dorado Canyon mission was a great success from the standpoint of a carefully planned, coordinated and executed joint operation between the U. S. Navy and U. S. Air Force.

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