When I checked out as an Aircraft Commander I was told that I had two jobs "fly the plane" and "make decisions". That's why I got paid the big bucks. Well, not that big. An Air Force Captain with flight pay made something like $40,000 back then.
It's been said that no war plan survives the first shot being fired and the Gulf War was no exception. This caused me to be put in the position of making "the call". The one where if you get it wrong you might not have a second chance at it.
First I need to set the stage. My crew and I were "orphans". We'd been deployed six months prior to the rest of our unit (2nd Bomb Wing) because of a last-minute tasking. Someone had to take the bad deal and it must have been our turn that day.
We found ourselves bounced around from Guam to Diego Garcia to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and finally back to Diego Garcia. We never did meet up with our home unit, who ultimately deployed to Spain.
Shortly after our first mission we found ourselves in Jeddah. We didn't know the host unit and they didn't know us. What I initially saw didn't really give me a "warm fuzzy". My first impression was "These people are going to get us killed".
Shortly into the conflict, Iraq starting lobbing SCUD missiles at Israel. The US was terrified that the Israelis would jump into the conflict and then it's anyone's guess what might have happened after that.
All of our carefully crafted plans went out the window and we threw a bunch of air assets into SCUD hunting. B-52s included. If that sounds stupid - it is. I'm not sure how they expected us to find a SCUD launcher in the desert but we had to at least look like we were making the effort.
The powers that be had just decided that it was safe enough for us to fly daylight missions and we were still a little antsy about it. This was early in the war and the Iraqis would still sortie the occasional fighter. Not a big deal today. We were supposed to have F-15s flying Combat Air Patrol.
Shortly after takeoff our tail guns broke, completely. When the gunner tested his system the turret pointed straight down and locked. Technically this was a "no go" item. Nobody's going to question me if I turn back.
I came up on the radio and talked to the flight lead. He offered to move us into the #2 position so we'd at least be between two planes with working guns. He said it was my call if we wanted to press on or turn back.
Meanwhile we're getting close to the border. I need to make the call fairly soon.
There are many ways to run a crew. At one end of the spectrum there's the dictatorial type of Aircraft Commander and at the other end is "rule by committee". Most ACs fell somewhere in between the two and I like to think I did too.
I've got a few minutes, might as well poll the crew:
Gunner - "Turn Back" (No surprise here. What's a gunner going to do without guns?)
Radar Navigator - "Go!" (Also no surprise. He's very motivated.)
Copilot - "Go" (He's also pretty motivated.)
Navigator - Indifferent
EWO - Indifferent
OK, that's two for pressing on, one for turning back and a couple undecideds. I was hoping for something a bit more unanimous but no such luck.
Still a couple minutes left. What do I know here?
1. It's daytime.
2. Running into an air-to-air threat is still a possibility.
3. I've got a bad feeling about this mission already.
We're turning back. Call me a whatever you want but I'd at least like something to shoot back with. Get Command Post on the radio and let them know.We spent the next five hours turning circles over the Red Sea with our gear down and our air-brakes out trying to burn off enough fuel to land (B-52s can't dump fuel).
So, right decision or wrong?
It turns out the planners had completely botched the mission timing. The remaining two bombers were passed by their F-15s heading in the opposite direction. The F-15s were Bingo Fuel and headed back to their base.
So now there are two B-52s, unescorted, wandering around Northern Iraq in broad daylight looking for SCUDS and not finding any. What could possibly go wrong?
They get a call from AWACS (the 707 with the big Frisbee on top):
You've got two MiG-29s, 80 miles, headed your way fast!They turned 180 degrees and dove for the dirt at top speed. You won't outrun a MiG but you might outrun his fuel supply. Getting down low also forces him to get a lot closer before he can shoot. His missiles may even have trouble locking on if you get right down in the dirt.
It wasn't over for the hapless bomber crews, however. Oh no. They sent them to a tanker to refuel and then back up North to try again.
I wish I could say I was making this up, but the same exact thing happened. Escorts head home for lack of fuel. MiGs come back out to play. Bombers head for the dirt and run like hell.
Not sure what we might have contributed. I suppose we could have kept the MiGs busy while they shot holes in us.
Now, I wasn't there, but I'm told when that these guys walked into debrief the Formation Leader said to all assembled:
Before we get all huggy kissy here - we could have fucking died out there today!They never did find any SCUDs.