TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Flares, flares, flares! Chutes, chutes! We’ve got two chutes! Initiating CAP (combat air patrol)! Launch the rescue aircraft!”
This is what we heard over the radio on the evening of March 21, 2011.
On that day, I was a copilot on a KC-10 Extender aircraft, headed to Morón Air Base, Spain near Seville to be the spare ground aircraft supporting the summer swap out of fighter aircraft into and out of the Middle East. As tankers ferry fighters into the desert, our KC-10 would be on standby to launch, in case one of the tankers had a maintenance problem.
We landed for what we thought would be a six-week “vacation” in Spain. We made plans to visit Gibraltar, Madrid and the tomb of Christopher Columbus. The former leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, had other plans for us. Overnight, we turned from a spare ground aircraft to the sole KC-10 tanker, supporting a no-fly zone over the Mediterranean Sea.
The opening night of Operation Odyssey Dawn began with an exciting four-ship of tankers refueling Stealth, B-2 Spirit bombers. The bombers were egressing Libya after an initial successful air raid. They destroyed many long-range surface-to-air missile sites, but, not all of them.
The first few nights of OOD were borderline chaos. There were no aerial refueling tracks and no Air Tasking Orders. This was the “wild West.” The second night of enforcing this unexpected no-fly zone, we were briefed not to get near the coast of Libya unless cleared by the naval ship executing command and control (C2) authority. After a few aerial refuelings, four F-16 Vipers and two F-15E Strike Eagles arrived unannounced, requesting gas. As the fighter aircraft arrived, we were directed to setup an orbit roughly 20 miles off the coast of Libya, near the city of Benghazi. Upon arrival, we asked the fighter pilots if the threat of a particular surface to air missile system had been “disabled.” To which they replied, “Nah man, we are going to blow it up right now!”
The flight engineer on our aircraft exclaimed, “Great, so there’s a telephone-pole sized rocket on the rails, potentially ready to launch. Oh, and we have no detection or defensive capabilities, whatsoever… I’m in!”
The fighters finished the refueling in about 15 minutes and headed off on their bomb run. We listened intently on the radio as they approached their target. Moments later, we saw flares, puffs of dark smoke and a distress call. Unaware of what actually happened, it was clear that one of the fighter aircraft had been lost. Our aircraft commander took control of the aircraft, made a rapid turn northbound and pushed the throttles up to full power. Assuming the fighter jet had been shot down by the very surface to air missile system it was attempting to destroy, we had no choice but to get out of the situation as fast as possible.
We made contact with the naval vessel to help pass the coordinates of where the aircraft went down and request rescue. About 15 minutes after clearing the danger zone, we heard another distressed radio call, “Mayday, Mayday, I have provided CAP below bingo and will be punching out over the Med, come get me.”
Translation, “Help, help, I have used up too much fuel and can not make it back to base. I will be ejecting from my aircraft somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Come find and rescue me!”
As a tanker aircraft, we had a major decision to make. With no defensive or detection capabilities, do we venture back into potentially hostile territory and refuel the remaining F-15E or do we stay clear and avoid risking the lives of our four crewmembers aboard an $88 million, flying gas station?
After a quick crew discussion, we decided to support our fellow Airmen. We did not see a big explosion as if the fighter was shot down, and there was no radio chatter about a hostile act. With seconds to spare, we turned around and proceeded full speed to rescue the fuel-starved jet. We were willing to risk our lives to prevent four crewmembers (two from each F-15) from having to undergo a land and water rescue. After successfully refueling the F-15, its pilot returned to execute more CAP over his downed wingman. Both F-15 crewmembers were rescued.
So there I was… NKAWTG!