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Vipers in the Storm
Pilot Debreif


1) Flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon, especially in combat during Operation Desert Storm, is a thrill few individuals have experienced.  What inspired you to become a fighter pilot?

Initially I liked the speed and excitement that was associated with flying fighters.  Then, during pilot training, I came to realize that fighters, more than any other aircraft, are employed...not just "flown".  Flying becomes secondary in your don't think directly about your altitude, airspeed, heading, etc.  Your primary consideration is on your sensors and your weapons.  You are using the fighter as a tool.  In other aircraft, such as transports, the flying portion of the mission evolves around taking off, cruising, and landing - that's pretty much it.  Also...when it comes to the real mission of the Air hinges on shooting down enemy airplanes and removing objects from existence on the face of the earth.  That is really how you achieve your national interest goals through other than political or economic means.  In my mind, flying a fighter was the best way to be a part of that mission, and have the most fun flying at the same time!


2) When did you join the Air Force, and what was your first flying assignment after completing Undergraduate Pilot Training?

I was commissioned 2 June 1982.  My first flying assignment other than Lead-In Fighter Training (LIFT) and Replacement Training Unit (RTU)  training was at Ramstein AB, Germany flying the F-4E Phantom II in the air superiority role.  A great assignment for a 1st Lt, especially during the height of the cold war.  Once or twice a month we would be assigned to "Zulu" air defense alert.  We would spend 24 hours on eating, sleeping, and living with two fully armed F-4's in alert hangars with the task to be airborne and heading east in 5 minutes or less from the sound of the Klaxon horn.  You never knew what time of the day the horn might sound or whether the "scramble" was real or training.  The single alert tour I remember best was Thanksgiving Day 1985.  The horn blasted and we knew it was real (not even the Air Defense Sector Commander ADSOC would scramble the Zulu boys on Thanksgiving for no reason).  We slid down the fireman poles to our jets and were airborne in 4.2 minutes.  We headed due east in full afterburner on an aircraft that had penetrated the ADIZ (air defense buffer zone).  We got within about 50 NM of the intruder before he turned around and ran back across the border.  We found out later that this was a game the East German's used to play on the West Germans/Americans on certain holidays (the ones they don't observe I suppose).

3) What aircraft have you flown, and what are the different bases you have been assigned to during your Air Force career?

Flown the standard trainers of the Air Force:  T-41, T-37, T-38 / AT-38 Fighters:  F-4E, F-16 I have been assigned to Ramstein AB Germany, Misawa AB Japan, Hill AFB Utah, Hickam AFB Hawaii, and Nellis AFB Nevada.

4) Which models of the F-16 have you flown, and how many hours do you have in the Viper?

I have flown nearly every model: A,C,CG,CJ - Blocks 10,15, 25, 30 32, 40, 42, 50, 52. I have 2,000 hours in the F-16.

5) What was your best assignment and why?

I would probably have to say Hill AFB UT...during Desert Shield/Storm.

6) This year marks the ten year anniversary of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of Operation Desert Shield/Storm. Looking back, what was the experience of combat like for you?

I think combat is a different experience for everyone.  But the experiences that remain with me really deal with myself and the brothers in arms with whom I flew.  The first few days were exceedingly difficult...for a couple of reasons.  You may or may not have heard the old adage, "If you can make it through your first 7 or 8 combat sorties in one piece, your chances of staying alive go way up."  Well, I now understand what that means.  Everyone has an inherent fear of the unknown, and unless you have recently been in combat, you don't know what to expect.  Of course you train, and of course talk about what to do, but until the circumstances hit you head on, you really don't know how you will react.  It is a very different feeling to know that someone is actually shooting at your F-16 with the sole purpose of destroying that plane and you in it.  Luckily for everyone in the 421st "Widows," our training took over and the way we had been training was correct.  We were able to go the whole war without loosing a single jet.  But the memories that really stay with me are how everyone reacted in their own way.  We had guys that were just fanatical warriors.  The more intense the battle or situation became, the more aggressive and fearless they became - sometimes to the point of doing some not-so-smart things.  And then there were others that just froze, or would not venture into the "mouth of the tiger," and just jettisoned their bombs and turned to go home.  This was all during the first week and a half or so, when the Iraqi defenses were intense and they still had lots of bullets and missiles to shoot.  After they quit shooting as much, everybody became a Steve Canyon or John Wayne.  What interested me was which guys were the fearless warriors and which weren't.  Not always the ones you would expect based on the flying that we had done together before the shooting started and the impressions you developed of that person.  Some of the more quiet, non-assuming fighter pilots (if you consider ANY fighter pilot quiet and non-assuming) were just plain fearless.  And some of the "big talkers" ended up not having much of a belly for battle.  That's nothing new.  History mentions this type of thing again and again, but it was what you found out about yourself...what you really had inside of you that combat tends to bring out.  And it also teaches you what is really important in the big scheme of life.  It's not that fancy car, that big house, or all the toys in the garage.  It's your friends and family, and the people supporting you.  I still say the real heroes of that Gulf War weren't the pilots or the soldiers.  It was the American Public.  Their constant support with cards, letters, care packages, etc...made the long nights in the planning room easy, and the tough missions seem all worthwhile.  They made us all feel like we were doing this for a reason - not just because it was our duty - though that would have been good enough, but much tougher.  I have always said and will continue to believe that all the United States has to do is get the support of our people behind whatever it is we are trying to peacetime or war, and we will devastate any enemy on this planet.  But diminish our training, our technological edge, or give the impression that what we are trying to do is wrong, and the fight will become less certain.

7) How many combat missions did you fly, and is there one particular mission that stands out more than any other?

I flew 40 missions.  The three that stand out are the first night of the war.  We had a total of eight F-16's in our strike package.  Four were task to attack Al Salem Airfield in Kuwait, and my four were tasked to attack Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait.  The weather was overcast above about 25,000 feet.  As we descended down through the weather, we reached VMC about 20 NM from Al Jaber.  As we broke out of the clouds, the sky was completely lit up with anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire.  It looked just like the pictures you saw on TV from Baghdad, only not quite that dense.  Your first inclination was to just climb back up high into the clouds where none of that was going on, but you knew you really couldn't do that and accomplish the mission.  My second thought was one of astonishment.  It was ALMOST a pretty sight, if it hadn't been for the fact that those pretty little streams of red and yellow dots dancing across the night sky were intended to destroy my F-16 and kill me.  The second mission that stands out is another night mission.  It was during the last three days of the war, around February 25th or so.  The weather was very bad. Heavy clouds, rain, thunderstorms.  My wingman for the mission was Col Casmier  "Cash" Jaszczak.  He was our Vice Wing Commander sent in from MacDill AFB, Florida by Gen Chuck Horner to "assist" Col Mike "invisible man" Navaro in running the 388th Wing at Minhad.  I elected  to fly at low altitude (about 5,000' AGL - just below the clouds and weather) from Minhad to our rendezvous orbit with a KC-135 refueling tanker on the Saudi Arabia/Iraqi border.  A plan that worked out well (I should have stuck to that plan!!)  After getting a full load of fuel from the KC-135, I heard a flight of F-4Gs returning from a mission out in the Basra area where we were tasked to go that evening.  I queried them about the weather and the tops of the clouds. They informed me that the weather was "pretty rough."  But if we could get above 32,000 feet, we could get "on top" of most of the cells.  We had a full load of fuel with plenty to spare for this mission, so I elected to put Col Jaszczak in eight mile radar trail and began to climb up through the thunder storms.  I really didn't like the idea flying low altitude across Iraq, which would expose us to any Iraqi that had a slingshot, saying, "Here we are.  Take your best shot!!" (In retrospect, that's just what we should have done.)  Now we all have been taught since day one in pilot training that "there is NO PEACETIME mission that ever justifies penetrating a thunderstorm or cumulous cell".  'Well , I thought to myself,'  'this is WAR, and that rule was for under powered, fragile planes like transports, bombers, and trainers.  Not the bad boy F-16 with wings that can withstand nine Gs and 35,000 lbs. of thrust from our GE-F100-110 engine!!'  Well, as history has proven (and always tends to repeat itself), that thought was significantly flawed.  The ride I took myself and my wingman on through those thunderstorms was as hazardous and dangerous as any of my combat missions.  There were time when my F-16, loaded with six 500 pound bombs, was thrown around the sky like a raft in a hurricane.  My "G" meter was fluctuating from -3 G's to +6 G's instantaneously.  There were times I would get in a down draft, go to full afterburner 30 degrees nose high at 350 knots, trying to climb out of the stuff, and my vertical velocity indicator (VVI)  would indicate I was falling at 5,000 feet per minute!  The lightning was coming so close to my plane that it momentarily blinded me.  I had to put down my dark visor and the thunder would hurt my ears.  The static electricity was so bad that little "lightning bolts" would jump from one side of the cockpit to the other and across the canopy.  Sometimes the little "lightning bolts" would hit my face and sting like a bee!  I could not touch any part of the canopy or canopy rail because the electrical shock was so bad.  Then a sudden reality struck me (along with another bolt) that here I am flying over enemy territory with lightning bolts missing my F-16 by what had to be less than 100 feet.  I'm loaded with 12,000 lbs. of jet fuel and 3,000 lbs. of high explosive bombs, and if one of those bolts hits me, the explosion will be spectacular.  Unfortunately, there would be no one to see it.  But on the positive side, there would be nothing left of me or my plane bigger that a can of beer, so at least I wouldn't have to worry about captured as a POW!!  The last mission was during the attacks on the "Highway of Death".  I was flying at night again, so the burning tanks and vehicles were very noticeable.  The highway looked like a ribbon of fire...kind of like the pictures you see when people snow ski at night in a line carrying torches.  Except you knew that whomever was left alive down there on that highway was not having any fun...and it sure didn't feel like winter!!!

8) What do you remember most about your time spent in the United Arab Emirates at Al Minhad AB?

The heat, the sand, sometimes the wind, and the close friendships that resulted from a group of fighter pilots getting ready to go to war together.

9) What have you been doing since the war, and where are you now?

I have remained in the Air Force.  I did an assignment on the Pacific Air Force (PACAF) staff at Hickam AFB, Hawaii.  I had a wonderful time and then went to Army Command and General Staff college at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas for one year.  Since then I've been flying with the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada developing new tactics and procedures for the F-16.


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Copyright © 2003 by Keith A. Rosenkranz.  All rights reserved.
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