I was mindful that the locals might not be too friendly where we were about to land.
This is an extract from Harrier Boys Volume 2: New Technology, New Threats, New Tactics, 1990-2010, by Bob Marston, published by Grub Street. Available from the Harrier Force Association
My most memorable day of Iraqi Freedom, other than the one mentioned previously, was in mid-April, as the ground troops were approaching Baghdad. By that time the Air Tasking Order that arrived every morning hardly seemed worth the paper it was printed on. My takeoff time was always determined by the success of the night wave’s sorties. If they’d had good luck finding targets they’d keep hitting them until they were ‘Winchester’ (out of bombs); if they hadn’t found anything they’d keep looking until they were ‘Bingo’ (out of gas). But either way it was impossible to predict when they’d get back or when the jets would be turned around and ready for us to launch on the dawn/morning wave. Anyway, on this particular morning we launched late, with a tanker’s call sign to try to take gas from, but we were way outside the time window, and a killbox to aim for that we were pretty sure had been worked over already. Sure enough, after making our way through all the various radio channels to get from the boat and into Iraq without getting schwacked by an over-enthusiastic Aegis cruiser or Patriot battery, we checked in to try to find our tanker and were told that it had gone home. Plan B was to try to ‘bootleg some gas’ so I asked around for any tanker airborne that had some spare gas they could give us. No joy. Hmmm. Without any gas we’d have only a few minutes on station up at Baghdad (over 350nm from the Bonnie Dick). We’d been briefed recently that a helicopter Forward Refuelling Point had opened at An Numaniyah, just outside Al Kut (where we’d been dropping bombs just over a week before). I thought I’d give it a try and see if they could give some gas to a couple of thirsty jets. My wingman recognized the voice of the guy who answered at ‘3 Rivers’ - he was a fellow USMC Harrier pilot who was on a ground tour at the time and was running the radios at the FRP. He was only too happy to give us what we needed as they had plenty of gas and seeing us arrive would be a great demo to the ground troops that they were being supported.
The USMC Harriers had had a bit of a bad experience in Gulf War 1 with heat-seeking missiles and I was mindful that the locals might not be too friendly where we were about to land. So I made sure my wingie was happy with the idea and we did an idle descent from altitude, both only goosing the power on short finals to cushion our landings. Taxying to the refuel point we passed a number of burnt out tanks and APCs - evidence of the work we’d been doing only a couple of weeks previously. The engine-running refuel went smoothly with lots of grunts grinning at us and our next problem was how to take off again without exposing ourselves unnecessarily to IR missiles. The USMC didn’t have a procedure that I was aware of so I relied on an RAF technique that I’d read about. Instead of a normal climb out, we stayed at <100ft after we got airborne and accelerated as fast as the jet could on the deck with a full warload. Once we had a bag full of knots in hand and we were over a barren bit of desert, we selected a pre-emptive flare program and pulled skywards, zooming as quickly as we could up to 10,000ft and out of the threat zone.
As soon as we got to the top of climb and checked in with our controller we were tasked. An ‘asset’ had detected armour in a clump of trees between Baghdad and Tikrit to the north and we were to investigate. We side-stepped Baghdad, just to be on the safe side. At the start of the war there were dozens of Surface-Air Missile sites understandably positioned in and around the capital city, so it had been dubbed the ‘Baghdad Super MEZ’ (Missile Engagement Zone). As the days wore on those SAM sites were obviously targeted by coalition forces but we never really got any intelligence to confirm that they were getting hit. At one point we were ordered to desist from referring to the ‘Super MEZ’ so we had to re-name it amongst ourselves as the ‘Really Quite Good MEZ’ instead. It was probably all cleaned out by this point, but I didn’t want to tempt fate. Anyway, sure enough, when we got to the allotted location and I got the Litening pod uncaged I could see half a dozen APCs dug in, in what appeared to be an orchard. We set up for a standard attack, flown in ‘combat spread’ and my wingie dropped his first GBU-12. Seconds before impact though a line of high trees obscured my line of sight to the target I was lasing and the bomb missed. I was very frustrated with myself for rushing the attack and wracked my brain for a profile that would work in this situation, but none sprung to mind. Time to improvise.
I had a quick chat with my wingie to make sure he was happy with flying without mutual support for a few minutes, given the pretty low threat situation we were in. He was cool with the idea so we lined up running down the neat lines of trees in the orchard and I dropped into trail a couple of miles behind him as he ran in to drop his next GBU. I locked my radar to him so I could find him later after all my heads-in time working the targeting pod. As soon as I heard the tone on the radio that signalled his weapon was in the air I selected idle and climbed to slow down to just above the stall speed, area track, laser on. It worked like a charm and his weapon impacted seconds before I overflew the target and the pod started to hit its gimbals. A quick in-place 90° turn and we were back in a wide spread formation and setting up for the next attack. After we’d dropped our ordnance I marked the location of another couple of pieces of armour and gave a full report to the controller as we checked out. All in all, it was a good day out.