IN COMBAT WITH LOCKHEED F-117 NIGHTHAWK PILOT MAJOR ROBERT ‘ROBSON’ DONALDSON
The F-117 Nighthawk was a ‘silver bullet’, able to effortlessly penetrate the best-defended air spaces in the world by virtue of stealth, as first demonstrated to the world during Operation Desert Storm against Iraq. Major Robert ‘Robson’ Donaldson describes taking the stealth fighter to war.
THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE THE F-117?
Deadly. Stealthy. Mysterious.
THE INVISIBLE MEN
The personality of the pilots chosen was actually a big deal since everyone was handpicked. In peacetime training, we were 200
miles north of Las Vegas at our base on the Tonopah Test Range, Nevada, for four to five days each week, so we all had to get along because we were in this same fishbowl. I think we were all of the same mindset, that even if the mission was a one-way suicide, we would still go. In wartime, I had to trust my fellow pilots with my life, and I did.
MEETING THE GHOST
I first saw the F-117 in a closed hangar at our base in Tonopah. Each jet had its own hangar that was shut closed during daylight hours to hide it from spying eyes and Soviet satellites. I walked into a dark hangar with my escort pilot and then the lights came on. There sat a futuristic spaceship with a large American flag hanging overhead. I was stunned. I thought, That’s not real. . . It must be a mock-up or something! It defied all aviation logic. I went over and touched the jet, and then started asking my escort pilot a lot of questions. We walked around the outside and I asked if I could sit in the cockpit. He said yes so I climbed up the ladder and sat in the seat. It was a very spacious cockpit compared to the F-16, which I had just come from. The stick was in the centre like a conventional fighter cockpit and I could see that the design was ‘hands on throttle and stick’ [HOTAS]. I asked about the various countermeasures the jet carried and his answer to all those questions was: ‘Not needed.’ I then closed the canopy and it felt like I was closing my coffin lid. The visibility out the front was very poor because of the location of the HUD [head-up display], and there was no rearward visibility; the side windows were really the only place to see out (very unlike the almost-unlimited visibility I enjoyed in the F-16). I was not yet in class to learn how to fly and tactically employ the jet, but I was really excited to be a part of the programme and get started learning.
TAKING THE ‘BATPLANE’ TO COMBAT
We had a tremendous amount of confidence in the capability of the jet to slip through the Iraqi integrated air-defence system and
precisely deliver our munitions on target on time. The F-117 had been extensively tested against all aspects of a Soviet IADS[integrated air defence system] in the USA. Also, several times during the Desert Shield build-up we ran multiple F-117s right up to the border with Iraq to see what the Iraqi reaction would be: no response was detected by the assets that collected ELINT [electronic intelligence] so we positively knew we could slip by them undetected. Our only concern as pilots was the ‘golden BB’, a random bullet of AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] that would hit our jet and take us down. With vast amounts of bullets from 23-mm, 37- mm, 57-mm, 85-mm and 100-mm guns, this was a very real danger. Iraq was a fully armed nation and the tremendous amount of AAA shot up was the same on the last night of war as it was on the first night. My most memorable mission during Desert Storm was when I was tasked to destroy two bridges in south-east Iraq, close to the border with Kuwait, in anticipation of the ground-assault phase. The significance of the bridges was obviously the Iraqis’ ability to resupply their troops in Kuwait. After a top-off of fuel from the KC-135 tanker near the Saudi−Iraqi border, I entered Iraq in our ‘stealthed-up mode’ (all external lights off, no comm., no antennae extended). Saddam Hussein had already set the oil wells on fire in Kuwait, so as I approached the area I could see there was a heavy black cloud from those oily fires obscuring the ground. My profile
called for bomb release somewhere around 12,000 feet but since our rules of engagement required a positive identification of the
target, I knew that would not be possible from that altitude. I did not want to return to my base with those two GBU-10 bombs
(2,000 lb each with a laser-guided kit). Knowing the terrain is flat in that area, I decided to descend to get below the oily cloud-layer so as to be able to positively ID the bridges, which were about seven miles apart from each other. I had to get down to about 700 feet above ground level in order to be in the clear. Underneath that black cloud was an absolute Dante’s Inferno scenario – a sight I’ll never forget. I went over my IP [initial point: an easily identifiable feature used as a starting point for the bomb run] and lined up on the first bridge. Visibility was actually quite good because the oily overcast reflected the fires light underneath. I
pushed up the throttles to go as fast as I could and my inertial navigation system had positioned the cross hairs of my laser sight right on the bridge, so visual ID of the target in my cockpit was accomplished. I aimed for the far end of the span on the bridge.
The single bomb released very close to the target and I ripped the throttles to idle to slow my speed so that the laser would not
gimble – low to the ground and fast, the laser would run past the span before my bomb hit, thus rendering it a dumb bomb). Ripping the throttles to idle caused the jet to decelerate so that I had time to keep the laser beam on the span but it also caused my
head to tumble so that I felt like my head was going end-over-end through space. The bomb impacted the bridge and the explosion
caused the span to drop into the river. A nanosecond later I saw on my screen an Iraqi army truck drive off the bridge where the
span had been a moment before. I had no time to process that snapshot as my jet was rocked by the explosion of my own bomb,
turning me about 135 degrees upside down and disengaging the autopilot.
I managed to recover the jet about 400 feet above the ground, climb back up to 700 feet and re-engage the autopilot. The fragmentation envelope of a 2,000 lb bomb is 2,500 feet in all directions upward and to the sides of the impact, so from 700 feet above the ground I was well within the frag envelope of my own bomb. I knew that but had decided to take my chances anyway. Once I was right-side up, I immediately looked at my engines to confirm they were running and to check my fuel status. Both were good so I didn’t think I had fragged myself. So a lot was happening in a very short period of time and now I had to line up on my second bridge, which was rapidly approaching, but this time I knew what to expect. Once again, the deceleration, the tumbling, the explosion, a dropped span, and being blown upside down were all that I had anticipated, only this time I climbed up after I recovered the jet and headed for the air-refuelling point. I carefully looked over the engine instruments and my fuel status, and once again all seemed normal. After I had post-strike air-refuelled, I had about 90 minutes to reflect on that sortie. It was very satisfying to drop those two bridge spans but I wasn’t 100 per cent sure that the Iraqi Army truck driving off the span actually happened or if it was my mind playing tricks on me. I’m also pretty sure that since the bombs I dropped had a slight delay-fuse, the bombs penetrated the concrete and then detonated just under the bridge so that a good portion of the bomb fragments would have been trapped underneath the bridge and not gone up in the air into my jet. I landed back at base and our routine was to look the jet over on the outside after each mission and make sure all was intact. So I told my crew chief I was a bit concerned but we both looked the jet over carefully and did not find any self-inflicted holes. We have a saying in the fighter community that God takes care of dumb farm animals and fighter pilots. I’m not sure which group I’m in! Next was a stop and debrief with our intelligence people to assess the strike via the VHS camera film. Sure enough, right there on film was the Iraqi Army truck driving off the span. All in all, it was a very surreal night and I was happy to finally crawl into bed and let my brain and body get some sleep after a five-and-a-half-hour mission.