Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chapter 20: Wild Weasels

En route to the training area in Panamint Valley, this F-4G of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing sports the WW tail markings of the Wild Weasel Unit from George Air Force Base. These aircraft were to play an important role in protecting strike aircraft during the Gulf War.

Wild Weasel missions started in Vietnam back in 1965 after US forces started to lose aircraft to Soviet-built SA-2 missiles. Aircraft were urgently needed to locate and destroy the radar defense system controlling the SAMS. In the event, F-100s, F-105s and F-4Cs were modified to hunt out these radars electronically.

The Wild Weasels supported strike missions over North Vietnam, going in ahead of the strikes to clear a safe corridor to the target. By detecting and attacking SAM sites along the route, the Weasels forced the SAM operators to turn off their radars in order to survive. The Weasel motto-“First In, Last Out”-earned them the approbation of their colleagues, but resulted in high loss rates. Their mounts originally were two-seat versions of existing aircraft. Avionics were rudimentary. However, a big upgrade in Wild Weasel capability came with the F-4G Phantom.
The F-4G resulted from an Advanced Wild Weasel program in the 1970s. Starting with the basic F-4E, a total of 116 F-4Gs were produced, fitted with smokeless engines and with an APR-38 targeting avionics system incorporated. The chin-mounted Vulcan cannon was replaced by a fiberglass fairing containing the avionics of the APR-38 and a number of associated antennae. Fifty-two antennae were dotted all over the aircraft.

The result of these modifications was the ability to determine the bearing and distance to an emitting target by triangulation using the APR-38. This information was presented to the Electronics Warfare Officer (EWO) in the rear seat of the Weasel, who was incarcerated behind wall-to-wall displays for the APR-38. The EWO could designate any target and unleash an attack using anti-radiation missiles to home in on the radar transmissions, or use conventional unguided weapons.

On a clear November day in 1986, I flew with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at George AFB, near Victorville in Southern California, on a Weasel training mission.
This two-ship mission started from the Ops Building of the 562nd Tactical Fighter Training Squadron of the 37th Wing. Our lead ship, callsign FERRET 1, was an F-4G flown by the commanding Officer of the 562nd, Lieutenant-Colonel A.J.Thrush, with Major Mike Esters driving his APR-38. I was to be in the back seat of FERRET 2, an F-4E flown by Major Jack Byrne. Operating as a Hunter/Killer team the F-4G would use its APR-38 to identify and attack the target and the F-4E would deliver the coup de grace by dropping extra ordnance on the target.

FERRET 1 was loaded for bear. It carried four AGM-88A HARM missiles on its underwing pylons, together with a pair of AIM-7s in the aft missile wells. A 600-gallon fuel tank was mounted on the centerline pylon. FERRET 2 carried only a centerline tank with our four empty wing pylons incorporating chaff/flare dispensers. Normally we would carry bombs on these pylons. A veteran of the air war in Vietnam, our Phantom sported a red star signifying a MiG kill, dated 1972, on the left intake splitter plate.

I clambered up the ladder to the rear cockpit of the Phantom. Once strapped in and with the engines started I selected our inertial navigation to ALIGN. While the navigation system was aligning, Jack Byrne proceeded through the complex ritual of checking the flying controls with our crew chief. I could hear the litany of checks in my earphones as I reviewed my briefing notes.

Our target would be a radar site in the middle of Restricted Airspace R-2508 in Panamint Valley. Just west of Death Valley, Panamint Valley contained a gap filler surveillance radar, near the ghost town of Ballarat, which monitored military traffic from Edwards AFB, the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake and the Hornets from NAS Lemoore in addition to our F-4s from George AFB.

The game plan was for us to fly north at altitude as a pair, then let down and enter Panamint Valley, while Mike Esters in the F-4G carried out his Electronic Order of Battle (EOB) intelligence gathering using the APR-38. This would give range and azimuth to the threat emitter, in this case the enemy radar. Both aircraft would then fly the appropriate profile to hit the target with missiles and bombs. Colonel Thrush had said during our briefing, ” We may want the radars to look at us, so our buddies can be sneaking up on them at low level and dropping bombs on them”.

The idea of deliberately exposing yourself to the enemy, letting them see you, and hope that your missiles took him out before his missiles got to you, took a bit of getting used to.

Needless to say, we would not be dropping bombs or firing missiles at anyone during this training mission. R-2508 is Restricted Airspace only. Panamint Valley is open to the public and we would be skimming over Highway SR-190, not to mention the hapless radar operators at Ballarat.

A flashing green light on my panel told me that the system had finished aligning. This allowed me to switch to NAV on the Inertial Navigation system. Now that the system had pin-pointed the Phantom’s position on the face of the earth, we could taxi out. With a burst of power the Phantom rumbled forward and turned onto the taxiway.

We lowered our canopies during the taxi out. I was careful to check the alignment of my canopy actuating rods under the left hand cockpit rail. A yellow stripe had to line up on the rods, confirming that the locks were engaged. Phantoms had been known to lose their canopies if the locks were not completely closed. I was relieved to observe that the stripe was in the correct place.

We reached the arming pad and swung the Phantoms to a halt. With our hands up on our helmets, visibly clear of any switches, we waited while the ground crew armed our chaff/flare dispensers and the centerline tank. FERRET 1 went through a more lengthy procedure as each of the four HARM missiles and the centerline tank had to be armed. In case of an engine failure on takeoff, the heavy stores would be kicked off to lighten the load.

As we waited, we reviewed the bird strike procedure. Visors would be down during the low-level portion of our flight. In case of a bird strike, I was to pull back on the stick and get it away from the ground. If my front-seater was incapacitated, my best option was to get the crippled bird over to Edwards for a lakebed landing…. This drill was not an abstract academic exercise. The wing had suffered three bird strikes within the previous week.

A quartering gusty wind was blowing from our right as we pulled onto the runway. FERRET 1 went into afterburner with a roar that could be heard in our cockpit, then released his brakes and accelerated away at the head of twin tongues of flame. We followed suit in FERRET 2 ten seconds later. Once off the ground we cleaned up, turning north over the Mojave desert and cutting the corner to close up into formation. At 17,000 feet and 480 knots TAS our Weasels flew north through R-2508, then descended along the Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Now flying line abreast, both Phantoms were streaking below the ridgeline, while the pilots mutually warned each other of rocks coming up ahead.

I kept losing sight of the camouflaged shape of FERRET 1 against the wooded hillsides. As we flew north the ground rose under us. The Sierras were snow-covered on this November day and the mountain lakes were starting to freeze over. At this point we were a few minutes early on our schedule and had to wait while our airspace was vacated. Over the radio I could hear CHEETAH flight still practicing ACM somewhere above us.

So we circled the snow-capped peak of Mt Whitney, waiting for CHEETAH flight to finish their fight and clear the area. At 14,505 feet, Mt Whitney was a spectacular sight underneath our wing, with the jagged skyline of the snow-covered Sierras stretching to the horizon to north and south. As CHEETAH finished its last engagement we started letting down into the Owens Valley. After the recent rains Owens Lake, normally a dry lakebed, was partially flooded, and was an eerie bloodshot hue due to the salt-loving bacteria covering its surface.

FERRET 1 fast and low over Owens Lake, east of the Sierra Nevada. Attacking radar sites was a challenging business, with the two-man crew of the Wild Weasel busy trying to entice enemy radar operators to transmit, so revealing their position and enabling the Wild Weasel to launch its radar-seeking HARM missiles.

We banked over the town of Lone Pine. I attempted to correlate the ground returns on my raw radar display with the view outside. Although it was a day of unlimited visibility, I met with little success in coaxing a meaningful picture from my radar. At least the F-4G had a computerized display which made life easier for FERRET 1’s back-seater.

FERRET 1 carries a full complement of radar-seeking HARM missiles under its wings. The sophisticated avionics of the APR-38 resides in the lower nose, in the fairing formerly housing the Vulcan cannon. The red background of Owens Lake below the Phantom is caused by the salt-loving bacteria which turns whole areas of the lake red at times.

As CHEETAH flight cleared the area we skimmed over the last range of hills and dropped down into Panamint Valley. Mike Esters in FERRET 1 started calling out range and bearing to the radar site. Tension was rising. As we let down to 500 feet the desert was whipping past below us as our airspeed crept up to 450 knots. This was flying according to peacetime rules. In a wartime situation the Weasels would be down to 300 feet and accelerating to over 500 knots to minimize exposure to ground fire. We blasted on towards the target. For my benefit we flew overhead the radar site, banking vertically so that I could recognize the cluster of white buildings. Operationally, using the stand-off capability of the HARMS, this would not have been necessary, as the HARMS of FERRET 1 would have been fired and would have already homed in on the radar antenna and demolished the target.

Immediately closing formation and pulling round to the left we headed north for a pre-planned bomb attack. During our formation turn I noticed something strange about the shadows of the aircraft as they danced over the scrub-covered desert. Whereas our shadow of FERRET 2 was trailing the familiar dark plume of exhaust gases from our J-79s, the shadow of FERRET 1 had no such trail. The smokeless engines in the F-4G had at last cured the chronic smoke trail problem which had dogged the Phantom throughout its service life.
Sliding out of the turn, the Phantoms widened out, with FERRET 1 to our right.
When Mike Esters had achieved the required azimuth and distance from the target, now some miles behind us, he called ‘KILLER!” The word was still ringing in my ears when the scrub-covered landscape of Panamint Valley tilted crazily and the stick came back into my lap. I was left contemplating a g-meter which now read 5g. The reading was confirmed by the iron grip of the g-suit inflating around my legs and lower body. My helmet started to force itself down over my eyes and my oxygen mask was sliding down my nose as I struggled to continue breathing. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the ground flashing past.

The turn continued and the inexorable pressure did not let up as I felt myself sliding further down into the ejection seat. Straining against the load, and twisting round to see our partner Phantom, my discomfiture was further magnified by the perspiration stinging my eyes as we reversed course hard left with FERRET 1 turning into us. Everything was happening very fast through this 180 degree turn. As we rolled out of the turn, FERRET 1 was a mile away to our right, streaking low over the rolling terrain and slightly ahead of us. Jack Byrne pushed the throttles briefly into afterburner to get us back into line abreast. Speed crept up to 500 knots. We were really moving.

As briefed, when we had seven miles to run to the target, Colonel Thrush rocked his wings. Jack Byrne warned me, ” Turning!” and racked the Phantom round to the right through ninety degrees of heading change at 5g, crossing behind FERRET 1. Ten seconds later we turned ninety degrees left, now paralleling our leader but trailing him. We snapped wings level to see FERRET 1 starting to pull up for his simulated bomb delivery, four miles from the target.
As FERRET 1 rolled inverted and pulled down to the target, Jack Byrne already had a visual on our target. Banking left to get the target on our nose, he pulled up at 4g into our pop-up maneuver. Passing 6,500 feet we rolled inverted and pulled. As our trajectory peaked out at 8,000 feet I looked up through the canopy to see the cluster of buildings which was our target.
The nose dropped through the horizon into a twenty degree dive. Momentarily I floated at zero g, then the horizon spun as we rolled upright in the dive, heading down towards the mountain ridges. At 5,000 feet Jack grunted, ”Pickling” as we dropped our imaginary bombs. Just then FERRET 1 scooted out to our right, on the deck. A 4g pullout above the radar site squashed me down into my seat, then we were banking hard right, jinking furiously to avoid the anticipated ground fire. FERRET 1 was screaming along ahead of us down a canyon. Our throttles went forward and we regained line abreast formation for our mutual protection during this high speed tactical egress, checking behind our partner’s tail. At this low level it was hot and tiring work.

Exiting the area we climbed to a more economical 20,000 feet for the cruise back to George AFB. Major Byrne handed control of the Phantom to me and I spent an interesting few minutes getting used to the inertia of this heavy fighter and the unfamiliar response of the J-79s.
I was only just getting the hang of it when it was time to hand the Phantom back to its rightful owner. We started letting down for an ILS to George AFB in close formation. Wheels and flaps down, with leading edge slats extended, the Phantoms came down the glideslope like ungainly storks. We carried out a low overshoot as briefed and broke on to the downwind leg, curving round for individual landings in the fierce crosswind, with our drag chutes blossoming behind the Phantoms.

Our safe return was cause for celebration, with most of the squadron members clustering round our aircraft as the engines wound down, and I was greeted with buckets of water, thoroughly soaking me as I climbed down the ladder, marking my initiation into the challenging world of tactical jet operations.

There was no doubt in my mind that Wild Weaseling was a challenging way of life.

Postscript: The Wild Weasels in their F-4Gs played a vital role in protecting strike forces during the Gulf War. The Phantoms were ultimately replaced by F-16s, but the vital task of protecting other assets is still a vital one.

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