By Dan Holland, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Command Post
/ Published February 18, 2016
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
At the time, I was assigned to the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing, 963rd Airborne Warning and Control System Squadron, as a navigator. I was a newly promoted 1st lieutenant and one of the youngest navigators in our squadron when Desert Shield and Desert Storm began. In fact, I was airborne, on a routine overseas training mission in England when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army invaded Kuwait. I remember thinking we would immediately forward deploy to Saudi Arabia. Instead, we were recalled back to Tinker AFB, our home base in Oklahoma to "spin-up" for our deployment supporting Operation Desert Shield. I clearly remember reading my first operational deployment order...reading "classified location" and return date of "to be determined"...brought my mission assignment into "clear" perspective for a young aviator.
Shortly after returning home from England, I thought I might not be allowed to re-deploy due to my relatively young experience within our unit. Instead, I was turned around, in very short order, and was to be one of the first crews to respond to the desert. I clearly remember receiving my first gamma globulin shot, while standing in the proverbial deployment processing line, almost heel to toe due to our number of flight and mission crew members processing together. My co-pilot, Rich, tapped me on the shoulder. I thought he wanted to pass me in the deployment line, so I stepped aside and he went face first into the concrete floor. It looked like he actually bounced a time or two. Apparently, his GG must have been less agreeable than mine. He spent the next several hours in a dental chair as they repaired and replaced his now missing front teeth...I was quite surprised to see Rich at "crew show" the next morning. Ultimately, we deployed as scheduled, with a short overnight stop scheduled through England.
During our stop, we ran into the newly selected J-Star commander and his platform test crew for their recently formed unit. We gladly shared a pint with him and his test crew in the Mildenhall Air Base, England, Club that evening. We learned they, too, were pressing into the area of responsibility the next day. It was good to know more USAF "eyes" would be airborne within the desert AOR. After our requisite crew rest, we all pressed onto Riyadh AB, Saudi Arabia.
Shortly after our landing, we were greeted by a few of our wing's advance party members. After our maintenance debrief, we were told to depart to Eskan Village and be back the next day for in-processing and theater orientation. We were escorted to Eskan and literally "unlocked" the chained front gate to the vacant compound. I can still see my flight engineer, Gene, with the bolt cutters in his hand. The compound was deserted and had been vacant for quite some time before our arrival. I was told the brown cement villas that dotted the entire area were constructed by a German company contracted by the Saudi government for the benefit of their Bedouin people. I was also told the Bedouin tribes refused to use these facilities, and instead opted for their familiar tents, set up within the courtyard areas that separated those blocks of apartments. The Bedouins supposedly used the villas to house their livestock. This history (fact or fiction) was completely plausible when compared to the conditions we met inside the villas. The bathtubs and bidets, mostly broken or destroyed, looked more like they were used as feeding and watering troughs. We scrounged through many of the vacant villas to put together some "usable" bathroom facilities. After several hours, and with many variations of modern design, we cleverly organized our supplies of bottled water, specifically the "full" boxes, to construct tables and chairs inside the villas. After the exhaustive remodeling, we settled into our issued army-like cots. That was evening one.
Several weeks later, these villas were segregated and organized into formed crew habitats. A Central Quarters was established. It was our communications link to the operations center back at the Air Base. Our AWACS missions were long, normally 14, 16, 18 hours in duration, all with three aerial refuels per mission sortie, 100K-pound on-loads (in those days I was on the receiving end of the AR's), when you add in the intel and pre- and post-mission briefs, you quickly approach a 24+-hour crew duty day, for weeks on end (AF flight and duty hour waivers were summarily approved for mission necessity). I certainly gained a lot of flight hours "drilling holes in the sky," but it was a great experience for a young AWACS crewmember. We were really "on-edge" during Desert Storm, not knowing if any moment the Iraqi armies would head south into Saudi Arabia. More importantly, the Iraqi Air Force was still allowed free rein within their geographic airspace. We waited and watched carefully for the errant Iraqi pilot to penetrate the border at Mach airspeeds. We were more than ready with F-15s ready to greet and then "enforce" the sovereign territorial borders. When we weren't in crew rest for the next mission, we sat Alert for our active missions.
Because our crew's flight hours were racking up so quickly, we were told we could and should expect to rotate back to the U.S. for some rest and recuperation. It made perfect sense, hundreds of flight hours amassed in a few short months. Our AWACS Wing had continued to build up several more crews from home station and they all had all been settled in theatre for several weeks now. They were ready, too. My entire crew planned on heading home. In fact, I was to attend my sister-in-law's wedding in a few days. My wife and daughter were the matron of honor and flower girl. The wedding happened, as scheduled, but I was not in attendance.
Our crew was held over to brief and ready General Horner's, the Central Command's Joint Forces Air Component Commander, air war execution plan to General Schwarzkopf and his staff. We were now, simply, the most experienced AWACS crew still in the AOR. This briefing followed with another, this time less formal, brief, for General Colin Powell, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Powell took his "informal" brief on our jet; after a few moments with us in the cockpit, he headed for the mission crew section for their detailed air execution brief. A few days later we would put those plans into action.
Fast forward to January 17, 1991: I'm gathering up my flight gear for our mission as Operation Desert Storm begins. Remarkably, my wife Catherine calls from Oklahoma and informs me, "The war has begun. Do you know what is happening? Are you O.K.? Can I still call you?" I sat there for a very short moment and contemplated what to say back to her. Honestly, I figured our senior officials would have shut off the commercial phone lines as the air offensive was initiated. In that moment, however, I was flooded with countless emotions and rehearsed speeches. I settled for, "Really? Babe, I've got to go." I hung up and took off on my first "combat" mission. Nearly two months and 1,100 flight hours later, the Desert Storm offensive concluded.
My crew and I headed back to Oklahoma to a "heroes'" welcome. We were greeted by congressional representatives, our 28th Air Division Commander, Brigadier General Ball, the Governor of Oklahoma, and a host of families and friends. Interestingly, I was chosen to plan and orchestrate a three-ship AWACS rendezvous so we could demonstrate a three-ship fly-by over the welcoming celebration back at Tinker AFB, our home unit. More interestingly, the AWACS operations directorate did not have any formation procedures for me to follow; we simply did not fly AWACS aircraft in formation. Graciously, when we returned to U.S. airspace, the FAA Center controllers gave us, the AWACS three-ship formation, free rein to maneuver as necessary and called out to all aircraft and airlines to give way to America's returning "heroes." This "priority routing" started as we penetrated the airspace on the East Coast and continued across the entire U.S. airspace. It was a humbling honor I will never forget.
The military was given the opportunity to execute the war as the generals designed it; straightforward, focused, and the objective was clear. Overwhelming military might was employed and leveraged with courageous acts of valor from everyone in the military complex, whether in a support role or on the operational front lines. You could quite literally "feel" the support and energy generated from the home front. It was remarkable to participate in and incredible to witness from my unique perch, 30,000 feet above the desert.