The morning dawned sunny and clear along the Italian coast just north of Naples on this late spring Friday morning. Our squadron of F-15s had deployed from Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands to Grazzanise Air Base, about 25 kilometers northwest of Naples, for air combat exercises with and against NATO and US Navy forces in the Mediterranean. Our 32nd Fighter Squadron had possessed Eagles for a little over a year, and had integrated a very competent group of pilots well with the mighty Eagle, AIM-7 and AIM-9L all-aspect missiles, and were feeling ready for a large scale exercise.
The first few days at Grazzanise had allowed us to get oriented to the local area, but today’s mission was the first one that was to fully involve us with the NATO forces, as we were tasked to provide fighter escort for a large NATO attack force, with a goal to find and engage a US Navy carrier task force somewhere in the Med. I was flying as #4 in the F-15 four-ship, with Rebel as my flight lead (#3). Our mission plan included air refueling north of Sicily, low-level escort of Spangdahlem F-4s, including Wild Weasels that would search for the carrier, and engagement with ANY US Navy (threat) aircraft. Intel noted that the French carrier Foch had been rumored to be in the area, but the French were not strictly part of the exercise. Since this was the early 80’s, we briefed that if any French aircraft wandered into the exercise area, they would be treated as - well - French (i.e. targets).
In addition to our F-15A single-seaters, we had also deployed with one F-15B ‘family-model’, two-seater, tail number 77-0158. Although none of us favored flying the family model, today we had the opportunity to give one of our airman of the quarter a flight in the Eagle as a reward, so I volunteered to take him up. Marty, one of our weapons loaders, had excelled over the past quarter and was looking forward to his chance to fly. A few of the other enlisted guys noted that Marty often discussed his past football days and mentioned that “those pilots flying the F-15 weren’t so tough”, but he seemed noticeably nervous as he attended the mission brief and as I walked him through suiting up and rear cockpit procedures. To calm his fears, I tried to get him as excited as I was about the mission details, and nonchalantly handed him two barf bags ‘just in case’ to stuff in his G-suit pockets. Marty appreciated them, and noted that he had a third already with him.
We strapped in and cranked with the four-ship, and as we taxied out I made sure Marty knew where the intercom ‘Off’ switch was located in the back seat, just in case he needed to quietly take care of business. I tried to calm him down, since he seemed to be already hyperventilating, even though we were just taxiing! It was definitely a preview of things to come!
On our first flights out of Grazzanise, Air Traffic Control had been very poor, delaying our takeoffs for no reason, and having problems handing off to other controlling agencies. We found that Air Traffic Control treated all aircraft above 41,000 under VFR flying rules, so we simply accelerated in trail on takeoff, and climbed vertically within the airfield traffic area to 41,000 feet! I had a blast pulling into the vertical and rejoining into tactical formation above 41,000 right over the airport, but this was simply too much for Marty, who ‘tossed his cookies’ right as I rolled into tactical line abreast. Thankfully Marty found the intercom ‘Off’ switch as I was busy calling out radar traffic on our nose at 41K’, as the flight checked west to avoid a Learjet right at our altitude. Marty turned his intercom back on as we cruised south toward Sicily, and said he actually felt better as he put ‘Bag #1’ in the map case and took in the glorious expanse of the Mediterranean and the boot of Italy spreading out ahead of us.
Our four Eagles cleared the airspace ahead, and made contact with our scheduled tanker for topping-off our fuel tanks before we joined up with the F-4 strike force. This particular KC-135’s pumps were very slow, however, and as our scheduled rejoin time with the strike force neared, our first two-ship members headed for the rejoin, knowing that Rebel and I should be able to rejoin as they cut the corner near southern Italy on the planned ingress route. The scene was quite idyllic as the two-ship peeled away as I nosed under the tanker, with Mt. Etna spewing steam below us, and the air crystal clear and smooth. I mentioned to Marty how stable things were, as I hooked up with my smoothest contact ever, but in response all I heard was Marty’s breathing getting faster and faster...and again the intercom went quiet. ‘Bag #2’ was put to good use, and Marty returned on the intercom just as I disconnected and dove away from the tanker with Rebel to rejoin the flight.
Our slight delay allowed me to get a good radar picture of the air situation ahead, as we quickly picked up the lead two-ship F-15 flight with their discrete squawk, and sorted a large group which I assumed to be our F-4 package. In minutes I was line abreast with Rebel, back in the four-ship, as we ‘hauled butt’ across southern Italy enroute to the fight, armed with 4 AIM-7s, 4 AIM-9s and our 20mm gun ready! Today’s rules-of-engagement required a VID (Visual ID) before firing, and also two missiles per target for a kill.
Our long-range radar picked up a few pockets of activity, but our first priority was to escort the F-4s as they attempted to find the carrier task force. The lead F-4 transmitted the coded phrase that keyed us into the knowledge that he believed the task force was found, and they were inbound to the target. About 50 miles out from a group of contacts, we penetrated southwest below a thin stratus deck, with the lead F-15 two-ship south of the strike package, and Rebel and me to the north, now at 5000 feet over the water and descending as the cloud deck sloped downward.
Approaching 25 miles from the lead targets, Rebel and I began a pincer on the northern group, continuing our descent as the clouds lowered to 3000 feet. As the air became more turbulent and our speed increased, Marty surprised me by doing well and calling out the strike package as we pushed ahead in front of them. Just as we neared VID range, our lead element called “Bandit-Bandit-F-14s” as I acquired and VID’d the northernmost Tomcat, firing two AIM-7s in quick succession for the first kill...as all hell broke loose!
Just as Rebel launched a missile on another F-14, the sea and sky exploded in boats of all types, cruisers, tankers, USAF F-4s popping under the low ceiling at the target carrier in the distance, helicopters, F-14s and Navy F-4s EVERYWHERE! As a Navy F-4 turned belly-up while trying to convert on Rebel, I launched two AIM-9Ls for a second kill, then basically went defensive so I didn’t hit anyone! The situation was rapidly deteriorating, and Rebel made three quick tactical calls “Sundance check northwest...burners NOW...pull NOW!” We had rapidly accelerated to 500 knots +, and as we pulled into the vertical the chaos disappeared, and in 5 seconds we were climbing at 70 degrees clear of the fight and clear of the clouds, in supporting tactical line abreast. I had almost forgotten about Marty in back, but screamed to him about the two kills as I rolled inverted as Rebel and I leveled at 25,000 feet. Marty weakly said “I’ll be right back” as he fished out ‘Bag#3’, once again keeping the back cockpit clean.
I had picked up a number of contacts at 11,000 feet about 45 miles to our northeast, so Rebel and I checked there to investigate. Our low altitude engagements had burned a bit of fuel, but we were still in great shape to continue fighting. Marty came back on, saying that he wasn’t feeling too well any longer, so I said I’d try to keep it as smooth as possible, unless, of course, we got engaged again. Marty’s big concern was, even though he was down to dry heaves now, he was out of bags! Not to worry, I told him, you still have both gloves, right? “Yes, Sir” Marty replied, “I’m good with Bag #4 and #5”. Relax, I told Marty, I think the war is over for us today, as we continued northeast toward Naples...
But those contacts were getting closer, and Rebel and I again pincered the targets and descended, attempting to VID for a shot. My two earlier kills had reduced my AIM-7s and AIM-9s to two each, and I had my AIM-9Ls selected as primary, since the targets seemed to be changing aspect quite rapidly. “Rebel, Sundance is painting five, maybe six bogies, with many aspect changes”. As I looked out for a VID, I was amazed to see seven French Super Etendard fighters in a giant wheel below 11,000’. “Bandit, Bandit, Fox 2 on the northeast Etendard”, as I launched my last two AIM-9Ls for my third kill of the day, with Rebel repositioning as he was too close by the time we ID’d the Etendards. As we both repositioned outside the wheel for another shot, the French formation started dissipating, and I looked down to see the French carrier Foch offset to the northwest. Sweet, two carriers found in one day! I was able to get off two AIM-7s on an Etendard that had turned directly into me for Kill #4, as Rebel called a bugout at joker fuel. Marty had done great during the fight with the Etendards, but started moaning with his head down as we leveled off en route for Grazzanise. ‘Bag #4’ (actually Glove #1) was called into action to keep the back cockpit clean. “Hang on Marty, we’re heading home, things will be quiet now...”
But just then, I found two contacts about 50 degrees to the right of course, and since we were still above Bingo fuel, Rebel decided to take a look. Neither of us had any missiles left, but I still had my gun, with 940 rounds of 20mm remaining! Rebel and I split the targets, and as I converted to the inside of the closest bandit, I saw the most beautiful sight of the day, a classic F-8 Crusader of the French Navy pulling up into a climbing right turn as he acquired me. I closed in for a beautiful tracking gun kill, #5 for the day! Marty was very impressed with the close-in gun kill, and didn’t even get sick! I was able to capture forever this classic fighter under my pipper.
Now I was out of ammo and fuel, and Rebel and I exited quickly back to a long descent into Grazzanise. I explained to Marty how proud I was that he had gutted things out, but he became strangely quiet as we approached Grazzanise at low level. “Marty, only one more turn and we’ll be down” as I broke into the overhead pattern at 4Gs, put my gear down and gently squeaked to a landing, hoping to avert any further backseat carnage. “Marty, we’re home! How’re you doing?” His only response was to hold up a filled glove in each hand - for ‘Bag #5’!
As I shutdown and opened the canopy, a crowd of crew chiefs surrounded the airplane to check on Marty’s status. He weakly gave a glove-less ‘thumbs up’ as the engines wound down, and as my crew chief scrambled up the ladder, Marty handed him the 5 bags, careful not to spill a drop anywhere on the airplane. It took three of us to haul Marty out of the rear cockpit, and he looked like a ghost as we rode in to the squadron debrief in the crew van. “Marty, you did well, good job! Oh, by the way, that was only my first flight of the day - would you like to join me on #2”? Marty’s eyes suddenly opened wide, and he began stammering “No, No Sir, thanks, but I’d really like to have one of my teammates join you on the next flight”.
The next day, Marty (now known as “Five Bags”) stopped by my F-15 as I prepped for another sortie, saying “Lt Sundance, Sir, thanks again, and I just wanted you to know that I sure appreciate what you pilots do out there, but once is enough for me!”
“Don’t worry, Marty, it grows on you, but thanks for everything you do down here to make everything work for us in the air. And remember, you were there! Five kills...and five bags...it doesn’t happen every day”!