Highway to the Danger Zone: The National Reconnaissance Office and a downed F-14 Tomcat in Iraq

 

An F-14 Tomcat from fighter squadron VF-154 “the Black Knights” like the one lost over Iraq in April 2003. (credit: seaforces.org)



It was April 1, 2003, in the opening days of the American invasion of Iraq, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, when it still seemed like the United States and its coalition partners were going to liberate the country from a brutal dictator, and before the occupation turned into a long, brutal, messy conflict. Lieutenant Chad Vincelette and Lieutenant Commander Scotty “Gordo” McDonald were assigned to squadron VF-154, “the Black Knights,” flying the squadron’s last deployment of the F-14A Tomcat. Their call-sign was “JUNKER 14.” The squadron had been split in two, with most aircraft staying on the USS Kitty Hawk, while five were based ashore, at Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar.

The shore-based VF-154 planes were assigned to provide close air support to special forces that were part of Task Force 20, or TF20. Task Force 20 had a secretive mission: hunting key individuals in the Iraqi leadership, mobile radars and their surface-to-air missiles, and surface-to-surface missiles. Vincelette and McDonald flew into Iraq, dropped several laser-guided bombs, and then turned to head towards a refueling aircraft before flying back to Al Udeid. It was then that something went terribly wrong for them, and when a top secret space program came to their assistance.

Lieutenant Vincelette was piloting the F-14, with “Gordo” in back as the radar intercept officer (or “RIO”), when their left engine suddenly died due to a fuel problem. “On a pitch-dark night over Iraq is not when you want to start having problems with your jet,” Vincelette later said in a talk outside Washington, DC, at the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office. “As I checked the engine instruments, I saw the right engine’s fuel supply going down.” He tried unsuccessfully to relight the left engine. And then he discovered a second problem: the fuel in the left side of the jet was not transferring to the right side where the other engine needed it. Burning 100 pounds of fuel per minute, he noticed that the right engine had only minutes of fuel remaining. “I had a bad feeling. It was the most uncomfortable feeling in my life watching the fuel go down,” he said. “When the second engine finally died at 19,000 feet, the jet was like “a rock floating downhill.”

“Is that it?” McDonald asked.

“Yep, that’s it,” Vincelette responded.

“‘Gordo’ yelled ‘Eject. Eject. Eject!’ while I was doing my best to keep the jet stable to ensure that we were in a good envelope so when we punched out the ’chutes would work as advertised. ‘Gordo’ initiated the ejection. It was a fairly surreal experience, as we went from sitting in the warmth and comfort of our own cockpit to a violent windblast,” Vincelette later recalled to a reporter for Stars and Stripes.

“The last thing I remember before ejecting is watching green lights from the cockpit fade away,” one of the aviators remembered. He blacked out, then came to in mid-air, falling in pitch black cold night sky.

There was no Moon, no horizon and no ground.

Vincelette continued his descent toward the earth, and in the pitch blackness over Iraq he watched his Tomcat explode as it crashed into the ground.

It was at this point that the secretive National Reconnaissance Office entered the picture.

According to author Tony Holmes, who wrote the definitive account of F-14 Tomcat units during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a signal from the crew’s survival radios was picked up by a pilot in a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, who contacted his commander at Beale Air Force Base in California, which then related the information to CENTCOM’s Joint Personnel Recovery Center. The Center dispatched a US Air Force 301st Rescue Squadron combat search and rescue HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait.

“Thank God that the NRO was out there. I was on the wrong radio frequency and only NRO systems heard me,” said one of the Navy officers.

A recently declassified National Reconnaissance Office newsletter sheds some light on this chain of events. In August 2003, five months after their bailout over Iraq at 19,000 feet (5,800 meters), Vincelette and McDonald visited the NRO’s headquarters to give a talk and offer their thanks for the NRO’s role in their rescue. Most details remain classified, and the newsletter account includes several deleted short paragraphs about the NRO’s role in the men’s rescue.

Author Chris Pocock, the foremost authority on the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, explains that the U-2 has long been equipped with signals intercept equipment. “As well as an imagery sensor, the U-2 routinely carried—still carries—a very sophisticated SIGINT sensor that covers multiple frequency bands. ELINT and COMINT,” Pocock explained.

“The feed from that sensor was relayed via SATCOM to Beale, which as well as being the home of the U-2, is also home to one of the Distributed Ground Stations (DGS) that process, analyze and disseminate the relayed data.” According to Pocock, the U-2 satellite communications relay is known as the “Extended Tether Program” or ETP. The ETP at least partly uses “a classified architecture.” Pocock believes that this probably refers to the NRO’s fleet of communications satellites, which were originally known as the Satellite Data System.

A US Air Force A-10 Warthog pilot who came to JUNKER-14’s rescue was also at the NRO event. Major Jim “Rainman” Stephenson of the Massachusetts Air National Guard was the on-site commander for the rescue forces. Stephenson heard “bailout has occurred” over his radio, just before seeing the downed jet become a big fireball on the ground. According to Stephenson, he tried to get more information from the voices over the radio, but they failed to give him the information he needed to locate and authenticate the downed crew.

Since one of the F-14 aviators did not have a visual signaling device, he was directed to use a flashlight with an infrared cover to send a signal up to the circling A-10 pilot. What happened next was typical of the fog of battle. Stephenson, flying his Warthog, saw the other aviator’s flashing strobe light and marked his location with an infrared marking laser, allowing the helicopters to fly straight to him and make a successful recovery. The problem was that Stephenson believed that the man who was rescued was the other officer.

Stephenson then set about attempting to recover the other crewman, who he did not realize was sitting in the back of one of the rescue helicopters. Fortunately, after sorting out the confusion, Stephenson acquired the other aviator and directed the rescue helicopter to him. The crew of JUNKER-14 was recovered less than three hours after ejecting.

Several accounts of the naval aviators’ rescue are inconsistent. According to the Stars and Stripes article, the two F-14 aviators met up on the ground before their rescue. But the NRO newsletter indicates that they were recovered separately, and at several points during the rescue the rescue forces were confused, in part because McDonald and Vincelette did not properly use their rescue equipment. This is consistent with a Navy Times article that also indicates that lack of familiarity with their rescue equipment complicated the aviators’ recovery.

But the most interesting revelation in the NRO newsletter is that the naval aviators got the frequencies on their radios wrong. This may have been why they were picked up by the U-2 and relayed to Beale Air Force Base instead of in the theater of operations. The U-2 was providing support to Task Force 20 in its hunt for important targets and listening for telltale radio signals, not listening for downed American pilots. The fog of war was thick that night. But what the newly declassified information reveals is that the NRO played a key role in the recovery of the downed Navy officers, a job that the secretive intelligence agency was not focused on, but nevertheless performed well.

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