The F/A-18 Hornet, in its various guises, was the “universal soldier” of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), with some 250 fighters in the campaign from land bases and all six US supercarriers Navy who engaged in the war from the northern Persian Gulf (NAG) and the eastern Mediterranean.
The F/A-18 delivered hundreds of thousands of pounds of ordnance to a range of targets ranging from Iraqi Republican Guard T-62 tanks to government buildings that housed elements of the Booth Party regime in cities like Basra , Baghdad and An Najaf. Along with its ability to drop precision munitions such as JDAM and LGB, the Hornet was also capable of launching anti-radar missiles and acting as an aerial tanker, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platform for other types of strikes.
On the night of April 2, 2003, Lt. Nathan White, a pilot of VFA-195, was lost in a “Blue on Blue” incident when he was shot down by an Army PAC-3 Patriot missile American. White became the only U.S. Navy light strike combat fatality in OIF.
As Tony Holmes recounts in his book US Navy Hornet Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom Part One, Cdr Hubbard, then commanding officer of VFA-151, nearly became a statistic that same night as well.
“About 90 minutes after the loss of the Hornet, I walked into the VFA-151 preparation room on the ship and one of my pilots told me that a plane had been shot down right where I was heading during of my next outing We launched and flew there as planned, and on the way to Baghdad you could hear the various elements on the ground and in the air trying to coordinate a rescue effort in case the pilot was got out of his jet alive.
“A few minutes later, my wingman and I were heading north when my Hornet was rocked by a deafening explosion that temporarily blinded me. I happened to be looking out the right side of the canopy when a 105mm shell went off between my wingman and me – we were flying in formation, half a mile apart. I couldn’t hear the radios and the white flash had ruined my night vision. Slowly my hearing returned and my wingman came to see me to see if I was okay. We quickly found our designated target – a communications site – and dropped our bombs, then turned back south as fast as we could.
“Having already had a close shave on this mission, we then nearly collided with a section of F-16s heading in the opposite direction. The weather had forced us down and we ended up at the same height as these guys. We were so close when we passed that I could see the letters and numbers on the tail of one of the jets, as well as the reflection of the multi-function displays in the pilot’s face – he was headlong, fiddling in his cockpit. They never saw us, as we passed with a separation of only 200 feet. My wingman also saw the guy I nearly hit and then another F-16 nearly flew into it.
“This incident confirmed what I told my pilots in their daily briefings – ‘the biggest threat here now is us’. Deconfliction from heights was always going to be an issue, despite the various ‘highways’ being put in place. at different altitudes, because all it took was a bit of bad weather to upset those plans. And with the best will in the world, AWACS crews can’t be expected to operate as air traffic controllers. .
“I suffered a second misfire several nights later while trying to attack tanks traveling southeast of Baghdad. My FAC kept changing the coordinates we were supposed to attack, and I finally told him he had to calm down and give us the right ones or we weren’t going to be able to drop our bombs.
“After six changes, he finally got some solid coordinates, and I was headlong typing them into the weapon computer when I got this weird feeling that made me look up and walk out of the Immediately in front of me was the dark mass of a B-1, which was so close that part of the left wing was on one side of the bow of the canopy and part of the right wing was on the other side! I pushed the stick all the way forward, and negative G saw my helmet bag fly out the back of the cockpit and my head hit the canopy real hard – I had loosened my lap belts earlier in the mission to be a little more comfortable The impact with the canopy nearly knocked me unconscious My wingman asked me if I had seen the bomber , and I told him I thought it was a B-1. At that time, we were looking directly at its afterburner boxes, which the pilot lit as he away from us.
“Having missed the bomber, we confirmed to the FAC that we would be over the target in five minutes. ]was carrying two JDAMs and my wingman was armed with three JSOWs, and we quickly identified six tanks traveling nose to tail in the open. We confirmed with the FAC that there were no “friendlies” in the area, then I attacked with the JDAMs on the first pass and my wingman followed with his JSOW on the second run. ‘offensive. We got a good BHA (Battle Hit Assessment) on all six tanks, with one of my JDAMs registering a direct hit and the second missing at just 50 feet.
US Navy Hornet Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom Part One is published by Osprey Publishing and can be ordered here.
Photo credit: Lt. Jg Will Harris / US Navy and Jim Haseltine / US Air Force