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Gulf War 20th: F-15 Eagles Were the Deadliest Birds of Desert Storm

Today, the 58th Fighter Squadron “Gorillas” at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is awaiting delivery of its first F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and is slated to become the training unit for the JSF. When they resume flying later this year, the Gorillas will carry on a tradition of service that included a key combat role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

When the United States launched Operation Desert Shield on Aug. 6, 1990, days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Va., under Col. John M. “Boomer” McBroom – earmarked for Middle East duty under U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM – began deploying F-15C/D Eagles on just hours’ notice. Forty-eight Eagles made the longest fighter deployment in history, flying 14- to 17-hours nonstop from Langley to Dhahran, with six to eight air refuelings en route.

EAGLES OF ARABIA

By November 1990, Desert Shield shifted from a defensive to offensive posture with a second wave of force build-ups. Almost unnoticed, in September, the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., under Col. Richard “Rick” Parsons, deployed its 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Gorillas, with F-15C Eagles to Tabuk in western Saudi Arabia.

Base personnel stand by as a 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron F-15D Eagle aircraft prepares to deploy to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo.

The war to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from occupied Kuwait began in the early hours of Jan. 17, 1991. Air-to-air action was dominated by the F-15C Eagle fighter. Although other squadrons performed importantly, most aerial victories were racked up by the Gorillas.

Powered by two 24,000-pound (10,886-kg) thrust Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220 low-bypass turbofan engines, an F-15C went into battle at an operational weight of about 68,000 pounds carrying up to four Sidewinder or Sparrow missiles and an internal M61A1 Vulcan 20 mm cannon with a maximum of 940 rounds.

EAGLE AERIAL VICTORIES

Several F-15 pilots shot down Iraqi aircraft on the first night of the war. One was Capt. Rhory “Hoser” Draeger who used an AIM-7M Sparrow to take down a MiG-29 Fulcrum south of al-Taqaddum in the hours after midnight on Jan. 17. On Jan. 26, at the controls of a different F-15C, Draeger got his second aerial victory, a MiG-23 Flogger. Draeger was leading four F-15Cs on combat air patrol when an airborne warning and control aircraft, or AWACS, spotted three MiG-23s taking off out of the H-2 airfield in western Iraq. The four-ship F-15 formation spread out line abreast, headed west, and killed all three MiG-23s, giving Draeger and Capt. Cesar A. “Rico” Rodriguez their second kills. (“Rico” later got a third kill in the Balkans in 1999).

Among other achievements by the Gorillas:

* Most combat sorties and hours for any air-to-air fighter squadron (1,182 and 7,000)

* The greatest number of pilots in one squadron with aerial victories (12)

* Most pilots from one squadron with multiple aerial victories (4).

Said Draeger at the time: “I’m actually a member of the 59th Tactical Fighter Squadron, ‘Golden Pride,’ which did not deploy to the Persian Gulf; I’m an augmentee with the  Gorillas.

F-15C Eagle aircraft of the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron takeoff on deployment to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo.

“No,” added Draeger, “the F-15 isn’t perfect. If I had my way, I’d say bigger engines, better radar – but the F-15C is the best in the world today.” The interview took place in 1991 and Draeger said he was looking forward to what was then called the Advanced Tactical Fighter, today’s F-22 Raptor. “Realistically, compared to any other aircraft in the world, it will be real hard to improve on the F-15.”

F-15Cs scored 32 aerial kills of a total of 41 victories in the war. Of these, all but eight were achieved with the Eagle’s beyond-visual-range weapon, the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile, a weapon that had been plagued by mechanical problems during the Vietnam war but performed well in the 1990s. The AIM-120A AMRAAM was not fired in anger, although more than a thousand “captive carries” of the missile were racked up during combat missions in the final days of the war. Eagle pilots made seven kills using the AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared air-to-air missile, and one pilot downed an Iraqi MiG-29 by maneuvering his adversary into the ground.

Many of the F-15C pilots of Desert Storm went on to further successes in the Air Force. Sadly, in March 1995, Draeger and F-15C pilot Michael K. Smith were killed in an automobile accident in Oregon.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...