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Misawa pilots honored for 'most meritorious flight'

May 6, 2008 (by SrA Stefanie Torres) - Fighting through Afghanistan's windstorms with the help of Night Vision Goggles, the pilot's executed their plan with precision.

Left to right: Lt. Col. Stephen 'Torch' Williams, Col. Charles 'Tuna' Moore, Capt. Lawrence 'Gordo' Sullivan, Capt. Kristopher 'Torch' Struve, Maj. Michael 'Tuco' Briggs and Capt. Kevin 'Flint' Hancok pose for a photo in front of F-16C block 50 #92-3884 from the 13th FS at Balad AB on August 12th, 2007. Just before leaving on the 11-hour historical flight that led them to receive the Clarence MacKay Trophy. [USAF photo]

They were only minutes away from terminating the mission and diverting to an emergency airfield before finally releasing more than a dozen GBU-38s in a matter of 25 seconds.

"The initial waves of 500-pound precision bombs were direct hits," said Lt. Col. Stephen "Torch" Williams, 13th Fighter Squadron commander, who was the mission commander.

The pilots were allotted a two-minute window of attack and managed to hit while deconflicting with 160 strikes from other aircraft. Coalition ground forces could now conduct raids on Taliban positions.

"It was impressive to see the number of aircraft loaded with munitions, and tankers full of fuel headed into the country for the attack," said Capt. Lawrence "Gordo" Sullivan, 13th FS pilot who also flew on the mission.

During a secret mission never before attempted, four 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron pilots who deployed to central Iraq from Misawa Air Base, took to the skies toward Eastern Afghanistan Aug. 12, 2007, for a historical record-breaking 11-hour flight that led them to receive the Clarence MacKay Trophy for 2007.

The MacKay Trophy is awarded annually for "the most meritorious flight" of the year.

Panther 11 (pronounced one-one) flight was called upon to support an Operation Enduring Freedom mission 2,100 miles away from their location. This mission marked the first time F-16s would embark on such a long journey and with little knowledge of what to expect.

The four-ship F-16CJs covered six foreign country airspaces, worked with new operating instructions and refueled a total of 13 times.

After arriving in the target area, and minutes before the attack, they were informed their post-strike tanker was diverted 400 miles from the pre-planned refueling point, potentially forcing an unscheduled landing in Afghanistan.

"There were a couple of points during the flight where we weren't sure if we would have enough gas to make it all the way back," said Captain Sullivan.

But only minutes after their attack, Panther 11 managed to find an unscheduled tanker and direct it toward their position for refueling. This allowed the flight to begin the long trip home, and prevented the jets and pilots from being stranded in a foreign war zone where nobody was expecting them.

The area flown, almost entirely at night, was not the uncharacteristic part about the mission. The uniqueness of the global strike mission had to do with the F-16 going the distance, explained Colonel Williams.

"Our usual sorties in Iraq were from three and a half to four hours and this one was 11," he said. "We traveled the equivalent distance from New York to L.A. and back."

An evening meeting was conducted the night before the attack to discuss possible outcomes of such an unusual flight. The length of the trip was physically and mentally demanding.

Colonel Williams heard about the mission and had less than 24 hours to plan their attack.

With this type of mission, he knew they were "going into the unknown."

"Part of what made this mission unique was the fact that the pilots would operate in a new Area of Responsibility for the first time with minimum preparation," said Colonel Williams. "Support from aerial refueling tankers, which was absolutely necessary for making the long trip, was not listed on the daily Air Tasking Order due to the sensitive nature of the mission and the targets."

It was "a pass or fail mission" and the colonel had to pick the best people for his team.

"I wanted Weapons Instructor graduates for their ability to handle what we were getting into," said Colonel Williams.

The 13th EFS pilots included Col. Charles Moore, Capt. Lawrence Sullivan and Capt. Kristopher Struve.

"I knew that we had each been fortunate to see challenging missions like this one as students and instructors at the Weapons School," he said. "On a very short timeline and without hesitation, I knew these were the guys."

While the pilots went into crew rest to meet the demands of the morning, Maj. Cameron Caroom, also deployed with the aircrew, conducted mission planning throughout the evening.

"I knew that it would be challenging to develop all of the materials that were needed in that short a time frame," said Major Caroom, 35th Fighter Wing Weapons Officer at Misawa. But US Air Force Weapons School prepared him for his preparatory experience on a larger scale.

Only 18 hours after receiving their tasking, the pilots launched from the base in Iraq with the awareness of what challenges await them but with limitless possibilities of what might happen.

"We knew that we would have to coordinate for changes while airborne and so far away from home," said Captain Sullivan.

"From a flyers perspective the mission went like clockwork," said the captain. "We had a solid mission plan, we executed the mission and got everyone back safely. This is what we train to do and it was an honor to have the opportunity to accomplish our part of the airpower mission and to achieve the desired effects."

The success of the historic, short-notice global strike mission was made possible through so many support agencies, explained Colonel Williams.

"Most of the agencies didn't have any details of the mission but they all came together for a successful flight."

"The tankers did an outstanding job of fulfilling the heavy commitment they had that night for the overall mission," said Captain Sullivan. "We were just one flight of many aircraft and the tankers were extremely flexible, efficient and effective. They deserve a lot of credit for what they were able to do."

The Mackay Trophy is the oldest award presented exclusively to flying officers of the US Air Force. It is awarded annually and is administered by the US Air Force and the National Aeronautic Association.

"It's quite an honor. A lot of the names on that trophy have made a great contribution to airpower," said Colonel Williams. "The success of this mission was based on the team effort of the deployed Misawa personnel working alongside the rest of the Air Force in a deployed location."

The trophy itself is on permanent display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C, and the names of these four pilots will be engraved on it next to the likes of Henry 'Hap' Arnold, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Chuck Yeager.

Courtesy of 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Additional images:

Capt. Lawrence 'Gordo' Sullivan, 13th FS pilot, prepares to launch from Balad AB on August 12th, 2007, on the mission that was awarded the 'most meritorious flight' of 2007. [USAF photo]

A 13th EFS pilot and crew chief prepare F-16C block 50 #92-3897 for launch at Balad AB on August 12th, 2007. [USAF photo]

A 13th EFS jet sits at the end of the runway at Balad AB on August 23rd, 2007, before a crew chief marshalls the jet out for launch. [USAF photo]