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The longest F-16 combat sorties in history

August 31, 2011 (by Marshall Michel) - On the morning of March 23, 2011, two F-16 pilots assigned to the 480 Fighter Squadron "Warhawks" from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Captain Alex "Tuna" Turner and Captain Owen "Tatu" Birckett, flew what is believe to be the two longest Viper combat missions in history.

Capt. Alex 'Tuna' Turner and Capt. Owen 'Tatu' Birckett, 480 FS pilots flew what is believed to be the two longest Viper combat missions in history in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn from Aviano AB on March 23rd, 2011 [USAF photo]

The mission was flown in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn from Aviano Air Base, Italy, while the unit was designated the 480 Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.

Tuna: The whole thing started Wednesday, March 23 2011. I had flown with Spangdahlem's "Warhawks" on the first night in the first wave as part of an eight ship Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission that knocked out a SAM site, so I knew a little bit about what to expect in the AOR.

I didn't get to fly on Night Two but on March 23rd I was leading a two ship SEAD mission with another experienced flight lead on my wing, Captain Owen "Tatu" Birckett. When we arrived at the squadron for our briefing we learned that a Strike Eagle had gone down a few hours prior and both of the guys had survived, but only one had been picked up while the other guy was still on the ground somewhere. We didn't yet know what had caused the crash, and there was the chance that our sortie would be a part of the CSAR effort. Things were pretty tense in the vault and we were a little late to get out the door, but finally managed to get airborne at about 0200 and headed for our first of many tankers.

Tatu: We hit two tankers and got to our area about three hours after we took off, contacted our controller and got our CAP where we waited for the first strikers. We set up a SEAD orbit since we each had two HARMs, but we were also ready to help out the ongoing search and rescue operation if we needed to. We were keyed up and ready to go, but nothing happened so after an hour or so we headed for the tanker.

Tuna: We headed back to our CAP for the next round, but things remained quiet. I think after losing an missile site to fellow Warhawk Captain Chris "Crash" Crabb on the first night the Libyan air defenses learned that it wasn't a good idea for them to turn on their radars. From our CAP we could watch the Strike Eagles and Aviano Vipers work, but again there were no threats emitting so at our bingo we left to hit the tanker again. The process continued for another couple of hours - watch the strikers, see nothing, tank, watch strikers, see nothing, tank, wash, rinse, repeat.

Tatu: Our scheduled time was almost up and we were pretty tired, the strikers had all left, the sun was up, and we were looking forward to going home. Then we get a coded message from our control agency, so we dug out our "decoder rings" and find out our time on station has been extended another four hours, because our replacement flight’s tanker had dropped out. This meant we will be in our CAP for eight hours, not counting the three and a half to four hour drive back and forth to Aviano.

Tuna: Hoping that there had been a mistake, I asked C2 to confirm that we had been extended by four hours. They confirmed, after which Tatu and I give the biggest sighs of our lives as we head to the tanker for what we had expected would be our last air refueling. Meanwhile, I am out of piddle packs, have only a Milky Way bar and half a bottle of water left for sustenance…I check with Tatu to make sure he's up for another four hours, and he says he's good to go. After that tanking, we go back to more of the same for another four hours. On the second half of the mission we got the chance to work with some coalition Vipers and Tornados, which was pretty cool. As we finally headed for home we ran our fence-out checklist, which includes severing our ALE-50s. As I hit the "sever" button, I get a failure and end up with one of my decoys stuck in trail.

Tatu: We go through all the emergency procedures check lists and the smart pack but nothing works. Tuna ends up dragging the thing all the way back to Aviano. We call the SOF as soon as our radios will reach him, and come up with a good game plan. I land first and log a 13.1 while Tuna holds above the airfield and waits for some other guys to take off.

Tuna: So Tatu lands and I'm setting up when the tower says two Strike Eagles need to take off before I land in case the ALE-50 comes off. So I hold high while they take off. By now I am REALLY thirsty. Finally they roll and I land, stop on the runway, get the ALE-50 lanyard cut, then back to the chocks where the crew chief takes the ladder away makes me ride the brakes back into the shelter (without asking!). Just the way to end the longest sortie in my life.

Tuna total: 13.5 hours, 69K pounds of JP-8, 2 piddle packs, 2 candy bars, and ½ bottle of water. Total for the two ship –23.5 hours.

Courtesy of Marshall "Sheriff" Michel, 52 FW Historian

Additional images:

480th FS Operation Odyssey Dawn patch [Jasmin Music collection]