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25th Anniversary of Desert Storm

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Staff Sgt. Melanie Holochwost)

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Staff Sgt. Melanie Holochwost)

The MH-53 PAVE LOWs knocked out Iraqi early warning sites at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

The MH-53 PAVE LOWs knocked out Iraqi early warning sites at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- At 8 a.m., Jan. 16, 1991, Iraqi forces were firmly planted in Kuwait after the U.N. Security Council deadline for their withdrawal had expired.

During his evening changeover briefing, retired Brig. Gen. George A. Gray III, then commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, gave the order to begin taking the ‘P-Pills’ that 1st SOW Airmen had been issued earlier that August at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

The ‘P-Pills,’ designed to help fight the effects of chemical agents, became a very real reminder that war was upon them. At 3 a.m. Jan. 17, 1991, Operation Desert Shield was over, and Operation Desert Storm had begun.

Desert Storm began 22 minutes earlier for a small group of Air Force Special Operations Command Airmen when four MH-53 Pavelow helicopters guided eight AH-64 Apache helicopters through total darkness to destroy two Iraqi air defense radar sites. This proved to be crucial to the initial invasion, opening a hole in the air defense network and allowing F-117 Nighthawks and Coalition aircraft to strike targets in Baghdad.

“At that point, all hell broke loose and people were dropping bombs all over the place,” said retired Lt. Col. Corby Martin, former MH-53 pilot for 20th Special Operations Squadron. “It looked like a 4th of July fireworks display.”

“In the 1st SOW everybody was focused, everybody knew what they were doing,” said retired Col. Chris Snider, former wing electronic warfare officer for the 1st SOW. “We had experienced crews, experienced maintenance and a lot of combat veterans.”

The 1st SOW began its missions on day one of Desert Shield.

“I landed in-country with about 60 others from the 1st SOW tasked with finding a suitable airstrip,” said Snider. “We found an airfield being built out in the middle of nowhere… I mean it had nothing in the control tower, most of the plumbing hadn’t been finished and it was still two or three years away from being completed.”

That airfield was King Fahd Air Base, AFSOC’s headquarters for the war.

“There were no tire marks on the runway when we landed,” said retired Col. Ray Chapman, former MC-130E navigator with the 8th Special Operations Squadron. “It was a ghost town… think of Chicago International Airport before anybody ever set foot on it.”

From this air base, the 1st SOW would launch psychological and combat operations.

One of the MC-130E Combat Talons I’s missions was to drop leaflets warning Iraqi military troops if they did not surrender, they would be bombed. Chapman was one of the flyers who conducted those missions.

“The boxes were on a static line [attached to the aircraft] and the loadmaster would toss the boxes out. Then the boxes kind of explode and the leaflets start drifting to earth,” said Chapman.

According to Chapman, they typically flew above anti-aircraft threats at around 9,000 feet, making accurate leaflet drops extremely difficult.

“Up that high, the winds can change and these leaflets can end up somewhere other than where they were intended to go, but the coolest thing was when we’d come back from a mission and the surrendering Iraqis would be holding the leaflets that we’d dropped.”

In addition to dropping more than 17 million leaflets during the war, Chapman, along with other MC-130E crews, released something more powerful. The BLU-82 Daisy Cutter, the world’s largest conventional bomb at the time was dropped 11 times by Air Force Special Operations Forces.

“[The BLU-82] looks like a Volkswagen, it’s gigantic,” said Chapman. “This thing is 15,000 pounds of ‘get your attention, hurt somebody’ type of stuff… We owned the Air. We had air superiority from minute one when we started Desert Storm.”

Additional combat sorties were flown by AC-130H Spectre aircrews, but not without a degree of peril.

According to Ret. Chief Master Sgt. Bill Walter, an AC-130H Spectre gunner, “The Iraqi tactic was to hold fire until the aircraft passed over their sites, then turn on their radars after the gunships were essentially boxed in. Weather was poor, and crews were diverted in-flight to hunt for Scud missiles in designated ‘kill boxes,’" making missions flown in Operation Storm dangerous.

“Spectre crews successfully engaged numerous Iraqi targets including armor, vehicles, gun sites and personnel,” said Walter. On multiple occasions, crews were locked up, forced to perform aggressive maneuvers to keep from being shot down.

On the morning of Jan. 31, one mission did turn deadly, and Spirit 03 was lost to enemy ground fire. “Following the loss of Spirit 03 and the end of the Battle of Khafji, gunship crews were once again placed on airborne alert for the remainder of the war, although several AC-130A crews fired on Iraqi columns in Kuwait in the last hours of the war," said Walter.

But, the determination and sacrifice of 1st SOW Airmen helped shorten the ground campaign to only 100 hours, bringing a swift and decisive end to Operation Desert Storm.

“It wasn’t just the experience level,” said Snider, “but the fact that we went to so many exercises and played so many war games… and that we did it continuously. The [training] gave our personnel the mindset of going to war.”

According to Snider, that mindset, “still shows to this day.”

On Feb. 28, 1991, after just a month and a half of fighting, President George H. W. Bush declared a ceasefire and an end to hostilities.

AFSOC aircrews tallied over 10,000 flight hours and 5,000 sorties through Desert Shield and Desert Storm.