[Aewa] 1st Desert Shield Mission

Bill Richards wildbill.richards at gmail.com
Sat Jan 22 11:51:14 CST 2011

August 6, 1990 we departed for Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom
Saudi Arabia.  The deployment was in response to Sadam Hussein’s
invasion of Kuwait.  Other US forces from around the world were
following suit and beginning the long trip to Saudi Arabia.  Six E-3
Sentry’s, better known as AWACS, departed from our base in Oklahoma
City, Oklahoma for the 16 hour plus flight to the "Sand Box".  After
two in-flight refuelings we landed on Aug 8th.  As the aircraft landed
and the crews were billeted at various hotels around Riyadh we were
placed into immediate crew rest.

My crew was selected to fly the first AWACS mission of what was to
become known as Operation Desert Shield.   We came out of crew rest
early in the morning of 9 of August and reported for duty at Riyadh
Air Base.  Our pre-mission brief was a little sparse on information
regarding what assets we would be working with but our primary
objective was to get AWACS airborne and our radar operational and
looking at Iraq.  The mission was planned to last about 16 hours,
which meant that we would need an air refueling at about halfway
through the flight.  We were assured that a USAF KC-135 tanker would
be launched from Jeddah at the appropriate time to rendezvous and
refuel us.  With that information in hand we headed out to the
aircraft to prepare for launch.

The launch and climb to out orbit area went smoothly.  As we went
through the routine of powering up our equipment, especially the
radar, we were anxiously wondering if we would be alone in the
airspace over Saudi Arabia.  This was cause for great concern as the
E-3 is essentially a defenseless aircraft.  That, plus our “run away”
speed was not to impressive and we could easily be overtaken by Iraqi
fighters and shot down.  Once we completed console check out and the
radar displays came to life, we were very much relieved to see four
USAF F-15 Eagles of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing from Langley AFB,
VA. Flying Combat Air Patrol (CAP) about 100 miles north of us.  In
short order we had the Eagles up on our frequency and under control.
The mission progressed smoothly with a few anxious moments as we
investigated various unknown radar contacts with the Eagles.  In one
bizarre intercept we actually vectored the Eagles in on a low
altitude, radar only contact that turned out to be a car egressing
from Kuwait ahead of Sadam’s army at a very high rate of speed!  Every
four hours the fighters would be replaced with a new flight.

Somewhere around nine hours into the mission, as we approached the
point were we would have to return to base if we were not refueled
in-flight, it became apparent that our tanker was going to be a
no-show and that we would be forced to go off station and land.  This
caused a great deal of concern with the Air Staff on the ground, as
there would be a break in the airborne early warning coverage while
the next AWACS crew was awakened and hustled out to Riyadh Air Base
and launched.

At this point it hit me that there was still a massive deployment of
US forces pouring into Saudi Arabia by air and that surely there were
some USAF tankers airborne that might have some fuel onboard available
for off-load.  So I advised the flight deck and the mission crew
commander of my plan and told them to prepare for either an ad hoc air
refueling rendezvous or a minimum fuel return to base.

With my fingers crossed, I transmitted on UHF guard (the international
emergency frequency) “Any US Air Force Tankers in the area please come
up on guard”.  Within minutes I was talking to two USAF KC-135’s and a
KC-10.  I quickly checked with each of them and determined that only
the KC-10 had fuel available for off-load to allow us to stay on
station until relived by the next E-3.  The KC-10 reported that he was
in the landing pattern at Riyadh.  After getting radar contact on him
I had him advise ATC that he was leaving the pattern and gave him an
initial vector our direction and instructions to climb to 24,000 feet.
 Once he acknowledged those instructions I asked him if he was
familiar with the frequency “Winchester” as we could not remain on
guard and conduct our air refueling operation.  “Winchester” is a
nickname for UHF frequency 303.0 or “thirty-thirty”.  He said he was
and I told him to push to “Winchester” and “go green”.  “Go Green”,
means to switch to secure encrypted communications.  A few moments
later the KC-10 was up on frequency and headed our direction.  I
instructed the mission crew commander and flight deck that a tanker
was headed our direction and that this was going to be quick and
dirty.  Everyone quickly began preparations for air refueling and I
instructed the flight deck to come up on frequency and I would brief
them and the tanker on the rendezvous.

The aircraft commander of the E-3 was a good friend of mine, Major
Larry Beam, and the best pilot I’ve ever had the privilege of flying
with.  I knew that if anyone could make this happen it was Larry Beam.
 I spelled out the plan to both flight decks that I was going to
vector the aircraft head on and perform and ninety-ninety turn-on.  A
ninety-ninety turn-on is where both aircraft are vectored directly at
each other, separated by a thousand feet vertically, and then at the
precise moment one aircraft is given a left ninety degree turn and the
other is give a right ninety degree turn.  If the turns are given at
the correct time the receiver should roll out a mile or two astern the
tanker.  To further complicate this maneuver there were several
commercial aircraft on a civil airway between the E-3 and the KC-10.
So I had to keep the E-3 at 31,000 and the tanker at 24,000.  Normally
the receiver would be 1,000 below the tanker to facilitate the
rendezvous.  Doing a ninety-ninety turn-on is the quickest way to get
two aircraft rendezvoused and it’s also one of the more difficult
control maneuvers possible.

With both aircraft briefed and the wheels set in motion I pointed the
E-3 nose-to-nose at the KC-10.  At about eleven miles separation I
turned the KC-10 ninety degrees to the right and two miles later I
turned the E-3 ninety degrees to the left.  With in a few minutes the
E-3 flight crew reported the tanker in sight and that we were rolling
out one mile behind the tanker.   As the commercial aircraft cleared
our paths I advised the flight deck that they could begin their
descent if they still had the tanker in sight.  They advised that they
had a visual on the tanker and were starting descent.  The mission
crew quickly ran through the radar shutdown procedures and we all
strapped in as Larry pulled out the stops and we descended 8,000 feet
in a matter of seconds to drop in behind the tanker to begin

After that refueling the rest of the mission was quite uneventful and
I realized that necessity can really be the mother of invention.

William “Wild Bill” Richards
Captain, USAF Retired

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