The Coalition Air Offensive during the Opening 24 Hours
The First Night
The night of January 16/17 wasd one of the most intensive periods of air operations ever mounted. In this opening 24 hours alone, over 2,000 sorties were mounted by coalition air forces. This page details those operations.
The First Wave
The first coalition aircraft to take off for the initial attack soon after dark on the 16th January were eight AH-64 Apaches and single CH-53 of the US Army which formed 'Task Force Normandy'. The Apaches, each carrying Hellfire missiles, rockets and external fuel tanks had been tasked with the destruction of two air defence radars to the west of Baghdad which would open a corridor for allied aircraft to pass through undetected. The timing of their destruction was critical as strike aircraft would be on the verge of the radar's area of coverage minutes later.
Shortly after midnight, F-117 Stealth Fighters began their missions from their base in southern Saudi Arabia, transiting to meet with their tankers before beginning their attack runs over enemy territory. Over the next few hours of darkness, they would be joined by hundreds of other strike aircraft from their bases further north.
The next aircraft to take off, at about 0100 hours, were the 60 or so heavily-laden tanker aircraft who were to refuel attack aircraft on their outward and return journeys. A variety of refuellers were used ranging from KC-135s and KC-10s of the US Air Force, RAF Victors and VC10s and air-to-air refuelling equipped Intruders of the US Navy. Early warning aircraft, such as E-3 Sentrys and E-2 Hawkeyes were also on patrol, as indeed they had been since before Desert Storm commenced, protected by USAF F-15 Eagles, USN F-14 Tomcats, Canadian CF-18 Hornets and RAF and Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado F3s on standing patrol.
Next to take to the air were the first of 52 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from the US battleships Wisconsin and Missouri and cruiser San Jacinto to lead the attack on the Iraqi capital. It was the arrival of these missiles, coupled with the famous pictures of tracer fire over the city during a CNN news report that announced the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.
At 0238 hours, Task Force Normandy, now split into two groups of four, commenced their attack on the radar sites. From a range of between 3 and 1½ miles, the helicopters struck at their targets. In the following two minutes, 27 Hellfire missiles were fired along with 100 70-mm rockets and cannon rounds. With the radar installations in ruins, the helicopters set a course for home.
Within minutes, the F-117s were over the capital, a communications centre being their first target, hit by laser-guided munitions. Of the 34 targets hit by the aircraft, 13 were in or around Baghdad, and included air defence, communications facilities all integral to the Iraqi air defence network.
Follow-up attacks continued to disrupt communications and the lack of total radar coverage meant that little or no warning could be given of incoming attacks. SCUD missile sites, storage bunkers and airfields suffered at the hands of the allied air attacks. RAF Tornados delivered JP-233 anti-runway munitions from low-level attacks. Accompanying the RAF attacks were other RAF Tornados armed with ALARM anti-radar missiles while defence suppression aircraft in the form of radar jamming EF-111 Ravens, EA-6 Prowlers and SEAD F-4G Wild Weasel Phantoms combined to form attack packages with the other strike aircraft.
The first aircraft lost was an Iraqi Mirage fighter which crashed into the ground whilst attempting to shoot down an EF-111 of the US Air Force. But this aircraft was one of the very few flown by the defending forces, and the general lack of enemy aircraft created an air of surrealism to the allied pilots.
Shortly after the first aircraft had struck Baghdad, the first air combat victory took place. US Air Force E-3s reported an enemy aircraft closing in on a group of US aircraft near Baghdad to covering F-15 Eagles. The flight commander, Captain Steve Tate, brought his aircraft round to attack the aircraft, now identified as a Mirage F1, and fired an AIM-7 Sparrow from a distance of about 12 miles. The missile struck its target, sending it to the ground in flames. During the first wave of air strikes (some 671 sorties) no coalition aircraft was lost.
Meanwhile, the Apaches of Task Force Normandy had stopped in a remote area of Iraq to refuel from a Chinook helicopter. With the refuelling operation complete, the helicopters set off for home but the Chinook was fired upon by a surface-to-air missile. Despite using evasive tactics and countermeasures, the Chinook was hit by the missile's blast and lost its rear undercarriage. No-one aboard was injured, and the Chinook and remainder of the task force finally returned to base some fifteen hours after departing.
Daylight Operations Commence
Daylight operations were underway before the sun had started to rise. The first aircraft were airborne and en-route to their tanker rendezvous' as early as 0400 hours and scheduled to attack their targets at sunrise.
Jaguars from both the RAF and French Air Force were amongst the first to strike. The French aircraft were assigned to attack a well-defended airfield and many of the aircraft suffered damage from anti-aircraft fire. One aircraft survived a hit from a shoulder-mounted SAM and one pilot suffered head injuries when a bullet struck his cockpit. One RAF Tornado from Muharraq was unfortunately lost during an attack after being hit by groundfire.
As the morning continued, the next round of air-to-air combats took place. A group of four US Navy F-18 Hornets, tasked with attacking a ground targets were vectored to intercept two fighters closing in on them. Two Hornets claimed the enemy aircraft with air-to-air missiles and then rejoined the main force and continued on their briefed mission. In the afternoon, two MiG-29s were shot down by US Air Force F-15s as they attempted to intercept a group of F-16 Fighting Falcons. Three more aircraft followed suit - 2 Mirage F-1s were claimed by Captain Robert Graeter and another MiG-29.
No Let Up as Night Returns
Nightfall saw no let up in the relentless attacks. Airfields again suffered at the hands of laser-guided munitions deleivered by US F-111s, and Muharraq Tornado GR1s were again in the thick of things. In one attack, one aircraft suffered a huge birdstrike during its attack run. The pilot, Flying Officer Nigel Ingle, recovered the aircraft and carried out the attack as planned. The birdstrike had caused the wings to jam at 45° but the aircraft was returned to base and landed safely. The night also saw the loss of a second RAF Tornado GR1. After carrying out a low-level attack with JP-233, the aircraft crashed into the ground as it moved clear of the defended area. No enemy aircraft were seen in the area and the reason for the crash was unclear.
As the first period of 24 hours concluded a force of Italian Air Force Tornados were approaching their scheduled tanker rendezvous before proceeding towards their alloted targets. Turbulence in the air meant that six of the seven aircraft could not connect to the tanker and were forced to return to base. The one aircraft which had successfully carried out its refuel decided to press on alone. Unfortunately, the aircraft was shot down with the loss of one crew member and the other being captured.
The Iraqis also chose this night to begin their campaign of terror and launched a SCUD missile against Dhahran, but the missile was intercepted by Patriot SAM batteries and destroyed in flight. This was the first ever operational shooting down of a ballistic missile.
One of the aims of the first phase of the air campaign was to achieve air superiority and a comparison of the two forces' sortie rate confirms that, from the outset, the plan had been effective. Coalition aircraft mounted 2,107 sorties against just 24 by the Iraqis who had also lost eight aircraft in air-to-air combats. A number of Iraqi aircraft had also fled to neighbouring Iran to avoid destruction.