On Apr. 14, 1994, 26 crew and passengers died When two USAF F-15s fighter jet shot down two U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq that occurred during Operation Provide Comfort (OPC)
Two F-15Cs flown by Capt Eric Wickson (lead) and Lt Col Randy W May (wingman).
16 members of the UN Provide Comfort coalition leadership team including four Kurdish civilians, one Chaldean-Catholic civilian, three Turkish, two British, and one French military officers, plus five U.S. civilian and military officials were abord on UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters
Details of 1994 Black Hawk shootdown incident
USAF E-3 AWACS aircraft from the 963d Airborne Air Control Squadron. The AWACS, with its 19-member crew under the mission crew command of Major Lawrence Tracy, was to provide airborne threat warning and air control for all OPC aircraft during its time aloft. The AWACS crew reported on station at its assigned surveillance orbit altitude of 32,000 feet located inside Turkey just north of the northern border of Iraq at 08:45. The weather that day was fair and clear over northern Iraq.
Two U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 6th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment headed for the OPC military coordination center (MCC) located 150 miles (240 km) away in Zakhu, Iraq. The lead Black Hawk was piloted by U.S. Army Captain Patrick McKenna, commander of the Eagle Flight detachment of six helicopters.
At 0635 hrs with the launch of two F-15Cs — ‘Tiger 01′ and ’02’ — on a sweep of the airspace north of the no-fly zone, then transitioning into a DCA/CAP mission in the area.
At 0654 hrs the two UH-60s took off from Zakhu using the ‘Eagle’ call-sign, and informed AWACS (call sign ‘Cougar’) of their departure point and their destination.
At 0720 hrs Wickson, in ‘Tiger 01’, reported entering northern Iraq to ‘Cougar’, and then went about leading his flight on a sweep of the area in search of Iraqi aircraft.
The F-15 pilots thought they were attacking a Mi-24 gunship. Indeed, the leader of Tiger flight went as far as to positively identify the helicopter as a ‘Hind’.Since the ATO did not contain any detailed information about the ‘Eagle’ flight, the AWACS controller did not pass the relevant information to the F-15 pilots, who had no idea that a friendly helicopter flight was operating in the very same airspace it was assigned to ‘delouse’.
Two minutes later, Wickson reported a radar contact on a low-flying, slow-moving aircraft approximately 52 miles north of the southern boundary of the no-fly zone, and 40 miles southeast of his own position. ‘Cougar’ responded with a ‘clean there’ call, meaning that the controller aboard the AWACS had no targets on his scope. The F-15 pilots plotted an intercept to investigate while using IFF to probe the contacts for a friendly electronic response.
The gap had closed to 20 miles by 0725 hrs when Wickson once again called the contacts out to ‘Cougar’, who responded this time with ‘hits there’, indicating that he too saw the radar contact. In fact `Cougar’ was receiving the IFF returns from ‘Eagle’ flight’s IFF transponders . The AWACS was not actually detecting them via direct radar returns.
A minute later, the IFF returns from the UH-60 was not only clearly visible, but also identifiable as being in the same location as Wickson’s reported contacts, yet AWACS still did not inform the ‘Tiger’ flight of the presence of IFF data in the target area. Wickson locked the target up and then initiated his own IFF interrogations in both commercial and military (Mode IV) modes, each six-second-long attempt failed to illicit a response. ‘Tiger 01′ and ’02’ moved in closer to make a visual identification.
At 0727 hrs, Wickson closed to seven miles and visually identified the contact as a helicopter, calling “‘Tiger 01″ is tally, one helicopter. Standby VID’. He passed ‘Eagle 01’ at a height of 500 ft, 1000 Ft to the left at 450 knots (giving an overtake of 320 knots — ‘Eagle’ was at 130 knots), then pulled off high and to the right over the top of the helicopter so as to avoid any forward-firing armament that an adversary gunship might have. He observed that the helicopter was carrying sponsons fitted with ordnance, but was otherwise unable to see any distinguishing markings on the camouflaged green helicopter.
He radioed, ‘”Tiger 01”. VID “Hind” — no, “Hip”‘, at 0728 hrs, before referring to an in-flight silhouette guide to clarify his VID. Wickson then called, ‘”Tiger 01”, disregard “Hip”. VID “Hind”‘. With that he reversed course from the southeast to the northwest, before acquiring a visual on the second helicopter, trailing ‘Eagle 01’ by two miles. His call ‘”Tiger 01”. VID “Hind”, tally two, lead-trail’, prompted ‘Cougar’ to respond, ‘Copy “Hinds”‘. Wickson now sought confirmation of his VID from May in ‘Tiger 02’. “‘Tiger 02”, confirm “Hinds”‘. He later reported receiving the response, ‘Standby’.
It is at this point that the final series of errors occurred — May flew 2000 ft to the right of the trailing helicopter and transmitted, ‘”Tiger 02”, tally two’ to say that he had both helicopters in sight. This transmission, though, was interpreted by Wickson to mean that May had concurred with his `Hind’ VID, whereas May simply meant to state that he had the two helicopters in sight.
Wickson then told AWACS, “Cougar”, “Tiger 02” has tallied two “Hinds”, engaged’, and then flew to a point ten miles to the helicopters’ northwest in a pre-arranged move that allowed the F-15 pilots time to make a perfect attack.
53d Fighter Squadron F-15C Eagle 79-25 showing “SP” Tail Code, Spangdahlem AB, Germany, 1995
As he rolled back towards the helicopters, Wickson called, ‘”Tiger” arm hot, “Tiger 01” is hot’, telling May that he was cleared to fire provided that ROE were met. He then transmitted on the AUX radio, `We’re coming up behind them. There’s two in lead-trail. “Tiger 01″ is going first. I will shoot the trailer and then you will shoot the leader’. Wickson and May switched to AUTO ACQ mode to acquire their quarry and then attempted a final IFF interrogation, before visually acquiring their respective targets in their HUDs.
‘”TIGER 01”, fox. “TIGER 01”, splash one “Hind”. “Tiger 02”, you’re engaged with the second one. He’s off my nose two miles, right past the fireball. “02” call in. “01’s” off left’. Wickson had despatched the trailing UH-60 with an AIM-120 fired from about four miles out. May followed with an AIM-9 fired about 9000 ft away from ‘Eagle 01’. ‘”Tiger 02″ in hot. “Tiger 02”, splash second “Hind”‘. May reportedly ended the engagement with the words, ‘Stick a fork in him — he’s done!’
In those few moments, the lives of the 26 crew and passengers aboard the two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters were ended and the reputation of the F-15 Eagle was forever altered. As explained by Steve Davies and Doug Dildy in their book F-15 Eagle Engaged, many factors contributed to the tragedy. The lack of awareness on the part of the AWACS controller resulted in a court-martial. The lack of information in the ATO and Special Instructions (“spins”) cost the career of a very talented, dedicated and conscientious brigadier general heading the OPC operation. However, the USAF failed to place the blame on the perpetrators of the event.
The F-15 pilots failed in a fundamental fighter pilot responsibility — to be able to correctly visually identify an enemy aircraft from one in their own nation’s military — and miscommunicated the ID. Despite the fact that the squadron commander was the wingman (as was often the case in these normally dull and boring missions, the flight lead responsibilities were alternated to give the younger pilots more flight leadership experience), he set the tone in the squadron, he failed to communicate his true (if later testimony is accepted) appreciation for the situation and, if he himself was truly unsure of whether the targets were friendly or Iraqi, he failed to call off the flight lead until the issue could be resolved with certainty. At 130 knots the Black Hawks were still 40 miles from the No-Fly Zone line and were not headed there anyway. There was plenty of time to be sure, but no time was taken.
Even worse, the USAF handled the tragedy’s aftermath appallingly. The two pilots were initially charged with court martial offences, but rather than allow the merits of each participant’s actions to he reviewed by a panel of judges — and thus the world, and especially the grieving loved ones of those who lost their lives aboard the helicopters — these were dropped by the commanding general, ostensibly because of insufficient evidence. In fact the two aviators were given normal, promising assignments for their next tours, until CSAF General Ron Fogleman stepped in and corrected the situation. In the opinion of many, the handling of the case’s fallout was almost as much of a black mark against the Air Force as the tragic event itself.
The 53rd FS “Tigers” never fully recovered from the dark blemish on their otherwise exemplary record. The only way the USAF could make the issue and the pain go away was by closing the unit. This was done on Mar. 10, 1999, leaving USAFE with only one Eagle squadron for the next war in its theater.
Incident Report At Wikipedia :
At 09:21, the Black Hawks reported their entry into the no-fly zone by radio on the en route frequency to the AWACS en route controller, Lieutenant Joseph Halcli, and then landed six minutes later at the MCC. Halcli and his superior officer, Captain Jim Wang, the AWACS’s senior director, added “friendly helicopter” tags to their radar scopes, noted that both helicopters were displaying identification friend or foe (IFF) Mode I and Mode II signals, and then suspended the radar symbols after the Black Hawks disappeared from their scopes upon landing at the MCC at 09:24. Although the helicopters were squawking the wrong IFF Mode I code for the no-fly zone, neither Wang nor Halcli informed the Black Hawk pilots of that. Wang and Halcli also neglected to direct the Black Hawks to begin using the TAOR radio frequency instead of the en route frequency
At the MCC, the Black Hawks picked up 16 members of the UN Provide Comfort coalition leadership team including four Kurdish civilians, one Chaldean-Catholic civilian, three Turkish, two British, and one French military officers, plus five U.S. civilian and military officials. At 09:54, the helicopters departed the MCC for Erbil, Iraq, a distance of 120 miles (190 km). The Black Hawks reported their departure, flight route, and destinations by radio which was acknowledged by Halcli. Halcli then re-initiated the friendly helicopter track on his scope. Two of the Black Hawk passengers were Colonel Jerry Thompson, U.S. Army, commander of the MCC, and his replacement, Colonel Richard Mulhern, U.S. Army. At Arbil and later at Salah ad Din, Iraq, Thompson planned to introduce Mulhern to two prominent Kurdish leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, as well as to UN representatives. Halcli placed tags on his radar screen to show the two Black Hawks’ track and notified Wang of the helicopters’ movement. In addition to Halcli’s screen, the friendly helicopter symbols were visible on the radar screens of Wang, Tracy, and USAF Major Doug Martin. Martin was the “Duke” or “ACE” airborne command element on the AWACS, meaning that he was a rated aircrew member assigned to the crew to ensure that all engagement (combat) mandates were adhered to and executed as written in OPC policies.
En route to Arbil, at 10:12, the Black Hawks entered mountainous terrain and their radar returns disappeared from the AWACS’s scopes. Captain Dierdre Bell, an air surveillance officer on the AWACS, noticed that the Black Hawks’ radar and IFF returns had disappeared and sent an electronic “attention arrow” to Wang’s scope. Wang took no action and the large blinking green arrow automatically disappeared from his screen after one minute
Meanwhile, at 09:35, two USAF F-15C fighter aircraft from the 53d Fighter Squadron, piloted by Captain Eric Wickson and Lieutenant Colonel Randy W. May, departed Incirlik AB. Their mission was to perform an initial fighter sweep of the TAOR to clear the area of any hostile aircraft prior to the entry of coalition forces. The air tasking order (ATO) that was supposed to list all scheduled coalition aircraft missions for that day and which the two pilots reviewed before takeoff, mentioned that U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters would be operating in the TAOR that day but did not list takeoff times, routes, or flight durations for them. At 10:15, Wickson radioed Martin on the AWACS and asked if he had any information to pass to them to which Martin replied in the negative.
At 10:20, Wickson, the F-15C flight lead, reported entering northern Iraq to the AWACS controller responsible for air traffic inside the TAOR, USAF Lieutenant Ricky Wilson. The TAOR frequency that the F-15s were using was different from the en-route frequency being used by the two Black Hawks. Wilson, however, was monitoring both frequencies and being able to see both Black Hawks on his radar scope before they disappeared at 10:12. Wilson and the other AWACS crew members, many of whom were monitoring the F-15s’ radio frequency, did not inform the F-15s that Black Hawks were currently operating in the TAOR. At 10:21, Wilson, believing that the Black Hawks had landed again, asked Wang if he could drop the friendly helicopter symbols from the AWACS’s scopes and Wang approved the request. An AWACS crew instructor, Captain Mark Cathy, who was on the mission to assist the AWACS crew and supervise Wilson on this, his first mission into the TAOR, had retired to the back of the airplane at 10:00 to take a nap
At 10:22, Wickson, flying at 27,000 feet (8,230 m), reported a radar contact on a low-flying, slow-moving aircraft 40 miles (64 km) southeast of his current position. Wilson acknowledged Wickson’s report with a “clear there” response, meaning that he had no radar contacts in that area. Unknown to the two F-15 pilots, the unidentified aircraft were the two U.S. Army Black Hawks. Contrary to standard procedure, neither Tracy nor Wang spoke up at this point to request that the AWACS crew members attempt to identify the F-15s’ radar contacts.
Both F-15 pilots then electronically interrogated the radar target with their on-board IFF systems across two different modes (Mode I and Mode IV). Their IFF systems responded negatively to the attempt to identify the contact on Mode I. The Mode IV momentarily gave a positive response, but thereafter responded negatively and the F-15s moved to intercept the unidentified aircraft. Intermittent IFF Mode I and Mode II returns from the Black Hawks now began to show on Wilson’s and other AWACS crew members’ scopes and friendly helicopter symbols reappeared on Wang’s scope. After closing to 20 miles (32 km) of the radar contacts, at 10:25 the F-15s again reported the contact to the AWACS and Wilson this time responded that he now had a radar contact at that reported location. Although the Black Hawk intermittent radar and now steady IFF returns on the AWACS scopes were in the same location as the unidentified contacts being tracked by the F-15s, none of the AWACS controllers advised Wickson or May that the contacts they were tracking might be friendly helicopters
The two F-15s now initiated a visual identification (VID) pass of the contact. The VID pass entailed violating one of OPC’s rules of engagement, which prohibited fighter aircraft from operating below 10,000 feet (3,050 m) above the ground. At this time the two Black Hawks had entered a deep valley and were cruising at a speed of 130 knots (150 mph; 240 km/h) about 200 feet (60 m) above the ground. Wickson’s VID pass was conducted at a speed of about 450 knots (520 mph; 830 km/h), 500 feet (150 m) above and 1,000 feet (300 m) to the left of the helicopters. At 10:28 Wickson reported “Tally 2 Hinds” and then passed the two Black Hawks. “Hind” is the NATO designation for the Mil Mi-24 helicopter, a helicopter that the Iraqi and Syrian militaries operated and was usually configured with armament on small, side-mounted wings. Wilson responded with “Copy, Hinds” and asked Wang, “Sir, are you listening to this?” Wang responded, “Affirmative” but offered no further guidance or comments.
May then conducted his own VID pass about 1,500 feet (500 m) above the helicopters and reported, “Tally 2.”May later stated to a USAF accident investigation board that his “Tally 2” call meant that he saw two helicopters but did not mean that he was confirming Wickson’s identification of them as Hinds. Neither F-15 pilot had been informed that U.S. Army Black Hawks participating in OPC often carried auxiliary fuel tanks mounted on wings nor had either been instructed in the paint scheme that Iraqi Hind helicopters used, light brown and desert tan, which was different from the dark green color used by the Black Hawks. Wickson later stated that, “I had no doubt when I looked at him that he was a Hind. . . . The Black Hawk did not even cross my mind.”
Following their VID passes, Wickson and May circled back behind the helicopters approximately 10 miles (16 km). Because aircraft from various nations sometimes operated unannounced in the northern Iraq area, the OPC rules of engagement required the F-15 pilots to attempt to verify the nationality of the helicopters. Instead, at 10:28, Wickson notified the AWACS that he and May were “engaged” and instructed May to “arm hot.” At 10:30, Wickson fired an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile at the trail helicopter from a range of about 4 nautical miles (10 km). The missile hit and destroyed the trailing helicopter seven seconds later (36°46′N 44°05′E). In response, the lead Black Hawk, piloted by McKenna, immediately turned left and dived for lower altitude in an apparent attempt to evade the unexpected attack. About 20 seconds later, May fired an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile at the lead helicopter from a range of about 1.5 nautical miles (2.8 km), hitting and shooting it down also about 1.2 miles (2 km) northeast of the trail helicopter (36°55′N 43°30′E). All 26 people on board the two Black Hawks were killed. After flying over the wreckage of the two helicopters lying burning on the ground, May radioed Wickson, “Stick a fork in them, they’re done