The Gulf War saw its fair share of intense aerial combat between the Coalition and Iraqi forces, with the Coalition’s air campaign alone dropping 88,500 tons of bombs over 100,000 sorties between January 17 and February 23, 1991. On February 14, two McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle pilots landed the most impressive victory of the campaign when they successfully dropped a bomb on an Iraqi helicopter – mid-flight.
An ordinary mission with extraordinary results
US Air Force Capt. Tim “Rhino” Bennett and his weapons system officer Capt. Dan “Chewy” Bakke were on the lookout for Scud missiles near Al-Qa’im when they were discovered and came under attack from Iraqi helicopters.
In an article for Air Force Magazine, Bennett recalled, “The mission was a Scud CAP [combat air patrol] in northwestern Iraq. During the Scud CAPs, we would look around with either the FLIR targeting pod or the radar to find the mobile Scuds. My wingman had twelve Mk. 82s, and I had four GBU-10s-2,000-pound LGBs-four AIM-9s, and two external fuel tanks. I was leading the flight.”
Their mission had begun at 1:00 AM. Heavy cloud cover had forced Bennett and Bakke to cruise above the bad weather when a Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft notified them that a Special Forces team on the ground was in trouble: five Iraqi helicopters were closing in.
Using radar, Bennett discerned the helicopters were Mil Mi-24 Hinds, which were used to carry enemy troops armed with artillery. The Mi-24s appeared to be dropping off their passengers in support of an attack on nearby US Special Forces units.
The plan of attack
The two pilots made a plan to hit the lead helicopter with a GBU-10 Paveway II while it was still on the ground. If the bomb hit, the target would be destroyed, and if the enemy aircraft took off before the bomb landed, it would still eradicate the troops it had just dropped off.
They let the bomb go four miles from their target, as Bennett’s F-15 was screaming across the sky at 700 MPH and 2,500 feet. As it was released, their radar read that the target was moving at 100 knots and climbing. Now out of range, Bennett and Bakke knew the explosive wouldn’t reach the helicopter.
A near miss
As seconds went by with no sign that the bomb had exploded, Bennett told Bakke to keep the laser pointed on the Mi-24. He recalled saying, “There’s no chance the bomb will get him now,” but, remarkably, the helicopter turned toward them, allowing Bakke to secure the laser-guided bomb on the target.
“There was a big flash, and I could see pieces flying in different directions,” said Bennett. “It blew the helicopter to hell, damn near vaporized it.”
The AWACS came over the radio and told the pilot, “I understand you visually ID’d that as an Iraqi helo.” Bennett stated that, no, he hadn’t visually identified the target, but was able to tell it was an Iraqi Mi-24 using infrared technology. Both he and Bakke then grew tense, worried they’d accidentally hit a friendly helicopter. At the time, special operators were flying into Iraq in Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Lows, and Bennett wondered if they’d accidentally targeted one.
Thankfully, the AWACS confirmed that no friendly aircraft were in the area – the pair’s attack was successful.
The striker becomes the target
That wasn’t the end of Bennett’s unbelievable mission. After confirming the hit was an enemy helicopter, large flashes appeared all around. What he initially thought were surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) being fired from below were actually bombs being dropped from above.
“AWACS had sent another flight in and told them to drop bombs on a set of coordinates. Those coordinates happened to be us!” Bennett and Bakke immediately left the area, and with just 15 minutes remaining in their mission managed to strike an enemy Scud missile, before returning to base.
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Tim Bennett left active duty following the Gulf War, but flew General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons with the South Carolina Air National Guard until he retired in 2017, having reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.