Tragedy: Inside the Accidental 1994 Shootdown of Two Army Black Hawks by Air Force F-15s

By Staff Sgt. Richard Wrigley - US Army, Public Domain,

Tragedy: Inside the Accidental 1994 Shootdown of Two Army Black Hawks by Air Force F-15s

A Blue on blue.

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.’

On Apr. 14, 1994, tragedy struck when the 26 crew and passengers of two U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were downed over northern Iraq by two F-15Cs flown by Capt Eric Wickson (lead) and Lt Col Randy W May (wingman) — May already had the contentious Mi-24 kill to his credit from three years previously, and was now the CO of the 53rd Fighter Squadron (FS). The U.S. Air Force (USAF) attributed the incident to a chain of errors, from the general heading up the Operation Provide Comfort Task Force all the way down.

As explained by Steve Davies in his book F-15C Eagle Units in Combat, the day started 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.

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 (some three minutes after ‘Tiger 01’ had detected the radar contacts), 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.

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.

This article by Dario Leone originally appeared on The Aviation Geek Club in 2018.

Image: Wikimedia