3 August 1990
On Friday morning of the August week in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Lieutenant General Chuck Horner was at 27,000 feet, cruising at .9 Mach (540 knots), and nearing the North Carolina coast. He was headed out to sea in the Lady Ashley, a recent-model Block 25 F-16C, tail number 216, that had been named after the daughter of his crew chief, Technical Sergeant José Santos. Horner's aide, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Hartinger, Jr., known as "Little Grr," was on Horner's left side, a mile out, slightly high. Horner and Hartinger were en route to a mock combat with a pair of F-15Cs out of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Langley Air Force Base in Tidewater Hampton, Virginia: a winner-take-all contest that would match wits and flying skills. After that, they were all scheduled to form up and return to Langley AFB as a flight of four aircraft.
It was a bright, clear day a good day to be in the air. Horner felt the joy he always did when flying thousands of feet above the earth in a fast and nimble aircraft, an emotion that few others ever had the opportunity to experience. Part of it was the feeling of unity with his aircraft the fighter was like an extension of his mind and body. The brain commanded and the aircraft responded, with no other conscious motions. In an air battle, a pilot had no time for unnecessary thoughts. He evaluated angle, range, and closure with his target, while keeping track of all the fast, nimble aircraft that were trying to drive him in flames out of the sky. He thought and the jet reacted.
It was Hartinger's turn to lead, to call how he and Horner would fly from takeoff to landing, and he had set up a two-versus-two air combat tactics mission what fighter pilots call a 2v2 ACT with the F-15s. Horner was looking forward to it. At Langley, he was scheduled to attend an aircraft accident briefing with his Air Force boss, General Bob Russ, commanding general of the Tactical Air Command. Accident briefings were never pleasant experiences, even when the accidents were proven to be unavoidable, so Horner was happy for the chance to "turn and burn" with the guys from Langley before he hit the painful part of the day.
His policy was to try to maintain his combat skills whenever he flew his F-16. Even when traveling to an administrative meeting such as the one at Langley, he liked to make the trip worthwhile. It was a good way to stay up-to-date with the younger often much younger pilots he might someday lead into real battle.
He was in his fifties, but he wasn't too old to go up against an enemy. He could hold his own with most U.S. fliers; and those fliers were better than 95 percent of anyone they might meet. What he'd lost in eyesight and physical stamina, he made up for with experience and brains. Experience atrophied with disuse, however, and he needed to know firsthand not only that his combat skills were current and credible, but also what the younger fighter jocks were doing, what they were practicing their aerial, radio, and shooting discipline and tactics.
Fighter pilots are members of a very tiny, elite tribe, who also happen to be the most arrogant group on earth. Flying high-performance jets is a consummate art, and to be merely somewhere near the top of the food chain doesn't begin to make it. They want to be the top. If there's nobody around you left to beat, there's still yourself. That means if a commander does not remain credible, a pilot may be reluctant to obey his lead. In war, failure to obey in the strictest manner can get people killed. So Horner felt he owed the people he commanded the duty to remain up-to-date in the use of his equipment, in tactics, and in understanding the stresses they faced.
Since April 1987, Chuck Horner had been commander of Ninth Air Force, which supervised the Air Force's Active and Reserve Fighter Units east of the Mississippi River. In that position, he also served as the air component commander for the Central Command, the United States military organization responsible for national security interests in the Middle East and parts of East Africa (except for Israel, Syria, and Lebanon). In 1990, Central Command was led by Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. It was Horner's job as CENTAF Commander to work with his foreign counterparts in a region that stretched from Egypt to Pakistan and to plan military operations air campaigns that might be needed should a crisis arise that endangered the interests of the United States. It was also his job to make sure that U.S. air units were combat-ready, and that the logistics were in place to support them during a rapid deployment in peacetime or war. And finally, it was his job to command air assets that had been deployed to the region during the recent Iran Iraq war, for instance, USAF E-3A AWACS radar aircraft had kept watch over Saudi Arabia in order to prevent the local conflict from spilling over the border. When Horner wasn't visiting his assigned bases in the United States, he was visiting the nations in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.
The job kept Horner in the air and away from home much of the time. Somewhat unexpectedly, he had discovered that he had a second home in the Gulf region. Over the years he had made many friends there, especially with other airmen, and as he'd grown more familiar with them, both professionally and as a guest in their homes, his respect for them had increased. He'd come to admire their ways, their differences from westerners, their pride in their own nations, and their reverence for God. In time he'd also come to love the nations that had given them birth, with their rich history, culture, and scenic beauty; he found himself devouring whatever books on them he could find.
When these friendships developed, he had no idea how valuable they'd turn out to be later.
The two hats Chuck Horner wore as Ninth Air Force and CENTAF Commanders derived from a generally little-known but far-reaching transformation in military structure brought about by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act. Goldwater-Nichols revolutionized the way the United States military services operate.
Each of the military services has its own culture and traditions, its own sources of pride and ways of doing things, but these differences, in addition to the inevitable competition for resources and status, can easily get in the way of cooperation. Meanwhile, the speed the tempo of warfare grows ever faster; and war becomes more lethal. The U.S. military must be able to project massive, shattering force quickly from many directions land, sea, air, and space which means, among other things, that service parochialism is an expensive and dated luxury. The new military mantra is "jointness" all the services must be able to work together as well and as comfortably as with members of their own organizations.
Goldwater-Nichols aimed to implement "jointness" by breaking the hold of individual services on their combat forces. All operational control was taken away and given to regional Commanders in Chief (Europe, Central, Pacific, Southern, and to some extent Atlantic, Korea, and Strategic) and functional Commanders in Chief (Transportation, Space, Special Operations, and to some extent Strategic and Atlantic Command). This meant that the services became responsible only for organizing, training, and equipping military forces. Once the forces were operationally ready, they were assigned to one of the Unified Commanders. Thus, a fighter wing in Germany no longer was controlled by the Air Force, but would logically be assigned to EUCOM, a destroyer off the coast of Japan to PACOM, a satellite to SPACECOM, and a stateside army division could be assigned to any of the unified commands.
As the Ninth Air Force Commander, Chuck Horner worked for Bob Russ, the TAC Commander, who in turn worked for Larry Welch, Chief of Staff of the Air Force. As CENTAF Commander, he worked for Norman Schwarzkopf, who worked directly for Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. The Joint Chiefs of Staff could meet in Washington and advise Colin Powell, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but neither Powell nor any of the service heads had direct operational authority over Schwarzkopf, unless Cheney wished it (as did, in fact, happen). Likewise, neither Bob Russ nor Larry Welch had operational authority over Horner in his role as CENTAF Commander.
The new system created by Goldwater-Nichols was not universally popular in the Pentagon, but the people in the field loved it.
Meanwhile, the first week of August had been a difficult and strange time for the CENTAF Commander. In late July, when the Iraqi Army had begun massing on the border with Kuwait, he had put on alert the 1st TFW's F-15C Eagles at Langley and the 363d TFW's F-16C Fighting Falcons at Shaw AFB in Sumter, South Carolina, where he himself was based. On the night of August 2, a Wednesday, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, such a blatant act of thuggery that Horner had expected an immediate U.S. response. With Kuwait in Saddam Hussein's bag, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Gulf Arab states were very much at risk. Several divisions of Iraq's powerful Republican Guards were poised in an attack posture along the Saudi-Kuwait border. Horner could not imagine how the United States could allow Saddam further loot. If sabers were to be rattled, then Ninth Air Force was likely be the first one to get the call.
For the next two days, Horner expected to hear from General Schwarzkopf, his Unified Command boss, yet so far he had not heard a word either from him or from CENTCOM headquarters at MacDill AFB in Tampa. Since the Iraqi army had poured across the border to Kuwait, there had been a truly eerie silence. So he had just kept to his schedule for the week as planned. On Friday, he flew off toward Langley.
The radio broke Horner's thoughts. Grr was calling for a "G" warm-up exercise, a necessary precombat discipline in the very hot and quick F-16s. Pilots needed to know that their G suits and other protective systems were working, and that they themselves were ready for the rapid onset of G forces. Otherwise there was the danger of a blackout and an unpleasant encounter with the ground. He put himself through a ninety-degree turn to the left at 4 Gs, then 4.5 Gs, as he pulled back harder on the stick grip in his right hand. He ran through a mental checklist: G suit inflating properly; breathing not too fast, not too slow; as he strained to force the blood up into his brain. No dimness in vision the small vessels in the eyes were the first warning signs that the brain cells were being denied oxygen-rich blood. All was going well. He rolled out, then lowered the nose, and throttled at full military power as his left hand pushed the power lever forward as far as it would go. He quickly rolled into a ninety-degree turn back to the left. Six Gs this time, again running through the checklist, pleased that his fifty-three-year-old body could handle the pain and strain of the heavy G forces. Meanwhile, even as it squeezed his thighs and calves forcing blood into his upper body the rock-hard, inflated G suit felt as if it were trying to pinch him in two. Once again everything was in order. He rolled out, checked for Grr on the left. Their formation was still good. Now they needed only to cruise out to the east end of the ACM practice area and wait for the 1st TFW Eagles to show up.
As they crossed the Atlantic coast, Horner's jet almost imperceptibly shuddered, as single-engine jets always seemed to do when a pilot got beyond sight of land. He instinctively checked the gauges . . . all of them were in the green.
Then the radio came alive.
"Teak One, this is Sea Lion. Your F-15s have canceled and Washington Center asks that you contact them immediately."
Sea Lion was the Navy radar station at Norfolk, Virginia, that kept track of military training airspace out over that part of the Atlantic. In an instant, Horner knew what was up a recall to Shaw. Grr called them over to 272.7 MHz, the proper UHF channel to contact the center controller, checked Horner in, and gave Washington Center a call.
"Washington Center, Teak One. Understand you have words for us."
"Teak One, this is Washington Center. We have a request that you return to Shaw AFB immediately. Do you need direct routing?"
"Roger, Washington. We'd like to go present position direct Florence direct Shaw FL 320," that is to say, flight level altitude 32,000 feet.
"Roger Teak, cleared as requested. Squawk 3203." Grr then dialed a setting into his onboard radar transponder, the transponder transmitted a code that was used to cue the ground controllers, and "3203" was displayed over their return blip on the Center's radar screen.
My God, Horner thought, stunned, as he and Grr turned back toward Shaw. It's on. This has to be about the Iraqi invasion. A million questions roared through his mind: Have the Iraqis entered Saudi Arabia? How much force will we deploy? How fast can we get our Ninth Air Force squadrons in the air to rendezvous with the SAC tankers? How much heavy airlift is available to get our spares and maintenance people deployed to the Middle East? How do we get our pre-positioned tents, munitions, fuel, and medical equipment from their warehouses in Oman and Bahrain, and from the ships at anchor in the lagoon at Diego Garcia? And inevitably, How many young men and women will die?
Thank God for Internal Look, Horner thought. Every second year the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM held an exercise in the United States in which his staff planned for a mock war. CENTCOM's forces were then brought into the field to execute that "war." The actual component commanders, such as Horner, John Yeosock of the Army, Walt Boomer of the Marines, and Schwarzkopf himself would deploy with their staffs and forces and conduct the kind of operations they might use in a real crisis. In the process, they learned to work with each other and to test the staff's and their own abilities, and the CINC was able to evaluate his team and learn how to use them and all of his forces to best advantage. In the intervening year the CINC would hold training exercises in the Middle East, where U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen could experience life in the desert and serve side by side with their Arab counterparts.
In the early days after the founding of CENTCOM, it had been feared that the Russians would attack south through Iran, thus attempting to make real a long-standing, indeed, pre-Soviet dream. Early CENTCOM plans, consequently, had been aimed at stopping such a move. By November 1989, when General Schwarzkopf had taken over CENTCOM command, the Soviets were not about to attack anywhere, so CENTCOM had had to look for a new mission. They didn't have to look far. After the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq had been left with a huge, well-equipped, well-trained, and seasoned military force and an astronomical debt. How do they pay off the debt? Norman Schwarzkopf asked himself. They go where the money is: south, into Kuwait, and if they are really ambitious, into Saudi Arabia. As a result, General Schwarzkopf had directed that the 1990 Internal Look exercise take off from the premise that Country Orange (read: Iraq) had invaded some of its Gulf neighbors. Thus, early in August of 1990, when Iraq actually followed the Country Orange scenario, Schwarzkopf and his staff had a considerable head start on the planning needed for a U.S. military response to the invasion of Kuwait.
All these thoughts got shoved into the back of Horner's mind when Shaw AFB appeared under his nose. They were about 1,500 feet up; Grr guided their airplanes over the runway without slowing down. Horner took a quick glance at the airspeed displayed on the windshield's heads-up display; they were on the initial approach at a screaming 450 knots.
They were going to make a pitchout a loop laid on its side that would bring them down to runway level while they slowed down to landing speed. It was not an especially difficult maneuver if the pilot didn't mind pulling a lot of Gs and working to maintain the same altitude and spacing as the other aircraft in the flight as he rolled out in the landing pattern. It was something like driving down the street at 250 mph in formation with other cars going the same speed, then making the corner together. Of course, the leader wants to keep the maneuver tight, with the guys behind him in tight, so he doesn't want to make the turn too loose, or else everyone else in the flight will spread out, and the landing will be inelegant. Inelegance is not an option.
The downside to making the turn too tight is to spin out and crash.
Horner felt the extra Gs needed to slow down in the pitchout force him down into his seat, then he took a little extra spacing on Grr in the event Hartinger turned a wide base. He wanted to save enough room to cut inside of him if Grr got wide on final approach, but still not overrun his aircraft. As usual, though, Grr kept the base leg tight, just outside the runway overrun. Horner grinned, put the gear down, lowered the nose sharply, and pulled the F-16 around with the stall warning sounding a steady noise in his headset. It was about 11:00 a.m.
After they landed and parked, José Santos, their crew chief, approached the aircraft, a worried look on his face. He figured they'd returned because of a mechanical problem, which would be a slap in the face for him. José disappeared for a moment to insert the ground safety pin into the emergency hydrazine tank that powered the F-16's electrical systems and hydraulics if the engine failed. When he emerged, Horner gave him an OK sign, and his worried look changed into a relieved grin. After that, Horner ran through the engine shutdown checklist: inertial navigation system off, throttle off, and canopy up.
All about them, the ramp was silent. Shaw had been ready for two weeks to go to war, so local flying was at a minimum.
As soon as Horner climbed down the ladder, he told José to get the jet ready to go. He suspected he'd be on the ground only a short time. Meanwhile, Grr came running over. Horner told him to file a flight plan for MacDill; then he shrugged out of his G suit.
It's hard to look anything but rumpled when you shed a G suit, but this was not a problem for Chuck Horner. For him, rumpled was normal. He had a comfortable, but not pretty, bloodhound face, sandy, thinning hair, and a bulldog body. He looked nothing like Tom Cruise or Cary Grant, or any other Hollywood fighter-jock image. On the other hand, Horner moved with great verve and dash; he had an easy, infectious laugh and a wicked wit; and inside his bloodhound head was one of the sharpest, quickest minds inside the Air Force or out. He liked to play the Iowa farmboy, but he'd come a long way out of Iowa.
He walked over to his staff car, threw his G suit in the backseat, and drove to his office in the headquarters Ninth Air Force/CENTAF building just two blocks away.
Horner's secretary, Jean Barrineau, was waiting at the door of the outer office. A tall, slender, middle-aged woman with light brown hair who looked younger than her years, Jean was the Ninth Air Force Commander's brain. She ruled his schedule, yet she wielded her power lightly. Most of the time a visitor would find her with a twinkling face, her eyes shining with amusement, and a little-girl smile, as though she was playing some private joke on her boss which she often did.
Today there were no tricks and no smiles. She was worried and all business. "General Schwarzkopf wants you to call him," she said, "secure."
He blew past her into the office.
The office was institutional but pleasant, with the inevitable government-issue big mahogany desk at one end and a small seating area at the other. The walls held the collection of "I love me" plaques and pictures a man accumulated in the military as he went from base to base. On one wall was a large painting of an F-15 with Horner's name painted on the canopy rail a gift from the 2d Squadron at Tyndall AFB in Florida, where he'd served from 1983 to '85. On the coffee table in the seating area was a copy of the Holy Bible and the Holy Koran; the Bible came from the base chapel, the Koran from a friend in Saudi Arabia. Both were in English. Around the room on various end tables and bookcases were the odds and ends he had gathered while traveling around the world. A gold-colored dagger was a gift from the AWACS crews in Riyadh, a bronze block paperweight commemorated his time in TAC Headquarters as the deputy for Plans and Programs, and there were fighter squadron plaques from the Ninth Air Force units with whom Horner had flown training sorties during base visits. To the right of the back wall was a door that led to the toilet and washstand he shared with his deputy, Major General Tom Olsen. A large, computerlike telephone was located on a credenza under the office's rear window, directly behind the desk. It shared the space with a few books of the trade, including his F-16 Pilots Handbook and a copy of the United States Military Code of Justice. The phone looked like a computer, because in fact it was a computer, designed to scramble conversations, and it featured thirty or more hot-line buttons that connected with locations in the building and around the world.
Horner sat down behind his desk and punched the top right red switch hot-line button; it was marked "CINCCENT." Schwarzkopf's Master Chief answered after the first ring; she said the General would be on the line right away. A moment later, the gruff yet friendly voice of H. Norman Schwarzkopf came on the line. "Chuck, can you come down to MacDill?"
This wasn't a request. It was simply a civilized way to say, "Lieutenant General Horner, this is General Schwarzkopf. Get your ass in my office as soon as possible."
"Yes sir," Horner answered, in his best subservient military voice, then added, "Can you tell me what this is all about?"
General Schwarzkopf confided that he was flying up to Washington the next morning to brief the President on the situation in Kuwait, and about the options the President could consider should the Iraqi Army continue its advance into Saudi Arabia a possibility that was worrying the President just then.
"I'll be right there," Horner responded quickly.
When he told Jean he'd be off for MacDill, she said that she had already called TAC Headquarters at Langley AFB, and told General Russ's secretary that he'd miss the accident brief. He smiled and headed out to his F-16. It was then about one o'clock. They'd be in Tampa about two.
It was Horner's time to lead the flight, and in the best of all possible worlds, he would have put together a low-level transit to Tampa; but they didn't have time to plan that. It was first things first; a potential air war got priority over training and fun.
The trip itself was a blur. His head was a swarm of thoughts and plans deployment concepts, numbers of sorties, bombs, enemy fighters, data from a dozen exercises, hundreds of briefings, endless hours of planning over the past three years for a threat from the north. Yet he was in no way anxious. He knew he was ready, well trained, and well supported by a dedicated staff of men and women. Some of them, in fact, had been at Shaw AFB back in the early eighties when the then CENTAF Commander Larry Welch (later the Air Force Chief of Staff) had formed the first Air Force component of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, before RDJTF had become CENTCOM about 1982.
The RDJTF had come about when U.S. political leaders realized that the industrial world's primary oil supply was located in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the globe, and that America's allies there did not have sufficient population to create a military force capable of protecting it. The RDJTF concept had been to create a hard-hitting strike force of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force units capable of deploying halfway around the world on a moment's notice; hence the terms "Rapid Deployment" and "Joint." Unfortunately, when it had first started, it had been neither very rapid nor very joint. In the intervening years, successive leaders had honed the deployment skills of their units, and practiced fighting as an integrated team in numerous joint exercises in the California deserts.
Thus, Horner's Ninth Air Force team had been preparing to go to war in the Middle East for the past decade. Endless hours had been dedicated to intelligence workups of the region and its people. The operations and logistics staffs had fought many paper wars, using computers to evaluate their plans, strategies, and tactics. Now all that work, all that study, and all that planning was to be put to the test.
EVERY MAN A TIGER
Fighter pilots know something of what Arabs know, and what few of us like to admit that none of us is in control of our lives, that we re all in the hands of God.
In 1962, while he was stationed at Lakenheath, England, young Lieutenant Chuck Horner was in North Africa, at Wheelus, Libya, flying an F-100D Super Saber, training on the gunnery range that the Air Force had established in those days of friendship with the Libyan government of King Idris. The weather in Libya was better than anywhere in Europe; there were hundreds of miles of desert to spare for a gunnery range; and for recreation, the old walled town had a camel market, Roman ruins, decent Italian restaurants, and beaches nearby for relaxing on weekends. The officers' club rocked every night, and the pilots had plenty of time to drink and lie, two of their most pleasurable activities. It was fighter pilot heaven.
One day at Wheelus, Horner was number three in a group of four, flying strafe patterns. Imagine four lines in a square pattern on the ground whose corners are very roughly a mile apart. At each of these corners is an F-100. The target is located in one corner of this box. The airplane on the corner turning to head toward the target is rolling in to shoot at the target. The airplane behind him at the corner diagonally across the box is turning base leg; he is getting ready to shoot next. The airplane behind him is flying toward the base leg turning point. And the airplane coming off the target has just completed his gunnery pass and is trying to visually acquire the other three aircraft so he can space on them for his next turn at the target. It's extremely important to maintain that spacing. If the pilot puts the base leg too far out, then his dive angle is flat and he can pick up ricochets. If he gets it in too close, his dive angle's too steep, and he'll hit the ground while trying to pull up from his firing pass on the target.
That day there was a ghibly blowing a sandstorm. Visibility was bad, less than a mile, which meant each pilot could see where he was in relation to the ground and could sometimes dimly spot the location of the aircraft ahead of him, but it was next to impossible to see the target itself or determine how the aircraft were spaced in relation to each other and the target. In other words, it was a day they shouldn't have been on the range.
According to the procedure they normally followed, when a pilot made a turn, he'd call it over the radio "turning in," "turning off," "turning downwind," "turning base." Most of these calls were for the information of the other pilots, to let everyone know where he was. But the "turning base" call was more serious. That call let the safety observer in the tower know he was about to approach the target. When the observer heard that, he would be watching the aircraft ahead of the caller making his firing pass, which meant he was also ready to hear the next pilot's turning-in hot call. Then he would give the pilot, or deny him, clearance to fire. For instance, if another airplane was in the way, he would say, "Make a dry pass" or "You're not cleared." And then the pilot would break off his attack, fly through level, and resume the correct spacing.
At Wheelus was a nuclear target circle, next to the conventional bomb circle and strafe targets. This circle had a long run-in bulldozed in the desert that served as a guideline about where to fly when the fighters were in the strafe pattern. On the run-in line was a smaller bulldozed line, more like a short streak across it, that was located 13,000 feet out from the nuclear bomb bull's-eye. This mark was exactly the right place to start the turn to base leg to set up a pass at the strafe target. Normally, pilots making the gunnery run would turn base over that same streak. On this day, though, the pilot (number two) ahead of Horner got lost. Instead of turning base over the bulldozed lines in the desert, he kept flying away from the target and the proper place to begin his base leg turn.
Horner, meanwhile, was waiting for him to call base, as he himself was closing in on the base turning point. Finally, the call came, "Turning base." Meaning: Horner was looking for him on base to his left front, expecting him to be moving toward the final attack roll-in point. Of course, he wasn't anywhere near there; he was in front of Horner, far from the base leg and the target.
As Horner searched the roll-in point ahead, he had to watch his airspeed. If he got too fast, he would overrun the man he thought was ahead of him; and if he got too slow he wouldn't have the right airspeed (about 400 knots) for shooting his guns the sight picture was based on airspeed and the angle of attack of the airplane. Still, he had no other choice; he slowed down, slowed down, slowed down ... waiting for the other pilot to call "turn in." Finally, Horner turned base since the other guy had to be pretty close to his turn in by then and hit the power, still waiting for number two to call his turn in to the target. A moment later, at last, number two called, "Turning in." Horner scanned out toward the target, looking for him. He's got to be shooting, he thought. He's got to be shooting. By then, he'd reached the point where he himself had to turn in, still staring out left in the direction of the target. Out of the corner of his vision to his right, he saw something screaming toward him fast and close.
"Shit!" Horner cried out, instinctively pulling hard back on his stick; his F-100 went nose up and slowed the way a hand does if held flat outside a car window with the wind slapping against it and the other guy blasted through the space Horner's aircraft was about to occupy. There was Horner, mushing ahead with his nose high, his plane acting like a water skier when the towboat slows down too much. But that didn't last long, because the nose snapped through and the airplane flipped. Now he was staring at the ground, 3,500 feet below, his airplane in a stall.
Super Sabers were equipped with leading edge slats that worked by gravity; at slow airspeed they came out and gave the aircraft more lift. However, one of his slats had stuck sand had clogged it while the other one had deployed. As a result, one wing had a lot more lift than the other, which caused his aircraft to snap-roll and enter a fully stalled condition where there was insufficient airspeed to make the flight controls responsive. His aircraft had just become a metal anvil heading toward the earth. At normal flying speeds, the tail should have provided sufficient control to recover from the dive he had entered, but at his now-slow airspeed, the elevator surface in the tail was not effective.
He said to himself, Okay, pull up. The stick went all the way back to his lap. Nothing happened. The nose didn't move. He glanced over to the airspeed indicator, and it read close to zero fifty knots. For all life-supporting purposes, that was zero. He said to himself, Screw me. I'm out of here, and reached over to grab the ejection handles. But then pride took over.
You know, he told himself, if you eject from this airplane, you will never be able to drink with the guys in the bar again. You owe it to yourself to try and get it out. You always do.
When a pilot breaks a stall, he puts the stick all the way forward in order to pick up airspeed, and that way get some control surfaces working for him.
Horner did that, then tried to bring the nose up ... and nothing happened.
Meanwhile, all he could see was ground screaming up at him, surrounding him, all about him. It was too late to punch out with the ejection seat. And nothing he had done was bringing the plane under control.
At that moment, he went through the death experience. I'm going to die, he said to himself. There is no way an airplane will recover from this shit. It's not capable of doing it. I'm going to die out here in the shitty, nowhere desert, splattered like roadkill on the ground, and I'm not going to get out of this.
Two things happened then, both of them a normal consequence of the sudden onset of adrenaline pumping through one's system as death nears:
First, outrage. He was filled with fury that his wife Mary Jo was pregnant with their first child and he would never see it. Second, time slowed. The fire pulse the adrenaline was pushing him to high speed. The data in his head was spinning through like mad. Even so, he was preternaturally calm. It was like one of those old science fiction stories, in which somebody takes a potion that speeds time up. An hour in speeded-up time is a second in the world's time.
There he was, not far from the ground, certain he was about to die, feeling simultaneous outrage at dying and absolute peace and surrender, and time had slowed to a near stop. He had never felt so calm and serene in his life.
Somewhere in this timelessness, he somehow rose out of the top of his head and was suspended there, looking down at himself, sitting in the cockpit. As he stared down at himself, he thought, What can I do to get out of this? I don't really want to die here.
Meanwhile, the airplane was sinking to the ground, at something like 150 to 200 miles an hour. He tried again to pull the nose up, but the nose rose only a little bit, an inch at a time. He was still going to hit the ground.
A memory came to him. He was sitting in the coffee bar back at the squadron in Nellis AFB in Nevada, where he'd spent three months in top-off training and nuclear certification before assignment to a fighter wing. As he sat with his cup of coffee, two instructor pilots were talking about a student in an F-100 who'd been turning base to final on a landing approach. At 300 feet above the ground, he'd let the nose of his aircraft get above the horizon, thus producing adverse yaw, and the plane had snapped over. By then, of course, the airplane had used up all its energy, which meant there was not enough airspeed to recover.
"What about the afterburner?" the instructor in the back cockpit had asked himself, and instinctively slammed the throttle into it, knowing that was their only chance to live.
The F-100 engine was not supposed to light in afterburner at slow speeds; and ordinarily it wouldn't. Instead it would shoot about twenty feet of flame out the air intake in the front of the jet, and there'd be a violent explosion that would physically knock one's feet off the floor. This was called a compressor stall, which though it might seem odd didn't harm the engine. If a pilot happened to cause the engine to compressor-stall, he then pulled the throttle to clear the engine, then brought the throttle back up as he got more airspeed and more air going through the engine. Once he had these, he could try lighting the afterburner again.
Back at Nellis, when the instructor had thrown his throttle into afterburner, the engine shouldn't have lit. It should have experienced a compressor stall. But it hadn't. It had lit, and given him half again as much thrust. And that thrust had saved his life.
Remembering that, Horner said, "Let's try the afterburner." He moved the throttle up full, then pushed it outboard ... and waited. He felt a shiver in the aircraft, and looked up. Above him were sand dunes to his right and to his left. But he was moving ahead; and he realized that he now had the airplane, the controls were responding; and the jet continued to respond as he made small inputs to level off above the ground. He was flying it carefully, carefully, carefully.... If I screw this up one little bit, he told himself, then the aircraft is going to hit the ground.
The afterburner had lit after all, and the nose was actually coming up, though of course the tail was now probably inches above the ground. Behind him, the increased thrust hitting the sand looked like a Texas tornado. Slowly, the airplane staggered up out of the desert.
About that time, the tower officer, sensing trouble, put in a call: "Three, are you having a problem?"
"No," Horner answered, "but I am returning to base." And he flew home.
* Later, the events of that day hit him hard. He put the maneuver under his mind's microscope, and he realized that the numbers didn't compute. There was no way he could have recovered that airplane. It was physically impossible. The physics of the maneuver were such that it just wouldn't work.
If that's the way things are, he asked himself, why did it happen? Why was I allowed to live?
The answer wasn't long in coming. What he'd just experienced out there over the North African desert was a message from God. Horner didn't make a big issue of it, but he was a deeply religious man. God was saying to him, "Mister Fighter Pilot, you aren't in charge of your life. I have a purpose for you, even though you don't know what it is yet. So get on with your life and see what happens. And just remember: I'm the one in charge here. Any questions?"
It was as though God literally, physically, had kept his airplane from hitting the ground ... at least that's how he saw it. He had no other explanation that fit the facts.
After that Chuck Horner had changed fundamentally. Here is how he describes it:
Every day of my life after that event has been a gift. I was killed in the desert in North Africa. I'm dead. From then on I had no ambition in terms of what course my life was going to take. That was up to God to decide. I'd go do the best I could. I'd enjoy whatever promotions, pay, money that came my way. Anything that came my way I'd enjoy and use, but I wouldn't live for it. I never wanted to be a general, for instance. I was proud when I made general; I was pleased; I liked the money; and I like people saying, "Yes sir," "No sir," and "You're really good-looking today," and all that. I loved all the lies and all that shit. Don't get me wrong. But the fact that I made general is no big deal. It's what God wanted me to do, not what I wanted to do. So I gave up me.
Now Christians talk about rebirth. Some piss me off when they do. They go around holier than thou. "Well, I've got the word now, because I've been reborn in Jesus." Well, fine, okay. But if you really have all that, you don't need to tell me, I'll know.
In my case I know. I was reborn. Why? He wanted me to do something.... What? I don't know. He has never told me what He wanted me to do ...
Whatever it was, I let go of my life and everything else in 1962. Sure, I fall into passion and lust and smallness. I'm still a human being. But when I really start getting upset about something, I just say, "Screw it, I'm dead, it doesn't matter."
That was the way it was twenty-eight years later, in August of 1990 when I was riding in an airplane going from Jeddah to Riyadh, temporarily in command of all U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, and I said to myself, "What in the hell am I going to do? If they come south, I'm responsible. Well, shit, I don't know how to do that. I've never fought an invading army. We don't have any forces. What am I going to do? How am I going to do all this?" And then I realized it was what the Arabs call inshallah: "It is not mine to do; it's mine to do the best I can; it's going to happen according to God's will."
INTO THE SKY
The Divine purpose is rarely easy to discern, but it is safe to say the obvious in Chuck Horner's case: he was meant to be a fighter pilot. It might have come as a surprise, though, to anyone who had known him as a boy and young man, in Davenport, Iowa. They'd have had to look extremely close to see the few glimmers that showed before he fell into the Air Force ROTC during the course of slouching without much visible purpose through the University of Iowa.
When he'd gone away to college, he'd found classes a bore. He avoided most of them, and learned whatever he needed to keep a C average by picking the brains of anyone who actually attended. Otherwise, he worked at odd jobs, drank beer, sat around arguing with other students, and did his best to have a good time. Meanwhile, when the C average killed off what hopes he had of majoring in medicine, he needed to cast around for something to occupy his time after he graduated until he could figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
In those days, all male students at Iowa had to be enrolled in an ROTC program, and making the best of it, he'd opted for Air Force ROTC ... they had fewer parades. As it turned out, he actually liked the experience, and even showed some leadership he could drill the troops better than most, and he made marching fun for his guys by making it challenging rather than tedious. But the real pull of ROTC came to him almost out of the blue. He discovered flying.
Born on October 19, 1936, Chuck Horner was old enough for World War II to have made a strong impact on his young mind. The war had made aviation enthusiasts out of everyone, but for him it was more personal. His heroes were all pilots, especially his cousin, Bill Miles, the Jack Kennedy of the family an all-state football player and straight-A student, tall and good-looking, with a winning smile, who always had time for little guys like Chuck. Everyone in the family looked up to Bill. When the war broke out, he'd joined the Army Air Corps and become a B-24 pilot.
One afternoon in 1944, when Chuck was eight years old, he came home from school to find his mother crying. Bill was dead, on a mission over Italy. A single 37mm antiaircraft artillery round had punched through the airplane's skin beneath his seat and killed him instantly, the only casualty on the mission. The news devastated the whole family; and it left an eerie association in Chuck death, heroism, and flying.
Later on, Chuck lost a second pilot hero.
Like Bill Miles, John Towner was a man young boys idolized. Handsome and self-assured, John had also been an all-state football player in high school; and he'd gone on to play football at the university. In 1952, when Chuck was a sophomore in high school, John had graduated, married the youngest of Chuck's three older sisters, Pud, entered the Air Force, and started fighter pilot training. Basic gunnery training was taught at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Shortly after Christmas of 1953, John was killed on the air-to-ground bombing range at Luke, when his F-84 aircraft failed to pull out of a dive-bomb pass. Once again, the family was devastated; and once again came the eerie association for Chuck of death, heroes, and flying.
It didn't turn him against flying, however. He already had the gift possessed by every successful fighter pilot the ability to put death in a box, and keep it separate.
It wasn't until Air Force ROTC, however, that he really got hooked. It was in ROTC that he first spent serious time in the air first in a single-engine Ryan Navion piloted by one of his ROTC instructors (who, to Horner's delight, liked to push the normally staid executive aircraft into loops and rolls), and then in a little Aeronca Champion, in which he learned to fly solo. Flying captured him then he was good at it. He was enthralled for life.
* Chuck Horner had met Mary Jo Gitchell, two years his junior, when they'd both been in high school; and they'd continued dating, with some ups and downs, in college. Though they were not at all alike, he knew from the start that she was the right woman for him. He was shy; she loved to meet people. He hated to talk; she could spin words out of the simplest event into rich detail, bubbling over with enthusiasm.
By the time he left college, Chuck knew he wanted to make the Air Force his life, but he also knew that such a life involved hardships that could destroy even the most secure marriage. Before he left school, Horner discussed all this with her, and the two of them reached an agreement: she had to live with his airplanes; and she had to know that he cared for flying as much as he cared for her. She did not come second in his life it was just that he wanted very badly to excel, and he didn't want her to grow jealous of his mistress. She needed to know ahead of time the sacrifices that would be expected of both of them. (There is a joke about the wife of a fighter pilot who complains, "You love the Air Force more than you love me," to which he replies, "Yes, but I love you more than the Army or the Navy.")
For her part of the bargain she got control of the family money, which at $222.00 a month, plus $100.00 flight pay, was not much of a victory. On the other hand, she knew Chuck pretty well by then; and he wasn't famous for a heavy supply of cash. When they'd started dating at the end of her freshman year in college, for instance, they'd had to tap her college money to pay for dinner at a pizza place on Sunday night. One time he'd bought her a birthday present, a small portable radio. When the check bounced, he'd had to borrow the money from her to make it good.
Their agreement about money still stands.
They were married on the twenty-second of December 1958, in the Congregational Church in Cresco, Iowa, Mary Jo's hometown.
* * *
* Horner was commissioned in the Air Force Reserve on Friday, June 13, 1958, just before his graduation from the University of Iowa. In October, he attended Preflight Training at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas. And in November, he was sent to Spence Field in Moultrie, Georgia, to enter primary flying training in the T-34 and T-28 aircraft.
At that time, USAF flight training consisted of about 120 hours in T-34s (two-seat, prop planes still used today, with a turboprop engine, by the Navy), and T-28s (larger than T-34s, not unlike P-47s from World War II). This took about six months, and was followed by another six months in T-33 jets, after which the student pilots got their wings. Horner loved every minute.
The training was strenuous, and there were few active duty pilot places to fill it was not unlike an entire college senior class showing up at NFL summer camp and vying for a position on the forty-man roster. At this time, the Air Force was capable of producing far more pilots than they needed. Their pilot factory had been constructed to satisfy the huge need for pilots during the Korean War, but now the Air Force was smaller and more stable, and thus the name of the game was to wash out anyone who showed a weakness. Instead of receiving additional instruction when he made a mistake, a student pilot entered a process designed to eliminate him from the program. He was gone, no second chances. That meant he never left blood in the water, or else the sharks would come to visit.
The overall washout rate from entry into preflight at Lackland to graduation from Basic Training was near 85 percent, with the vast majority coming from the aviation cadets, men who did not have a college degree. (Student officers tended to be older and more mature than the cadets; and they had additionally made it through college itself a screening process and had passed through the light-plane screening program.) Every day someone would be out-processing after being eliminated.
To make sure he was never in jeopardy, Horner studied as he had never studied in college. He actually practiced the next day's fight maneuvers sitting at home in a chair, going over in his mind all the challenges he might run into the next day. The hard work paid off. He was soon headed to jet training at Laredo AFB and, if he made it, his wings.
The T-33 (T Bird) Horner would fly there was a two-seat training version of the F-80, one of the first jet fighters. F-80s had fought in Korea.
The T Bird was a good-looking aircraft, but old most of them had been around for five or ten years; the T Bird's technology was from the 1940s. It was fully acrobatic, very honest to fly, reasonably fast, and could stay airborne for two and a half hours at high altitude, but since it was straight-winged, it was subsonic. The worst thing about the T Bird was the seat. Though there was a seat cushion, you sat on a bailout oxygen bottle, which was like sitting on an iron bar. Flying a T Bird meant you had "a one-hour ass." After you were in the jet that long, your tail hurt so bad you wanted to land.
In those days, the Air Force was still young and wild. Aircraft were underpowered and often poorly maintained, not nearly as safe as they are today. The leaders in the air were often veterans of World War II or Korea, where they had been rushed into combat with little training and a lot of attitude. Those who had survived were often indifferent to risk-taking that would make most people cringe. Low-level flying was low, often measured in a few feet above the ground, though as the old flyboy joke put it, the world's record for low flying was tied, with fatal results. If it had been tough in Georgia, where they eliminated half the class, it was going to be hell in Texas.
Yet for Horner, life was blessed. He loved his work, flying came easily to him, and he excelled in the academic courses. He learned instruments by flying under a hood in the backseat of a T Bird; he learned transition takeoff and landing and acrobatic maneuvers and he learned flying formation. He knew now that he wanted to be a fighter pilot.
His flight commander, Captain Jack Becko (he looked a little like Jack Palance and was a terror in the sky), had been an F-86 pilot in Korea and was a joy to fly with. Captain Becko loved flying and acrobatics and formation. Too many pilots were timid they got nervous in close formation or joining up after takeoff but Horner, who loved it all as much as Becko did, was very aggressive, very wild on the controls. The flight commander adored that; he howled with glee when he flew an instruction ride with Horner, and Horner slammed the throttle around and made the jet go where it needed to be to stay in formation. And then, after they'd gone through all the required maneuvers, Captain Becko showed him how to shoot down another jet.
Some of the more conservative instructors the ones with multiengine time were less enthusiastic, but since Horner always flew well and was always in position, they kept quiet.
At Laredo, a table, little larger than a card table, was the "office" where an instructor briefed his students. The flight room had about ten of them along the walls. On them were maps and diagrams under Plexiglas, so you could draw on them with a grease pencil, to show the path over the ground during an instrument approach, the procedures needed to compensate for wind drift, and the like. Each IP would have from one to three students in his table.
Horner grew so proficient that one day the instructor for his table, First Lieutenant Art Chase, asked him to fly lead for another, much less skilled, student. That way, Chase could get in the other student's backseat and provide formation instruction.
When the other student lagged two ship lengths behind him, Horner saw a temptation it took him no time to give in to. He knew it was going to put him in deep trouble. It was not part of the training, it was not briefed, he was supposed to provide a stable platform for the other student to fly off of, and if he made a wrong move, they would collide and all three pilots would be killed. But what the hell, he thought, you've got to go for it sometimes.
He reefed back hard on the stick, kicked right rudder, rolled hard right, and slipped neatly in behind the other aircraft in a perfect guns tracking position. The instructor, in what had now become Horner's target, never even saw him disappear. Worried they had overrun him and were about to collide, Chase started shouting on the radio. At about that time, Horner was calling guns tracking and feeling like the biggest, meanest tiger in South Texas.
That feeling lasted about as long as it took Art Chase to order him firmly back in the lead.
He knew then that he was in for and deserved one huge ass-chewing. He knew he had taken unfair advantage of his friendship with Chase. Yet none of that mattered. He had joy in his heart. By executing a difficult and dangerous dogfighting maneuver, he had proved to himself that he was a fighter pilot.
He has never regretted doing that roll over the top that flushed Art Chase and his table mate out in front for a guns tracking pass.
When they landed, there was indeed hell to pay; Chase wanted Chuck Horner's hide, and he gave him the ultimate punishment, which was to be sent into the Flight Commander's office, where you were made to wonder if you would escape with your life, let alone stay in the program. There, Jack Becko gave Horner one of the finest dressings-down ever delivered. Then, as Horner was leaving the room scared but not defeated Becko gave him a wink. "Chuck, you're going to make one hell of a fighter pilot," he said.
At that moment Chuck Horner walked on clouds. I'm going to be a fighter pilot!
The only problem was: nobody was getting fighter assignments.
With the draw-down after the Korean War, if you wanted to be a fighter pilot, you could get assigned to either Air Defense Command or Tactical Air Command. By Chuck Horner's time, Air Defense Command was a dead-end job, flying obsolete planes. Since it was becoming obvious that ballistic missiles were about to replace the Soviet bomber threat, there wasn't going to be much need for fighter interceptors to knock out the bombers. Over time, the Air Force has gone from a hundred squadrons of fighter interceptors to about six or eight today.
If you were sent to Tactical Air Command, however, you would check out in F-84s, F-86s, or perhaps F-100s, and spend six to eight months in gunnery school. Since the Air Force had no need for fighter pilots, however, you would probably then go to bomber school for another six to eight months and graduate as a Strategic Air Command B-47 copilot, or, if you were one of the top students, you might be asked to remain in Air Training Command and become an instructor pilot. There you would spend three years building flight time and teaching, but a lot of that flying would be in the backseat of the T Bird, a fate Chuck Horner did not relish. After that, if you wanted to fly fighters, you would probably get assigned to gunnery school, and if you wanted to fly heavies, to bomber school, or to air transport school. There was in those days and there is still an informal screening system: people believed to be incapable of flying fighters were urged to fly, or were otherwise sent to, heavies.
Because Horner had graduated number one in his flight and was fighter-qualified, he was eligible either for instructor training or for one of the few gunnery school slots. The matter came to a head when the Group Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Watkins, offered him a teaching spot at Laredo. When the offer was made, however, he gulped, refused, and somehow found himself picked for one of the few F-100 gunnery school slots. He figured you better follow your destiny, even if it might take him to B-47s. The main thing was that fighter flying was in his blood. Even if he got sent on to B-47s, he knew that somehow in the future he would find a way to fly fighters.
* One of the proudest moments in Chuck Horner's life came on the day Mary Jo pinned a very tiny set of pilot wings on his uniform. The ceremony took place in Laredo, in a paint-peeling, run-down, non-air-conditioned base movie theater, straight out of World War II. He had never worked so hard for anything as he had for those wings.
It was also in Laredo that Horner was introduced to the tough side of military aviation, the missing-man formation flyby, to commemorate a pilot killed in an aircraft accident.
One day, he was sitting on the end of the runway in his T-33, awaiting takeoff clearance, when the aircraft ahead of him, as it was lifting off, rolled abruptly and flew into the ground. The ailerons the movable surfaces on the aft part of the wing that enable a pilot either to keep his wings level or to roll the aircraft were incorrectly rigged so that both of them moved in the same direction. When the pilot made an input to level the wings, the aircraft rolled; the more he tried to level the wings, the more he kept rolling.
So there was Chuck Horner, a twenty-two-year-old kid with a fire-breathing jet strapped to him, staring at what just seconds before had been a silver jet, and was now billowing black smoke and orange flame. The rescue helicopter and fire trucks roared onto the scene, and the flames were quickly extinguished. Then the pilot's remains were placed on the helicopter (there was no way anyone could survive that crash) and were just passing overhead on the way to the base hospital, with the charred legs of the pilot's body dangling out the door, when the tower cleared Horner for takeoff. He swallowed hard, closed the canopy, pushed the throttle forward, released the brakes, and prayed.
In the thirty-six years in the Air Force that followed, he learned to do that again and again. Too many times, he and Mary Jo went to church services that ended outside the chapel with four pilot buddies roaring overhead in formation, and then the number three man pulling abruptly up to disappear from sight heavenward.
* If flying in training command was dangerous, gunnery training was several notches worse. Chuck Horner took to it immediately.
On January 5, 1960, he reported to Williams AFB, Arizona, for gunnery training and check-out in the supersonic F-100.
The Super Saber, which had replaced the venerable F-86 Saber, was the first USAF aircraft capable of exceeding Mach 1 in level flight. It was a swept-wing, single-seat, afterburner-equipped, single-engine fighter, and its mission was day-fighter air-to-air combat, though subsequent models were also modified to carry both conventional and nuclear bombs. For armament, it had four internal 20mm rapid-fire cannons and carried heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. The gun sight was primitive by today's standards, but sophisticated at the time. It was gyrostabilized, and a radar in the nose provided range to target for air-to-air gunnery. The F-100 was normally flown at 500 knots/hr and had reasonable range: with external drop tanks, it hadabout a 500-mile radius. For its day, it was reasonably maneuverable. Though older aircraft like the F-86 were more agile, the afterburner engine gave the F-100 an edge on acceleration and maintaining energy. Maintaining energy is a plus in air-to-air combat. When a pilot loses his energy all he can do is point the nose down and keep turning while the enemy figures out how to blow him away. F-100s were used in the Vietnam War, primarily in South Vietnam, for close air support, since by then the aircraft did not have the performance, speed, range, payload, and survivability to make it over North Vietnam. Those who flew it liked it: it was honest most of the time, and with it they got to do air-to-air as well as air-to-ground gunnery training.
The training of fighter pilots has always been dedicated to creating an individual capable of meeting an adversary in the sky who is flying an equally capable aircraft, and shooting him down. A pilot can't hold back or be timid. There is no room for self-doubt. He must know his limitations, but he must always believe that the better man will survive, and that man is him. When Chuck Horner was in the program, its unofficial title was "Every Man a Tiger," and the main emphasis, aside from flying and gunnery, was on the pilot's attitude and self-confidence.
Chuck Horner has never been short of self-confidence.
Meanwhile, for a lieutenant student, the training was tough, the flying and instructions in the air demanding, and the debriefings brutal. Many nights Horner rolled into bed exhausted from pulling Gs in the air while trying to keep track of other fighters in a swirling dogfight over the desert. Yet often he fell asleep with the light still on, as Mary Jo stayed up to finish her homework. In the morning, she usually left for classes before he woke up.
From Every Man a Tiger, by Tom Clancy with General Chuck Horner. © May 1999 , Tom Clancy used by permission.