Ellsworth Airmen recall historic mission 10 years later

  • Published
  • By Steven J. Merrill
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
A decade after B-1B Lancers thundered off the runway from their home station at Ellsworth AFB to strike targets in Libya in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the images from that day are just as vivid now as the day they happened for many who contributed to that mission.

In the midst of miserable winter weather and a large portion of the base and B-1s already deployed, Airmen teamed up to generate several aircraft loaded with munitions to strike targets halfway around the globe. It was the first time B-1s had launched from the continental United States to strike targets enroute in overseas contingency operations.

“I was on crew one for the mission as a young instructor pilot,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Taylor, now commander of the 34th Bomb Squadron. “I remember being called by squadron leadership to start working with the weather shop to look at the forecast for Ellsworth and the flight route. I was able to see some of the initial meetings in the CAT (Crisis Action Team) before I was cleared off to finish some last minute ground training items for the mission. When I came back to the squadron for the mission briefing, I was amazed at the colossal effort underway to prepare for the mission.”

He added that those few days were a rollercoaster of emotions. Not only because of the mission and conditions, but personal challenges as well.

“I remember the excitement of planning the mission and preparing for many unknowns of the flight,” he said. “I was excited to be selected for a crew, but it was challenging to pack my bags without telling my wife - who was eight months pregnant at the time - that I was going to fly a mission and I didn’t know when I was coming home.”

Master Sgt. Paul Block, a specialist section chief for the 28th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, was one of the multitude of maintainers responsible for generating and “greening up” any and all available aircraft.

“I went home that Friday working mid-shifts, and we got the call that we were coming in and working 12-hour shifts over the weekend because we needed all of the aircraft for something,” Block said, adding that the sheer volume of work that needed to be done was staggering.

The event was a base-wide team effort. While the flight line was buzzing with a herculean maintenance effort and snow teams working around the clock to ensure the critical areas were clear and safe for operations, nearly every unit was busy handling tasks to ensure the base was able to successfully accomplish the mission in front of them.

Chet Weymouth, the chief of the 28th Force Support Squadron’s Installation Personnel Readiness section, was responsible for processing the deployment orders once the tasking flowed to the base.

 “I briefed the crews on their deployment and NATO order status just after their mission briefing,” Weymouth said. “They were highly motivated and ready to go. I was so impressed with the way the base agencies came together quickly to ensure the aircraft took off and were successful in the overall mission.”   

The work didn’t stop at the base gate. Maj. Kristof Lieber was a weather officer from the 15th Operational Weather Squadron at Scott AFB, Illinois. He was a shift duty officer in charge of forecasting weather for a 24-state region encompassing 128 Department of Defense sites that included Ellsworth.

“Ellsworth was having some of the worst weather in that region and required the focus of myself and the 30-person team that was working throughout the day,” Lieber said. “Interestingly enough, we were not read in on what was happening until after the strike occurred.”

Block recalled that the winter was especially cold that year and the weather forecast was not improving.

“Around the time of Odyssey Dawn we still had about 6 inches to a foot of snow in some of the grassy areas,” Block recalled. “There was more humidity in the air – the fog was heavy and the clouds were much lower. The morning of the launch the freezing fog cut visibility down to about 100 to 200 yards.”

In the pre-dawn hours of March 27, Taylor recalled the high energy on the flight line and flurry of activity when he and the aircrews arrived at the jets. The 28th Maintenance Group had been working non-stop through a snowstorm to prepare the aircraft and load munitions. The fog had rolled back in over the area, but they taxied to the end of the runway anyway.

“I remember holding short of the runway waiting for approval from the OG (28th Operations Group commander) to take off as visibility was below the minimum for B-1s. The OG approved the takeoffs as long as the aircrews were comfortable. We decided to continue,” Taylor said, adding it was the lowest visibility he had ever taken off in.

As Taylor and his crew taxied onto the runway, he said he could barely see 200 feet in front of the aircraft.

“I followed the taxi line to what appeared to be the center of the runway and ran up the engines. I couldn’t see the edge of the runway, just a slight glow from the runway edge lights that I used to keep the aircraft centered on the runway during takeoff. I have flown low level at night and in bad weather at 500 feet AGL (above ground level), but this take-off was more nerve-wracking knowing the jet had a full load of gas and 48,000 pounds of weapons onboard,” he said.

Block said the sights and sounds of those launches are something that will stick with him for the rest of his life.

“Night shift had just taxied the aircraft and turned them over to day shift,” he said. “I was just getting to my car and I heard the jets rumble as they started to take off. I watched the jets emerge briefly through the fog and then disappear again as they climbed. The backdrop of the fog was just spectacular. It is something I will never forget.”

There to capture it all was Marc Lane, then a staff sergeant assigned to the 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs office. He and a handful of public affairs specialists shouldered the task of visually documenting every aspect of the operation.

“We took thousands of photos and had to quickly determine which ones best showcased the combat power of the 28th Bomb Wing while also preserving operational security,” said Lane, now a captain and surveillance controller assigned to the NATO Airborne Warning and Control System Operations Squadron 1, Geilenkirchen, Germany. “It was a fine balancing act.”

Among the thousands of images that Lane captured was an iconic image of a B-1 speeding down the runway amid dense fog and extreme weather conditions. But for him, the words Odyssey Dawn conjure another image.

“I always think about the amount of bombs that were prepared and loaded,” he said. “I think about seeing rows of 2,000-pound bombs getting prepared and loaded to be delivered around the world to hit vetted targets. The ability to strike specific targets demonstrates that intelligence and collateral damage mitigation is carefully analyzed for each strike, for each bomb.”

He remembered that while things seemed to be moving fast – munitions building, maintenance work, repairing ground equipment, aircraft engines firing to life – there was still incredible order and coordination to it all.

“Everyone moved together as though it was choreographed … as though we had done this mission a hundred times,” Lane said. “I think everyone also realized the gravity of the situation, the significance of their individual roles, and that they were making history.”

One of the many people supporting the bomb building was Thomas Brack, the 28th Munitions Squadron mobility and training section chief during Operation Odyssey Dawn. Then a master sergeant, he headed up the team responsible for transporting the tail kits for the joint direct attack munitions the B-1 crews would utilize during the strike.

“I keenly remember squadron leadership coming to my office several times to use SIPR (Secure Internet Protocol Router) before they directed everyone to split into two shifts,” Brack said. “All available personnel on day shift, myself included, were dispatched to the munitions storage area (MSA) to support building the weapons, and the ops tempo was impressive. I can’t recall any panic.  Everyone executed their assigned tasks quickly, and we helped one another when needed.”

During the mission the two most capable B-1 bombers continued on to their targets after the first air refueling while the others returned to base, landing in what Taylor said were, “… the worst visibility conditions I have ever landed in. We flew the approach down to minimums, and visually acquired the runway just before our decision point to go around.”

While the specific targets of this historic mission were not disclosed immediately at the time, officials stated later that the objective was to destroy nearly 100 military targets that posed a direct threat either to the civilian population of Libya or to partner nation aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone. Ellsworth aircrews met that objective.

Lieber, now a B-1 pilot assigned to the 34th BS, remarked it has been a surreal experience transitioning from a weather officer to becoming a pilot and flying the bomber in the same squadron that years ago embarked on the historic operation he supported as a forecaster.

“At the time, the biggest lesson I learned was that you never know what you would be supporting when providing weather support to a base or agency,” he said. “And, I learned how capable the B-1 is.”

Lane said he learned to take training and readiness seriously.

“It is a basis for the profession of arms. OOD was a good example of why the Air Force maintains such high levels of training and preparedness. That preparedness allowed us to

respond kinetically to a tyrant who was oppressing his own people. With short notice, the 28th Bomb Wing proved its capability to respond to a crisis and strike,” he said.

Taylor noted that the operation was a testament to what a dedicated team working together can accomplish, and reaffirmed that Ellsworth can provide airpower – anytime, anywhere.

“I was thoroughly impressed with how quickly Team Ellsworth came together to make the mission happen despite the weather conditions and having very little experience with launching that many aircraft fully loaded for war on such a short timeline,” he said. “It was a reminder that we have to be prepared to go to war at a moment’s notice, and I think the wing is more prepared to answer that call in the future because of that event. I have no doubt that we are more prepared today to execute a similar mission on short notice.”