Bones over OEF Part II

  • Published
  • By Steven J. Merrill
  • 28th Bomb Wing
(Editor's Note: Following is the second of a three-part feature about B-1B Lancer crews conducting missions in Southwest Asia following the attacks of 9/11.)

"Excitement, anticipation, but mostly vengeance," said Lt. Col. John Martin, 34th Bomb Squadron commander, about the myriad of emotions he felt as he left Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D. in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.

Then a captain with four years of experience in the B-1, he said that he and many others, "had pretty dark hearts at the time." He added that as aviators, they were all incredibly focused on preparing for the missions we knew were on the horizon.

Others focused on the possible threats they might encounter in an area of the world they weren't familiar with as they left Ellsworth.

"I wondered how robust the enemy's defenses were going to be," said Lt. Col. Barry Hutchison, 28th Operations Group deputy commander who was a captain assigned to the 34th BS at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. "I was also concerned about the sensationalized news coverage of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was extremely proud to be part of the historic bomber response, particularly with our historic tie to the Doolittle Raiders and their defense of the nation after a previous surprise attack on our soil - Pearl Harbor."

Lt. Col. Brian Mead, 37th Bomb Squadron commander, added that he and other aircrews didn't spend a lot of time developing tactics for Afghanistan prior to the attacks simply because they didn't have any sort of defensive capability to focus on.

"Obviously, we knew about Osama Bin Laden and that conventional wisdom had him living in and operating from Afghanistan," Mead said. "We knew about Al Qaeda and their attempts to carry out terrorist operations against U.S. interests, however, the preponderance of our training at the time focused on other near-peer competitors throughout the world."

America was soon throwing crippling punches of its own. Fortunately, air defenses were light and the threat posed by them was fairly benign. Some crews experienced multiple target changes as they approached enemy positions, which kept them quite busy re-programming their targeting computers. Multiple targets meant B-1 aircrews had to make multiple passes.

"The mission was actually very straight forward and fairly vanilla," Mead said about his first combat mission over Southwest Asia. "What limited air defenses Afghanistan had were decimated within the first 10 minutes of the war."

Initial targets included airfields, aircraft and early warning radar sites. Eliminating those threats enabled follow-on strike packages later that first night and in the days ahead.

"The plan was basically executed as fragged, which I think is a testament to our training and the skill and professionalism of those who planned the mission on our behalf," Mead added. "It was an honor and privilege to have the chance to answer our nation's call and, at the same time, a day I wish I never had to live."

Martin was one of the mission planners for the first strikes.

"I watched those first aircraft take off, and still remember it vividly to this day," Martin said. "I had goose bumps and felt pride like I've never felt before being part of something larger than myself in the defense of our nation."

Martin flew his first OEF combat mission a few days after the first night of attacks.

"We bombed barracks with MK-82 (500-pound) dumb bombs. I sat in the OSO (offensive systems officer) seat for my first combat release. We had largely destroyed the target," he said. Battle damage assessments proved beyond reasonable doubt the full firepower and precision strike capability of the B-1.

It would be the last time he would drop dumb bombs during OEF missions. He would only employ the Joint Direct Attack Munition from then on.
Hutchison said he remembers his first OEF mission as if it were yesterday.

"I was part of a formation at night, and it was a challenge to maintain position lights out with NVGs (night vision goggles)," he recalled. "Our formation split up in country and my aircraft got to the target after the other B-1 hit theirs, so AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) was already firing and there were tracers in the air. It was a surreal feeling, a calm disbelief that anything could really hit us conflicting with the logical understanding that we were indeed being fired upon."

He added that he felt neither anger nor elation about dropping bombs.

"Our duty was to resolutely execute the task that was appointed us, not to diminish the value of the enemy's life or his humanity," he said. "Off-target we were all business, working to rejoin with our flight lead to egress the country and rendezvous with our next tanker. I remember wondering how many more days OEF would last, since all the B-1s previous combat engagements were measured in days or weeks."