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Wielded by the righteous

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Peter Thompson
  • 33rd Fighter Wing

(Editor’s Note: This is the second article in the Sharpening the Spear series)


During the Vietnam War, the Nomads cemented themselves in history as the “MiG Killers.” They proved to the aviation world that dog fighting was not dead and that the United States Air Force epitomized air superiority around the globe. In 1978 they transitioned again, this time from the F-4 into what they would help become the most effective air-to-air combat jet in history, the F-15C Eagle.


The F-15C Eagle was already notorious for its 13:1 kill ratio set by other units during the Vietnam War. It was the most dominant fighter jet available to the Air Force to date. Powered by two after-burning twin engines, it could fly faster than the speed of sound during vertical flight, with speeds reaching 2.5 Mach when horizontal. This aircraft was deadly, at one point it recorded over 100 consecutive air-to-air kills without a single loss.


The Nomads took this new aircraft into Operation URGENT FURY, on the small Caribbean island of Grenada, in October 1983 to aid in the rescue of American medical students facing a deteriorating political situation after Grenadian military forces removed and executed the leader of the country. In January 1989, the Nomads patrolled the skies over Panama to achieve and maintain air superiority during Operation Just Cause. The goal of this operation was to capture the Panamanian leader and dictator, Gen. Manuel Noriega (wanted for drug trafficking) and restore the democratically elected government.  

In August 1990, the wing deployed 24 F-15Cs and 769 personnel for what would be their most active contingency and the one that gained them the most notoriety:  Operation DESERT SHIELD in Iraq. Capt. Jon Kelk scored the first aerial kill of the war destroying a Soviet-built MiG-29 with an AIM-7 missile. Shortly thereafter, Capt. Robert E. Graeter downed two Iraqi Mirage F-1s for the second and third kills of the war.  Later that same day, Nomads continued to own the skies over Iraq when Capt. Rhory Draeger and Capt. Charles J. “Sly” Magill, U.S. Marine Corps exchange officer, intercepted and destroyed two MiG-29s west of Baghdad.


In all, 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing pilots scored the most combat kills of any allied unit during the Gulf War with 16. In just four months, the Nomads recorded nearly 5,000 flight hours in over 1,700 training sorties. Training included familiarization with the desert terrain and joint and combined training with aircrews from the U.S. Navy and Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).


That same day, Operation DESERT SHIELD transitioned into DESERT STORM.


The change in name brought no change in operations tempo for the Nomads. On Jan. 19, 1991, Capt. Richard Tollini and Capt. Lawrence Pitts each downed a MiG-25 near Mudaysis, Iraq.  While clearing the rear of the Pitts and Tollini engagement, Capt. Craig Underhill and Capt. Cesar Rodriquez intercepted two MiG-29s near Mudaysis.


Air Warning and Control systems operators had failed to notify the two pilots of the MiGs until they were only 13 miles off the left side of the pair. Underhill quickly downed the first Iraqi aircraft. Together the F-15s bracketed the remaining pilot. He attempted a steep descent to evade the deft American pilots. He was unable to recover from the evasive maneuver and crashed into the desert floor. The Underhill/Rodriguez engagement was later recognized as the only turning fight of the war.


The 33 TFW saw a short pause in engagements, and then a week later, more Iraqi aircraft entered Nomad crosshairs.  On Jan. 26, Draeger, Rodriquez and Capt. Anthony Schiavi encountered a group of four Mig-23s. Early in the engagement one of the Iraqi jets fled the fight. The Nomads targeted the remaining three, shot at them from over 13 miles away, and eliminated the group nearly simultaneously.


Later that week Capt. David “Logger” Rose joined the ranks of the “MiG Killers” when he downed a MiG-23 near Kirkuk, Iraq. 


The last three 33 TFW kills of the war came on Feb. 7, 1991, when Col. Rick Parsons, then 33 TFW commander, downed an SU-7/17, making him the only wing commander to record an aerial victory in DESERT STORM; and Capt. Anthony Murphy destroyed two SU-7/17s.


Following the end of Operation DESERT STORM, the 33rd Fighter Wing played a continuous role in Air Combat Command’s display of global reach - global power. The 58th, 59th and 60th Fighter Squadrons continuously cycled through deployments with other fighter squadrons throughout Operation SOUTHERN WATCH (OSW), providing sustained air superiority.


Operation SOUTHERN WATCH restricted the Iraqi’s Air Force from attacking nearby Kuwait and enforced economic sanctions that had been placed on the country. The U.S. presence also strengthened relationships with several countries in the Gulf region. This regional cooperation was postponed for several years, however, because of another attack carried out by a terrorist organization.


On June 25, 1996, in Khobar Towers, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a group of vehicles driven by Hezbollah Al-Hejaz terrorists parked near a housing complex with Air Force personnel inside. The men detonated a bomb, which was felt up to 20 miles away. When the ensuing dust storm settled, 19 Airmen were dead, 12 of them Nomads.


In the face of this tragedy, the Nomads responded with vigilance and resilience. As wounded returned stateside from the area of responsibility, other Nomads rotated back out to continue the mission.


The F-15C was critical to the OSW mission, protecting the U-2 as its pilots supported U.N. weapons inspectors.  The Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had made public boasts about his desire to down a U-2. He sent his MiGs into the skies over Iraq to test our mettle.  The 33d's pilots provided the over watch for those very critical U-2 missions.


After the attack on Khobar Towers, improvements in the relationships between the United States and several of the Gulf countries came to a standstill. Meanwhile, Iraqi military forces were stirring on the ground, which led to the expansion of no-fly zones over the country. Operation SOUTHERN WATCH was joined by Operation NORTHERN WATCH on Jan. 1, 1997, which increased sanctions and expanded the no fly-zone above the 36th parallel.


Then came Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon using hijacked commercial planes. The impact was felt throughout the world.  Following the attack, two actions began, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF), the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Operation NOBLE EAGLE (ONE), homeland defense.


ONE required all Nomad units to deploy for direct or indirect support. Nomad pilots flew combat air patrols over major U.S. cities, vital structures, and special events including space shuttle launches and major sporting events. Through Oct. 2004, the wing flew 9,375 hours and more than 1,953 sorties in support of homeland defense.


Throughout Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, the 33 FW remained relevant in close air support and air interdiction operations over Afghanistan. When Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) commenced on March 19, 2003, the 58th flew combat air patrols over Iraq. Nomad pilots soon realized the Iraqi AF intended to stay on the ground; no enemy aircraft launched. Hussein elected to bury his aircraft rather than send his pilots to their deaths. Iraq was no match for the greatest air force in the world or the Nomads. The 58th Fighter Squadron Gorillas flew 1,841 hours in 272 sorties in the early stages of OIF. A quick end to the conquest of Iraq allowed wing personnel and aircraft to return to Eglin after only seven weeks in theater.


For many years, the Nomad’s home station at Eglin Air Force Base had served as an ideal location for the F-15 because of its vast training land and aquatic training range. However, that was about to change. The Air Force was eyeing Eglin as the destination for the future of Air Force aviation. Lightning would strike a second time.