All’s well that ends well… right?

In September 1969, Gaddafi kicked American forces out of Wheelus Air Base in Libya, a facility used for decades training American pilots stationed in Europe. It was a terrific capability—great weather, and lots of airspace for air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons deliveries. This was opposed to operating on the Continent and in the UK, where air and ground space for use by jet aircraft was scant and the weather was problematic many months of the year.

After a hasty exodus of aircraft, associated equipment and personnel back to bases like Bentwaters, Lakenheath, and Weatherford in the UK, and Bitburg, Hahn, and Spangdalhem in Germany, a search was on for new training facilities. Konya, a range in Eastern Turkey, was one; another was Mantiago in northeastern Italy. Both had shortcomings, but were used as alternatives to ranges in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. Lumped together, they still didn’t meet the training needs of the several hundred US fighters supporting NATO commitments.

One alternative was Bardenas Reales, a Spanish gunnery range near Zaragoza Air Base, a former SAC base about half-way between Madrid and Barcelona. Remember, Spain was not a NATO member in those days, so negotiation was necessary to even start discussions about basing forces and conducting operations in country. I really have no idea of what went on to get the door open, but it wasn’t long before the Spanish Air Force got some slightly used F-4C Phantoms in their inventory.

To cut to the chase: in early 1970, USAFE started operations at Zaragoza with Phantoms from Germany and the UK sending detachments to use the air-to-ground range within 20 minutes or so from the base and conduct live fire air-to-air operations over the Mediterranean.

DART
The target for today’s mission.

One day I was on a mission to fire 20mm ammunition against a target towed by another Phantom, the DART. The DART closely resembles a paper airplane—it consists of an X-shaped, pointy ended aluminum-covered wooden frame 15 feet long and 5 feet high and wide. It has some weight in the nose and a radar reflector on the very back to provide a bigger radar signature.

The DART attached to a special rig mounted on the tow aircraft and has about 1500 feet of cable attached and runs out when released from the tow aircraft. It takes a few minutes to fully extend, and if stable, ready to serve as a target. The concept was the tow, and DART, would accelerate to between 350 and 400 knots indicated airspeed. The fighters, normally four, would position around 4-5000 feet behind. It is important to note that, before firing could commence, the airspace and ground (or sea) would be checked for vehicles, boats or other aircraft. This would be done visually, and if available also by any radars covering the target area.

After the clearing, and some perfunctory radio calls, Tow would call “Fight’s on” and start a turn. The intensity of the turn would vary based on the level of training and skill of the shooters. A basic maneuver would be 60 to 70 degrees of bank and 3 to 3 1/2 G on the tow aircraft. The fighter, a single, would call in “Hot” and attempt to maneuver to a firing position, ideally about 1500 feet behind the DART (and 1500 feet behind the tow aircraft).

There are lots of techniques for attacking the DART, but essentially the shooter pulled lead and closed. As the range decreased, the focus switched to the gunsight, reticle and pipper (a two-mil illuminated dot) in the front panel of the windscreen. As the pipper approached the DART, the idea was to have a stable g and as the pipper approached the dart, hold the pipper on the DART and pull the trigger. Getting hits, you’d see the sparkle and the tow could probably sense the impact. Then, a breakaway to avoid collision with the 5 ft. x 15 ft. DART, as it was filling your windscreen at an ever-increasing rate.

If you felt you had hits, you’d fly back close to the DART, making an assessment so the other shooters could judge their results accordingly. On a typical DART mission, you’d be loaded with around 200-400 rounds of 20mm, and fire that in nominally 50 round bursts. Sometimes the first shooter would get lucky and actually shoot the DART off. Not too often.

It varied by the situation, but most often the first two shooters would take their turn and then depart, gun safed, i.e., Noses Cold, returning to base or do some formation flying with the residual fuel. After the last shooter, if the DART was still intact, the tow would descent to about 1000 feet and cut the DART and the tow line off, dropping it on land or in the sea. (I often wondered what some future civilization would think when they discovered several hundred DARTs clustered in a remote valley or at the bottom of the sea, maybe draped over an ancient hull.) There were procedures for dragging the DART off and taking home a thousand feet or so of cable—details for another day.

Sounds easy but even in the most controlled of firing passes there are lots of variables and hits don’t come easy. If you read accounts of most gun kills, the shooter closes to inside 500 feet and often the target is a “duck,” doesn’t know he is prey and is dispatched without knowing it was about to happen. Today’s aircraft with radars to nail down range and gunsights using fast, accurate computers make it way easier, but it is still an art many never master.

Zaragoza Airport
Two runways – similar, but not identical.

After firing, I was coming back as a single. Zaragoza had two off-set, parallel, 10000+ foot long runways. The north side of the base was Spanish, with F-86 fighters. Our ramp was on the south side, and there were typically 40 or so Phantoms from the UK and Germany deployed for good weather and good airspace training opportunities. On the north of the base was the Ebro river, which often caused ground fog to cover good portions of the base in the early morning. You could see through it, but on final approach it often created a very challenging obscuration.

Normally we took off on the south runway and headed northwest before recovering in the same direction. Arriving in the local area, I was right at recovery fuel. Today the ground fog was there, thickest on the south runway, making landing there iffy. I certainly didn’t have fuel to divert to Torrejon, a couple hundred miles southwest.

My plan was to do a normal overhead, pitch out and roll out on final to set up a landing attitude for the north runway, going through the fog, which was 50-60 feet thick. I would land on the centerline, slow down on centerline and clear off to the ramp on the south. Good to go. All was normal—a Navy Phantom driver would probably have recognized the touch. Roll out was routine until about 2000 feet remaining, then suddenly two gray shapes appeared ahead, just offset on either side of the centerline. They were two Spanish Sabre jets, parked, awaiting clearance from their tower to depart the runway. About 20 feet clearance on either side—just fine. They were on their tower frequency and I was on mine. Stuff happens.

I taxied in, debriefed, and went to the bar for a steadying San Miguel. Over the beer, my backseater asked, “Were you scared when you saw those two shapes up ahead?” I had the chance to use a favorite line from a Joseph Wambaugh book, one cop to another sitting in the patrol car after gun fire drug bust: “Not me, but I think someone crapped in my seat while we were looking outside.” Or something like that. No go around, but, a taxi through I’d never want to do again.

Sidebar: One of our favorite tow pilots was a rated flight surgeon who’d flown Sabres in Korea before going to med school. He liked any flying and we were glad he was our doc and also took the tow mission. He also had a pretty well-known Dad—Ansel Adams—but you’d never know it.

4 Comments

  • Really enjoyed this adventure. Interesting hearing of aircraft using the same airfield, but different frequencies. I bet there was more than one pucker event during those times.

  • A great story which has it all: politics; some interesting aviation hardware (an unusual towed target); gunnery practice; a studiedly casual reference to a zero-zero letdown through a layer of fog (we do this every day!!!); and, then, just when I, the reader, am thinking it may be safe to put my defibrillator away, our author slices between two Sabres hidden in the murk. But the final coup de grâce, for me, was the reference to one of the Squadron’s tow pilots also being its flight surgeon and Ansel Adams’ son. Thanks – I’ll be smiling at the memory of this article all day long.

  • Thanks for the comments. I have to admit Pat was hard at her editing craft on this story. Regarding the frequencies. The Spanish flight ops was slow. Actually during my trips to Zaragoza (70-73) I seldom saw any flying. They were disposing of their Sabre’s by burning them on the ramp ad salvaging the remains. I used to cry when I thought of all the neat stuff that was removed and found its way to some collectors—I hope!

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