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Just Cause

Phil Barbee

I wrote this from some notes I made right after Operation Just Cause. At the time I was wing stan/eval SOLL II AC. I was also the lead pilot for this mission.

I was put on telephone standby a couple days after a Navy officer was shot and killed in Panama. Sunday evening, December 17, 1989, I got called about a planning session the next day. In the morning I went to the office at the regular time. Everything appeared normal. A little while later, a wing planner called me on the telephone and asked if I would come to his office. When I got there, I could tell he'd been working all night. He showed me what he had been working on. I couldn't believe what I saw.

In the Air Force, and especially Special Operations units, it seems like we're always planning and practicing without ever doing anything for real. This time, it looked pretty real to me.

We'd practiced some similar maneuvers just a few weeks earlier during a training exercise. I was told not to speculate...I didn't. Even if I had, I never would have guessed this.

I was shown the plan and asked for my opinion. It looked workable. Another wing planner was also there. Together they had planned out the route and deconflicted it from the many other airplanes that would be in the objective area.

After looking things over, I went back to my office. I paused in my chair to think about what I was just shown. My counterparts in the office asked if I knew what was going on. I told them I knew, but I couldn't say what.

I could not stop thinking about the plan and kept mulling it over in my head. A couple of hours later I had some questions, so I went back for another look. What and where were the threats? What time was H-hour? How many C-141s were involved? The two mission planners and I discussed the plan in greater detail. Now I had a better feeling about the operation, dubbed JUST CAUSE.

Later in the day it was finally time for the mass brief and crew planning session. The primary mission planner led off by telling everyone what our objective was. There was a flash of hushed whispers in the audience. As the briefing continued, I don't think what we were about to do had sunk in yet among the assembled crews.

The mission commander got up next. He told us how important this operation was for our country. He went on to say that this mission is the first time C-141's have ever been used in this role, as the "tip of the spear". The assault would not be easy, and he expected all of us to complete our assigned tasks no matter what.

I'm sure he was alluding to the less-than-stellar showing airlift aircrews had made during a previous Caribbean operation a few years earlier.

As he continued, he said there was a chance that some of us would not come back. When he said that, there was deadly silence in the auditorium. I looked around and saw the other crew members looking too. Those words put a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew my crew and I were well trained and up for any challenge, but we've never been shot at before.

Next, the Wing Commander got up and said some of the same stuff. He praised us and told us all to be careful and return safely. He never really said that some of us might not ever come back, but he hinted at it during his pep talk. I even detected a hint of emotion as he got choked up on his words. He really had a large burden to shoulder.

Next, we got the intelligence brief and discovered this was not going to be easy. We could only plan on the worst.

After the briefing, we drew our charts, read the mission flimsy, and worked out the details of our task over the next several hours. I was leading the formation and made doubly sure every detail was as exact as possible, for my flight's sake. Around 2000 hours we finished with what we thought was a very good and, most importantly, a successful plan.

I was tired when I finally got home. As you can imagine, I had a lot on my mind. I only told my wife that I had to fly tomorrow, nothing else. That night I just couldn't sleep. I kept tossing and turning all night long. The mission details kept running through my mind. Would it work? Would we catch Noriega and his Panamanian Defense Forces by surprise? Would everyone, including myself, return safely. In the C-141, your main assets are thorough planning and the element of surprise; since you have no defensive weapons.

When I finally got up it was still early, even though I didn't have to report until mid-afternoon. I ended up going to the office a little early too. After a while, I got with Haji, my navigator, to go over some last-minute mission details.

A couple of hours later my crew and I assembled for the mass mission briefing. When we assembled, I could already tell what the answer to my question would be before I even asked. Just by looking at them I could tell they all had the same restless night I did. After the briefing, we gathered our equipment and loaded it on our ride to the departure base. We were dead-heading to the departure location because our planes were flown their earlier in the day by other crews; for refueling, loading and rigging with the equipment platforms.

Upon arrival, the weather was lousy. We all milled around awhile waiting for a bus to our mission update briefing. The bus never showed-up, so we flagged down and rode to the briefing in the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck -- oh boy!

Finally, all the crews were assembled for the update briefing. The update went pretty smooth. There were a few questions, but nothing serious. Down the hall in the mess area, soldiers (passengers in the other formation) were having a hearty meal of steak and potatoes which was an Army tradition when you're going off to do battle. It's akin to your last meal; which for some of them it would be. I had one too.

The plane was loaded, rigged, and fueled for a three-pallet-sequential airdrop -- piece of cake. We had authorization to fly at our emergency war order weight -- 344,900 pounds. Normally, our maximum gross weight is 325,000 pounds. The fuel tanks in the airplane could not hold any more fuel.

Ground operations went smooth until taxi time. The lead pilot of the other formation had a maintenance problem with his airplane. An engine wouldn't start. The mechanics got on it, but it delayed his taxi time which also delayed ours. We only had 20 minutes of slack time built into our flight; not much when you've got 1,600 miles to fly.

The other formation's lead pilot called the airport control tower for takeoff clearance. The tower told him to standby, because the air traffic control center was not accepting any aircraft. There was an additional delay of a couple minutes. Finally, he used our code-word for the operation and we were released.

The climb to altitude was long and slow. I had never flown an airplane this heavy before. Each maneuver had to be slow and deliberate so that the others of the formation, five in all, could keep up. We finally leveled off and tried to catch up to the other formation. Something my navigator and I hadn't counted on (at this weight) was our inability to accelerate. We were a little behind and, at his moment, not catching up!

The flight to Panama was a long four hours. The weight of the aircraft was throwing off our time control and we were getting further behind. After a couple of hours, we had burned enough fuel and were now light enough to gain a little extra airspeed and begin to slowly catch up.

While en route, the formation's station keeping equipment (SKE) kept blinking on and off. SKE is the system used to maintain formation positioning in bad weather. It's also used by formation lead to signal formation members of upcoming events. I had my flight engineers trouble-shooting to see if they could find a problem, but nothing seemed to work. I really wasn't too concerned because the SKE was working most of the time and the weather was forecast to be good along our route of flight.

We chose to delay the formation's descent, to take advantage of our higher ground speed up at altitude. The success of our part of the mission would depend on us arriving over the drop zone just a few seconds behind the other formation.

As we approached the Atlantic coast of Panama, it was time to begin our descent.

Nearing our orbit altitude, I noticed several airplanes right in front of us. Could it be the other formation? The air-to-air range looked reasonable, but this was too good to be true! With all that's happened up to now, what are the chances of the force rendezvous working out smoothly? Well the answer was zero. We had not performed our time-control orbit yet, and according to Haji, we still needed to; because we were early. So we began orbiting and the distance between us and the other formation got larger. The other formation was not orbiting and we started getting strung out.

As we entered into our orbit, we were in and out of some clouds. I made a quick cross check our SKE and discovered the rest the formation didn't turn when directed. The plane behind us, unknown to me, lost their SKE during the descent. Without SKE, they were not getting our turn signals and had no way of maintaining formation position in the weather. The remainder of the formation behind number two was using SKE with the radar as backup. I called number two on the radio to find out what's going on:No response! After several tries, the pilot of number two finally called me on the unsecured radio and said his SKE and secure radio were out. He sounded like he was "pinging" and I felt he was losing control.

We were at the most critical part of the mission and the communication problems were making mission management extremely difficult. I could talk with all the formation members on secure radio except number two. After a brief discussion with the deputy mission commander in my aircraft, I called number three and gave him an air-to-air ranging frequency to find out how far away they were. They were pretty far behind, but with some creative navigation I thought we could get the formation back together. I called number three on the secure radio and told him to take charge of the formation members behind him and join-up on me. I coordinated the route and the time with Haji and sent number three and the rest of the formation direct to the drop zone's initial point (IP) as fast as he could go. I kept them appraised of our location.

In the meantime, we had completed our orbit were proceeding along our planned route of flight toward the IP. Approaching the IP, my aircraft finally caught up to the other formation. As we prepared to slow down for our airdrop, miraculously, the rest of my formation was sliding into position also, even number two. The order of the formation was not the same as when we took off, and I'm not sure exactly how they got the way they did, but I was glad they were there.

As we approached Panama City from the Pacific Ocean, at about three minutes out, the city was an inferno. I could see the dotted lines of tracer rounds coming from the ground weaving around the night sky searching for a target. The AC-130 Spectre gunship circling overhead was relentlessly returning and silencing the wavering ground fire. Enormous explosions were off to my left, near the Panama Canal entrance (Noriega's Headquarters), and straight ahead at our objective, Torrejos-Toccumen International Airport.

We had a tight tolerance for our time-over-target (TOT) so as to not get blasted by the gunship overhead our objective. In spite of all that happened thus far, Haji was just 10 seconds early on our TOT.

Approaching the drop zone, I could see the other formation off to my left streaming paratroopers. The flashing streamers of tracer rounds were everywhere. The AC-130 was hammering the PDF base that was directly ahead of the runway we were dropping on. We planned to turn immediately after the load exited the aircraft, to avoid over flying the PDF camp.

The drop was absolutely perfect. Right on target! We banked sharply immediately after the 'all clear' call and floored both loadmasters, Mac and Willie, who were in the back trying to close the doors. Mac announced over intercom, as we turned, that he saw a lot of gunfire out of the rear doors. During the post-drop maneuver, number five, a less experienced airdrop pilot reported he was taking ground fire. I hoped for the best and honestly never gave the mission commander's remarks about 'some of us not coming back' a second thought during the entire flight until that moment.

Everything turned out all right, during the post flight inspection after returning to home base, one bullet hole was found in number five's airplane, and a couple of sharp dents in mine that my engineer didn't recall seeing before.

We left the objective area on our egress route and headed for the tanker. En route, we dialed up the assigned frequency for the rendezvous and made a radio call to the tanker:No response. I tried again. I tried on the backup frequency:No response. Thinking back, the same thing had happened during the mission rehearsal. I called on "guard" with a blanket call to our tankers, still no response. After what seemed like an eternity, the tanker finally came up on guard and sent me to the original frequency I had called them on.

We rendezvoused, hooked-up, and asked for 10,000 pounds extra; because of bad weather forecast back at Charleston and using more fuel than planned en route to Panama. After the initial radio glitch, the remainder of the refueling went smoothly. When all had refueled, I rejoined the formation for the long flight back home.

Though it was very early in the morning, I really wasn't tired. Although about an hour later it hit me. All of a sudden, I was exhausted. I guess the adrenaline finally wore off.

The remainder of the flight to Charleston was uneventful. The other formation did not refuel from the tanker, and diverted to their alternate instead. We were the first ones back. As we gathered to debrief, you could tell everyone was exhausted. The Wing Vice Commander was there and he was very pleased with our performance. The compound equipment failures had caused extra work, but the aircrews compensated like always and saved the mission from disaster.

It was sunrise when I finally got home. All I wanted was to go to bed. My wife and two sons were still asleep. I hadn't told her what I was doing when I left for work. While on the ground at the upload base eating my steak, I briefly thought that I might be the one who wouldn't come back. Even though the job requires secrecy, there's nothing like being home safe and sound to lift the enormous amount of guilt I put on myself.

I came into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed waking my wife up. I hugged her and told her we attacked Panama last night. She was still groggy and what I said seemed to be sinking in slowly. While she was getting up the phone rang. I answered it and didn't even say hello. All I said was, 'I'm all right.' My wife told me, while the phone was ringing, that my mom called yesterday after I had left. I knew it would be her calling. It was!

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