Editor’s Note: Twenty-five years after Operation Desert Storm began, there are still amazing stories of bravery and heroism emerging. Major General Johnson, currently the Director, Operational Capability Requirements, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements for the U.S. Air Force. Back then, he was a Hawg Driver who happened to be in the right place at the right time to help rescue fellow aviators.
The snow-covered ground of Washington, D.C. is a long way removed from the desert of Saudi Arabia.
“25 years is a long time,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, sitting in his office at the Pentagon on a cold January day. “It’s a lifetime. In some ways it seems like yesterday.”
Back in 1990, then-Capt. Johnson was an A-10 pilot assigned to the 353rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at the (now closed) Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in South Carolina. When his unit was called up to travel to the Middle East as part of Operation Desert Shield, Johnson had already been assigned to go to weapons school at Nellis AFB, Nev.
“My squadron commander told me to get in my car and go to Nellis while the rest of them got in an airplane and went to Saudi Arabia,” Johnson said. “I did not get there until New Year’s Day 1991, about two weeks before the war started; and my squadron mates have always given me infinite grief for missing the Desert Shield part and showing up two weeks before the war.”
But if he had missed the ‘Shield’ part of the operation to protect Saudi Arabia, Johnson was about to see more than his fair share of the ‘Storm.’
Within days of the start of combat operations, Johnson was involved in a search-and-rescue for a downed aircraft crew, actions that would earn him the Air Force Cross — one of only two the service awarded for actions in the Gulf War.
“I was honored to participate in a combat search and rescue mission that involved a lot of people,” Johnson said.
The F-14 Tomcat had been shot down, and Johnson led the search for the pilots.
The official citation awarded to Johnson reads that “during the next six hours he would lead his flight through three aerial refuelings, one attack on a possible SCUD missile site, and three hours of intensive searching deeper inside enemy territory than any A-10 had ever been.”
“He risked his life as he had to fly at a mere 500 feet in order to pinpoint the survivor’s location,” the citation continues. “When an enemy truck appeared to be heading toward his survivor, Capt. Johnson directed his flight to destroy it, thus securing the rescue. It was his superior airmanship and his masterful techniques at orchestration that made this rescue happen – the first in the history of the A-10 weapons system.”
But Johnson calls it a “partially successful day.” The front-seat airman was rescued, but the back-seat airman was captured and became a POW in Baghdad. He was eventually released.
Johnson also lauds the MH-53J Pave Low helicopter crew from the 20th Special Operations Squadron that was involved in rescuing the downed airmen, noting that the crew won the prestigious Mackay Trophy, an annual award where the Air Force chooses the “most meritorious flight of the year,” according to the trophy website.
“You think about Desert Storm and all of the flying and all the missions that took place during Desert Storm, and the Mackay Trophy, which is the trophy for the outstanding flight unit in a given year in the Air Force, was given to that Pave Low crew for that search rescue mission,” Johnson said. “I was honored to participate in it, in another way, flying the A-10 and flying cover for that.”
Johnson spent most of his time in the A-10 cockpit flying a variety of missions. Because the ground war was so brief — generally considered to have lasted no more than 100 hours — he rarely got to engage in the close-air support the Warthog is so famous for.
“The irony is that in the A-10 you would assume I did a lot of close air support flying,” Johnson said. “I did not. I only did about three sorties of close air support, mainly because the ground flight was so short.”
It was just two weeks later, however, on Feb. 6, 1991, when Johnson would find himself in trouble after leading an attack against an Iraqi missile site.
The aircraft of choice for destroying surface-to-air missile sites was the F-4G Wild Weasel.
“Yet the Iraqis were very sensitive and attuned to knowing when the F-4Gs were in the area, and if the F-4Gs were in the neighborhood, the Iraqi radar systems would not come on,” Johnson said. “They would not turn on their radars and try to locate enemy aircraft.”
Without active radar to trace, that could make it difficult for pilots to locate the missile systems. So A-10 flights started pairing up with the F-4Gs, heading in first to locate and destroy missile launch sites before the Iraqis were tipped off.
“We in the A-10 would then go in and get up close and personal and physically destroy the surface-to-air missile sites,” Johnson said.
But one mission saw weather so bad, the pilots were unable to complete their mission.
“We weren’t able to destroy the site, but in the process of executing an attack that was not successful, I was pulling off and my aircraft was struck, we think, by a shoulder-fired SAM, and I was able to get the aircraft back and recover it,” Johnson said. “Not a very good day.”
Johnson’s Warthog was damaged enough that he couldn’t fly very high — and couldn’t fly very fast. That became a problem when he found out he needed to refuel in order to get back to base.
The KC-10 tanker dropped down to Johnson’s altitude, but it took some tricky flying to match the speed of his damaged aircraft.
“He’s going faster than I am and he’s trying to slow down and I see this KC-10 roll his flaps trying to slow down, which is not unusual for them to have to do that,” Johnson said. “And then I see him roll his leading edge slats. Yeah I’ve seen them do that a lot too, trying to slow down. And then I see this KC-10 lower his gear. He throws his gear down at 6,000 ft., just as a drag device, just to get him slowed down. Then he finally gets to about my speed and I see him suck his gear back up…That’s just a mental image that will always stick with me.”
The citation for Johnson’s Distinguished Flying Cross notes that “it was simply his masterful skill and superior airmanship that brought his crippled A-10 back to a flawless landing thus saving the Air Force a valuable combat asset.”
The original story can be viewed here.
(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)