Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Random Thoughts About Libya

by Joe Rodwell

Since I’m one of a relatively few Americans to have been in Libya, I have some comments about my experiences there over 3 ½ years from 1966 – 1969. I was a F-4 Phantom pilot stationed at RAF Woodbridge in England. Our primary mission was sitting nuclear alert on targets, mostly airfields, in Poland and E. Germany. However, we were also required to be “conventionally qualified,” which meant we had to be qualified to deliver conventional weapons consisting of bombs, rockets, and aircraft 20 mm guns. There were 3 bombing ranges that were available for such “qualification,” 1 in the Irish Sea off the coast of the Isle of Man (that one was primarily a nuclear training range) and one in an area called “The Wash,” a body of water just north of Norfolk Co. in England (near Sandringham Castle, where George VI from “King’s Speech” fame was born), and Wheelus Air Base, outside of Tripoli, Libya. Since the weather was nearly always severely overcast in England, that left only Wheelus AB available. So, our squadron would rotate to Wheelus for 2 weeks every 3 months, meaning I spent nearly 6 months in Libya over that 3 ½ year period. Here are my comments on serving in Libya.

Libya as a country was formed after World War II under its only king, King Idris, who ruled as monarch from 1951 until he was overthrown in a military coup in September 1969 by current dictator Muammar Gadhafi – he was born in 1942 (same year as Sue and I), so he was age 27 and a captain in the Libyan army when he/they took over the country. Idris was attempting to abdicate the throne in favor of his nephew when the coup occurred – Idris took up permanent exile in Egypt and lived until age 94.

Since Libya is located in the midst of the Sahara desert, the weather there is almost always sunny with very few clouds, if any, so flying there was fantastic. There was a bombing & gunnery range about 80 miles, mostly S. and somewhat W. of Wheelus AB. While there we would practice delivering bombs, rockets and fire guns on a range that I believe was called El Uotia. There were 2 ranges, a left one and a right one, so we were able to use both of them at the same time. The dive bomb pattern was the most scary, especially flying in the back seat, which I did my first 2 years. You started at 10,000’ above the ground, and went into a 45 degrees nose low dive, released the 25 pound practice bomb around 3,000’ and recovered the airplane above 1,000’ or else you got disqualified for that effort. Two times, during the same mission, I had to recover the airplane from the back seat when my front-seater “blacked out” due to a runaway “g” suit, which was supposed to protect us when we pulled a log of “g’s.” A “g” is one times the force of gravity – we would normally pull 4 – 6 “g’s” in the dive bomb pattern.

The rocket pattern was “normally” easier to fly, as we started at 7,500’ above the ground and went into a 30 degrees nose low dive, probably fired the rockets at 2,000’ and again recovered above 1,000’. I say “normally” because I ejected from the back seat during a rocket pattern flown by a West Pointer (who should have stayed on the ground in the Army) in February of 1968 – you’ve all heard about that before, so I won’t bore you with details, except to say we were flying on the right range and a I landed “unscorable at 6 on the left range.” When I left the airplane, the nose was 45 degrees nose low, the stick was left (meaning we should have been turning left), but we were snap-rolling to the right, so I ejected, I estimate at 4,000’ and my parachute blossomed at about 1,000’. I landed in the desert with a thud. A helicopter picked me up after an hour visit with the Range Officer, and I flew back to the base and was hospitalized overnight for observation after having 24 x-rays taken on my lower back. I discovered last year that I was subjected to about 3 times the radiation that survivors of Hiroshima who were 1 mile from ground zero received as a result of those 24 x-rays. Since radiation is 1 cause of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which I incurred in 1987, that ejection was probably a contributing cause of the lymphoma.

If we were in the first flight of the day on the range, sometimes we were held up by the Range Officer due to Arabs on the range picking up our spent 20 mm brass cartridges from our guns. They would sell the brass to be made into brass lamps and tables and other brass items that they sold primarily to the British occupants of Libya. You see, Libya was an extremely poor country until oil was discovered by British oil companies there in 1959 – when we were there, they hadn’t experienced the oil wealth, as the oil was just beginning to be extracted.

Another experience I had in Libya is that I was at Wheelus AB when the Arab-Israeli 6 Day War broke out, I was again at Whelus AB, and we were requested to fly our airplanes out of there at gunpoint, which we did. I think Wheelus opened for the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) in 1958 and operated until Gadhafi pulled the plug on the base shortly after he took over, and the base officially closed the following June. Today the base is Mitiga International Airport.

The Arabs were pretty hostile to the U.S. way back then, as well, and I only remember leaving the base a handful of times, a couple for dinner in Tripoli (about 10 miles from the base), and one Saturday trip to Benghazi to view Roman ruins. Most of our time was spent at the beach, as Wheelus was right on the Mediterranean. Probably 3 nights out of 4 we had beach parties where we consumed a whiskey punch, which we called “blabbermouth,” since that’s what came out of our mouths after a couple of glasses, and had bar-b-ques. The single guys were always chasing the school teachers, whom we affectionately called the “pachyderms,” because they were almost all candidates for Herbalife. The nights we didn’t go to the beach, we drank and dined at the Officer’s Club on base, which was pretty nice. We were served by mostly Arab young men. The strange part is that almost every one of them had one defective eye. One time I asked an Arab lady what the reason was for the one bad eye, and she told me that mothers would gouge one eye so the sons didn’t have to go into the military – think about that!

The only adverse weather we ever experienced at Wheelus was when the winds kicked up off from the Sahara desert, they became severe sandstorms (they were called “ghibli’s,” pronounced “gibleys”) which came at us at hurricane speeds and coated everything (including the inside of desk drawers) with about ¼ inch of sand. They would last for a couple of hours, and then everything would be back to normal.

More words about Gadhafi: it’s pretty amazing that a 27 year old captain in the army ended up taking over the country – what do you think his commanding generals thought? From the beginning he was always a terrorist, and considered himself an Arab Che Guevera. He funded the Black September group responsible for the deaths of the Israeli athletes in the ’72 Munich Olympics, had an affiliation with “Carlos the Jackal,” was the first country to receive MIG-25s form the former Soviet Union (outside of the Soviet bloc), supported Iran in the 8 year Iran-Iraq war, and made a serious mistake in judgment when he pissed off President Reagan in 1986 with a Berlin discotheque bombing that was frequented by U.S. soldiers. President Reagan approved of a mission, flown by Air Force F-111s from RAF Lakenheath (where Scott & Mark were born) and the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing from RAF Weathersfield (1 of their squadrons was at RAF Woodbridge when I served there) and Naval fighter/bombers. One of the targets was the old Wheelus AB, where Gadhafi was located, and he nearly “bought the farm,” with one of his daughters being killed in the strike. After that mission, Gadhafi was still pretty vocal, but never more a serious threat, because Reagan told him that we would return again, if necessary. By the way, neither France, nor Spain, nor Italy approved overflying their countries, so we had to enter the Mediterranean from the Straights of Gibralter, which required several (I would guess 3-4) re-fuelings to return to England. In honor of the mission, one of my artist friends in CO Springs drew a picture of me in a F-4 with the caption, “Arm the Nukes, off to Libya” – that drawing is framed and on the wall in our back room today.

I suspect we’re nearing the end of the Gadhafi regime, unless the Libyan military stands behind him and there becomes a civil war.

Some reflections on Libya: 1. It was the most fun flying I ever experienced. 2. I had more beach parties there than all the rest of my life combined. 3. Ejecting from the F-4 was a once in a lifetime experience - thank God I made it. 4. Don’t piss off the U.S. when we have a President that understands what dictators respond to (that obviously doesn’t apply to our current “apologist”/teleprompter President). 5. I was proud to have served our country during “difficult times.” 6. Freedom is never really “free.”

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