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Task Force Viking and the UGLY BABY Mission

Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 9 Issue 2, October 2020, pages 34-41

By Colonel Cory Peterson, USAF (Retired)

The “Ugly Baby” infiltration was the key element that opened the northern front in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and was incredibly significant to the overall campaign in Iraq. While small advance force elements were on the ground in the KAZ, they lacked the combat power to accomplish the mission of fixing 13 Iraqi divisions (two thirds of the Iraqi Army) to prevent them from interfering with the main invasion force’s drive towards Baghdad. The audacious air maneuver successfully inserted the bulk of two battalions of Green Berets and convinced the Turks to allow subsequent overflight.
— Lt General Ken Tovo, USA, (Retired)
TF Viking Iraq coin

The US and its coalition partners began planning Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) months before the actual D-Day on 19 Mar 2003. The strategic plan for the initial invasion called for a two-pronged assault from the south on Baghdad by coalition forces, coupled with a simultaneous northern attack by the US 4th Infantry Division (ID) supported by US SOF partnered with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The intent behind the northern assault was to fix 13 Iraqi divisions in place and prevent them from moving south to oppose the main coalition effort, while also protecting the vital oil fields in the around Mosul. The 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), commanded by COL Charles Cleveland, was given the task to plan and lead the special operations in the north.

Before those northern operations could occur, the 4th ID and their equipment would need to disembark at Turkish ports on the Mediterranean Sea, move overland to link up with additional equipment that had been pre-positioned in Turkey, and then enter the Kurdish Autonomous Zone (KAZ) in northern Iraq. The dilemma, though, was Turkey’s internal political situation. Although Turkey was a reliable NATO ally and very interested in removing Saddam Hussein’s destabilizing influence from the region, they feared that Kurdish participation in OIF might embolden the Kurds to renew their claims for an independent Kurdistan. The Turks’ quandary was how to join and support the coalition without causing domestic political problems.

The 10th SFG(A) was chosen to be the nucleus of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-North (CJSOTF-N) because (1) they were apportioned to USEUCOM and Turkey was a member of NATO and (2) 10th SFG had established relationships with the Kurds after almost 10 years of participation in Operations PROVIDE COMFORT and NORTHERN WATCH. Similarly, the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG), commanded by Col O.G. Mannon, was designated as Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment-North (JSOAD-N). After more than three decades of working together during training, exercises, and contingency operations, the 10th SFG(A) and the 352nd SOG had developed a solid partnership based on mutual trust and operational success.

The original plan for CJSOTF-N, nicknamed Task Force-Viking, was to establish a special operations base in Turkey from which to launch missions into the KAZ, establish forward operating bases (FOBs) in Iraq, and then link up with the two rival Kurdish factions. One battalion of the 10th SFG would partner with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the northern half of the KAZ and the other with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the southern sector. It was a classic unconventional warfare operation – US special operations support to indigenous resistance movements supported by airpower.

7 SOS patch

Execution of the initial plan began with Col Mannon deploying to Turkey early with a team to begin the negotiations and encampment. Almost a year earlier, the Turkish government had fully intended to cooperate with potential coalition operations, at least by offering basing and overflight rights. But by New Year’s Day, Turkey’s internal politics had changed. Feeling intense domestic pressure, the Turks let it be known that they were unlikely to allow coalition operations from Turkey. They also cautioned that even if they did approve the use of their ports, roads, and bases, it would unlikely be soon enough to permit the timing needed for proper coalition force staging and preparation. Leaning forward, Special Operations Command Europe, TF-Viking and JSOAD-N began looking for alternatives. With USEUCOM’s help, Romania offered the use of Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) AB, near Constanta on the Black Sea. A team of 30 airmen from the 352nd SOG, led by Lt Col Timothy Brown and dubbed the “Dirty-Thirty” due to the conditions of the base upon arrival, arrived at MK on St Valentine’s Day to prepare the base for future US operations, gambling that diplomatic negotiations would enable TF-Viking to infiltrate from MK by overflying Turkey. In late February, aircraft from the 352nd SOG: MC-130H Combat Talon IIs, MC-130P Combat Shadows, and MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, AC-130 gunships from the 1st SOW, plus Special Tactics teams, support units, and equipment deployed to disused conscript barracks and an off-season Black Sea hotel near MK. Unfortunately, on 1 March the Turkish Parliament voted to refuse staging from Turkey, transit through its territory, and overflight of Turkish airspace. The plan for OIF’s northern assault had to change.

The Turks’ refusal meant the 4th ID had to reposition from where it was waiting offshore outside the Turkish ports, through the Suez Canal, to Kuwait where it would eventually join V Corps in the assault from the south. The job of holding those northern Iraqi divisions in place now fell to solely Col Cleveland and the soldiers and airmen of TF-Viking. On 3 March 10th SFG deployed to MK, linking up with the Dirty-Thirty and aircraft from JSOAD-N.

USCENTCOM and TF-Viking planners were left scrambling to develop a new plan for the northern front of the war. The resulting “Plan B” called for the Kurdish Peshmerga, backed by US Special Forces (SF) and coalition airpower to keep the Iraqi divisions from moving south to Baghdad and opposing the southern assault until the coalition main effort could fight its way north from Kuwait. The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, elements of the 10th Mountain Division and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit would later be added to TF-Viking, to increase the CJSOTF’s combat power.

On 20 March, Turkey’s parliament finally voted to allow the coalition to transit Turkish airspace for military operations in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Turkish military refused to comply. For two nights three-ship flights of MC-130Hs from the 7th Special Operations Squadron, commanded by Lt Col Mark “Mo” Alsid, launched from MK to deliver Special Forces teams to their destinations in northern Iraq. On both nights, the Combat Talons were intercepted by Turkish F-16s and told to return to base by Turkish air traffic controllers. The Turkish military was denying use of their airspace until the US agreed to allow Turkish forces into the KAZ, a condition that was completely unacceptable to both the US and the Kurdish leadership.

Meanwhile, a separate crew commanded by Maj Mark “Buck” Haberichter, was isolated from the current operations planners and tasked to develop an alternative route to get the CJSOTF into northern Iraq. The concept of operation they were given to work with was to find a circuitous route that would travel from Romania to Jordan where the force would rest overnight and the next day fly a 5-hour, night, low-level penetration of Iraqi airspace, and return along the same route. This alternate routing would take the Combat Talons through some very heavily defended airspace, not so affectionately nicknamed “Happy Valley” by Northern Watch intelligence professionals. The new routing required precise navigation just inside the Iraqi border, staying north and west of Mosul, all the while avoiding Iraqi air defenses and possible compromise by Syrian and Turkish air traffic controllers. The proposed routing added hundreds of miles to the flight route which in turn reduced the load sizes the Combat Talons could carry due to increased fuel requirements. The number of aircraft needed for the initial infiltration grew, from three airplanes to six, one of which was flown by Maj Rich Dyer’s crew from the 15th SOS. As this option was being briefed at the CJSOTF a member of Col Cleveland’s staff muttered under his breath, “That’s one ugly baby.” The name stuck and the mission has become known by this unconventional moniker.

It then became the responsibility of Col Frank J. Kisner, the commander of the Combined/Joint Special Operations Air Component (CJSOAC) to convince Maj Gen Gary Harrell, the SOCCENT commander, of the validity of the plan. As Lt Gen Kisner now tells the story,

All airpower, with the exception of SOF, was restricted from low-level operations over Iraq, and he (Harrell) knew when he took the plan forward that a low-level infiltration, from south-to-north, transiting the entire length of the western border of Iraq, would raise some questions. I reviewed the facts with him—most of which we had already been discussing: it was critical to USCENTCOM’s campaign plan to get Col Charlie Cleveland’s 10th Special Forces Group into the north to hold down the Iraqi divisions that would otherwise reinforce Baghdad; a northern infiltration was politically denied; no other air platforms were available to infiltrate 10th Group; the amount of time it would have taken the heavily laden MC-130s to climb to altitude once they started to burn off gas along their route would have left them vulnerable to small arms and anti-aircraft fire for too great a time; therefore the only reasonable, albeit high-risk option was to have the force package execute the entire infiltration at low level. Was it an audacious plan? Yes, but the crews and SOF air leadership had conducted detailed and intensive planning to reduce the risk as much as possible, and it was the only option available. I closed by recommending his approval of the infiltration plan.

Ugly Baby Route

The new plan was for three Combat Talons to carry elements of 2nd Battalion, 10th SFG (2/10 SFG) to Bashur LZ and the three additional Talons to transport elements of the 3rd Battalion (3/10 SFG) led by Lt Col Ken Tovo along the same route to As Sulaymaniyah LZ. A small advance force had been infiltrated by ground earlier and Air Force Special Tactics airmen from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron would set up infrared landing markings for the Talons at both locations. Almost 300 Green Berets would be inserted into northern Iraq by the six MC-130Hs taking off at pre-determined intervals and proceeding to each of the two LZs and landing with 20-minute spacing throughout the middle of the night.

As word of the approved mission was disseminated the SF teams and our loadmasters set to work adjusting load plans to accommodate new weight limitations. The SF teams were divided into split teams and redistributed among aircraft in case one of the Talons might be lost. All non-essential equipment was removed from the aircraft and the mission-equipment was planned to be floor loaded with the soldiers using snap-link harnesses to attach themselves, via their belts, directly to the floor of the aircraft. The teams packed heavy not knowing what they would encounter—each operator’s rucksack averaged just under 200 pounds. The weights were carefully calculated as every spare pound equaled another pound of fuel that could be added. This careful planning and prudent cross-loading proved prescient—there was minimal impact to the mission when one of the MC-130Hs took heavy ground fire and had to divert from its planned objective.

According to Capt Joe Gelineau, Assistant S-3 for 2/10 SFG, “The fact that the mission was going was a total relief. For two weeks we had been trying to get into Northern Iraq to link-up with our Kurdish counterparts but had been literally turned back at every attempt. Any approved route, even if it was called “ugly baby,” was very much welcomed. We just wanted to get into country and start our mission, regardless of how we go there.” Another huge consideration for the crews was fuel–we had to carry enough to make it in and out without a stop. The plan for exfiltration, after the Talons were light from offload, would be to fly to the maximum altitude possible and retrace our steps back out hoping that many of the air defense systems would not be able to reach us. Lastly, we would rely on the robust electronic countermeasures of the Combat Talons to protect us from any other threats.

On 21 March, four heavily loaded MC-130Hs from the 7th SOS departed MK to join up with two MC-130Hs and one crew from the 15th SOS at King Faisal AB, Jordan, the forward staging base. Two MC-130Ps and a conventional C-130 followed, bringing additional loads and the extra 7th SOS Talon crew since this was not yet a “wartime” mission and the max weights were not yet allowed. After landing, all crews immediately began mission planning activities lasting well into the morning as coordination now had to take place between two squadrons who had not flown together in years. The 15th SOS crew did not have the benefit of the prior day’s planning and, thus, they were playing catch-up through most of the night.

As the sun rose all of the crews completed their planning and attempted to rest in the “transient-personnel” tents during the noise and heat of the day, but were woken only hours later with the notification that the alert time had moved up and the mission was “On.” They grabbed their gear, tweaked their plans for updated weather and intel and proceeded to their aircraft. Proving the age-old aircrew adage that “no plan survives engine start” the SATCOM system on the lead aircraft malfunctioned. This aircraft was planned to carry the Airborne Mission Commander, Lt Col Pat Dean, at the time the 7th SOS Director of Operations. Without a functioning SATCOM his ability to communicate with both the formation and headquarters elements would be significantly hampered and, thus, a bump plan was executed to move Col Dean to the #3 bird before the mission was even underway. The aircraft taxied out of parking to the parallel taxiway where the troops were marshalled and performed an engine-running onload of the SF soldiers. Men, gear, and equipment were strapped down and the crews ran final checklists. Within minutes, as the sun began to set, five Combat Talons, call sign “Harley,” flying at wartime maximum allowable gross weight, lifted off in into the darkening skies of the Jordanian evening. The sixth MC-130 with the SATCOM issue now fixed launched shortly thereafter and was able to continue.

According to one of the SF team leaders, the first hour or so of the flight felt about the same as any training mission from their home base at Ft Carson, CO. Things changed, however, when over the eastern desert of Jordan the MC-130 pilots cancelled their flight plans, made their last radio call to the E-3A AWACS, and declared they were “tactical.” All aircraft lights were switched off as part of the Combat Entry Checklist and with all aircrew on night vision goggles (NVGs), each aircraft descended on their terrain-following radar into the pitch black night, preparing to blast across the border with Iraq at 250 feet above the ground at speeds nearing 300 kts.

Flight Route

While years of Operation NORTHERN/SOUTHERN WATCH had given our intelligence personnel fairly detailed information about the location and capabilities of Iraq’s fixed air defense and early warning systems, along with Iraqi air defense fighters, what was unknown was how well manned the border outposts were and the number and extent of mobile AAA and man-portable missile systems (MANPADS). As the Talons approached the Iraqi border, navigators and pilots focused radars, IR detection systems, and their NVG-shrouded eyes outside the aircraft searching for locations with the least build-up of people or defenses. Electronic Warfare Officers (EWOs then, now called Combat Systems Officers, CSOs) armed the aircraft self-defense systems and strained over the noise of the cockpit to listen for missile warning and launch indicators. Aboard Harley 37, the EWO, Capt Robert “Opie” Horton, was spiked by an air-to-air radar and “chaffed-off” what he later believed was a US F-15. With only a select few SOF aircraft operating at low altitude the action was probably a good one to let the US pilot know he had not locked up an enemy target.

Rocketing over the Iraqi border at altitudes of 100 ft AGL and maximum speed it seemed we had been successful in not raising alarms. Navigators had easily picked out the border-sentry posts on radar miles out and routes were adjusted so as to take advantage of the gaps. For the first two hours, the six MC-130s passed unnoticed along the eastern Syrian border. This part of Iraq is sparsely settled, but we knew the tough part of the route was yet to come. With the anticipatory excitement past, crews settled into their routines. In the back of the airplanes, the SF teams were sleeping among their loads and tied-down equipment in the blacked-out cabins.

As we passed Anah, Iraq, and then headed north towards Tal Afar, the situation changed. According to Capt Jeremy Kokenes, the lead aircraft’s navigator, he and Maj Eric Elam, the EWO, began to notice horseshoe-shaped returns on their radar similar to our intelligence briefing description of “potential embedded AAA or other enemy fighting vehicles.” After a short conversation they relayed these observations to the rest of the extended-formation via secure radio. Col Dean attributed a portion of the success of the mission to the efficacy of good inflight communications.

Special Forces

While crossing the first belt of Iraqi defenses the first of the MC-130s took the Iraqi defenders by surprise and quickly passed by drawing only sporadic small arms gunfire. The aircrew looking outside with their NVGs could see the Iraqi soldiers clustered around burn-barrels trying to stay warm on the cold desert night. Now, with the first Talon passing by at threat-penetration altitudes just above their heads, the Iraqis were alerted and moving to their guns. TSgt Mark Peters, one of the two loadmasters strapped into the paratroop door scanning for and alerting the pilot for threats from the sides and rear of the plane, saw an Iraqi gunner under camouflage netting run to his AAA piece with a cigarette in his mouth, something that can only be seen from closer than 100 ft on NVGs.

With the following MC-130s in trailing intervals, the Iraqis were waiting but their initial targeting solutions had them aiming too high. The tracers were mostly going over the tops of the aircraft. Aggressive evasive maneuvering by the pilots avoided any serious damage. By the time the following aircraft approached, however, the Iraqis had adjusted and were ready. This time the defenders were able to place effective AAA fire against the next group of Combat Talons.

Aboard the aircraft crewed by the 15th SOS, Capt Todd Fogle, the navigator, recounts having gone through three and a half minutes of continuous AAA from multiple directions and five guys telling the pilot different things: jink-up/don’t jink-up/jink-left/etc. and with the terrain-following system squawking at us, low altitude warnings blaring, and the copilot saying, “They’ve got us,” as he saw tracer fire now coming at them but not moving from its relative position on the window. Fortunately, at that very moment they crossed over the shoreline of the Saddam Dam Lake and all was absolute calm—three and a half minutes of getting shot at, then complete peace. The flight culminated with the crew landing at Bashur and seeing coach-style tour buses ready to pick up the SF teams. It felt pretty strange to go through all that chaos and then cross a line into to what seemed like another world.

“Buck” Haberichter’s aircraft, tail number 89-0280, “The Highlander,” and call sign Harley 37, was the planned tail-end Charlie. We fully expected enemy defenses to be woken up by the time we entered the engagement zone. They opened fire on us with what we later believed to be 57 mm, 23 mm, 14.5 mm, and small arms fire. The initial engagement was from a 57mm proximity-round exploding outside the pilot’s window, which sounded like a pool-ball being thrown at the floor. We all looked at each other and then the engineer verified the pilot’s swing-window had been severely damaged by the explosion. That engagement then continued as we jinked and maneuvered the aircraft for the next four minutes. SSgt Eric Rigby, our flight engineer, reported that our number two engine had been hit and we were rapidly losing engine oil. We began the engine shutdown sequence just as we flew into a second hornet’s nest. AAA was everywhere. We began jinking again, this time on three engines, and maneuvering the plane through all dimensions. Threat calls were coming from all directions and at that moment the TF system failed, leaving us in the moonless night with no radar at 250 feet and under attack. AAA fire began to rip through the fuselage of the airplane and the smell of burning powder was evident in the cargo compartment. “Opie” Horton fought the urge to deploy preventative flares against potential MANPADS knowing they would illuminate us against the pitch back desert. In the back, the SF team leader said his men could hear the shrapnel hitting the aircraft and were just waiting for holes to start opening up in the sides of the airplane. The soldiers sat helplessly as the pilots tried to evade the firestorm and watched as bullets and shrapnel penetrated the cargo compartment.

Capt Gelineau, in the back of Harley 37, remembers hearing and feeling the effects of the enemy air defenses. The enemy gunfire sounded as if someone drove a metal rod into an industrial-sized fan…clack-ity, clack, clack, clack! He remembered seeing debris and insulation scatter inside of our MC-130’s cargo area due to the enemy gunfire. He also remembered seeing the loadmaster’s hand signal that one of the engines was dead and smelling the smoke enter the cargo compartment as the pilot repeatedly descended and ascended in order to maneuver to avoid additional enemy fire. Up front, “Buck” descended to below 100 feet AGL to try and avoid the AAA, but during that engagement a 23 mm round penetrated the skin of the aircraft forward of the right paratroop door narrowly missing the loadmaster, SSgt Dave Buss, scorching insulation, and starting a fire on the honey-bucket curtain. Buss distinctly remembers the wild rollercoaster ride of the flight going from weightlessness to not being able to move because of the 60 pounds of body armor and the survival vest he was wearing. In the opposite door SSgt Ryan “Tico” Pentico called out the dead engine to the pilot while continuing the threat calls. One Special Tactics airman later relayed to me after we landed that he flipped down his NVGs to look out a side window and then flipped them back up, not wanting to see the end which he fully expected due to the massive amounts of tracer fire.

There were a significant number of Javelin missiles and boxes of fragmentation grenades loaded in the center of the aircraft, and the soldiers knew they couldn’t be far enough away from them to be safe. The second engagement lasted almost seven minutes and I remember thinking that our training scenarios never lasted this long. Happily, the only round that struck the floor-loaded cargo went straight into a box of MREs later found squished, but entirely intact in a ham slice (we knew they hated the pork MREs). Harley 37 was hit 19 times before we got past the high-threat zone. We were badly leaking fuel and had lost the #2 engine in addition to the damage to the pilot’s side window.

By that point each of the still heavy airplane’s engines had been over-temped and over-torqued, and the entire plane had been over-G’ed with the massive load of fuel, people, equipment, and munitions we were carrying. After some quick calculations and assessment of the battle damage, we realized we could not make it to Bashur, deliver the teams, and have enough fuel to return to King Faisal AB. Knowing that leaving an aircraft on the LZ would have disrupted the entire battle plan, Buck made the hard decision to abort the infiltration and divert. Despite the Turks’ prohibition against flying through their airspace and using their bases, the best option available was to declare an emergency and head to Incirlik AB where we knew there were American maintenance and support facilities and where the 7th SOS had staged out of for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM just two years earlier.

We made an immediate left turn to the north and began to climb to clear the mountains which separate the two countries without the luxury of a terrain avoidance radar. The copilot, 1st Lt Jon Cotton, declared an emergency and was contacted by the NATO AWACS crew, callsign Magic, which was flying just north of the Iraqi border to monitor the situation. A Turkish F-16 locked us up for an intercept, but Magic directed them away as we were an aircraft in distress. The F-16 “offered” to escort us to Incirlik but our Talon’s ALQ-172 jammers were wreaking havoc on the fighter’s radars and he quickly peeled off. Buck quoting from the movie Airplane, “Have you ever spent the night in a Turkish prison,” didn’t help defuse the mood. Magic relayed our position and status to Turkish controllers who allowed us to pass.

Harley 37 post mission
pilot window

With the next two-hours spent gingerly dodging thunderstorms and doing triage of the damage, we finally began our descent into Incirlik AB. Buck made an incredibly smooth landing. During the ground roll the loadmasters reported fuel cascading from the wings. The pilot carefully applied the aircraft brakes and avoided reverse thrust per the engineer’s direction and thus preventing fuel spray forward of three engines which could have ignited and destroyed the whole plane. Once we came to a stop Buck called for an emergency shut-down of the engines and evacuation of the aircraft. For the SF soldiers who thought the excitement was over, the adrenaline spiked again. All of the crewmembers and SF teams sprinted from the aircraft onto the grassy infield to avoid the rapidly responding fire rescue vehicles which foamed the entire area and put out barriers to collect the thousands of pounds of fuel still spilling from the wings. Our Incirlik AB hosts took us and the soldiers to a reception area and less than 24 hours later we were on a C-17 back to MK via Ramstein.

Aboard what was now the last aircraft, Maj George Thiebes, the C/3/10 SFG(A) commander, sat with his troopers in the dimly lit cargo compartment. In the midst of the engagement he looked over at his supply sergeant whose eyes looked like giant saucers. At one point, Thiebes glanced at the Air Force Direct Support Operator (DSO) monitoring friendly and enemy communications from his suite in the cargo compartment, who looked up and shrugged. Thiebes climbed over the equipment to get near the DSO and asked what was up. He replied the plane had just run out of chaff and flares. Great! After many more gut-wrenching moments Thiebes’ aircraft landed at As Sulaymaniyah and his team carefully slipped down the vomit-slickened ramp before a Kurdish Peshmerga hoard stormed the plane to assist with the offload. In a matter of minutes, the plane was empty, but accountability and redistribution took hours to sort out because of the “help.”

After landing at Bashur, the lead MC-130’s crew, assessed the ingress route, threats encountered and reported, and then discussed whether to fly an alternative low-level route home, or to fly at max altitude to avoid the now, definite small arms and AAA threat. While the 10 SFG(A) Command team, including Col Cleveland offloaded, the flight engineer calculated fuel, weight and balance, and determined that the five Combat Talons could step climb to be high enough to avoid the AAA and MANPADS threats, but it would put the aircraft in range of more capable surface-to-air-missiles. The decision was made to fly at altitude and let the EWOs and their defensive systems do their job. Each aircraft began a spiral climb to altitude over the landing zones and then continued along the return flight home. The view from these altitudes, some as high as 30,000 ft, highlighted the ongoing airstrikes on Mosul, Baghdad, and other key cities where coalition forces were smashing key targets.

As the crews crossed back into Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Combat Exit checklists were run and there were many sighs of relief and thoughts of gratitude. On a more comical note, many 7th SOS crews had never seen King Faisal Air Base at night and were somewhat unfamiliar with the taxiways, especially in poor lighting, with poor markings and on NVGs. It may or may not be true that one MC-130 that night shared a “road” with another American serviceman in a vehicle who was wondering if that was an actual C-130 he was nose-to-nose with.

That night, JSOAD-N successfully inserted 19 SF teams and 4 SF company headquarters at Bashur and As Sulaymaniyah. More importantly, though, the bold decision to take the high risk, circuitous flight caused Turkey to rethink its position on overflight of their territory. When the Turkish General Staff heard that one of the Combat Talons had almost been shot down with 37 souls onboard because of their obstinacy, they relented. This fact is often lost in the tactical retelling of the mission. On 23 March, the Turks allowed coalition aircraft to use Turkish airspace and non-combat sorties were permitted to launch from Turkish bases. The air bridge from Europe to Iraq was open and JSOAD-N landed additional missions the same night to begin the flow of replacements and supplies to the northern front.

The Highlander by Rory Dorling


Following the successful infiltration of over 300 SF operators and many more support personnel, the expanded task force, along with their Kurdish partners, successfully held the 13 Iraqi divisions in-place on the northern front. The combination of coalition airpower and unconventional boots on the ground proved a powerful tool in the friendly arsenal.

For the Air Commandos, they continued to fly and fight for the duration of OIF. Harley 37, tail #0280, was grounded for a couple of weeks while she underwent battle-damage repair and was eventually returned to service.

The 22 March 2003 Ugly Baby mission is likely one of the most decorated in AF history. Arguably, the mission was the longest low-level, combat infiltration by US special operations aircraft since the Second World War. In recognition of the exceptional airmanship, bravery, and professional courage displayed during the mission, the Harley flight crews were awarded a total of 32 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals. The 7th SOS also received a Gallant Unit Citation for their actions during OIF and the Secretary of the Army awarded the squadron the Bronze Arrowhead device to the OIF Campaign Medal for conducting the combat assault.

About the Author: Col Cory Peterson was the navigator on Harley 37. He retired after more than 26 years of service, having flown both conventional and special operations C-130s. He was part of the joint SOF faculty at the US Army Command & General Staff College and the international SOF faculty at the NATO Special Operations School. Col Peterson’s final assignment was as the plank-holding Chief of Staff at Special Operations Command North. He remains honored to have served with the 7th SOS, “The Finest Flying Squadron in the US Air Force.”

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