Task Force Normandy: Iraq veteran recounts Desert Storm

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --  The “Through the Eyes of a Commando” living history lecture series continued Jan. 27 in the Airman Leadership School auditorium, where Col. Michael Kingsley retold the story of the first mission of Operation Desert Storm — Task Force Normandy.

Colonel Kingsley, currently the commander of the Aviation Tactics Evaluation Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., was part of the mission in which 20th Special Operations Squadron MH-53 PAVE LOWs escorted Army AH-64 Apaches into Iraq to destroy early-warning radars.

When Colonel Kingsley heard about the possibility of operations in Iraq, he didn’t think he’d see the war.

“I didn’t think I’d be going,” he said. “Boy, was I wrong.”

While it’s common for today’s pilots to fly in combat, it wasn’t the same during the early 1990s.

“When I joined the Air Force in 1984, I joined an Air Force that was at peace,” said Colonel Kingsley.

Less than five percent of pilots had combat time back then, he said.

Nonetheless, on Aug. 13, 1990, the 20th SOS arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A week later, they moved to King Fahd International Airport and set up a tent city.

Having eight aircrews living in tents had its ups and downs explained Colonel Kingsley.
“It was hot, but it brought us together as a team.”

However, that team didn’t know what it would be asked to do the next month.

The original plan for the attack, named “Instant Thunder,” called for special operations ground forces to be dropped into the Iraqi desert to destroy the radar sites. However, after the plan was briefed to General Norman Schwartzkopf on Sept. 22, it was scrapped and a new plan was developed. The new plan called for four PAVE LOWs to escort eight Army Apaches into Iraq using their advanced terrain-following, terrain-avoidance radars and then have the attack helicopters destroy two radar sites with Hellfire missiles.

The crews of the 20th SOS received the mission the following week. Over the next three months, the crews rehearsed the mission six times.

On Jan. 14, 1991, Air Force special operations forces moved yet again to Al Jouf, Saudi Arabia. While there, the Airmen traded their tents for an abandoned apartment building—but they also had some unlikely new roommates.

“One of the biggest things I remember was that there was a bazillion cats in the apartment we lived in,” said Colonel Kingsley.

Cats or no cats, the teams had a mission to do. Two days after they moved into their new home, they were given the execute order.

Conventional air forces were scheduled to enter Iraq at 3 a.m. Jan. 16. That meant the special operations air forces had to destroy the early warning radar sites by 2:38 a.m. to clear the way for the rest of the aircraft.

Because the Apaches weren’t as technologically advanced as the PAVE LOWs, the crews came up with a creative way for the Army choppers to update their navigation systems. The PAVE LOW crews strung together chemical lights and dropped them out the back of the aircraft at certain points, said Colonel Kingsley. When the Apaches got over the lights, they then updated their systems.

Such ingenuity would ensure a successful mission.

“We knew that if we didn’t destroy the sites on time, the early warning sites would notify Baghdad and Saddam would know we were coming,” he said.

The mission went off without any major hitches and the teams successfully destroyed the sites, opening the air for the follow-on forces.

Colonel Kingsley credits the success of this mission and other special operations missions to not just the pilots who fly the aircraft, but to maintenance and support Airmen as well.

“I fully believe this whole thing is based on teams,” Colonel Kingsley said. “We are one team, one fight.”

Colonel Kingsley ended the presentation with a word of advice for the audience – don’t stop learning about history.

“If you don’t read the history, then you are doomed to failure because you’ll make the mistakes again.”

The next installment of the “Through the Eyes of a Commando” series is scheduled for April.