Maj Peter "Wobble" Tankink (Royal Netherlands Air Force - RNLAF)

No. 322 Squadron niet praten maar doen (don't talk but do), F-16AM
Operation ALLIED FORCE
MiG-29
24 March 1999

The pilot has given two interviews about this event, however he doesn't wish to spend any more time talking about it, he takes the opinion that he was just doing his job and the RNLAF fully supports this typical Dutch no-nonsense attitude.

We had been in several tense situations since the autumn of 1998. A early as October 1998 we had flown eight upgraded F-16s from Leeuwarden to Amendola, Italy as reinforcements to the Dutch F-16s already there. Then the negotiations were able to come to an agreement with Milosevic, but not this time. When we heard that we were going to fly, we started making preparations by establishing which countries and aircraft would be taking part int the attack formation, checking arrangements for getting everyone to the destination, which means working out, routes and altitudes, and, of course what kind of support there would be from tanker aircraft. The preparations were no different from those for a normal practice flight. During exercises such as Red Flag it's just the same.

We knew one day before the mission, that we had been assigned to the second attack formation of the second NATO formation. A package like this consists of different kinds of aircraft. Apart from the aircraft whose mission was to deliver the bombs, there were air defence fighters, suppression of enemy air defence fighters, and other support aircraft at a distance, such as flying radar stations, command aircraft and tankers. Our task was to fly ahead of the attack formation in our four modernized Midlife Update F-16s to look out for enemy aircraft that might attack the formation. This is called a fighter sweep, and it means that you are the first aircraft to enter enemy territory...!

That day I went to the air base at about 14:00. I worked through the whole preparation cycle discussing the situation with intelligence and the Met (meterology) people, discussing the mission with the three other pilots, getting equipment issued and lastly, handing in my personal possessions. When you talk about the mission you discuss things like the kind of formation the four of you are going to fly in, and what rules of engagement are - that is when force should be used and when not.

At 17:45 I went to my assigned aircraft J-063, equipped with four AIM-120B AMRAAMs, two fuel tanks and an ALQ-131 jamming pod, aside from the built-in 20mm gun.

The fact that this was a real mission did not change anything. Even the idea that we were going to be flying in the dark was not unusual. We practise night flying regurarly, and we often flew at night during the operations we had been carrying out for years over Bosnia.

After taking off at 20:45, we flew to the rendezvous with a tanker above the Adriatic Sea. I was number three in the formation. First there was the lead, that is, our formation leader, with his wingman, then me with my wingman. After fueling up we flew to the marshaling area. In the meantime it had become pitch dark. We knew that some 20 or 30 of our mates were flying in the area, but we could not see them. We also heard that the first formation to carry out an attack during Allied Force had returned safely from Yugoslavia.

We set course for Kosovo at the predetermined time, everyone in his place in the formation at the altitude assigned. The moment we crossed the Yugoslav border we heard from Magic, NATO's AWACS aircraft that three MiGs of the Yugoslav Air Force were in the air. That was all we heard for a while. A few minutes later the lead of our group of four saw a MiG on his radar. The radar contact put it more or less on our flight path and we were directed to it by the AWACS.

I had no radar contact flying some 6 miles (10km) behind the lead pair, but with the F-16MLU's improved datalink capability, leader datalinked his picture so that I could see where the target was. We still did not know what kind of target it was but because of its high speed (400 knots) we knew it was fast. Asked the AWACS permission to engage but the AWACS crew could not see it as it was flying at 5,000ft (1,500m) behind a ridge.

Through a range of other planes and assets, the AWACS tried to identify the nature of the contact and finally it was agreed that it was hostile. However, only one target was visible and the AWACS personnel understood that there should be three - they did not know that the other two had already been shot down by a pair of USAF F-15Cs of the 493rd FS flying from Cervia AB in Italy.

Suddenly the contact disappeared from the radar. Following our rules the leader banked off, followed by his wingman. We were also going to bank off when I saw the target again on my radar. My wingman and I were directed to it. In such a short time, say 4 to 5 minutes, you are regurarly in contact with the AWACS aircraft. In our formation we had not exchanged a word with each other, everything we had to know about each other's movements was transmitted by the datalinks aboard the MLU F-16s. Eventually I got the order from the AWACS to intercept the target.

At 20:30.08 at a distance of 11 miles (18km) flying at an altitude of 34,000ft (10,363m) I fired one AMRAAM from the port underwing station. After you press the firing button you actually have to wait for about a second before the missile leaves. That time seemed to last forever. I rememberred that I looked at my wing to see whether the missile had become stuck. But as I watched, the rocket motor fired - the fierce light blinding me a little.

After about five seconds I lost the missile in the pitch black sky as its engine had spent its fuel and burnt out. Approximately ten seconds from impact the missile acquired the MiG with its own radar, allowing me to turn away sharply. I knew where the target was flying and looked in that direction over my left shoulder. I saw a dim flash of light and a second or so after that, burning pieces of wreckage falling. Than I knew I had hit him.

Until the impact I had not thought at all that the four of us were actually carrying out a 'real' interception. I was just too busy looking at the instruments, talking to the AWACS, and of course flying the aircraft. Moreover, the other aircraft of the NATO formation were at that time also carrying on with their mission, and quite a lot of bombs and missiles were being fired at the enemy air defenses. When I saw that my missile had hit the target I was very pleased. An aircraft like that is always a threat at such a time, and if your missile misses, for whatever reason, you are going to have to do something about it - either attack again, or begin evasive manoeuvers. But in my case it was unnecessary.

The MiG-29 came down west of Kusevac. The kill was immediately confirmed by the fighter controller in the AWACS who had seen his radar contact disappear. The engagement took approximately five minutes. I later learned that the pilot had escaped using his ejection seat.

We had to patrol above that area for another 20 minutes, and in that time, plenty of SAMs were fired at the NATO formation. We were flying quite high and could see that three SAMs were fired at our F-16s. It is very strange to see the warning in the cockpit and then the missile itself, coming at you like a fiery arrow. Then you really have to do something, like evasive manoeuvers and throwing out chaff. It was our job as fighter sweep to stay in the area until the last aircraft of the attack formation had left - first in, last out. After the last one had left, we took the shortest route back to Amendola. In total, the flight lasted two and a half hours.

When we landed at Amendola, they already knew we had brought down a jet but they just did not know which one of the four of us had fired the missile. When you land you have to put your weapons on safe mode at the end of the runway before you are allowed to taxi the aircraft to the platform. This is done by weapons personnel which is to say the same people who had earlier mounted the missiles under the aircraft. When they saw that I had fired one they got quite excited. The fact that a missile had been fired meant they had done their job well. If they had not, I could have squeezed the firing button as much as I liked without anything happening. So it was only right they were pleased that everything worked as well as it was supposed to.

In Amendola they asked if I wanted to phone my wife. I said that I never phoned my wife at 00:30, so why should I start now? They told me that she had phoned from Leeuwarden already and that she expected a call, so I telephoned her right away.

I flew eleven missions above and around Yugoslavia, including air defence assignments and attack missions, until the Leeuwarden detachment was releved.

Looking back at that first night, I still does not experience feelings of triumph. That night, the four of us did what we are paid to do, a fighter sweep to make sure that the attack formation could do its work safely. No more, no less. Its satisfying to know that we carried out all the tasks assigned to us as required, but then I am talking about the deployment of the Dutch F-16s as a whole, not just about that one night. That means that you have been well trained and that your equipment works.

Take the F-16... during that first mission we used all the advantages of the latest Midlife Update version. The improved radar enabled us to see the MiG earlier, and with the help of our new IFF we knew quickly that it was an enemy aircraft. Using AMRAAM missile, we were able to put aircraft out of action from a considerable distance. Also we did not have to talk to each other during the entire air combat phase because we could exchange information by means of datalink.

In short, these were all things that increased our chances of being able to make an effective contribution. I thought it interesting that we were assigned the fighter sweep function in the formation because we had the MLU version. With standard F-16 you have fewer options, and we would not have been given that assignment.

In fact, the Dutch F-16AMs were the only non-American fighters that were flying escort missions in enemy territory, a clear indication that the Americans, who effectively ran the show despite it being under NATO banner, were confident about the Dutch equipment and training standards.

This was the climax of an historical mission for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. It marked the first air-to-air kill for the service since World War Two and put the RNLAF in the modern air combat spotlight. But more importantly it was the ultimate reward for a progressive and professional organisation that had put a lot of effort into modernizing its equipment and maintaining an extremely high level of training in the turbulent 1990s.




Maj Predrag Milutinovic was launched from Ponikve in MiG-29 number 18106.
His RWR alerted him 3Km from Kosovo.
He took evasive action to break lock.
Over Ribarska Banja RWR alerted him again and 10s after, he was hit.
Successfully ejected.


Hpasp
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(U-2 over Sverdlovsk, B-52's over Hanoi, F-4 Phantoms over the Sinai, F-16's and the F-117A Stealth bomber over the Balkans.)
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