“We had strict requirements for the launch and recovery sites. They either had to be very, very secure — Diego Garcia is about the only place in that region that meets that qualification, way out in the middle of nowhere, with no risk of civilian sightings — or the takeoff or landing had to be done at night. We settled on launch from Aviano — big NATO facility, lots of aircraft movements, excellent operational security — in the middle of the night. Recovery would be at Dodge three hours and three times zones later. We’d be over the target about an hour after launch, and two and a half hours after sunrise local time for good shadows.”
“I brought the ship over the pond from Groom Lake into RAF Lakenheath, with my arrival timed to be between 0300 and 0400 Local. We set a point-to-point speed record on that flight, but of course we couldn’t get official recognition. That was another ‘off the boards’ flight — high and fast, no ATC. It was the first time we’d deployed the vehicle outside the CONUS, and it performed flawlessly. For the English ATC’s benefit we used a tail number for a C model Eagle that was assigned to the 493rd FS and based at Lakenheath and an appropriate callsign. We had that airplane sitting in a locked and guarded hangar at Aviano, sure to be causing some bright USAF SF lieutenant to wonder what he’d done wrong — why was his whole platoon on round-the-clock guard of a perfectly ordinary F-15?”
“Two nights later another pilot from the test group whose name I won’t mention — he’s a Space Command two-star now — ferried the vehicle from Lakenheath to Aviano via commercial airways, subsonic all the way, again masquerading as that same F-15C. And two days after that, the forecast was good at all four target sites. The timing was perfect, too — Sunday morning, first day of the workweek in the target area, but the slowest possible time for ATC and best time for operational security at Aviano. I rolled for takeoff just after 3 AM local time.”
“On the climbout I knew immediately things were not working as they should. The NAV function of the autopilot was refusing to track the vehicle correctly through turns at the waypoints. It could do a fairly decent job of holding the desired track, once established there manually. But it looked like I was going to have to ‘fly the autopilot’ by using the heading mode to follow the planned track manually. More fun. But we got out of the Aviano area in no time and ATC was never the wiser.”
One thing the mission planning team didn’t expect was that the vehicle would be visible from the ground. “Oops. Yeah, someone should have thought of that. In full daylight, the sky is too bright to detect anything. But well before dawn, and even in the pre-dawn twilight, the shock diamonds from the scramjets were easily visible to someone on the surface if they happened to be looking in the right direction. And we left a very thin thread of an exhaust trail.” There were a half-dozen quickly discredited reports from eyewitnesses on land near the Straits of Otrono and aboard ships in the central Mediterranean of a meteor that seemed to change direction as it moved. Two US Navy vessels on station in the eastern Mediterranean made notations in the their logs about a possible UFO sighting. One entry described the object as looking “…like a slow-moving, burning meteor.” The vehicle’s unusual propulsion operation didn’t help. The on-again, off-again cycling of the scramjets made it look even more like a big meteor shedding material unevenly. Fortunately, it was full daylight well before Killmore arrived in the target area.
Settled in cruise, starting the slow turn to the left that will point toward Iran.
“Except for that glitch, the flight went as planned [Editors Note: except for the still mysterious incident crossing Natanz described on the following page]. We crossed just north of Baghdad exactly an hour after takeoff, and I received my only Link-16 message. All it said was, ‘You are go.’ The first target, Arak, was only minutes away. From my SR-71 days I was used to how fast things can happen during a mission, but at 2400 knots groundspeed, I was a little surprised to find myself behind the airplane — if only a little. At two minutes out from Natanz, I took a deep breath and extended the ASARS/TRAC canoe. I don’t know what I expected, but it was kind of anti-climactic when nothing happened.”
First light over the eastern Mediterranean.
Passing well north of Baghdad. The Tigris and Euphrates are clearly visible.