Maj. Thomas Hanford.
Unit: 77th Fighting Squadron
Medals: Two Distinguished Flying Crosses
Earned: April 1 and 7, 2003, Iraq
Within a span of six days, F-16 fighter pilot Maj. Thomas Hanford used instinct, skill and a dash of courage to destroy numerous targets on the ground and save the lives of U.S. forces in two missions flown in the early days of the Iraq war, while fighting was intense.
The feats would earn him two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
On April 1, 2003, Hanford, who at the time was assigned to the 77th Fighting Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., was tasked with his wingman, Capt. Matt Williams, to take out Iraqi military vehicles that were spotted at night parked just off a Baghdad road.
Though cleared to bomb a set of coordinates, Hanford decided to fly in and look at the target area with his own eyes “since the weather was good enough for me to see the ground.”
He wanted to confirm the trucks were there, and see whether any civilian facilities were nearby. Sure enough, he found a civilian housing area next to the target area, information he used to adjust the angle of his bombs to avoid collateral damage.
“After about five passes, I dropped my bombs on the Iraqi vehicles and destroyed several of them,” he said.
Every dive produced a barrage of anti-aircraft artillery from Iraqis on the ground. Coming off target, Hanford spotted what he thought was either a surface-to-air missile or a large-caliber anti-aircraft artillery site “shooting up into the air and exploding at about 30,000 feet,” he said.
“Whoever it was, was trying to find coalition aircraft. Rarely do you get to see where they’re coming from.” He radioed for more F-16s and guided them to the source. “They rolled in, dropped their bombs … it burned for hours.”
The mission wasn’t over. Hanford was out of bombs, but since Williams still had an anti-radiation missile — used to identify and destroy enemy missile sites — they were tasked to find more anti-aircraft artillery over Baghdad. The sun was starting to rise and Hanford could see bullets flying just about everywhere.
“I started calling the fighters over and stacking them up, and we just started picking off” artillery nests. Target sites were close to Baghdad, many were located in parks.
Hanford said he followed “each flight down the chute to make sure they were dropping on the right thing,” all the while, with his wingman, trying to avoid seven surface-to-air missiles shot their way. Hanford called the eight-hour mission “probably the most we had been shot at.”
On April 7, Hanford and wingman Capt. Jay Mahajan, on an uneventful night sortie, listened on the radio as a team of U.S. special forces called for air support in the mountains northeast of Baghdad near the Iran border.
Bad weather prevented two F-14s and their back-ups from homing in on the enemy targets before they had to leave to refuel; Hanford and his wingman then had their chance.
“We don’t have a targeting pod; all we have is our night-vision goggles,” Hanford said. “So I put my wingman in trail and we dove down under the weather” below a 5,000-foot ceiling.
It was dark, still hard to see. Down below, 15 U.S. servicemembers were getting shelled by Iraqi paramilitary troops, holed up in a mountainside in bombed-out bunkers.
A special ops forward-air controller gave “me the coordinates for where the bad guys were. He told me I was clear to drop on those coordinates,” Hanford said.
But the points seemed close to a team Hanford had worked with on the ground only an hour prior, so he asked the controller, who was hiding in the dark from Iraqis with the other U.S. troops, to recheck the location while he and his wingman held at around 1,000 feet.
The controller said, “‘Standby, let my get under my poncho,’” Hanford said. “He got under his poncho (to look at his map) and said, ‘Oh, good catch.’ He had missed a digit on his coordinates, which would have made it about 10 miles off.”
With this new information, and guided by the controller, who beamed at the Iraqi’s position an infrared light that Hanford could see with his night-vision goggles, we “dropped cluster bombs on the Iraqis, destroyed whatever was there,” Hanford said. “[The special forces] were very happy.”
In dipping below the 5,000-foot ceiling, Hanford noted he broke a rule of engagement that pilots were not to fly under 10,000 feet without permission “because they didn’t want you getting shot down. We made a personal decision in our squadron, if there were guys in trouble, there were no limits to what we would do. It was time to throw the rules out and do what was necessary.”
Hanford also in 2003 received three Air Medals: March 22 and March 31, for individual combat sorties flown in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom around Baghdad; and March 2 to April 14, for flying 20 combat sorties over Iraq.
Now at Misawa Air Base, Japan, where he’s chief of weapons and tactics for the 35th Fighter Wing, Hanford said he’s most proud of helping the Special Forces “because we actually got to help some guys out who might not have survived if we hadn’t gone below the weather.”
But his most rewarding mission, over an 18-year Air Force career, was being the pilot who first made radio contact with Scott O’Grady on June 8, 1995, six days after O’Grady’s F-16 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Bosnia.
“It was pretty emotional because we really thought he was dead,” Hanford said.