As Maj. Gregg Kopeck and his wingman headed to their F-15E fighters on April 2, 2003, their original tasking was scrapped. Flying from Al Udeid, Qatar, to Baghdad, they had precious little time to plan an attack that would require seamless coordination, creative tactics and near-perfect aim.
Kopeck, now assigned to 13th Air Force, was flying with the 336th Fighter Squadron from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
At a time when it was feared Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Kopeck would take the lead in destroying suspected Scud missile launchers stashed in bridge culverts under a major highway coming out of Baghdad.
It was a mission that ended 10 hours later and included destruction of a rocket launcher and an anxious flight back to Qatar. For his feats that day in combat, Kopeck earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.
To take out the Scud launchers, Kopeck and his wingman, Capt. Randall Haskin, employed a “buddy tactic.” One aircraft would drop the bomb and the other would guide it in with lasers.
“It’s something that we do practice,” Kopeck said. “What made this different, after the first bomb released, it was a wake-up signal for everybody” with anti-aircraft artillery in Baghdad to start shooting. “It exposes the second aircraft to more risk.”
That was one of many challenges. Since the launchers were concealed, various resources were needed to find and confirm the target, from the weapons systems officer in a two-seat F-15E to an Army forward controller watching the Iraqis hide the weapons from about 1,500 yards away. As the lead pilot, Kopeck also had to ensure he and Haskin didn’t get hit by other aircraft in the vicinity, including bombers flying as high as 50,000 feet.
Determining the best angle to guide the weapons was tricky. Not only would it have to enter the culvert, which Kopeck estimated was only 30 to 40 feet wide, but there was traffic on the bridge. Despite the fact Baghdad was under attack, “people were going back and forth to work,” Kopeck said. “We had to ask a few questions and consider what kind of collateral damage we would accept.”
After they launched two bombs, heavy anti-aircraft artillery forced Kopeck and Haskin to split up and form a “tag team,” each taking turns guiding their weapons in, eluding a surface-to-air missile in the process. They confirmed five targets; the pilots had to guide 10 weapons, one into each end of the culvert. Though it was unknown what exactly the Iraqis concealed, Kopeck said at least one Scud launcher was confirmed, both by the ground spotter and the fact the culvert burned long into the night, indicating the presence of rocket propulsion fuel.
“We were able to hit all of the targets without destroying” the bridge or any vehicles, Kopeck said. “We saw the targets detonate. There were still cars driving on the bridge. It must have been a pretty wild ride.”
After refueling, the pilots were tasked to locate helicopters in and around Baghdad. Senior leaders not only feared at the time that Iraqi outlaws were escaping from Baghdad this way, but rumors abounded that helicopters outfitted with crop-dusting equipment were being loaded with deadly chemicals, Kopeck said.
Kopeck and Haskin had to drop to a lower elevation to hunt helicopters, exposing them to the heavily-fortified missile engagement zone around Baghdad. “The Iraqis took every surface-to-air missile and concentrated them in Baghdad for a last stand,” Kopeck said. “We had to pick our way in and out of Baghdad to find the helicopters.”
They didn’t find any, but they located a missile launcher and destroyed it. As they headed out of Baghdad, on the return to Qatar, Kopeck’s wingman had aircraft trouble, reporting hearing a “rumbling.” The wing tank was malfunctioning, but the plane held together long enough for them to make it to Al Udeid.
Looking back, Kopeck called the mission “pretty intense. We realized we had done something pretty special, especially with the short-notice tasking, digging out and finding the Scuds. The biggest fear at the time was Saddam was going to load up Scuds with bad things. We felt we did ourselves, our country and (Iraq’s) neighbors proud. We made everyone safe, maybe, for another day.”
Kopeck also received an Air Medal for a mission two days later on April 4, in which he and his wingman, Capt. Mike Love, bombed an Iraqi military encampment along the Euphrates River near where a team of U.S. Army Rangers was planning to cross.
“They passed along a thanks when we went home,” Kopeck said of the Rangers. “I took that as a sign we did what they wanted us to do.”