On Friday morning of the August week in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Lieutenant General Chuck Horner was at 27,000 feet, cruising at .9 Mach (540 knots), and nearing the North Carolina coast. He was headed out to sea in the Lady Ashley, a recent-model Block 25 F-16C, tail number 216, that had been named after the daughter of his crew chief, Technical Sergeant José Santos. Horner's aide, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Hartinger, Jr., known as "Little Grr," was on Horner's left side, a mile out, slightly high. Horner and Hartinger were en route to a mock combat with a pair of F-15Cs out of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Langley Air Force Base in Tidewater Hampton, Virginia: a winner-take-all contest that would match wits and flying skills. After that, they were all scheduled to form up and return to Langley AFB as a flight of four aircraft.
It was a bright, clear day-a good day to be in the air. Horner felt the joy he always did when flying thousands of feet above the earth in a fast and nimble aircraft, an emotion that few others ever had the opportunity to experience. Part of it was the feeling of unity with his aircraft - the fighter was like an extension of his mind and body. The brain commanded and the aircraft responded, with no other conscious motions. In an air battle, a pilot had no time for unnecessary thoughts. He evaluated angle, range, and closure with his target, while keeping track of all the fast, nimble aircraft that were trying to drive him in flames out of the sky. He thought and the jet reacted.
It was Hartinger's turn to lead, to call how he and Horner would fly from takeoff to landing, and he had set up a two-versus-two air combat tactics mission - what fighter pilots call a 2v2 ACT - with the F-15s. Horner was looking forward to it. At Langley, he was scheduled to attend an aircraft accident briefing with his Air Force boss, General Bob Russ, commanding general of the Tactical Air Command. Accident briefings were never pleasant experiences, even when the accidents were proven to be unavoidable, so Horner was happy for the chance to "turn and burn" with the guys from Langley before he hit the painful part of the day.
His policy was to try to maintain his combat skills whenever he flew his F-16. Even when traveling to an administrative meeting such as the one at Langley, he liked to make the trip worthwhile. It was a good way to stay up-to-date with the younger - often much younger - pilots he might someday lead into real battle.
He was in his fifties, but he wasn't too old to go up against an enemy. He could hold his own with most U.S. fliers; and those fliers were better than 95 percent of anyone they might meet. What he'd lost in eyesight and physical stamina, he made up for with experience and brains. Experience atrophied with disuse, however, and he needed to know firsthand not only that his combat skills were current and credible, but also what the younger fighter jocks were doing, what they were practicing - their aerial, radio, and shooting discipline and tactics.
Fighter pilots are members of a very tiny, elite tribe, who also happen to be the most arrogant group on earth. Flying high-performance jets is a consummate art, and to be merely somewhere near the top of the food chain doesn't begin to make it. They want to be the top. If there's nobody around you left to beat, there's still yourself. That means if a commander does not remain credible, a pilot may be reluctant to obey his lead. In war, failure to obey in the strictest manner can get people killed. So Horner felt he owed the people he commanded the duty to remain up-to-date in the use of his equipment, in tactics, and in understanding the stresses they faced.
Since April 1987, Chuck Horner had been commander of Ninth Air Force, which supervised the Air Force's Active and Reserve Fighter Units east of the Mississippi River. In that position, he also served as the air component commander for the Central Command, the United States military organization responsible for national security interests in the Middle East and parts of East Africa (except for Israel, Syria, and Lebanon). In 1990, Central Command was led by Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. It was Horner's job as CENTAF Commander to work with his foreign counterparts in a region that stretched from Egypt to Pakistan and to plan military operations - air campaigns that might be needed should a crisis arise that endangered the interests of the United States. It was also his job to make sure that U.S. air units were combat-ready, and that the logistics were in place to support them during a rapid deployment in peacetime or war. And finally, it was his job to command air assets that had been deployed to the region-during the recent Iran-Iraq war, for instance, USAF E-3A AWACS radar aircraft had kept watch over Saudi Arabia in order to prevent the local conflict from spilling over the border. When Horner wasn't visiting his assigned bases in the United States, he was visiting the nations in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.
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