The Mystery of “WICHITA 103”

There is an odd bit of trivia about the U.S. air campaign over Iraq in 1991 that has been a source of curiosity for me for more than fifteen years, and I think I happened upon the answer last night.  Or, at least, an answer.

Over forty Iraqi aircraft were downed by the U.S.-led coalition in the course of air-to-air engagements during Operation Desert Storm (ODS); I have a “kill table” here.  The table draws upon various official and unofficial historical records that have emerged in the two decades since ODS, and in most cases includes the parent unit and radio callsign of the coalition aircraft that scored the victory.  You will see that the overwhelming number of victories were scored by F-15Cs of the USAF (and indeed, a disproportionate number of kills went to one particular squadron, the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing).  The reasons for this are complicated, involving joint command-and-control arrangements and inter-service politics, and remain controversial even two decades later.

In any event, two air-to-air engagements resulted in kills for the Navy.  The first encounter occurred on the first night of the war (Jan. 17), when two F/A-18C Hornets from VFA-81 “Sunliners” shot down a pair of Chinese knock-off MiG-21s while on the inbound leg to their ground target.  The second encounter occurred on Feb. 6, when an F-14A Tomcat from VF-1 “Wolfpack” shot down an Mi-8 helicopter while on a combat air patrol.

My puzzle related to the question of callsigns.  If you look at the litany of callsigns in the kill table, you will notice that almost all of the callsigns take the form of a call name followed by two digits.  The call name usually follows a theme, such as oil brands (QUAKER, CHEVRON, CITGO) or firearms (PISTOL, SPRINGFIELD), and the two digits indicate the position of an aircraft in an element or flight.  So, for example, the pair of F-15s from the 36th TFW that got four kills on Jan. 27 took the callsigns OPEC 01 (the leader) and OPEC 02 (his wingman).  This uniform system was dictated by the Air Tasking Order (ATO), the theater-wide air plan used to organize and control the very large numbers of armed aircraft crossing the skies over Iraq and Kuwait, the majority of which were ostensibly on the same side and should not be colliding into or employing weapons against one another.

So, let’s look at our Navy flights on Jan. 17 and Feb. 6.  We see that our MiG-killing F/A-18s took the callsigns QUICKSAND 64 and QUICKSAND 62, which appears to be consistent with the ATO system.  But our helo-busting F-14 was using a strange callsign that is not like the others:  WICHITA 103.  This is not an ATO-compliant callsign.  Rather, this is a “tactical callsign” used by Navy carrier air wings, comprised of a squadron-specific call name combined with the three-digit modex number painted on the side of the airplane.  “WICHITA” was the unique call name used by VF-1 “Wolfpack”, and the jet in question was #103.  (The Navy tactical callsigns for our Hornets from Jan. 17 would have been SUNLINER 401 and SUNLINER 410.)

Why did the Tomcat on Feb. 6 not use an ATO callsign?  It couldn’t have been an Air Force/Navy thing, since the Navy F/A-18s on Jan. 6 were using ATO callsigns.  It couldn’t have been a Tomcat/Hornet thing, since we know that when an F-14B from VF-103 was shot down on Jan. 21, it had the ATO callsign SLATE 46.

For years I assumed that this was simply a question of incomplete recordkeeping, and that there had to have been an ATO callsign somewhere that simply hadn’t made it into the public sources.  But when I inquired with the pilot of that F-14 last year, he told me that to the best of his recollection, his callsign on that day was in fact WICHITA 103.  So it seems there was a discrepancy, but still no indication as to why.

There the matter lay, until last night.  I was reading the transcript of an interview of Maj. Gen. ‘Alwan Hassoun ‘Alwan al-Abousi, formerly of the Iraqi Air Force, conducted by a team of American scholars and analysts after the fall of Saddam’s regime (Kevin Woods et al., Saddam’s Generals:  Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War, Institute for Defense Analyses 2011).  They were discussing a Jan. 24 incident where a pair of Iraqi Mirage F-1s had made an attack run against a Saudi refinery (the coalition had interpreted this as a move against the fleet in the Gulf).  Gen. al-Abousi expressed surprise that the Mirages had not been intercepted by American fighters immediately upon takeoff, which had been the case in the previous two days.  The American interviewer, Williamson Murray, responded with the following:

We discovered after the war that the combat air patrol (CAP) was being flown by F-14s based in the Pacific. The Pacific carrier air wings (US Navy) did not work with the US Air Force often. They did not have the call-sign and codes for getting the [Air Force] AWACS transmissions. AWACS called them regarding the two Iraqi aircraft, but the CAP was not listening to the transmission. The aircraft went right past the CAPs. A Saudi F-15 pilot, who heard the AWACS transmission, shot down the Iraqi aircraft.

The possibility of a difference in operating practices between Atlantic Fleet units and Pacific Fleet units had not occurred to me before.  The F/A-18s on Jan. 17 were assigned to VFA-81 aboard USS Saratoga (CV 60), which was an Atlantic Fleet carrier with an east coast air wing.  The F-14B lost on Jan. 21 was from VF-103, also from Saratoga.  But the Tomcat that shot down the helo on Feb. 6 was from VF-1 aboard USS Ranger (CV 61) —  a Pacific Fleet carrier with a west coast air wing.  All of the Atlantic Fleet aircraft were using ATO callsigns, but the Pacific Fleet F-14 was using a tactical callsign on Feb. 6.

A footnote in Saddam’s Generals led me to a naval history of ODS conducted by another D.C. thinktank (Marvin Pokrant, Desert Storm at Sea:  What the Navy Really Did, Center for Naval Analyses 1999), which contains the following passage:

NavCent [U.S. Navy Central Command] fighters . . . strained interservice command and control.  Sometimes it worked very well.  For example . . . on 6 February a NavCent F-14 Tomcat in the [southern] BarCAP station shot down an Iraqi helicopter only because of the vectors from the AWACS controlling the Tomcat.  At other times, command and control was not so smooth.  Conflicting call signs resulted in endless confusion.  Generally, NavCent aircraft would be controlled first by their parent carrier, then by the control ship in the northern Persian Gulf.  Crossing the coast, they would transfer control to the AWACS; this series of handoffs reversed on the return trip.  NavCent and CentAF [U.S. Air Force Central Command] used two different systems of call signs.  NavCent controllers used call signs based on the squadron call sign and the side number of the aircraft — for example, “Fast Eagle 101.”  CentAF controllers wanted to use the call signs listed in the ATO, such as “Factory 40” for a section of two aircraft.  Typically, neither control agent kept track of the other’s call signs.

Pokrant confirms the difference between Navy tactical callsigns and USAF-style ATO callsigns, but he doesn’t make the Atlantic/Pacific distinction that Murray did during the interview with the Iraqi general.  Instead, Pokrant simply refers to “NavCent” aircraft — that is, all U.S. Navy aircraft operating under the control of U.S. CENTCOM, which was running the war.  During ODS, the Navy operated aircraft carriers both in the Persian Gulf and in the Red Sea; Ranger was in the Gulf, while Saratoga was in the Red Sea.  It is interesting that the passage above refers to air control arrangements over the Persian Gulf, but omits mention of naval air activities in the southwest originating from the Red Sea carriers.

This suggests an explanation for why the F-14 that shot down the Mi-8 on Feb. 6 used a Navy-style tactical callsign, while its sister fighter and strike-fighter squadrons on the east coast adopted ATO callsigns consistent with USAF standards.  There were procedural inconsistencies between the methods applied by the Air Force and the Navy in controlling fighters, exemplified by two separate callsign systems.  The Atlantic Fleet squadrons (perhaps more familiar with the USAF way of doing business because of joint training opportunities in the Mediterranean) were able to overcome this friction and adapt to the USAF-run ATO process, including using ATO callsigns.  But Pacific Fleet squadrons, whose usual operating area was the vast western Pacific Ocean, did not “speak Air Force” as fluently, and tended to retain their usual operating methods (including Navy tactical callsigns).

It’s also possible that it was not strictly an Atlantic/Pacific Fleet issue, but differences between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf operating environments, such as the amount of time Red Sea-based Navy aircraft spent under USAF AWACS control as compared to their Gulf-based counterparts.  Navy aircraft originating from the Red Sea had to fly a considerable distance over Saudi territory to reach targets in Iraq.  If the Air Force’s AWACS crews, rather than the Navy’s own E-2 controllers, had primary responsibility for overland control (as Pokrant suggests was true), then the Red Sea Navy may simply have been forced to deal more closely with the Air Force as a matter of geography.

In the end, of course, the details of a particular radio call sign used on a particular day over twenty years ago are unimportant.  But all of this highlights the teething problems that the USN and the USAF faced in developing the processes necessary to conduct truly joint air operations.  We see that two Iraqi Mirages were able to slip through a gap in the counterair screen as a result (at least until they ran into a Saudi F-15).  And although this merits a much longer discussion, these command and control problems may have also contributed to the uneven distribution of air-to-air victories between the USAF and the USN.

In the two decades of extended joint air operations conducted by the U.S. that have since elapsed, most of these problems have since been addressed.  It will be interesting to see how new rising air powers, looking to develop similar operational synergies between their land-based and naval air arms, will fare at the same task.

USAF F-22A from 1st FW, in formation with USN F/A-18E from VFA-27. USAF photo.

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10 Responses to The Mystery of “WICHITA 103”

  1. Dave Parsons says:

    I flew from JFK in the Red Sea and we used our squadron callsigns when talking to ship, Battle Group ships or our own Air Wing. We only used the ATO callsign when we checked in with AWACS. Make sense?

    • RJL says:

      Hi HJ–

      It does make sense, and is a helpful data point that supports what I’ve read about sorties originating from the Red Sea (published accounts of VF-103’s combat loss reflects the same thing on Saratoga…everyone had both a squadron callsign and also an ATO callsign). It sounds like this wasn’t the case on Ranger, though. Whether this was a Gulf/Red Sea thing, or an Atlantic/Pacific thing, who knows?

      Great to hear from you again! Have been meaning to get in touch…I’ll email you separately about something else Tomcat-related that I’m working on…

  2. Jim Huffman says:

    That is an interesting exploration. I wonder if we will ever know for sure about the call sign mix-up. I think the Pacific/Atlantic idea seems to hold the most water. I am particularly interest in why there were nuclear powered air craft carriers. My specialty is Cold War, so I haven’t looked at the Gulf War much. Was it simply a matter of up-keep periods falling just so? Or was there a conscious effort to keep Nukes out of the confined waters of the Gulf and Red Sea? Or was it because of the nearness of fueling facilities just making it easier for the fleet supply arm? I would think that having to supply bunker fuel would be an added problem, and in time of war wouldn’t you want to cut those needs as much as possible to keep the Avgas flowing easier and not have to worry about the ship fuel? I don’t know. Does anyone out there know? Was it conscious or just a coincidence that kept nuclear carriers from the war?

    • RJL says:

      My guess is that it was an artifact of the deployment cycle, as various CVNs came in before and after hostilities. FWIW, there was one nuke in theater during Jan/Feb — Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) was in the Gulf with CVW-8.

  3. CG-23 Sailor says:

    More than just jokes and rivalry between the two “fleets”… East and West coast Navy, there is a very real difference in operational training.

    One aspect that I was aware of from way back then is in the simply matter of Authentication. Details are hazy to me now and I was only a junior enlisted guy, but when you required someone to authenticate, you read out two letters, the person needing to authenticate would cross reference them on a table and read back the result. Depending on whether you read the table across then down, or Down first then across, you would get two different results.

    East Coast did it one way and West coast did it another, which could lead to serious confusion when Units from both the East and West coast operated together such as in the MidEast.

    Just one of the things I learned while attending Radio/Telephone talkers school at Naval Amphib Base Coronado. Never used Authentication much in practice as my being an EW, we were always communicating with the other EWs on other ships in the group on the same encrypted net. OS’s dealing with other outside units were the ones generally doing all the Authentications.

    But definitely there were operational differences between East and West Coast Fleets.

  4. OlAF says:

    Mr RJL,
    Allow me to participate on this topic in all fairness and impartiality and openly.
    First off all the coalition air to air victory table contains some inaccurate victories, which is didn’t happened nor exist in reality. At the first night of the war we lost only two MIG-29’s of 39Sq, flown by Major Tariq Saeed formation leader and Capt Emad Mohammed took off from Talha airfield while they just climb 2Km was shot down, both pilots KIA.
    Prior to that Major Sabah Mutlaq Squadron commander of 89Sq Mirage F1EQ4,took off from Abu Ubaidah AB being shot down by U.S F-15, he eject safely “Note Major Sabah had a three air victory during Iraq-Iran war One F-14 and two F-4s”.
    At the meantime Capt Hassan 73Sq, MIG-23ML took off from Saad AB while he just turned right with less than 2Km was shot down and KIA.
    This all Iraqi air force losses during the first night of the war Jan 17-1991.
    *No Mirage F1 impacted the ground “Insincere claims”.
    *No more losses to MIG-29 or Mirage F1 or any other aircraft at the first night “at all”.

    Mid afternoon around 1500 Jan 17 1991 two Iraqi F-7B flown by First lieutenant Abbas Khudair and F.lieutenant Laith 47Sq took off from Almrsnh airfield 22Km Northwest H3 was shot down by U.S F-18s, both pilots KIA.

    On Jan 19-1991 our losses was as follows:
    Tow MIG-25s flown by Capt Saad Nehme formation leader and F.lieutenant Hussein Abdul Sattar was shot down, F.lieutenant Hussein KIA.
    One MIG-29 flown by Capt. Jameel Sayhood 39Sq, was shot down eject but injured.
    *No Mig-29 impacted the ground “Insincere claims”.
    Two Mirage F1BQs flown by Capt Hani Idriss and Capt Ziad Albeso 89Sq took off from Saddam air base, that was exactly at 1430 local time, while they took off minute alter being shot down by F-15s ambush them near by Makmura.

    ** on Jan 24-1991 we lost two Mirage F1EQ4s flown by Major. Ali Hussein Fadel and Capt. Mohammed Saleem from 89Sq of Abu Ubaidah AB in mission to attack Saudi refinery “Ras Tanura” the two Iraq Mirage was loaded by (x2 400Kg SAMP parachute bombs + x1 2200 drop tank + x1 sicomor + x1 Remora ECM pod + x2 R.550 Magic + 30mm DEFA cannon with 250 rounds) they did took off at 1149:30 from Abu Ubaidah air base (TOT 1245) and fly south along the Iranian border at extremely low altitude 30 to 50m, with very high speed 940kph to minimize the chances of any detection. After successfully complete their air refueling couple time the formation continued to fly less than 50 meters with 960Kph heading towards to Ras Tanura, whith skillful pilots and good planning Major Ali and No2 Mohammad Saleem successfully rip off coalition naval units and cross Saudi territorial waters, the two Iraqi Mirages flew along a control boundary between the U.S. Air Force and Navy as well. The Iraqi jets made it to a point approximately 70km south of the Kuwaiti border just off the Saudi coast without being challenged. the coalition had constant patrol of F-14 and F-18 to the south west of Kuwait some of these patrols aircraft had intercepted them but did not succeed, at the but Major Ali “the formation leader” being shot down by coalition navy, he managed to eject and lost one of his foot during ejaculation process and he was survived 84 days in a Saudi hospital “but he died for unknown reasons did not mentioned in the report at all!!”, Capt. Mohammad Saleem hit the water “we don’t know for sure he is being shot down by coalition navy and wasn’t able to eject or outmaneuver hit the water” regrettably his body did not recovered. Therefore i would like to make it clear: There is no Saudi F-15s involved in the incident.
    On Jan 26-1991 we lost two MIG-23MLs only flown by Major Shaker Rehan Hammoud and Capt.Kareem Hassan and Capt.Faisal all the three pilots from 73Sq, took off from Saad AB to evacuate the aircraft to al-Bakr AB, first Major Shaker Rehan the formation leader was shot down KIA, then in visual contact Capt.Kareem and Capt.Faisal clashed with a group of F-15s, Capt.Kareem being shot down and he is KIA, Capt.Faisal managed of disengage and back to land safely.
    One Jan 27-1991 the Iraqi Mirage flown by Capt.Thaer al Sieed 79Sq hit the hills formation due to the low altitude and air robe “there was no air threat at all”.
    *No Il-76 shot down during DS 1991.
    *No Su-7 at service in Iraqi air force since 1982/83.
    *No PC-9 shot down during DS 1991, and Iraqi PC-9 has no ejection seat.
    *No more than 4 Iraqi helicopters lost in aerial combat.

    I will provide the rest of the details later in regard to the period of evacuation the aircraft to Iran (MIG-23s and SU-22s numbers inaccurate).

    Feel free if you have any further question to Major General Alwan al-Abousi or to us XFP you can send it on the attached Email.

  5. Rick says:

    great info thanks, how come Iraq used two MirageF1BQs on 19 Jan 1991???! arent they double seaters?

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