Twenty-four years ago today, 19 January 1991, the first daylight air strike in Operation Desert Storm went into the heart of the Iraqi Capital. Known as “Package Q,” the strike group consisted of fifty-six F-16Cs from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing and 401st Tactical Fighter Wing, along with some F-4Gs from the 561st Fighter Squadron and Boeing F-15Cs from the 53d Fighter Squadron. The aircraft were organized into the largest strike package of the war and the largest F-16 strike in history.

Lockheed-Martin F-16Cs from the 401 TFW (Provisional) at Torrejon Air Base in Spain, were tasked with destroying three targets in Baghdad: the Iraqi Air Force Headquarters, the Republican Guard Headquarters, and a large oil refinery. Vipers from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah would be spearheading the strike, assigned to a nuclear research facility on the outskirts of the capital.

As Package Q approached the initial point, anti-aircraft artillery (Triple-A, or AAA) opened up on them, hurling a staggering amount of lead into the sky. Most of the flack was between ten and twelve thousand feet, but some of the large-caliber rounds were detonating as high as 27,000ft (8,230m). The low altitude Triple-A became so thick it appeared to form its own cloud layer. There were thousands of anti-aircraft guns alerted to their presence, as well as hundreds of SAM emplacements along their route and around Baghdad itself.

The Wild Weasels left the fray early, either because they were “Arizona” and fired all of their HARMs, or because they experienced critical fuel states and needed to leave in order to get back safely. Warnings about the departure of the Weasels went unheard. The Boeing F-15C Eagles providing the Offensive Counter Air pre-strike sweep also departed as the first wave of the strikes peeled off their target. Again, a warning about their departure went unheard. Unbeknownst to the Viper drivers from the 401 TFW, they were all pretty much flying straight into hell’s mouth with no air cover, no electronic warfare support, and no SEAD assets available to assist them.

A low overcast deck mostly obscured the Iraqi Air Force Headquarters and the Republican Guard Headquarters, so the package commander called a weather abort for those two targets. The southern portion of the city was clear, and the oil refinery was clearly visible. As they approached the action point to roll in on the refinery, a SAM launch warning was received.

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Major Emmett “ET” Tullia, flying under the mission callsign of “Stroke 3,” received additional SA-2 and SA-3 acquisition warnings that went unheeded as he rolled in on the towers. The high angle diving delivery prevented the electronic countermeasures pod from detecting the SAM acquisition until he pulled off the target and turned south. As the missiles closed, a nightmare falsetto of the radar warning receiver announced the missile launches. The SAMs overshot and harmlessly detonated above his aircraft, and he turned back to the egress heading.

Tullia became separated from the rest of the package because of his missile defense. As he evaded the initial SAMs coming off the target, more missiles launched, this time from both rear quadrants of his aircraft. Training for SAM launches up to this point had been more or less book learning, recommending violent turns approximately shortly prior to missile impact, forcing the missile to overshoot and create enough distance to negate the effects of the detonating warhead. The hard part is to see the missile early enough to make all the mental calculations and not get smashed into bits.

The violent twisting and turning through the sky while defending against the SAMs resulted in Tullia’s jet descending to an altitude that put him in the heart of the Triple-A envelope. The only answer in this case was to unload, get some airspeed back, and then regain the lost altitude. Attempting to do just that, a pair of SA-6 missile sites launched at his jet.

Tullia continued to unload and accelerate, watching the missiles as they closed on his aircraft. As he reefed his Viper into yet another series of gut-wrenching turns, one missile passed so close that Tullia heard the roar of the rocket motor as it went by. Finally, as he reached the outskirts of the city, an optically guided missile of unknown type is fired at the F-16. There is no radar warning of the launch, Tullia forced the missile to overshoot and it exploded harmlessly out of range.

Major Tullia came back to the 401st’s Forward Operating Base in Doha, Qatar squawking “Code 1,” meaning the jet was in perfect working order and required no significant attention from maintenance. After walking around the jet post-flight, he changed it to Code 2 because he discovered all of his missile countermeasures–the chaff and flare modules–were still full. His crew chief was absolutely astonished at the discovery. The countermeasures never fired off, so Tullia successfully defeated seven SAMs of one flavor or other…on flying skill alone.

For his actions in the sky that day, Major Emmett “ET” Tullia was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation reads as follows:

“The President of the United States takes great pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to Major Emmett A. Tullia, II for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as an F-16 Pilot assigned to the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional) in action supporting the coalition forces of Operation Desert Storm.

On 19 January 1991, over Iraq’s capitol of Baghdad, Major Tullia faced the enemy’s most concentrated array of surface-to-air missiles consisting of more than twenty-five known sites and untold numbers of anti-aircraft artillery batteries, and skillfully maneuvered his aircraft to attack a critical strategic target. Undaunted by the defenses which shot down two other aircraft near him, he continued his attack, delivering his bombs precisely on target.

After destroying the target, he then was forced to outmaneuver five enemy surface-to-air missiles which were fired at his aircraft in rapid succession, requiring the utmost of pilot ability and maneuverability. The effectiveness of his strike was proven as the world viewed the results on the evening news. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Major Tullia reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”