An F-111 of the 48th Fighter Wing exits a hardened aircraft shelter at Lakenheath to take part in the Libyan Raid US National Archives
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Operation El Dorado Canyon: Raid on Libya

In retaliation for the deadly bombing of a West Berlin nightclub in April 1986, US President Ronald Reagan ordered an attack at the heart of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Ten days later, F-111s took off from RAF Lakenheath for what would become the longest combat fighter mission in history. 

On the night of 5th April 1986, an explosion ripped through the dancefloor of a crowded West Berlin discotheque, sending partygoers tumbling into the cellar below. Two people died at the scene, 29-year-old Turkish woman Nermin Hannay and 21-year-old US Sergeant Kenneth T. Ford. Another US sergeant, James E. Goins, died later in hospital. Over 200 people were injured in the blast, including 79 Americans.

At a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Libya, the US government was quick to accuse Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi of sponsoring the bombing, citing “exact, precise, and irrefutable” evidence. Just two weeks before the terror attack, Gaddafi had called for assaults on US interests in revenge for the March 1986 sinking of two Libyan ships in the Gulf of Sidra.

US President Ronald Reagan ordered a decisive retaliation that would strike at the heart of Gaddafi’s regime. USAF planners had already spent months developing detailed strategies for aerial strikes on Libyan targets. However, the US Air Force was forced to return to the drawing board when key European allies, including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, refused to support an assault, fearing that their cooperation would bring reprisals. This tense geopolitical situation meant that any mission would have to avoid neutral airspace and instead fly through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar and eastwards over the Mediterranean.

AnF-111 of the 48th TFW flies over the English Channel US National Archives

The mission, codenamed El Dorado Canyon, would be a 13-hour round trip flight of 6,400 miles – the longest fighter combat mission in history. The Air Force needed an aircraft with the range and firepower to carry out the raid, at night, and in possibly poor conditions. The F-111F Aardvark, equipped with powerful Pratt & Whitney TF-30 P-100 turbofan engines and an innovative new Pave Tack bombing system, was deemed to be the only aircraft in the US inventory capable of completing the long-range attack.

< An F-111 of the 48th Fighter Wing flies over the English Channel

On the evening of 14th April, ten days after the West Berlin bombing, 24 F-111s of the 48th Fighter Wing took off from Lakenheath. Five EF-111A Ravens from the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron, based at RAF Upper Heyford, were also launched. The Ravens, nicknamed ‘Sparkvarks’, would join with US Navy carrier-based EA-6B Prowlers to jam enemy radar systems. Supporting this aerial armada were KC-10 tankers, which would refuel the F-111s eight times over the course of the mission. The KC-10s would, in turn, be refueled by KC-135 Stratotankers. It was the first time that a US bombing mission had been flown from British soil since the Second World War.  

As per the plan, six F-111s and one EF-111 returned to base once the mission was underway, leaving the remaining crews to settle in for the long journey to Libya. As the aircraft approached the Libyan coast, strike support aircraft took off from the USS Coral Sea and the USS America aircraft carriers. While the EF-111 Ravens commenced electronic countermeasures, the Navy aircraft provided surface-to-air missile (SAM) suppression. Five minutes later, F-111s began their attack on the Azizyah barracks in Tripoli and the Sidi Bilal terrorist training camp, while the second wave struck the military airport in Tripoli. Using terrain-following radar, the F-111s could fly low, using its Pave Tack laser-targeting system to guide missiles to the targets. SAMs and intense anti-aircraft fire lit up the night sky. Of the 18 F-111s involved in the raid, only four successfully hit their targets. The rest either missed, encountered mechanical problems or failed to meet the strict rules of engagement. One F-111, 'Karma 52', was reported to have been struck by a SAM.

US President Ronald Reagan delivers an address from the Oval Office US National Archives

As the adrenaline of the assault slowly wore off, the home-bound crews listened helplessly as radio calls to missing F-111 'Karma 52' went unanswered. On another channel, the results of the raid were already being broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, along with commentary from the Secretary of State. Despite the loss of one aircraft and the poor mechanical performance of many of the F-111s, the raid was deemed a success. Speaking from the Oval Office, President Reagan addressed the nation and thanked the members of the armed forces who carried out the attack.

When the F-111s and EF-111s finally landed back in England the exhausted crews were met with a jubilant reception by base personnel. The raid had succeeded in striking all three targets and had the longer-term effect of rattling Gaddafi, to the extent that the following months would see a marked decrease in Libyan-sponsored terrorist activity.

Despite its popular support in the US, the raid was widely condemned by European nations, who felt that Libya and other Arab nations would set out to avenge the 39 civilians killed in the attack; a death toll reported to include Gaddafi's adopted daughter. For the aircrews who flew in the Libyan Raid, the success of the mission was dampened by the loss of ‘Karma 52’ and its crew, Captain Fernando Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Paul Lorence, most likely as a result of enemy fire. The raid’s planners felt that the last-minute decision to increase the assault to an 18-plane attack had made the F-111s more vulnerable to Libyan defences.

While controversial, Operation El Dorado Canyon proved that the US Air Force could deliver precision strikes to targets thousands of miles away; an early example of the US's Global Reach capability that would become a pillar of US Air Force doctrine in the decades to come. 

An F-111 taking part in El Dorado Canyon takes off from Lakenheath on the evening of 14th April 1986 US National Archives

As well as proving USAF’s ability to launch long-range attacks, the raid also brought to the surface problems with the F-111 that were subsequently resolved. To the amazement of the F-111’s critics, this valuable testing ground meant that the much-maligned aircraft was yet to have its finest hour. Five years later, during Operation Desert Storm, the F-111F flew more missions and destroyed more targets than any aircraft in the war. 

< An F-111 takes off from RAF Lakenheath on the evening of 14th April 1986. Eighteen F-111s would take part in Operation El Dorado Canyon. One failed to return.