Although the general location of Strike Fleet Atlantic was known with near certainty, the Backfires and Badgers still required relatively current information on the enemy formations. Obtaining this valuable data was not a simple task. By this point of the war satellite coverage, reconnaissance flights and other means of detection were severely degraded on the Soviet side. The number of remaining Bears and EW-equipped Badgers was in the high single digits. Every one of these aircraft would be committed to the carrier attack. Their crews were seasoned veterans, having survived everything NATO threw at them. But even these men were aware that given the circumstances, this morning’s mission would most be a one-way trip for most of them.
The Backfire and Badger crews were also professionals, though only a scant few were what could be considered seasoned veterans. None of these pilots and flight officers had taken part in more than one strike against an enemy carrier formation in the northern waters. They had experienced first-hand the sheer horrors of having F-14 Tomcats and their vaunted AIM-54s appear in large numbers out of nowhere. They’d watched the aircraft of their friends and comrades get blotted out of the sky in rapid secession as they pushed on to their firing points and descended to lower altitudes. There, they encountered more Tomcats armed with shorter-ranged Sparrows and Sidewinders. Somehow these crews had survived, fired their missiles, and escaped to live and fight again. Most by nursing their damaged bombers back to the Kola.
Handicapped by the lack of intelligence on Strike Fleet Atlantic, the Badger and Backfire crews would have to rely on the reports and data provided by the unarmed aircraft that would go in ahead of them. The Bears and Badger H modified bombers started lifting off from their runways at 1100 local time on D+24, forty minutes before the first anti-ship missile armed bombers would begin their own takeoff runs. For men like Vitaly Suslov, the pre-flight walks out to their aircraft and engine start-ups afforded them one final opportunity to take in and appreciate the scenery around them.
“I had been stationed on the Kola before and knew the region fairly well,” Suslov recalled. “I always considered it a remote, barren land. But on this particular morning it was different. The sky was a moving shade of blue. The grass and fields surrounding our apron and taxiway had never looked so green and memorable. As I tripped my aircraft’s brakes, I chided myself for never having appreciated the beauty of my surroundings before. I was convinced this was to be my final opportunity to do so.” A rueful shake of his head. “In my mind I knew I would not be returning, and had made my peace with that.”
Author’s Note: Ran short of time today….football and all. So, I’ll have to put up a third part on Tuesday.