Operation Just Cause

A brief history of Colonel Chris Miller's experiences in Panama

Assault on Rio Hato : Howard AFB : Tour the AOR : Write Me

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Rio Hato is a small airfield that straddles the Pan-American Highway. It's located just a mile or so inland on the southern side of the isthmus, and has a military facility that housed a garrison of Panamanian Defense Force (PDF). Manuel Noriega also had a residence there, and the airrfield was to be secured in order to prevent him from using the facility to make good an escape.
Intially, we had very little information to go off of. The field wasn't instrumented, so there was no data in the IFR Supp. Also, it hadn't been surveyed for use as an assault strip in over 15 years, so the information we did have was sketchy at best. We knew going in that navaids would be non-existent, and that there was a 14.5MM anti-aircraft battery on the field. We also knew that the Pan-American highway would probably have traffic on it... an extra hazard for the Rangers we were dropping.

The 317th Tac Airlift Wing was located at Pope AFB - literally in the 82nd's backyard. Nothing ever happened anywhere in the world without the Division G-3 immediately alerting his airlift counterpart in Building 900.

Although the mission was primarily a Special Ops show, the 317th had a unique capability that the Rangers needed in order to meet their mission requirements - Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System (AWADS). About 2/3 of the C-130s assigned to the 317th were equipped with onboard computers that were linked to a high-resolution radar. The capability allows the aircraft to drop blacked-out or in zero-zero weather. Since the mission could not rely on good weather, and because blacked-out conditions were called for, the 317th was chosen. In addition, a new computer called the self-contained navigation system (SCNS) had been installed on two Pope birds for test and evaluation. Both were ultimately used in the assault.

The 40th TAS was selected as the lead squadron, primarily because the 41st TAS was scheduled for a Volant Pine rotation. With every third aircraft an AWADS, the followers in between could be "dumb birds" - C-130s not equipped with the high-res radar or the special computers. The 61st TAS out of Little Rock was initially chosen as the "wingmen" for the assault. Although the 61st would participate in the rehearsal mission, the 50th TAS from Little Rock would ultimately fly the actual assault.

Earlier in the year, the 317th had an operational readiness exercise (ORE) in which defense of the canal zone had been the scenario. Maj Mike Riede was the Chief of Intel at the 317th and Maj Joe Bob Stuka was the Chief of Tactics. The Tactics office planning and navigation team consisted of Capt Paul "Monty" Montgomery, Capt Gregory "Lee" Coy, and Capt Chris "Dancing Bear" Miller (me). While planning the air ops for the ORE, we developed a couple of tactics that purely by coincedence happened to meet requirements for the assault profile; so we actually got to use them when Just Cause rolled around. Little did we know...

Monty and Joe Bob had been on the team that was doing the PD&E for the SCNS. Needless to say, they were identified as serial leaders immediately. Monty would be the nav on the lead aircraft for serial 1 (personnel). Joe Bob would be the pilot on the lead bird for serial 2 (heavy equipment). Since the 40th was the lead squadron, Lee (attached to the 40th) was also identified as a primary crewmember. I was a 41st baby, so was identified as the REMF at FOB-A. It didn't help that I also had an SCI clearance and was one of the few guys in the office who would be allowed in the special ops SCIF during the final planning phase.

Planning was a real mess. We were staging out of two FOBs in the southeast US, but had to get there without arousing the suspicions of anyone who might be watching Pope's Green Ramp for any activity. Essentially, we snuck out of the base in onesies and twosies over a two-day period along with all the maintenance and communications support we could get onboard. SATCOMs and operators were flown directly to the FOBs from McGuire AFB, and we were met at the FOBs by the special ops guys who had overall mission command. Initially, the special ops guys did not want to incorporate the "slick" planning team into their overall effort, citing the "need to know" limitations on all the other SOF stuff that was taking place outside the two airfield assaults. Since the intel and airspace were all tied together, though, this amounted to slapping a "secret - no aircrew" classification on the info. Eventually we got it worked out by letting the only SCI on the planning team (me) into the SCIF to pull everything together, and setting up a "release time" when I could pass the info on to the "slick" crews.

Now, this was a time of transition for the AWADS. The original system was a "drum drive" computer with a very poor reliability rating, called the ASN-24. This system had the ability to store 6 low-precision waypoints and 6 high-precision radar targets. The system used the APQ-122v1 RADAR, which had an 8-inch green analog display, and used both an X and a Ka band R/T and an antenna that could switch between fan and pencil beams. The computer would generate a set of crosshairs on the RADAR scope that would align with one of the radar targets. By tweaking the crosshairs onto the actual target and pressing an update button, the navigator could update the computer position based on the relative range & bearing information programmed during preflight. On the run-in, the PI on the DZ would be programmed as R6, and the cursor would be placed in a "hot mode", allowing the updates to take place instantaneously and with a higher degree of sensitivity than for en route navigation. This mode was called "DZ up". With the development of the SCNS, all this was going away. The SCNS would have a digital computer with a ring-laser gyro INS integrated. The RADAR unit would not change until 1992. The SCNS had been loaded onto aircraft 1272 and 1276, and was still being tested and tweaked prior to retrofitting the entire fleet. However, in the meantime, the ASN-24 was no longer being supported by either the budget or the contractor. So in the interim, many of the AWADS aircraft had been temporarily fitted with a palletized inertial navigation system, or PINS, which had been canned off of the fleet of C-141s. The PINS had its own problems, but was an acceptable "quick fix" over the three years it took to bring SCNS online. Consequently, all new navs and pilots in the AWADS units were trained only on PINS, and not on ASN-24. The reason all of this is important is because without this explanation, there is no good reason for why I was the RADAR nav on Chalk 10 (4E1).

The day of the briefing, the crews were pulled together in the auditorium and given a brief overall scenario, and a detailed lecture on the Rio Hato assault itself. The intelligence brief was followed by a concept brief during which the Ranger briefing the ground ops stated, "I need 30 seconds straight and level over the drop zone to get all my guys out. No maneuvering, no dodging gunfire. Anyone who doesn't like that can leave now without disgrace." No one moved. Following the concept brief, the charts, flight plans, and packets with comm cards, SPINS, load plans, etc. were handed out, and the crews began their detailed preparations. They were then put into crew rest.

Takeoff roughly corresponded with sunset the following day, so alert was about 1100. Of course, no one could sleep much that late, so everyone was up and around looking for something to do that wouldn't violate crew rest. Finally, everyone started trickling into the briefing room, and we got going with the actual mission brief. It was amazing to hear how many aircraft would be airborne just to support the airfield takedowns, how many deception plans were in place to facilitate the element of surprise, and how much coordination had to go into getting us all from the southeast United States to past Isla del Cignes without hitting each other in the air. It was also amazing how bureaucratic bull could still affect military operations during a contingency. Thank goodness for our Intel officer, Capt Danita Woods.

Apparenlty, the Intel community had gone through a reorg recently where someone somewhere decided that Intel officers at the unit levels should not do their own analysis. The fallout from this was essentially that the DIA would publish a report, and the local Intel folks would read it, adding or detracting nothing from the "official" DIA analysis. What this also meant is that the analysis fit some arbitrary and nebulous "model" somewhere in the bowels of Washington DC that was neither subject to nor the beneficiary of anyone with a vested interest in the lives of the crewmembers they worked with daily. Danita recognized this. There was raw Intel indicating numerous threats in the vicinity of the strike area. However, because the reports were either uncorroborated or did not meet the requirements of the model, the local Intel shops were specifically told they could not include that information in the mission brief. However, Danita had read the raw data, done her own analysis, and determined that it was still information the crews needed to be aware of - particularly if they found themselves in an E&E situation. So... Danita proceeded to brief, "As you all are aware, local Intelligence officers are no longer permitted to do their own analysis. Therefore, I cannot mention..." and proceeded to pass on the information. Turns out, she was right.

So, the crews had stepped, and I'm going through the rows cleaning up all the paperwork for shred/burn, and Joe Bob comes in the side of the auditorium and yells over to me, "Bear! You're still checked out on the -24, right?" I replied that I was, followed by his directive to, "Grab your helmet and get out to spot 12. You're on Blume's crew." It turns out that the herk assigned to Pete Blum and crew had unreparable problems identified in preflight. One of the other PINS birds had problems as well, and there was only one PINS spare. The other spare was an old ASN-24 bird, and I was the only nav at the FOB who had a current check ride with a -24. So I ended up replacing a rather pissed off lieutenant from the 40th who ended up with REMF duties that night.

All told, we had a full load of 7 people on our flight deck: AC, copilot, safety pilot (who was also the airborne deputy mission commander), RADAR nav, window nav, flight engineer, and SATCOM operator. We also had a full load of 64 paratroopers from the 75th Rangers in the back with our two loadmasters. Plus, we had a mximum fuel load, requiring a waiver for us to exceed the peacetime limit on max gross weight for takeoff.

The long flight from FOB-A to the drop zone involved several phases of flight. We took off individually, partly to prevent unwanted interest from airport watchers and partly to allow us to fly for several hours without having the additional strain of trying to maintain formation. The first few hours got us out over the Gulf of Mexico to a rally point. Once we became an extended trail formation, we pressed out along our route of flight. Timing and altitude were extremely critical at our next four checkpoints due to deconfliction with other aircraft/serials operating in the same area. As little as a 500 foot deviation in altitude or a 30 second error in time control, and we would be just another statistic.

We had some idea of what other aircraft in the package were doing. AWACS was airborne both to control the flow of friendly traffic and to watch for hostile air assets launching against us. F-15s flew CAP at more than one location. Tankers were airborne all along the multiple routes to refuel AWACS, the fighters, and eventually the C-141s launching out of Pope AFB with the 82nd. Special ops birds of all types were operating in the area, and several aircraft had been worked into the tactical deception plan. All told, there were more than 150 aircraft bound for Panama that night.

Most of the flight was long and dull. It gave some of us a chance to catch a nap, plus allowed us all to review our combat checklists, blackout procedures, and the mission plan itself. We did have a couple stress points. The first was the flight profile that put us in very close proximity to the other aircraft in the package. The second was our SATCOM operator. There are a number of rumors out there about how the news leaked out. One story says that a phone call from inside Washington DC was placed to a Noriega aide with the message, "Party's on for tonight." Another story says that an NBC news correspondent was awakened in his home in Chicago, handed a script, and told to "play act" a fictional correspondent on the ground in Panama. Yet another story says that Peter Jenkins announced our target and TOTs on the 11:00 o'clock news. Whatever the story, it was a little chilling when our SATCOM operator came up on interphone saying simply, "They know we're coming."

Islas Del Cisne was our "get well" point prior to reaching the isthmus. Our route of flight would take us from there over the isthmus to the Pacific side, using the volcano for cover. Prior to making landfall, we blacked out our aircraft and made our descent to tactical altitude. At this point, we were using a combination of IFR and VFR procedures. We were using the AWADS and station keeping equipment (SKE) to maintain formation integrity, but weather was good, and we had visual contact with the ground, so we maintained the lower VFR altitudes to minimize our exposure. Once over the Pacific, we had two dog legs to line us up on final approach into the airfield.

We had been briefed that the airfield was defended by a single 14.5MM anti-aircraft emplacement, either a ZPU-2 or ZPU-4. We had been told that SA-7 and REDEYE missiles were a possibility. We had also been told that the F-117s would be dropping bombs - the first to take out the AA gun, and the second to hit near the PDF barracks to cause "awe and confusion". Whatever the official story was, the truth was that the stealth's missed. According to the Nighthawk Association website, lead had gotten some bad coordinates, and two got confused about the location of the target. According to eyewitness accounts on my aircraft, the bombs went off about 1/4 to 1/2 mile away from the airfield, near a soccer field that you can see on the satellite photos. I heard a rumor later that the stealth pilots were awarded DFCs for their "shock and surprise" mission. I don't know if that's true or not either. What I do know is that the small arms fire started hitting chalk 3, and the 14.5MM started hitting chalk 7.

Way back in chalk 10, adrenaline was starting to flow. We'd seen the bomb blasts miss the airfield, and knew we were screwed. In addition to that, we could see the small arms fire open up on the lead aircraft as they started crossing the end of the runway. Lead and two pretty much got by. Three started picking up the heat. When the tracers opened up from the ZPU, we could see a distinct difference. The tracers looked like soup cans coming up from the ground. The gunner appeared to be firing blindly at our blacked-out aircraft, missing by a wide margin. Eventually, he started firing low, and walked the elevation of the gun barrel up until the tracers disappeared. That was how he found our altitude. Fortunately, we had briefed SKE altitudes for the airdrop regardless of weather, so each element of 3 was stacked slightly higher than the element in front of them. Chalk 7 was the lead aircraft in element 3, and the first to take fire from the ZPU. Chalk 9 actually had an engine taken out, although we didn't know it at the time.

When we turned onto the run-in, I dutifully snapped the toggle switch on the ASN-24 to "DZ up". Normally, this orients the RADAR scope with the drop zone at the top, the cursors on one of two offset aim points (whichever is selected), and switches the pilot's instrumentation to "sensitive steering". Unfortunately, since the technology was right out of the Korean War, a frequent problem was what we called a "dropped point". This meant the computer just lost the coordinates of a programmed point. The most frequent occurrence of this was to drop R6 - the PI coordinates - right when you go "DZ up". Like clockwork, that's what happened. Fortunately, we had good navs on board. I used a technique where I would store the low-precision coordinates of the PI in waypoint 6 (D6). This way, I could call up D6, lock the displays, and save the low-prec coords to R6 with the touch of a button. You lost some of the accuracy, but you saved the drop. In the meantime, the window nav had picked up the tracer fire from the field, positively identified the ZPU, and assisted with the steering using visual cues. Ultimately, I ended up calling out a manual airborne RADAR approach (ARA) to line the pilot up on the ruunway, and window called the drop based on timing from landfall.

From the time we noticed the ground fire to the time we made our escape, everyone was a little tense. We had packed some extra flack vests onboard, and the window nav and safety pilot were packing them into the kick windows and around the circuit breaker panels. It was funny watching window and safety fighting for standing room on top of the vests laying on the floor as we got closer to the field. The engineer and I were sitting on our steel pot helments, and SATCOM was bunched up in a ball on the lower bunk. Everyone was trying to look very small. Pete Blume was the AC, and you could hear his voice getting higher pitched and faster as we got closer to the zone. My head was buried in the scope with one hand on the antenna knob and one hand on the joystick. Everyone was hotmike, and the noise was terrible. The Rangers were singing in the back of the plane.

I called the one-minute warning. The noise from the back was almost deafening. We made landfall, and window started timing. About 30 seconds out, we heard the first rounds hitting the skin of the airplane. To this day, I describe the sound as similar to a wooden pencil punching through a styrofoam coffee cup. We learned later on that we had been hit 21 times, only once (in the left main wheel well) by the large caliber weapon. At 5 seconds, we crossed the runway threshhold, and I thought the Rangers were gonna go on their own. I'm glad they didn't or the first few would have wound up back in the water due to the 15 knot headwind we had. Window called "green light" about 500 feet down the runway. When the light came on, we all started counting... 30 seconds with no maneuvering... 30 seconds is an eternity when there are bullets hitting the fuselage.

Finally, the loadmaster yelled "Load clear!", and without hesitation, Pete pushed the throttles up and started a climbing left turn... about 3Gs is my guess... the G-meter read higher when we taxied in, but I'm sure that was because of the landing. We were about halfway through the turn when the SKE proximity warning started blaring. Pete immediately rolled out and pulled back on the yoke to gain more altitude. As we broke through about 4000 feet, we looked around for the conflict. That's when we found out that chalk 9 had been hit. He was just crossing the shoreline, and the moonlight reflecting off the water highlighted the fact that his #1 engine was feathered and standing tall. He had been unable to accelerate as quickly as the rest of us, so we had caught up to him in the escape. Fortunately, he had thought about that and purposely maintained his lower altitude to avoid conflict. We heard #9 calling into Howard control for instructions, and he was directed to hold out over the Pacific, away from the Howard approach corridor, until further notice. Prior to our own recovery, we heard control relaying ditching instructions "just in case". We didn't hear what happened to him until almost two days later.

Additionally during the escape, the loadmasters were fighting to get the static lines retrieved and get the back end of the plane closed up. It appeared to our loads as if one of the Rangers had left a ruck sack on the plane... when all of a sudden, the ruck sack starts to move. Our loads got the back end closed up and rushed to see what was up. It turns out that the "ruck sack" was a Ranger. Apparently, one of the small caliger rounds had hit the aircraft on the left side, passed between the emergency parachutes hanging there, and hit one of the troops in the shoulder. The bullet had skipped across his back and lodged in his spine, causing his legs to collapse beneath him. The troops behind him in the stick had unhooked, stepped over the body, rehooked and jumped. The Ranger wasn't dead however, and he was up on his elbows with all his gear on trying to crawl to the door and jump out. The loadmasters actually had to tie him to the floor with a 5000-lb cargo strap in order to get him to hold still while they rendered first aid. Several years later, I went looking for any clues to this Ranger's identity, and to find out what happened to him after we turned him over to medevac at Howard. With the help of a couple personal contacts and the 75th Ranger Regiment Association, I was able to learn that the trooper returned to his unit several months later with no permanent spinal damage.

When we landed at Howard, the parking situation was pretty messed up. Fourteen of our fifteen aircraft were on the ground, little birds were everywhere, MC-130s were touching down behind us. Helicopters and gunships were launching and landing almost constantly, and traffic on the ramp was limited to one entry and one exit point. To make things even worse, there was a helicopter on fire on the northern-most parking row, and the emergency response vehicles were all over the place. Since about half our planes were leaking fuel from bullet holes, we ended up at the other end of the ramp. I remember a maintenance team of three guys doing a walkaround of each aircraft to check for combat damage. Then another maintenance guy came around with some kind of putty material and started patching holes with it. He was literally covered in JP-4, and we kept waiting for him to burst into flames.

We ended up on the ground for about three hours while we got repaired and refueled. Once the second wave had recovered, we were slotted for takeoff and return back to the States. It wasn't quite as long a flight home... we didn't have to adhere to any deception or surprise plans, so it was a straight shot at high altitude. When we called in to Miami Center, the controller greeted us with a "well done" and a "welcome home"... very nice words to hear. By the time we landed back at Pope, we had been on the go for nearly 36 hours; yet I still got to my house with enough adrenaline in my system to relay the entire story to my wife at a mile-a-minute.

Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures, except the obligatory "crew photo" by the aircraft back on Blue Ramp. I'll post that as soon as I can scan it. In the meantime, I borrowed some black and white photos of Rio Hato from another website to give you something to look at. If anyone has any Just Cause photos that they wouldn't mind me posting here, please let me know. I will gladly give credit to anyone who contributes.

A couple of PS's...

My squadron, the 41st, was on rotation at RAF Mildenhall when all this kicked off. After my second trip to Panama on Christmas Eve, I returned back to the States on January 2nd to get on the rotator for a month at Bravo Squadron. When I got over there, I had to tell the story to just about everyone, then put up with the good-natured abuse for flying combat with another squadron.

The second footnote was later in the spring. Pope had a Green Flag rotation out to Nellis. We'd been doing flags for a number of years, and had mixed results. The flying experience was great, but the exercise was definitely fighter oriented. We would get launched early to get out of the way of the fighters, then drone for an hour or so. We'd push ahead of the package, getting lambasted by Red Air, only to wind up escaping undefended as the last ones out. Alone, unarmed, and scared shitless. The attaboy came during the debrief on the first combat day. The debriefer asked the C-130 guys to stand up. Then he asked everybody else in the room to look at us. His statement, "These are the only people in this room with recent combat time", was followed by a round of applause. It was kind of nice coming from that audience.

Rio Hato
Rio Hato
Rio Hato
Rio Hato
Rio Hato
Rio Hato

E-Mail Last updated on 23 May 2006 by Chris Miller Go Top

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