25 years later, I have a chance to relive Operation Allied Force over Kosovo and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, the combat experience, lessons learned and growth of a peacetime Air Force into a modern-day lethal (yes, Canada, I said lethal), capable fighting force. So much of capability, “Come As You Are” warfare, modernization versus limitations, survivability led to lessons that we learned from and applied to future force structure.  We also recognized the extraordinary burden put on the Canadian men and women who had to adapt to operating in combat with no support system in place. I look back at the leap made from the pre-combat operations to now, many years later, and realize how instrumental Operation Allied Force was to the RCAF’s fighter force growing up.

We knew how to prepare for the central Europe conflict of the Cold War days when still based in Germany. But a number of years later, all of that forgotten by the institution, we were peacetime operators about to be thrown into the fire. Canada had sent a very capable CF-18 force to Qatar to fly combat in Desert Storm in 1991.  But all of that had been forgotten, the corporate knowledge faded, and the leaders moved off and out of the chain of command.  In effect, nothing from that experience had stuck.  In early 1999, 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron, which I commanded, was in the right place at the right time. The rotation of ‘Lead Squadron’ amongst the four operational CF-18 tactical fighter squadrons was coming to 441’s turn. Our training and workups, driven some by higher headquarters but essentially self-planned and self-generated, had us peaking by early March 1999. The preset rotation had our friends based in Bagotville already in the Italian theater as tensions were escalating between NATO and Serbia. The Serb’s genocide of the minority population of Kosovar Albanians had begun and the Serbian leadership were seemingly undeterred by external governments warning of intervention.

I watched our personnel scramble to prepare for the overseas deployment from Alberta to replace the Bagotville-based CF-18 squadron who were ending their rotation in Italy. We landed at Aviano Air Base in Italy, came off the Canadian Armed Force’s transport plane wearing blue flight suits to be met by our comrades in US green combat flight suits. We had a lot of catching up to do very quickly and very little time to do it. Three nights later, the first jets took off on Night 1 of combat of Operation Allied Force. With 2 Commanding Officers in the same place (one from 425 Squadron in Bagotville who I was there to replace and myself), we needed some deconfliction of leadership. I was quickly assigned to the Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza about two hours away where the air war would be directed from. My Deputy Commanding Officer (DCO), Major Murray Carlson, and I would spend the beginning of the operation supporting the night war of 24-hour operations. Ten days later, back at Aviano, I took over as Commanding Officer and flew my first combat mission shortly thereafter. What I witnessed was an astonishing, exponential learning curve for all elements of the deployment. Pilots had a massive step up to make, especially for us, the new guys. Our groundcrew, unhappily mixed with the Bagotville technicians, ramped quickly to 12-hour shifts to support the 24-hour operations. Our logistics personnel supported the mad, mad scramble to coordinate the delivery of weapons resupplies. Highly trained groundcrew crossed disciplines to become weapons technicians supporting all elements of the building, transporting, loading and unloading of bombs and missiles. And through two unlikely and unplanned events, our deployment grew from 6 to 12 to 18 jets. Once we got up on the step, we learned how to safely run full-on 24-hour combat operations.

CF-18 Laser Guided Bomb Loading

As Commanding Officer, I did some things right, many things wrong. I had a fractured group, essentially from each of the CF-18 squadrons with loyalties fragmented and dysfunctional. I took away the old unit links, created a composite wing with our own identity and made everyone embrace this unique place in combat. We ultimately decided on the nickname of the ‘Balkan Rats’. We leveraged the great graphic artist skills of one of my groundcrew and came up with a nasty, gnarly Rat image to represent us. We took that Balkan Rat image, made ball caps, T-shirts, patches, stickers, painted it on the tails of our CF-18s and everyone immediately coalesced as a single fighting unit.  We finally figured out how to schedule personnel, split into day and night crews, so that we could manage crew rest, sleep cycles and establish some form of high paced but safe operations tempo.

Balkan Rats Tail Flash

I held closed-door Operations meetings with the fighter pilots and officers and frequently, with the help of my DCO, met face-to-face with the groundcrew to communicate openly. Most importantly, I let the incredibly talented groundcrew do what they had shown themselves capable of, which was to perform under pressure. When it was all over, the 99.7% sortie rate said everything about just how committed, focused and cohesive the unit was.

I saw the best performance of fighter pilots and emergence of true warriors. The lifetime career fighter pilots delivered, under the pressure of combat, a level of excellence that never gets seen in peacetime. I saw the ‘Barflies’, the ones who looked good at the bar but were seldom around late studying and preparing, execute mediocre performances when it came to Game Day. It was a contrast that validated that age old cliché “Train like you Fight, Fight like you Train”.

I wasn’t ruthless enough in the standards I applied to the weaker of the new pilots. The learning curve for new pilots rotating into Italy was steep. No peacetime training at home in Canada could prepare them for the level of tactical expertise needed and intensity of combat operations. While they were mentored by experienced Flight Leads when they came into theatre for their first number of combat missions, I allowed too many pilot errors and errant bombs hitting the wrong targets to go too far. Bombing a farmer’s barn with a Laser Guided Bomb versus hitting a massive fuel storage tank area which was the intended target needed to have been enough to ground a pilot and repatriate him. I allowed the Flight Leads too much time and missions to get pilots up to speed. I should have been more ruthless.

Rewards

When I look back now, I am amazed at the performances of every man and woman which were at a level that I have never seen in peacetime operations. At the end of combat operations, before I relinquished command to my friend and fellow CF-18 Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Duff Sullivan, I wrote 22 commendations for the men and women of the Balkan Rats.  I recognized extraordinary logistic support, administrative coordination, groundcrew leadership and, of course, fighter pilot combat performances. In true Canadian fashion, in a military with zero combat experience, only two of these were accepted. The Headquarters response was essentially that these warriors were just doing the job that everyone else did. Welcome to a military led by bean-counters and not seasoned combat vets. Fortunately years later, our combat operations in Afghanistan would be better understood and supreme performances under fire would be recognized.

You can’t change everything overnight.

In my later career flying Eurofighter Typhoon and over the many years at Lockheed Martin flying F-16s and F-35s, I would fly with combat veterans from other countries. Especially in the US, there was always a clear understanding of what combat operations required in terms of higher leadership, support and management of personnel. In our military, where at that time absolutely no one had combat time, we couldn’t expect the Canadian Armed Forces’ institution to ‘know what they didn’t know’.  We were the first steps towards enlightenment.

Perhaps second only to winning is bringing everyone home safely. I cherish this more than anything else. And we did that.  Honestly, I personally never cared about the medals but I did want everyone else to be recognized. At some point, the Kosovo Campaign Medal and Battle Honours counted enormously as recognition of individual and collective effort.

Bret Flynn Waving Flag as Jets Taxi In After Returning Home

And we move on. We grow.

The character development and courage displayed in combat grows us a lifetime in a very short period of months. I was changed forever. I was certainly much harder to tame by company program managers at Eurofighter and Lockheed Martin later on trying to exert management pressure for aircraft that didn’t meet the warfighters’ needs. I was never going to let them get away with workarounds and substandard solutions rather than fixing the things that needed to be fixed.

Of the memories:

The first night of combat remains singularly memorable. Every pilot remembers sanitizing their flight suits, taking off patches, nametags, leaving wallets and cell phones behind and stripping out all their identity before putting on our G-suits, flight jackets, and holstering pistols. I remember looking at the wallet photo of my son Bret, then five years old, and telling myself that I was not going to get shot down and that he was going to see his father again. The look on my face which my groundcrew saw as I walked to the jet that rainy night had an intensity and determination that scared them and was so different than how I had always approached them over the years as their Commanding Officer. I was going to war and was in a ‘Don’t Fuck with Me’ mood.  I can’t say that I enjoyed that first flight, especially my first aerial refueling on a KC-135 at night, in cloud, with turbulence and what had been a 30-second ‘how to refuel on a KC-135’ briefing by my Flight Lead. I managed to connect and get gas that night but none of it was pretty. And then having my navigation system tumble due to systemic problems of our own doing was just icing on the cake of a bad 1st combat sortie. Fortunately, things would get better after that.

Salute to my Groundcrew Taxying Out on a Combat Mission

My memory fades after 25 years:

 

Alcohol

I don’t remember not being allowed to consume alcohol the first six weeks of combat because it was forbidden by Canadian Armed Forces regulations (though I later learned that many of the pilots drank on the sly). I once held a closed-door pilot meeting in Aviano after days of bad weather and no flying and told them all “everything you have ever read about combat was about flying, f’g and drinking and you are doing none of those”. Luckily, things got better over time, the weather improved, and the ‘no drinking’ rules relaxed.

Wet Boots

I don’t remember the wet boots of our groundcrew that never dried up. Working outdoors in the rainy Italian spring with 12-hour shifts and one pair of boots each, many, many developed serious foot problems because their boots never had a chance to dry out. My efforts to expedite buying extra boots for every member from the US stores on base were crushed by the bean-counting Colonel who administratively oversaw the campaign. More concerned with precisely inventorying boot sizes instead of caring for personnel, the groundcrew suffered for weeks because of his ineptitude.

Flying Blind

I don’t remember flying at night, with lights off and no Night Vision Goggles (NVG). 441 Squadron had initiated a project when I first started as a Commanding Officer, liaised with the US Air National Guard unit in Tucson who taught NVG tactics, figured out how to modify our cockpits, and drafted a plan to send pilots down to Arizona to get trained. But I made a couple of mistakes in communicating the need for night vision capability to my senior officer peers and I failed to go rogue and bring on the capability myself.  Instead, I relented and sure enough, the failure of the nascent CF-18 Operational Test unit to ramp up and get NVGs for us set us up for trouble.  When combat started in Aviano, the Canadian Air Force had zero visual aids to permit us to fly safely at night.  Even with the significant nighttime training that 441 Squadron conducted, we always had the back-up of our own aircraft lighting to help orient the other aircraft flying with us.  In combat, all lights had to be extinguished which then forced us to come up with spacing schemes so that we wouldn’t fly into each other on the long dark missions.  We were lucky in the end although there were several close calls.  I had failed to show the determination to do things on my own and blow off the stagnated mindset of non-Warriors. I carried that scar for many years afterwards and tried never to let the bureaucracy win again.

I do remember:

 

The Groundcrew

The most extraordinary collection of technicians and the best groundcrew performance in anyone’s lifetime. Our technicians, halted in rank after years of personnel cuts, were grossly over-talented for their rank level, in some cases, stuck 2 ranks below where they deserved to be. The result was an incredible depth of talent, competency and expertise at managing the CF-18. Our sortie rate of 99.7% was a direct result of their incredible efforts day and night without respite to sustain combat operations.

Groundcrew Off-loading an AIM-9 Missile

The Majors

I was blessed with an extremely seasoned, talented and focused group of Majors to run the operation. I counted on the 5 Majors from 441 Squadron, 4 fighter pilots and my maintenance officer plus 2 from 416 Squadron which lived next door back in Cold Lake. I had close personal relationships with a number of them, trusted them and their fighter pilot abilities. They proved to be capable, lethal and showed everyone else what a warrior was.  There are many who go to combat but only a few who turn out to be warriors. These were warriors. Lifetimes of dedication to the fighter pilot profession, hours upon hours of training and preparation all came together in Operation Allied Force and the Balkan Rats. We would never have performed as well as a fighting unit without their leadership in combat.

100 accidents in 100 days

We came from northern Alberta and Quebec, driving clapped-out pickup trucks at 90 kilometers per hour at home. Suddenly, in Italy, everyone thought they were Formula One drivers and capable of driving rental cars and vans like Ferraris at the speeds of the local Italians. The testosterone was out, and we racked up car accident after accident. Miraculously, no one was ever injured but safe to say, we went through a lot of vehicles in a very short period of time.

The 12-ship Flypast over Ottawa on Canada Day, 1 July 1999

I orchestrated a plan to fly 12 Hornets over Ottawa to close the Canada Day celebrations. From start to finish, it was a drug deal entirely thought up by the Balkan Rats, back-doored directly to Prime Minister Jean Cretien when he came for a visit to Aviano then directed downhill by him to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and then to the Air Force headquarters to have 12 jets fly overhead on 1 July. I made a deal with my old friend, Colonel André Viens, who oversaw the Canadian operation that if I pulled off this drug deal, he would let me lead the flypast over Ottawa. Combat had ended and we needed to repatriate 12 jets back to Canada. But the scrambling of planning, amazing execution to get jets safely back to Bagotville from Italy, brief for two days and depart Bagotville on time with 12 jets plus one CF-18 airborne spare plus one T-33 photo chase to Ottawa was miraculous. We flew over the Parliament Buildings, closed the official Canada Day celebrations, then landed at the Ottawa airport popped our speedbrakes to show Canadian flags tied to each of them and taxied in to a hero’s welcome by a grateful throng of Canadians. It was a coup and so very un-Canadian but entirely perfect way to recognize the enormity of the Balkan Rats’ combat effort.

CF-18 Canada Day Flypast

Final Thoughts:

It’s the RCAF Centennial this year and while the Balkan Rats’ 25th Anniversary is worth noting, this combat operations does not compare to what aviators faced in World War 2 or what the Canadians who flew F-86 Sabres in Korea battled…’But It Wasn’t Nothing’.

The decades of Cold War posturing balanced with NORAD obligations left the Canadian Air Force devoid of real combat experience. Even today, I see well known veteran NORAD pilots call themselves “combat fighter pilots” even though they had never been shot at. The Air Force hadn’t been stressed except during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 but had since lost all the corporate knowledge gained and the sharpened spear had dulled quickly. Operation Allied Force changed that. Balkan Rats’ veterans went on to occupy the highest ranks in the RCAF. In their careers, they deployed to other conflicts, gained experience in Operations Centers as senior staffers, planners and directors and carried what they had learned into shaping the air force of the present and future. The depth of experience that is seen today stems from that spark of Operation Allied Force. And it showed precisely what capabilities lie in the hands of the men and women of the RCAF. There is never going to be a right time to go to war. The RCAF is never going to have the equipment, armament or training that it needs for the next conflict. But you can count on the men and women to ramp up to the crisis in front of them, make miracles happen and then execute to perfection.

Balkan Rats Aircrew

I flew with the US military for 23 years all told. Even as a Lockheed Martin test pilot, I flew in the military environment with United States Air Force and Navy checkrides and alongside US fighter pilots day to day. I also flew fighters around the world in my 40 years of aviation.  Having seen so many aviators from so many nations, I know that pound for pound, Canadian pilots are as good as any pilot from anywhere. We are products of an extraordinary Air Force which somehow teaches, mentors and grows us into one of the most capable, adaptable and competent air forces that exists.

That part has never changed in the RCAF history.

For all the woes that the Air Force is suffering in this era, I know that the future will be bright because when tasked, the men and women who serve today are capable of executing just as the Balkan Rats did 25 years ago in the ‘Big Leagues’.