WASHINGTON — After brutal violence led to civilian deaths, U.S. jets screamed across the skies of Moammar Gadhafi's Libya, bombing military air fields and barracks as anti-aircraft fire erupted around them. But this air attack, code named "Operation El Dorado Canyon," was a generation ago, and the president was Ronald Reagan, not Barack Obama.
The air campaign launched against Libya during the weekend by U.S. and Europe bears some eerie similarities to the U.S. raid over Tripoli and other cities 25 years ago, including the crash Tuesday of a two-seat U.S. attack jet.
The American crew ejected safely, but the two crew members of an F-111 bomber that crashed in April 1986, call sign Karma 52, did not survive. An autopsy on the recovered body of the pilot indicated he drowned, probably after parachuting into the Gulf of Sidra; the body of the plane's weapons officer was never recovered.
The stubborn targets of U.S. outrage in both campaigns remain the same: Gadhafi and his nettlesome regime.
There are important differences, too: A key target of the U.S. bombing in 1986 was Libyan military barracks in Benghazi, but that eastern city now is the stronghold for the rebels fighting against Gadhafi. And 25 years ago, France, Spain and Italy denied permission for the U.S. F-111 bombers to fly from bases in England across its borders, forcing pilots to fly 1,300 miles farther around France and Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar.
But French jets were among the first launched into Libya over the weekend and fired some of the opening salvos of the fighting, and the American F-15E fighter jet that crashed Tuesday was operating out of Italy's Aviano Air Base.
Twenty-five years ago Libya wasn't battling an insurrection, and U.S. goals were limited to retaliation rather than protecting far-flung rebel forces against their government. But the incident, perhaps, shows how even successful military missions can have mixed long-term results — and how dangerous it can be to tangle with the leader whom Reagan called "this mad dog of the Middle East."
The 1986 raid, led by pilots flying 21 F-111 bombers, a half-dozen F/A-18 fighters and others, decimated its targets. It resulted in more than 100 Libyan deaths, including Gadhafi's adopted daughter. But it didn't end the history of violent confrontations between the U.S. and Libya. Less than two years after Operation El Dorado Canyon, a bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone aboard and many on the ground — an act for which Libya eventually accepted responsibility.
Navy pilot Robert Stumpf remembers circling near Benghazi in his carrier-based F/A-18, providing air cover as other planes raided targets inside the city and at a nearby airfield. In an interview with The Associated Press, Stumpf said he was surprised by the lack of resistance and found himself with little to do that morning.
"Nobody got shot down" in the region where he was flying, Stumpf said. "There was no airborne opposition, no radars illuminating us. It didn't get exciting because we didn't have any opposition."
The seeds of the 1986 attack were sewn in December 1985, when Libya was implicated in terror attacks at the airports in Vienna and Rome and Reagan responded by dispatching an armada to the Libyan coast. Stumpf, among others, flew from carriers over the Bay of Sidra in March 1986, crossing what Libya called the "Line of Death" to challenge Gadhafi's warplanes and missiles.
Stumpf said Libyan pilots did little more than buzz harmlessly around while U.S. planes shadowed them. Some planes and shore defenses fired at the American planes but failed to hit anything. When the U.S. attacked, the Libyans lost several naval vessels.
In what may have been an act of retaliation, a bomb tore through West Berlin's La Belle disco in April 1986, killing two U.S. soldiers and injuring 79 other Americans. Libyan agents were blamed.
Retired Adm. Frank Kelso, who was responsible for the 1986 Libyan bombing raid as commander of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, said his biggest worry planning for the raid was that his pilots might get shot down and killed or captured. Back then as now, he said, the first order of business were plans to destroy Libya's air defenses.Comment on this story
"When you're going to conduct a raid, you have to eliminate — at same time you're going in, or before you go in — the air defenses you're going to have to face," said Kelso, who retired in 1994.
More than two dozen U.S. planes, based on carriers and in Britain, struck military targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as Gadhafi's residential compound. The planes entered Libyan airspace in the pre-dawn darkness of April 15, 1986, only to find the street lights on in both Benghazi and Tripoli. Meanwhile, Libyan warplanes were nowhere to be seen.
"The Libyan air force did not participate in the raid over Libya. They did not get off the ground," Kelso said.