Secret Squirrels remain unstoppable

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ted Daigle
  • 307th Bomb Wing

It seems nothing can stop the Secret Squirrels.

When they launched Operation Senior Surprise from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana on Jan. 16, 1991 to begin Operation Desert Storm, these Airmen faced an array of military, geographical and logistical threats. Any of those problems could have ended the mission in disaster.

But the Secret Squirrels found a way to make the mission happen.

Three decades later, they faced another major hurdle in trying to reunite for an anniversary celebration of the historic event. This time, a relentless worldwide pandemic threatened to short-circuit the gathering.

Like they did in 1991, the veterans did whatever it took, finally coming together at Barksdale last Sunday to commemorate, what some historians argue, is one of the greatest military aviation feats in modern aerial warfare.

Operation Senior Surprise involved seven B-52 Stratofortress bombers flying out of  Barksdale on a mission so secret, aircrew were told not to speak about it to anyone for a year after it occurred. The aircrew was tagged with the moniker Secret Squirrels, for their tight-lipped nature. 

Their mission was to knock out the eyes and ears of the Iraqi military so it could not communicate with troops in the field.

Failure by the B-52 aircrew would mean those following would be moving straight into the teeth of the fourth-largest army in the world at the time, one that was battle-hardened and tested by years of war with neighboring Iran.

The aircrew, mostly untested in combat, seemed unfazed by the mission’s gravity.

“We just thought this is what we’ve been training for, this is what we are supposed to do, let’s go out and execute the mission,” said David T. Greer, Jr., one of the B-52 pilots on the historic flight.

Col. Steven Kirkpatrick, commander of the 307th Bomb Wing and the last member of the mission still serving in uniform, said preparation played a big role in the crew’s attitude.

“We practiced for nearly six months,” he explained. “We knew exactly what to do.”

Still, that confidence belied some very stark realities. The crew would be flying a 35-plus hour, non-stop mission to begin one of the most significant bomber operations since the Vietnam conflict.

Along the way, they would have to navigate around the airspace of countries leery of being a party to any combat operations. Once in enemy territory, they would have to use Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCM) for the first time in combat.

To stay airborne for the marathon sortie, the crew would have to coordinate multiple in-air refuelings at points across the globe.

The crews also had to contend with a contentious geopolitical environment that left few options for any mishaps.

“We were told we had to recover at Barksdale or Warner-Robins (in Georgia),” said Greer. “Under no circumstances were we to try and land outside the continental United States.”

Even after the crews had successfully knocked out the Iraqi military’s ability to communicate, they faced struggles.

Desperately low on fuel and battling poor weather conditions, the crews were barely able to coordinate an in-air refueling over the Mediterranean. Fuel consumption woes plagued the B-52’s on their way back to Barksdale, with two of the jets experiencing seized engines and others monitoring fluctuating oil pressure readings.

The crews battled one more hurdle before finally reaching Barksdale; exhaustion. Weary crew members took turns stretching out on the floor of the jet, feet propped on the urinal, trying to get some rest.

“Imagine being locked in your bathroom with your vacuum running for 35 hours straight,” said Greer. “They basically poured us out of the cockpit when we got home.”

While the memories of the secret mission remain fresh in their minds, three decades of separation has provided a sense of perspective.

The crews’ confidence of thirty years ago has been replaced by a greater understanding of their role in modern warfare and how it continues to impact operations today.  

“The historical significance of the mission has taken hold,” said Greer. “Now it is routine for B-52 crews to launch in a 60-year-0ld airplane, go around the world and come back.”

For Kirkpatrick, that sense of history is augmented by gratitude for his on-going role as the last Secret Squirrel in uniform.

“I feel very blessed to have served this long,” he said. “It is a great feeling to still be relevant in the bomber community this late in my career.”