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LakenHeath AFB Factsheets

1980s

In the early 1980s the wing struggled with aircraft shortages. Primarily, this resulted from the upgrade to the Pave Tack, a laser guided weapons delivery system. Each aircraft had to process through the upgrade facility at the Air Logistics Center in California. At the same time, the wing had to deal with supply shortages resulting from years of reduced military budgets in the late 1970s.

By the mid 1980s the "Red Scare" was not the only American fear for national security; terrorist activities struck targets from Beirut to Berlin, from Rome to Rhein-Main [Air Base, Germany]. Many of these attacks were attributed to the Libyan government headed by Colonel Mohmar Qaddafi. In retaliation, U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered a strike against targets in Tripoli, which were carried out the by the US Navy's Sixth Fleet and F-111s of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing.

At approximately 1900 local time, on the evening of 14 April, 24 F-111Fs departed Lakenheath's runway, including six airborne spares. In flights of four, aircrews flew south through the Straights of Gibraltar and began their orchestrated attack shortly after midnight on 15 April. Simultaneously, Navy and Air Force support aircraft began engaging Libyan defenses around Tripoli.

The grueling 14-hour flight took its toll. "Those guys were so fatigued, the crew chiefs literally had to pull some of the crews out of the cockpits," recalled CMSgt Richard O'Shaughnessy, then a Master Sergeant and weapons flight supervisor. "Most of them actually lost several pounds from sweating so much. When the guys pulled their helmets off, sweat literally poured down their foreheads and necks."

Colonel Sam W. Westbrook, 48th Tactical Fighter Wing Commander, summed up the base's feelings during the 14-hour ordeal: "We held our breath during that fourteen hour period. People didn't't really smile a whole lot and conversation remained somewhat subdued. But when our people saw the first F-111s on approach, the whole flightline workforce let out a sigh of relief and seemed to breathe once again.

However, despite the success of the mission, the reality of the danger experienced by the wing's pilots hit home. As the strike force recovered at Lakenheath both air and ground crews were given the somber news that "Karma-52," aircraft 70-0389 and its crew, Pilot Major Fernando L. Ribas and Weapon Systems Operator Captain Paul Lorence of the 495th Fighter Squadron [2] were missing.

On 8 September 1986, U.S. Navy Secretary John Lehman presented the Navy's Meritorious Unit Commendation to the Liberty Wing for its participation in the operation. Today, the Liberty Wing remains the only Air Force unit to have received this prestigious award. Likewise, Gen Charles Donnelly, Commander in Chief, United States Air Forces in Europe, visited RAF Lakenheath on 17 February 1987 and presented decorations to those that participated in the operation. The ceremony ended with a posthumous presentation to Captain Lorence's widow Diane followed by a missing man flyover.

[2] While Captain Lorence was assigned to the 495th, Major Ribas was attached to the squadron but worked in the operations plans office.