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C-130 Carrying Congressmen Shot At Over Iraq

The USAF C-130 shot at as it left Baghdad landed safely in Amman, Jordan without damage or injury. Naturally, there is conflicting data in initial reports. The reports indicate that RPG's may have been fired, but if elevation reports are accurate, this may be quite unlikely and perhaps another instance of SA-18 Grouse anti-aircraft missiles being fired on Coalition aircraft. First, from the Navy Times:

A military cargo plane carrying three senators and a congressman was forced to take evasive maneuvers and dispatch flares to avoid ground fire after taking off from Baghdad.

The lawmakers said their plane, a C-130, was under fire Thursday night from three rocket-propelled grenades over the course of several minutes as they left for Amman, Jordan.

“The crew did a tremendous job in evading the missiles,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. “It brings home to us what our troops are going through every day in harm’s way.”

Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., were also on the plane.

Cramer and Martinez said they had just begun to relax about five or 10 minutes after the plane took off under darkness.

Crew members apparently communicated to the pilots as they saw the initial RPG fired from the ground, Cramer said. After the first burst, the pilots maneuvered aggressively and set off flares used for drawing incoming fire away from aircraft.

Once the flares lit up the sky, lawmakers said, two more RPGs were fired as the pilots continued maneuvering.

Martinez said he quickly put back on his body armor.

"We were jostled around pretty good," said Cramer, who estimated the plane had ascended to about 6,000 feet. "There were a few minutes there where I wondered: 'Have we been hit? Are we OK?"

At issue initially is the reported time frame after take-off (about 10 minutes) and the estimated elevation (6,000 feet) as guessed by Representative Bud Cramer (D-AL).

The USA Today quoted Rep. Cramer estimating the attack taking place "30 minutes" after takeoff.

"We had had a long, good day in Iraq, and I was beginning to settle in for the flight to Jordan," Cramer told The Huntsville Times. "We were probably about 30 minutes after takeoff and 6,000 feet up and then, all of a sudden, there was a burst of light outside the plane. We were all looking at it wondering what it was, and then there was another burst that went off. It was really a series of bursts. Later, people said it was about three or so."

Senator Inhofe (R-OK), a pilot, said “Three hit real close. It was very noisy.” His estimation of elevation would be more interesting and, perhaps, more reliable. He was in the cockpit observing during the flight.

Perhaps the particulars do not matter much at the end of the day. The plane carrying a US Congressional delegation came under fire, regardless.

However, if the bursts outside the plane were indeed as close as Senator Inhofe's observation suggests, one of two details is off the mark. Either the C-130 was nowhere near 6,000 feet elevation or the weapons fired at the plane were decidedly not rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

6,000 feet is roughly 1,800 meters, and the maximum range of the typical RPG is in the neighborhood of 1,000m (at best) - in horizontal flight. An RPG fired vertically has substantially less distance (about 500m of active propellant burn). Of course, there are all kinds of different models with different specs, but 6,000 vertical feet - and the added horizontal flight of the aircraft from ground launch-point - is a significant distance.

Russian-made SA-18s - believed supplied by Iran, perhaps via Hiszballah - have been used in Iraq in the past, including by Sadr's Mahdi Army to down a British Lynx helicopter in Basra. It is also believed that an SA-18 anti-aircraft missile was fired at another C-130 carrying a Congressional delegation in January 2006.

It has been believed (though unconfirmed) that in January (2006), an SA-18 was fired upon a C-130 transport carrying US Congress members from Baghdad to Kuwait. The Congressional passengers said that whatever was fired at the aircraft, countermeasures onboard allowed evasion of the missile. In an effort to further policy fitting US domestic aircraft with countermeasures against missiles, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said, “We had a scare in Iraq in January, when my colleagues said they believed a shoulder-fired missile was fired at their plane.”

Three hitting "real close" is an awful lot of SA-18 missiles to put in the air at one slow-moving relatively low-altitude target, suggesting perhaps some validity to the use of RPGs. On the other hand, 6,000ft of elevation is a bit much for even an ambitious and confident insurgent to fire inadequately ranged RPGs. All such action would likely achieve is draw violent return fire in relatively short order.

Unfortunately, few things resolved here. Only more questions. If anything, the questions serve to remind that Iranian-supplied SA-18s remain a threat to Coalition aricraft in Iraq.


A lot if interesting comments to speculate on.
Certainly, a high value target such as a C-130 would use altitude as it's main defense against threats from the ground and would acquire as much as possible as soon as possible after take off. It doesn't seem plausible that 30 minutes after take off the aircraft was only at 6000', especially on that type of mission. Another point, flares are as useless against rpg's as a glass of water is to a drowning man. Of course, the crew likely would not know what was fired by eyesight alone. I would guess that an audible alarm coupled with a light (probably red) in the cockpit would alert the crew that it was automatically firing off flares to defend against a heat seeking missile such as an SA-18 but I wonder if the system would be sensitive enough to detect rpg's being fired. If that is the case then they must fire off quite often what with all the heat signatures on the ground.
Using the flare system would be letting everyone in visual range know which way to point their weapons, as the aircraft was no doubt flying blacked out until it reached non hostile territory and presenting only sound as a target at which to fire their weapons at.

Don’t coalition aircraft take evasive action while leaving Bhagdad as a matter of routine? Could the explosions observed by the Congressmen have been the diversion flares being deployed? I’m no expert, but neither are U.S. Congressmen, and I’m always slightly skeptical of reports like this when someone has an axe to grind. Could this be a cynical attempt to push the narrative that Iraq is a nightmarish hell-hole of uncontrolled violence and impending doom for Iraqi civilians and our troops who are stuck there, and that these brave Congressmen risked their lives to bring back the news? I’m just asking, not accusing.

When a C-130 crew detects incoming, the flare countermeasures are automatic and instinctive. They have no way of detecting how the projectile is seeking them, if at all. Most low altitude shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile systems are heat seekers, btw. As far as if the flares were what they saw, flares do not explode, and the Congressmen reported detectable explosions.

As far as what the Congressmen thought, they reported that the crew told them it was 'probably RPGs.' Whatever it was, the crew noticed, not simply rattled Congressmen.

And the Congressmen aboard the flight reported positively upon their return from Iraq. So using the incident to establish a negative narrative would be illogical here.

For what that's worth.

Thanks for the questions. Hope I've answered adequately.

They wouldn't have seen anything from where they were sitting on the flight deck and in the cargo compartment. The only thing they would have seen is the light from the flares because of the way the windows are arranged and the flares aren't so loud that they would have woken what was a sleeping congressional delegation. Good for the crew of that plane for somehow surviving the backlash of an event like that.