Article by Rich Thistle ©

Hornets Over the Gulf by Rich Thistle © The hot desert sun struggles through heavy smoke from hundreds of oil fires, casting an eerie, orange, other-worldly light. Two Canadian “Desert Cat” CF-18 Hornets turn for home, a base in Doha, Qatar. They have just completed another successful but uneventful combat air patrol (CAP), providing protection over the northern Persian Gulf for Coalition ships. It’s January, 1991 and everything has hit the fan.

August, 1990: Canada sent two destroyers and a supply ship as “Operation Friction” to support Desert Shield, the West’s immediate military reaction to Iraq’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait. September 14: “Operation Scimitar” was announced by the Canadian Prime Minister, committing 18 Canadian CF-18’s and support crew of 409 Squadron to supply air cover for Canada’s naval forces in the Gulf. November: the United Nations Security Council gave January 15, 1991 as the deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait. December: having established a main operating base and flown 1110 CAP and training sorties, the 409 was replaced by two Canadian Forces Hornet squadrons, 439 Tigers and 416 Lynxes which were to form one squadron and set up shop at the double. The Desert Cats were born.

December 16: the Desert Cats had arrived, 24 combat-ready, cutting-edge fighting jets with a whole supporting cast - a veritable multitude - including pilots and maintenance crew of course - but also a Canadian Boeing 707 tanker with its crew and ground support, armament, communications, intelligence, air operations, medical, legal, public affairs, and many other support personnel types. Security would be the job of military police and soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment,(the RCR’s), and the Royal 22nd Regiment, (the legendary Van Doos). Well over five hundred men and women inhabiting two Canadian bases nick-named Canada Dry One and Canada Dry Two, all bringing to bear on the aggressor twenty-four of Canada’s state-of-the-art CF-18 Hornets.

This multi-mission, all-weather McDonnell Douglas fighter and attack aircraft performed three distinct types of missions, representing Canada well during the Gulf War. First and primary during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, CF-18’s flew CAP, placing themselves between the allied ships in the Gulf and the threat of attack from Saddam Hussein’s air force, including Iraqi F-1 Mirage and MIG fighters. The same task was also performed over Saudi Arabia, protecting coalition ground forces and air forces from the threat.
It was during one of these CAP missions, at 2:00am on January 30 that two Canadian pilots, Maj. David “DW” Kendall and Capt. Steve “Hillbilly” Hill were called upon to attack an Iraqi patrol boat, a TCN-45 which carry the deadly anti-ship Exocet missile and anti-aircraft guns. Both aircraft strafed the speeding boat, well illuminated by moonlight, with observed 20 mm cannon hits. Passes were made to try a weapons system lock for the-air-to ground Sidewinder, but the boat’s heat signature was insufficient. In a subsequent pass, Kendall received a full system lock on air-to-air mode and launched a Sparrow missile which impacted the water close to the boat. This event represented the first instance of Canadian forces firing on an enemy in a declared combat since the Korean War. Otherwise however, CAP missions proved to be relatively routine. The armourers were frustrated with the lack of work.

The second type of mission, begun on January 24 took the form of MIG SWEEPS and strike escorts, literally sweeping the skies clear ahead of British Tornados and Buccaneers and American F-16’s delivering ground attack. Again, although successful, these sweep missions proved uneventful. The Iraqi air force stayed away in droves.

The third, and what proved to be the busiest type of mission accomplished by Canadian CF-18’s began on February 14, when the Desert Cats were authorized to commence air-to-ground strike missions. Finally the armourers felt they were contributing! The ordinance delivered was 500 pound “dumb” bombs which were either dropped in a 45 degree dive, or, where the target was obscured, from level flight.

Gulf Patrol by Rich Thistle ©In the “strike” configuration, Hornets can carry a maximum of 17,000 lb of disposable stores, delivering two tons of bombs while retaining complete air-to-air and air-to ground missile capability. Of the three types of missions, this latest role gave the pilots and ground crew the greatest sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. They could finally “see where they had been”!

On “this side of the ocean”, the war took on a very personal immediacy for me, as I am sure it did for most Canadians. The Persian Gulf War is widely regarded as the first live TV war, and I remember being glued to the frequent televised press-briefings, both Canadian and American, whenever possible to follow the emerging story. The urge to paint modern military jets was increasing daily.

Well over a year before the Gulf War was even imagined, my son Shawn, then fourteen years old, in an uncharacteristic show of interest (aviation art has nothing to do with volleyball), asked me one day when I was going to paint some modern jets. I don’t even remember my answer to him. But the day Canadian aircraft were committed to the Gulf War, I knew the time had come. The day after the Kendall-Hill incident, I began my first military jet image, a watercolor of one of the two Hornets involved, against a brooding, moonlit Gulf background. But my major Desert Storm Canadian piece is my acrylic painting HORNETS OVER THE GULF. It is my response to the intense pride I felt in our Desert Cats all through Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Of course, it also represents my attempt to present to the viewer a sense of specific time and place, my concept of what it must have been like to fly in this “fiery hell”. Without personal experience, (no, I didn’t fly CF-18’s in the Gulf), there is always a risk involved in undertaking such a task. Can I catch the intensity? Can I convey my sense of what it was like into an exciting visual statement which all can relate to? Can I ultimately satisfy those who were actually there?

Affirmation for an artist is a rare event. One day, a year or so after the Gulf War, I happened to be downstairs in our Stratford gallery. A male visitor had been quietly paying close attention to HORNETS OVER THE GULF. He asked me if I was the artist. I said yes. He asked me if I had actually been in the Gulf during the war. I answered no, feeling a bit threatened. Then he said, “Well I was there, and that’s exactly what it was like!” Turns out he was an American A-10 "Warthog" pilot. I will never forget that moment.

HORNETS OVER THE GULF proved to be an important image for me. It appeared on the cover of AIRFORCE MAGAZINE, has been published as a collector plate and as a limited-edition print (both sold out).

HORNETS OVER THE GULF has been a magnet. Because of this image, I have been afforded the privilege of getting to know some fine, young Canadian CF-18 pilots like Capt. Jeff Storr, who, when he last visited my studio, was with 410 Sqn. at Cold Lake, and Capt. Matt “Brat” Bradley, formerly with 416 Tactical Fighter Squadron, also based in Cold Lake, now a civilian but still flying commercial aircraft and as one of the pilots with Air Combat International, the "adventure of a lifetime" guys. These two Canadians as well as many others I have come to know in our military forces are friendly, confident, articulate human beings, whom any parent would be proud of. Thanks to all those who continue to serve their country in difficult and dangerous roles, at home and around the world. Well done! We are proud of you!

  • original painting available
  • original painting available