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Bowling Green Set to Become Home to Plane, Piloted by WKU Grad, that Raided Libya in 1986

Kevin Willis

An airplane with an amazing local connection will make its public debut at the Bowling Green’s Aviation Heritage Park on Saturday, June 8. The F-111 joining the park took part in the 1986 U.S. air raid against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya—a raid led by a WKU graduate and native of south-central Kentucky.

Sitting in a hangar near the Bowling Green Regional Airport is a plane known  as the “Warhorse” because of its many years of service. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume this relic from the military’s not-too-distant past could take off and fly right now.

Not having an engine keeps this bird on the ground, but it sure looks nice.

For Arnie Franklin, seeing this F-111 look just the way it did back in 1986 brings forward a flood of memories.

“It brings all of those emotions that I remember from that mission back to the forefront, and even though it was 27 years ago, in a lot of ways it seems like it was yesterday," Franklin told WKU Public Radio.

This is the story of a Kentucky pilot, a war plane, and a mission.

Kentucky Flyboy

Arnie Franklin was born in Franklin, Kentucky, and no—his ancestors weren’t the founders of the town, something he says he is often asked. When he was young, Franklin’s family moved to Bowling Green and he graduated from WKU in 1966.

Franklin says he always knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot, and after college he went into the Air Force. He served two tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Fast-forward to January 1st, 1986. Lt. Col. Arnie Franklin was then the squadron commander of the 493rd Tactical Fighter Squadron stationed at the Royal Air Force base in Lakenheath, Great Britian.

Early Wake-Up Call and a Mission

That New Year’s Day at 2 a.m. his phone rang. It was his wing commander, telling him to get packed and get to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“I asked him ‘why?’. It was very unusual to be called off of alert, especially at 2 o’clock in the morning," says Franklin. "He told me I would find out when I got to Ramstein.”

Franklin and three others from the base boarded a C-130 that night and flew to Germany. Upon arriving, they were told why they had been brought there.

“They wanted us to plan an attack on three targets in Libya. And on the fourth of January we were supposed to brief our plan to Gen. Bernie Rogers, who was the Army four-star commander of all U.S. forces in Europe.”

Reagan Vs. Gaddafi

Credit Kevin Willis
The F-111 was restored inside a hangar at the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport

President Ronald Reagan and his advisors wanted to strike Libya in retaliation for leader Muammar Gaddafi’s support of international terrorist groups. A little over three months after Arnie Franklin was first told to help draw up an attack plan against Libya, a bomb exploded at a West Berlin nightclub popular with U.S. military personnel. The bombing killed three and injured over 200.

The West German and American governments obtained cable transcripts from Libyan agents in West Germany who were involved in the attack. Nine days after the nightclub bombing, President Reagan ordered the attack to proceed, and it was carried out the following day.

Early on the morning of April 15, 1986, 18 F-111 strike aircraft, one of which was piloted by Arnie Franklin, hit multiple targets in Libya, including airfields, military barracks, and air defense networks. Two U.S. air crew members were killed when their plane crashed into the sea.

"Why Weren't You Chosen?"

In the weeks following the raid, Arnie Franklin began running into an unusual problem. The American air force pilots at Lockenheath are some of the best pilots in the world, and each them thought they should have been one of the 18 pilots selected for the mission.

Franklin says one of the hardest parts of the raid was helping those not chosen for the mission to save face afterwards.

Franklin says one by one, pilots not chosen for the raid were coming into his office and asking essentially, “why not me, boss”?

“The problem was that they knew why they hadn’t been chosen," says Franklin. "But their wife was asking, ‘Why weren’t you selected?”.

"Fighter pilots are a different kind of cat. They like to think that they’re the best, and you want them to think that they’re the best. You want them to have this edge about them. And when your wife asks why you weren’t selected for the mission, you can’t and you won’t tell her it’s because you aren’t good enough.”

Some of the pilots who came to speak with Franklin were in tears. At that point, Franklin decided to do something highly unusual. With the permission of his higher-ups, he called a meeting with the wives of the pilots who weren’t chosen for the Libya mission. And Franklin says he did something for the first in his Air Force career: he told a lie.

“And I told the wives that their husbands who weren’t selected to go the first night were on the crew list for a second raid the next night, if it were required. The truth is, there was never any second raid planned. But at least the wife knew that her husband was good enough.” 

Twenty-Seven Years Later, an F-111 and a Pilot Reunite

Years passed and Franklin eventually retired from the Air Force. Back home in Warren County, he ran into an opportunity to reunite with a special plane.

The Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green procures, restores, and displays vintage aircraft that have a connection to the south-central Kentucky region. The park’s leadership decided they wanted to find an F-111 like the one used in the 1986 Libya strike.

The plane flown by Arnie Franklin was already spoken for—it sits in the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. So, Franklin says, the Aviation Heritage Park asked the military if there were any F-111s anywhere that could be had.

Yes, they said—out in a boneyard near Tuscon, Arizona.

“We went out and looked at it, and it was plane #178," says Franklin. "I looked at my lineup card that I kept from the night we flew the raid in Libya, and there was 178. She was on my wing that night of the mission.”

When Franklin and a few Aviation Heritage Park board members went to see the plane in March of 2010, the F-111 had been sitting there unused since 1996. And it was on death’s door—the military was starting the process of cutting the plane up into chunks no larger than your fist.

Franklin consulted his flight record, and discovered he had flown the plane several times during his career as a pilot.

Franklin and the Aviation Heritage Park put in their dibs for the F-111 that was about to be scrapped. In the fall of 2012, the plane was disassembled, loaded on to four flatbed trailers, and driven from Tuscon to Bowling Green.

Attention to Detail

Franklin says thousands of man hours then went into getting the plane to look exactly the way it did when it took part in the Libya mission.

“We brought in an illustrator who went back and researched all of the decals that are on there, all of the stencils that are on there. Everything on down to the hubcaps—the hubcaps are the same color green they were the day we launched the raid. The details are just phenomenal.”

Franklin says the hardest part of the restoration was stripping off the dark grey paint that had been put on the plane between the time it flew in Libya and when it was decommissioned.

“I don’t know what kind of paint it was, but we thought we could just sand it off. We tried sandpaper, and it just didn’t do anything to it. The way we were finally able to get that paint off was to use a grinding wire-wheel. And there’s a fine line between grinding the paint off and hitting the aluminum skin underneath.”

With this F-111 restored and looking the way it did when it dropped laser-guided bombs on its targets in Libya in 1986, Franklin and his fellow Aviation Heritage Park members are ready to debut the plane to the public on Saturday, June 8, at the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport.

It will be installed at the Aviation Heritage Park off Three Springs Road in late August or early September.