BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – While visiting this sprawling military installation north of Kabul last week, I visited the flight line of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. And then I stumbled into a little history.
The plane, seen in accompanying photo, is an F-16C Fighting Falcon, commonly known in the service as a Viper. The U.S. military has at least one pair of fighters airborne over Afghanistan virtually all the time, carrying out everything from the armed over-watch and protection of ground units to airstrikes against insurgents.
This plane, however, has an unusual feature: green stickers that are marked “J-21″ after the fighter jets it shot down in 1994 in what became known as the Banja Luka incident. On Feb. 28, two Air Force F-16s clashed with six J-21 fighters from the Bosnian Serb Air Force at the direction of NATO after they were observed bombing a factory in Novi Travnik, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Marine Capt. Brett Friedman, raised the prospect that it was an F-16 involved in the Banja Luka incident, and the Air Force confirmed Thursday that is indeed the case, noting the plane’s serial number, 89-2137.
The fighter was piloted by Capt. Robert G. “Wilbur” Wright, who tallied the first single-mission triple victory by an Air Force pilot since the Korean War, according to a service biography. A fourth J-21 was shot down in the same mission by Capt. Stephen L. “Yogi” Allen, another pilot, and a fifth enemy fighter was lost under uncertain circumstances.
Air-to-air combat is rare for the United States at this point. Enemy fighters haven’t tested a U.S. pilot in ages, although there have been incidents in which Chinese fighters, in particular, have buzzed American planes.
It wasn’t immediately clear if this jet is the one with the most victories in the current military. One other possible contender: one of the Air Force’s F-15 Eagles. During Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, the jet recorded 32 of the 36 victories notched by the United States against Iraqi fighters, according to Boeing, its maker. It wasn’t immediately clear how many each F-15 deployed at the time took down.
General Dynamics developed the F-16 and manufactured it at its Fort Worth plant. General Dynamics’ aircraft business was then acquired by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in 1993.