In the thickest darkness of early morning over the Mediterranean Sea, the young Air Force pilot peeled his F111 jet away from the six-plane formation for a final, solitary approach to Col. Muammar Qaddafi's Libya.

For six hours, the pilot and his bombardier had been strapped into cramped companionship, a strict radio silence heightening the isolation of their long flight over water. Now the coastline that both men had studied and restudied appeared on the radarscope, and the bombardier punched a final point of reference into his guidance computer. It was 1:59 a.m. in Tripoli.

The F111 swooped low to evade Libyan radar and screamed across the beach at 9 miles per minute. Flying south toward the desert, the pilot flew once past his target before wheeling back as planned for his bombing run.

As the bombardier switched from radar to the infrared scope that turned night into dusk, Qaddafi's headquarters appeared precisely where the satellite photos had shown. Pulling back on his joy stick, the pilot climbed for the release.

"These bombs are for you, Colonel!" the bombardier whooped into his intercom, and in an instant Libya was behind them. Six hours of flying, two minutes over hostile territory, and mission accomplished on Operation El Dorado Canyon.

As the bomber streaked back over the sea, the pilot switched on the radio for the first time. "Feet wet," he proclaimed, and a Navy officer sitting far overhead in a propeller-driven command plane checked him off: one more plane safely in and out.

By 2:12 a.m, 24 planes had dropped their bombs and radioed the reassuring "feet wet." One F111 apparently had exploded in a fiery ball, hurtling into the Mediterranean with its two-man crew. Less than two hours later, as the F111 pilots cruised high above the Atlantic Ocean toward their British bases, President Reagan went on national television, recounting the success of the raid.

Among Air Force and Navy officers, the after-action discussion focused little on whether the raid will deter terrorism or whether it was proper to target Qaddafi's family compound. The officers dwelled instead on the details of the complex mission. For the most part, they agreed that unlike Lebanon in 1983, this raid was done right: the right targets for the political purpose, the right weapons for the targets, the right tactics to capitalize on U.S. technology and Libyan vulnerability.

The one lesson from Lebanon, where two bombers were shot down in a much criticized daylight raid against Syrian positions, was that no target, no enemy, can be taken for granted in an era when any country can buy a $75,000 missile to shoot down a $20 million airplane.

"The object was to put a maximum amount of force on the target in the minimum time exposed to defenses," one pilot said. "That's the gut issue in all strike planning."

The following account of the raid is based largely on interviews with Defense Department officials who have read after-action cables and pilot debriefings, watched videotape taken during the bomb runs and listened to cockpit conversations recorded during the mission.

Emcon Alpha: The order went out shortly after nightfall Monday aboard the two aircraft carriers patrolling off Sicily. The code word meant "total emission control": no radars, no radios, no video movies for the 5,000 sailors aboard each ship. There were "tattletale" Soviet ships prowling nearby, listening for Americans, and for the mission to be a surprise the Russians had to be given the slip.

"In Vietnam, they used to sit there and count planes as we launched, and then tell the [North Vietnamese]," one Navy pilot here said. "We managed to avoid that this time."

As the carriers, the USS America and USS Coral Sea, steamed south with 20 support ships, giant KC10 and smaller KC135 tankers -- airborne gas stations -- were lifting off from Royal Air Force bases in Fairford and Mildenhall. For the crew members of the 28 tankers -- men and women, active duty and reserve -- the mission had begun days earlier, with flights from their U.S. bases to Britain.

The tankers' arrival in Gloucester and Suffolk a week ago Saturday, in fact, had been noticed and widely reported amid speculation that U.S. forces would soon hit Libya in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that killed a U.S. soldier and a Turkish woman and injured hundreds of other people. In retrospect, Air Force officers would later observe, that made it all the more remarkable that the bombers would take the Libyans by surprise Tuesday morning.

The F111s gave the tankers a 24-minute head start and then -- at 7:36 p.m. Libyan time, 12:36 p.m. EST -- began taking off from RAF Lakenheath: two dozen bomb-laden aircraft with five EF111 electronic warfare planes close behind. For most of the crewmen, it was their first combat mission. The bombers flew in cells of six, with the most experienced pilots leading the way.

Because neither France nor Spain would allow the planes to fly over their territory, the pilots flew 2,800 miles down the coast of Europe and then east through the Strait of Gibraltar. For the tanker crews, who can stretch and use a lavatory, the trip was long; for the F111 crews, strapped into their seats, it seemed endless.

The refueling, undertaken four times on the way to Libya, was a dangerous ballet choreographed before the planes took off to avoid the need for midair conversation. The lead plane rose up to the belly of the tanker first, with the other five planes in close formation nearby.

Even in daylight, the operation is a delicate one, as a boom operator guides the KC10's fuel stick into a nozzle atop the F111 while both fly at 400 mph, pilot and boom operator close enough to read each other's lips. At night, and with no radio contact, small signal lights on the underbelly of the KC10 were all an F111 pilot had to guide his craft to the coupling.

Tanked up, the lead plane dropped down and to the side. By prearrangement, the next F111 moved in, until all six were ready to reassemble and fly to the next rendezvous. Six F111s and one EF111 -- "aircraft spares" -- turned back after the first refueling; some tankers flew on simply to refuel other tankers.

In the Mediterranean, the arrangements were no less complex. Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, 6th Fleet commander with operational control over the Navy and Air Force during the raid, ordered his battle group into position from the command center of the America.

Kelso sent the Coral Sea to a location more than a hundred miles north of the two targets near Benghazi in eastern Libya; the America steamed about as far north of the three Tripoli targets. A helicopter carrier, the USS Guadalcanal, moved closer to Libya, ready to contribute its choppers to search-and-rescue missions and its shipboard hospital to any survivors; two destroyers steamed close to shore for the same reason.

In a glass booth above the slightly pitching decks, the "air boss" of each carrier began catapulting aircraft into the darkness as midnight struck. Fourteen A6 Intruders, precision night bombers similar to the F111s, were sent up for the bombing raid. But that was only the beginning.

Each carrier sent up two E2C Hawkeyes, propeller-driven control planes with giant "radomes" atop their fuselages that would orchestrate the air traffic and watch for hostile interceptors. Lumbering and defenseless, the Hawkeyes would circle outside the 150-mile "threat envelope" of Libya's longest-range missile, the Soviet-made SA5, but could still detect any Libyan fighter taking off.

Although 45 Syrian pilots had been stationed in Libya ("They're better than the Libyans, but not much," one U.S. pilot scoffed), no fighters would launch during the U.S. attack. Pilots at an air base near Surt on the Gulf of Sidra, in fact, ignored direct orders to respond to the attack -- a prudent decision, according to Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr.

"If the Libyans had taken off, it would have been a real turkey shoot," Lehman said in a Thursday speech to the National Aviation Club.

The American shooters would have been F14 and F18 fighters flying "cap" (combat air patrol) above the action as airborne enforcers. Each air boss sent up a dozen fighters to loiter in pairs 15,000 feet over each target area, ready to swoop down with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and other weapons if any hostile fighter moved to intercept a U.S. bomber.

Other F18 Hornets were positioned 30 to 40 miles offshore, armed with High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs). A7 Corsair warplanes, armed with older Shrike antiradar missiles, crept within eight miles or so of the beach. And for Libyan radars that U.S. missiles would not destroy, EA6B Prowlers were launched; like the EF111s on their way from Britain, the Prowlers would electronically jam hostile radars.

From the Gulf of Sidra shootout in late March, when Libya unsuccessfully fired at U.S. aircraft and U.S. forces responded by attacking a missile site and several patrol boats, the Americans knew the location and frequency of many Libyan radars and the range of their missiles. As the bombers approached, the electronic planes stayed hidden, waiting to detect the Libyan radars -- first early-warning signals, then missile-guidance systems.

"As soon as they come on, you squirt 'em, with electrons or with missiles," one pilot explained.

The carriers launched refueling planes, too, KA6s smaller than the Air Force tankers. The Navy planes had less distance to cover, but if an accident fouled a carrier deck, the bombers might have to stay up longer than planned. The tankers were in the air as a precaution.

At 1:54 a.m., with everyone in position and the bombers making their final approach, the invisible but crucial electronic warfare began. During the next quarter-hour, the F18s would blast a number of antennas by firing three dozen HARMs -- about $8 million worth -- and the jammers would fill the Libyan radarscopes with static, forcing them to fire their missiles straight up.

For years, every battle group in the Mediterranean has drafted rough battle plans for a Libyan strike, just in case. Detailed planning for this mission began after the terrorist attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports last Dec. 27.

It was then that Adm. James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations, first suggested a Navy-Air Force joint operation. And it was then that possible target lists began moving from Kelso's staff through the European chain of command to the Pentagon and, eventually, to the White House. Did the commander in chief want maximum visible damage, or did he want pinpoint accuracy? Did he want to strike military targets or the hubs of Libya's economy?

By the weekend, the guidelines were clear. There should be minimal risk to pilots; Washington wanted no prisoners of war. The targets should be military, and tied, at least to U.S. satisfaction, to Libyan terrorist activities. Qaddafi and his loyal guard should be personally threatened, but regular troops and civilians -- who, it was hoped, might turn against him -- should be spared as much as possible.

With those guidelines in mind, weapons were chosen: laser-guided "smart" bombs for a precision attack on Qaddafi's compound; 500-pound "dumb" bombs to wreak maximum damage at the Tripoli airport; 750-pound cluster bombs for the Benina airport, where aircraft hidden behind sandbag revetments could best be damaged by shrapnel.

In the same way, the "rules of engagement" were laid down. If any system didn't work -- such as the self-defense chaff used to confuse radar-guided missiles and other secret gear used to create false targets -- pilots were told not to enter Libyan airspace. If the target couldn't be located and "locked in," pilots were instructed not to bomb.

Consequently, three bombers did not reach Libya because of mechanical problems; four more -- two A6s and two F111s -- flew over Libya but did not release their bombs. In this era of costly ordnance, five Air Force planes carried their bombs home, rather than drop them into the sea as a safety precaution.

In Vietnam, where pilots always had secondary targets, probably everyone would have bombed something.

"If you went in, you dropped," one Navy officer recalled. "Any crater was fine. You just wanted to hit Vietnam. Here, we were looking for accuracy within eight to 10 meters."

At 2 a.m., the bombing began. As the F111s crossed the beach, so did the A6 Intruders. An A6 pilot flew over Benina airport at 400 feet, his weapons officer releasing a "stick" of 16 bombs, two at a time. Behind him a second A6 followed, close enough to see if the first plane took groundfire, but far enough back to elude bomb fragments kicked up in the first attack.

At Benina no one fired back, but the six Intruders assigned to the Benghazi barracks encountered a storm of missiles. That most went astray hardly lessened the pilots' jitters.

"At night, they all look like they're coming at you," one veteran Vietnam flier said.

The F111s first demolished the barracks of Qaddafi's guard and then, with less success, hit a training camp at a nearby port, where smoke and haze obscured the target. At 2:06 a.m., five more F111s swept in to attack the Tripoli airport.

"Man, what a target," one pilot exclaimed when he saw Soviet-made IL76 cargo planes squatting on the apron.

As the bombers "egressed," the E2C Hawkeye checked each call sign in a process known by pilots as "delousing" to make sure no Libyan plane was sneaking out on a bomber's tail.

By 2:12 a.m., it was over. By 2:13, the Navy officer watching the console at the back of the E2C knew there was trouble: One Air Force bomber had failed to egress. Kelso, listening in on the same tactical frequency in his carrier command post knew it, too.

For Kelso, the apparent downing presented a difficult decision. Although U.S. jammers had managed to disorient Libyan defenses, they were firing many missiles. Sending a helicopter search-and-rescue team in close would endanger four more men.

Moreover, as the A7s and A6 "HARMbirds" began heading back to the carrier, their pilots reported seeing a fireball over the water. Chances of survival seemed slim.

So Kelso ordered a moderate search and rescue, sending an EP3 Orion listening plane to see if there were any radio signals beeping from the pilots' emergency equipment.

One warship reported hearing a short set of beeps and then nothing. The search continued through Tuesday, while farther out to sea the carriers restocked their weapons stores from replenishment ships. In Britain, all but one F111, which was diverted to Spain with an overheated engine, landed safely, 15 hours after the first KC10 had taken off.

By Thursday, Air Force Capts. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence were declared killed in action. The Navy had ordered the Coral Sea to remain in the Mediterranean, past its scheduled return. Military officials were acknowledging that an errant U.S. bomb was likely responsible for damage to a Tripoli residential neighborhood. And in the Pentagon, spokesman Robert B. Sims was displaying film and photos of bomb damage, calling the raid unique in U.S. military annals.

"We hope that these acts deter future acts of terrorism," Sims said. "One can't know for sure that that will be the case.