The Secret Air War

  • Share
  • Read Later
When Air Force Sgt. Stephen Albano saw a dozen airmen sprinting towards the runway of their coalition airbase, one afternoon last week, he started running, too, fearing something terrible had happened to one of the hundreds of planes stationed there. Others from his maintenance crew joined in, but then suddenly all 25 men came to an abrupt stop. One man started waving an American flag. A second began waving his arms wildly. A third launched into a series of cartwheels. Only then did Albano, 36, get it: Nobody had been injured. The commotion was just another adrenaline-filled send off for a fighter on its way to Iraq.

"We may not be on the front lines, but we're a part of a team," said Albano, a 17-year aircraft maintenance veteran. "A big part."

Albano and his colleagues may even be the coalition's semi-secret weapon. More than five thousand servicemen and women and over 100 aircraft are helping deliver what Brigadier General Rick Rosborg says is "perhaps the greatest concentration of air power in the history of warfare." Hundreds of missions are flown each day with tens of thousands of pounds of bombs sent towards Iraqi targets. But they're doing it with no publicity, without even official confirmation that their base in a Middle East country that can't be named is being used to fly combat missions in "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Time was given an exclusive inside look at the operations at the airbase last week through the eyes of several members of the 22nd Air Expeditionary Wing, including four F-16 pilots. It's an instructive view from the unit whose motto is "First In, Last Out." They're the successors of the Vietnam-era Wild Weasels, whose job it was to fly in and draw enemy fire in order to target air defense systems. "We don't run from enemy fire," says Col. Grant Bishop, a smooth talking, silver-haired 40 year old, who has been flying F-16s for years. "We turn into it and go one on one."

These pilots have flown many sorties in this conflict into skies thick with anti-aircraft fire. But the Iraqis are not turning on their radar systems, which would provide guidance for the unit's missiles — instead they're simply throwing it up in the air. There have even been reports of troops setting the systems to shoot at the coalition planes, and then running away from the launchers. "That proves to me these guys are being made to shoot," says Capt. Chris Vance, 27. "They know if they lock onto us, we'll destroy them."

So far, the 22nd has not lost one plane — a remarkable accomplishment when the airbase is launching hundreds of missions a day that can last up to eight hours each. The versatility of its F-16s allow the unit to accept missions from taking out missile batteries to providing close air support for B2 bombers. "Think of us as snowplows," says Vance. "We're just clearing out the threats."

Although the Iraqi air force has gone AWOL, that doesn't mean that missions are easy. "There's plenty of times you have to 'think skinny' over Baghdad," says Lt. Matt Allen, 25, using pilot jargon for willing your plane to be thinner than it really is to squeeze by anti-aircraft artillery fire. These guys aren't cocky, says Allen. "Just dominant."

It takes scores of people to complete a successful F-16 mission. Sgt. Chandra Kirby is a "life-support specialist," whose job is as blunt as the title implies. She is responsible for making sure each single element of a pilot's survival equipment is working and prepared, from his oxygen mask to his parachute. She has had to scramble to set up workstations in her tent, bending hangers into hooks and using makeshift lockers to save the precious equipment from the ever present sand. "I know a pilot's life depends on how well I treat this," Kirby, 29, says as she gently cradles one of her pilot's helmets. "Success to me is seeing them come home safely."

There are other, more delicate jobs: Sgt. Marcus Hankins' role is to assemble the bombs that will be dropped on Iraq. For days before the air war kicked off, he and his team were attaching guidance systems and tail fins on a conveyor line that could take up to 20 minutes for each 2,000-pound bomb. (They're only armed once they're on the plane.) The key responsibility for Hankins, 31, though, is to avoid 'paperweights.' That's pilot-speak for a dud — and it's Hankins' job to find out why the munition didn't explode, although he says he can recall almost no such instances in this war.

The dark reality of duds and misguided bombs hangs over a pilot each time he goes up. There are long target lists that the pilots have methodically worked their way through over the past two weeks, but even these serve as a last minute check. "I triple check my targets," says Col. Bishop. "And before I hit the 'pickle' (pilot jargon for the red weapons release button on the sidestick), I think and think again. The possibility of civilian casualties is always on my mind." The father of a 14-month-old daughter, Bishop says he's seen both the pictures of the dead U.S. soldiers and the Iraqi children who have died. "It's both ends of the emotional spectrum for us."

Still, there have been mistakes: It was an F-16 that destroyed part of a U.S. Patriot missile battery early in the war. And the job is getting tougher as the U.S. troops push into Baghdad. "There used to be plenty of distance between the enemy and us," says Capt. James Caplinger, 27. "Our world is getting smaller — and more challenging." But for the most part, the 22nd knows it has done its job well. So far. Sgt. Albano is a father too, and that's part of the reason he's glad he is here. "I don't want my son having to come back in another 12 years. When a plane come back empty, I know that's another step towards freedom for Iraq."