The Forgotten War


    A Close Call: Captain Pettyjohn's F-16 cracked an oil line over Iraq

    It is easy to forget, with all this talk of launching a war against Saddam Hussein, that a quiet one has been under way for the past 11 years right over his territory. It's a war that has produced few headlines, no diplomatic showdowns and no American dead from Iraqi fire. But in some ways this forgotten war is training the pilots who may have to take on Saddam better than any exercise over an Arizona desert ever could. Indeed, as President Bush hurled rhetorical thunderbolts at Saddam from a United Nations podium last week, the Iraqi leader's troops were busy firing live ammo at U.S. planes. "They shoot at us every day," Captain Patrick Driscoll said last week, hours after his F-15 dodged ground fire from Iraqi forces while flying over northern Iraq. "You can't let your guard down for a minute."

    The mission is to patrol two U.S.-created no-fly zones, one above the 36th parallel and the other below the 33rd, in order to keep Saddam boxed in and unable to attack Iraq's ethnic minorities. When threatened by Iraqi air defenses, U.S. pilots are authorized to fire missiles and drop bombs on such sites, as they have done 323 times since 1999. The effort could have turned into a series of bloody clashes and perhaps even an excuse for a full-scale war. But despite some 250,000 sorties and a bounty on the pilots' heads — Saddam has offered $14,000 to anyone who bags an American plane — not a single one has been shot down.

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    What explains this remarkable record? Part of the answer is that U.S. aircraft generally fly above 20,000 ft., beyond the reach of Iraqi guns. At the same time, electronic-warfare planes jam the guidance systems of any Iraqi missiles threatening U.S. planes. The pilots believe that only a "golden BB"--a lucky shot — can force them down inside Iraq. They say the Iraqis are generally firing blindly, scared to turn on anything that emits radiation and might trigger a U.S. missile strike. "They're so petrified, they won't even turn on their microwave ovens," says Captain "Blade" Wilkins, an F-15 pilot who patrolled the southern no-fly zone from Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan air base last week. (Like many at the base, he masks his identity by using his call sign instead of his first name.)

    Even more surprising, a U.S. warplane has never fallen into Iraqi hands because of a mechanical snafu. There's only one acknowledged instance in which a U.S. warplane lost power over Iraq and had to limp to safety. It happened on Nov. 10, 1997, when an oil line broke on Captain Erik Pettyjohn's F-16 while he was 30 miles inside northern Iraq. "I had visions of being a guest of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad," Pettyjohn told TIME last week. He saw himself being paraded through the Iraqi capital in manacles while his family watched the scene on TV. "The adrenaline kicked in when I doubted I was going to be able to make it out of Iraq."

    But Pettyjohn did. He gently turned the plane north and slowly began climbing. He hit the red panic button near his left knee, jettisoning his two missiles and external fuel tanks to reduce drag and let his plane fly more easily. It was nearly seven minutes before Pettyjohn finally cleared the mountains that mark the border. In Turkey he glided to an unpowered landing, then rolled to a stop with 1,000 ft. to spare.

    Pettyjohn's story had a happy ending, but there have been some grim days for the U.S. Air Force over Iraq. The worst was the result of friendly fire: a pair of American F-15s mistakenly shot down two U.S. Army helicopters in northern Iraq in 1994, killing all 26 on board. Two other planes have crashed while headed toward the no-fly zones, but all five crewmen ejected safely into Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

    The troops who fly and fix the planes say that, paradoxically, the high-pressure conditions and the resulting concentration have helped them bat 1.000. "There's a Super Bowl-morning attitude every day," says Major General Dave Deptula, who ran the northern no-fly zone in 1998 and '99 and flew over Iraq 82 times. "When someone is trying to kill you, it tends to hone your skills." In Saudi Arabia and Turkey, those who maintain planes also cite the lack of distractions as a factor. With the family back home, it's not a problem to spend an extra couple of hours in the hangar. And far from his home base in Virginia, "there's not a lot of administrative things to worry about," says Captain Jay Hennette, who keeps F-15s flying at Turkey's Incirlik air base.

    The forgotten war over Iraq really heated up in late 1998, after the U.N. arms inspectors left Iraq and the U.S. conducted four days of bombing against Iraqi targets that it thought were producing weapons barred by 1991's cease-fire accords. In the wake of those attacks, Saddam declared Iraqi skies sovereign territory, and his troops have fired on planes patrolling the no-fly zones pretty steadily ever since.

    While the Iraqis frequently aim at planes from the ground, they have not challenged them from the air in recent years. A pair of Iraqi MiGs did fly into the southern no-fly zone last week to eyeball a Predator, a U.S. spy drone gathering intelligence. But the Iraqi planes did not shoot at the drone, and because no U.S. planes were patrolling the zone at the time, the Iraqi fighters escaped.

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