'A-Day'

As the full air campaign against Iraq kicked off Friday, pilots from this base executed approximately 250 sorties (a sortie is a takeoff and a landing) all over Iraq. That level of activity exceeded anything seen here in the recent past, and even more sorties are expected today.

Among the first pilots to fly after the heavy bombardment of Baghdad began was Lt. Col. "Bergy." He led a strike force of eight US F-16s on a mission to destroy "a strategic target" northwest of Baghdad. (Pentagon restrictions forbid a more specific description.) They dropped satellite-guided JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions). They completed the mission, and said it was a success.

"I felt relief when we got back, that everyone got their weapons off, and that everyone was OK," said Bergy.

For the group of eight pilots, it was a big transition from Operation Southern Watch, where they patrolled the no-fly zones. Bergy said he and his wingmen dodged a lot of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery around Baghdad.

This was the first wartime mission for "Trip," which made the mission especially intense for the Air Force captain.

"It was a different operation; it was a different mission. I knew [the target] would be heavily defended, but when getting in the jet, I was pretty fired up," he said.

At the flight line on the air field, hot exhaust from dozens of F-16 engines blew across the tarmac as A-10s growled into takeoff. Maintenance crews and bomb loaders prepped jets in a controlled frenzy as refueling trucks weaved in between the behemoth planes. Meanwhile, others on base were glued to their television sets to watch the dramatic explosions in Baghdad.

None of the sorties, flown from 6 a.m. (local time) Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday, directly bombed Baghdad. The F-16s bombed targets elsewhere around the country while close air support jets cleared the battlefield for the Marine advance toward the southern city of Basra.

"'Shock and awe' as described by the television folks was only looking at Baghdad," said Col. Cesar Rodriguez, commander of flight operations for the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. But it went much further, he said, and included air strikes in other parts of the country.

With a heavy contingent of A-10 attack jets at his disposal, Rodriguez was able to add approximately 100 unplanned sorties against targets that came up as the battlefield changed. Parked planes could be "refragged" (given a new target plan), loaded with the correct munitions, and manned by a pilot within hours of the request from targeters. Pilots already in the air, some in holding patterns, responded to direct calls from the ground to bomb targets.

"No plan survives its first contact with the enemy, so you have to be flexible enough to adapt," said Rodriguez. "And what you've seen is the inherent ability of air power to adapt."

It was also a busy night for the maintenance crews on the flight line. The crews usually operate behind the scenes, and do not get the same attention lavished on pilots. Or, as crew chief Edward Stewart put it, "You got Mohammad Ali? I'm the man in the corner."

Crews were turning around A-10s at an average of one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours. Typical turnarounds - which involve refueling, maintenance, and bomb-loading - take at least two-and-a-half hours.

"I'm just happy that my jet got to go up and drop some bombs," said Airman First Class Damian Pardue, an F-16 crew chief. "We feel more involved now. We feel like we're contributing to the whole thing." The crew contributes in other ways, too. Sgt. Kent Fuller brought a 6-foot-long American flag onto the tarmac and waved it as the planes took off and landed.

Lt. Col. Bergy said that seeing the flag waving "was a nice surprise. It was good to see the American flag out there, especially when we all came back."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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