No-Fly Zone Duty Prepared Pilots for OIF Missions
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 12, 2006 Many U.S. pilots who patrolled the skies of Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War would later put that experience to use during Operation Iraqi Freedom, an F-16 pilot who flew combat missions over Iraq early in the war said here yesterday.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, brief reporters at the Pentagon on Sept. 30, 2002, about the continuing attempts by Iraq to shoot down coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Photo by R.D. Ward
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
"We all knew the situation in Iraq. We knew the types of anti-aircraft systems that they had, understood where they were, and incorporated that into our daily training," said Maj. Michael Norton, a South Carolina Air National Guard F-16 pilot who flew Northern and Southern Watch missions.
"That was an advantage when Iraqi Freedom rolled around. ... We were prepared," Norton said. He flew with the coalition strike force that launched OIF on March 19, 2003. The veteran pilot spoke with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel April 10, the day after Iraqi Freedom Day commemorated the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
Northern and southern no-fly zones were established over Iraq by the United States, Great Britain and France to keep Saddam Hussein's air force in check after a U.N. military coalition ejected his forces from Kuwait in 1991. France withdrew its pilots from no-fly zone operations in 1996.
The United States cited U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 as rationale for establishing the no-fly zones, which protected the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south from Saddam's persecution.
However, Saddam's ground-to-air radar and anti-aircraft weapons sites tracked, and sometimes shot at, coalition aircraft that enforced the no-fly zones. Coalition pilots often reciprocated with attacks on Iraqi radar and anti-aircraft sites.
But "we didn't lose anybody throughout a decade of flying over northern and southern Iraq, mostly because everybody, I think, understood this was a low level of acceptable risk," Norton said.
"We were there to accomplish a mission - to prevent the Iraqi air force from flying," Norton said. "But it wasn't going to help anything if one of us were shot down and captured. So a lot of thought and preparation, I think, went into how to accomplish the mission, while minimizing any chance of losing allied aircraft."
Even so, there were scary moments for Southern and Northern Watch pilots, Norton recalled.
"We were shot at," the 36-year-old Tallahassee, Fla., native recalled. Iraqi air defense sites fired 100 mm anti-aircraft rounds, he said, that coalition pilots found difficult to see during the mostly daytime missions.
"There were close calls. People would see large artillery rounds going right by their cockpits. So somebody was looking out for us," Norton said.
Some U.S. military aviators, including Norton, also had experience flying combat missions over the Balkans in the late 1990s.
By the time OIF began in March 2003, many U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fliers "had previous experience flying over Iraq already," Norton said, "and had spent a lot of their careers thinking about this."
Air strikes conducted over the years by Northern and Southern Watch pilots had helped to render Iraqi air defenses less effective as OIF neared, Norton said. His squadron was deployed in the OIF theater of operations in February 2003.
"We didn't have a whole lot of time to get things set up and prepare, but luckily just about everybody in the squadron had flown over (Iraq) before," Norton said. There were even "quite a few" Gulf War veterans flying in his squadron, he said.
As March 19 approached, Norton said, he and another F-16 pilot flew an escort mission for a B-1 bomber strike on a target in the Baghdad area.
"We were targeted by radars in Baghdad, but didn't see any missile launches," Norton recalled.
OIF was launched a few days later. Due to the war's short duration, degraded Iraqi air defense capability and the absence of a viable enemy air force, the Iraqi "air threat wasn't quite as severe as you'd expected it to be," Norton said.