She's a Completely Different 'Shaq Attack'
By Staff Sgt. Shannon Collins, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey, Dec. 10, 2002 The thrill of jockeying a high-performance fighter jet took on a new meaning recently for one F-16CJ pilot as she flew her first combat patrol in Operation Northern Watch.
"I saw airbursts explode just about 4,000 to 6,000 feet away from my jet -- that was definitely an eye opener," an excited and anxious Capt. Christina "Shaq" Szasz said of her first trip up. "It's so much more real being here and flying over Iraq. When I went out there for the first time, I was really on edge, looking outside all the time.
"The realization came over me that these people down there want to kill me. These people down there are aiming at me," she said. "It really puts you in the game to stay focused on what you're doing, stay focused on the mission and to stay on top of the details."
Szasz volunteered about a month ago to deploy to Operation Northern Watch with her unit's advance team to ensure easier inprocessing for fellow crew members who would follow. Her commander, Lt. Col. C.Q. "Swamp Thang" Brown said this was very helpful.
"She has been a tremendous asset. Her efforts ensured we were ready to go Day 1 on station. Just like all the pilots in my squadron, she is fully combat-ready and executes the ONW mission extremely well," he said.
The mission of Szasz and the other F-16CJ pilots from the 78th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., known as the "Bushmasters," is suppression of enemy air defenses.
"We do the 'Wild Weasel' mission, where we're the first in and last out. We try to attract the attention of SAM (surface-to-air missile) operators, so that they're looking at us. As soon as they open their radars, if they're looking at us or the other aircraft, once they start radiating, we'll pick that up, and we can shoot our HARM (high-speed, anti-radiation missile) at them," she said.
Szasz didn't shoot any HARMs on her patrols, but she said the pilot training she received with EURO NATO at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, and with the 78th EFS helped her with her mission here.
Szasz said joining the Air Force came naturally.
"I have a very military family. My dad is retired Navy, my two sisters joined the Navy, my older brother's in the Army, my little brother's in the Air Force, and my cousin flies KC-10s for the Air Force," she said, sitting back in her chair.
Though her brothers and sisters, cousin and father are all in the military, she said her real inspiration came from her grandfather, a freedom fighter in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. She did a documentary on him while she was in college.
"I loved listening to his stories and just how patriotic he was. He believed very strongly in fighting for freedom, and he always used to instill that into us, as to how it's your job and your duty to do whatever you can to help that cause. Just seeing him and my father serve, it just came naturally," she said.
Szasz's grandfather was imprisoned for eight years for his part in the failed revolt. When her father saw him eight years later, she said, he was scared to death and didn't recognize him. Though her grandfather passed away a few years ago, she said he was very proud of her for joining the military.
"When I was doing the documentary on him, he said, 'You don't know how happy it makes me to know that I was able to be a soldier, my son was able to be a soldier and my granddaughter is able to be a soldier.' That was really nice," Szasz said, her face lighting up.
Though she could have served in any number of career fields, she chose to become a fighter pilot. "I want to be at the tip of the spear. I want to be out there doing something that's going to directly affect saving someone's life or affecting the mission," she said.
Szasz and the other Northern Watch pilots here spent shifts of 12 hours or longer with briefings, pre- and post-flight checks of the jets, flying the sortie, and planning for the next day's mission. While the Iraqis targeted them regularly, she said it was worth it.
"If there's anything I can do to keep America the way America is, then I'd like to do that," she said. "Growing up, I heard stories from my dad and my grandfather about what they had to go through.
"My father said when he was little he was afraid because you never knew when soldiers would come into your house, walk over it and you, and take what they pleased. We're really lucky to be Americans and to have the lifestyle that we do and the freedoms that we do," she said.
Szasz recently rotated home to Shaw as other squadron members arrived for their turns in Operation Northern Watch.
(Air Force Staff Sgt. Shannon Collins is attached to the Operation Northern Watch Public Affairs shop at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Her home station is Barksdale Air Force Base, La.)