U.S. Pilots Tackle the Danger Down Below in Iraq
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey, July 22, 1999 U.S. pilots patrolling over Iraq as part of Operation Northern Watch have no doubts about the dangers lurking below. They know Iraqi forces aim to knock them out of the sky.
"They want to kill us," said a 29-year-old F-15E pilot who asked that his name and home station be withheld. "They don't want us flying over their country. They don't want us enforcing U.N. resolutions to deter their aggression."
Each day, American, British and Turkish aircraft launch sorties from the 10,000-foot main runway at this air base in southcentral Turkey. Once they reach Iraqi air space -- about a 50-minute flight from home base -- the allied planes are subject to Iraqi army anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile attack.
"They still maintain a formidable arsenal," the F-15E pilot said. "Every time we go out there, they're shooting at us."
Sorties take pilots and crews over some terrain that's as beautiful as the Rockies -- and just as unforgiving, said the pilot, who also has flown sorties over southern Iraq. "It's not a place where I would like to get shot down," he said.
The seven-year veteran fighter pilot faced his first Iraqi challenge 10 days after arriving at Incirlik on his first deployment to Turkey. On patrol July 13 in his F-15E Strike Eagle, he saw the telltale puffs of smoke of Iraqi "triple A" fire thousands of feet below.
In self-defense, he dropped laser-guided bombs on an Iraqi intelligence and operations center south of Mosul. The site processed radar information used to target coalition aircraft, Air Force officials said.
The next day, the Iraqis shot at another Northern Watch patrol. The aircraft responded by dropping laser-guided bombs on command and control sites west of Mosul.
Allied aircraft have patrolled Iraq north of the 36th parallel since Operation Desert Storm ended more than eight years ago. Iraqi attacks became more frequent after Operation Desert Fox ended in December and now occur almost daily, according to Air Force officials here.
Containing this Iraqi aggression is the main objective of U.S. service members deployed here with the 39th Air and Space Expeditionary Wing, which supports Northern Watch. Along with counterparts from the United Kingdom and Turkey, the wing enforces the northern no-fly zone over Iraq and monitors Iraqi compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions.
Operation Northern Watch involves a variety of U.S. combat and support aircraft, including F-15C Eagles, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16C/J Falcons, KC-135 Stratotankers, HC-130 Hercules, HH-60 Night Hawks, C-12s, E-3A Sentry AWACS, EA-6B Prowlers and UH-60A Black Hawks. The United Kingdom contributes VC-10 refuelers and Jaguar GR-1 communications jammers. Turkey contributes F-4E, F- 16C and KC-135 aircraft.
So what's it like for the pilots and machines that cross the line into the northern zone each day? The F-15E pilot said the mission gives him a chance to actually employ skills he normally only practices, for instance, during Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
"Our setup here, our briefings, debriefings, our flights, are very much like a Red Flag scenario," the pilot said. "So what we're doing here is very natural for the air crews as far as being able to integrate with the other types of airframes, the other services, the Brits and the Turks, because we do that back home in Red Flag."
In one obvious respect, however, Northern Watch sorties are dramatically different: The bullets are real.
"In Red Flag, there's nobody shooting at us. Here, they are, and we have to deal with what's going on. In that regard it's challenging because we have to be constantly on our toes," he said.
Despite the threat, U.S., British and Turkish airmen head into the zone each day. "We go out and do our job,' the U.S. airman said. "If they threaten what we're doing, then we respond to that."
On a more personal note, he admitted emotions do go through his mind: "The fear that I could get shot down, that I might not go home. That's always going to be there. The fact that they're trying to kill me also makes me mad. I wish we didn't have to face this, but we do, so we have to respond to what they're doing."
Pilots and crews know the mission is vital to regional security, he said. "I stand behind my country and what we're doing here. That's what keeps me going back day after day. The fact they want to kill me and are shooting at me -- yeah, it scares me a little bit, but at the same time, we're trained to make it more difficult for them to shoot us down or threaten us.
"We're supporting our country. That's what we need to concentrate on," the pilot said. "I would love for peace to break out all over the world. I'd be out of a job, but that's the best thing. If it's not going to happen, I need to be prepared to face whatever is going to come my way."