U.S. Pilots Describe Flying Over Iraq
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2002 One described northern Iraq as scenic. The other said it's vital to not become too complacent. Both said they owe their success to the maintenance folks who keep their planes flying.
Two American pilots who have flown missions in the northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq and are now stationed in the Pentagon shared their experiences with American Forces Press Service today.
Air Force Maj. Mike Pietrucha, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, has been assigned to monitor the skies over Iraq 10 times. He goes by the call sign "Star Baby" when he's flying and said he lost track of his missions when he went over 150.
He said he's particularly proud that in all his combat missions both over Iraq and parts of the former Yugoslavia no one has claimed he caused collateral damage. Pietrucha said the U.S. military tries so hard to avoid injuring civilians that it will occasionally drop inert bombs laser-guided bombs filled with concrete rather than high explosives when the Iraqis have stationed weaponry near schools or other civilian facilities.
"When you hit a radar with 2,000 pounds of steel and concrete going 1,000 feet per second, it doesn't do the radar any good," Pietrucha said. "But there's no explosion and no collateral damage."
Even in situations where there are no civilians in an area, Pietrucha said he still thinks about the people on the ground. "You have to understand that the people on the ground are just people. They're very similar to you and I," he said. "They aren't necessarily wanting to be involved in the situation they're involved in, and that sometimes even applies to your enemy combatants.
"The conscripted Iraqi doesn't really have a big interest in doing what he's doing; he's probably being forced to do it," Pietrucha said.
Navy Lt. Chris Sofley flies under the call sign "Tread." He's been assigned to Operation Southern Watch three times since 1998 and wants the American public to know this mission didn't start with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We've been doing this for 10 years," he said. "We've been supporting the (U.N.) resolutions over there. We've been fired upon ever since that time."
Pietrucha described northern Iraq as scenic. "The North is very nice, particularly in winter," he said. "The mountains along the Turkish border are snowcapped."
Both men described southern Iraq as desolate. Sofley said the buildings in the towns are all the same color brown, and there's a lot of blowing sand. "Sometimes so much that it obscures your visibility," he said.
Then there's always the added scenery when the Iraqis start firing. Pietrucha said most Iraqi attacks on coalition aircraft are from anti-aircraft artillery. "Your first warning may be a puff of smoke," he said.
He said it's similar to scenes in World War II movies where flak is exploding around the planes. Sofley described the effect as "a very large cotton ball beside your aircraft."
Muzzle flashes or smoke trails are other "visual pick-ups" that a pilot is being fired at. "If they elect to use radar to try and engage you, then your radar warning gear is going to hopefully go off to let you know there's something going on," Pietrucha said.
When no one is firing, pilots patrolling the no-fly zones must fight complacency.
"Prior to every mission, you sit down and ask yourself, 'What could happen today? What has changed in the past day or so that could affect my mission today?'" Sofley explained. "But when you're airborne it's time to put those thoughts away. You're only really able to focus on the mission ahead of you."
Pietrucha said he's not sure if pilots can ever totally avoid becoming complacent. "It's tough to keep it from becoming routine. Sometimes the Iraqis will keep it from getting routine for you, depending on what they elect to do," he said. "But if there's a time period where nothing's going on, it's very difficult to keep that from happening.
"That's just very human nature," he said. "If you're doing the same thing over and over again with no changes, you really have to fight against complacency."
Both men sang a similar tune about their services' maintenance crews and other support personnel. "I couldn't go up there without the guys that fix the airplane, the guys that give the (intelligence) brief, the guys that load the weapons and the guys that fix the airplane again if I bust it," Pietrucha said.
Sofley agreed: "They get the airplanes up and ready -- even when they think you're not going to be able to. Somehow they come through at the last minute."
"If there's anybody that I would consider to be heroes in the United States military, it would be the maintenance personnel that keep the weapons systems, the aircraft, (and) the ships in top-notch shape, so they're ready for us on any given day," Sofley said, "so we can strap an aircraft on our back and we can go do our missions to the best of our capabilities."