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Patrolling Iraq's Northern Skies

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey, June 1, 1998 – Northern Iraq's snow-capped peaks and fertile green plains seem tranquil, but everyone here knows the scenic countryside conceals real danger.

An hour after taking off from the sun-drenched flight line here, the U.S., British and Turkish fighter pilots of Operation Northern Watch reach Iraqi air space. For the next several hours, they'll patrol Saddam Hussein's northern skies, enforcing the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel.

Back at base, about 10 miles from Adana in south-central Turkey, combat search and rescue helicopters and crews are on alert -- just in case.

Iraqi ground forces, hundreds of aircraft, and highly mobile anti-aircraft weapon systems are scattered throughout the region, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Maury Forsyth, 55th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander. His unit, part of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., deployed here for a two-month rotation supporting the coalition operation.

After the Gulf War in 1991, the U.N. Security Council established no-fly zones banning Iraqi flights over northern and southern Iraq after Hussein's forces attacked Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south. Northern Watch began in January 1997 on the heels of Operation Provide Comfort, the five-year-long relief effort that delivered food and supplies to Iraq's Kurdish refugees.

About 1,300 Americans, 200 British and 100 Turkish troops are deployed here to conduct Northern Watch under the co-command of the United States and Turkey. The U.S. contingent comprises about 1,100 Air Force personnel plus Army, Navy and Marine Corps active and reserve component personnel. About 2,000 Americans are permanently assigned to the 39th Air and Space Expeditionary Wing here to support Northern Watch.

The allied enforcement effort employs about 45 aircraft, including U.S. F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons, E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, EA-6B Prowlers, KC-135 Stratotankers, and MH-60G Pave Hawk, UH-60A Black Hawk and HH-60 Night Hawk helicopters. The Royal Air Force contributes GR-1 Tornado attack aircraft and VC-10 tankers while the Turkish air force adds F-4 and F-16 fighters.

Coalition pilots fly about 40 sorties a day. "We try to remain unpredictable," Forsyth said. "We try to take off at different times. We try to fly longer sorties some days, shorter on other days." Airborne for three to seven hours, the fighters spend a lot of time going to and from the enforcement zone and to reach aerial refueling tankers, he said.

For the pilots and crews, the job involves constantly assessing a dangerous situation. "As we enforce the no-fly zone with F-15s, part of our job is to ensure we can do that without threat from the ground," Forsyth said.

Hussein has about 300 mostly clear-weather, day fighters with limited night capability, Forsyth estimated. The mere fact he has 300 makes them a threat, he added.

Other than authorized U.N. flights, Forsyth said, no aircraft is allowed to fly in the zone. "U.N. flights go in and out quite regularly, but they give lots of advance notice," he said. "We know the day prior, what kind of airplane is going to fly, its heading and altitude."

Coalition fighters are particularly careful since two U.S. Air Force F-15s accidentally shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in the zone in April 1994. Forsyth said visual recognition drills are conducted before each flight. "My intelligence officer has pictures of all different kinds of airplanes, and we have to identify them before we go fly just as a reminder and a refresher."

Andy Hine, a 13th Royal Air Force Squadron Tornado pilot, said coalition operations give British pilots a chance to fly with their international counterparts. "We don't fly with the Americans that much at home, but we've gotten used to it now because we do these operations so often that it's become very procedural. It's smooth-running."

Hine, now on his third two-month Northern Watch rotation, has also flown Southern Watch missions during two rotations in Saudi Arabia. "It's very comforting to know when you're flying over Iraq that you have the protection the Americans can provide," he said. "Their capabilities are much stronger than ours. We're very well-protected by the Americans."

Northern Watch also calls on American reservists and National Guardsmen. Air Force Capt. Julio R. Lopez of the 304th Rescue Squadron in Portland, Ore., said he welcomed his unit's recent six-week tour. Three helicopters and crews deployed here primed and ready for the combat search and rescue mission.

"If anything happens to these jets -- whether it's combat- or maintenance-related -- if they end up on the ground, it's our job to go get them," Lopez said. "Day or night, all weather -- we have the capability with the refueling probe in this aircraft to go long range."

Turkey's dry, sunny weather is quite a change from rainy Oregon where the reservists train, said Lopez. This is his fifth Northern Watch rotation, as the Portland reserve unit comes over about every nine months.

"We train for this all year round," he said. "Back home we do civilian rescues to get prepared. By the time we get here, we're already combat ready." The unit keeps two search and rescue aircraft and crews always on alert. "If anything happens, we'll be the first ones there."

Crews are highly trained to rescue downed pilots "from the tops of mountains to the deep blue sea," Master Sgt. John Swails said during his fifth rotation in Turkey. The Oregon reservist said his unit has undergone arctic survival training, and parachute and rock climbing training. Rescue choppers are loaded with ropes for winching aboard downed pilots, medical equipment, as well as other survival and rescue gear.

"We constantly train at home, so when we are activated to go some place, we're ready and eager to support the mission and do what we have to do," Swails said. "It validates all the training when we get to come to an environment and see if it all works."

Staff Sgt. Lance Dammeyer of Nashville, Tenn., commutes to Ohio to serve with the National Guard 180th Fighter Wing in Toledo. He called Northern Watch an opportunity for Guard members "to see a real-world situation and really understand how to work well with the active duty forces."

"I'm one of the last people to check the aircraft and weapon systems to make sure they're safe," he said. "When you've got real bombs on there, it really brings to light what we're here to do."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAirmen from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., the Ohio Air National Guard and the Oklahoma Air National Guard prepare to launch their F-16s in support of Operation Northern Watch based in Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. SSgt. Ivey McLean, USAF  
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