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Pilots surprised degree of air supremacy

SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE EAST—Iraqi forces offered surprisingly little resistance during last week's punishing attacks over Baghdad, never turning on the radar of their surface-to-air missiles and scrambling no planes, pilots who flew the mission said.

Two F-16CJ pilots, whose assignment was to protect bombers, said they didn't need to fire a single shot during their almost five-hour missions.

"We were all surprised about how easy it was," said Capt. Darren Gray of the Germany-based 22nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. "We have air supremacy, there's nothing they can do about that."

Gray and other pilots were interviewed by telephone at an airbase in the Middle East; the exact location could not be disclosed as a condition of the interviews.

The pilots said Iraqis have been weakened by increased air strikes in the southern no-fly zone, where American and British bombers launched more raids in the past three months than the previous three years.

The pilots said Friday's "shock and awe" assault over Baghdad was like watching a "fireworks show," as American pilots repeatedly nailed their targets. Iraqis launched a barrage of anti-aircraft artillery, sparking yellow, orange and white flashes in the air and on the ground. But downing an American plane that way, the pilots said, requires a lucky shot known as a "golden BB."

The F-16CJs flew to protect other planes, using sensors to search for radar systems Iraqis need to accurately fire their surface-to-air missiles. If Americans spot the radar, they launch high-speed missiles to destroy the targets, but the Iraqis only fired blindly.

"There's probably a command and control breakdown," Capt. Gray said of the Iraqi defenses. "It seems completely disorganized, and they don't have any leadership, and that's the purpose of shock and awe."

Americans stress they will not become complacent. One F-117 stealth fighter pilot, who would identify himself only by his call sign, Fo'ty, said he never had such a pit in his stomach during more than five years of flying.

He thought all afternoon about what could go wrong and about his wife and their daughters, ages 3 and 1, back at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Other pilots were unusually quiet as they prepared.

Fo'ty briefly thought about the Iraqi air bursts, hoping they wouldn't hit him. Then it was time to focus on his targets, two "high value" command and control centers.

He told himself this is what he was trained to do, squeezing the red button on his control stick and unleashing two laser-guided bombs. He tracked them for a few seconds, until they became green and black fireballs.

"Mission accomplished," he thought to himself.

Pilots said 12 years of patrolling the no-fly zones, which the U.S., Britain and France established after the first Gulf War, not only weakened the Iraqis, but gave the Americans an edge.

"It gave a lot of guys here an opportunity to see the area, to get familiar with the routes they would fly," said Capt. Nathaniel Johnson, another F-16CJ pilot from Germany. "There's no substitute for that."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): pilots, jet

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): aircraft