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U.S. begins using Turkish airspace

ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, eastern Mediterranean—U.S. warplanes on Monday for the first time took advantage of Turkey's decision to open its airspace to them, taking off for bombing runs in Iraq from this aircraft carrier and another nearby that repositioned during the weekend.

The warplanes from the Truman, including F-14 Tomcat fighters and F/A-18 Hornets, flew in daylight Monday, a contrast to night flights from the carrier Friday and early Saturday.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said the planes Monday provided "supporting fire" to ground troops. All the bombs they dropped were guided by satellite-based positioning systems. In some cases, the targets were provided by ground troops as the planes neared.

"You know that your bombs are helping out the guys on the ground directly, and that is a good feeling," said F/A-18 pilot Marc Fryman, 29, of Virginia Beach, Va.

Stufflebeem confirmed that the Truman's strike teams flew over Turkey to and from Iraq. One pilot who couldn't refuel his plane in the air landed at a Turkish airfield, refueled and returned to the carrier.

The Truman and another carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, moved Sunday into the northeastern Mediterranean from the south to be closer to Turkey. By flying over Turkey, the warplanes can reach northern Iraq more quickly.

The war plan expected that planes on the Mediterranean-based carriers would be responsible for northern Iraq, while those on carriers in the Persian Gulf would be chiefly responsible for targets in southern Iraq.

After Turkey's Parliament earlier this month rejected allowing the U.S. military to base ground troops there for a war in Iraq, many aboard the Truman wondered whether they would have a role in the fighting.

But Turkey opened its airspace Friday. Officers on the Truman wouldn't say which countries their planes flew over in their first strike on Iraq, which happened that night.

The Truman's pilots encountered anti-aircraft fire and ground-to-air missiles over Iraq on Monday, but no planes were hit.

"Iraqi forces are firing into the air haphazardly," Stufflebeem said. "You could say that we have local air superiority, from the sense that there are no Iraqi military aircraft flying. We certainly have that sanctuary."

Weather and refueling are the biggest challenges for the pilots.

Finding the refueling planes "in the goo ... is probably the most challenging part," Fryman said. With so many planes over Iraq, he said, "It's a free-for-all, mostly."

The pilots sometimes don't even know whom they're taking fuel from. One said he knew he refueled from either a British or an Australian aircraft when he heard a voice on the radio say, "Come on up, blokes."


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