BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq—When U.S. Air Force Capt. Curt Martin swoops in to help troops on the ground, his most potent weapons aren't always the 500-pound bombs beneath his F-16's wings or the jet fighter's bullet-spewing 20 mm cannon.
These days Martin frequently employs the high-tech cameras and sensors that guide these weapons to perform a novel but equally important task: providing soldiers on the ground with a falcon's-eye view of their surroundings and pinpointing insurgent threats.
As the U.S. Army and Marine Corps battle on the ground, the Air Force has taken technology and tactics intended for a conventional fight and applied them to the country's guerrilla war. Pilots trained to search the sky for enemy jets now scan the ground for insurgent bombs.
"The mission we have is turning the F-16 a lot more into reconnaissance," said Martin, 27, of the 122nd Fighter Wing, an Air National Guard unit from Fort Wayne, Ind. "We're there to—no kidding—make bad guys go away. But there are times when that's not possible, and we're there just to be an eye in the sky."
On one recent sortie Martin spotted a possible improvised explosive device—military jargon for a makeshift bomb—and warned nearby soldiers about it. "Hopefully, if it was an IED, those guys can confirm that and make sure they don't get hurt by it," Martin said.
A few days later he learned that soldiers had found and destroyed a bomb in a place he'd identified. "Man, did that feel great," he said.
The 12 jets flown by Martin and about 34 other pilots with the Fort Wayne unit constitute one of two F-16 squadrons at Balad, the military's largest and busiest airfield in Iraq. About 43 miles north of Baghdad and amid the restive area known as the Sunni triangle, the 15-square-mile base is ideally situated for the squadrons' mission.
"It's a very strategic location," said Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, who as the head of the 332nd Expeditionary Air Wing is the Air Force's overall tactical commander in Iraq. "The idea that we put a base that's where the combat ops are means that when the F-16's put the gear up, they're in the combat zone."
On occasion, fighter pilots have bombarded insurgents just a couple of miles from the runway, such as in retaliation for mortar attacks on the base. They also can streak to anywhere over Iraq's 227,000 square miles in about 15 minutes, refueled by airborne tankers and propelled by an engine that produces an earth-shaking 24,000 pounds of thrust.
The Fort Wayne squadron, nicknamed the Blacksnakes, flies about 10 sorties in every 24 hours, with teams of two pilots in the air for an average of six hours and sometimes for as long as eight hours. Pilot teams also take turns working 24-hour alert shifts, prepared to scramble and roar off the runway in as little as 15 minutes.
Most missions involve positioning the aircraft to give close support to ground troops. In addition to bombs and a cannon, every F-16 takes off armed with an air-to-air missile on each wingtip and a "targeting pod" of sensors and imaging devices on its belly.
"We are very, very well equipped," said pilot Lt. Col. Brian Akins, 40, of Fort Wayne. "We are really ready to do anything you want us to do."
The missions include helping soldiers who are searching house to house for insurgents, scouting a convoy route for homemade bombs or following suspicious vehicles for miles. Some pilots also fly specially equipped F-16's on reconnaissance missions that yield extremely detailed images that are analyzed after the flights.
Even routine sorties involve complex tasks.
"There are times you are so busy—because you're doing things every 30 seconds—that the next thing you know you're shutting the engine down and you're just, like, whew," said Martin, who loves flying the jets, which can reach 1,500 mph and fly higher than 50,000 feet. "You don't really get to sit back and be, like, oh, yeah, this is cool."
The 122nd Fighter Wing takes direction from the 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron, whose job is to manage the scores of military aircraft in the air.
The control squadron also has had to learn new roles, said the 727th's Maj. Chris Darrow, 41, of Mount Pleasant, S.C. The unit, which had been trained primarily to help American forces take on the former Soviet Union, had to retrain quickly for its latest mission, he said.
"Our primary focus was on air-to-air intercepts—destroying the communist hordes," Darrow said. But in Iraq, "It's a whole different type of war."
Flying F-16's in support of ground troops can be just as rewarding as shooting down enemy fighters, pilots said. Even when the pilots return to Balad with all their bombs, bullets and missiles, they've often provided an invaluable service to ground troops. Sometimes just the roar of a jet overhead is enough to scatter insurgents and to reassure soldiers that assistance is at hand.
"There's times that we're helping the guys out on the ground and we don't know it," Martin said. "Even though we may be up there saying, `Aw, geez, same old mission,' those guys get something from us being there."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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