FORWARD DEPLOYED LOCATION IN THE PERSIAN GULFHigh above burning Baghdad, a pilot call-signed "Fo'ty" streaks his F-117 Nighthawk Stealth fighter toward downtown at near the speed of sound. In the distance, he sees antiaircraft-artillery batteries firing indiscriminately. Airbursts, smoke, and flashes of light like giant sparklers illuminate the sky. Thanks to an exoskeleton as dark and opaque as a bat, Fo'ty's F-117 creeps through the enemy defenses undetected. Scared and anxious as he arrives at the heavily defended targets, Fo'ty releases his payload. Moments later, massive bombs hit the command-and-control headquarters and bunkers of the Iraqi regime, the vanguard of an American air blitz on the Iraqi capital.
Fighter pilots train all their lives for a night like "A-Day." The sight of enemy fire causes a surge of adrenaline and breaks the boring monotony of months spent patrolling empty skies. Reflecting on the Iraqi air defenses after he returned early Saturday, Fo'ty says they "were probably lighter" than he expected. The Iraqi Air Force remained grounded, and surface-to-air missiles did not come anywhere near him. "Once I made it to downtown and turned around, it was just like any other sortie," says Fo'ty, who is based in Holloman, N.M., and asked that his name not be revealed. "I got focused on my mission."
Fo'ty flew one of 2,000 warplanes sent on A-Day missions last week, with half of the planes attacking and the rest supporting from 37 air bases in the region. U.S. News received access to three pilots who flew missions into the heart of central Iraq. The pilots came into combat with considerably more experience than their Desert Storm forefathers. Prior to A-Day, some 71 percent of the airmen had flown through hostile territory, mostly searching the Iraqi no-fly zones that have existed for 12 years.
A veteran of such sorties, Air Force Capt. Darren Gray, 30, felt confident as he embarked on an F-16 CJ mission to suppress enemy air defenses. His plans were complicated several hours into his flight, however, when the refuelers didn't show up because of a communication breakdown. Flying another F-16 CJ nearby, a 26-year-old pilot using the call sign "Shooter" started "cussing" as his fuel gauge ran toward empty. "We don't want to hard land here," he said.
Eventually, the two pilots found another gas station in the sky to service them. They proceeded to the outskirts of Baghdad, where they looked to suppress Iraqi surface-to-air missile batteries. Shooter had earned his call sign for managing to fire a high-speed antiradition missile at an Iraqi radar site when he was playing wing man to another pilot's lead. On A-Day, though, he and Gray were surprised to find no Iraqi surface-to-air missile sites to destroy. "I thought they'd bring out the missile systems on the first night," Gray says. He described the scene over Baghdad as "like a fourth of July fireworks show. I'd flown combat missions, but not like this." From the narrow field of view captured by his night-vision gear, Shooter saw flashes in the sky. He had thought the enemy fire would be worse. "Having seen television from Desert Storm," Shooter says, "I was expecting it to be heavier." The picture on the ground also wasn't what he expected. "It didn't look like the whole world was on fire," he says. "It didn't look like carpet bombing." Shooter says the bombing was surgical, and so the chosen buildings would be in flames but not whole blocks.
The Pentagon says 90 percent of the bombs in this war will be precision guided. Stealth fighters can hit a target "within feet," Fo'ty says, and conventional fighters have similar capabilities. Fo'ty defends his bombardier role as necessary to achieving the regime change called for by his commander in chief. He argues that Stealth fighters limit civilian casualties because of their accuracy. "We can minimize collateral damage," he says. On the other side of the debate, many people around the world were horrified at the technological carnage inflicted on a major city by the Air Force and Navy. The Iraqi government claimed 207 civilian casualties from the bombardment.
Fo'ty doesn't make light of civilian deaths but knows in past wars the death toll would have been far steeper. Back at the base, he admits the whole day has a surreal tinge to it. Hours after risking his life, he and the other pilots can unwind at a pool, gym, and, for the military, decent living quarters. Unlike airmen stuck at most military installations in the conservative Persian Gulf, pilots here are allowed three beers a day. The weather is pleasant and the men are bonding like brothers, but for Gray, the start of the war couldn't come too soon. "It's about time," he says. "We've been here a while. The waiting's the worst. I'm ready to get done and go home."