ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATIONClad in beige flight suits, they straggled leisurely into the ready room for perhaps the most momentous preflight briefing of their lives. Filling the small, nautically themed space with the confident, clean-cut, and essentially boyish vibe of fighter pilots, the nearly two dozen men picked up flight data packets from a desk at the room's rear like students collecting test papers.
Easy chatter and teasing banter belied the seriousness of the momentpilots are trained to "compartmentalize" their fearuntil Capt. Mark Fox officially opened the brief for the flight "package" called Oscar Bravo Sierra. "This is the package that will be going downtown," said Fox, commander of the Constellation's air wing: "I don't think any of us will ever forget this day."
Downtown Baghdad, he meant. And his prophecy would come true for most of the 50 strike sorties that shot off the Constellation's flight deck Friday night, as part of the first massive wave of U.S. and coalition air attacks against Iraq in this new gulf war. Capt. Nathan Miller, a 28-year-old F/A-18 pilot from the Marines' "Death Rattlers," said: "From 100 miles away, I could see the glowing lights of Baghdad." A "nugget" pilot on his first cruise, Miller said he eased preflight jitters by praying and reading an E-mail from his parents. Lt. Jeff Glaser, 28, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot from Indianapolis, came back pumped: "It was great, outstanding, I'm ready to go again," he said of the suppression and enemy defense mission he flew, dropping heat-seeking antiradiation missiles in and around the capital. Fox himselfa decorated veteran of the first Gulf Warcame back from his four-hour mission to Baghdad in awe: "The city was on fire. It was a visceral event."
Most of the pilots who flew over Baghdad reported surprisingly constant fire from below. Pilots surmise that prior missions knocking out Iraqi radar, plus Iraqis' fear of attracting high-speed antiradiation missile fire by using any radar they did possess, made much of the enemy fire haphazard. Still: "The AAA [antiaircraft artillery] and SAM [surface-to-air missile] fire was continuous for the five to seven minutes I was over Baghdad," said Cmdr. Doug Denneny, executive officer of the VF2 squadron of F-14 Tomcats, from Virginia Beach, Va. Denneny dropped two 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) on military installations in the capital. Glaser saw "a whole lot of explosions every few seconds" and said, from 50 miles away, "AAA fire sounds like popcorn." Fox also said the ground resistance level was surprising: "It was like a stadium full of flash photography," he said of his flight over the capital, in which he constantly jinked back and forth to avoid Iraqi fire. Chaff, a foil-like substance pilots release to distract incoming fire, can be a good indicator of a flight's danger level: "I had no chaff [left] in my buckets last night," said Fox.
Hazy weather and lingering smoke from burning oil wells got in some pilots' way. Deputy air wing Cmdr. Craig Geron, of Lemoore, Calif., led the third wave of Constellation planes toward Iraq. When heavy cloud cover cost the squadron an extra 45 minutes getting fuel in the air before heading to Baghdad, Geron backed them off the initial mission and struck targets south of the capital instead. "It was a disappointment," he said. "But we all came back safely." Clouds also made it difficult for some pilots to be sure their targets were hit: "My sight path was obscured by weather," said Cmdr. Walt Stamer, an F/A-18 pilot from Edmond, Okla., who dropped three 1,000-pound JDAM bombs on command buildings in Baghdad. "So I can't tell you for sure" whether it hit. But, he said, given the bomb's precision capabilities, "I have a pretty good idea."
Higher-ups say the battle damage assessment continues, and they were pleased with the night's work and the safe return of all the ship's pilots. "It was an extraordinary 24 hours," said Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Constellation's battle group. A day prior, he said, "you had seen some of the shock aspect of the initial strikes, but you hadn't seen the awe piece of it."
Some of the exhausted pilots, though, expressed more mundane emotions once they reached the safety of the ship. "I'm hungry," said Cmdr. John Geragotelis, of Oak Harbor, Wash., when he returned from his nearly five-hour Prowler flight to Baghdad and back. Sweaty, red-faced, and still in his nearly 50 pounds of flight gear, he used ship slang for "hamburger," saying: "I want to have a slider. I've been saving it for this moment."