ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY -- They had been catapulted into the sky, fully expecting that some of them would never come back and each hoping it would not be him.
And so Thursday was a day for rejoicing, at times even crowing, for the pilots who flew more than 80 sorties from the Kennedy the first day of the war with Iraq. Their success was measured not just by the missiles and bombs that hit their mark. It was that everyone returned from his missions unscathed to tell tales at turns humble and proud, daring and curious.
"Let's give them another good shot," said Capt. John P. Gay, the Kennedy's commanding officer, in an announcement that the first sortie of 41 planes had returned intact.
And that they did, two more times, in flights over western Iraq and Baghdad, where they hit airfields, hangars, a pumping station and communications facilities.
The one bleak spot from the Red Sea Battlegroup came from the USS Saratoga. An F-18 fighter jet and its pilot were reported missing from the first mission.
Aboard the Kennedy, there was gratitude and even surprise that none of its planes had met the same fate -- mingled with a touch of envy for the two Saratoga F-18 pilots who downed two Iraqi MiG-21 planes.
Pilots still pumped up with adrenalin hours after their missions had been completed all said the one unexpected and puzzling aspect was that they met so little resistance from the Iraqis.
They told of Iraqi fighter planes disappearing from the radar screen, apparently fleeing from the U.S. invaders. For reasons the fliers can only surmise, the Iraqi fighter planes left an unimpeded pathway for bombing.
"We prepared for every contingency and every threat in its finest FTC condition, and when we got in there and did our strike we found them to be less than what we anticipated," said Cmdr. John Leenhouts, 40, of Jacksonville, Fla.
Commander Leenhouts, who flew an A-7 attack plane on the first mission that took off at 1:20 a.m., said they had expected surface-to-air missiles to be much more intensively and skillfully employed.
"In reality, they didn't use them to any degree whatsoever," he said. "We expected them to have fighter aircraft more regimented, more uniform in their attacks, and they were truly random."
Radar picked up numerous MiG jets.
"They acted as if they were overwhelmed by the number of aircraft coming toward them, and they couldn't quite make up their mind which strike group to come after," he said. "In some cases, I don't think they had a very clear picture exactly who was out there."
Lt. John Klas, 27, another A-7 pilot who flew over Baghdad on the initial mission, said a red light in his cockpit signaling that someone had locked his plane on radar lighted up so many times he lost count. But he never actually saw any missiles fired at him.
Some pilots were disappointed they didn't get to tangle with their Iraqi counterparts.
Lt. Cmdr. Bud Warfield, 33, of Jacksonville, Fla., who flew an A-7 on the second mission that began at 11:48 a.m., said, "We were all charged up. We thought we were going to have some fun, because we brought a lot of fighters with us. But they ran away."
A certain bravado -- arguably justified -- ran through the pilots' explanations for the Iraqi fighters' actions.
"They're afraid of our F-14s," said Andrew Lewis, 28, of Los Altos, Calif.
An F-14 pilot called Rake said surveillance planes described several MiG-21s in three or four different groups within 50 miles of the Americans. "As we advanced, they fell back," he said. "They knew we were there. I don't think they wanted to die."
We know from the way they conducted operations against the Iranians they're pretty conservative," he added. "But you'd think they'd have a change of heart. When you bomb the airfield they took off from, and you do it with impunity, you figure sooner or later they'd come back. But they just stayed away."
Some speculated that other reasons may have played a role, too.
"One is that they don't know how to use their equipment," Commander Leenhouts said. "Their equipment is not in as good shape as we thought it was going to be. It's very possible that they were protecting their equipment and saving it for a later strike. It's hard to understand why they failed to utilize the equipment that we know them to have."
News correspondents are, allowed access to troops, bases or ships in Persian Gulf combat areas only in "pools," groups of reporters and broadcasters under military escort.
Pool reports are sent through military communications to all news organizations represented in the gulf area and undergo military security review.