Pilots experience 'traffic jam' in skies over war zone WAR IN THE GULF

February 12, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Overeager U.S. pilots have been seeking out extra military targets while flying over Kuwait and southern Iraq, causing Air Force officials to worry about an increased risk of midair collisions.

The heavy air traffic has prompted reports of pilot "frustration," especially on days such as yesterday, when the skies over enemy territory were clear.

Several F-16 pilots, as well as senior U.S. military officials, said a vast, "target-rich environment" still lay across the Saudi border, where Iraqi tanks, artillery pieces, supply convoys and armored military facilities could be picked off the landscape with relative ease.

"There's a lot of stuff out there," Lt. Gary Cooper of Huntington Beach, Calif., said yesterday after returning from a bombing mission. "I was really amazed how much stuff, revetments, as far as the eye can see."

But pilots who loiter threaten to cause air traffic to back up, Col. Charles M. Pettijohn, commander of the 4409th Operational Support Wing, said at a Saudi air base.

"Sometimes we have had boys that want to play longer than their time," he said. "We have a schedule, an air tasking order that says you've got, say, 10 minutes over this kill zone, and you're supposed to get out of there.

"We have to be hard-nosed about it and say, 'You're out of there. Get out of the way and let the next guy have his turn.' "

Col. Gary A. Voellger, commander of the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing of AWACS surveillance aircraft stationed in central Saudi Arabia, said the increasing number of bombing missions had complicated air traffic control efforts.

The risk of midair accidents was increasing, Colonel Voellger said. "There are a lot of airplanes that are getting compressed into a small area," he said.

"The AWACS watches for problems, but we are not air traffic controllers. The number of sorties up there is overwhelming. It's a busy time for all."

Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said U.S. and allied warplanes had flown over 2,900 sorties in the most recent 24-hour count, with 750 missions directed at Iraqi front-line forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

Senior military officials said last week that bombers and fighter-attack planes were shifting their primary attention from targets deep in Iraq to both fixed and moving targets within Kuwait.

And General Neal said yesterday that the air campaign would "intensify." While the allies flew as many as 3,100 sorties a day at the outset of the war, the number of specific missions in and around Kuwait yesterday exceeded the previous day's total by 100.

One F-16 pilot, Lt. Col. Billy Diehl of Tampa, Fla., said his squadron had been striking tanks and artillery pieces to weaken Iraqi defenses before allied ground troops attempted to enter Kuwait.

"We're seeing mainly tanks and artillery pieces and revetted areas. We're seeing hundreds of them," he said.

Colonel Pettijohn said combat pilots were assigned precise altitudes, an allotment of time over target areas and other parameters to keep the flow of attacks continuing on schedule and to avoid collisions.

Modified C-130 cargo planes loaded with airborne command and control equipment direct ground-attack aircraft through the target areas on a strict schedule, he said.

"The skies are so crowded, it's like a freeway, a traffic jam, if we didn't do that," he said.

But pilots are complaining they don't have enough time. "These guys say, 'Wait, I've got ordnance, and there's targets down there. You can't do this to me,' " Colonel Pettijohn said.

"They really get frosted about this."

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