Md. Guard swoops home

September 15, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

When two Maryland Air National Guard pilots flying A-10 Thunderbolts led a strike Aug. 5 on a Bosnian Serb anti-tank gun, the attack was tightly choreographed.

The air attack was retaliation for the Serbs' hijacking of an anti-tank gun and three armored vehicles from a United Nations compound near Sarajevo early that morning. The two Marylanders found their target and strafed it with 30-mm cannon shells from their seven-barrel Gatling guns.

Maj. Mike Theisen of Ellicott City and 1st Lt. Ed Jones of Bel Air only learned of the Serbian hijacking as they were heading back to base at Aviano, Italy, after a 3 1/2 -hour patrol over Bosnia in support of U.N. forces.

Lieutenant Jones, who returned from Bosnia several weeks ago, recounted the incident yesterday. He was waiting with other pilots and members of the 175th Tactical Fighter Group for Major Theisen and five other pilots who completed the unit's 60-day tour of UN support to return to Martin State Airport.

Just before landing at Aviano, he and Major Theisen got word by radio that they probably would be scrambled again, he said.

A few hours later, they were airborne again with British, Dutch and French aircraft.

Bad weather over the Sarajevo area broke just long enough for the Marylanders to spot their target, a self-propelled anti-tank gun concealed in a revetment, Lieutenant Jones said.

Although they already had air-command clearance to attack, a French air controller on the ground a mile from the target radioed that ground commanders had not cleared the attack, the pilot said.

As they circled awaiting clearance, fuel ran low. "We had to leave to refuel at the [airborne] tanker and then we came back," Lieutenant Jones said.

Once again they scouted the target, to ensure no people were around it, and then struck. Each pilot made three passes at zTC 5,000 to 6,000 feet of altitude, strafing the anti-tank gun with 800 rounds from their Gatling guns, Lieutenant Jones said.

"We were the only ones who found their target and made an attack that day because of the bad weather," he said. "Any of our guys could have done it, but we were the lucky ones who got to do it.

"We landed at 10 p.m. after a total of more than 10 hours in the air that day and we were pretty beat. But the very next morning we had to fly again, so we were up at 6 a.m. for a six-hour mission and the next day after that, too."

At 2:40 p.m. yesterday, the 175th's six A-10s, called Warthogs and painted "ghost gray" to camouflage them from the ground, appeared in formation overhead. One by one they banked sharply into a sweeping circle of the field, landed and drew up at the flight line.

A short time later, six more A-10s from Air Force Reserve squadrons that also participated in the Deny Flight operation landed at Martin. After an overnight stay, they were returning today to their home bases.

As the pilots clambered from their cockpits they were greeted by U.S. Customs inspectors, then by Gov. William Donald Schaefer; Rep. Benjamin Cardin; Assistant Secretary of Defense Deborah Lee, who is in charge of Reserve and National Guard services; and Maj. Gen. James F. Fretterd, Maryland adjutant general.

After going through the welcoming reception, Major Theisen -- who was promoted the day of the raid -- said of the attack, "It was a long operation with a lot of command and control. This is what I've been training for for the last 11 years and we put it into action."

Secretary Lee pronounced the Maryland Air Guard a superbly trained outfit. She said Guard and Reserve units will be used more in such international missions as strength reductions of the regular armed forces continue.

The 175th's planes and the first detachment of pilots and support personnel went to Aviano in July. Some people stayed for 20 or 30 days while others remained for the full 60-day tour.

In the background yesterday, relatives hovered, awaiting reunions with the new arrivals once the formalities were over.

One of the happiest was when Christian Zurkowski, 5, and his brother, Coleman, 4, joined their mother, Christine, in greeting Capt. Paul Zurkowski of Bel Air as he climbed down from his plane.

A part-time Guardsman, Captain Zurkowski works as an aerospace engineer at the Edgewood Arsenal section of Aberdeen Proving Ground. "The flying provided good training and we were doing a real-world mission and providing support for the UN," he said.

Shortly before the A-10s arrived, a C-141 transport landed with about 100 men and women of the support and maintenance units that kept the A-10s flying during the mission.

Among them were Staff Sgt. Jane Fitzgerald of Woodlawn, a crew chief on the A-10 aircraft, and Tech. Sgt. Lenny B. Melton of Baltimore, a life-support technician who maintains the pilots' flight equipment.

Both sergeants said they were glad to be home, but praised their tours of duty as an opportunity to put training into practice. They said they would volunteer again.

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