On U.S. bombing runs, tense nerves turn steely Pilots' preparation eases anxiety during missions over Iraq

December 21, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

A fearful scene kept playing through Lt. Jon Taylor's mind in the lonely, pitch-black hours before he launched off the deck of the USS Enterprise in his attack jet and arced north toward Iraq.

What if I don't come back?

He pictured his wife's pretty face, her blond hair and blue eyes. They have been married two years. And then he imagined that face after a Navy chaplain or official arrived at their Florida home with those sinking words, "We regret to inform you. . . ."

"It hurts thinking of her suffering," said the 27-year-old F/A-18 Hornet pilot, in a telephone interview from the aircraft carrier. "I was real nervous and pretty scared."

Shortly before midnight Wednesday, Taylor went to the ship's tiny chapel and prayed. Then he caught an hour's rest before he was in the ready room with other members of his squadron, VFA-105 "The Gunslingers." They spent a few hours talking about what they would bomb.

By 5 a.m., the pilot with the call sign "J.T." was in the air, rising to 20,000 feet and approaching Iraq. Strangely, Taylor now felt more relaxed. He realized the advice from another pilot aboard the Enterprise, a Persian Gulf war combat veteran, was right on target.

"Sitting on deck is the worst," that veteran told him. "Airborne is a lot better." Lt. Kendra Williams, a 26-year-old Naval Academy graduate from Anchorage, Alaska, also was part of that first night of attacks. She, too, was nervous and scared.

After more than two years of training with only "dummy" bombs, "Yukon" was set for the real thing. Her Hornet was armed with GBU-16s, two 1,000-pound laser-guided bombs.

She thought of the night last month when the pilots aboard the carrier USS Eisenhower were told their attack against Iraq was called off. That was just a half-hour before takeoff.

"I was kind of half anticipating it would be called back," she said of her mission.

But the radios remained silent. Silence is a good thing heading into a bombing run, said Taylor. Chatter always means trouble: A sharp warning that a missile is heading your way; a pilot hit.

There would be no turning back this time. Williams and the "strike package" of two dozen fighters and radar-jamming jets streamed toward the southern Iraqi city of Basra at 400 mph.

Their night-vision goggles cast the world in an eerie greenish glow. They could see buildings and city lights below. Tracers of anti-aircraft artillery would stream through the sky, though at a distance and a range that proved ineffective.

Fear subsides. The pulse still races, but the skills honed in endless hours of training take over, Williams said.

On her console scope, her target came into view. It was an anti-aircraft defense site, one she had seen countless times in her briefings. Taylor saw the building he was instructed to strike.

Williams flicked the master arm switch at the upper left-hand corner of the console, similar to taking a gun off safety. She held down the "pickle" button on her stick, which unleashed the bombs with a jolt, like hitting a bump in the road.

"It was a direct hit."

Flying back in formation it all began to sink in. She felt exhilaration. "Wow! I'm really here," she thought. "I actually dropped live ammo."

"I did my job. I was proud of that, really," she said.

Taylor had the same feelings of pride and relief as he was over the water again, "feet wet," in Navy jargon. He throttled back the engine as he made a course for the Enterprise just as dawn was approaching. Taylor also scored a direct hit.

"It was a good feeling. I had just done for my country what they asked me to do," he said.

Both pilots popped video cassettes from their consoles as they climbed out of their Hornets. The images would be studied by intelligence officers for analysis. Some would find their way to the Pentagon where admirals and generals would point to them with pride.

In the bowels of the Enterprise, Taylor wolfed down bacon and eggs, debriefed military planners and collapsed into his bunk. It wasn't until Saturday, after another bombing run, that he talked with his wife. He was not ashamed to admit that he shed a tear or two.

Williams found she was too pumped up to sleep that first night. There were high-fives around the ready room and congratulations.

Williams also flew another bombing run, this time destroying an Iraqi antenna.

She's wanted to fly since she was in high school, fueled by the stories of her father, a Navy F-8 Crusader pilot in Vietnam. And before long she hopes to sit down with her father, Gary, now a commercial pilot in Singapore, and swap tales of flying in combat. Even though she is the only woman in her squadron, Williams brushes aside talk of being a trailblazer.

Women were barred from combat missions during the gulf war. Besides the U.S. attacks on Bosnia in 1995, this is the only time women aviators have flown bombing runs.

There are three other female fighter pilots on board the Enterprise, two other Hornet pilots and one who flies an F-14 Tomcat. Each took part in the bombing campaign.

"All of us are of the same opinion," she said. "We're just one of the guys doing the job."

There are those who still question whether women should be in combat. They talk about the "feminization" of the military. Williams had a suggestion: "I'll have to share the video of what I did that first night."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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