Pilots from the Maryland Air National Guard -- endearingly referred to as "Warthog Warriors" -- left the friendly skies of their home state early yesterday for the more uncertain and dangerous environs over Iraq.
Aviators and maintenance personnel from the 104th Fighter Squadron of the guard's 175th Wing, some with families waving goodbye before sunrise yesterday, departed from Martin State Airport in Middle River for a 90-day deployment to help enforce the United Nations "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq.
The Maryland aviators, scheduled to arrive in Kuwait later this week, will start their patrols as more clashes have been reported and as U.S. warplanes have pounded missile, artillery and radar targets in northern Iraq.
"Up to 40 percent of our people going this trip are gulf war veterans," said Capt. Drew Sullins, a Guard spokesman. "They know what to expect."
The unit, comprised of approximately 450 officers and enlisted personnel, will reach its temporary base in Al Jabber, Kuwait, this week. Most will make stops in the Azores, off Portugal, and in southern Italy before arriving in the Middle East.
Pilots will fly A-10 Thunderbolt II jets over Iraq and will follow the rules of engagement in Operation Southern Watch -- if threatened, they will fire at enemy sites.
President Clinton has expanded those rules in the past month to counter a more concerted Iraqi offensive against allied planes enforcing the "no-fly" zones in the northern and southern exclusion areas.
U.S. pilots patrolling over Iraq are now allowed to target not only the source of an attack but also Iraq's air defenses more widely.
The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that a stray U.S. missile struck a neighborhood in southern Iraq and expressed regret if any civilians were killed or injured.
Guard spokesman Sullins said the pilots will have two basic jobs: keep Iraqi army movements to a minimum, and help in any rescue missions of downed pilots or friendly ground forces.
He said the A-10 pilots flew their aircraft to Kuwait while most of the maintenance personnel flew commercial air carriers. Most members of the 104th Squadron will stay for a minimum of 21 days; some have signed on for the entire 90-day deployment.
None of the Maryland guard members refused to take anthrax vaccinations, as did about 25 percent of the combat-ready force of the Connecticut Air National Guard last month. They and other military personnel have concerns over the shot's effectiveness and possible health effects.
The Thunderbolts, known as "Warthogs," are highly effective against tanks and offer excellent close air support for ground forces. The jet has several armament selections, including a rapid-fire 30 mm cannon, and can carry an assortment of bombs and missiles.
The 104th has twice participated in Operation Deny Flight, enforcement of the "no-fly" zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1994, crews from the 104th attacked Bosnian Serb forces attempting to take military equipment confiscated by the United Nations.
Maryland's other air unit, the 135th Airlift Squadron, also flies overseas missions.
That unit, which flies C-130 aircraft, moved much-needed food and medical supplies in December to flood victims in Honduras. In 1998, the unit helped Uganda in a civilian engineering project.
The C-130s also have flown anti-narcotics missions in Central and South America.
Pub Date: 1/27/99