Maryland pilots practice for possible Kosovo call-up

Guard training includes runs at N.J., Pa. ranges

April 18, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Capt. Scott Lageman of the Maryland Air National Guard pats the flank of his Maverick missile, checks the safety pins on his BDU-33 bombs and climbs into a titanium bathtub with a 30 mm Gatling gun protruding from its belly.

After climbing into the cockpit of his A-10 "Warthog" tank-killing fighter-bomber, Lageman taxis down the runway and lifts the lumbering jet into a steel-gray sky piled with clouds.

Lageman and 1,700 other members of the Guard's 175th Wing, based at Martin State Airport in Middle River, are training for the possibility that President Clinton will send them to the Balkans to bomb Yugoslav troops.

Guard commanders say they do not know whether they will be ordered to join the war.

But Pentagon officials have confirmed that Clinton is expected this week to approve a Defense Department request to call up as many as 33,000 National Guard and Reserve members across the United States to help the bombing campaign.

In the meantime, the Maryland pilots -- many of whom flew in the Persian Gulf war and helped enforce no-fly zones over Iraq -- are continuing to practice bombing junked trucks and other targets at practice ranges in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

After Lageman's fighter banks in a looping "C" shape, he roars off from the base in Baltimore County toward an abandoned airfield north of Atlantic City, where he will drop bombs that spit trails of smoke so that cameras can help evaluate his performance.

Target practice is important in an air war in which the United States has been criticized for mistakenly hitting civilian vehicles in its attempt to stop Yugoslav army massacres of ethnic Albanians.

"Day in and day out, we are training for combat missions," said Lt. Col. David Tanaka, commander of the Guard's 104th Squadron. "We go to the range to do bombing and strafing. We practice air combat maneuvers. We do everything to prepare ourselves for war."

Brig. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, commander of the Maryland Air National Guard, said yesterday he had not received an order to send his pilots to the Balkans.

"We are always ready," Tuxill said, displaying a 2-inch-thick steel plate that had been pierced by Warthog shells. "We would be able to respond very quickly."

Part-time reserve pilots, many of whom fly passenger jets during the week, were cool-headed yesterday about the possibility of being sent to bomb Yugoslavia.

Taped to the Plexiglas window of the flight operation dispatch room in the Guard's headquarters was a notice: "Kosovo Situation Brief. 15: 00. OPS Auditorium."

Behind the sign, a pair of red telephones sat atop a computer terminal. The rear wall was a glass board with the times of practice flights written with pink, white and green markers.

In the next room, a half-dozen fighter pilots joked and leaned over a table scattered with maps.

Col. Ted Thilly trundles in wearing full combat gear: a dark green anti-gravity suit, with harness, survival vest and helmet.

"I'm not nervous at all," said Maj. Tim Smith, 37, of Leesburg, Va., a Warthog pilot who also flies for United Airlines.

"My wife is nervous, but she won't admit it," Smith said. "She'll just ask me questions like, `Do you think you're going to go?' I tell her, `I just don't know.' "

The unit's 15 Thunderbolt II Warthog fighters have decals on their sides of Orioles wearing boxing gloves -- in honor of the pilots' Baltimore roots.

The planes are designed to fly slow and low, so they can blast armored vehicles, such as Serbian tanks, with cluster bombs and 4,200 rounds a minute from their Gatling guns. But their low flight patterns also make them vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.

Maj. Scott Kelly, a former active-duty Air Force fighter pilot who flew 42 combat missions in the gulf war, said he knows it would be hard for his wife and three boys if he went to war.

The kids are 9, 5 and 4 years old. But the oldest, Sean, has been watching news programs about the war with curiosity. Sean remembers that his father was sent to patrol the skies over Iraq.

"My son saw what's going on on TV, and he said, `Are you going to be leaving again?' " said Kelly, whose family lives in Fallston. "And I said, `Sean, yes, that's always a possibility. But don't sweat it, don't worry about it. Just keep playing baseball and doing your best at school.' "

Kelly, who served for 14 years before joining the Guard two years ago, said he will occasionally get a funny feeling in his stomach when he's flying a combat mission.

But he said the feeling doesn't last because he has been training for and flying combat missions for years.

"This is my livelihood," said Kelly, 38. "It's almost like a big game. And if we're playing, I want to be in it."

Maj. Jeff Bucher, a Southwest Airlines pilot from Crownsville, faced the multicolored flight board as he described two practice runs he flew in New Jersey that morning.

On one run north of Atlantic City in his Warthog, he worked with other Guard units to simulate a search-and-rescue mission.

In a second mission, he dropped 25-pound bombs on armored vehicles on an abandoned runway.

Bucher said he's ready to move up from bombing Jersey to bombing Kosovo.

He fought in the Persian Gulf war and recently returned from enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq from a base in Kuwait. And he has been to Italy three times to fly missions over Bosnia.

The terrain in Kosovo shouldn't be much different from Bosnia's, Bucher said.

"I know Bosnia. It's a tough place to do a job, with very difficult terrain, and the weather is often lousy," said Bucher. "But it shouldn't be a big deal for us. We just got back from Kuwait, and we know what we're doing."

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