High above, Harrier pilots take in the battlefield, take out foes

High-tech equipment aids Marines in bombing runs

War in Iraq

April 06, 2003|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD -- From his cockpit several miles high in a moonless sky, Marine Capt. Van Davidson looked into darkness until a flash filled his night-vision goggles. It was a bomb destroying a tank, artillery piece or some other target identified by the pilot flying just to his rear - a blast meant to clear a path for American troops.

"I saw an explosion - it was kind of scary at first," said Davidson, 31, of Lake Charles, La., moments after returning from a three-hour mission in the dead of night. "It sort of washed out my goggles, lasted just a second."

For Davidson and other Marines flying Harrier jets from this aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, the bombing runs bring somber satisfaction. Here is the violent, best way, the pilots say, to destroy weapons aimed at American forces on the ground.

The Harriers - screaming off the runways and landing vertically like helicopters - play an oddly detached role as American troops battle for control of Baghdad. They are miles above the ground war but trying to shape it. "Our job," Davidson said, "is to soften it up, clean it out, make it as unobstructed a passage as possible."

On clear nights, from their positions high above Iraq - the Marines say only that the Harriers' altitude compares with that flown by commercial aircraft - pilots can make out the indistinct shapes of their targets through green-tinted goggles that cut through the night. On occasion they can see specks that are troops running for cover.

Using cameras affixed to the Harriers' bellies, they can also zoom in on targets and spread them out across a video screen. With or without magnification, pilots can watch cars and trucks passing tanks and artillery pieces parked along highways.

"Sometimes from our perspective, you'd never know there was a war going on," said Capt. Peter Blake, 31, a pilot from Big Timber, Mont. "You really don't see the destruction."

The Bonhomme Richard, named after the frigate commanded by John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War, sailed from San Diego on Jan. 16 with 2,500 sailors and Marines aboard. In early March, after a short stop in Guam, the ship pulled within sight of Kuwait, delivering ashore 1,000 Marines by helicopter and heavy equipment by hovercraft.

The remaining crew are the people who fly and repair the planes, steer the ship, cook the food and perform the other tasks necessary for keeping a 844-foot-long, 14-story high craft operating and safe from harm.

There is a sense of hurried order, of fast-moving routine in which everything is well practiced yet delicate yet dangerous and important.

The military doesn't disclose the precise location of ships for security purposes, but anyone on the flight deck before dawn yesterday could see the lights of Kuwait strung across the horizon. Casting a yellowish glow was the controlled burning of fumes atop oil wells that dot the coast.

The Harriers are flown by Marine pilots, well-spoken men mostly in their late 20s and early 30s who project quiet confidence.

One of the fliers, Capt. John Haefner of Pensacola, Fla., says the pilots are all Type-A personalities, goal-oriented and serious in their work. Haefner, however, admits that he was drawn to his job because of the "fun factor" - the breathtaking speeds that make any other form of flight seem humdrum.

They do not appear deeply ideological, but say they believe in the mission of this war - the overthrow, they say, of a ruthless regime. They say they have little use for protesters but express more irritation than anger.

"I don't take it to heart," said Capt. Scott Luckie, 31, of Midland, Texas. "If that is what they want to do, fine. But we are doing everything humanly possible to make sure that what we attack is the right thing. People don't have to agree with everything we do."

In a world where day can be night and night can be day, depending on one's shift, six pilots woke around midnight to prepare for the first round of sorties. After shower and coffee, they reported to a briefing room to learn of their flight plans before climbing into their single-person cockpits and taking off for a three-hour bombing run.

On the 2.2-acre flight deck, sailors barely visible in the darkness wave green and red lights that signal the planes, one by one, to taxi to a take-off position at deck's rear. A few controllers watch the action from a booth and move small figures of aircraft around a plastic board that is a scale model of the flight deck.

Outside, the Harriers look like raptors, their bodies gray and wings thrust back. Idling makes their engines whine, but revving for takeoff produces a scream. At takeoff, the engine roars and sends a shudder through the ship, and the plane shoots off the deck at a speed that reaches 140 mph in four seconds.

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