13th Fighter Squadron ‘Panthers’ recount their experiences from the battlefield
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The burden of war for the 13th Fighter Squadron pilots wasn’t just the 500-pound munitions they carried on combat missions.
A weighty load set squarely on their shoulders: a sense of responsibility to get it right.
In the busy skies above Iraq, there was no room for error.
Lives hung in the balance, whether it was the soldiers fighting on the ground depending on them to scare off or flatten the enemy, or innocent civilians that could be on the receiving end of a misfired munition.
“Any time you drop a bomb, it’s just such an awesome explosive power,” said Capt. Alex Wolfard, 27, an F-16 fighter pilot from Mesa, Ariz. “It’s a lot of responsibility to deal with. No question in my mind, when I hit that pickle button, you have to be certain, because it’s no taking it back.”
Home from the war, Wolfard and pilots Capts. Kevin Hicok, Eric Freienmuth and Thomas Tauer recently reflected on the more than four months they spent this summer and fall flying from Balad Air Base north of Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Their stories offer a rare glimpse of the war in Iraq from the vantage point of the fighter pilot. Their report also offer a glimpse at how the air war in Iraq is contributing to the fight and how technology can give the U.S. military an edge in this unconventional war where there are no battle lines.
First glimpse of actionFor most of the 13th’s “Panthers,” this year’s Iraq deployment was their first into combat.
Like Misawa’s 14th Fighter Squadron, who deployed earlier this year, the Panthers flew close-air support missions, providing air cover, reconnaissance and munitions to coalition forces on the ground.
The job forced them to switch gears months before heading back to Misawa, where they traditionally train for suppression of enemy air defenses and air-to-air combat.
Every bit of the new skill sets and lessons learned from the 14th were needed. Their deployment coincided with a two-month summer “surge,” when military operations in Iraq increased by 25 percent, according to Misawa base officials.
Most 13th pilots averaged between 200 and 250 combat hours, according to Tauer. The squadron dropped 130 munitions — more ordnance than the entire previous Air Expeditionary Force rotation combined — and included three or four different fighter squadrons, according to Misawa base officials.
“Twenty-four hours, if anybody needed anything, there was an F-16 there to take care of it,” Wolfard said.
Lessons from first missionThe first mission was an eye-opener.
“It becomes real when you start talking to guys on the ground,” Hicok said. “You can train here to talking to guys on the ground, but when you actually start talking to guys outside the wire in Iraq … you start to really feel what’s actually going on.”
Freienmuth’s first mission taught him that the F-16s can provide support in many ways — and not just with big bombs.
“We were responding to troops in combat,” said the 28-year-old from Severna Park, Md. “An Army convoy on the highway was getting small-arms fire.”
But because the pilots could not get an exact location on where the attack was coming from, they did a show of force, flying low and loud to the ground to flush out the terrorists.
It worked, Freienmuth said.
“Being your first sortie, you want to help them out as much as you can … but we were able to scare them off at least,” he said.
Freienmuth would later get the chance to employ.
It was another “troops in contact” call. An Army base in southern Iraq was taking indirect fire from rockets and mortars. By the time Freienmuth and his wingman showed up, the base had taken 40 to 50 hits. It was nighttime and the infrared scope in the targeting pod — a cockpit display of the terrain using video imagery — “was a big bright spot all over the base where there was, no kidding, buildings burning,” Freienmuth said. “I hadn’t seen anything like that before.”
The controller directing the pilot’s eyes to where the attacks were coming “was under a Humvee behind a concrete barrier,” Freienmuth said. “He was in his bunk sleeping” when the first mortars struck, Freienmuth said. “That building was (now) on fire.”
Though beyond the base the setting was urban and dense, “we were able to employ on the exact house where they were launching mortars,” he said. “We got back intel that we had taken care of the right guys.”
The pilots often worked with joint terminal attack controllers, who from a forward position on the ground direct the action of fighter aircraft engaged in close air support and other air operations.
That coordination was critical to the squadron’s success, the pilots said.
“While we do have very nice sensors on the aircraft, without the high accuracy coordinates and directions that tells us exactly what we need to be looking for … it’s like standing on a top of a building looking through a soda straw trying to pick out a particular person in a city,” Tauer said.
During one mission, Tauer, 27, from Houston, was about to land his jet when he had to turn around.
“We had been monitoring this building where suspected terrorists were for almost five hours, going back and forth to the tanker,” he said.
Their support was called off, but just before landing at Balad, they were called back: “‘No, negative, we need you to come back over here right now. We need you to get bombs on target,’” Tauer recalled the request. “Within minutes we had taken care of that target. That was one of the toughest mental transitions for me because I was within a minute of putting my gear down.”
The mental test of combat was like nothing they’d seen in training.
“What I remember the most is just being totally saturated, in terms of where my mind was, what I needed to focus on,” Wolfard said. “I’d never flown in an environment that had that many airplanes in it. I was just doing the best I could to hang on and keep my mind in the game, both flying the jet and situations on the ground.”
That’s when the pilots fell back on their training, of habits chiseled in repetitiveness.
“Situations were never exactly to what you trained to but the processes you went through to make sure you dropped the bomb correctly, make sure you have a good strafe pass, or make sure you have a disciplined targeting pod search (were),” Freienmuth said. “You fall back on those habit patterns.”
Just dealing with itAnd fighter pilots are trained to deal with stress, Hicok said.
“You’re trained to compartmentalize and task manage at appropriate times,” said the 28-year-old from Rockford, Iowa. “You get used to the stress. You put that in a different portion of your mind and don’t think about it because you’re focused on what you’re actually doing.”
That’s not to say the pilots didn’t feel the flutter of butterflies in the gut or a jolt of adrenaline.
For Freienmuth, the most nerve-wracking part of any mission was showing up at a “troops in contact” situation.
“You knew guys on the ground were getting shot at,” he said.
The joint terminal attack controllers often set the tone, Wolfard said.
“It could range from anywhere you show up and it could be a kid yelling at you on the radio because his Humvee just got rocketed and they’re trying to gather everybody together and get going and want us to search for that threat, to you check in, some guys are whispering on the radio because he’s just hiding and trying to talk you on the enemy location,” Wolfard said.
Pilots “being at altitude” get to manage the chaos, he said, putting a situation into its proper perspective — “‘OK, the good guys are over here, the bad guys are over there.’”
“Sometimes that’s just all they need” to calm down, Hicok said, to know “‘OK, somebody’s here to help us.’”
AccomplishmentFeedback from soldiers was one of the most rewarding aspects of the deployment, the pilots said.
“We’d get e-mails from these guys saying ‘Oh, that was awesome, you guys were low and loud, scared the heck out of everybody, it was great,’” Freienmuth said.
Looking back, the pilots believe they made an impact on the war — and hope that it’s a lasting one.
“Although we dropped a lot of munitions … everyone hit the right target,” Freienmuth said, adding in past wars, clear enemy lines made the need for precision less critical.
In Iraq “there is no line and the line changes every day. That’s a huge amount of responsibility to place on us and a bunch of young guys on the ground talking to us.”