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U.S. ARMY AVIATION BASE CAMP, Central Iraq — With their guns jammed and radio dead, Capt. Joel Magsig and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Inman guided their battered AH-64A Apache, Blackjack 6, to Baghdad International Airport just after noon on Friday.

The fleeing Iraqis had left piles of sand on the runway and scattered airport ground equipment across the tarmac. American M1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles had parked at key intersections, Magsig said.

Then it dawned on them: Theirs was the first coalition aircraft to land at the newly liberated airport.

“Everybody was waving as we flew by,” Magsig, 31, of Homestead, Fla., recalled the next day. “It could have been under better circumstances, with a little more pomp, but it was just as well. I was glad to have a place to put it down.”

Magsig and Inman, from the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment in Illesheim, Germany, had been escorting a medical evacuation UH-60 Black Hawk carrying two badly injured 3rd Infantry Division soldiers to a combat surgical hospital in the rear.

They ran into a burst of ground fire from a sport utility vehicle in a grove of trees. They turned around and flew toward it, but Magsig couldn’t fire his guns, missiles or rockets. A bullet had pierced the fire-control panel that controls the weapons systems.

Other bullets severed the radio antenna, pierced the tail-rotor gearbox and flattened a tire. A mangled bullet jacket penetrated the cockpit, brushing Magsig’s flight suit and landing between his legs.

After landing and a short inspection on the airport taxiway, Magsig concluded the Apache, nevertheless, could fly. He and Inman climbed in and flew back to the base camp well south of Karbala.

“Some would call it luck,” Magsig said. “I would call it God watching out for us.”

Blackjack 6’s unexpected landing at Baghdad International Airport highlighted a morale-boosting three-day campaign for the three squadrons of Task Force 11th Aviation during the battle for the Iraqi capital.

The task force, flying daylight missions with all three of its Apache units, destroyed between 40 and 50 Iraqi tanks, personnel carriers, air defense guns, artillery systems and armed vehicles, said Maj. John Lindsay, the task force’s operations officer.

The 2-6 helicopters guarded 3rd ID ground forces as the infantry secured two key bridgeheads across the Euphrates River south of Baghdad, then captured the key intersection of Highways 1 and 8.

“We’re kind of getting into a battle rhythm now,” Lindsay said.

Task Force 11th Aviation’s other two units also returned to action last week, 10 days after a devastating engagement March 23 that saw many of their aircraft badly damaged by ground fire.

A troop of AH-64D Apache Longbows from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment patrolled the rear areas southeast of Karbala 24 hours a day to ensure no Iraqi irregulars attacked 3rd ID forces from behind. One helicopter killed a group of Iraqis that had been firing automatic weapons at American troops.

And the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, a Longbow unit from Fort Hood, Texas, has supported 82nd Airborne Division forces cleansing As-Samawah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, of military forces. Lindsay said the troop attacked air defense artillery and armed trucks.

All three units saw far less ground fire than the 6-6 Cavalry and the 1-227 Aviation faced in the March 23 battle, in which automatic rifle fire and anti-aircraft guns seemed to come from the window of every building.

Almost every one of the Longbows in that attack was grounded afterward for repairs.

Still, there were some anxious moments in the latest engagements.

Lt. Col. Scott Thompson, the 2-6 Cavalry’s squadron commander, said one of his Apaches was damaged by ground fire as it protected one of the bridgeheads Wednesday. One of the pilots was injured, but returned to the fight.

The front-seat pilot — who asked that his name not be used — suffered cuts on his face when a bullet pierced the bubble cockpit, creating a small shower of Plexiglas. Some of it embedded in the pilot’s face.

“His face was all bloody, but we didn’t know how bad it was,” said Capt. Fred Toti, 30, his troop commander.

The back-seat pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Stoddard, soared down the west bank of the Euphrates River until he found an Army aid station, where a medic bandaged the injured man’s face. Then the two pilots fixed the canopy with tape and epoxy.

“He got back into his damaged aircraft and got back into the fight,” Thompson said. “That was pretty wild.”

Mostly, though, the units saw lots of Iraqi guns and armored vehicles abandoned in fields, but not many soldiers.

Several pilots compared the battle for the bridgehead to a movie.

“It was bright blue skies, palm trees, water, puffs of smoke popping up here and there,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Leonard Eichhorn, 44, Thompson’s rear-seat pilot. “It was like ‘Apocalypse Now.’ ”

The 2-6 Cavalry’s pilots weren’t the only members of the squadron to see action up close. Seventy-three members of the unit and its sister maintenance battalion from Illesheim, the 7th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, headed north from the base camp days ahead of the battle to set up a “forward-area refueling point,” a sort of aircraft gas-and-ammo station in the desert.

They started their journey March 30 and stopped that night south of Karbala, moving along a crowded convoy route not much different than the one that brought them to their base camp a week earlier.

The convoy quickly set up and refueled aircraft that first night, then left again at 5 a.m. After traveling 18 miles in 11 hours, it pulled up behind the 3rd ID’s 1st Brigade Combat Team south of the Karbala Gap. Already they were firing into the city a few miles away.

“Nobody was falling asleep at all. Watching these things in action was just unreal,” said Capt. Janice Price, 26, of Williamstown, N.J., the 2-6 Cavalry’s tactical operations center officer-in-charge. “We had indirect fire coming right over our heads. They were just mowing down targets.”

“The real thing is not like the movies,” said Sgt. Tim Templeton, 22, of Tucson, Ariz., the unit’s non-commissioned officer-in- charge. “I was in awe, [thinking] ‘We are bad. Fear us!’ ”

Because they were getting closer to Baghdad, the soldiers had to pull on their charcoal-lined chemical protective gear — long pants with suspenders, a long-sleeved jacket and rubber boots — in spite of temperatures in the 80s and 90s.

They followed behind the 3rd ID during its fast advance through the Karbala Gap and stopped about 11 a.m. Wednesday in the desert 40 miles southwest of downtown Baghdad. They set up immediately.

“Within 30 minutes, we were receiving our first aircraft,” said Maj. Steve Wilson, the squadron’s operations officer.

“These guys busted butt,” Price said. “They rolled right into refueling AH-64s to get into the fight.”

They worked for 11 straight hours without a rest, then in shifts round-the-clock for three days. They stocked aircraft from the 2-6 Cavalry and those of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, which was flying at night, with fuel and ammunition until Friday evening, after the airport had been seized.

All the while, they watched the bombs fall.

“We were watching the light show at Baghdad and the light show at Karbala,” Price said.

The pilots returned to camp Friday night and the refuelers on Saturday afternoon. It is the end of the 11th Aviation Regiment’s service to the 3rd ID, at least for now, Lindsay said. The battle has moved toward downtown Baghdad. The Apaches’ forte is fighting in open terrain, like the desert.

— Steve Liewer is embedded with the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment.

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