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ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — Planes screamed off the flight deck into the early-morning hours Saturday to provide close air support for ground troops in southern Iraq as a barrage of explosives rained down on Baghdad.

“We thought we were going to be part of the initial airstrikes into downtown Baghdad,” but other battle group planes got the call instead, said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Brown, Kitty Hawk battle group spokesman.

Instead, Carrier Air Wing FIVE planes headed for Basra. As of press time, with planes still in the air, they hadn’t dropped any ordnance.

The F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets took off starting at 9:15 p.m. local time, shortly after initial Tomahawk cruise missiles hit Baghdad. Two other Yokosuka, Japan-based ships, the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain and the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, fired some of the opening salvos in the barrage of 320 Tomahawks, said Rear Adm. Matthew G. Moffitt, commander of the Kitty Hawk battle group

Throughout the evening several cycles of 15 to 20 planes, loaded with GPS and laser-guided ordnance weighing up to 2,000 pounds each, boomed off the flight deck.

Pilots returning to the aircraft carrier described clouds lighting up around them near Basra, southern Iraq’s largest city.

“You could see the horizon was red from at least 100 miles away,” said Lt. Marcus Dodd, an EA6-B Prowler pilot based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility. Two more Prowlers did fly over Baghdad, jamming enemy radar in the skies in support of coalition aircraft, Moffitt said.

“Without us the B-52s would not have gone. There was concern about surface-to-air missiles,” Dodd said. His naval flight officer hollered at him during the mission to warn him of anti-aircraft ammunition being fired at them.

“I said, ‘Break right!’” said Lt. j.g. Collin Kightlinger.

“I said, ‘What?’” Dodd laughed as the two ate a late-night meal on the carrier.

Prowler aviation electronics technicians awaited in their shops for the rest of the planes to return, switching the television between news and a live monitor of activity on the flight deck.

“We supply them good airplanes, so they’ll be all right,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Nelson Urrea, 24.

“It feels good to know we’re doing something to take part,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jay Spencer, 24.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Demetrium Baxter, 20, an aviation technician, said he was disappointed when the initial strikes against Iraq last week came in the form of Tomahawks and not ammunition from the Kitty Hawk.

“I was so upset,” he said, glad that planes on the carrier were seeing plenty of action Friday.

On early Thursday morning, the Cowpens launched the first missile strikes from the Persian Gulf. On Friday, one of the McCain’s Tomahawks failed to transition to cruise, Brown said.

“It left the tube, went end over end and landed in the water 20 meters from the ship and didn’t detonate,” Brown said.

On the Kitty Hawk, air crews were turning planes around for more flights at a much faster pace than normal, said Lt. Dave Spurlock, aviation maintenance officer for the Black Knights Tomcats squadron.

The crew usually has four or five hours to get the planes ready for more flights; on Friday night and into Saturday morning they were turning them around within an hour.

“One of the things that helps is you take advantage of the psychology of the situation,” he said. “Everybody’s psyched up.”

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