Heroes 2006: ‘It happens so quickly you really don’t think about it much’
F-16 pilot flew 29 combat sorties at start of Iraq war
By JULIANA GITTLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2006
Air Force F-16 pilot Chad “Skeet” Martin left Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., as scheduled in December 2002, to serve his three-month rotation in Kuwait in support of Operation Southern Watch.
As the deployment progressed, it became apparent they wouldn’t be going home as scheduled.
In March 2003, armed conflict began, and Martin began flying real-world combat missions — 29 combat sorties over 26 days, he said.
But in the first week of April 2003, Martin would take part in two sorties that would help alter the course of the new war. For those flights, he later would receive one of the Air Force’s most prestigious awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Martin, now a captain with the 36th Fighter Squadron from Osan Air Base, South Korea, took off from Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, to offer close air support in an area outside Baghdad.
They encountered heavy anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles before they finished their mission and returned to Kuwait.
The pilots then received orders to fly their second sortie of the day.
“When we took off, we didn’t know where we were going,” Martin said.
In the air, the pilots learned their destination: They were instructed to fly back to Baghdad to destroy anything and everything military at the international airport.
Under fire, Martin’s lead pilot took out an ammunition area. Martin spotted tanks nearby and dropped his payload.
At the time, it was a regular mission. That afternoon, watching the news back at base, Martin watched as V Corps took the airport.
He realized he helped pave the way for that victory, among the pivotal events of the early war.
“You know you had something to do with that,” he said. “That’s exciting.”
Months later, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for those two sorties.
Martin said he remembers looking at his wife’s grandfather’s shadowbox on the wall at home displaying the Distinguished Flying Cross that man earned in World War II.
“Those guys in World War II really had it hard. I felt like I can’t compare,” Martin said. “But it was neat to have the same medal.”
Several pilots from his squadron also earned a DFC.
“If I deserved one, everyone in my squadron did,” Martin said. “We all did the same things.”
On a personal level, the experience is one he’ll never forget. On a professional level, it has helped him as a pilot.
It’s also helped him as a mentor, preparing new pilots for the reality of combat — even though training never can prepare pilots fully for coming under attack, he said. “You can’t simulate the real thing.”
With anti-aircraft artillery, the enemy “throws lots of lead up hoping to hit you,” he said. Ballistic missiles look like rockets. Pilots duck away from their telltale trail of white smoke.
Martin was fired on for the first time before the war even began, during Operation Southern Watch on Feb 11, 2003.
“I probably didn’t realize” they were firing at him, he said. “It happens so quickly you really don’t think about it much.”
During combat sorties, Martin said, pilots must stay focused. The danger doesn’t sink in until the wheels touch down.
He remembers touching down after the airport sortie.
“I breathed a sigh of relief,” he said. “I definitely had a hard time sleeping that night.”
Chad T. Martin
Unit: 524th Fighter Squadron
Medals: Distinguished Flying Cross
Earned: April 2003 over Baghdad