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ARLINGTON, Va. — The mission load was high and the food was awful, but Operation Iraqi Freedom was an unqualified success for at least one tired but happy B-52 Stratofortress air crew.

“I’ve got eight guys on board who are very happy to be going home,” said Lt. Col. John Stuwe, commander of “Iron Horse One,” a B-52 belonging to the Air Force’s 5th Bomb Wing.

The Iron Horse One crew was on its way home to Minot Air Force Base, N.D., from an undisclosed forward operating base in the Middle East when they spoke to Pentagon reporters Thursday — the first time the Air Force has ever used a live radio link so reporters could speak to a crew in the air.

Flying somewhere over the Irish Sea, the crewmembers’ comments were difficult to hear over the heavy static, delays, the roar of engines and cross talk from various air traffic controllers. But their happiness at being just hours from home came through loud and clear.

“We’ll get some rest and relaxation time … spend time with our kids, go to concerts, basketball games, that kind of thing,” Stuwe said.

“I know my mom has been burning candles for me ever since I headed out here,” said the B-52’s pilot, Maj. Joe Gootee, adding that he wanted to send “a big war eagle” greeting to his hometown of Prattville, Ala.

Iron Horse One’s nine-hour flight from the forward base back to Minot “is much shorter than a combat mission, which tended to be 14 or 14½ hours, round-robin from the forward operating base” to the target in Iraq, Stuwe said.

Capt. Matt Breden, Iron Horse One’s navigator, said that the crew flew more than 120 missions in Iraq, “all of them very successful.”

The missions ranged from dropping leaflets advising Iraqis not to use chemical or biological weapons to close air support, Stuwe said.

Most people do not think of the enormous B-52 in a close air role, but “it is really not a new role for the B-52,” Stuwe said. “We’ve been doing this since Vietnam.”

What is new is much of the technology that is now used aboard the aircraft, in particular the Lightning II targeting pod, which gives the bombardier an accurate picture of a ground target even when the aircraft is flying above 30,000 feet.

“The Lightning pod was very valuable,” said Stuwe.

Stuwe, who flew in Desert Storm 12 years ago, said the biggest challenge the crew faced was the scarcity of coalition aircraft available to perform missions in northern Iraq.

After Turkey refused to allow U.S. military to use its air bases for any Iraq operations unsanctioned by the United Nations, most of the air support to ground troops in northern Iraq had to come from Navy ships on station in the Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea.

The Iron Horse crew encountered some threats while flying its missions, Breden said, but nothing that was “really anything really difficult or new,” Stuwe added.

“The [anti-aircraft] weapons they [Iraqis] use are all old Soviet-style,” Stuwe said. “And the Iraqi ballistic missiles are far easier to defeat than some kind of guided missile.”

“We were able to evade the threats and get our bodies back home,” Breden said.

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