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ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — Fighter jets from the Kitty Hawk continued to bomb Iraqi targets Friday, including Baghdad’s airport, while the search stretched into its second day for a fellow pilot possibly shot down by friendly fire.

Central Command said a coalition Patriot missile may have brought down the F/A-18 Hornet at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday in central Iraq.

“It’s speculation at this point,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Moffit, Kitty Hawk battle group commander. “We don’t dwell on that.”

Carrier Air Wing 5 officials would not release any information on the pilot Friday afternoon because of the ongoing search-and-rescue mission.

“Until we have positive identification, recovery of the pilot in particular or recovery of a body, it is still a combat search and rescue,” Moffit said. “There are all kinds of rumors, and I understand there’s all kinds of bodies in the battlefield.”

Asked whether air wing members were angry about the prospect of friendly fire being to blame, one Hornet pilot said “no.”

“We’re doing our best, and I’m sure those guys on the ground are doing their best,” said Cmdr. Brian Corey, executive officer for Strike Fighter Squadron 192. “Those guys believe they were doing the right thing, if [friendly fire] is, in fact, the case. Those guys get shot at every day. They’re tired, they’re doing great work and we’re going to continue to support them.”

The air wing, embarked on the ship deployed from Yokosuka, Japan, is bombing targets in support of the Army’s V Corps and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

The loss of the jet was the second in two days for the wing. Two F-14A Tomcat pilots were rescued early Wednesday after safely ejecting over Iraq due to mechanical failure.

“We anticipated we’d have losses,” said Capt. Patrick Driscoll, air wing commander.

He didn’t know whether the Hornet pilot ejected. The wingman reported seeing missiles and a flash in the vicinity before leaving the area, Driscoll said.

Corey said while air wing members are praying for the pilot and his family, they put it out of their minds when they step into a plane.

“There’re a lot of things we have to think about when we’re out there, and we have to do things correctly or we’re not going to come back,” said Corey, 39, from Granite City, Ill.

On Thursday, 21 Hornets and nine Tomcats from the air wing flew 61 dedicated strike missions in and around Baghdad, said Lt. Brook DeWalt, Kitty Hawk spokesman.

They dropped 69 pieces of ordnance, including 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a fuel and hangar facility at Saddam International Airport — renamed Baghdad International Airport by U.S. forces — and 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs on a nearby military complex.

Corey was the lead pilot of a six-plane strike package Thursday night.

“As you might guess, we were pretty eager to find someone in need of our ordnance,” he said. “Each day and night that we’re flying over Iraq, we’re watching hundreds and hundreds of Army and Marine vehicles streaming north. That is a great, fantastic feeling to be supporting those guys.”

— Kendra Helmer is embedded on the USS Kitty Hawk.

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