GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Some of the most rewarding air missions flown in the war on terrorism involve providing close support to ground troops, say U.S. and British pilots helping train joint terminal attack controllers here this week.

Five airmen from Spangdahlem Air Base’s Joint Fires Center of Excellence were at Grafenwöhr to qualify as JTACs — ground-based personnel who spot enemy targets and direct aircraft to bomb them.

To do that, they needed to guide British Harrier and F-15 Strike Eagle fighter-bombers to targets in the training area, with fire support from 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment mortars.

Lt. Col. Mark Hedman, 45, of Fresno, Calif., the Joint Fires Center of Excellence commander, is a former Strike Eagle pilot who knows the importance of JTACs. During close air support missions, pilots radio the JTACs to find out where they should drop their bombs, he explained as he watched Harriers bomb old tanks from a hill in the training area.

“You have to get a reference [such as a road or building] so everybody knows what they are looking at. [The JTACs] build a picture of the target area for you,” he said.

Working with JTACs on close air support missions is rewarding for pilots, Hedman said.

“You know they need you there,” he said. “There are perhaps troops in contact or some kind of situation where you are helping guys on the ground, so from a pilot’s perspective, these are some of the most rewarding missions I have flown.”

Soon after landing his Harrier at Grafenwöhr’s airstrip, Royal Air Force Flight Lt. Scott Williams, 29, of Stamford, England, said he also found the close air support missions rewarding.

U.S. Special Forces visited the young pilot to say thanks in person after a close air support mission he flew in Afghanistan earlier this year, said Williams, who also provided close air support to U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2003.

U.S. JTACs use terms that differ from those of their British counterparts, so exercises like this week’s get them used to communicating with each other and working together, he said.

One of the trainee JTACs, senior airman Brandon Maxwell, 23, of Sacramento, Calif., described the job as “glorious.”

“It is a big force multiplier,” said Maxwell, who is with the 321st Special Forces Group at Mildenhall, England.

“I’m going to be working with nine- to 10-man teams. If you run into a battalion-size force or a platoon, you can demolish it,” he said.

Joint Fires Center of Excellence instructor U.S. Army Maj. Rob Smith, 35, of Miami, said the JTAC course was taught only in the U.S. until recently.

“The guys do two weeks of academics and simulations, and this week is the practical — talking to real jets and dropping real munitions here at Grafenwöhr,” he said.

Another instructor, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tim Pachasa, 30, of Kansas City, Mo., was passing on skills he learned during eight months of directing air strikes on Fallujah and Qaim, Iraq, in 2003.

“In June 2003, I had 10 hours of continuous airstrikes. We hit a five-building compound and destroyed the buildings, six to nine vehicles and numerous insurgents,” he said.

The key to JTAC work is preparation, Pachasa said.

“Plan for any contingency like friendly forces rolling into the area, civilians on the battlefield or night operations and have a back up in case you have to dismount and ruck it,” he said.

The most important part of the job is making sure bombs hit enemies and collateral damage is minimized, he said.

A JTAC’s tools of the trade include maps, radios and a laser designator that lights up a target for pilots. When they are controlling aircraft close to artillery — in this case, the 1-1 mortars — JTACs have to be certain the planes don’t get shot down by friendly fire. That means directing pilots to fly higher than the artillery, off to one side, or during a lull in ground fire, Pachasa said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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