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 began to rain down on Baghdad.

“We thought we were going to be part of the initial airstrikes,” but other battle group planes got the call, said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Brown, Kitty Hawk carrier battle group spokesman, based at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

Instead, the Carrier Air Wing 5 planes headed for Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. U.S. and British troops have closed in on Basra, about 350 miles southeast of Baghdad. Basra is 35 miles from the Persian Gulf, and its capture would open up a much shorter supply root for coalition forces moving toward the Iraqi capital.

The Kitty Hawk’s F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets took off starting at 9:15 p.m. Friday, shortly after initial Tomahawk missiles hit Baghdad.

Two other ships based at Yokosuka — the USS John S. McCain and 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 group.

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

Pilots returning to the aircraft carrier described clouds lighting up around them over 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, Japan.

Two more Prowlers jammed enemy radar in the skies over Baghdad 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.

As the pilots dropped bombs or jammed radar, aviation electronics technicians waited in their shops for the planes to return. The crewmembers switched 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 came in the form of Tomahawks and not ammunition from the Kitty Hawk.

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

The flights meant everyone on board was moving more quickly. 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. On Friday and Saturday, they were turning them around in an hour.

“You take advantage of the psychology of the situation,” Spurlock said. “Everybody’s psyched up.”

— Kendra Helmer is embedded with the USS Kitty Hawk.

30 U.S. ships

ARLINGTON, Va. — A total of 30 U.S. Navy and coalition warships and submarines launched missiles on Iraqi targets Friday, Naval Forces Central Command and Navy Fifth Fleet officials said.

The vessels, which are currently assigned to Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles during the nighttime military operations, which included a major barrage on Baghdad that decimated dozens of government buildings and sent billows of roiling smoke over the city.

The following guided missile cruisers were involved in the operation, Navy officials said:

• USS Bunker Hill (CG 52)• USS Mobile Bay (CG 53)• USS San Jacinto (CG 56)• USS Cowpens (CG 63)• USS Shiloh (CG 67)

The following guided missile destroyers participated:

• USS Briscoe (DD 977)• USS Deyo (DD 989)• USS Fletcher (DD 992)• USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51)• USS John S. McCain (DDG 56)• USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60)• USS Milius (DDG 69)• USS Higgins (DDG 71)• USS Donald Cook (DDG 75)• USS O’Kane (DDG 77)• USS Porter (DDG 78)• USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79)

Navy fast-attack submarines also launched Tomahawk missiles from various undisclosed locations:

• USS Augusta (SSN 710)• USS Providence (SSN 719)• USS Pittsburgh (SSN 720)• USS Key West (SSN 722)• USS Louisville (SSN 724)• USS Newport News (SSN 750)• USS San Juan (SSN 751)• USS Montpelier (SSN 765)• USS Toledo (SSN 769)• USS Columbia (SSN 771)• USS Cheyenne (SSN 773)

Two Royal Navy submarines, the HMS Splendid and HMS Turbulent, also fired Tomahawks during the campaign.

— Lisa Burgess

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