ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY — They were among the first pilots to strike Iraqi targets in the opening minutes of Desert Storm, and still marvel in disbelief when talking about those perilous missions.
"All I remember was massive amounts of 'triple A' (anti-aircraft artillery) — it was like flying through a giant fireworks display," recalled Cmdr. Bernie Satterwhite, whose A-6 Intruder was the lead bomber off the aircraft carrier USS Midway at the war's outset. "To this day I don't know how all our aircraft got through" the barrages.
Satterwhite, a squadron commander, was one of the most experienced pilots aboard the Midway, and therefore chosen to lead the strike against an airfield in the Kuwaiti theater.
Before the mission, "I did a lot of sitting in my room, thinking about my family and the other pilots," Satterwhite said. "But once inside the aircraft, when I shut the canopy and headed toward the beach," it was like shutting out the outside world, he said. "Then it was all a matter of instinct and training."
SATTERWHITE recalled that "you get this real powerful burst through your body and your mouth goes dry" on crossing above enemy territory. On the first night of battle, the pilots hurled toward their targets low and fast, attempting to evade Iraqi radar-guided missiles.
"We were down at 200 feet when fire hoses of red tracers started to fire at us," said Cmdr. Terry Toms, another A-6 squadron commander. Toms recalled that "my low that night was 50 feet off the deck, dodging ground fire to stay alive. You can fly into the ground very easily when you're that low."
But the Iraqis' aim was poor, as there was little guidance to their fire — they simply shot toward the noise of the aircraft, pilots said. Still, the air barrages were so heavy that the Navy chose to begin high level bombing the next day to avoid anti-aircraft batteries.
Midway pilots then started releasing their bombs at 15,000 feet, and attribute this change of tactics to their success. In 3,400 wartime missions — the most of any carrier in the Gulf — the Midway's air wing lost no planes or pilots.
But high or low, flying into combat was never easy during the opening days of the air campaign.
ON A STRIKE mission, "once you fly over the beach you're running on 'stem power,' when all the blood in your head gets forced to a little spot in the back of your brain, and instinct takes over," said Lt. Cmdr. R.C. Thompson, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot who also flew at the war's start.
"That's where all the training pays off," Thompson said.
Cmdr. Ray Zack, another Hornet pilot, recalled "a couple of close calls" at the beginning of Desert Storm, "when a volley of radar-guided surface-to-air missiles locked in on me," during a day mission.
"I was the last guy off the target and just happened to look back when I saw this thing that looked like a gigantic telephone pole coming up my tail."
Zack fired clouds of chaff-shredded metal to fool the missile, and dove hard away from it.
"The only way to beat a missile is to out-fly it," the Hornet pilot said. But while the warhead exploded 500 feet away, two more followed it. By the time he out-flew those missiles, "I had no airspeed left."
Then columns of anti-aircraft fire started to track him.
"I thought they had me," Zack said. "I thought I'd be riding my chute down. But I kept jinking and made it out" of the barrage.