Misawa squadron logs 3,700 hours in Iraqi Freedom
Stars and Stripes June 1, 2003
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — By the end of his Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment, 1st Lt. Ben “Beav” Price had more combat flying hours than peacetime flying hours.
With 160 flight hours when his deployment began in December, he came home in April with 350 hours.
“Being one of the youngest guys over there, it was a good experience for me,” said the 25-year-old pilot.
Flush with successes in an air war, several 14th Fighter Squadron pilots from Misawa Air Base’s “Fighting Samurai” shared recollections of an air war that ended almost as soon as it began.
However, strict Defense Department guidelines prevent disclosure of the exact location from which they operated as Operation Southern Watch evolved into Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“You were too busy to be scared, you didn’t have time to think about it,” recalls Capt. Jason “Nails” Plourde of air combat patrols over Baghdad.
Plourde, who has amassed 1,400 flying hours in his eight-year career, said he was more concerned with making sure high-speed anti-radiation, or HARM, missiles he fired from his F-16CJ found their intended targets.
“It was an intense and exciting time for us,” said Lt. Col. Scott “Zot” Dennis, an 18-year Air Force veteran who led the Samurai to the region in early December for a now-defunct Operation Southern Watch rotation. Dennis relinquished command of the squadron Thursday and is headed for the Air War College.
According to Dennis, the main mission for Misawa’s flyers was SEAD — suppression of enemy air defenses. That involved lobbing high-speed anti-radiation missiles at Iraqi radars foolish enough to “paint” American or British coalition aircraft flying over the desert south of the 33rd parallel.
“Besides enforcing no-fly zones, our big push was preparation of the battlefield, gathering intelligence and reconnaissance,” he said.
As more American and coalition forces poured into the region, Dennis said, the operations tempo surged.
“Southern Watch’s 12-hour days migrated into 24-hour operations well before the fight started,” he said.
Southern Watch dissolved the night of March 21 as the first attack on Baghdad was executed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Dennis led the squadron over Baghdad that night.
“Our first task was to effectively suppress the enemy air defenses,” Dennis said. “The numerous high-speed anti-radiation missiles, or HARMs, fired at Baghdad kept the Iraqis from mounting any serious defensive effort.”
His biggest concern during that first mission: “Not doing something stupid.”
Dennis said leading a four-ship F-16 formation gave him “double-sword anxiety.”
“I was concerned with bringing everybody home that night — not doing something stupid and messing up,” he said. “Nobody wanted to let the team down by getting hit with a SAM [surface-to-air missile].”
Before it was all over, the Misawa Samurai flew nearly 750 sorties totaling about 3,700 hours.
“I thought we would do our SEAD mission exclusively while over there,” said Capt. Steve Tittel, a Russell, Kan., native with more than 1,300 hours in the F-16. “I never thought we would be able to shift to DEED, destruction of enemy defenses, by dropping bombs, too.”
Tittel had never flown north of the 33rd parallel while adhering to Southern Watch guidelines, but that all changed after the war began, he said.
“Having never been over Baghdad before, I realized the heightened threats as we flew north — the SAM missiles and anti-aircraft fire came at us.”
Another thing that impressed Tittel: how orderly war appeared.
“It wasn’t as chaotic as I thought it would be; it was a lot closer to what it was like to fly training sorties.”
Price said he flew the whole war at night, seeing the Iraqi landscape through night-vision goggles. He had just two weeks after arriving in the theater to become familiar with the devices.
“The good thing about goggles is you see everything,” he said. “The bad thing is you see everything” — including SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery that Price said “you can see from 100 miles away.”
For Maj. Ken Ekman, fascination came from watching the arrival of a host of different aircraft that made up the burgeoning air wing.
“We had home-court advantage, having been there for three months,” said Ekman, who has 1,500 flight hours in his 12-year career. “I helped these new guys to become familiar with things they needed to know.”
After the war took on its increased tempo, Ekman said, Misawa airplanes were loaded with a mix of munitions.
“I could tell how quickly things were progressing because of the munitions loaded on the airplanes.”
Because Iraq launched virtually no aircraft, airspace grew steadily safer.
“The Baghdad we feared so long, while not friendly territory, wasn’t as dangerous as it had been,” he said.
Dennis was somewhat “surprised” the Iraqis seemed to abandon any idea of launching aircraft into skies filled with hundreds of coalition aircraft.
“I didn’t understand the complete rationale,” he said. “I thought they would try to inflict as much damage on us as possible, but that didn’t happen.”
Plourde said while he got to fire HARMs, he never had the chance to employ bombs on targets.
“Our Army moved so fast, it was luck of the draw if you got to drop bombs depending on your missions,” he said. “We’d rather hold onto them rather than drop them on the good guys.”
Plourde lauded the work of Misawa maintenance crews, who helped keep planes in the air.
“They always had our aircraft ready, and after the hostilities kicked off, our maintainers would help fix F-16s with other units,” he added.
Before Misawa fliers fell off the April 18 air tasking order that scheduled aircraft into enemy skies daily, the Samurai delivered the entire inventory of weapons carried by the F-16.
Dennis said it was gratifying to watch his pilots make decisions that could have grave implications.
“They made life-and-death decisions when they had to navigate threats, and all our training came to fruition when it came time to execution our mission,” he said. “It was impressive to watch them.”
Just two months out of initial upgrade pilot training, Price now considers himself a seasoned combat veteran.
“It’s experience many of my peers don’t have,” he said. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”