The view from Iraqi skies
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — For the 13th Fighter Squadron pilots, the burden of war wasn’t just the 500-pound munitions they carried on combat missions. They felt a sense of responsibility to get it right.
In the busy skies above Iraq, there was no room for error.
Lives hung in the balance, whether it was the soldiers fighting on the ground depending on them to scare off or flatten the enemy or innocent civilians that could be on the receiving end of a misfired munition.
“Any time you drop a bomb, it’s just such an awesome explosive power,” said Capt. Alex Wolfard, 27, an F-16 fighter pilot from Mesa, Ariz. “It’s a lot of responsibility to deal with. No question in my mind, when I hit that pickle button, you have to be certain, because it’s not taking it back.”
Home from the war, Wolfard and pilots Capts. Kevin Hicok, Eric Freienmuth and Thomas Tauer recently reflected the four months they spent flying from Balad Air Base north of Baghdad.
First time in combatThis year’s Iraq deployment was the first into combat for most of the 13th’s “Panthers.”
Like Misawa’s 14th Fighter Squadron, which deployed earlier this year, the Panthers flew close-air support missions.
Most 13th Squadron pilots averaged between 200 and 250 combat hours, according to Tauer. The squadron dropped 130 munitions — more ordnance than the entire previous Air Expeditionary Force rotation combined.
“Twenty-four hours, if anybody needed anything, there was an F-16 there to take care of it,” Wolfard said.
Learning lessonsThe first mission was an eye opener.
“It becomes real when you start talking to guys on the ground,” Hicok said. “You can train here … but when you actually start talking to guys outside the wire in Iraq … you start to really feel what’s actually going on.”
Freienmuth’s first mission taught him that the F-16s can provide support in many ways — and not just with big bombs.
“An Army convoy on the highway was getting small-arms fire,” said the 28-year-old from Severna Park, Md.
But because the pilots could not get an exact location on where the attack was coming from, they did a show of force, flying low and loud. It worked, Freienmuth said.
“Being your first sortie, you want to help them out as much as you can … but we were able to scare them off at least,” he said.
Freienmuth would later get another “troops in contact” call. An Army base in southern Iraq was taking indirect fire from rockets and mortars. By the time Freienmuth and his wingman showed up, the base had taken 40 to 50 hits. It was nighttime and the infrared scope on the cockpit display “was a big bright spot all over the base where there was, no kidding, buildings burning,” Freienmuth said. “I hadn’t seen anything like that before.”
Expect the unexpectedDuring one mission, Tauer, 27, from Houston, was about to land his jet when he had to turn around.
“We had been monitoring this building where suspected terrorists were for almost five hours, going back and forth to the tanker,” he said.
Their support was called off, but just before landing at Balad, they were called back: “‘We need you to get bombs on target,’” Tauer recalled the request. “Within minutes we had taken care of that target. That was one of the toughest mental transitions for me because I was within a minute of putting my gear down.”
Pilots leaned on their training.
“Situations were never exactly to what you trained to, but the processes you went through to make sure you dropped the bomb correctly, make sure you have a good strafe pass, or make sure you have a disciplined targeting pod search (were),” Freienmuth said.
Rewarding deploymentFeedback from soldiers was one of the most rewarding aspects of the deployment, the pilots said.
“We’d get e-mails saying, ‘Oh, that was awesome, you guys were low and loud, scared the heck out of everybody, it was great,’” Freienmuth said.
Looking back, the pilots believe they made an impact on the war — and hope that it’s a lasting one.
“Although we dropped a lot of munitions … every one hit the right target,” Freienmuth said.