AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — U.S. fighter jet pilots, in first accounts of their sorties over Libya in the U.S.-led airstrikes, say teamwork with other nations has minimized the threat from the anti-aircraft weaponry of forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
Some of the pilots and other crew based at Aviano, in northeastern Italy — from where F-16s took off for night missions over Libya earlier in the week — were allowed to speak to reporters by U.S. military officials.
Air Force Capt. Ryan Thulin, an F-16 pilot, recalled on Friday the challenge of picking out targets while peering through the jet-black night sky.
All the missions are run at night and "we have to wear night vision goggles for the duration of the sorties," Thulin said. "It's very dark in Libya, you can see the desert, you can see the towns, but that's about it. It's much darker than I expected to be. It's much darker than our training in northern Italy."
Pilots weren't allowed to give all mission details, but Thulin said they were working with their partners to minimize the threat from anti-aircraft weapons arrayed by the Libyan regime's forces intent on beating back insurgents.
"Obviously, it's in the forefront of our mind every time we fly," the pilot said of the danger of artillery or missile fire. "It is the highest threat to our aircraft there. We modify our tactics in response to the threats that are on the ground. We work as a team with our coalition partners to minimize those threats as much as possible."
Thulin, 28, from Michigan, has flown some 800 sorties in his career.
No U.S. casualties have been reported in the air missions involving American and European jets. The air strikes were launched to enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution for humanitarian purposes.
But an F-15E Strike Eagle jet that was hitting Gadhafi's air defenses on Monday crashed, apparently because of an equipment problem. The jet went down in eastern Libya, where rebels are based. The two crewmen ejected, sustaining minor injuries, U.S. officials said.
Maintenance of the U.S. jets is considered so crucial that officers who take care of the jets at Aviano say maintenance goes on around the clock.
"The planes have to be in order for the mission," said Bryan Alexander, a senior maintenance officer.