The sun had just crept over the horizon Jan. 17 as a wave of F-16 jet fighters began to roar down this base's runway headed for Iraq.

Dozens of base workers lined the airfield watching in silence as one by one the jets took to the air.It was the second launch of the day at this base. And it was the second time in about five hours that pilots, maintenance and support personnel watched as American war-fighting aircraft took to the skies loaded with bombs destined for Iraqi targets.

The first wave of aircraft took off before dawn and had returned only shortly before the second "go." On top of his portable office trailer, Senior Master Sgt. Dana Bixby wiped a tear from his eye as he watched the jets take off. Taking a moment from hanging camouflage netting, Bixby stared out at the flight line and said, "I'll never say another bad thing again about a pilot. They've earned my respect today."

Some hours later as the jets began to return from their mission, the airfield was again lined with people waiting, watching and counting - counting to see if the number of jets that returned was the same as the number that left.

Thankfully, it was.

Three crew chiefs stood by an aircraft parking spot on the ramp and called out each jet's tail number as it landed. "What's taking mine so long?" Staff Sgt. James Ebmeyer asked nervously. "He was in the first few lines. He ought to be back by now."

Several minutes later, his apprehension was eased. "Yes, yes! He's back. That's mine," he shouted and pointed at aircraft No. 473 as it touched down on the runway.

Weapons-load team members also waited on the ramp for the planes to return, their eyes peeled on each aircraft's pylons. All were empty. "I'm glad all the planes came back and without their bombs," said Airman 1st Class Mike Geyer, a weapons loader in the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. "I'm ready to go load some more," he said with a grin.

Pilots lined the second-story balcony of the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron's operations building and counted each jet as it came into the traffic pattern. As the final aircraft came into view, they all let out a loud cheer of thankfulness and relief that all their comrades had made it home safely.

The waiting and counting had ended for this day.