Hill Air Force Base has confirmed that its F-16 jets are bombing Iraq, roaring into combat from a base somewhere in the Middle East.
In initial reports, none of the approximately 50 jets was lost.The first word that the two F-16 squadrons Hill AFB sent overseas are participating in the bombing came in the form of news releases by public affairs specialists at the unnamed base. The releases, which talk about the tension of waiting and the joy at the pilots' safe return, were relayed by fax transmission from Hill.
The squadrons are the 4th and the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadrons, part of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing. Altogether, Hill sent more than 1,000 men and women to the Middle Eastern base in support of Operation Desert Storm.
Reports were written by 1st Lt. Jennifer Fay and Sgt. Gary J. Kunich. The Deseret News is publishing Fay's full report.
Fay described the anxiety of Senior Master Sgt. Dana Bixby at the base as he watched for jet fighters to return from a mission. Back in Utah, Bixby's wife, Cheryl, said last week that she told their two sons that their dad is in danger but that the men and women there are doing all they can to be as safe as possible.
Kunich detailed the tension before the first air strikes, as the United Nations deadline passed for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait.
Just before the first wave left, Kunich said, Technical Sgt. Philip Fisher, working in the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit's hangar, said, "I'm glad it's getting started - it's about time."
At 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17, Middle Eastern time, an F-16 Fighting Falcon took off from the base, apparently to bomb Iraqi positions in Kuwait or in Iraq. The Maintenance Operations and Control Center refused to say anything about the mission at that time, except that it was classified.
But by then, it was obvious that air strikes were starting.
Kunich wrote that jets continued to take off, one after another, awakening most of the base's personnel. They continued to screech down the runway, their blue afterburners blazing in the night, past 3:15 a.m.
"The streets are lined with people in sweat pants, shorts, shower shoes, and bathrobes," Kunich wrote. "Like most of the base, they are quiet as their eyes follow each jet into the sky."
Then the official word came down that Operation Desert Storm had begun.
By 5:50 a.m., that first day of combat, dawn was breaking and the jets were returning.
"They're all on their way back," said Col. William R. Huddle, the wing's deputy commander for operations. Kunich said Huddle's eyes were bleary and he looked fatigued, as he had been up all night.
Huddle waited for the first jet to land so he could meet the pilot.
A few days earlier, in a telephone interview from the Middle Eastern base, Huddle answered the Deseret News' request for a description by saying the base is in a fairly flat area with sand dunes that are stabilized with native vegetation.
Now, in the life-support portable trailer, Staff Sgt. Micah Burns waited for the pilots to return. The trailer is one of their first stops after landing.
"All is quiet in the room except for a radio newscast detailing the attack," Kunich wrote. "Finally, one by one, the pilots stream in. Sgt. Burns shakes their hands and gives them a brotherly hug as they take off their gear."
As daylight broke, the night shift went home and their replacements arrived for another 12-hour shift, he said. "Suddenly, the morning silence is broken by more jets screaming into the air."