The B-52s arrived right on schedule, passing methodically over an Iraqi missile facility at Taji and dropping scores of 500-pound bombs.
To the west, allied planes went Scud hunting, hoping to knock out launchers Saddam Hussein uses to dispatch missiles to Israel.In and around Kuwait to the east, the skies appeared filled with locusts; fighter-bombers swarmed over Saddam's southernmost troops and two Republican Guard divisions.
"Welcome to the friendly skies," Air Force Col. Gary A. Voellger told the first journalists to get what one crew member of an AWACS surveillance plane called "a god's-eye view" of the relentless allied air war against Iraq.
During a nearly 17-hour mission last week, the Air Force AWACS directed dozens of air strikes and combat air patrols, policing skies so crowded there were several radio reports of close calls and quick maneuvers to avoid friendly aircraft.
Looking out the cockpit of the AWACS, or Airborne Warning and Control Systems, numerous other aircraft could be seen zipping by in either direction, in some cases across the plane's nose.
While aircraft penetrated deep into Iraq and repeatedly pounded Iraqi ground troops in and near Kuwait, dozens more planes - sometimes hundreds - waited in the wings. At times they appeared on the AWACS radar screens as if they were on top of each other.
"It kind of looks like Safeway on payday - they're just lining up," said Voellger, commander of the Oklahoma-based 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing. "We own the skies."
Indeed, not one Iraqi aircraft was detected airborne during the night.
Instead, U.S. and other allied planes flew over Iraq and Kuwait at will, in carefully orchestrated sorties, on a variety of bombing missions - many clearly designed to pave the way for an allied ground offensive.
Wave after wave of Air Force A-10, Navy A-6, and other aircraft went after Iraqi ground forces, including virtually continuous sorties against ground troops near where Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq meet.
They also hit farther north in Iraq, where the positions of two Republican Guard divisions virtually hug Kuwait's western border.
"Punishment, pure and simple punishment," said Maj. Clark Speicher, the mission control commander for the AWACS flight.
Other repeated targets included troops and artillery along the Kuwaiti coastline, the key Iraqi supply-line city of Basra and munitions and logistics depots in Kuwait.
Overall, virtually every allied attack plane model in the region was involved: F-15Cs, F-15Es, F-117A Stealth fighter-bombers, B-52s, F-111s, EF-111s, A-6s, EA-6Bs, F-16s, F/A-18s, F-14s, Tornados, F-4 Wild Weasels, British Buccaneers, Mirage F-1s and Saudi F-5s.
As each new sortie checked in with an AWACS, it received a polite greeting and a simple message: "Picture clear," meaning no enemy aircraft were airborne.
Early in the mission, still in daylight hours, British aircraft made a daring assault on a bridge southwest of Baghdad, with Buccaneers providing laser guidance for Tornado fighter-bombers.
Later, U.S. and British aircraft targeted aircraft shelters at the Iraqi airfield at Alasad, flying through an area the AWACS crew said was full of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.
The AWACS crew directed the action from high above Saudi Arabia, using the computer consoles that make the air traffic look like a fast-paced video game.
Orders listed more than 2,500 sorties and ran 950 pages.
The planes arrived on cue, escorted in by other allied aircraft.
As the B-52s tagged Taji, several allied fighters were on a special "Scud patrol" in western Iraq, hunting down mobile launchers reported to be in the area. There were sorties in the area virtually all night.
"We're hitting lots of armor every day. There's lots of targets," said Voellger. "All we're doing is going up there, dropping bombs and breaking all of (Saddam's) toys."