Pilots from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing of Hill Air Force Base have flown in combat daily since Operation Desert Storm began.
For the vast majority of the pilots, this is the first time they've faced combat. But that hasn't hampered their ability to put their ordnance on target and get back home safely.Realistic training at HAFB and since their arrival here has prepared the pilots for their missions in Iraq and Kuwait.
"We expected anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) to be heavy, but it was a little heavier than I anticipated," a major said of his first combat sortie in Iraq. "But other than that, there weren't a lot of surprises." Training and good intelligence information prevented the "surprises," he explained.
"When the threat (AAA and surface-to-air missiles) was coming up, there was no doubt in my mind about what I had to do," recalled one pilot, a captain. "My reactions were pretty much automatic."
"Weather has been the biggest problem, but that won't be there all the time," the major said.
The captain recalled his thoughts as he was briefed for his first mission. "It hit me finally that this is the real thing," he said. "My whole career has been in training. Suddenly I was asked to go do what I'd been trained to do." He flew his first combat mission with a combination of "fear and excitement."
"The first couple of days were the highest threat," he recalled. "They were throwing up everything they had." Now the Iraqi resistance has lessened. "We haven't seen the resistance that we saw in those first few days."
Though the threat has decreased, the wing's pilots are far from complacent. "We're reminded every day that this ain't over. They're still trying to kill you," said the captain.
Though none of the wing's aircraft have been shot down or suffered major damage, there have been close calls, they said. But they don't think about the threat they face while they're in the air. They keep their emotions in check until their feet are planted on the ground.
When he saw his first surface-to-air missile (SAM) headed for his aircraft, the major said he reacted exactly the way he'd been trained to do. The pilots' years of training cause them to react almost instinctively, the major said.
"I didn't think about it at the time," he said. "But about an hour after landing, I thought, `Jeez, someone was trying to kill me.' "
Now that they have several combat missions under their belt, they feel more confident. "On the first few missions, I was nervous and apprehensive, but once you get into the jet, it's all business," said the major. "After a few missions, when you see someone shooting at you, it doesn't surprise you as much."
"As soon as you strap on the airplane, there's no time to think about other things," the captain added.
Much has been said about the new equipment and technology the allies are using for the first time in combat during Desert Storm. Like the wing's pilots, its F-16s are being battle-tested for the first time in this conflict. (Other countries have flown the Fighting Falcon in battle, but this is the first combat use of the U.S. Air Force F-16s.)
"The Block D (version of the F-16C/D) has shown to be a very effective airplane," the captain said. "I have great faith in the airplane and its equipment and self-defense measures. Technology is a wonderful thing, especially when it's on your side," he said.