Two squadrons from Hill stationed in the Middle East are continuing to pound retreating Iraqi armored columns, determined not to risk the lives of the allied forces, say commanders interviewed Wednesday.
Through a telephone linkup between Hill and an air base somewhere in an unnamed Middle East country where the squadrons are stationed, officers provided a startling description of what an F-16 pilot would see on missions as the war winds down.The linkup took place at Hill's communications center. Officers said the Fighting Falcons have been flying
around the clock against targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
Lt. Col. Mark A. Welsh III, commander of the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, responded to a Deseret News question about the view from the cockpit at this stage of the combat:
"It's kind of an exciting environment to be flying in right now," Welsh said.
The weather is not good, and smoke from the oil wells set on fire by Iraqis inside Kuwait is compressed beneath the cloud deck, making the landscape dark and the visibility extremely poor in some areas, he said.
"When you work around that smoke, what you see is a lot of dust from the armored vehicles moving across
the ground. Anything moving on the ground in the desert puts up an awful lot of smoke and dust, so what you
tend to see is dust clouds moving toward each other, or dust clouds moving against vehicles that are parked in the open.
"The actual vehicles that are parked, when you see them, look just like black squares from the air. You don't get a very good feel for what the vehicle is or looks like from the altitudes we're flying at.
"When vehicles are hit, they do burn quite brightly. A lot of them, as you can imagine, are full of ammunition, so they very often look like a Roman candle going off in a revetment (earthen embankment) down below you. There's both black smoke and white smoke pouring from everything that's been hit.
"As the ground fire gets closer and closer to where weare fighting, you often see the flashes from the artillery pieces and from the tanks themselves as they are shooting. It's a pretty fast-moving and very exciting environment, and you've got to be real careful because they kind of get you focused in on what it looks like and not what could happen to you if you didn't pay attention to it.
"The triple-A (AAA, or anti-aircraft artillery fire) looks like white cotton bolls, going off underneath you generally, and that's generally how you identify it first - you see the white puffs of smoke appear underneath you.
"Any SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) that are fired, they're almost pretty. The smoke trails are kind of majestic looking . . . You can focus on those and think, `My God, that's a pretty sight,' instead of thinking how you better think about defeating that missile."
Welsh said most of the targets hit by the Hill squadrons have been away from population targets throughout the war. "The devastation of the oil fields and the fires that have been lit . . . is incredible.
"It's unbelievable that somebody would order or carry out that kind of - if you want to call it - terrorism. Whatever you want to call it, it's a mess. There are hundreds of fires still burning. The black smoke from those fires is just like a ceiling over the land. You can't see anything through it.
"It must be horrible to be living or working or especially for our guys fighting underneath that kind of ceiling."
The countryside has been hit pretty hard, he said.
"For months now we've been hammering that area. After seeing that ground and seeing what's been happening to those troops in the last month, it's not at all surprising to any of us why there are thousands and thousands of them surrendering. I think they were just waiting for the opportunity."
Hill's 388th Tactical Fighter Wing is the official "host" wing at the base from where the jets are flying. In addition to the two fighter squadrons from Hill that were sent there in late August - the 4th and the 421st - the 69th TFS from Moody Air Force Base, Ga., was assigned temporarily to the 388th during the war.
The 388th, equipped with special night-vision gear, has split its responsibilities: The 421st Tactical Fighter Wing flies at night and the 4th, during the daytime.
Lt. Col. Thomas G. Rackley, commander of the 421st, said everyone has been elated by the success of the ground war. The men and women at the base are excited about the likelihood that they may be going home soon.
But he added they have to concentrate on their mission and not let the prospects of peace distract them from their job.
"We can't afford to distract our attention from our primary mission now . . . which is to bring this thing to a successful conclusion," Rackley said.
He seemed pleased about the reports that some of the first units to be shipped to the region may be among the first home - which is understandable since the 388th was sent to the area in August, the same month that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
At least one of Hill's jets was hit by an exploding SAM. But the missile fragments caused only minor damage, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely.
Rackley attributed the war's success to "one of the most detailed and all-encompassing campaign plans probably in the history of warfare. We knew very well the capabilities and the limitations of the Iraqi military."
The allies concentrated on Saddam's weaknesses, he said.
Because of this, allies knocked out the Iraqi radar systems early in the air war. That left their remaining air defenses blind. "Because of our concentrating on their weaknesses, they didn't know where we were coming from," Rackley said.
The AAA and missiles are often fired by sight, rather than being guided electronically.
Flying at night, it's easier to see the anti-aircraft fire, but it's hard to judge how far away it is. "You don't have the depth perception you get during the day."
Asked about Iraq's claims that the United States Air Force has targeted civilians, Rackley responded, "It's obviously a propaganda ploy on their side. I can ensure you and everyone else back there that from the very outset of this campaign we were under strictest guidance possible to minimize civilian casualties."