Capt. John Colombo shifted on the couch to show how he maneuvered his F-16 trying to evade Iraqi missiles fired at him. It was a strange juxtaposition: a pilot in a flight suit in a quiet condominium, a Christmas tree behind him, reliving a moment of sheer terror.
You could tell if a missile was guided, locked in on the jet, he said. "When you moved your airplane it moved with you."Colombo, 28, returned from the Middle East war March 7. A pilot with Hill Air Force Base's 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron, he arrived a day after the first group from Hill, the 2959nd Combat Logistics Support Squadron, who had come home March 6.
His wife, Capt. Bethany Colombo, has it down to the minute. He came home on Thursday night, at "8:41," she said.
Most of the pilots from Hill are still in the war region. Rumors are circulating they may be flying home next week.
The Colombos were married on Aug. 11, less than three weeks before the 421st and the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadrons roared away from Hill en route to the Middle East.
Now, a "Welcome Home" balloon decorates a cluster of lights above the dining room table. The Christmas tree, with the few ornaments that Beth Colombo was able to find in March, is topped by a huge yellow bow. This was their first Christmas together, and they intended to celebrate it when they could.
In the entrance to their condominium stands a copper weather vane with a copper biplane on top. It was one of the Christmas presents from his wife that John Colombo was finally able to open.
Colombo and the others from Hill were stationed in a country still unidentified by the Air Force. He flew 32 combat missions in 42 days.
"We were very busy," he said. "We flew six out of seven days within a week, six weeks long . . . The days I personally wasn't flying I was either planning for the next mission, the next day's flight, or I was up in the control tower."
Whenever he flew over enemy targets, it was a grueling three- or four-hour mission. Were the briefings like those in World War II movies, with a big group of pilots crowded into a flight room? Actually, yes.
"We had a mass briefing like that before each set of flights, and they'd cover the weather, and intelligence, and tell us what our targets were." A chaplain would be there to offer support with a few words at the conclusion of the briefing.
In fact, the chaplains started a tradition: Whenever the pilots taxied along the runway preparing to take off for combat, people on the flight line would form the "wave," as at a football game, to send them off.
"It was a total team effort, with mechanics and everyone else, all of the agencies on base," he said. They were on a small base. Support units and other experts from 43 different bases were there at once; at the peak, the total reached men and women from 71 different bases.
"When we first got there, it was a real chore getting everything set up," he said. That took a couple of weeks. Then the squadrons flew training flights.
"It was a six-day work week, all the way up until the war actually started."
Asked to describe one of his first combat missions, John Colombo said, "We went up to a strategic target south of Baghdad, and they shot a lot of missiles at us that day. That got everybody's attention real quick - that it wasn't going to be easy."
During sorties, they were kept busy getting bombs on targets, evading enemy fire and watching out to protect the "wingman," the accompanying jet.
A missile fired at the F-16 during the day "looked like a bottle rocket, kind of - you could see the plume and you could see the body when it went by." When it was fired, there would be smoke and a flash.
If a missile had locked on to the jet, he was able to throw it off target by shooting out chaff or flares to confuse its guidance. "Everyone in my squadron, it drew 'em off," he said. In fact, Hill had no combat losses during the war.
The 421st usually flew at night, while the 4th took on the daytime duties. "At night you could see everything that was being shot at you." It helped in evading the missiles and anti-aircraft artillery fire, but it also was more scary because it was easier to see the rocket trails.
Anti-aircraft fire was "pretty steady through the entire conflict . . . Even the last night I went out, we were still getting shot at with Triple-A . . . I was quite fortunate and never took any battle damage."
That final flight was only a few hours before the cease-fire. Until the end, controllers were passing them information about targets, "known convoys that were heading north."
"I was nervous when I knew he was flying, or when I heard a 16 had gone down," Bethany Colombo said.
He tried to call her every week, but sometimes they got very busy. The longest he went without telephoning was 11 days. "I caught some severe grief for that one," he joked.
In fact he was on the telephone with his wife when President Bush announced the cease-fire. He was some distance from the television on base, so she turned up the set in Utah so they could hear the news together.
"My reaction was a lot more excited than hers was," he said. "She was under the impression that she'd believe anything when she saw it."
"I didn't want to get myself up for a letdown," she admitted.
But it was true, and John Colombo came home. He could open the Christmas presents, ski, visit relatives in Utah, go out to dinner with his wife. Most of all, they could drive long distances - feeling unfettered after months either flying or cooped up on a tiny base in the Middle East desert.
And any day now, the Colombos can take down the yellow ribbon from their Christmas tree, and the yellow ribbons mounted on their front wall.