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February 8, 2003
Like a flock of ghosts returning to the place of their first haunting, the F-117A Nighthawks slipped from the skies of the Middle-east late this week and landed at a classified location; an air base belonging to an American ally the U.S. Air Force would like to keep secret. It was the end of a four-day journey for the single-seater jets -- including a lay-over in Europe and over a dozen tricky mid-air refuelings en-route -- and the beginning of a mission military analysts expect, should war come about, to be crucial to U.S. and coalition efforts to disarm and displace from power Saddam Hussein.
Their ground crews, and reputation, preceded them.
In 1991, Desert Storm was the first real combat test of the radar-evading fighters. Two years earlier, a limited campaign to oust Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega marked the 45-million dollar jets’ debut in battle, but it wasn’t until the F-117s were used successfully in the anti-aircraft-laced skies over Baghdad that the legend of the Stealth fighters emerged. Thirteen hundred sorties were flown during the Gulf War, with over sixteen-hundred targets hit and not a single F-117 downed. Reports in later years called into question some of the military’s claims of the Stealth fighters’ spotless record, but few have disputed their usefulness or unique abilities.
The air campaign went better than Col. Rich Treadwell could’ve hoped for. “As the airplanes all checked out every night,” he recalls, “hit their targets and came home, and the confidence grew in the technology, it became less of a gnawing, nagging, stomach twisting kind of feeling.”
Treadwell was one of the pilots who took his Nighthawk, dubbed, simply, the “black jets” by those who fly them, into the angry skies over Iraq’s capital. He found himself admiring the strange beauty of the anti-aircraft fire that reached up to -- he kept having to remind himself -- kill him. “There was a sort of a reddish glow over the city from a distance. As I got closer I could see the tracer-rounds from the different kinds of triple-A.”
Only one in seven rounds from most triple-A, or anti-aircraft fire, is the visible tracer that helps the shooter aim. So for every round Treadwell and the other pilots could see, six other invisible ones were tearing through the skies in close order. Invisible to radar doesn’t mean invincible to lead; Stealth fighters are relatively fragile compared to the A-10 Warthogs or even the F-15Es.
The sorties over Baghdad are considered the most dangerous of the war.
“Some of them (triple-A), from the bigger guns, looked like big pink basketballs floating up, two-by-two.” Treadwell remembers, “Other guns that shot at a higher rate looked like garden hoses spewing fire, waving around like a sprinkler system.”
The pilots flying missions over Baghdad couldn’t simply fly above the deadly fire; oftentimes to ensure placing their weapons on target, and thus not causing collateral damage, the Stealth fighters had to actually fly through the anti-aircraft fire. There were instances where the fighters would brave the storm of triple-A, get over the mission objective, but decide against dropping their ordnance because they weren’t absolutely positive they had the right target marked.
There were, of course, a few well-documented incidents of mistaken targets, such as the Baghdad cathedral that took a bomb through its roof. BDA’s, or Bomb Damage Assessments, conducted later by the Air Force and Department of Defense suggested much of the damage to the city’s buildings was wrought by spent anti-aircraft shells falling back to earth after having missed their intended prey.
And even though there has never been any evidence the Iraqi air defenses ever locked their radar targeting systems onto a Nighthawk, a lucky shot from one of those lethal garden-hoses could have brought a black jet down.
Over the past decade there have been numerous improvements made to the F-117 and the weapons it carries, especially in the areas of targeting and the jet’s inertial guidance systems that helps the pilot know exactly where he is at any given moment, but it still isn’t bullet-proof. And the Air Force pilots in the next Gulf War, should it happen, will be facing an Iraqi air defense shield every bit as daunting and dangerous as twelve-years ago.
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