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Saturday, March 29

Air Force jets now flying attack missions from Iraqi territory

By Gordon Trowbridge | Air Force Times

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Iraq - U.S. Air Force attack jets began flying Saturday from a captured base in Iraq, the first combat missions flown from Iraqi soil.

A pair of A-10 Thunderbolt jets bearing the distinctive Flying Tigers teeth of Pope Air Force Base's 75th Fighter Squadron were the first U.S. fighters to touch down here at midday. This base, which Air Force officials have opened to the media on condition they not disclose its location, is ideally suited as a refueling point on the way to support ground combat troops to the north.

A maintenance crew of troops from Pope, near Fayetteville, N.C., as well as Air National Guard bases in Battle Creek, Mich., Willow Grove, Pa., and Boise, Idaho, tended to the jets, which spent about 15 minutes on the ground before taking off on attack missions. A second pair arrived as the first two were departing, and Air Force officers said they hoped soon to be refueling a pair of A-10s each hour.

``This is huge,'' said Lt. Col. Bino, pilot of the first jet to land. ``This gives us much greater capability to loiter over our targets. We can spend almost twice as much time in the target area.''

Bino, like most Air Force pilots in the region, asked to be identified only by his name or radio call sign.

The A-10 is designed specially for close air support missions, providing firepower to aid ground troops. A Gatling gun, designed to kill enemy tanks, protrudes from its nose. Several weapons points can hold a mixture of missiles, rockets and guided or unguided bombs.

With a fuel station between their principal base elsewhere in the region and the front lines south of Baghdad, A-10s can spend more time flying in support of ground operations, either looking for enemy ground forces to attack or awaiting calls for help from embattled U.S. and coalition troops.

The extra time also helps pilots locate mobile missile launchers like the one believed to have launched a missile early Saturday that struck Kuwait City.

For maintenance and fueling troops, who spent a grueling two days on a ground convoy through southern Iraq, launching the first pair of jets on their way north was cause for fist-pumping celebration. It was also a time for good-natured rivalry.

Each of the four A-10 units represented hoped the first jets to arrive would be theirs; the site of tiger teeth on both the jets brought smiles to the Pope group and groans from the Boise, Battle Creek, and Willow Grove contingents. The second pair of jets to land included an A-10 from Boise and another from Battle Creek.

The maintenance and fueling crews are operating in Spartan conditions, sleeping in abandoned Iraqi aircraft shelters and shells of decrepit buildings and doing their jobs with few of the tools they work with daily at established bases.

``It's pretty tough, considering we've got none of our tools or equipment,'' said Chief Master Sgt. Phil Carlson, a Battle Creek maintenance supervisor. ``But you're also looking at a lot of experience here, and that goes a long way.''

The A-10s weren't the only planes flying Saturday at what is rapidly becoming a hub of air activity. C-130 Hercules cargo planes landed and took off throughout the day, unloading cargo and passengers. Planners soon hope to begin receiving larger cargo jets with the capacity to carry heavy vehicles and huge amounts of cargo.