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Tuesday, April 1

Navy pilot avoids close call in Persian Gulf

By William H. McMichael | Navy Times

ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION, Northern Persian Gulf - Lt. j.g. Ken Velez had a pretty exciting - and frightening - moment while flying south of Baghdad in his EA-6B Prowler early Tuesday morning.

Velez's Prowler, which can jam and destroy enemy radars, was enforcing an ``area of protection,'' clearing the way for U.S. strike aircraft bombing targets in Baghdad. Iraqi gunners were complicating things, coming close to hitting the U.S. aircraft.

"There were a lot of explosions; there was some Triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery), and surface-to-air missiles fired,'' said Velez, 30, an electronic countermeasures officer from Chicago.

Velez said the anti-aircraft artillery fire came ``right underneath'' his jet. ``It was pretty close,'' he said. ``...I saw a big flash underneath the jet as we were turning.''

There was no damage to the Prowler, but the close call prompted Velez to make a slight change in flight.

"So we just didn't fly over that spot anymore,'' he said with a laugh. By any measure in the current U.S.-led war against Iraq, a successful surface-to-air strike on the Prowler would have been what fliers call a "golden BB,'' similar to a one in a million shot that actually hits a plane. As other U.S. fliers have reported, Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile fires seem to be unguided. Velez and other fliers say getting hit by such fire would seem to require a tremendous amount of luck by Iraqis. And so far, they said, luck is on the side of the Americans.

"My opinion is that we've been doing a pretty good job of suppressing the threat there, and they've been forced to take unguided ballistic shots for fear of turning on their radars and us raining down HARM on them,'' Velez said, referring to the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile that locks onto enemy radars. The Prowler can fire the HARM from up to 12 miles.

Overnight Monday and early Tuesday, Air Wing Two fliers such as Velez remained as active as they have since the war began nearly two weeks days ago. During that period, the wing flew 88 sorties, 49 of which were strike sorties against 36 predetermined and close air support targets, carrier battle group officials said.

Their targets included:

- Armored and other vehicles near Kut, southeast of Baghdad.

- Artillery and vehicles in the vicinity of Amarah, northwest of Basra.

- Military vehicles near Hillah, south of Baghdad.

- An unknown headquarters building and armored vehicles near Karbala, south of Baghdad and northwest of Hillah.

- Iraqi leadership targets, including a Republican Guard headquarters, near Baghdad.

- Air defense and radar facilities near Baghdad and Amarah.

- Communications facilities near Amarah, as well as two missions against armored personnel carriers south of there.

Coalition officials also reported Tomahawk cruise missile launches against targets in Iraq "in the single digits.'' Rear Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Constellation Carrier Battle Group, previously used the phrase "double digits'' to describe launches in the last 24 hours.

Costello sidestepped a question on reports that the supply of sea-launched Tomahawks in the region may be getting depleted. He pointed out that more than 700 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, or TLAMs, have been fired by Navy ships during the course of the war.

Then he added, "There is an anticipation that if we need more TLAMs, they will come in the theater. That's certainly a possibility that people are looking at to rearm as required,'' Costello said, noting ships can be reloaded with Tomahawks in theater.

On Monday, the Constellation took on ammunition for the third time since the war began. About 160 of the 515 pallets of supplies transferred from the USS Camden included bombs, kits for precision-guided munitions, fuses and bullets. Cmdr. Dave Maloney, the Constellation's executive officer, said the transfer was "the largest that we've done since we've been out here.''

The ships sailed side-by-side for four hours, connected by two fuel hoses and a supply line while helicopters took turns carrying supplies in cargo nets over to the Constellation and returning with empty pallets and boxes. The Camden pumped 1.5 million gallons of fuel to the Constellation, half of it JP-5 jet fuel and half diesel marine fuel to power the carrier's engines.