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Wednesday, April 2

Rescued F-14 pilots eager to get back to work

By Mark D. Faram | Navy Times

ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK, Persian Gulf - The first two American fighters pilots to bail out over Iraq during the current war are safely back on their carrier, only slightly bruised and ready to fly again.

"I shudder to use the word routine, but it was a pretty normal mission except for how it ended," said Lt. Cmdr. "Gordo," 39, a radar intercept officer. He and the other pilot, Lt. ``Vinny,'' 32, of Virginia, asked to be identified only by their rank and call signs.

The pilots, who normally operate off the Kitty Hawk, were flying their aging F-14 from Fighter Squadron 154 out of an air base in Kuwait on Wednesday when they lost both engines and crashed in southern Iraq after a successful bombing mission. They had been flying close air support for U.S. troops battling their way toward Baghdad.

"Had a successful mission and got all our bombs on target," Gordo said.

Turning for home, they started looking for a tanker aircraft with fuel to get them back to Kuwait.

Gordo was sitting in the rear seat, where he was in charge of most of the communications as well as navigating and guiding the bombs to their targets. Vinny was in the front seat. They'd seen some anti-aircraft fire but no surface-to-air missiles, and nothing had hit their aircraft.

Then the left engine began to malfunction. The pilots shut it down and attempted to restart it, ``but it wouldn't restart," Vinny said.

Vinny then tried to direct the left engine's fuel supply to the right engine. That also didn't work. The pilots realized at that point that they would run out of fuel before hooking up with the tanker.

"We're just watching the fuel level drop and knew what was coming," Vinny said.

When the fuel level reached 200 pounds, the right engine started to shut down.

"Then the generator hiccupped and we knew it was time to go,'' Vinny said. ``So Gordo called 'eject, eject, eject' - and we did."

Vinny concentrated on controlling the plane and Gordo activated the ejection system for both pilots, catapulting them out of the relatively quiet comfort of the cockpit into a howling blast of wind.

"I'm trying to keep the aircraft stable so when we go out, the chutes work as advertised," Vinny said.

As their parachutes carried them downward, the pilots watched the F-14 hit the ground and explode.

"There was some comfort in that there were not a lot of lights below us," Gordo said. "Once I was boots on the ground I started shaking a little bit. It was not a friendly place to be."

Using GPS devices and charts, the two men quickly confirmed they were still in Iraq.

"We were pretty apprehensive about where we were,'' Vinny said.

Tactical aircraft always travel in pairs, and a pilot in the plane that had been flying with Gordo and Vinny already had called for a rescue operation.

"He established contact with us, marked our position and gave us a reassuring voice on the radio," Gordo said. He said he didn't know how long the pilots were on the ground.

"Seemed like forever,'' he said. "It was a fairly surreal experience, I can tell you that."

The rescue crew, following standard procedure, asked the two pilots questions "so they're sure you are who you say you are,'' Gordo said. One of the rescue crew asked Gordo if he could walk.

"I told him I could run - just point the way,'' Gordo said.

Back at base, the two pilots were checked out by a doctor, then called home to talk to family members. Navy officials had told the families the F-14 had gone down but the pilots had been rescued safely.

"Called my wife and got an answering machine," Gordo said. "Then called my mom and dad and figured out she was at someone else's house trying to figure out what was going on."

By mid-afternoon, Gordo and Vinny were back on the Kitty Hawk, where they were greeted with the good-natured ribbing that attends most interaction between aviators. Both are anxious to fly again after any required medical downtime.

"We'd fly tomorrow, if they'd let us," Gordo said.