Union Tribune

March 21, 2003

Heading to war from carrier
Constellation sends off 57 jets holding bombs


ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION Hours after the sun disappeared over the Arabian Peninsula, bomb-laden fighters roared off the Constellation's flight deck last night for missions over Iraq, just as they have for weeks.

But when the jets returned to this San Diego-based aircraft carrier this morning, a lot more of them had empty bomb racks than just days before.

Fifty-seven aircraft flew off Constellation overnight; the number of strikes and what they hit could not be determined.

Warships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea fired another volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Baghdad, but the Navy would not say which vessels were involved.

The night before, the San Diego-based cruiser Bunker Hill and destroyer Milius were among six U.S. vessels that had fired the first barrage of Tomahawks into the Iraqi capital, while two dozen of the Constellation's aircraft conducted strikes in the "no-fly" zone.

The two nights of attacks from Constellation were not part of the long-expected massive air assault against Iraq and were not connected to the strikes on Baghdad, according to Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello, commander of the Constellation battle group.

The carrier's raids on military installations and communications facilities in western Iraq and air defense sites near Basra, Costello said, were "primarily in response to a lot of those surface-to-air firings that we've experienced over the last couple of days."

Coalition forces have been hitting Iraqi air defense and communications facilities repeatedly in recent months in reaction to the attempts to shoot down U.S. aircraft patrolling Iraq's "no-fly" zones.

But, the admiral added, "you would be safe to say we're in a transition period, in the sense that a lot of the strikes that went on last night were in continuation of what's been going on."

"The Tomahawk strikes and whatever else went on last night would be in a different phase," Costello told reporters.

While Costello emphasized that the bombings by Constellation's aircraft were not part of the all-out assault on Iraq, he conceded they were "to prep the battlefield, to clear a path for further-on air strikes and ground operations."

The prospect of a major air campaign is welcomed by the pilots, said Capt. Mark Fox, commander of Carrier Air Wing 2.

"It's not every day you get to do what you've trained for, and for a good cause," Fox said.

But so far, the air war has been light and sporadic since the opening salvo targeting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons in a Baghdad bunker.

In any event, preparations for the first night of heavy air strikes from Constellation were evident on the hangar deck, where more than 100 bombs were clustered in four locations.

They were mostly 1,000-or 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, satellite-guided bombs designed to hit within a few yards of their target.

One of the red-shirted ordnance men who assembled the bombs in the vast armories below the hangar deck, Airman Daniel Edwards, 18, of Upland, said they had started two days ago to put together the huge collection of weapons.

"I hope they drop them all so we don't have to download them," Edwards said.

Airman Michael Cornett, 20, of Fallbrook admired the collection of bombs he helped to prepare and said, "America's Flagship is here to do her job."