Union Tribune

March 27, 2003

Fighter pilots fly on in face of violent storms
Miramar-based jets hit key targets


ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION Aircraft from the Constellation had to fight through violent thunderstorms early yesterday to temporarily knock out Iraq's television broadcast facility in Baghdad and pound troops confronting advancing coalition ground forces.

The vicious weather damaged one plane from this San Diego-based carrier, forced others to divert to land air bases and gave some pilots a worse time than the Iraqi air defense.

Lt. Col. Gary L. Thomas, commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, said flying through the towering wall of thunderstorms was "scarier" than the first night of attacks on Baghdad, when the sky was filled with anti-aircraft gunfire and missiles.

"I couldn't get out of them," said Thomas, who flew an F/A-18 Hornet.

VMFA-323 is based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego.

Hail shattered the fiberglass radar dome on the nose of an EA-6B electronic warfare jet, forcing it to abandon its mission and return to the ship.

Despite the weather, Thomas and other pilots from the Constellation's air wing pressed on to the Baghdad area to hit barracks for the Special Republican Guard, considered the key protectors of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Pilots from Thomas' squadron also went to the aid of their comrades on the ground, dropping Joint Standoff Weapons on what Adm. Barry M. Costello said were "artillery and infantry positions near Al Kut, where the Marine positions are advancing.

"This is a significant mission in that it was a time-sensitive strike," said Costello, commander of the Constellation battle group and other surface ships in the region.

Costello said a call for support was processed quickly by the Combined Air Operations Center in Saudi Arabia, which sent the detailed target positions to the Constellation.

A Joint Standoff Weapon, one of the newest U.S. precision munitions, is a 13-foot-long mini-airplane that can glide about 30 miles to its target guided by satellite positioning data. It disperses a shower of explosives that can devastate an area the size of a football field.

Constellation aircraft also hit Iraqi armored vehicles near Karbala where U.S. Army forces are attacking air defense and surface-to-surface missile facilities around Baghdad, military headquarters near Najaf and the Special Republican Guard units, Costello said.

Costello also strongly indicated that the air wing's planes took part in the strike that for several hours stopped Iraqi leaders from broadcasting daily TV exhortations to their fighters and denunciations of the allied attacks.

"This air wing executed some missions last night that were of very high interest to people significantly higher in the chain of command," Costello told reporters.

Asked if that meant the Iraqi TV, Costello said the priority targets included "command and control facilities" in Baghdad.

Costello said the violent weather caused him to have "a couple of good discussions" with Capt. Mark Fox, the air wing commander, and Capt. John Miller, the Constellation's commanding officer.

A surface warfare officer, Costello said he relies on the "counsel and recommendations" of the two senior fliers.

"We always want to be sure that we take weather into the equation, recognizing that we have troops out there that could die if our airplanes don't get there. . . . We launched airplanes into some very challenging situations because of the urgency of the situation," he said.