Union Tribune

April 3, 2003

Tomcats answer the call, drop down for low-level strafing run


ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION American troops in Iraq were taking fire and called for air support. Two F-14 Tomcats from the Constellation answered the call by dropping all their bombs on the target.

Then, the Tomcats dived from their high-altitude sanctuary into the lethal reach of Iraqi anti-aircraft and small arms fire to strafe the enemy with 20 mm cannon.

It was the first known combat use of guns by U.S. carrier-based fighters in this conflict, which has been characterized by high-altitude air attacks with precision weapons.

"It's not something we planned to do . . . but when there are guys dying on the ground, we're going to go that extra step, even though someone can pop us," said Lt. Tony Culic, one of the Tomcat pilots from Fighter Squadron 2 who made the attack.

Capt. Mark Fox, commander of Carrier Air Wing 2 on the San Diego-based Constellation, said: "Some missions just give you more satisfaction. (Close air support) gives you the most.

"It's typically the low-altitude air defenses that are going to get you in this environment."

That is why the gun attack by the Tomcats on Sunday was so notable.

The gun attack was an extension of a close air support mission that started with the relatively low-altitude delivery of seven bombs, said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Bilzon, the radar intercept officer in the back seat of Culic's Tomcat.

Their altitude was dictated by layers of clouds down to 10,000 feet, which masked the ground from their normal, higher altitudes, Bilzon said.

The second Tomcat was flown by Lt. Mark Callari with Capt. Craig Geron, the deputy air wing commander, in the rear seat.

After using a laser-guided bomb to destroy an Iraqi armored personnel carrier and then refueling, the two fighters checked in with an Army controller south of Karbala.

The controller said he had taken small arms and rocket propelled grenade fire from Iraqis a kilometer ahead, and asked if we "could we please make them go away," Bilzon said.

The Tomcats dropped below the clouds again and, guided by the controller, found the Iraqi troops.

"We set up for a low-altitude attack because, with the weather, that was the only option we had," Bilzon said.

Although the two planes had laser-guided bombs, the Tomcats dropped all six of their bombs unguided because they were too low for laser tracking.

After the bomb run, the controller said some of the Iraqis had scattered, but he asked the pilots to keep coming.

"Because we had the gun on board, with 600 rounds, and we had enough fuel on board for some more passes, we decided to continue and strafe them," Bilzon said.

They rolled in at 9,000 feet and pulled out at about 3,000, firing all available rounds, Culic said. "Probably the most exciting thing I've ever done."