Misawa pilots deliver 'Combat Airpower' in Iraq

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Gregoire
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Misawa Airmen deployed to the Air Force's 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing here provided close air support in a joint, combined effort to route a determined enemy in the decisive battle of An Najaf south of Baghdad Jan. 28. More than 200 insurgents were killed and 100 gunmen captured.

The 332nd AEW's F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs answered ground forces' call for close air support after insurgents attacked them with small arms fire, rocket-propelled and hand grenades. They dropped more than 3.5 tons of precision munitions, 1,200 rounds of 20mm and 1,100 rounds of 30mm cannon fire in an area of about five square miles.

F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 510th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, 14th EFS, and 332nd EFS, based out of Balad Air Base, as well as A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the geographically separated 74th EFS at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, all participated.

The 36-hour action was the first time all the wing's fighter aircraft have simultaneously employed ordnance in a single operation. Two of the squadrons, the 14th and 74th EFS, joined the wing's ranks just last month.

Talking directly to pilots during the mission was a Joint Terminal Attack Controller [J-TAC]--an Airman embedded with Army ground forces, said Lt. Col. Bob Winkler, an F-16 pilot assigned to the 510th EFS.

Army ground liaison officers routinely coordinate with these Airmen for mission-specific details to better prepare pilots before missions.

"Initially, we weren't involved in Najaf since ground forces hadn't yet requested air support," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Levern Randall, 332nd AEW ground liaison noncommissioned officer. "Once airpower was requested, we supported the recovery operations of the downed helicopter."

F-16 pilot Capt. Ben Vickers, home stationed with Misawa's 14th Fighter Squadron, and his wingman were 90 miles south of An Najaf when they changed course. "We knew an [AH-64 Apache helicopter] aircraft had gone down, and troops had come in contact with the enemy and were receiving fire," said Captain Vickers.

The two each dropped 500-pound bombs on insurgents hiding in a structure there. "It was night, and I was expecting to be able to see more, but I had to rely on the ground commander's coordinates since he knew the battlefield," said the pilot who has been in Iraq two weeks and has two career combat missions under his belt.

"Even with all my training, I still feel like a rookie in the Super Bowl," said Capt. Vickers. "I love what I do--and I love the F-16--but my biggest motivation is knowing I helped the guys on the ground."

Helping the pilots get off the ground are crew chiefs--the professional aircraft maintainers responsible for inspecting the systems, engines, and motor before and after each flight.

"I was proud to know my jet was doing what it was made to do," said Senior Airman Billy Butler, crew chief and tactical aircraft maintainer. "We knew we had to get those jets turned around and back in the air quickly, and safety is first in our minds when we're under surge operations."

Throughout the operation, the 332nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron sustained normal and surge operations simultaneously, and at one point, had jets quick-turned two hours ahead of schedule. With more than 3.5 tons of precision munitions dropped, the jets were fully loaded for each launch.

Pilots and ground forces count on these Airmen to ensure the munitions launch. "It feels good knowing we're able to support the people who are directly involved. Our team didn't know until later that day what was happening in [An] Najaf until we saw it on cable news," said Staff Sgt. Jared Bicker, weapons load crew chief.

The majority of Air Force combat airpower in Iraq launches from the busy runways of the 332nd AEW at Balad, 40 miles north of Baghdad.

"I'm pretty darn proud of the operations, maintenance and combat support efforts of our Tuskegee Airmen team!" said Brig. Gen. Robin Rand, 332nd AEW commander.

For more information and F-16/A-10 mission video, please see: http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?storyID=123039922