Sunday, September 28, 2008
Pilots describe fear of parachuting into Iraq after their fighter failed, crashed
By Rohan Sullivan, Associated Press, 4/2/03
ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK -- The two Americans bailed out of a failing F-14 Tomcat fighter jet in the Iraqi desert, and when rescuers asked if they could walk, they didn't hesitate.
"I can run, just point me in the right direction," replied one crew member, a lieutenant commander nicknamed Gordo.
Gordo, the plane's radar intercept operator, and its pilot, a lieutenant who goes by Vinny, returned to their base on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk on Wednesday after a frightening night behind enemy lines and a dramatic rescue.
Their F-14A Tomcat strike fighter -- a versatile supersonic plane that dates from the late 1960s and is among the Navy's oldest -- crashed into the desert in southern Iraq during a bombing mission at 1:50 a.m., after mechanical failures left one engine dead and the other slowly starving of fuel.
It was the first confirmed report of a U.S. fighter going down in Iraq during the war, but it was the third Navy plane to be lost to accidents or mechanical problems in 24 hours. Pilots ejected safely from the other two planes as well.
Rear Adm. Matthew G. Moffit, commander of the Kitty Hawk battle group, said extra stress on pilots or the plane from the intensified U.S. bombing campaign was unlikely to have caused Wednesday's crash. Unless an investigation points to a problem that may occur in other planes, he said, the F-14s will keep flying strike missions over Iraq.
Vinny and Gordo -- who asked that they be identified by their radio call signs instead of their names because they fear being identified from media reports if they are ever captured -- were on a mission that has become routine for U.S. fighter pilots in Iraq. Take off, fly into a strike zone and wait for commanders to assign targets -- usually dug-in Republican Guard artillery, equipment or command posts just south of Baghdad -- then attack them with laser-guided bombs.
Having dropped their bombs, Vinny and Gordo were preparing to rendezvous with a tanker plane that would give them the fuel they needed to return to base. Vinny noticed a problem with the left-side engine.
Like rebooting a computer, the pilot shut down the engine, then tried to fire it up again, but it wouldn't restart.
So the pair began making adjustments to equipment on board to reroute the fuel from a tank feeding the left engine to the right engine, which would let them fly safely to meet the tanker and, eventually, into friendly territory.
But the transfer system failed as well, setting in motion an ominous countdown. The men watched the right engine's fuel gauge tick down to empty as they rocketed south.
"We pretty much knew it was coming," said Vinny, 32, from Virginia. Sitting in the pilot's front seat, Vinny read out the dwindling numbers on the fuel gauge to Gordo, sitting in the radio and radar controller's seat immediately behind.
"I was just counting down, letting him know the fuel remaining," he said. "At the point we got down to about 200 pounds (of fuel), the right engine started to come down, the starter kind of hiccuped."
That's when they knew: "It's time to go," Vinny said. "Gordo called `Eject, eject, eject!' and pulled the handle."
The cockpit canopy exploded off and the two men were flung violently into the air.
"It was a surreal experience, changing the warmth and comfort of the cockpit to a violent wind blast ... then hanging off a parachute and floating down over Iraq," said Gordo, 39, from Georgia.
Hanging beneath their parachutes, they saw their multimillion-dollar fighter crash to earth and explode. There were few other lights and, thankfully, none of the flashes in the sky that meant anti-aircraft fire, which they had seen earlier in the mission.
Gordo said his initial feelings about having to eject were anger and disbelief -- "You can't believe it's happening to you" -- which quickly turned to fear.
"Once I was on the ground, I started shaking," he said. "It was not a very friendly place to be."
The Tomcats routinely travel in pairs or with F/A-18 Hornets, the other main carrier-based strike plane. On Wednesday, another Tomcat was alongside the aviators in trouble, watched them go down and quickly radioed their position to helicopter teams on standby in Kuwait.
The second Tomcat then patrolled overhead, talking to the downed aviators via radio gear they carried with them when they ejected, reassuring them that help was on the way.
Moffit, the battle group commander on the Kitty Hawk, said the rescue team reached the downed pilots "fairly quickly." For Gordo, it couldn't have been fast enough.
Asked how long they spent on the ground in Iraq, he said, "I don't know. It seemed like forever, I know that."
When the rescue crew first found them, they quizzed Vinny and Gordo about who they were to "make sure there was nothing funny going on," before helping them to the helicopter, Gordo said.
Apart from an abrasion on his left hand, Gordo said he and Vinny were uninjured. The men said they would take some medical leave, but were ready to fly again whenever needed.
"We'll go tomorrow if they let us," Gordo said. "We feel fine, but discretion is the better part of valor, so we will hang low for a little while before we get back in the game."
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