From A UH-1N Huey helicopter, Corporal Andy Vistrand, a "Gunrunner" in Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, scans the countryside of Anbar province from behind a .50-caliber machine gun. (Ed Darack)
An AH-1W SuperCobra flown by the Gunrunners, who hail from an air base at New River, North Carolina, cruises the shores of the Euphrates River south of Haditha. (Ed Darack)
Twin F/A-18Ds belonging to the "Green Knights" — Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 121 — use reconnaissance sensors and air-to-ground ordnance to support ground troops. They are shown here on approach to refueling. (Ed Darack)
The CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter looks like the nickname bestowed by Marine aviators from Medium Helicopter Squadron 262, who call their rides "Phrogs." (Ed Darack)
Private First class Kristin Koeneke from Dubuque, Iowa, ensures the canopy is spotless moments before the F/A-18D Hornet rises for a mission over Ramadi. (Ed Darack)
A typical day's work for the Army's 45th Medical Company includes perilous missions over Baghdad. (Ed Darack)
Sea Knights from Squadron 262 start a night operation at Al Taqaddum Air Base in Anbar province. (Ed Darack)
Sergeant Kiel Shafley sprints away from the AV-8B Harrier flown by Captain Nicu "Nasty" Nastase (left) after arming its laser-guided Maverick air-to-ground missile at Al Asad. The aircraft and crew are from Marine Attack Squadron 231, "the Ace of Spades," based in Cherry Point, North Carolina. (Ed Darack)
Captain Andrew Ladner of the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 362 — the Hawaii-based "Ugly Angels" — begins a series of pre-flight checks before taking off from Al Asad in one of the squadron's CH-53D Sea Stallions. The Ugly Angels served as the first Marine aircraft unit in Vietnam in 1962 and were the first squadron to receive the CH-53D in 1969. Sea Stallions, more frequently called "Deltas" by their crews, have an apparantly well-earned reputation for leaking hydraulic fluid; while shooting aerial photographs from the rear fuselage of the aircraft, Darack had to protect his cameras from the spray. "I'm told that if it isn't leaking, then there's a problem," Darack notes. "Nothing left to leak out." (Ed Darack)
A C-130J from Transport Squadron 252 stands silhouetted against a bruised sky. Darack found that the transport and refueling aircraft also make an ideal platform for photography. He lashed himself into the rear of these aircraft, shooting other aircraft from a lowered loading ramp. "The C-130J is a Cadillac," the photographer says admiringly. (Ed Darack)
Transport Squadron 252 is the longest continually active squadron in the Corps. Its legacy continues at Al Asad, where crews work hard to service the squadron's workhorse C-130Js. With one on station, other aircraft such as the AV-8B Harrier and the F/A-18D Hornet can loiter for hours with a few quick mid-air pit stops. (Ed Darack)

Air War Iraq

From Al Asad Air Base, portraits of U.S. aircraft and crews in the fourth year of fighting.

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Last sprint freelance journalist Ed Darack embedded with the Second Marine Air Wing, based in Al Asad Air Base, which sprawls across 19 square miles of Anbar province, in the northern Iraqi desert. Roughly 17,000 U.S. military personnel and support staff work at the base and are responsible for dominating airspace the size of South Carolina. Daily flights have taxed the Marine aircraft and crews, with some aircraft flying at five times the rate of other services’ aircraft in theater, according to AV-8B Harrier pilot Captain Ryan Hough. “There are always aircraft flying or on standby to handle the logistical, combat, and intelligence needs of the Marines on the ground,” he says.

Aviators told Darack that the missions these days were more likely to be reconnaissance and shows of force. “Our forces have made a tremendous amount of progress with the Iraqi people, so releasing ordnance is a last resort,” says Harrier pilot Major Kain Anderson. Darack had access to virtually all the kinds of aircraft currently flown by the U.S. Marine Corps—the V-22 Osprey will be joining the Corps in the fall—and an attached Army medical helicopter unit, at work from their improvised home at Al Asad.
About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Flight of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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