Through Darkest Iraq with Gun and Cobra
A month of war through the night-vision goggles of a Marine AH-1W SuperCobra pilot.
- By Story and photographs by James Cox
- Air & Space magazine, January 2004
(Page 2 of 5)
Seat-cushion-clenched-in-your-butt dark. The desert was devoid of detail, and I had no depth perception. Imagine scuba diving in a pool of mud—no sense of up or down or of motion relative to anything. Visibility was about a quarter of a mile, and we couldn’t see obstacles until we were right on top of them. I just missed a 100-foot radio tower. I could feel the panic welling in my throat as my inner ear seemed to tumble with vertigo.
Eventually we slowed to about 50 mph, just groping along, like driving a car in thick fog. We hadn’t even met the enemy and the mission was already nerve-wracking.
Flying north along Highway 80, our flight reached the grid coordinates marking the point where we would split up. The first two Snakes, with me in the lead, turned east to a position where we would fire our first rounds. The second section headed west. At the Iraq border, Kujo began to work the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor to locate the target. It seemed like it was taking him forever. Looking down to ensure that no one was trying to sneak up under us to shoot us down, I saw a Kuwaiti family outside their farmhouse, looking up and watching the war unfold around them.
Kujo finally located the border post. Three missiles away. Border post destroyed. Thank God that’s over.
After struggling through the pitch black back to our base in Kuwait, a flight that should have taken 10 minutes but lasted more like 45, we finally landed. As I climbed out of the cockpit, my legs were shaking—not exactly a sign of manly courage. I thought I was the only one experiencing such intense fear until I spoke to the other pilots. To a man, each was ghost white. Finally drained of adrenaline, we made our way back to the tents.
But we didn’t sleep a wink the whole night. Every time we’d lie down, the air raid siren would start howling again, and we’d trudge back to the bunkers. Just after first light, we launched from Kuwait to head back to the Saipan. I was punchy from lack of sleep. Safely aboard, I stumbled across the flight deck and down to the ready room. As I set my gear down in one of the chairs, the Marine Aircraft Group commander walked up to me and gave me a comforting pat. I felt the tears well in my eyes. He told me how proud he was of all of us. With a huge lump in my throat, all I could manage to say was “Skipper, it was so goddamned dark out there.” I thought that if the rest of the war was going to be like that first night, I wouldn’t survive.
Early in the afternoon of March 24, my two-Snake section launched from the ship and proceeded to the Iraq city of Nasiriyah. Marine ground units had entered the city days earlier and seen the bloodiest action of the war so far. This was my first daytime flight. Night flying in the desert was difficult, but daylight left us feeling naked and exposed. We made our way around the edge of the city, and I radioed a Marine ground unit on the city’s north side. As we approached, we were directed to engage an enemy mortar position along a riverbank. We rolled in to attack with rockets and guns, and Kujo slewed the cannon, strafing up and down a trench. I fired rockets, which cracked with loud explosions. While we were orbiting over friendly units, Kujo had spotted Iraqi artillery to the west. We got clearance from the forward air controller and began firing missiles.
On one of the holding orbits, I noticed two burned-out hulks. I’d heard that the Marines had lost two armored personnel carriers in an ambush the day before, and some men had died. We raced back for fuel and ammunition, then returned to join up with the Marines as they starting moving north.