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 3 of 5)
My section scoured the fields, ditches, and small enclaves beside the road as we escorted the convoy. A few kilometers to the north, I spotted some Iraqi soldiers waiting in ambush in an irrigation ditch. Hidden in the trench and undetected by the convoy, they began to move toward the road. I called the FAC and he cleared me to engage. The Iraqis were now within 50 meters of the convoy. From 500 feet, I lowered the nose, and with my left hand reached down to the weapon switches and selected the cannon to shoot fixed forward. Looking through the glowing symbols of the transparent head-up display, I lined the gun pipper up on the Iraqi closest to me. In that split second, I realized that until this moment I had destroyed things—buildings, vehicles, weapons—but I hadn’t shot at a man.
A million thoughts raced through my mind. Guilt. Fear. Sorrow. And, finally, anger that these men were trying to kill my brother Marines. I pulled the trigger.
After a refuel and reload, we set out after sunset to where the Marine unit had stopped for the night. Like the pioneers with their covered wagons in the old west, the Marines had their tanks and armored vehicles in a tightly coiled formation, with each vehicle assigned a sector of fire. As we approached, I could see that they were engaged in a firefight, with fire spewing out in every direction: TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missiles, 25-millimeter chain gun, M-1 tank main gun, and heavy machine gun fire. Orbiting at 150 feet, we were so low that the machine gun rounds made our teeth rattle. Every couple of minutes, the FAC gave me a rollout heading, and I’d either ripple a pod of rockets or blast away with the cannon. Every clearance added the words “danger close”—meaning that the fire is close to friendlies. It was chaos.
A British GR1 Tornado jet checked in with the FAC to work with us. The FAC was having trouble talking the jet’s crew onto the target. Finally the FAC identified the target by using a large fire as a reference, and the Tornado began its target run. As the jet passed over the city of Nasiriyah, all hell broke loose. Large-caliber anti-aircraft artillery (triple-A) and SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) streaked through the sky in every direction. The 100-millimeter triple-A rounds arced up and exploded, looking as though they were moving in slow motion.
This was the first time we’d been shot at, and it was absolutely terrifying. I nearly froze at the controls. I thought I’d known fear before, but I’ve never been as scared as I was that night, and the sensation was more intense than any I’d ever felt before. Evading the gunfire, we flew back to the rear area for more fuel and ammunition. We flew one more sortie, which was just as chaotic and violent as the previous mission. After flying for nearly 14 hours straight, we headed back to Jalibah to spend the night.
We then endured a period of three days of sandstorms that grounded us. After it cleared, we were tasked with supporting the British forces around Basrah, in southern Iraq. We began screening the north of the city for possible Iraqi ambushes, staying well clear of the built-up areas. We began to scour the outskirts of Basrah with our sensors when Kujo observed Iraqi military equipment in bunkers in the desert outside of the town. We had just begun to size up the weapons cache when Kujo noticed an anti-aircraft gun with a large pile of ammunition at the ready. Standing off from the target, we engaged it with a TOW missile. Rolling off target, we saw Russian-made T-62 heavy tanks hidden in larger bunkers. Kujo began to engage the tanks with Hellfire guided missiles. When each tank was hit, debris would spray off the hull, followed by a long shower of flames and sparks as secondary explosions from the tank’s ammunition cooked off.
Launching again that evening in support of the Brits, we were sent to attack a suspected covert meeting site that the Fedayeen forces had been using. Making our way over oil fires the Iraqis had set to blind our aircraft, we began to take heavy small arms fire. Muzzle flashes winked on the ground, and tracers zipped by us in the night sky. The volume of fire forced us to turn around and go back to the west side of the city. Knowing that we would not be able to get to the Fedayeen site, we moved to engage our second target: Ba’ath party headquarters. Finding the target on the FLIR, Kujo began to pump Hellfire missiles into the three buildings. My wingman began to shoot at the target with TOW missiles at maximum range. The missiles seemed to float toward the target, their tails aglow. At the end of that long mission in Basrah, we landed in Jalibah—our new home for the remainder of the war.
Two days later, we were back supporting the U.S. Marines as they moved up the highways between Nasiriyah and Al Kut. We launched in the early afternoon to head up north, and when we reached the front lines, we saw that the FAC we were supporting had his unit stopped along a road. On arrival, we were asked to check out a village a short distance in front of the Marines. We flew north along a highway with no apparent threat in sight. But as we moved around the western side of the towns, large black smudges started appearing around our aircraft. After a pregnant pause, loud booms shook the aircraft. Someone in the village was firing large-caliber triple-A at us. With shouts of “Break left, break left!” on the radio, our flight turned hard and raced back toward the friendlies. Kujo, ever the wizard, lased the triple-A battery and got a grid location from the computer. After we passed the coordinates to the FAC, Marine artillery took out the triple-A site.