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 4 of 5)
On April 5, 2003, as Coalition forces approached Baghdad, the tension grew. Not knowing what the Iraqis had waiting for us made us fearful. During a night mission along the road that led from Al Kut to Baghdad, I ended up on the radio with Sideshow, a FAC for one of the Marine ground units and one of my closest friends. Sideshow’s units were approaching Salman Pak, a large village along the Tigris River and about 15 miles from the capital. The previous night, a Marine Cobra from California had apparently hit a large set of power lines and crashed in this area. Around Baghdad, the power lines were about 350 feet high. The wires and stanchions were a tan color—difficult to see during the day and next to impossible at night.
Tasked with conducting a reconnaissance of Salman Pak to determine the enemy’s disposition, I led the flight over and around the town. Wally, my wingman, reported seeing a military compound in the center of the town. Kujo used the FLIR to search for weapons, and within moments he had located an Iraqi SAM battery. After coordinating with the FAC, I maneuvered the flight to the west and rolled my aircraft in toward the target. As Kujo was lining up a missile shot, I noticed two flashes from my right side. Glancing toward them, I saw two heat-seeking missiles corkscrewing rapidly and coming right at us. Yanking the aircraft left into a violent nose-down maneuver and ejecting decoy flares, we headed for the ground to break the lock of the missiles’ heat seekers. We started at 800 feet, and when we’d gotten down to around 100 feet, I pulled up. By the time we’d bottomed out of the dive, we had descended all the way down to 50 feet and had broken lock with the missiles. When we looked up, we found ourselves in the maze of high-voltage electrical lines. It was as if someone had dumped a plate of spaghetti on our heads.
The event seemed to last for an eternity, but in reality the whole engagement was over in about four or five seconds. The missiles traveled at about Mach 2.5, so there was not a lot of time to react—and definitely not enough time to be scared. I ran into Sideshow up in Tikrit days later, and he told me the missiles had missed me by about 50 feet.
By mid-April, the end of the war nearing, I launched with two Snakes and a Huey in what we called a hunter-killer team. Our mission was to support the Marine forces that were closing in on Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. As we approached, the radio said the Marines were taking artillery fire. With plenty of gas remaining, my flight began to conduct a reconnaissance to the southeast in hopes of finding the Iraqi artillery. Flying over a grove of date trees at dusk, we found it: heavy artillery and a rocket launcher. Shortly after sunset, we were given approval to attack. After we flew multiple passes at the target, the artillery and rockets were destroyed and what was left was burning.
After refueling and re-arming, we set out to the west of Tikrit, where one of our pilots, Howdy, had begun to attack a bunker complex. The complex took up about 1,000 acres, and included large warehouses and bunkers with ammunition used by what remained of Hussein’s forces. Requesting as many jets as he could get, Howdy began to direct laser-guided bombs onto the various targets. Keeping clear of the area, I positioned my flight to the north of the complex and began to hammer missiles into the bunkers. Explosions ripping out of the complex were boiling 6,000 feet into the air. The night sky was bright as day, and I could see without my NVGs. As explosions slashed from bunker to bunker, the fire grew until a mushroom cloud formed.
Howdy was approaching minimum fuel, so he handed FAC duties off to me. Using our laser to illuminate targets for laser-guided bombs and missiles, I began to direct the jets into the target area. The inferno continued to grow. Although I’ve seen lots of Hollywood movies where the explosions and special effects were awe-inspiring, I never thought a real fire could be this extreme.
After a quick trip to refuel and re-arm, we returned to the complex and I resumed directing the jets. As I hovered the aircraft, Kujo pumped more missiles into the remaining bunkers. In a Cobra next to me, Wally was engaging bunkers with his missiles. Friar was orbiting behind us in the Huey to provide security. After we had lased targets for approximately 25 bombs and missiles, Friar reported that we were taking fire; an Iraqi artillery unit had zeroed in on us. As we moved to escape, another Iraqi unit began to shoot missiles at us. The enlisted crew chiefs in Friar’s Huey returned fire with their door guns. As we pulled out of the area, geysers of fire were still erupting from the bunkers. We turned south, toward our base. I was ready to go home.
As I reflect on the month that I spent in Iraq, I’m amazed at what we accomplished. On a personal level, I’m astonished to be alive. This was my baptism of fire, and given some of the extreme flying conditions that we had to endure, my survival made me appreciate life more. It’s obvious to me now that I lived through some miracles—and that at times my fate rested in the hands of a higher power.