There was about a 9,000-foot cloud deck. We’re supposed to stay above 10,000 feet unless we’re engaging, but we had to drop below that. With the cloud deck, the lights from Baghdad were lighting up the whole scene. Three of the armored personnel carriers at the front of Disney’s platoon were all on fire. So it was just bright. Here, we’ve got our night vision goggles on, and the tanks are shooting back and forth.
Were the Iraqis skillful in catching the Marines that way?
We liked to say beforehand that the Iraqis were an undisciplined army, but they had one of the best ambushes set up—if you wrote it out on paper, they couldn’t have done it better. Just really well placed, revetments built up, and they were cutting the Marines up bad.
So Kingman and I roll in with our Mk. 82s—500-pound bombs—we each had four of those. And without any delivery parameters to work with, because we were much lower than we expected to be at night, we rolled in and dropped our bombs much like the Skyraider guys did, based on TLAR—That Looks About Right. I’ve never pulled so hard away from the ground with so much focus as I did that night. I’m not sure exactly how far from the ground we were. We just wanted to get the bombs on the tanks. So we just threw them at ’em. You could really feel the percussions as those things went off underneath you.
We shut down one of the main tank nests up there. And then we spent the next 45 minutes using the infrared sensor on our Maverick missiles. And then everybody showed up, because once the call went out on the Guard frequency, the frequency that everybody is supposed to monitor, we had people showing up from everywhere. So we’re trying to control this air battle over a troops-in-contact situation. And it’s amazing how bright tank tracer rounds are. It’s hard to tell who’s shooting at who, and the shells skip off the desert floor and come up toward you, and you feel like you’re being shot at. It was a fairly dramatic environment.
The closest I came to dying in the war was in that sortie. We had a deconfliction plan that wasn’t followed by some Harrier pilots, and I came very close to a midair [collision] with a Harrier pilot. I never saw him; I felt him go by through my airframe.
Good grief. You were in more danger from one of your own pilots than from the enemy.
We had to bingo out, and turned it over to two other A-10s, but we turned the tide for the Marines. There were wounded but nobody was killed. Those three personnel carriers that were on fire—they had been hit and were carrying jerry cans of fuel on the outside of them. So the outsides of the armored personnel carriers were burning like mad, but basically everybody was hunkered down inside sweating. But Disney forward air controller was about five vehicles back in this train of Marine vehicles, and all he sees is his three brothers up there in front in broiling flames. So he was pretty high strung, as he should have been.
How are things in the warbird community? Does it feel healthy to you and will the airplanes continue to fly?
My assessment is that the [preservation of] warbirds is unfortunately drifting away from the true, work-in-your-own-hangar warbird enthusiast and is becoming more of a financial game. There are some really good people who have been successful in business and who have recognized the importance of what these warbirds have done and what they’re doing. In particular, I have to mention Dan Friedkin, who’s the guy who started the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation, which was the life ring for the Heritage Flight program when Air Combat Command finally couldn’t support it financially any more. Dan and his father were very successful in business, and they have a great passion for warbirds. His family has been an important driver in resurrecting a lot of these warbirds. And that’s a good thing. But it has drifted away from individual pilots flying and maintaining warbirds because of the cost.