Through Darkest Iraq with Gun and Cobra

A month of war through the night-vision goggles of a Marine AH-1W SuperCobra pilot.

CH-46Es glow in a view through night-vision goggles aboard the flight deck of the USS Saipan. (James Cox)
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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.

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.

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