Over the No-Fly Zone

Patrolling over northern Iraq in 2001 felt like driving through a small town with Hell’s Angels.

F-16s from the Ohio Air National Guard patrol over Iraq during Operation Northern Watch in 2002. (SSGT Shannon Collins, USAF)

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The anti-aircraft explosions were still going off all around us but over time I could tell that they were gradually fading aft. Soon we were clear of the danger without so much as a scratch. I am now a firm believer in the statement, “Nothing is more thrilling than to be shot at and missed.” In the solitude of my single-seat jet, I laughed uncontrollably for a few moments. It is an awesome release of adrenalin when you’ve faced something you were anxious about and lived to tell the tale.

For the remainder of my NORTHERN WATCH missions, I learned that these sorties were a great test of endurance. Spending several grueling hours in the cramped confines of a fighter cockpit, flying formation, running the aircraft’s sensors, dodging the occasional anti-aircraft fire, and sucking almost 50 tons of fuel from an airborne tanker over several hookups strained the concentration of the best of us. Of course at the end of all this, you still had to land safely back at base. I never had any problems going to sleep after flying these missions.

I never did get my  MiG. Then again, neither did anyone else during or even after my deployment to Iraq. Unlike our air-to-ground brethren who have an almost unlimited amount of things to attack on the ground, an air-to-air fight requires enemy participation. There simply wasn’t anything to shoot at. They knew better than to try their luck against heavily armed F-15Cs. I did, however, have the honor of getting shot at by Iraqi gunners on all but one of my missions. I also had the opportunity to fly top cover for a strike against an Iraqi surface-to-air site that had attacked one of our coalition aircraft. The site was obliterated in a massive fireball. Never again would it threaten coalition pilots.

On the last mission, after leaving Iraqi airspace, I raised my fist in defiance at the Iraqi surface-to-air gunners. I fully expected to one day return to Northern Watch. But a few months later, the terror attacks of September 11th would occur, forever altering the landscape of warfare. To date, NORTHERN WATCH was the last sustained combat presence of the U.S. Air Force F-15C.

Major Randy J. Gordon is an experimental test pilot for the “Red Devils” of the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He has flown combat missions over Iraq during Operation NORTHERN WATCH and over Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

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