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13th FS pilots provide eyes in skies over Iraq

December 4, 2007 (by SSgt. Vann Miller) - War stories continue to capture the attention of Americans by giving moments in life many would avoid if they could. Those moments of danger, sacrifice, heroics and destruction are exciting elements that make up just some of the most memorable stories.

With the recent return of the 13th Fighter Squadron, Captains Eric Freienmuth, Alex Wolfard, Kevin Hicok and Thomas Tauer, all F-16 fighter pilots, sat down on Nov. 29 and told their stories of life in the desert and their roles in the missions in Iraq, proving just how much the Air Force has contributed to this fight.

"We gave a 150 percent effort to getting ready and being available for what our nation needed us to do at the time," said Captain Hicok.

During the deployment, the pilots contributed to the full achievements of the 13th FS, which dropped more ordnance than the entire previous Air and Space Expeditionary Force rotation at Balad Air Base combined -- this included three different fighter squadrons.

For a two month time span during the 13th FS deployment, there was a 25 percent increase in operations due to the surge in military forces in the region. The 13th FS adjusted their mission accordingly to support the ground operations in Iraq.

"We were presented a problem and in a very short amount of time, develop an idea of how to engage." said Captain Hicok. "In four months we made a big impact in the war and were there anytime someone needed us on the ground. Our squadron has a lot to be proud of."

As the gentlemen sat in the Panther history room in the corner of 13th FS, they each retold a similar story of dedication and purpose of duty.

Prior to the deployment, the 13th FS pilots modified their training. The mission in the desert was focused mostly on tactics very different than Misawa's primary role of suppression of enemy air defense.

Leading up to surge, the pilots trained extensively with ground controllers here who prepared them for the new role of Close Air Support which would be needed in the desert. With the constant inputs from the Air Force intelligence reports, the pilots prepared for the upcoming deployment and had real scenarios from which to build combat training plans.

The captains said they felt as though they successfully contributed to operations in the Area of Responsibility.

In this recent deployment, the 13th FS delivered 130 munitions and reached all of their targets successfully. Also, they were the first to use the low-collateral-damage ordnance, which is now used frequently in Iraq.

In a matter of four days upon arrival to the desert, the pilots were flying real missions over Iraq.

"My first mission was a night sortie," said Captain Wolfard. "I had never flown in an environment that had that many aircraft in it before. It was 'real' for the first time. I wasn't just out in training, I was in combat."

Captain Wolfard said the missions and flying became more comfortable as the deployment went on, but he never lost that edge of keeping his mind in the game, he said.

"I approached it every day with seriousness," he said.

Flights over congested areas, sharing air space with military and commercial air craft, and varying missions made for an active and busy war, according to one pilot.

"Finding out where you were going took a lot of coordination," said Captain Hicok. "Once you were actually talking to the guys on the ground outside the wire, it (the mission) took on more of an importance. You never knew just what was going to happen.

There were no generic or typical missions, according to these pilots.

"This was not your typical war zone," said combat pilot, Captain Freienmuth. "People are living there."

Looking for something suspicious was not always an easy task, he said. What looked like a vehicle armed and setting up to shoot the base at 2 a.m. could actually have been a farmer going out to check his field in the evening since the weather was hot during the day.

The combat sorties in the skies over Iraq were "task saturated" according to one pilot. Keeping an eye on the air traffic -- whether it was another group of coalition aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles -- watching for friendly ground forces or following potential targets, made flying around Iraq challenging and different than anything these pilots experienced before.

"There was a full spectrum (of missions)," said Captain Freienmuth. "Whether it was a show of force, helping the Iraqi police pick someone up, or dropping a bomb on a terrorist camp where the Army guys were getting ready to do a raid, there was nothing typical about it."

One tasking order to support a particular mission could change very quickly, said one of the pilots.

As expected, warfare left an impression with these pilots. The intensity of responding to fire fights, flying long missions and dropping munitions in combat have been some of the most difficult and most stressful situations these pilots may have faced.

"This is not a war where you can go out with your F-16, pick out your target, and say that's the bad guy," Captain Freienmuth said. "You are working with the Army guys on the ground. We are really there to support them."

The operations during this deployment showed the commitment the 13th FS and the Air Force has to the coalition forces and Iraqi citizens.

"I was so worried about the guys on the ground," he said. "It's much more real for them. They (the Army soldiers) are taking a much greater risk. And, we are there to protect the Iraqi civilians too. You want to make sure you are dropping your munitions accurately. And, it is amazing how quickly we can do that now."

The 13th FS managed to strike each identified target flawlessly. The pilots were able to drop each of their munitions with 100 percent accuracy and with 0 errors.

They agreed that their lives have all changed from this experience. And though they went to war trained, ready and with some expectations, there were events that will always stay with them.

"My most memorable moment came when I was flying in Northern Iraq," said Captain Freienmuth. "We had just gotten a call from an Army base in Southern Iraq that had taken indirect fire from rockets and mortars."

The captain went on to describe the amount of damage and destruction he had seen. The buildings were on fire and the place looked as if it had been hit by more than 40 mortars.

"It was a night time mission so we were using the infrared scopes on our targeting pods. The base was a big bright spot from all the fires," he said.

The radio controller who had been calling in the aerial support managed to get his hands on a radio to call the fighters into position. The standard radio equipment ground controllers typically use was still inside one of the burning buildings, said Captain Freienmuth. The situation was very real and the Army soldiers on the ground were in the midst of a fight. It was the fire power of the F-16s overhead that made a decisive difference that evening.

"The (ground) controller we were talking to didn't have all his equipment," the captain said. "He was talking to us while under a Hum-V and from behind a concrete barrier."

The ground controller would describe the area and the attack as events unfolded. And with the barrage of mortar fire going on around him, he managed to relay to the pilots where the threat was coming from.

"He was able to talk us to the location they were getting indirect fire from," Captain Freienmuth said. "It was tough because it was a dense area, but we ended up employing munitions."

The pilots suppressed the attack and saved the lives of soldiers on the ground. Though this particular fight was memorable, it was not unusual. Captain Freienmuth and the other pilots said that they faced multiple conflicts that saved lives and safeguarded the soldiers on the ground.

Though the conflict continues and coalition forces push forward against the enemies of the Iraqi people, the pilots of the 13th FS can reflect on the successes of their time in the desert.

Courtesy of 35th Fighter Wing public affairs

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