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Final USAF combat mission over Iraq

December 20, 2011 (by 1st Lt. Rusty Ridley) - As the world watched the last convoy pass through the gates at Khabari Crossing on the Kuwait-Iraq border, they may not have realized those on the ground had some help in the skies from Airmen with a historic lineage.

Col. Rodney Petithomme, 332nd EOG commander, and Lt. Col. Jason Plourde, 79th EFS commander, walk off the flightline after piloting the last two combat aircraft over Iraq on December 18th, 2011. Flying F-16s, they provided top cover for the last convoys leaving the country. [USAF photo by 1st Lt. Rusty Ridley]

Colonel Rodney Petithomme, 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group commander, and Lt. Col. Jason Plourde, commander of the 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron "Tigers", both part of the Tuskegee Airmen heritage, flew the last combat mission over Iraq Dec. 18, 2011, piloting F-16s.

The Tuskegee Airmen, the first all African-American fighter group, is credited with a reputation of excellence as they escorted bombers during World War II with their uniquely painted red-tailed aircraft.

"It was fitting for Tuskegee Airmen to be providing top cover for U.S. personnel who were withdrawing from Iraq," said Petithomme who is deployed from Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea.

There is a sense among some aviators that Operations Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn have defined an Air Force generation because of constant participation in air support since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

"Effectively, for the last 21 years, we have had continuous U.S. Air Force aircraft flying over the country of Iraq," said Petithomme, a native of Angels Camp, Calif.

"When you look back at the thousands of hours we have spent flying combat missions over Iraq, to be able to be one of the last two combat Air Force aircraft over the country is significant and inspiring yet humbling," he continued.

The Tuskegee legend continues.

"I felt like we were carrying on the legacy and that it was our job as the most recent Red Tails to protect who we were escorting," said Petithomme. "Seeing the last day and last convoy out of Iraq be uneventful and with no attack from an enemy made me feel pretty darn good."

As a captain, Plourde flew missions over Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom when the very first convoys crossed from Kuwait into Iraq in March 2003. Plourde had a cousin assigned to a unit on the ground then, and the brother of that cousin was on the ground in the final months of Operation New Dawn.

"For me the last combat mission supporting Operation New Dawn was significantly profound," said Plourde who is deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. "Because I had a family tie, there was a personal connection."

"I also felt incredibly proud of the Tigers as we provided top cover for many other cousins, brothers, fathers, sisters and mothers who were counting on us during the final few months (of Operation New Dawn)," said Plourde who is a native of Hermon, Maine.

Petithomme and Plourde credit the success of the mission to dedicated Airmen.

"I have the highest praise for our 79th Aircraft Maintenance Unit Tigers and the exceptional work they were able to accomplish over the past several months by improvising, adapting and overcoming significant challenges in order to make combat operations happen," Plourde said.

"It required some unique and creative solutions from everyone in the logistics and supply chain--from our logistics readiness squadron to source parts, understanding and knowing the need and also determining a way to make it happen despite the odds stacked against them," continued Plourde.

"I'm also incredibly proud of the Tiger pilots for the disciplined and focused manner in which they executed every single combat sortie," Plourde said.

Petithomme couldn't agree more.

"It was a team effort on everybody's part," said Petithomme. "It was incredible."

Plourde and Petithomme were flying the last manned aircraft combat mission.

The MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial systems are piloted from outside the theater, launched and recovered by Airmen assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron.

"The predators were actually the last combat aircraft to leave Iraqi airspace," said Petithomme. "They played just as big a part as we did--it was still Tuskegee Airmen providing top cover."

The importance of the moment was realized in flight.

"The first realization was watching the last convoy cross from Iraq into Kuwait, and seeing the last vehicle cross the border, and watching them actually shut the gate in my targeting pod," said Petithomme. "The second was talking to command and control and having them tell us, 'You are the last manned U.S. Air Force aircraft in Iraq, you are cleared to return to base.'"

"When they spoke those words is really when it set in," said Plourde.

"The part we played was significant, but we were one of many contributors to the entire joint team effort," Plourde said.

Plourde believes for Airmen new to the force, the final days in Iraq are just the beginning.

"Some of our Airmen may not realize the significance of this moment in time," said Plourde. "Many were not in the military when Operation Iraqi Freedom started and some were not even born when Operation Desert Storm started."

"They are looking forward to the future at what opportunities and challenges they may be presented," he said.

Those involved in the final operations are now part of a significant historic milestone and the largest military movement since World War II.

"It's important for each one of them to realize and to take pride in the fact that we as a U.S. Air Force and as a U.S. military, gave the people of Iraq the freedom they never had," said Petithomme.

Courtesy of 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Additional images:

Lt. Col. Jason Plourde, 79th EFS commander and Col. Rodney Petithomme, 332nd EOG commander, shake hands after flying the last two combat aircraft over Iraq on December 18th, 2011. Piloting F-16s, they provided top cover for the last convoys leaving the country. [USAF photo by 1st Lt. Rusty Ridley]