USS NASSAU (LHA-4), Underway -- Harrier pilots of the Aviation Combat Element, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) left a significant mark on Saddam Hussein's regime during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Armed with the Litening Pod and 500 lb. GBU-12 bombs, pilots flew multiple missions, engaged targets and sustained no battle damage, according to Capt. Andrew Mack, an AV-8BII+ pilot. For them, it was the first time in actual combat, and the planes' performance was fantastic, he said, calling the Litening Pod "the best pod in the theater."
Iraqi forces placed equipment such as artillery pieces and missile launchers in revetted positions, said Mack. While this may have provided some lateral protection on the ground, from the air it highlighted the locations of these targets. This gave the pilots some additional assistance, because the "environmentals" were anything but cooperative.
A combination of haze, humidity and black smoke from burning tires and debris reduced visibility considerably, said Mack. "We had a 10 mile acquisition range, and operated from 15,000 feet. With better weather, we can fly at 20,000 feet and engage targets from 20 miles." Pilots also had to augment the color imagery provided by the pod with the infrared data produced by the FLIR system, forward-looking infrared. Despite the weather conditions, there were no "dumb bombs" dropped, he said. Every piece of ordnance was precision guided to its target.
Sorties lasted about 4 hrs on average, and included refueling stops. "We'd leave the ship, and tank at a (KC-130), or stop at Three Rivers, a forward-operating base," said Mack. Missions were conducted in "kill boxes" near Baghdad or Tikrit, with the latter destination adding about 10 minutes to the round-trip.
Capt. Trey Lundy had a memorable mission, with a kill that was particularly catastrophic. He left the ship, refueled at Three Rivers, and flew to his assigned kill box. While there, he received info from an airborne Forward Air Controller in an F/A-18 Hornet who provided him with information and coordinates on a target north of Baghdad.
Lundy and his wingman, Capt. Charles Basham moved in for the kill. The target, an SA-2 Transport Erector Launcher, was identified on Basham's pod and engaged with ordnance from both aircraft.
"It was basically a semi truck with a missile on it, about 35 feet long, and looked like a telephone pole with fins," said Lundy. In all, it was hit with three GBU-12's, and the resulting secondary explosion was spectacular - sending an enormous plume of smoking, spiking, dust, sand and debris more than 100 feet in every direction.
For Mack, the entire wartime experience was memorable, but the most profound memory stems from the moment he landed in Iraq, and realized the weight of the situation. "It was exciting, but it called for a moment of pause," he said. "I was sitting in the hot pits (to refuel) and there were bombed out vehicles all along the runway...it was really surreal - a week prior, there were Iraqis there," he said.
The pilots aren't quick to take credit for the success of their missions. "The jets performed perfectly - we didn't drop one fragged sortie for maintenance, because the maintenance Marines are the best in the business," said Mack.