Refueling 500 feet over Iraq 'keeps you on your toes'
By Gary Tuchman
CNN's Gary Tuchman, accompanying airmen aboard an Air Force HC-130 search-and-rescue and refueling plane flying over Iraq, filed this report.
AIR BASE NEAR IRAQ BORDER (CNN) -- As they get ready to head over hostile territory, the 10 airmen aboard this Air Force HC-130 start to feel their adrenaline rushing.
The mission tonight is to rendezvous with a U.S. search-and-rescue helicopter. The refueling will take place 500 feet [about 150 meters] over Iraqi territory.
"I'm looking out for the altitude, making sure we don't hit the ground and getting us to where we are supposed to go to," said Maj. Powder, the flight commander. For security reasons, the airmen referred to themselves by nicknames.
At the same time, the crew is looking out for the unlikely prospect of Iraqi aircraft and the more likely prospect of Iraqi missiles or antiaircraft artillery.
"Does your mindset change as you cross the border into Iraq?" Tuchman asked another officer.
"No, since I'm in an area where I don't know where the enemy could be, from when I get on the airplane 'til I get off the airplane, I'm thinking the same way," Maj. Took said.
The crew, flying with no lights over the Iraqi desert, sees two blips on the radar, the identities of the aircraft unknown.
As a precaution, the pilot starts turning the huge plane in circles to see what the targets do. Ultimately, it's discovered that the targets are the target helicopter and an escort chopper.
Minutes later, the search-and-rescue helicopter arrives for its refueling. Both aircraft fly at 125 mph. At times, they are only 50 feet [15 meters] apart, with the chopper's rotor blades getting even closer.
"We know where the enemy is going; we know where they're at. We simply avoid them," Maj. Powder said. "If they do get a lucky shot, or they see us, we have defensive weapons aboard the airplane to defeat their ammunition."
The airmen wear bulletproof vests in case the plane goes down. They also have parachutes in case they have to get out before the plane goes down.
Three airmen aboard this plane have parachuted, but for a different reason. They are the pararescue jumpers, or PJs, who jump out of the plane during rescue missions.
No rescues were necessary on this sortie, and the crew and plane returned to base safely.
"Do you have any fear?" Tuchman asked.
"Everybody has some fear, but I think it's a good thing in these circumstances," Maj. Power said. "It keeps you on your toes."
Keeping on one's toes is vital during wartime. This crew will be flying another mission in as few as 24 hours.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.