War in the Balkans: Air Offensive - Tornado pilots keep cool as Serb action hots up

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The Independent Online
"IT'S MESMERISING, a spectacular firework display like a Fourth of July or Fifth of November celebration. You can see them coming up and they burst all around you, underneath you, behind you. There is intensity and colour, it's quite a show, but it does concentrate your mind."

These were the impressions which will remain for ever with an RAF pilot who faced anti- aircraft fire while leading a Tornado raid on Serbian positions. The Tornado GR1s based at RAF Bruggen in Germany had taken part in some of the most dangerous missions in the Kosovo conflict. On Tuesday night they struck at the Yugoslav army headquarters in Kosovo, hitting barracks, fuel dumps and, it is believed, tanks and armoured cars. In Nato's declared aim of the use of air power to halt Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, this was one of the most important engagements in the war so far.

Among the airmen at Bruggen there is no triumphalism. The mood is one of reflection: they are bombing a European capital in a European war, just as some of their fathers might have done in their time.

So far, all the aircraft have returned home safely. But the servicemen here know this is going to be a long haul, and that the Serbs have been working with the Iraqi high command on how to counter allied attacks. And as the missions involve low flying, planes could be shot down, as in the Gulf War.

"Yes, I was surprised that we are taking part in this action so long after the fall of the Berlin Wall," said the pilot, who served in the Gulf.

"We are surprised, just like the public. But in the military we learn to expect the unexpected. This is different from the Gulf. In the Gulf, after serving two months you got one welcome back home. To fly from the home base, to have emotional reunions night after night, is quite a challenge."

Looking out of the window at a Tornado being prepared for another flight, the officer continued: "There are two aspects of fear when you take part in a mission. There's the fear of danger, which manifests itself in the run-up and the planning before you go. There is a gradual escalation, but once you are in the area of operation that vanishes totally. There is a job to be done, others are relying on you, you don't have the time for fear. What you have then is a fear of failure."

The pilot, who did not want to be identified, said: "Of course we have all been affected by pictures of the refugees. We have all got children and we have been touched. And, frankly, it strengthened our resolve."

While the servicemen and women are busy with the unfolding action it is a time of apprehension for their partners. Rosemary Blogg, who has two sons, Alex, nine, and Douglas, six, is married to a flight lieutenant.

She said: "The atmosphere here will make people get closer. I live next door to someone whose husband is flying at the moment, and it's difficult to sleep. We feel anxious until we hear the door go at night and we know he's safe."

The German air force has also been flying missions. Many are against anti-aircraft artillery and missile launchers.

In Bonn the German defence staff officer, Commander Axel Stephenson, said it was a natural progression for the Luftwaffe to take part in hostilities. "We have been based in Piacenza [northern Italy] in a support capacity and it is a logical step to use our weaponry. We shall just have to be professional about this."

The Luftwaffe has taken part in 64 missions over Kosovo and Serbia, sometimes in support of other allied aircraft. The pilots mainly used their Harm (High Speed Anti Radiation Missiles) and have notched up one of the best strike rates. The Germans have also been flying in almost half of the supplies for the refugees. In one 24-hour period this week, 13 Luftwaffe relief planes flew to Skopje, the Macedonian capital, compared with eight from France, three from the UK and one from the US.

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