Raid on Iraq: Only the adrenalin hits US pilots: Neil MacFarquhar of AP describes the scene on board the USS Kitty Hawk before and after the attack on Iraq

THE DECK of this aircraft carrier in combat last night was like an ant colony. The ear-numbing roar and acrid fumes from 35 warplanes revving their engines and launching - sometimes three per minute - were the main evidence of a well-choreographed war machine.

Four hours later, the pilots were back safely, talking excitedly about the colourful patterns of their bombs, the orange spray of harmless anti-aircraft fire as 80 planes hit their targets - Iraqi radar stations at el-Talil air base near Nasiriyah and at Najaf and Samawah.

The pilots brought back videotapes from camera pods under their wing. The film showed big black pods of smoke erupting from targeted radars.

'Beautiful, beautiful, a lot of flashes from the triple-A (anti- aircraft artillery). My adrenalin was flowing,' said Lt-Cmdr Michael Shea, 32, pilot of an AE-6B Prowler.

'None of the anti-aircraft batteries opened up until after the first bombs were dropped,' said Cmdr Kevin Thomas, 39, who commanded an F-18 Hornet squadron.

The pilots said they made double passes over their targets to make sure they hit the right ones and were crippling President Saddam Hussein's ability to manoeuvre in the skies of southern Iraq.

'This takes out his ability to control his aircraft below the 32nd parallel,' added Cmdr Thomas. 'It was like a big laser light show.'

The US used Harm missiles - high-speed anti-radiation missiles which home in on radar beacons emitted from the ground. They are supposed to destroy the beacon with a 40lb warhead.

None of the pilots took hits during their missions yesterday, said Rear Admiral Philip J Coady, commander of the 10-ship navy task force in the Gulf.

The planes began screaming off into the cloudless sky at 6:45pm (15:45GMT). Dispatches written by reporters were held up until the planes left Iraqi airspace after their missions.

Air crews climbed into 25lb flight suits that keep their organs and bones in place as up to seven times their body weight pushes against them when they launch off the carrier.

Most took along a little extra water, chewing gum or sweets for the missions, as well as a pistol and 'blood chits'. The chits are pieces of paper printed with an American flag and messages in Arabic and Farsi promising rewards for hiding any flier shot down. Name tags are removed before flying off the carrier.

For the Gulf war veterans, it was a little easier this time as they knew that the main threat was anti-aircraft fire from the ground. They were not planning to fly too close. 'I know what it is like to have bullets fly past my canopy. But then again a lot of people on the LA freeway have that experience,' said Lieutenant Tim Aslin, 28, a Hornet pilot.

Pilots said the mission's cancellation on Tuesday helped them get a good a night's sleep before today's attack. But the mood on deck was more subdued than it had been a day earlier. As the pilots climbed into their suits, the men who helped them said quietly, 'Be safe, sir.'

'See you when I get back,' was the usual response.

Bombs had been left on the aircraft overnight, after the first attack was cancelled. Deck workers covered them with graffiti in either chalk or black magic marker: 'No deposit, no return' or '2,000 pounds of American anger' or 'Happy Second Anniversary Saddam.'

(Photograph omitted)

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