BRITISH FIGHTER pilots stationed in Italy told of the fear and exhilaration with which they conducted their first live combat mission, the culmination of years of training.
Pilots from the RAF No1 (Fighter) Squadron who took part in the bomb attacks on Serb targets said yesterday they felt satisfied about their mission, even though they failed to make direct hits on any of their designated targets.
In a tiny prefab hut in the middle of the immense Gioia del Colle air base, two pilots, who could not reveal their identity for security reasons, relived the mission, from the moment they donned their war suits, night goggles and helmet, to the immense feeling of relief and exhaustion of their safe return. "You always imagine what it might be like to look out the window when you are in combat but when you actually see it, it's different from how you imagined it," said one pilot, as he played with his wedding ring. "There were multiple ground attacks, lots of fire, lots of impacts, lots of explosions." "I was scared stiff," he admitted. But fear was necessary to get the adrenaline going, he suggested.
Six Harrier Hawks, the jewels in the crown of the RAF, took part in Wednesday night's bombing raid - four in combat and two in an escort role. All took to the skies from the Nato base in Puglia, southern Italy, surrounded by barbed wire, almond orchards and olive groves.
Only one aircraft dropped its laser-guided Paveway II bomb. According to the RAF it fell slightly short of its target, "an ammunition dump in Pristina". But it was "reasonable to assume" it landed within the Yugoslav army military complex.
The others aborted because heavy smoke from other bomb attacks, fires and explosions interfered with the laser technology. "The fog of war", as this is known in military jargon, means the state-of-the-art tracer on the Harrier Hawks do not always function 100 per cent. Fear of causing civilian casualties was paramount.
"They made absolutely the right decision, even if the results on paper don't look so good," commented the pilot who led the mission. "I was very proud of what happened. Clearly if you are trying to hit a target you don't want to start slinging bombs around and creating collateral damage."
Group captain Ian Travers Smith added: "It's a last-second decision. You can see the target and you have a split second to decide `yes' or `no'. Imagine you are playing golf and you have done 90 per cent of your back swing and then elect not to hit. It's very difficult. As an ex-squadron commander I would be as proud of that as if they had dropped and hit their targets."
However, another young British airmen on stand-by said he was disappointed they had not struck their targets. "We all viewed the video of the raid together. We were happy that they were all back safely but we always want to do our best and if we are unable to do we are slightly disappointed," he said.
The six pilots were not fired at, as they had feared, by Serb ground to air missiles. But none underestimates the firepower of the Yugoslav army. "All that we know about them is true, even though we didn't see much of it the other night."
The Harrier Hawks, which are housed in huge white tent-hangars, carry 1,000lb bombs covered with graffiti, some of which was less than friendly: "Happy Easter" and "Hope you like it!"
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