Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Pilots tell of harrowing drop of 173rd

By Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Saturday, March 29, 2003

Kent Harris / S&S
Col. Bill Mayville, lower right, the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, on a C-17 transport plane with his troops Wednesday at Aviano Air Base. The 173rd, which hasn't participated in a combat jump since the Vietnam War, had 1,000 soldiers parachute into northern Iraq. Mayville was set to be the first one off the first plane.

Kent Harris / S&S
More than a dozen C-17 transport planes parked nose-to-tail on the taxiway at Aviano Air Base, Italy, made more than a few heads turn. The sight got even more impressive when the camouflaged 173rd Airborne Brigade marched out to await passage to Iraq.

Kent Harris / S&S
Jump masters made sure all the troops had their parachutes secured Wednesday before the 173rd Airborne Brigade took to the skies.

Kent Harris / S&S
Members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade move toward C-17 transport planes Wednesday afternoon on the taxiway at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The Vicenza-based troops parachuted into northern Iraq Wednesday.

ARLINGTON, Va. — It was history in the making, and literally brought tears to Lt. Col. Bob Allardice’s eyes, an Air Force C-17 pilot who aided in the Wednesday delivery of about 1,000 soldiers to Iraq’s northern front.

“There’s nothing like it. You’ve got 100 soldiers back there, standing and yelling and stomping their feet … and then literally running out the back of the airplane,” Allardice said Friday during a telephone conference call from Aviano Air Base in Italy to the Pentagon. “It literally brought tears to my eyes.”

About 1,000 soldiers from the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, based at Vicenza, Italy, parachuted onto Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq on Wednesday, giving the U.S.-led war in Iraq is largest troop presence in that region.

They flew in formation, 15 aircraft, dropping soldiers into the black of night.

“It was a big thrill,” said Allardice, commander of the 62nd Air Wing out of McChord Air Force Base, Wash. About an hour out from the drop zone, the mood aboard his craft turned serious, he said. “People focused on the mission.”

For Lt. Col. Shane Hershman, commander of the 7th Airlift Squadron attached to the 62nd, who flew as the mission’s lead pilot, it was nothing but honor, he said.

“It was a whole team effort from my point of view, and quite rewarding,” Hershman said.

But it was also harrowing.

“We didn’t know what would be waiting for us when we got there,” Hershman said.

The formation flew with escorts to provide protection — protection that, when all had ended, wasn’t needed, the crewmembers said.

That isn’t the case for Air Force pilots flying bombing missions over central Iraq and Baghdad, said Maj. Scott Lambe, an F-16CJ pilot, who spoke via telephone from an undisclosed location in the Middle East.

The night missions are the most extraordinary — when pilots can see much of the countryside — and the fireballs “of bombs exploding on the ground,” he said, in the country’s capital city as the coalition continues its bombing campaign to topple the regime.

“It’s quite spectacular watching everything happen around you,” Lambe said. “And we’re taking fire from people below and we’re working hard to keep our guys safe and supporting the troops on the ground.”

The pilots are using a mixture of precision satellite- and laser-guided munitions and at times dropping 5,000-pound bombs, he said.

Staff Sgt. Matthew York, a KC-135 refueler boom operator, said he’d much rather fly than sit around on his days off — which he mostly spends sleeping.

“The pace [over the past few weeks] has definitely increased, but that makes me better at my job. The fast pace is great,” said York, who tells his children “daddy’s keeping the monsters away.

“I’m trying to keep another September 11 from happening,” he said.