Grace under fire
While Americans will remember this week as the week Baghdad fell, "KC," an US Air Force A-10 pilot, will remember it as the week she almost fell into Baghdad.
On April 7, KC and lead pilot Lt. Col. "Bino" flew a mission to help US ground forces under attack inside the Iraqi capital. As the captain and colonel took aim at Iraqi forces, anti-aircraft artillery burst all around them. It was the first time KC had taken enemy fire. A sudden noise came from the back of the jet. She had been hit.
"Us fighter pilots, we always think we're invincible and that they're rarely going to hit us," she said.
The jet veered left and dove toward Baghdad. Lights on the instrument panel flashed. She radioed to Bino that her jet was hit. She needed to get to friendly territory. Bailing out wasn't an option.
"First of all, you don't want to eject anyway. Second of all, you don't want to eject over enemy territory," she said. "You're concerned for yourself and whether you're going to make it through, but the jet's also something you want to bring back."
But first, she had to pull out of the dive. The instrument panel indicated that the jet's hydraulics, which control the plane's flight, weren't operating. She would have to muscle the jet home. She flipped the "manual revert" switch, and hoped for the best.
"That [manual revert] system is our system of last resort. If it doesn't work, you're jumping out of the jet," Bino says. "Until we need it, we don't know if it works."
Manual revert involves a system of cables and pulleys that steer the plane. The jet's responsiveness is cut drastically. Like many pilots, KC only trained on it once.
"Amazingly the jet starting climbing away from the ground," she said. Once the jet stabilized, KC was determined to get back to her home base in Kuwait, which has an extensive crash recovery team.
Bino flew in to inspect the damage. The back of KC's jet was riddled with holes. Meanwhile, KC had to keep a tight grip on the jet's control stick. With full hydraulics, pilots rest their hand on the stick, if they touch it at all. But in manual mode, it's called a "heavy stick."
"My hands were cramping up because they were probably tense around stick," she said. She started to take turns with her hands as they grew tired. Sometimes she used both. "My main concern was that my right hand would be good for coming back to land."
But she kept the jet steady on approach, burning through three of the jet's five emergency brakes as she landed.
"I heard several different people come up over the radio say, 'Nice job,' 'Good landing'," said the captain. Some 20 people had gathered on the runway from the crash recovery team: firefighters, medics, and safety personnel.
Back at squadron headquarters, she received hugs and handshakes.
Knowing that her story might be all over the news soon, she called her family, including her husband, who is also deployed. Asked if he was spooked, she said, "He is well aware of what we're doing."
"This is our job, this is what we do. There are risks involved. I'm probably a little bit more aware of the risks now," she said. "It's just about going back and doing it again the next day."
She doesn't think her job is done, despite the fall of the Iraqi capital. "It's a significant sign of progress, but there's still more work to do. And we'll be here until it's done," she said.
She was flying a mission when the statue-toppling drama unfolded in Baghdad. An intelligence officer told her the news. "I think it goes to show that we're over here doing the right thing," she said. "You never know how the people are going to respond. And it just reinforces every reason [why] we came over here."
Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).