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2-Day U.S. Losses: 4 Planes, 7 Fliers : Air combat: Iraq's claim that it shot down 72 allied aircraft is dismissed as 'pure propaganda.'

January 19, 1991|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAMA, Bahrain — The initial mood of jubilation among air force crews returning from attacks against Iraq became more subdued Friday as Iraqi ground fire began to take a toll among allied aircraft.

Total American warplane losses numbered four.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, allied commander in the Persian Gulf, told a news conference in Dhahran that allies' losses at midday Friday had risen to seven aircraft: three from the United States, two from Britain, and one each from Kuwait and Italy. But in Washington, Army Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly raised the American toll to four planes and seven crew members in the first 48 hours of war.

"We know of no American prisoners of war at all," Kelly said, contradicting a Baghdad media report that Iraqi forces had captured two American fliers.

Baghdad Radio claimed that Iraqi forces had shot down 72 allied warplanes since fighting erupted early Thursday, but U.S. spokesmen dismissed the claim as "pure propaganda."

At least two of the lost American planes were carrier-based.

A Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber was shot down during the first wave of assaults Thursday. It was believed to have been based aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga. The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Michael S. Speicher, 33, was listed as missing in action.

An A-6 Intruder bomber, with a crew of two, was shot down early Friday. Crew members were was identified as Navy Lt. Robert Wetzel, 30, and Lt. Jeffrey Zaun, 28. They were also listed as missing.

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle based in Saudi Arabia was shot down Friday. Its two crew members were not immediately identified. The F-15Es have been used to provide a fighter screen in advance of bombers flying toward targets in Iraq.

There were no specifics immediately given on the fourth American plane reported lost.

At a press conference in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, head of allied air operations in the gulf, said one of the American craft appeared to have been downed by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile, while the other two were hit by "triple A," military jargon for anti-aircraft artillery.

Reuters news agency quoted an Iraqi taxi driver who reached the border with Jordan as having said that military officials commandeered his taxi to carry a captured U.S. airman to Baghdad. His report was not independently confirmed.

The flying unit hardest hit so far was the Bahrain-based British detachment of 12 Tornado GR1 fighter-bombers, which lost two planes in action and a third put out of operation after colliding with a buzzard on the return flight to base.

The first Tornado was listed as missing over the Iraqi desert Thursday morning after suffering an engine fire. Royal Air Force spokesmen confirmed that the two-man air crew apparently ejected safely from the aircraft, and British units were said to be frantically searching for them in the Iraqi desert. The crew was reported to have a locater beacon and two days of emergency supplies.

Another Tornado was shot down with the loss of the crew, apparently by anti-aircraft artillery. The Tornadoes have been assigned the task of attacking Iraqi airfields with so-called JP-233 bombs, heavy weapons that are designed to blow craters in runways and leave them unusable by Iraqi warplanes. But the Iraqis have heavily fortified their air installations with anti-aircraft guns, according to British officers.

The emotional impact of the loss was immediately felt among the British pilots returning from their missions.

"I think inevitably morale takes a dip," said RAF Group Capt. David Henderson. "The whole detachment was quite subdued. But people realize that we are at war. Sadly, whilst every loss is a very personal tragedy to air and ground crew alike, they've got the discipline and bounce back."

Squadron leader Pablo Mason, 40, said that on the missions "there is a constant awareness that in a few seconds you may not exist. When you get back and its all over, you feel relief. You can't feel more relief, yet you do. You feel guilty that you have survived, and they haven't."

Added RAF pilot Mark Paisley, 26: "At the moment, I'm going through the whole range of emotions, elation right down to dread and fear of dying."

Allied commander Schwarzkopf said that one piece of good news was a report that the pilot of a Kuwaiti A-4 aircraft hit by ground fire managed to parachute to safety and was picked up by the Kuwaiti resistance.

The pilot was later identified only as Lt. Mubarak, one of three young Kuwaiti pilots who, acting on their own initiative, escaped with their aircraft from Kuwait as Iraqi forces invaded their country Aug. 2.

"He was one of the early heroes who inflicted a lot of damage on the Iraqis," said Abdullah Sharhan, a spokesman for the Kuwaiti government in exile. "It's heartening to know that he is safely with the resistance."

The Italian government reported that one of its two-man Tornado fighter-bombers based in Abu Dhabi was reported missing while flying protective cover over the Saudi desert. It was not clear whether it was shot down or had suffered engine trouble.

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