AN AIR BASE IN SAUDI ARABIA — Ghost Riders of the night, they flit like coal black bats over Iraq listening to hard rock and fearing only the golden bullet.
American F-117A Stealth jets carried out the first raids on Baghdad last Thursday, protected against Iraqi defenses by their bizarre angular profile and radar-absorbent coating.
The pilots, flying by night and sleeping by day, call themselves Ghost Riders as they flit north, some listening to heavy metal music on their Walkmen.
"It's the old vampire syndrome," said Col. Klaus J. Klause, 48, a U.S. pilot born in Germany.
Their main danger on the opening night of the war came from friendly aircraft unable to detect the Stealth jets over Iraq.
"There were planes almost bumping into those guys because they couldn't see them . . . I worry about friendly fire more than the other flak that's flying," said Staff Sgt. Brad Bowers, 36, crew chief for one of the planes.
Since then the main danger has been what the pilots call the golden bullet.
"That's the aimed or unaimed bullet that you run into because there are so many bullets," said a lieutenant colonel named Greg, a pilot from Roseville, Mich., who declined to give his second name.
Iraqi gunners send up a wall of antiaircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles over Baghdad, most of it apparently random, the pilots said.
"They fired more bullets than I thought were ever made in the history of the world," said Greg, describing one night flight.
"If you turned a room into the world's biggest popcorn popper and try to walk from one end to the other without getting hit, that's what it was like. You just have to think invisible and keep on going."
The pilots are among the most experienced in the Air Force, about six years older than the average.
Their planes were unknown to the public until 1988. In the United States, they still fly by night from a secret location.
They expect to stay in Saudi Arabia until the end of the war. "There are only so many Stealth pilots in the world and nine-tenths of them are here," Greg said.
This is a pool report.