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To Iraq and Back: 37 Hours on the Wings of War

May 04, 2003|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

KNOB NOSTER, Mo. — He woke up from a nap, fresh and ready for the momentous night ahead. Brian Gallo's wife drove him to work in their Ford Explorer. They embraced, and off he went in the cool April air.

Thirty miles away, Brian Bogue kissed his wife and five daughters goodbye, then headed out the door. "Daddy's going to work," he said. "I'll be gone a couple of days." Both men packed for a long flight, stuffing their bags with beef jerky, sandwiches, soft drinks, sunglasses, crossword puzzles and some good luck tokens -- an American flag from Gallo and a rosary from Bogue's wife.

They were like a pair of businessmen heading off on a trip from rural Missouri. But these two Brians are Air Force captains and their business was the war in Iraq.

It was the night after American prisoner of war Jessica Lynch was whisked out of Iraq in a daring rescue, and the two young pilots would embark on a different kind of stealth mission in their B-2 bomber, the Spirit of Missouri.

Around 11 p.m., as much of America was in bed, they would climb six steps into the $2-billion, bat-winged plane that can evade radar, slap each other high fives and lift off into the night.

They would see twinkling lights in countless towns from Kansas City all the way to Boston before the glow surrendered to the inky blackness of the Atlantic.

They would cross nine time zones and travel 7,000 miles with a lethal package: 32,000 pounds of "smart" bombs to be dropped on targets in Iraq.

More than 40,000 U.S. missions were flown during the war with Iraq, but Gallo and Bogue were among only a few dozen pilots who would see the sun rise, set and rise again, all from a cockpit six miles in the sky.

They would fly from the heart of America to the heart of Iraq, drop their bombs, turn around and head home, never touching the ground until it was wheels down on the runway where they started, at Whiteman Air Force Base.

It would be a 37-hour marathon.


It was the 13th night of the war, and Saddam Hussein's regime was on the verge of collapse.

U.S troops had seized bridges across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, advancing to within 25 miles of Baghdad.

Hussein's spokesman was boasting, "Victory is at hand," but back in America, it was clear that was a lie.

The night before their mission, Gallo, 30, and Bogue, 32, huddled in a simulator at the base scoping out possible threats -- surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft radar.

The Iraqis hadn't put a single combat plane in the sky, but "you still have to be wary," Gallo says. "You don't want to be complacent."

Bogue wondered, too, if Hussein's forces might attempt a final act of desperation.

"They're going to do everything they can to shoot us down," he remembers thinking.

More than enemy fire was on the pilots' minds.

They knew they would have to rendezvous with air tankers at 25,000 feet, moving at 300 miles an hour, sometimes in clouds or darkness. Not once, but five times -- a task that requires the split-second precision of trapeze artists.

The plane had taken off with 130,000 pounds of fuel. They would need an additional 400,000 pounds for their journey.

This was the third war for the B-2 stealth bomber; Whiteman-based pilots have flown missions to Kosovo and Afghanistan. The plane -- whose wingspan is longer than half a football field -- can evade radar because of its shape and rubber-like skin. Pilots' tactics also help.

All 21 B-2s are based at Whiteman. About 60% of the missions against Iraq were flown directly from Missouri, where supplies and maintenance crews are located, though some were moved to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia during the war.

On the night of Gallo and Bogue's mission, theirs was one of two B-2s that left from Whiteman just a minute apart. The planes flew in formation most of the way.

Bogue had never been in combat until the second night of this war, when he flew his first B-2 mission. Gallo had flown a B-52 bomber in Kosovo.

The two had been on practice missions in the United States to build some experience in refueling and endurance, and they tease each other in a good-natured way:

Bogue says Gallo can be impatient; Gallo says Bogue can be a grump.

Gallo -- nicknamed "Pico," after salsa -- is animated, a fast talker, a rabid Chicago sports fan (he wore his Bears cap on this mission) and confesses to being a bit superstitious: He places his dog tags under the laces of his right shoe, a habit he picked up in pilot training.

Bogue -- nicknamed "Mugsy" after Mugsy Bogues, the diminutive former basketball player (the pilot is 5-foot-8) -- is soft-spoken, a hunter and a devoted father.

Before the war began, he had written two letters to be given to his family in case he didn't return. He told his daughters he wanted them "to grow up to be successful young women and great Americans."

His message to his wife, Hollie: "You're the greatest thing to ever happen to me in my life."

On this night, Bogue was the mission commander, responsible for dropping the bombs. Gallo was responsible for the flying.

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