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Air Force combat airpower helps turn tide in decisive Battle of An Najaf

by Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Gregoire
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing

2/4/2007 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFNEWS) -- More than 200 enemy insurgents were killed and 100 gunmen captured near An Najaf Jan. 28 with 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing providing close-air support in the joint, combined effort to route the enemy in battle.

After insurgents attacked ground forces with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, 332nd F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs answered the call for support dropping more than 3.5 tons of precision munitions and expending 2,300 rounds of 20mm and 30mm cannon fire in an area of about five square miles.

F-16 from the 510th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, 14th EFS and 332nd EFS, based here, as well as A-10 from the geographically separated 74th EFS at Al Asad Air Base, all participated.

The 36-hour action was the first time all the wing's fighter aircraft have simultaneously employed ordnance in a single operation. Two of the squadrons, the 14th and 74th, joined the wing's ranks just last month.

Talking directly to pilots during the mission was a Joint Terminal Attack Controller Airman embedded with Army ground forces, said Lt. Col. Bob Winkler, a 510th F-16 pilot. Army ground liaison officers routinely coordinate with JTAC Airmen for mission-specific details to better prepare pilots before missions.

"Initially, we weren't involved in Najaf since ground forces hadn't yet requested air support," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Levern Randall, 332nd AEW ground liaison noncommissioned officer. "Once airpower was requested, we supported the recovery operations of the downed helicopter."

Lt. Col. David Tenlen and his wingman, F-16 pilots assigned to the 332nd, were the first on scene to provide close-air-support.

"We're committed to providing coalition forces the combat airpower they need," Colonel Tenlen said.

74th A-10 pilots Capt. Jeffrey Lederhouse and wingman Maj. Clinton Eichelberger diverted from another mission and helped control the airspace. Captain Lederhouse helped manage the J-TAC's burden by directing aircraft to refuel and helping direct support to ground forces.

The mission was almost identical to a recent home-station training scenario, said Major Eichelberger, an A-10 instructor pilot. A-10s can traditionally stay in the target area for a longer period of time to drop their precision-guided weapons, he said.

Crew chiefs, aircraft maintainers responsible for inspecting the systems, engines, and motor before and after each flight, helped the pilots get off the ground to support the mission.

"I was proud to know my jet was doing what it was made to do," said Senior Airman Billy Butler, crew chief and tactical aircraft maintainer. "We knew we had to get those jets turned around and back in the air quickly, and safety is first in our minds when we're under surge operations."

Throughout the operation, the 332nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron sustained normal and surge operations simultaneously, and at one point, had jets quick-turned two hours ahead of schedule.

"It feels good knowing we're able to support the people who are directly involved," said Staff Sgt. Jared Bicker, weapons load crew chief. "Our team didn't know until later that day what was happening in [An] Najaf until we saw it on cable news."

The 332nd at Balad, located 40 miles north of Baghdad, launches a significant amount of Air Force combat airpower in Iraq.

"I'm pretty darn proud of the operations, maintenance and combat support efforts of our Tuskegee Airmen team," said Brig. Gen. Robin Rand, commander of the 332nd.

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