"It was tremendous. Baghdad was lit up like a Christmas tree," said a U.S. wing commander back from bombing the Iraqi capital.
"I didn't run out of adrenalin. There were lots of bombs going off. It was an awesome display," said another pilot who took part in the first raids of the gulf war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from American warships, U.S. and Saudi F-15E fighter-bombers, British and Saudi Tornadoes, French Jaguars and Kuwaiti Hawks were among hundreds of planes which took off from bases in Saudi Arabia and the gulf early Thursday in a United Nations-sanctioned assault against Iraq.
Pilots said targets included surface-to-air missile sites around Baghdad. President Bush said U.S.-led forces were determined to destroy Iraq's chemical weapons and nuclear bomb potential.
Iraq's military command said it shot down 14 allied planes, but the United States said just one fighter jet was lost in the raids. A British aircraft also was shot down. The French and Kuwaiti air forces said all their planes returned. France said four of its Jaguars were hit by Iraqi ground fire over Kuwait.
Correspondents at air bases in Saudi Arabia reported no loss of U.S. aircraft in the first raid. "I went in with a group of guys and we got them all out. That was the important thing for us," said one F-15 pilot.
The small Kuwaiti force, which escaped from the emirate in the early hours of last Aug. 2, the day of the Iraqi invasion, said 12 of its planes made an independent daylight raid after the first wave of attacks.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the 425,000-strong U.S. force deployed in the gulf, said Operation Desert Storm began at 3 a.m. (5 p.m. MST Tuesday), but reporters said the first planes took off and headed north at 12:50 a.m. (2:50 p.m. MST), more than two hours earlier.
In a message to his troops, Schwarzkopf said: "You have trained hard for this battle and you are ready. My confidence in you is total. Our cause is just! Now you must be the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm."
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh advised U.S. citizens to stay indoors or at work until the situation became clear.
Riyadh airport said Saudi airspace was closed to all civilian traffic. Passengers hoping to catch a late flight out were put on buses back to town.
Sirens twice warned residents of Riyadh that air raids or missile attacks might be imminent, but there were no reports of Iraqi counterattacks except in the small border town of Khafji.
Iraqi artillery fire hit empty oil tanks at an oil terminal in the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but missed a 30,000 barrel-per-day refinery, Saudi oil sources said.
Government buildings were heavily guarded, while police, both civilian and military, patrolled the streets in case of unrest or sabotage attempts. Many shops were closed.
Few Saudi citizens ventured out, leaving the streets to Third World expatriates, many of them dazed and anxious to obtain gas masks.
"Tell the world the gas masks have run out," shouted a Filipino to reporters in Riyadh's Batha square.