WASHINGTON — The members of the Air Force's 405th Air Expeditionary Wing, led by Col. James Kowalski, a native of Cincinnati, fly their B-1 bombers over the cloudy desert skies, hitting bunkers in downtown Baghdad, Iraqi forces and leadership targets.
They do 12-hour shifts once every three to four days in aircraft loaded with 2,000-pound bombs. When not flying, they have other duties and most have not taken a day off in a long while.
"Everyone still remembers 9/11 and we want to make sure that doesn't happen again," said Col. Peter Kippie, a vice wing commander from Hampton Roads, Va. He flies the B-1 bomber, officially known as the B-1B Lancer, and his son is flying a B-52 bomber in Iraq.
Kippie, Wing Commander Kowalski — whose parents live in Hamilton, Ohio — and other members of the 405th spoke to reporters from an undisclosed location Tuesday about their mission so far.
A lot has changed since Desert Storm, the airmen said. The missiles are precision-guided, and bombers can carry more of them. Before, the military might plan how many bombers would be needed to hit a target; now they talk about how many targets one bomber can hit. Communications are streamlined and direct, and targets often change when crews are mid-air. A lot of the time, they don't even know what they hit until they get back to base.
"The front is moving so fast, we're getting additional targets," Kowalski said.
The servicemen praised the B-1, known as the backbone of the military's bomber force, for its consistent ability to perform in all kinds of weather. The Bush administration recently consolidated and modified the B-1 program, which is managed out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Kowalski, 45, who is based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, spends much of his time planning missions, communicating with security forces, checking on services — for example making sure the chow hall is running smoothly. He will take crews ice water. He keeps an eye on the maintenance crews and debriefs crews returning from their flights.
He flew on the third day of the war, when the planes struck leadership targets in Baghdad. And for the several months he has been deployed, Kowalski keeps in touch via e-mail with his parents in Hamilton and his nine brothers and sisters, who all live in the Cincinnati area, where he grew up.
The wing is working at a "higher rate than expected at war," Kowalski said. "But that's OK."
Spirits remain high, the airmen said, despite the work, the dangers or recent news about casualties and prisoners of war.
"We're pressing forward," Kowalski said.