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Pilots to Patrol Skies as Peacekeepers

April 12, 2003

ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ (AP) _ Nearly three weeks after the war in Iraq began, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Toppel launched his jet for the first time into Iraqi skies, looking for snipers firing on U.S. troops from a Baghdad building. Now he looks forward to keeping the peace.

Toppel, like the dozens other pilots and more than 5,000 sailors aboard the USS Nimitz, had figured for more than a month that Operation Iraqi Freedom was not going to be their war.

The aircraft carrier didn’t even leave its home port of San Diego until March 3, and was steaming across the Pacific Ocean when the first coalition missiles and bombs struck Iraq on March 20. It arrived in the Persian Gulf on Sunday, as the Saddam Hussein regime was showing signs of collapse.

``We didn’t come here to fight a war,″ said Lt. Fitz Lee, a 34-year-old Nimitz pilot from San Diego. ``We’re here to help build the peace.″

Once the fighting in Iraq ends, U.S. pilots like those aboard the Nimitz will be patrolling the skies over Iraq for months, if not years, to come.

Sent to replace the departing USS Abraham Lincoln _ a carrier that’s been deployed for nine months, three longer than the standard cruise _ the Nimitz began flying combat missions late Tuesday, just as forces from the U.S.-led coalition were tightening their stranglehold on Baghdad.

Since then, two other major cities north of the capital _ Kirkuk and Mosul _ have fallen, further shrinking the territory controlled by the remnants of Saddam’s loyalists and the list of targets to bomb.

But coalition troops are still fighting their way through pockets of Iraqi resistance, so coalition pilots are mostly flying air support missions for ground troops. While many are coming back without having dropped a bomb or fired a missile, some, like Toppel, are still seeing combat.

Toppel and his partner throttled their F/A-18F Super Hornets off the deck of the Nimitz on Tuesday afternoon. Their mission was simple: go to a preselected area _ in the parlance of pilots, a ``killbox″ _ south of Baghdad and await further orders.

With a brief stop to refuel, it took Toppel’s plane and two others just over an hour to get to their killbox, where they were told to hold their position.

Their wait didn’t last long _ soon they were contacted by troops on the ground who were advancing into Baghdad from the west, fighting their way to the Tigris river.

According to the soldiers, Iraqi snipers were using a tall building _ maybe 15 stories-high, Toppel couldn’t say exactly _ as a perch from where they could fire on a U.S. position on the western bank of the Tigris.

Toppel’s job was to take them out.

After getting the building’s coordinates from the U.S. troops on the western bank, Toppel and the two others flew in ``to get our eyes on the target,″ he said. Finding targets can be hard in the haze, weather made even worse by smoke from burning fires _ ``good thing it was huge building.″

First, the pilots fired laser-guided missiles at the top floors of the building. Next they took out the bottom floors.

Mission accomplished, they headed out to refuel, satisfied with a day’s work done.

``It’s not that we’re anxious to go to war ... it’s just something we’re trained to do,″ said Toppel, a 34-year-old from Sunnydale, Calif. ``We’re all aggressive people, overachievers. ... So we want to be the ones doing it.″

That kind of attitude made the monthlong trip across the Pacific tough.

``Pilots fly at supersonic speeds and when your carrier is only doing 20 knots (23 mph), it can be a little frustrating,″ said Capt. Jim Greene, a 46-year-old pilot from Bloomington, Ind. He is the deputy commander of the ship’s air wing.

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