Flying over the battle for Baghdad in an anti-tank plane that's so slow and ugly it's commonly known as the Warthog, an Air Force captain known as "K.C." faced the moment every pilot dreads.
"I heard a loud bang and the jet rolled fairly violently to the left, and I knew immediately that I had been hit," she said. "I think the first thing was just trying to regain control of the aircraft. [I] also thought that there was no way I wanted to eject over Baghdad."
Her plane had been strafed by anti-aircraft bullets. It was on fire, its hydraulic system knocked out.
"Bino," her wing man and commander, flying his A-10 Warthog next to hers, wondered whether K.C. should eject.
"She had the option [of bailing out] the whole time," he said. "She figured the plane was flying well enough. She told me she could handle it. I got to take her word for it. She is a good pilot."
K.C. knew she would have to land the plane manually, a maneuver A-10 pilots never train for.
"But I knew I was going to do it this time," K.C. said.
Although landing the A-10 manually without hydraulics requires great physical strength, K.C. managed to nurse the jet back to her base in Kuwait for a perfect landing.
"Besides the engineers who did the first tests at the beginning of the flight of the A-10, she is the only one who has ever landed in the manual reversion mode that didn't destroy the airplane," said Bino, whose real name is Lt. Col. Rick Turner, the commander of the 75th Squadron. The "Fighting Tigers" fly the Warthog.
Slow and Ugly
The Warthog, designed to knock out tanks from the sky, looks like a plane only a mother could love — and, of course, the pilots who fly it.
"I'm willing to go to the battle with that," Bino said. "I know that if I get hit it's going to bring me home."
He has faith even though the A-10 model was first produced in 1972 and has been flying since 1975.
In other words, it may be old and slow, but, "I'm old and slow, too," Bino said.
On today's high-tech battlefield, the Warthog is about as low-tech as you can get: no fancy computers or guidance systems. The A-10 is flown the old-fashioned way.
"We have to put the airplane in the right piece of sky, find that one point in the sky where we can release the bomb, and have it hit the ground where we want to," Bino said.
The bombs they drop are not "smart" bombs. Instead, Bino said, they rely on "smart pilots" who not only have to fly this heavy hunk of metal by themselves, but also aim and fire its bombs and use the 30-mm gun in the plane's nose.
"When you shoot the gun the jet shakes," Bino said. "You smell the gunpowder burning."
Not Who You Expect
Some of the pilots flying this deadly beast are not exactly who you might expect — including captains K.C., which stands for "Killer Chick" (she didn't want her real name used), and Danielle Curley, otherwise known as Bash.
Bash said there's nothing like flying the Warthog.
"There's a lot of times where you feel like the jet is just an extension of you," she said. "You know, you feel like you're strapping on the jet and taking off, and you're one. She works with you. … It's an awesome feeling. It's awesome."
As American troops engage in deadly battles on the ground, pilots like K.C. and Bash swoop down with their Warthogs and take out Iraqi tanks, bunkers and trenches.
The commander said he worries every time his pilots take off.
"You hate to associate it to a family but it's like, you know, sending the kids off to school and hoping they're going to do good today," he said. "I worry about them."
‘Thank God for the Hog’
K.C. did not know exactly how much she had to worry about until she got her Warthog home and realized it was practically a miracle.
The tail of her jet, built in 1981, looked like a cheese grater, pockmarked with holes from Iraqi shrapnel. A large chunk was ripped from the wing.
"I was pretty amazed and very thankful," she said. "Just thank God for the hog. I couldn't ask to be flying anything else."
The very next day K.C. went back in the air, flying missions over Iraq.
"Our job is to help those guys on the ground," she said. "And when they need it, we are going to be there, even if it means taking some risks."
The rest of her squadron feels the same way.
"I wouldn't pass this up for the world," Bash said. "I love the mission. I love the aircraft. I love to fly."