I am now an official "combat aviator" with 5½ hours in the back seat of an F-15E Strike Eagle, flying two separate combat missions over Afghanistan.
The takeoff from Bagram Airfield is steep and fast, with the fighter jet's afterburners creating thrust that can rocket us up to 20,000 feet in just over a minute. It is a deadly serious combat mission, but it's hard not to be exhilarated by the power of that aircraft.
Any fears I had of feeling claustrophobic disappeared. It is a small cockpit, but the canopy above you opens up to the world. There is no sensation of being confined since you can see mountains in every direction. And despite training with the oxygen mask, (which is rather tight and confining), I soon learned I didn't need it, except for emergencies since the cabin is pressurized.
It took months of preparation to be allowed on this close-air support mission. I was granted access to classified briefings after submitting to a background check that gave me a temporary "secret" clearance.
After a training flight at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, I was familiar with the one-piece flight suit that is required, but made me feel like a total poser. The G-suit felt amazingly comfortable -- given that it essentially squeezes your lower body during high acceleration. The automatic inflation helps push blood that can pool in your lower extremities back up into your brain so you don't pass out. It also helps the pilot when performing the "G strain" maneuver, where you tense your lower body (brought back memories of childbirth for me) against the G-suit to also help push the blood back up to your head where it belongs.
Watch exclusive video of Martha preparing for her mission below.
Our mission was to provide close air support and "over watch" for 600 French troops on patrol in Kapisa Province.
The pilot, Col. Joe Beissner, has flown about 500 combat hours. He told me one of the things stressed again and again in the briefings, is to look out for collateral damage, namely for civilian casualties. But the air crews go out of their way to not only avoid hitting civilians, but also take care to avoid hitting property.
"Our primary issue that we discuss with our ground commander is how do we establish the positive identification of the target," said Beissner, who is vice commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. "Once that's complete, we next ask is there any civilians or any potential of civilians being in the area of the weapons, and then we ask is there any potential for collateral damage."
But in this war, making sure you kill the enemy -- and no one else -- can take far more discipline and even courage, as we would soon find out. In fact Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is the commander in Afghanistan, calls this discipline, "Courageous Restraint." It means even if someone on the ground is in trouble, you have to make sure you know what your target is and that you do your best not to hurt innocent civilians.
Sometimes not firing can be tough. Pilots say it's hard to watch their fellow soldiers on the ground taking fire.
"We have to use restraint when it's tough," Col. Jack Briggs said. "We're listening to these kids on the ground, and they're taking fire."