Exclusive: Flying Above Afghanistan on F-15E Fighter Combat Mission

"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.

ABC News video of mid-flight refueling.

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."

Monitoring Insurgent Activity From 20,000 Feet

We take off. Beissner tells me that "insurgents came up to a building, took some weapons out of a building, and moved away from it now. ... So right now we're basically just tracking these people."

We monitor the activity on the ground for over an hour, watching what is called the target pod -- a real-time picture capable of extreme close-ups. These are the images that would eventually help guide a bomb to its target.

In the jet, we also placed three small HD cameras -- one on the pilot, one on me, one facing outside. I had a handheld HD camera as well, which is not really that easy to maneuver when you are flying as fast as we were, especially when upside down. But I did manage to hold the camera steady when the lead jet flew just 15 feet above us, giving a close-up view of the nearly 5,000 pounds of bombs attached to it. We carried the same amount of ordnance.

We also gave the weapons system officer in the lead jet a camera. When the jets needed gas and headed for the aerial refueling, the lead jet got close enough to see me wave and see me then point the camera up to tape the boom operator in the tanker holding the boom connected to our jet.

But once we were refueled, the mission took an urgent turn. The French air controller, called a JTAC for Joint Terminal Air Controller, who is on the ground with the French troops, says they have come under small arms fire and had a rocket propelled grenade launched at them.

"We have a bad guy with a weapon moving to the northeast!" he yells.

The JTAC does not hesitate. He asks the fighter jets to drop a 500 pound bomb, or GBU 38: "I request an attack at 340 degrees ... in the treeline. ...Confirm you guys are still taking effective fire."

"They are very close ... imminent attack," he continues. "We just see one more RPG on that location. I request one GBU 38."

Under Enemy Fire

But we can see from the air that a school is nearby and dropping a bomb would cause significant damage and possible loss of life. The aircraft recommends strafing, an extremely low-level attack using the jet's powerful 20 millimeter machine gun. It's much less likely to cause collateral damage. The French JTAC gives the go-ahead.

"You are clear, hot; clear, hot," he yells.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...