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."
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.
The lead fighter jet dives toward the treeline and sprays it with bullets. An eruption of dust can be seen on the screen and below us, but the French ground controller is not satisfied.
"I request re-attack with one GBU, to the north 20 meters ... north to south ... one GBU, attacking 3-4-0," he yells.
"Negative, that is close to the building," we hear the lead F-15 reply. "The school to the south is too close for a GBU."
The American crews of the fighter jets sound frustrated. "They sure are antsy to drop some bombs on friendlies," they say over the radio.
But the fighter jets coordinate with the French for a second strafing run. The fighter crew asks the JTAC to confirm that hostiles are still in the treeline. After they confirm where the strike should hit, 20 millimeter bullets pound into the treeline again. (The jet is armed with more than 500 rounds).
The enemy fire stops. The JTAC requests that our jets continue to scan for possible "squirters" -- insurgents who may have escaped.
The patrol continues until relief jets take over. We return to where we started, Bagram Air Field with an inverted and rapid combat descent to again avoid ground fire. It's a reminder -- as if one was necessary after this day -- that this is indeed a war zone.