A Blur of Action, a Clarity of Purpose

Times Staff Writer

Strapped into the bomb-laden fighter jet stenciled with his name, Lt. Roderick "Hot Rod" Kurtz hurtled off the bow of this warship Friday night in a blaze of afterburn and into the maelstrom of America's showdown with Iraq.

Four hours later, he was back and beaming, buoyed by the belief that delivering his precision payload had brought nearer the demise of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

"We started a pretty big fight out there," said Kurtz, still on an adrenaline rush from the airstrikes over Iraq. "They were shooting at anything that was there. I just got in and got out, and now I'm just happy to be here."

The 30-year-old Californian had packed away any preflight jitters.

"When I was waiting to tank, I had a few minutes to stop and think about what I was in for," Kurtz said of his only opportunity to reflect on the intensifying war's big picture -- the time spent on airborne refueling before heading for Baghdad. "But after that, I was too busy with the flying and all the sensory overload."

A Fountain Valley native and UCLA graduate, Kurtz confessed -- before he climbed into the cockpit of his $45-million F/A-18C Hornet -- to an appreciation of his squadron's role in the clash.

"Some guys are a little hurt that they don't get to go on Day 1," he said as he dashed from air crew briefings to his squadron's ready room before takeoff. "It's not quite the same bragging rights, even though everyone is going to play an important part. You feel like one of a team making an important difference ... but a team doesn't win without the whole team doing its parts."

Dozens of Lincoln aviators, including Kurtz and his Hornet buddy Lt. Ryan "Guido" Bernacchi, held their pre-mission huddle within the sterile white walls and glaring light of the Carrier Intelligence Center.

Fliers in olive and khaki jumpsuits leaned against counters and cluttered desktops, snapping gum and jotting down last-minute changes.

Warning his pilots that they would be facing "a lot of traffic" en route to their targets, air wing commander Capt. Kevin C. Albright ran through contingencies.

He rattled off the alphabet soup of military codes for telegraphing trouble. He admonished the aviators, most previously untested in battle, against compromising the high-stakes mission by being late for the hectic refueling. "There's gonna be a lot of stuff flowing up together," Albright said of the bombing sorties and the barrage of Tomahawk missiles that preceded them, turning night to day in the skies over Baghdad. "It's gonna be sporty, so heads-up out there."

Throughout the ship, sailors and aviators cheered the airstrikes -- in no small part because they might signal an imminent start of the long trip home for this carrier in its ninth month at sea.

"This has been the only thing keeping us from getting home," Kurtz said. "It was all leading to this."

"The targets were chosen to shape the battlefield and to bring hostilities to a close as soon as possible," Capt. Scott Swift, deputy chief of the air wing, told reporters as his pilots revved their engines.

Clearly troubled by Defense Department orders that journalists on board the ship be included in parts of the combat briefing, Swift appealed for restraint in publicizing operational details, noting that the secrecy of the air crew's tactics are "life and death to us."

For Kurtz, the long-threatened "A-Day" -- the attack day touted as key to the U.S.-led coalition's plan to demoralize the Iraqi leadership -- represented a chance to put years of expensive preparation to a test of his and his aircraft's mettle.

"As a pilot who spent years training to do this one thing, there's a certain amount of job satisfaction to get to see that it wasn't all talk and all practice," he said before takeoff.

After getting his "smartpak" with codes and target details and last-minute instructions from his squadron commander, Kurtz sprinted to the wardroom to bolt down buttered noodles and beef stroganoff in less than five minutes.

"A lot of guys don't like to eat before flying, but I have to," he said. "I like nothing better than to have a greasy hamburger in my stomach."

Later, he and Bernacchi celebrated their target strikes and the safe return of the entire air wing with cheeseburgers during "mid rats" -- midnight rations -- in the unusually buoyant wardroom. Kurtz followed his with a Froot Loops chaser.

While pumped up over the start of the massive air action, Kurtz said he would have felt no disappointment if the assault had been called off at the last minute as unnecessary to topple Hussein.

"As someone with friends and family at home, that's the goal, to not have people die," said the pilot, who married a year and a half ago.

His wife, Gail, a teacher in the San Joaquin Valley town of Lemoore, where the jets are based when they're not on carrier deployment, was probably watching the events on television and worrying until he could e-mail or call her, he said.

Kurtz had taken off midway through an hourlong launch spree with a full bomb load strapped under the Hornet's wings. Twenty-nine takeoffs in rapid succession filled the sea air with the residue of jet fuel and painted exhaust trails over the horizon.

Hundreds of maintenance and safety crew members, most toting personal cameras to record the moment, crowded the chaotic tarmac, where the darkness was broken only by the flight controllers' primary-colored, cone-shaped signal lights. The ship's foghorn wailed between jet blasts, as if passing vessels could have missed the source of such a deafening din.

In the tense hours while the jets were away, fliers just back from earlier sorties or on later rotations paced the passageways, masking their worries with the back-slapping camaraderie with which they confront fear, risk and the unknown.

Midway through the mission, the ship's chaplain read the evening prayer: "Eternal father on such a significant night ... may your protective arm rest upon each member of this operation."

By midnight, all but one of the Lincoln fliers were home, the lone exception spending the night at a friendly gulf airport, where he set down because he feared he was running out of fuel.

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