To Iraq and Back: 37 Hours on the Wings of War
He woke up from a nap, fresh and ready for the momentous night ahead. Brian Gallo’s wife drove him to work in their Ford Explorer. They embraced, and off he went in the cool April air.
Thirty miles away, Brian Bogue kissed his wife and five daughters goodbye, then headed out the door. “Daddy’s going to work,” he said. “I’ll be gone a couple of days.” Both men packed for a long flight, stuffing their bags with beef jerky, sandwiches, soft drinks, sunglasses, crossword puzzles and some good luck tokens -- an American flag from Gallo and a rosary from Bogue’s wife.
They were like a pair of businessmen heading off on a trip from rural Missouri. But these two Brians are Air Force captains and their business was the war in Iraq.
It was the night after American prisoner of war Jessica Lynch was whisked out of Iraq in a daring rescue, and the two young pilots would embark on a different kind of stealth mission in their B-2 bomber, the Spirit of Missouri.
Around 11 p.m., as much of America was in bed, they would climb six steps into the $2-billion, bat-winged plane that can evade radar, slap each other high fives and lift off into the night.
They would see twinkling lights in countless towns from Kansas City all the way to Boston before the glow surrendered to the inky blackness of the Atlantic.
They would cross nine time zones and travel 7,000 miles with a lethal package: 32,000 pounds of “smart” bombs to be dropped on targets in Iraq.
More than 40,000 U.S. missions were flown during the war with Iraq, but Gallo and Bogue were among only a few dozen pilots who would see the sun rise, set and rise again, all from a cockpit six miles in the sky.
They would fly from the heart of America to the heart of Iraq, drop their bombs, turn around and head home, never touching the ground until it was wheels down on the runway where they started, at Whiteman Air Force Base.
It would be a 37-hour marathon.
It was the 13th night of the war, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was on the verge of collapse.
U.S troops had seized bridges across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, advancing to within 25 miles of Baghdad.
Hussein’s spokesman was boasting, “Victory is at hand,” but back in America, it was clear that was a lie.
The night before their mission, Gallo, 30, and Bogue, 32, huddled in a simulator at the base scoping out possible threats -- surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft radar.
The Iraqis hadn’t put a single combat plane in the sky, but “you still have to be wary,” Gallo says. “You don’t want to be complacent.”
Bogue wondered, too, if Hussein’s forces might attempt a final act of desperation.
“They’re going to do everything they can to shoot us down,” he remembers thinking.
More than enemy fire was on the pilots’ minds.
They knew they would have to rendezvous with air tankers at 25,000 feet, moving at 300 miles an hour, sometimes in clouds or darkness. Not once, but five times -- a task that requires the split-second precision of trapeze artists.
The plane had taken off with 130,000 pounds of fuel. They would need an additional 400,000 pounds for their journey.
This was the third war for the B-2 stealth bomber; Whiteman-based pilots have flown missions to Kosovo and Afghanistan. The plane -- whose wingspan is longer than half a football field -- can evade radar because of its shape and rubber-like skin. Pilots’ tactics also help.
All 21 B-2s are based at Whiteman. About 60% of the missions against Iraq were flown directly from Missouri, where supplies and maintenance crews are located, though some were moved to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia during the war.
On the night of Gallo and Bogue’s mission, theirs was one of two B-2s that left from Whiteman just a minute apart. The planes flew in formation most of the way.
Bogue had never been in combat until the second night of this war, when he flew his first B-2 mission. Gallo had flown a B-52 bomber in Kosovo.
The two had been on practice missions in the United States to build some experience in refueling and endurance, and they tease each other in a good-natured way:
Bogue says Gallo can be impatient; Gallo says Bogue can be a grump.
Gallo -- nicknamed “Pico,” after salsa -- is animated, a fast talker, a rabid Chicago sports fan (he wore his Bears cap on this mission) and confesses to being a bit superstitious: He places his dog tags under the laces of his right shoe, a habit he picked up in pilot training.
Bogue -- nicknamed “Mugsy” after Mugsy Bogues, the diminutive former basketball player (the pilot is 5-foot-8) -- is soft-spoken, a hunter and a devoted father.
Before the war began, he had written two letters to be given to his family in case he didn’t return. He told his daughters he wanted them “to grow up to be successful young women and great Americans.”
His message to his wife, Hollie: “You’re the greatest thing to ever happen to me in my life.”
On this night, Bogue was the mission commander, responsible for dropping the bombs. Gallo was responsible for the flying.
They carried a 2-inch-thick spiral binder with their flight plan, their route and their mission -- they were scheduled to hit four “soft” targets in northern Iraq.
That could be anything from buildings to troops or vehicles -- as opposed to bunkers and armored tanks.
The inside of the B-2 is no bigger than a van, so the pilots packed tightly, bringing the kinds of things taken on a camping trip: sandwiches, Gatorade, gummy bears, Diet Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, nasal spray, eye drops and a pillow.
Gallo carried an American flag that had flown at the Air Force Academy when he was a squad commander.
And they brought along crossword puzzles to distract them from the stress.
Flying the B-2 on a mission like this is a mental marathon, so the pilots do what they can to pace themselves and stay alert.
On the way to Iraq, Bogue sprawled on the narrow cot behind the two seats to take a break.
Both spent a little time with the puzzles during breaks -- Gallo finished one crossword -- and they pored over the combat mission folder.
It was no use trying to sleep en route to Iraq. “Your adrenalin’s pumping,” Gallo explains. “You’re wound up.”
They saw the first blush of dawn over the mid-Atlantic, and quickly donned sunglasses. Then came the Straits of Gibraltar and the boot of Italy.
In the Mediterranean, a place with erratic winds, they gassed up a second time. The KC-135 refueling plane has a boom that extends up to 18 feet and hooks up on top of the B-2 behind the pilots.
As they got closer to their target, it was time to change clothes. The pilots stepped into their desert-colored flight suits and boots, then donned 30-pound survival vests that hold a radio, signaling devices and a handgun with a spare clip.
When Gallo left home, he wore longjohns -- just in case he had to parachute into enemy territory. “Dress to egress,” he says with a smile.
Flying from the Midwest to the Mideast is like being in a bubble.
“In this day and age, you always know what’s going on around the world,” Bogue says. But when you’re in the plane, “things keep changing and you don’t know.”
Since they had taken off, the winds of war had, in fact, shifted, and new orders were dispatched: An e-mail order said two of their targets in northern Iraq had been scrubbed. The U.S. Army was advancing quickly and there was a risk of friendly fire.
Night had fallen again when the B-2 cruised into Iraq.
On the ground, U.S. troops were attacking Saddam International Airport and fighting Iraqi troops along a six-mile stretch of road.
From the pilots’ perch 40,000 feet in the air, a different war story was unfolding.
At first, the pilots could see little but a burning oil fire and some city lights in the north, but that changed as they moved toward Baghdad:
“Hey, it’s like a black hole!” Gallo exclaimed.
“It was really, really dark,” he recalls. “No moon. No lights.”
Gallo wasn’t sure if it was a cloud cover or if the lights were out in Baghdad. The city, as it turned out, had lost electricity. The U.S.-led forces said they had not targeted the power system.
Bogue was head down, looking at the flying route, setting up the targets, thinking about the refueling stop ahead. Both pilots were engrossed; there was no idle chat.
Still, it seemed strange being in the middle of a war zone, knowing they would be heading home immediately after.
“I couldn’t believe it -- we’re on the top of Iraq,” Bogue recalls. “It is so weird. I had taken off from the middle of Missouri and now I’m in the middle of a country in the Mideast.”
Though the skies were black, the air was abuzz with dozens of planes with their lights off. There were F-16s, F-15s, B-52s, A-10s and B-2s, all pounding away.
“The radio was nuts,” Bogue says. “It was constant jabber.”
It was so noisy that the pilots had to squeeze their helmets to their heads to make sure they heard everything.
Within 30 minutes of arriving in Iraq, Bogue flipped a red switch and a button on his screen. Two bay doors opened.
The pilots heard a whooshing sound, the plane vibrated slightly and there was a clunk as the first bomb fell. Then two more.
The target was a command-and-control facility in northern Iraq. The pilots wouldn’t say more.
They took a right turn and hit a runway with four more bombs.
Just one minute had elapsed.
Dropping a bomb from tens of thousands of feet is nothing like ground combat, but the pilots never lose sight of what is happening below.
“All of us go into this business knowing what you get paid to do and coming to grips with that,” Gallo says. “If you didn’t want to do this, you’d go fly a different plane. You kind of rationalize it ... you’re bringing the war to an end sooner. It’s very impersonal.”
Bogue says he tries to think of bomb targets, rather than people.
“I believe in what I’m doing,” he says. “This is my job, this is what I’m trained to do. I shouldn’t have any mental reservations.”
After the pilots hit two targets, they had nine bombs left and were eager to use them.
“You fly 37 hours to drop 16 weapons,” Gallo says. “You don’t want to bring any home.”
Bogue radioed in and typed the same message: “We still have nine weapons left. Do you have anything more for us?”
The response came from the ground controller: “The Army’s moving so fast, we cannot keep track of where the friendlies are.”
After about 30 minutes, it was time to head off for refueling.
Both pilots were frustrated as the Spirit of Missouri headed home.
“I almost took it personally that I did not get the weapons off,” Bogue says. “There’s nothing I could have done. But I wished I could have helped a little more.”
After more than 33 hours, the pilots were “feet dry” -- back over land. In daylight again, they saw the Statue of Liberty and the spot where the World Trade Center had stood.
“Welcome home, boys,” came the voice of a New York traffic controller. “Get plenty of rest.”
Both pilots were antsy but remarkably fresh.
Gallo had slept 3 1/2 hours on the way back; Bogue, 5 1/2 hours.
Their slate gray plane landed at Whiteman around lunchtime. The pilots shook hands and headed for a debriefing.
That afternoon, Gallo went home, called his parents and later watched the news with his wife, Clarissa.
“It was kind of surreal,” he says. “Just a day ago, I was involved in this, and now I’m on the La-Z-Boy watching TV.”
Bogue was picked up by his wife, Hollie, and three of their daughters; his 4-year-old, Sydney, noticed he was wearing his tan desert flight suit -- not the green one he wore when he left for work.
“Have you been to war?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but I’m home now.”