Wing supports Operation Deny Flight

  • Published
  • By Timothy Barela
  • Air Force News Agency
Nestled near the foothills of the Alps, the scenery at Aviano Air Base, Italy, is nothing short of spectacular. The location? A tourist's dream: By train, the base is an hour away from Venice, one of the world's most romantic cities. Via car, it's a short 45 minutes to the beach, or 35 minutes to the ski slopes....

But in an F-16 fighter jet, bluesuiters are only 30 minutes away from the bloody civil war in Bosnia (Note: Reprint from Airman magazine, October, 1995) -- a sobering fact that has helped make Aviano an Air Force boom town in the past few years.

In support of Operation Deny Flight, which began just over two years so NATO forces could patrol the U.N.-imposed "no-fly" zone over Bosnia, the once-tiny base has gone from 1,500 to more than 3,000 troops--plus their family members. Literally bursting at the seams, it's also turned into Europe's busiest flight line.

"We can get up in the morning, go to church, have brunch with the wife and baby, get called into work, go drop bombs over Bosnia, and be back at home in time for supper," said Lt. Col. Stephen L. Hoog, 555th Fighter Squadron commander. "That's happened to many of us [pilots] at one time or another. Two days after our squadron stood up [April 8, 1994], we dropped our first bombs. It's the reality of war."

Even in the serenity of the Italian Alps, it's hard for service members and their families to escape the horrors of armed conflict. That point was driven home June 2 when Bosnian Serbs shot down the F-16 carrying Capt. Scott O'Grady, who was rescued six days later by NATO search and rescue forces. Then there's the constant news reports of unthinkable atrocities by Bosnian Serb soldiers against Bosnian Muslims, to include "ethnic cleansing" through mass killings, rape and torture.

"A lot of the squadron wives were a little tighter jawed after O'Grady was shot down," Colonel Hoog said.

Two squadrons of F-16 fighter bombers, each with 12 planes, are based at Aviano as part of NATO's monitoring of the "no-fly" zone--555th and the 510th Fighter Squadrons. Aviano is technically under Italian command, and Spanish and British flight crews also are stationed there. Together with TDY aircraft, more than 100 planes call the flightline home.

While it is U.S. policy to take no side in the war as a combatant and continue to press for a negotiated peace, Defense Secretary William Perry said recent Bosnian Serb actions--the shelling of Sarajevo, taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage and shooting down an American F-16--are self-destructive, barbaric acts.

They are a "strategic blunder," causing the international community to strengthen its resolve against the Bosnian Serbs, Secretary Perry said in a speech to the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Exposition in Washington.

Two other elements Mr. Perry cited as part of U.S. policy in Bosnia are keeping the war from spreading and reducing violence inflicted on innocent civilians.

In line with this charter, NATO recently extended its threat of air strikes against Bosnian Serbs if they attacked any of the remaining "safe areas" in Bosnia. "Safe areas" include Gorazde, Tuzla, Bihac and Sarajevo. Serb forces wasted no time testing the world's will and launched attacks against the "safe areas" of Zepa, Bihac and Sarajevo. At press time, two other "safe areas," Gorazde and Tuzla, remain vulnerable to Serb attack. To complicate things even further, Croatian forces entered the fighting in early August.

After NATO's threats and continued Serb aggression, news media reports speculated that air strikes are imminent. (NATO's bombing campaign began in late August. See page 10 for more on the strikes.)

"I tend to be a little underwhelmed by news reports," Colonel Hoog said. "We're always at the near-panic stage, then sit around for five days. We've been spun up and spun down so many times in the past year, that it takes its toll on morale."

Even so, most pilots view Deny Flight duty as the envy of the tactical Air Force.

"This is the real thing--where you find out if you've got what it takes," said Capt. Anthony J. Roberson, the first pilot to sign into the 555th, excluding the squadron commander. "All the pilots I talk to want to be here; although, they are just seeing the glory side of it on CNN don't have to see what we go through on a day-to-day basis."

Captain Roberson has flown more than 60 missions into Bosnia, where tracer fire quickly turns thoughts of glory into a humbling feeling of vulnerability.

"When you're 25,000 feet in the air and you're watching a ground fight or a tracer round pointed at your jet, you realize the stakes are definitely high," Captain Roberson said. "You can be here today, gone tomorrow. It's not something you can glamorize or shrug off."

He admits this is one job where he takes his work home with him.

"I don't believe you can have a normal family life in this environment," the fighter pilot said bluntly. "You can go home at night and pretend everything's status quo, but Deny Flight consumes your thoughts. If you just got shot at or your buddy did, you have to live with that. You just can't leave that behind at work."

For Captain Roberson's wife, Janette, not having a "normal" family life doesn't mean they can't have a happy family life.

"I think about what can happen, but I refuse to let it preoccupy my thoughts," said Mrs. Roberson, who works in the base family advocacy office. "I say a prayer every day that Anthony will come home safely, then I try to keep myself busy. If I let my imagination get carried away with a lot of 'what ifs,' I'd probably go crazy. You have to learn to cope and stay flexible."

She does that by spending a lot of time with other wives in the same situation, skiing in the Alps or going on a "shop till ya drop" trip to Venice or to other nearby towns.

"Our husbands work a lot of hours and get recalled often, so if you waited around to do everything with them, you'd be sitting at home a lot twiddling your thumbs," Mrs. Roberson said. "I guess I have a couple advantages though. I'm an Army brat who grew up in this type of environment. Plus being from Colorado, I'm biased. I love the mountains."

Even her positive attitude was tested when O'Grady was shot down.

"They let us know someone was shot down, so we wouldn't hear it on CNN first," Mrs. Roberson said. "But they hadn't released the name yet, and Anthony wasn't home. My first reaction was probably the same as all the other wives, 'Who? My husband?' Luckily we have a great group of commanders who keep an excellent network of information flowing."

While most bluesuiters consider Aviano a great assignment and have learned to cope with the stresses of a real-world mission, it didn't prevent them from giving Deny Flight the dubious nickname "Deny Life."

It's kind of a joke around here," said Senior Airman Julie Eck, a weapons loader with the 555th. "I don't know who started it, but pretty much everyone calls it that now. It comes from working long days and long hours."

Note: Reprint from Airman magazine, October, 1995.