By Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney, 49th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 18, 2015
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- It was a dreary Wednesday morning. Thunder shook and rain poured from the dark clouds that masked the sky. Through the clouds, then Maj. Mark Hoehn, deployed from Holloman's 49th Fighter Wing, watched the sun rise on the horizon, the grays and blues fading into reds and oranges. Hoehn thought, "Wow, this would be a beautiful sight if I wasn't about to blow something up."
He had no idea who, or what his target was. Only six hours ago, from Al Udeid Air Base, then Maj. Clint Hinote gave the order "Do whatever it takes to get two aircraft ready for combat tonight."
On March 19, 2003 at 5:30 a.m., the first airstrikes were launched in Baghdad, and Operation Iraqi Freedom began.
"F-117s were used to make the opening attacks on Baghdad on Jan. 17, 1991, the opening salvos on Desert Storm." said James Burrett, 49th Wing historian. "Just 12 years later, in 2003, F-117s were used again in the first airstrikes over the same city in Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Hoehn said he saw this day coming. It was only four months prior that he shook hands with President George W. Bush, when Bush asked him, "You ready?"
Shortly after the order was given, maintainers began preparing two Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters for the mission. With new GPS weapon technology to work with, Hoehn said the crew chiefs and maintainers went over each jet precisely, ensuring they were ready.
As the deadline approached, then Lt. Col. David Toomey looked at Hoehn and asked, "Fuji [Hoehn's call sign], are you ready to go?"
"You bet," Hoehn said.
At approximately 3 a.m. the aircraft were prepared to fight. After a quick prayer, Hoehn and Toomey stepped and boarded their jets.
"We were briefed that we would taxi and take off 'comms out', not talking to anybody," Hoehn explained. "We had folks in the tower that flashed a light gun at us, signaling when we were able to taxi and take off. We went completely stealth, with our antennas in, and anything that would omit a signal turned off."
Struggling to maintain visual flight through a thunderstorm, they proceeded up the Persian Gulf.
"I remember looking at the fuel gauge as we were approaching the Iraq and Saudi Arabia border, where the tankers were supposed to meet us, and I was really getting nervous," Hoehn said. "At that point I had just enough gas to get back to Al Jaber (Air Base in Kuwait). If I was going to make it to Iraq, I needed fuel and I needed it soon."
He didn't have to wait long. A few moments later a KC-135 Stratotanker came into view to provide the much-needed fuel. Toomey refueled his jet first and then immediately turned north toward Iraq. Next, Hoehn hooked up to the tanker and began refueling.
"Sir, it sounds like you've got an interesting mission," said the in-flight refueling specialist. "Can you tell us anything about it?"
"Unfortunately I don't know much more than you," Hoehn said. "All I know is to put bombs on coordinates at a certain time."
As the time-over-target approached, Hoehn asked the refueling tanker pilot to drag him north into Iraq to save time while he was being refueled. Once his tank was full, he separated from the tanker and proceeded toward his target.
Right then, Hoehn snapped back into mission mode. Through the overcast, he said he saw the Tigris river weaving through the city of Baghdad.
"I wasn't able to see my target because of the overcast, but I was able to see landmarks enough to know that my cursor was, if not directly on, within a few meters of the spot I was targeting."
The target was still obscured, but with the GPS weapons system, Hoehn released his weapons, impacting the target at exactly 5:30 a.m.
The instant the bombs were released, Hoehn and Toomey sharply turned their aircraft and got out of Baghdad.
"I reached over and pushed the throttle even further forward to get as much speed as possible, and get out of there," Hoehn said. "I didn't really start feeling comfortable until at least 30-40 minutes outside of Baghdad. Then I thought, what's next? I hadn't really thought it through this far in the mission, and once again, I was running low on fuel."
At that point, Hoehn opened his antennas and radioed to the Airborne Warning and Control System. He gave AWACS his general location, and was given information on where to find a refueling tanker.
He flew south to the tanker track area, where he saw a tanker waiting. He hooked up and realized it was the same tanker that refueled him earlier.
The same in-flight refueling specialist asked, "So how did everything go?"
"Well, I'm about 4,000 pounds lighter," Hoehn said. "I can't wait to go back and find out exactly what we hit, but you guys were a big part of it."
Hoehn flew the same route on his way back, antennas out, so he could easily communicate with the Air Traffic Controllers at Al Udeid.
"When I landed and pulled back into the hangar, there were probably 100 people there," Hoehn said. "Nobody slept at all. All the maintainers and the rest of the squadron were all there. As the doors opened, everyone tried to look and see if the bombs were gone, and when they saw that they were, everyone cheered."
During the mission debrief, Hoehn and Toomey found out their target was where Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein may have been staying. Although they did not hit Hussein on that night, Hoehn said he believes that attack made Hussein scared and act sporadically, which made him susceptible for capture later.
"The mission's overall intent was to give democracy to a country, and for me, that made it worth it," Hoehn said. "I think the strikes made it easier for our ground forces to move up and into Baghdad. Since he was on the run, it made him more vulnerable, and I think that contributes to how we found him later."
12 years later, now Col. Hoehn is back at Holloman as the Commander of the 49th Operations Group. He is passing on his skills and experiences to MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper pilots.
"Every day, training my replacement is my primary mission," Hoehn said. "Whether they have the same experiences, chances and opportunities is for fate to determine. No matter what, though, I need them to be ready on night one."