Spring loaded to the freedom position

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Through his night-vision goggles Lieutenant Colonel Mike “Zieg” Hile could make out the silhouette of the USS Bonhomme Richard only a couple of miles in front of him.

Hammer from Above, Marine Air Combat over Iraq, by Jay Stout

2007 Presidio Press Trade Paperback Edition, ISBN 978-0-89141-871-9

Reviewed by Everard Cunion in May 2008

The quotation at top is the start of Chapter 8, Harrier Strike, which recounts how Colonel Hile and three fellow marines flying AV-8B Super Harriers attacked a bridge behind enemy lines at night. A subsequent chapter—each is a complete account of an action—describes a sudden sand storm that caused three AV-8Bs to turn back before completing their mission, and land back on board their aircraft carrier. (Correction, the Bonhomme Richard is not an aircraft carrier; it is a Landing Helicopter Dock, apparently.) It is a nail-biting account. Having dumped most of their fuel to reduce the aircraft’s gross weight to that acceptable for a vertical landing, the only place they can land is on the ship. The ship’s instrument landing system was not working, the sand storm cut visibility to nearly nothing, and near gale force winds churned the sea, minimising the pilots’ chances of survival in the event of running out of fuel and having to eject.

However, Harriers are only one of a variety of types of flying machine featured in these accounts. Stout places you in the cockpits of most if not all the aircraft used by the US Marine Corps in Operation Iraqi Freedom of 2003 (the second Gulf War)—both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The helicopters are UH-1 Hueys, AH-1 Cobra gunships, twin-rotor CH-46 troop-carriers, and the H-53—the modern version of the Jolly Green Giant—all familiar to those who experienced the American war in Vietnam either in reality or (like me) in the movies and books. The fixed wing aircraft include C-130 Hercules in-flight refueling tankers, EA-6B Prowler electronic countermeasures and anti-radar missile strike jets, and—at last moving to more modern aircraft—F/A-18 Hornet supersonic attack fighters. (Stout describes a sonic boom used as a weapon—the shock wave of compressed air moving at 700 mph can turn vehicles over—from the viewpoint of a pilot assigned to a ground combat unit as a forward air controller.) If you fly radio control aircraft you will almost certainly be interested in the antics of the RQ-28 unmanned ‘aerial vehicle’; one of the US military’s newer reconnaissance aircraft types.

Hammer from Above book cover

Book cover art

One of the chapters I found most interesting describes the marines’ forward arming and refueling points, used primarily by Cobra and Huey helicopters in support of the ground marines in their rapid advance deep into Iraq. The FARP is a temporary airfield carved out of a stretch of highway whose lamp posts and other obstructions are removed and the whole thing flattened where necessary. Lighting is then laid out, a provisional control tower established, and—because ground traffic must still pass—a detour is built, maintained, and controlled.

Stout provides enough detail to paint a reasonable picture without slowing the action. He describes the marines’ adaptation of modern technologies such as Internet communications and secure virtual chat rooms for battle planning. One chapter describes the heroic actions of a female Huey crew chief/door gunner in the politically correct modern Marine Corps. The photos in the softback edition include ships (er, helicopter landing docks) at sea, jets in flight, bombs exploding in Baghdad, close-ups of battle damaged aircraft, and there is a maintenance marine fitting a laser kit to a Mk-83 general purpose bomb, thereby turning into a GBU-16 laser-guided bomb.

Although a one time Marine Corps jet pilot himself and undoubtedly suffering from Semper fi-itis, Stout does not flinch from criticising the higher marine command when he disagrees with their decisions and their publicity machine. Did they use napalm? No—officially. They used Mk-77 fire bombs, made of jellied jet fuel rather than jellied gasoline, jet fuel jello not being napalm, technically. (One might then ask, So what?)

Criticisms

The book suffers from a couple of shortcomings. The first is an overly lengthy set of introductions explaining the thinking behind the book and how its contents are structured. Not necessary. The second is over-use of abbreviations in the narrative, where plain text is more informative and easier to read. It is bad enough having to turn to the glossary at the back. It is doubly annoying to find you have only about a fifty percent chance of any particular abbreviation being included in it.

The photos in the softback edition are rather small, all black-and-white, and fairly low resolution.

Conclusions

The book is otherwise well written, exciting, informative, and (it seems to me, although I was not there) reasonably balanced. The characterisation of marines (or marine fliers, at least) being ‘spring loaded to the Yes, Sir! position’ seems to be, judging by this account, wide of the mark.

Ever wondered what it is like to fly a Cobra down below the roof-tops to attack an enemy pinning down a marine ground unit? What is it like to get blasted by an ammunition dump exploding so close it causes your engines to flame out and you end up sliding along the ground in your helicopter upside-down, the rotors sheared off and the canopy shattered? You need to read this book to find out a bit about it.

Related

Space flight and hang gliding (including Marine pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky, who flew the F-18 in the Gulf War)

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