The Kabul-ki Dance

Inside the cockpit with the pilots and wizzos of the 391st Fighter Squadron, the top guns of America's air war in Afghanistan

One of the unadvertised downsides of being a god of the night sky, of delivering America's smartest bombs, of owning the twenty-first-century battlefield and then getting home in time to dine on surf 'n' turf and Häagen-Dazs and catch the latest episode of Friends, is the capability of the U.S. Air Force to record every word and image from the cockpit of your F-15 for digital playback. It's fine for showing off marksmanship and relishing derring-do; but some moments are not meant to be relived every time some wise-ass desk jock in the Mission Planning Cell, the MPC, cues up a certain audio file and punches a button on his keyboard.

"Holy shit! Missile launch!"

Heart in the throat, sphincter puckered, a trace of panic in the voice. It's a little embarrassing. It's the exact opposite of the purely utilitarian pilotese they teach in training.

"Holy shit! Missile launch!"

At war over Afghanistan, an Air Force captain called Snitch learned to live with the fact that his moment of genuine alarm had been preserved on audio. Snitch is one of the thirty-six crew members of the 391st Fighter Squadron, the Bold Tigers, a force of twelve F-15 Strike Eagles out of Mountain Home, Idaho. He is a slender, cheerful man in his early thirties, with brown eyes, short brown hair that looks as if it just came out from under a helmet, and freckles that still show under a dark tan. He grew up in Wisconsin, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1992, and spent two years in Alaska as an Air Force criminal investigator. Hence his nickname. (The fliers in this story asked to be identified only by their call signs, to protect themselves and their families.) Snitch is a backseater, a weapons-systems officer, or "wizzo"—and something of a laser-guidance artist, so he's plenty secure with his skills. He also has a good sense of humor. But Snitch was annoyed to have his moment of panic become a squadron joke—especially the hundredth time he heard it. The fear was certainly defensible. Snitch knows pilotese and speaks it with the best of them, but the first time you see one of those surface-to-air motherfuckers corkscrewing up right at you ... well, something primitive takes over.

For Snitch the joke was also a point of pride. Not many of the other guys had to dodge SAMs in this war. Besides, the joke was useful. It reminded the entire squadron, whose members saw this engagement as the greatest turkey shoot of all time, that there were real hazards up there, and that the long stretches of cramped, tense routine in the bubble cockpits of their jets, where even traveling at the speed of sound could get tedious, demanded an unflagging vigilance.

"Holy shit! Missile launch!"

It happened like this:

Snitch and his pilot, Slokes, had been airborne for hours, doing what the fliers of the 391st call the Kabul-ki Dance, circling Kabul with the full force of the U.S. air armada. They had completed the long night flight to Afghanistan, after traveling down the Persian Gulf southeast from al Jaber (none of the Air Force personnel would disclose the location of their desert base outside Kuwait City, but it was widely reported during the conflict), avoiding Iran's airspace, rendezvousing with tankers over the Gulf of Oman to refuel, making a sharp left turn at Gwadar to cross over Pakistan and the great jagged peaks of the Siahan Range, and finally making their way northeast to Kabul. On daytime missions this same flight would reveal hours of dusty red-brown mountain ranges, miles and miles of hostile nothing, a seemingly endless expanse of saw-toothed ridges, a country harsher and emptier than any they had ever seen. On nighttime missions like this one they flew enveloped in darkness, under stars and a moon that seemed close enough to dodge. When they reached Kabul, in east-central Afghanistan, they joined the scores of American warplanes operating at various altitudes. At 20,000 feet the F-15s waited for "fragged" targets from Boss Man, the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that choreographs the terribly complicated and dangerous dance of the modern air assault. A target is fragged when it is assigned to be hit. Depending on its importance and the potential for "collateral damage," or civilian deaths (and thus political fallout), getting a target fragged may mean running all the way up the permission chain to the White House. On that mission Snitch and Slokes had already hit several targets and were given another, time-critical one: a SAM site just outside the city that had unwisely lobbed a missile into the dark sky full of American warplanes, revealing its position and thereby sealing its fate.

Their Strike Eagle, a sleek two-engine jet, the premier precision air-to-ground attack instrument in the U.S. arsenal, was still carrying five 500-pound laser-guided bombs, called GBU-12s (GBU stands for "guided bomb unit"), and Slokes and Snitch were still eager for a chance to lay into something. To be sent home carrying bombs was the worst. With comic futility Slokes would plead with Boss Man, "Please, sir, can I ask somebody else?" Nobody wanted to face the three-hour flight back to Kuwait with packages undelivered—it made the flight longer and burned fuel like crazy; and to face the crew that had worked like dogs to ready the aircraft, load the bombs, and paint love notes to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar on the ordnance was a full-bore bummer.

Working with the AWACS coordinates, Snitch quickly located the SAM site in his target pod, and Slokes maneuvered the jet into the approach. They felt the familiar push of their backs into their seats, and the lurch of their guts against their spines, but both were much too busy to think about the discomfort. Snitch couldn't have said if the jet was upside down or right side up. His nose was glued to the green of his eight-inch target monitor. Manipulating the laser with his hand control, he cleared Slokes to "pickle"—release the bomb. The pilot pressed the button that gives the jet final permission to drop a bomb once it has calculated the perfect trajectory, and fractions of a second later the thing was off. Slokes banked the jet to the left as Snitch, gently nudging his hand controller, kept the laser zeroed; his pod stays fixed on the target no matter how the jet moves. The bomb hit "shack on," or dead center, and the SAM launcher vanished in a satisfactory black splash on the monitor. Job well done ... but then up out of the burning mess spiraled a missile that the GBU had evidently cooked right off the pad.

It was then that Snitch famously exclaimed, "Holy shit! Missile launch!"

Slokes immediately threw the jet off its course, and Snitch punched out some chaff and flares (the chaff distracts radar guidance, and the flares confuse a heat-seeker), after which ensued thirty weighty seconds—or, as Snitch puts it, "half the known age of the universe"—of listening to each other's nervous breathing in the headphones, waiting to be torn into oblivion, until the pilot of a trailing jet commented, in perfect pilotese, "It burned out co-altitude."

"Holy sheepshit!" Slokes said, breaking the silence.

"I got that in the pod, brother," Snitch said, meaning that the event was digitally preserved and they could show it off later.

"Fuckin' party!" Slokes said, deep into the euphoria of being shot at and missed. "Fun" is a word not often applied to warfare. It's unseemly; you aren't supposed to enjoy yourself while killing people. But the high-intensity enthusiasm of the Bold Tigers was unmistakable. They are young (most of them in their twenties), slender, fit, smart, patriotic, highly motivated, exhaustively trained, and crisply able. They are all in love with flight, with riding their silver bullets to the edges of the sky, peering down at the broad curvature of the earth, feeling the great surge of supersonic engines beneath them. Given the chance to show what they could do, taking on a cause that both inspired and excited them, and that added a tincture of danger to the heady mix ... it's no wonder the pilots and wizzos of the 391st came to feel that this was the time of their lives.

From the archives:

"Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane" (June 2002)
How Lockheed Martin beat Boeing for the biggest military contract in history—and how that one contract could change the way the military builds and pays for its weapons. By James Fallows

What is most telling about Slokes and Snitch's brush with danger is that it was memorable at all. The Bold Tigers trace their history back to the days of flying P-47s in combat over Europe in World War II. The unit has known times when being shot at was all too common, as was being shot at and hit. But the days of jousting with the enemy in the sky, of flirting daily with death in the clouds, are all but over—and have been for some time. At the dawn of World War II the French pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was already mourning the flying duelists of the Great War and anticipating the tremendous bombing raids that would define the coming conflict. The fighter plane was being replaced by the flying truck, and war seemed to call less for aerial artistry than for the capacity to deliver or endure wave after wave of bombs. Saint-Exupéry could not have foreseen today's conflicts, in which bombing has become an exercise in precision and fighter pilots (or, in the case of the Strike Eagles, fighter crews) are essentially technicians who—the close call of Snitch and Slokes notwithstanding—fight wars that are nearly stripped of passion and danger. Combat has become a procedure, deliberate and calculated, more cerebral than visceral—even if it does still have its moments. The modern American air war is almost never about air-to-air combat. Squadrons like the 391st now go to war virtually unopposed. Few nations have the capability to contest American fighters in the sky, and those that do would probably fare badly. Air warfare as practiced today by the U.S. military is about delivering weapons accurately and with impunity. The goal is to destroy an enemy's ability to make war, with minimal risk above and minimal carnage and destruction below.

Given the ineffectiveness of surface-to-air missiles in recent conflicts, those on the receiving end of this juggernaut are left with few weapons. Perhaps the most powerful one, apart from suicidal acts of terror, is the world's indignation. Victimhood affords the enemy a claim to higher moral ground. The shedding of enough innocent blood can eclipse the meaning of even the noblest cause. So civilian deaths are trumpeted by the enemy with each new air assault. Whether in Iraq, Bosnia, or Afghanistan, the number of casualties is often exaggerated. And yet Western journalists are given tours of shattered neighborhoods and villages, where images of real death, dismemberment, and grief counter the Pentagon's antiseptic videos of guided bombs striking toy houses and cars. These images stir outrage in the United States and Europe and fuel the now familiar rearguard American movements to stop such bombings and end such wars.

The astonishing precision of modern American weaponry deflates this outrage. Compared with other "bomb-delivery systems," such as the old B-52s and the F-16 Falcons, the Bold Tigers in their Strike Eagles are artists of aerial bombardment. They worry less about being shot at than about missing their "dimpie," or designated mean point of impact. Slokes subscribes to an adage he read in a history book about pilots in World War II, which goes, "God, please don't let me fuck up ... but if I do, please don't let me fuck up and live."

B-52s—or "Buffs," for "big ugly fat fuckers"—drop the less accurate, less smart joint direct attack munitions, or JDAMs. In the Afghanistan campaign they took off from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean; cruised way up to somewhere in the "Bozosphere" (meaning "way the fuck up there"); and, visible from below only as bright white contrails, opened their bomb bays and let fly. They are the wholesale-delivery teams of the modern air-war industry. F-16s, direct heirs of the single-seat combat-fighter tradition, are sleek and cool, excellent for providing air cover for bombers—but there was no call for that over Afghanistan. The Bold Tigers affectionately call F-16s "Lawn Darts," because that's what they look like, because they carry relatively light loads, and because if their single engine fails, they perform a graceful nosedive straight into the ground.

In contrast, the Bold Tigers are hunters. They prowl around in shoulder-held-missile territory, skimming the terrain, looking, as they say, to paint their bull's-eyes right on terrorist assholes. These crews are the sharp end of the most effective death-and-destruction delivery system ever devised.

The air campaign that was waged over Afghanistan is of a significantly higher order than the one conducted over Vietnam, where flying a fighter-bomber was still essentially a solo act. Today's air assault is a feat of aerial coordination. From early October of 2001 until the following January the sky over Afghanistan caterwauled with warplanes and support aircraft from the British and American Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force—so many that the greatest danger faced by crews like those of the Bold Tigers was colliding with one another or being clipped by JDAMs from above.

At the highest level, in orbit hundreds of miles up, were scores of satellites. Below them, at 40,000 feet or so, were the Buffs and B-1s, which dropped more than half the bombs used on Afghanistan. There were EA-6 Prowlers to jam enemy communications. There were A-10 Thunderbolts and AC-130s for close air support, and air-rescue teams in helicopters—Pave Lows (MH-53Js), Black Hawks (UH-60s), and Jolly Green Giants (HH-53s). Finally, there were the strikers—the F-15s, the F-16s, and the Navy and Marine Corps F-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, which delivered laser-guided precision bombs. There were also the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), armed with cameras and missiles—drones like the Predator (RQ-1), which made a name for itself for the first time in this conflict. Add to these dozens of Extenders (KC-10s) and Stratotankers (KC-135s)—flying gas stations that enabled the armada to stay aloft for hours and hours. And last there were Boss Man and its British equivalent, Spartan, whose job it was to coordinate the whole Kabul-ki Dance.

Over Afghanistan the twelve Strike Eagles of the 391st usually carried nine GBU-style bombs, including, on five occasions, the GBU-28, a 5,000-pound bunker buster. The Bold Tigers were the busiest of three Air Force fighter squadrons in the war; they flew 230 sorties from October 17 to January 6. The squadron's eighteen crews (thirty-five men and one woman, a twenty-six-year-old wizzo nicknamed Baldie, who had a full head of medium-brown hair), backed up by about 230 maintenance workers and munitions experts, delivered a goodly portion of the precision bombs dropped in the war. This small group of fliers played a major role in dismantling a totalitarian theocracy and chasing al Qaeda back into the hills.

The F-15 is an old aircraft, older than many of the crew members who fly it. Originally designed as a single-seat air-to-air fighter, it made its debut flight in 1972. It was the first operational jet with enough thrust to actually accelerate in a vertical climb. Sixty-four feet long and forty-three feet wide from wingtip to wingtip, it is slightly larger than a deluxe tour bus and considerably less accommodating for its crew. Adding a seat behind the pilot's became useful for bombing missions, because the additional systems required for finding and hitting targets were too much for a single flier to handle. Apart from all of its electronic wizardry, the twin-tailed jet consists of little more than fuel tanks and two huge Pratt & Whitney jet engines. The cockpit is tight. Instruments fill the displays in front of both pilot and wizzo and line panels to the left and the right. There is enough room for the fliers to stretch their legs forward, but not enough to raise their arms far over their heads, and little room to shift from side to side. Fearing deep-vein thrombosis on such long flights, doctors teach the crews isometric exercises to perform in the cramped space. The seats, which are attached to ejection rockets in case of emergency, have no cushioning, because any space for it would allow the hard shell of the chair to hit a flier's backside on ejection with enough impact to crush a pelvis or snap a spine. With an average sortie length for the squadron of about ten hours, the crews put up with sore rumps.

And insistent bladders. That issue did present itself, especially on the longer flights (the record was fifteen and a half hours). Urination was a struggle even for the men, who are provided with "piddle packs"—tubelike plastic bags with a powder inside that turns urine into a gel. In theory, piddle packs are easy to use, fitting right over the tip of the penis; but the crews are wearing flight suits, heavy jackets (the air temperature is sub-freezing at altitude), G-suits, and survival vests (with loaded 9-mm pistols), and are strapped down in spaces no larger than the back seat of a Honda Civic. More than one crew member had to strip down midflight and bring his skivvies home in a plastic bag.

It is even worse for women. The Air Force has been working on the concept of a woman's urinating in a cockpit for several years now, and if Baldie is a fair judge, it has not yet solved the problem. Poor Baldie. (Her nickname comes from the fact that she is married to an F-16 pilot and thus "bangs a Lawn Dart driver": BALD-D.) Sitting just a few feet in front of or behind a male flier, a woman is forced to disrobe in an immodest series of contortions, exposing her hands and hindquarters to the stinging cold, and then has to negotiate a funnel attached to a bag. It's little wonder that Baldie became known as the "super camel," for her holding ability. ("I did sprint to the bathroom a few times the second we landed," she says.) Bowel movements? Too horrible to contemplate, and no accommodations whatsoever. The bowels are easier to regulate, of course, and during the Afghanistan campaign Imodium became a staple of the Bold Tiger diet; but dining on not always familiar food in a foreign land has been known to create digestive emergencies that can confound even the strongest over-the-counter medications. One flier earned the nickname "B-nok," for "buck naked over Kuwait," when seized by a call that had to be answered. He relieved himself into a small cardboard fast-food container with the jet on autopilot. Most of these fliers can strip, crap, and fly all at once—a proud accomplishment. These are not the kinds of skills they package in the "Go Air Force" pitch.

The crews gladly accept their discomfort. Baldie announced her career intentions at age four. They were reinforced two years later, when her father was doing some contract work for NASA in Providence, Rhode Island, and one day brought home a collection of colorful prints of jet aircraft. He gave them to his daughter, who, thrilled, declared that in the future she was going to fly one. (She has recently started pilot training.) Slokes, a big, boisterous, confident man with short-clipped blond hair, is the son of a World War II fighter pilot, but he swears that this had nothing to do with his desire to be a flier. He attended the Air Force Academy because he got in, and because it was free. He aimed to be one of the twenty grads each year whom the academy sends on to medical school, and he had a GPA to qualify, but along the way he got a chance to fly. The stethoscope could not compete with the throttle. Snitch wanted to go to flight school when he graduated from the academy, but imperfect eyesight initially eliminated him from both the front and back seats. Undaunted, he applied for a waiver and started his job in Alaska as a criminal investigator for the Air Force. When the waiver was approved, he was torn. He liked his work, but in the Air Force the most prestigious job is in a bubble cockpit. His commanding officer, noticing how avidly Snitch watched the fighters take off and land every day, asked, "So, Lieutenant, what was it that brought you here in the first place?"

"I was waiting for my waiver to come through," he said.

"And ...?"

Super Dave, a balding, fair-haired wizzo of thirty-four, was raised on a dairy farm in Virginia. His goal had been to design airplanes, until a friend took him up in a Cessna: he was hooked. Push, a tall, lean Army brat with dark hair and blue eyes, accepted an Air Force ROTC scholarship as a means of paying his way through Duke University. It was not long before flying in an F-15 eclipsed his enthusiasm for civil engineering. Two Fish, who flew with Baldie, wants to be an astronaut. An Air Force Academy grad with a master's degree in astrodynamics, he is aiming to keep alive a family tradition—his grandfather worked for NASA. Tank is on the same path. Growing up in Minnesota, he used to cut the lawn of a pilot who took him up in a plane a couple of times. He earned his pilot's license as a teenager, attended the academy, and is working on getting a graduate degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Washington.

Their commander, AJ, a trim man with a pink complexion who seems uncomfortable when not in motion, is an older version of them all. In his forties, AJ is the kind of man who could long ago have moved on to more-lucrative employment as a commercial pilot but who has never been able to shake the thrill of flying fighters. An Air Force brat whose father was a wizzo on missions over Korea and Vietnam, he has moved around so much in his life that he's not sure where he comes from. ("I think I'm from Idaho," he says.) AJ has an unabashed sense of commitment to his country.

Despite the high level of talent and motivation, flight crews are, by virtue of being flesh and blood, one of the weak links in the war machine. The Air Force tries to regulate them like delicate instruments, with pills to clog their bowels and pills to clean their bowels, "go" pills to speed crews up and "no go" pills to slow them down. The crews are pampered, not out of kindness but out of necessity. The job demands a great deal of mental and emotional clarity. So the base at al Jaber is by no means a hardship post. Crew members share air-conditioned mobile homes with a bathroom and a shower, cable TV, a DVD player, and PlayStation 2. They have hearty food, workout facilities, and an officers' club with a paperback library, twenty La-Z-Boy recliners, a big screen for movie viewing, a popcorn machine, and snacks (but no alcohol). The cable TV carries all the major networks and European MTV, and—perhaps owing to the generosity of the installer—receives unsolicited X-rated fare late at night. AJ got to see more of his beloved Green Bay Packers' games that fall than he ever gets to see at home in Idaho.

The crew members were entitled to one fifteen-minute satellite phone call home each week, and unlimited Internet access, resulting in constant e-mail traffic with spouses, family, and friends. Some of the fliers got in trouble for revealing too much in their excited stories. They quickly learned that the recipients were forwarding their private electronic messages to other friends, who forwarded them again, until the crews were getting return mail from perfect strangers all over the world. Each crew usually had a sortie to Afghanistan only every three or four days, and although they also flew missions over the no-fly zone in Iraq, there was still plenty of downtime. When she wasn't dropping bombs, Baldie, ever the multi-tasker, spent much of her time completing course work for a master's degree in engineering from Oklahoma State University. (Her professors FedExed her videotapes of their classes.) Some of the fliers drove into Kuwait City on occasion to dine out at restaurants or shop at the Western-style malls. AJ and some others even attended an air show in Dubai, the third largest in the world. War was never like this before.

Chaz, a lieutenant colonel who served as the Bold Tigers' ops officer, had the job of keeping the squadron flying, which involved artfully managing rest and maintenance. A longtime wizzo from Mississippi, blond and stocky at age forty-three, he would review charts, ask questions, listen intently, and, above all, peer deeply into the eyes of the young crew members while trying to decide if they were rested and alert enough to fly. They all wanted to fly as often as they were allowed, but Chaz made up his own mind about it. He was less interested in what they said than in the look in their eyes. If he didn't like what he saw there, if he saw jumpiness or flatness, they were grounded.

With all the direct hits recorded by the Bold Tigers in the campaign, Chaz is proudest of a shot that missed. "One of my young wizzos got disoriented while his bomb was in flight," he says, smiling beatifically. "He directed it into a dirt field. That's good judgment, good training."

For the Bold Tigers flying over Afghanistan, the most excitement came at the beginning of the campaign. The squadron flew its first sortie of the war on October 17. After leaving Kuwait, two F-15s felt their way into unfamiliar space out over the Persian Gulf on a perfectly black night, their initial objective to find an Extender, because they couldn't make the long flight without repeated refueling.

AJ flew alongside an F-15 piloted by Slokes. Each jet carried nine 500-pound bombs. It was just over a month after the attacks on the United States, and both crews felt a strong sense of purpose heading off to war. There was a powerful urge to act. Wearing night optical goggles, known as NOGs, they occasionally saw the green outlines of a carrier force in the smooth black waters below. But for Air Force planes carriers were not an option for refueling; they needed to find an airborne tanker. Fuel management was critical, and on that first flight AJ was nervous. "Whenever a pilot tells me he gets bored on a long flight," he says, "I tell him he should learn to worry more." They had to maintain enough fuel to fly to a friendly base in an emergency, which meant they had to keep topping off their fuel tanks in the air. AJ, working with an AWACS, was finally able to spot an Extender before the sortie would have needed to be aborted. They took no chances after finding the big tanker. They just slowed down and flew alongside it over Pakistan and into southern Afghanistan.

In the early days of the war the Bold Tigers tended to rendezvous over Kandahar, near the Pakistani border in the southeastern corner of the country, where they would wait for a fragged target. At that point they faced plenty of anti-aircraft artillery, or "triple A." The shots would come in bursts of three to five. The Zeus (ZSU-23) snaked up, a twisting line of orange light. KS-19s, which fire 100-mm shells, were more worrisome; sometimes when the jets were under 20,000 feet, a shell would burst in a sudden white flash above them. That got the attention of the crew, like someone flipping on a floodlight in the darkness. The 57-mm guns sent up red tracers that usually fizzled well below the jets. But the smaller rounds came up faster. The shells rose as brightening balls of light. The crews worried when they saw out their canopy a ball centered on their plane rather than sliding away; that meant it was bearing straight at them. At 20,000 to 30,000 feet they were pretty much out of range, but in a country with 12,000-foot mountain peaks even that altitude wasn't completely safe. It was always a comfort to be flying at night. Flying that high, they could be spotted only as a faint moving shadow on the stars.

On that first sortie they were given a target in Jalalabad, a two-building radio relay station inside a walled compound. Snitch had already typed the ground coordinates from Boss Man into his computer, and once over the area he pointed his target pod in the general direction. He then began to search his video screen for the radio relay station, trying to pick up visual clues from the surrounding neighborhood based on the description he had been given. Some descriptions were better than others. When he had the ground coordinates before beginning the mission, he would draw himself a map that made it easier to locate the target. This time he hadn't made a sketch, because from his pre-flight target study it looked like what Slokes had called "a dog-balls target," meaning it stood out conspicuously.

When they flew into the air over Jalalabad, their jet noise alerted ground defenses, and the sky erupted around them with triple A. They heard no sound, just saw lines of light and sudden flashes of white, yellow, and red around and above them. AJ and his wizzo hit their target on the first pass, but Slokes and Snitch had trouble pinpointing theirs. In daylight the target may have stood out like dog balls, but they had arrived at a time of night known as "thermal crossover"—that is, the point when ground temperatures had dropped enough to match the temperature of the buildings. Because the imaging equipment in the target pod was thermal, Snitch had a hell of a time making the target out. Three times Slokes swung the jet around and flew back into the light show, as Snitch tried to zero in on the building.

"Come on, dude, we need to get these bombs off," Slokes urged.

Snitch knew from the first two passes that the building would become more visible the closer they got. The GBU was equipped with a laser sensor in its tip, and with small steering mechanisms in its fins, called servo motors, to redirect its flight. So he could release the bombs before the building was completely visible and then steer them in as the picture came into better focus. He approximated the target and told Slokes, "Captured, cleared to pickle."

Slokes pushed the button, and the first bomb dropped. Snitch then placed the cursor on his screen at the precise spot he wanted it to hit—"painting the target," the fliers called it—and fired his laser. The wizzo guided the bomb directly into the second building.

Both crews, first elated, grew sober. They had spent years practicing, so bombing was routine, even sport. Now they were dropping real 500-pound bombs on real people. Packed with high explosives, encased in hard metal designed to fracture into hot shrapnel, a GBU-12 would vaporize anyone or anything within a few yards of its detonation, which would be seen as a black splash on Snitch's screen. No one inside a radius of about 200 meters would be likely to survive the shock wave and shrapnel. A safe distance (behind cover) was considered to be 500 meters—a meter for every pound of explosives. No matter how accurate the crews were, they could only hope that they were hitting appropriate targets; they were only as good as their intel. They all tried to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of their delivery. An American pilot captive in Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, who survived a GBU-12 hit on the prison where he was being held, said the approaching bomb made a sound like tearing canvas. (Older bombs, less aerodynamic, whistled.) Then came the click! click! click! of the servo motors as the bomb was steered home, followed by the loud static noise of the laser ionizing the air around it. Then WHAM!

The adrenaline rush faded on the long flight home. The pilots and wizzos talked, popped go pills as necessary, and checked and rechecked their navigation. Sometimes they broke out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or croissants they'd provisioned from the mess hall. Mach One can feel like a crawl in the final hours of a nine-hour sortie.

It was hard in the beginning to tell if they were making a difference. One of the first sorties that seemed to strike a blow came about a week into the campaign, when two Bold Tiger Strike Eagles took out the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Propagation of Virtue in Kandahar, which intel later assured them was a big deal. "We want you to hit a building," Boss Man said. When Super Dave plotted out the coordinates, he saw that it was in the center of Kandahar.

"Oh, boy, this is going to be good," he told his pilot, Curly. The targeting directions were somewhat vague. Super Dave was told to look at his screen for a big intersection, and to aim for the large building on the northeast corner. He was trying to memorize Kandahar (that's how he spent the long hours on the flight over), and one thing he knew for sure was that the city had lots of intersections. He told the controller that he needed better information.

"The building has columns," the controller said.

There was no way, looking straight down, that they were going to see columns. So Super Dave and Fang, the wizzo in the other F-15, went to work on the problem. Comparing the global-positioning coordinates with the infrared image on his screen, they asked for clarification from Boss Man, and finally zeroed in on a building that was several city blocks long. Super Dave's first bomb hit the domed front corner of the structure. The two jets took their time, making runs just as they did in target practice. On the video of the sortie the targeted end of the building collapses neatly, folding in on itself, more like the object of a professional demolition than the victim of an improvised bombing run.

In those early days of the campaign there were more targets than time to hit them, and sometimes the crews found themselves being pushed to do more than they thought wise. The crews classified missions by priority: low (could be put off until another day), medium (time-sensitive), or high (urgent because U.S. forces were under fire on the ground). In high-priority circumstances the crews were willing to take bigger risks, including flying off to remote areas without knowing whether they would be able to find a tanker to refuel, and flying low over lofty mountain ranges where they knew they would be vulnerable to shoulder-fired SAMs.

For low- and medium-priority missions they learned to dicker with the AWACS. Push was the wizzo on an early sortie when Spartan, the British AWACS, assigned his and another F-15, flying wing, a target in Tarin Kowt, a city north of Kandahar. It was described as a Taliban headquarters building, housing government leaders. The jets had been in the air for hours, earlier in northern Afghanistan, and were low on fuel. They knew that the target area was fairly distant and that tankers were unlikely to be in the vicinity. They didn't relish the prospect of having to make an emergency landing somewhere in northern Pakistan, which is what Spartan recommended. So they bargained. If Spartan would assign them two tankers, they'd do the job. Push remembers wondering whether this was the right thing to do. The crews discussed it among themselves and concluded that if the target was of high enough priority to put them in this situation, it was worth a couple of tankers. They sweated it out for a few minutes until Spartan coughed up the tankers, and then they flew north.

In the end they destroyed their target, but it was a stressful ride home. When they landed at al Jaber, concluding a thirteen-hour sortie, their group commander was waiting for them on the tarmac. That had not happened before. It signified something either very good or very bad. Maybe the brass were displeased with their dickering.

But when the men climbed down from their cockpits, it was to handshakes and praise.

The war gave the crews opportunities to stretch their skills, to try things they had never attempted during practice. Two Fish and Baldie were midway through a sortie when an AWACS assigned them an important target, a convoy of trucks. Baldie estimated the speed of the vehicles to be 100 miles an hour. ("How fast would you be driving down the road if you knew that an F-15 was trying to kill you?" she asks.) She made a rough calculation of where the trucks would be when the bomb reached the road, and cleared Two Fish to pickle. Guiding the GBU with her laser, teasing it along with her hand controller, like a kite at the end of a string, she put it right through the lead truck's front grille.

"You have just been killed by a girl," Two Fish said.

Few things are more satisfying in war than watching the enemy employ outmoded tactics. Snitch and Slokes, flying over Kabul one night, stared in wonder as all the city's lights went out in a matter of seconds. An alarm had obviously sounded, and someone was throwing main switches at a power plant. The lights went out in four sectors—one, two, three, four. Just like that the entire city went black, which would have made perfect sense, say, twenty years ago, when technologically primitive Soviet MiGs were overhead. But turning off all the artificial light had the effect of reducing the "noise" in the fliers' NOG reception. It gave them a clearer view below.

What was the human cost of all this state-of-the-art expertise? The Pentagon does not attempt to tally casualties among enemy combatants, but given how many bombs were dropped and targets destroyed, the numbers in Afghanistan had to be well into the thousands. As for innocent victims, there are likewise no good estimates. Casualty counts are effectively propaganda, so they are all suspect. Human-rights groups, many of which oppose war categorically, say thousands of innocents died. Marc W. Herold, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, who has a decided antiwar bent, used primarily media accounts but also interviews with refugees to calculate that the two-month campaign produced at least 3,767 civilian casualties. But that number appears to be grandly inflated. A study by the Project on Defense Alternatives, a nonprofit academic defense-policy group, using fewer data but more-stringent categories than Herold did, estimated 1,000 to 1,300 civilian deaths, and a New York Times investigation last summer put the total closer to 400.

No bombing campaign—no matter how sophisticated or scrupulous—can completely avoid mistakes, whether from errant bombs or faulty intelligence. Given one target in a crowded urban neighborhood, Slokes warned Boss Man, "Make sure you got this one on tape." He did not want to be held responsible for the consequences. They all knew that mistakes could take the lives of kids sleeping in the wrong houses, people crossing the wrong streets. Some of the Bold Tigers wrestled with this grim knowledge. Baldie, who flew five bombing missions and describes herself as "a Catholic who goes to church every Sunday," sometimes found the consequences of her work "hard to think about." After viewing sortie videos she would brood over the fact that the job she had done that day had killed some people and ruined others' lives. The first bomb she dropped in Afghanistan missed. She had aimed at a tank but made a big crater in the side of a nearby mountain instead. She knew that a miss like that over a city or a town could have terrible consequences.

By any account (including Herold's), the bombing campaign in Afghanistan hit fewer unintended targets than any other in history. Pentagon analysts say that more than 75 percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan exploded where targeted, compared with fewer than half in the Persian Gulf War, in 1991, and in the much touted bombings over Serbia in 1999.

For the Bold Tigers the deaths of innocents were part of the price of war. As long as they believed that the war was necessary and was improving the lives of millions oppressed by the Taliban, that cost was acceptable. Baldie recalls an interview with a Taliban official that aired on CNN. He was asked by a reporter how his regime could use an Olympic soccer stadium to hold public executions, in which men were hanged from goalposts and women were shot at the goal lines for offenses such as adultery. The mullah mistook the moral question for a practical one. He protested that if only international money were available to build a separate stadium for executions, then soccer matches might be able to resume in the current one. Baldie was so appalled that she later found those remarks comforting when she steered home her bombs.

Among the squadron's recorded collection of audio-video "greatest hits" was the artful destruction of a purported Taliban building in Kandahar. Last summer I reviewed the event with a group of crew members at their base in Idaho. On the monitor we watched a negative black-and-white thermal image of a building at the center of the city. Vehicles and people were moving on the street out front. Abruptly four black darts flashed into the picture from the upper left-hand side, quick as an eye blink, and the screen was filled with a black splash.

On the recording the gleeful voice of a wizzo named Buzzer shouted, "Shack, baby! Die like the dogs that you are!"

We all sat in silence for a moment as the outburst hung awkwardly in the air. Buzzer is known for raw commentary like this, and months removed from the heat of battle, with a writer there and all, the six crew members in the room were clearly having second thoughts about having played this particular clip. On the screen, in the form of tiny black dots, people could be seen emerging from the flaming building, fleeing down the street.

Finally, Slokes spoke. His face creased with disapproval, he said sternly, "That's just wrong." He held his expression for a few seconds, and no one in the room was sure about whether to take him seriously. Then he grinned. Everyone laughed.

In the early weeks of the campaign the American effort to topple the Taliban and rout al Qaeda was not showing big results. By late October there were signs that the campaign was getting bogged down. With winter approaching, skeptics predicted that experienced Taliban and al Qaeda fighters might hang tough for years, as they had two decades earlier against the Soviet Union. According to The New York Times, Ahmed Rashid, one of the foremost authorities on the Taliban, was predicting that the Taliban leaders and their fighters could survive for "at least six months."R. W. Apple, the veteran Times news analyst, invoked the historically loaded term "quagmire."

On November 13 Kabul fell. Three weeks after that the Taliban fled Kandahar, their final stronghold, and jubilant citizens danced in the streets, tearing down Taliban flags and raising the traditional black, red, and green Afghan banner. The heart of the American military campaign had taken exactly two months.

The turning point, as experienced from the cockpit of an F-15, was the introduction on the ground of small numbers of U.S. soldiers—Rangers, Delta Force, and the Air Force's own combat controllers—known as forward air controllers, or FACs, whose voices started crackling into the fliers' headsets in late October. These extraordinarily brave stealth operators found themselves alone or in small groups deep in enemy territory, calling down air strikes and orchestrating what quickly became victory. They had parachuted or been helicoptered into Afghanistan at night, and had been left on the ground to fend for themselves. Some Special Forces teams, Green Berets, went to work helping to mobilize friendly Afghan forces against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Others usually hunkered down in dangerous places—the vicinity of airports, forts, and enemy troop concentrations, for example—to become the forwardmost eyes and ears of the air assault.

Tank was flying wing on October 25 on a four-plane mission from Kandahar up to Mazar-i-Sharif. He listened in on the communications as a team of F-16s dove into their bombing runs. To Tank's delight, the jets were talking to a ground FAC. When the Lawn Darts had shot their load, the F-15s moved in and started working with the operative. The landscape below was all enemy-controlled territory, but somewhere in the stark hills was this American voice and a keen pair of eyes. The ground FAC was trying to coordinate an attack on a collection of enemy tanks and trucks. This flight was code-named Zesty (like many F-15 sorties).

"Can you ID a vehicle, Zesty?" the ground FAC asked.

"We're at twenty-five thousand feet," answered Stab, one of the pilots, meaning, "Not likely."

"Do you see the main road?" the ground FAC asked.


"Any vehicle north of that road is bad. The good guys are all on horses and camels."

Slokes and Snitch were in awe of the guys on the ground, who were so far from anything friendly, huddled down between rocks on cold mountainsides, eating their packaged meals (or bugs and snakes), and sleeping in bags on hard terrain, while the Bold Tigers dined on steak and lobster, watched European MTV, and slept in air-conditioned comfort. It made the pilots doubly disappointed when they were unable to hit what the ground FACs wanted them to.

One night Slokes and Snitch were assigned to a Special Forces team perched temporarily on a hillside just south of Kandahar, not far from the city's airport. Four miles above, at 20,000 feet, the fliers watched as the ground FAC waved an infrared laser pointer to draw them a map on the hillside. He traced a waving line, and gradually narrowed its swing down to a point. "We're here," one Special Forces operative told them.

He was part of a team of eight men, code-named Texas One Seven, with whom the Bold Tigers would work for weeks. Using the steep hillside to provide protective cover from the north, the eight had set up camp in a valley, complete with a big plastic bag of fuel, called a bladder, to serve as a filling station for their four-wheeled vehicles.

There was one ground controller working near Kabul whom the crews dubbed the Crack FAC, because his ground-to-air instructions were so vague and at times so misleading that he seemed to be on crack. Not that they didn't respect the guy. He must have been, as they put it, "crazy brave" to be down where he was. But whenever Boss Man ordered a crew to work with the guy, there were groans in the cockpit. The Crack FAC didn't sound any older than nineteen. (The squadron never found out who he was.)

"Okay, you see the first ridgeline?" he said on one run. "Go one ridge over." From the cockpit at 20,000 feet, the world was made up of ridgelines. "You're going to have to be more specific than that," the pilot told him.

On one occasion he pleaded with a crew to drop on a village. "Just go ahead and drop a bomb," he said.

"We can't do that, dude," a pilot nicknamed Bait replied, meaning they couldn't just wipe out an entire village.

"There haven't been any good guys in that village for years," the Crack FAC argued.

"I might hit you," Bait said.

"You're not going to hit me, man, I'm standing in snow."

Still, the crews declined to drop their bombs.

But even the Crack FAC got better at communicating, and the crews grew fonder of him. After directing a strike on a Taliban tank that had begun firing on his position, a relieved Crack FAC called back, "Zesty, that was excellent!"

On the last day of October, just before the course of the air war started to turn dramatically, a Strike Eagle flown by Zuni with a wizzo named Gunner, veterans both, got a call from Spartan, directing it north to help some U.S. forces under fire. With a full load of GBU-12s and fuel, the jet was what the crews call a "pig in space," and flew at what seemed to them a snail's pace. Once in the vicinity, they started calling for Tiger Three, the ground FAC. When his voice came up into the headphones, it was clear they were dealing with a cool customer.

"Hey, Zesty, I'm ready to give a nine-line brief," he said—jargon for a quick assessment of the situation. He wanted them to get right to work. What he needed wasn't going to be easy. This was a daylight sortie, but cloud cover had been building. Now the crew could see nothing below but an ocean of cotton. Here and there mountain peaks poked through. Zuni wanted to know exactly how urgent the situation was.

"Tiger Three, this is Zesty. Are you under fire?"

"Roger, Zesty. We are under fire by tank."

That was about as urgent as things could get. The two fliers were going to have to try something. Zuni asked if the ground FAC had the capability of changing his laser code to steer the F-15's bombs. He did, so it was theoretically possible to drop the bombs into the clouds and let him take over.

At first the fliers struggled to relay the numbers of their laser code through the static. Then Zuni asked the ground FAC to read him the latitude and longitude coordinates for the tanks. The ground FAC proceeded to read out a list of numbers, which Gunner quickly realized were calculated somewhat differently from what he was used to. For some inexplicable reason the Army uses a system different from the Air Force's—one of those interservice snafus that have cropped up throughout the history of American warfare. The Air Force uses degrees, minutes, and thousandths of a minute, whereas the Army uses degrees, minutes, and seconds. All the numbers would have to be converted, and Gunner didn't have a chart.

"I don't have a nine-line card," he complained. "I've got a fucking piece of paper."

So at 20,000 feet, with friendly forces taking fire beneath an opaque canopy of clouds, flying a multimillion-dollar aircraft equipped with the U.S. military's state-of-the-art targeting software, Gunner went to work with a pencil, a piece of paper, and the calculator on his Casio watch. He has a degree in aerospace engineering with a minor in physics, but this was going to call for long-dormant computational skills.

Gunner worked frantically. Under the pressure of the moment, hurtling forward at hundreds of miles per hour, he felt as if his brain were functioning at half speed as he pounded away on the tiny keys of his calculator. He was muttering to himself, "Ah, he gave me two-nine-point-six-nine. I made that four-five—shit! Four-five, three-seven, oh-six, five. And he gave me six-nine-two-two-point-four-one. I made that a point-seven ..."

The jet moved into heavy clouds and kept descending, hoping for clearer skies.

"Zesty, when do I turn on the laser?" the ground FAC asked.

"Wilco, stand by," Zuni told the ground FAC. Then he said to his wizzo, "As soon as you get it in, Gunner, I'm going."

"You're good," Gunner said with a sigh. He had just punched in the last conversion.

They now asked Tiger Three for an elevation reading, and once more the numbers had to be converted. Gunner started pounding away again on his watch.

"That'll make it—ah, goddammit! That'll make it sixteen hundred and six-nine feet for elevation."

The jet was still socked in by clouds. In a land of high peaks it wasn't safe to fly low with zero visibility for long.

"I don't think I want to go underneath this, Gunner," Zuni said.

"Nope," the wizzo agreed. They would have to release the bomb blind.

"Turn your laser on," Zuni instructed the ground FAC.

"Roger. Laser on."

"I want you to keep it on. Keep it on for at least about a minute and a half."

"Our laser will only allow sixty seconds," the ground FAC said.

"Okay, turn your laser off," Zuni instructed immediately, realizing that the battery would be dead by the time the ground FAC could pick up the bombs.

"Okay," Gunner said. "Five seconds."

"Turn your laser on now," Zuni told the ground FAC.

"Roger," came the voice from the ground. "Laser on."

"Weapon away," Zuni said. "Weapon away."

Zuni turned the jet and headed steeply up out of the clouds. Things got quiet. There was just the sound of the F-15 and the inhaling and exhaling of its anxious pilot and wizzo, waiting. Thirty seconds. Half the known age of the universe. At thirty seconds Zuni said hopefully, "You should have impact."

Nothing. More quiet breathing. Then, crackling in their headphones, "Zesty one-one. Laser off. Shack on target."

The pilot and the wizzo cheered in the cockpit.

"Prepare for immediate re-attack," Tiger Three said.

Making one run after another for the next twenty minutes, Zuni and Gunner repeated this procedure, doing the conversions, dropping the bombs blind, and waiting for the report back from the ground. Between runs the ground FAC changed the batteries in his laser.

Down under the clouds, unbeknownst to Zuni and Gunner, a miracle had taken place. When the squadron met with the ground FAC months later, he explained how things had looked from his end. He had been with a Northern Alliance unit equal in number to the Taliban forces but outgunned. With the Taliban fighters stretched in front of them in tanks, the Northern Alliance fighters were about to withdraw when the ground FAC persuaded them to wait for air support. This was early in the ground war, and the local fighters were still dubious of their new allies' technological claims. The Northern Alliance fighters eyed the opaque cloud cover skeptically. Who could hit anything through that? What could these scruffy American soldiers who showed up at their camps in teams of two or three accomplish in a real battle on unfamiliar terrain? What did they know about fighting? Many of the Northern Alliance soldiers were veterans of numerous campaigns. They didn't need Americans to tell them what they could or could not do on familiar battlefields. They knew when they were overmatched. Some of them were already falling back.

Then, like a thunderbolt, the first bomb blew up the lead Taliban tank. Minutes later another bomb shot through the clouds and destroyed a second tank. This happened again and again, until the imposing armored force arrayed before them was in smoking ruins. Mystified but jubilant, the Northern Alliance forces descended from the hills, routing the Taliban troops. It was a preview of what would happen in the coming weeks all over the country. How could one fight a foe that could rain pinpoint destruction through the clouds, day or night, 24/7?

When it was over, an exhausted Gunner complained to Zuni, "The recruiter said there would be no math in the cockpit."

After the ground FACs arrived, in late October, things moved fast. Mazar-iSharif fell, and then Kabul, and then Kandahar, marking the formal collapse of the Taliban. In the end the entire armada of fighters, AWACS, jammers, tankers, and rescue planes was dancing in the skies over Kandahar, every crew eager for a chance to do its thing, trying to stay out of the other crews' paths. The relentless pounding broke the spirits of the Taliban, whose forces began to defect in ever larger numbers.

By mid-November most concentrations of enemy fighters would disperse at the sound of a jet overhead. Some of the more stubborn ones, however, continued to hang tough. The F-15 crews would spot them at camps in the hills, but neither the jet noise nor even bombing runs seemed to faze them. But when they started hearing the click! click! click! of the servo motors steering a GBU-12 in for the kill, they would begin fleeing in all directions. By then, of course, it was too late. In truth, the only safe place to be was underground, and with bunker busters, and Special Forces guys prowling the hills, even the caves became unsafe. Some thought they could escape in a speeding car or truck, and a few years ago they would have been right—but Baldie's grille shot demonstrated the folly of that tactic. Afghanistan was the greatest pickle run in history.

The science of war will keep advancing. A half century from now the exploits of the Bold Tigers over Afghanistan will be as anachronistic as Saint-Exupéry's battling biplanes. Snitch's grandfather, a retired military pilot, clips and sends him articles about the coming of an age of UAVs and teases him about fliers' being "the limiting factor in aviation." Pilots and wizzos of the future will "fly" their machines from comfy chairs at a safe distance, with both feet on solid ground and bathroom facilities close at hand. Today's fighter jocks will reminisce to their grandchildren about what it was actually like to ride bullets high over the clouds, and to reign supreme in the night sky.

It will sound more glamorous then. For the fliers of the 391st it was sometimes hard to keep their eyes open on the ride home. Fatigue and relief from the stress of bombing runs would overtake them. Up there in their bubble canopy among the stars, to help stay awake, Baldie would chat nonstop with Two Fish, about their families, their futures, their friends, her plans to attend pilot school. ("Baldie, you took another one of those go pills, didn't you?" Two Fish would ask.) Slokes and Snitch ate their Thanksgiving meal high over the peaks of Pakistan. Before the sortie they had stocked Styrofoam carryout meal boxes with drumsticks, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie—there had been quite a spread in the mess hall. Neither had wanted to eat a big meal before setting out on a nine-to-ten-hour flight. But with their bomb racks empty, Slokes put the F-15 on autopilot, muttering his thanks into the thin air of dawn, and the two feasted, finding the food by the fingerlights on their gloves. By that time the meal had grown very cold, but Slokes says, "It was definitely the most memorable Thanksgiving dinner of my life. Sorry, Mom."

On those long rides home, in the hours before the sun cracked the planet's purple rim, they would survey the jagged peaks of the Siahan Range and peer out past the Gulf of Oman to the great fires that leap up from the oil fields of the United Arab Emirates. The seaport of Dubai glimmered like a jewel on the Persian Gulf coast, lit up so improbably at the edge of the desert that it looked as if someone had misplaced Las Vegas. Sometimes thunderstorms in the distance would flash waves of light across the clouds for hundreds of miles and throw sudden shadows across their cockpit. The constellation Orion was always over their heads on those fall and winter nights, as familiar and as distant as it was at home. Sometimes the radar stations along the Iranian coast would paint the jets ominously, and alarms would go off in the cockpits—a reminder of hazards still lurking in the dark.

And some nights the sky would explode with shooting stars. Showers of light. They moved in blue streaks across the heavens, one or two every couple of seconds. There were so many that the squadron's intel officer would warn the crews not to mistake them for enemy fire. Using their NOGs, the crews saw them as lines of bright white against a glowing field of green.