Capt. KC & her wingman.

In a dramatic feat of piloting on Monday, Capt. KC, an A-10 pilot who asked to be identified only by her rank and radio call sign, piloted her badly damaged fighter in a difficult, hourlong flight back from Baghdad.

KC, assigned to the 23rd Fighter Group at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was in a two-plane flight orbiting the city when ground troops called for assistance. As the A-10s were leaving the area following successful attacks on ground targets, KC said she felt a sharp jolt and warning lights began flashing on cockpit panels.

"The plane rolled left and pointed at the ground, which is not a comforting feeling over Baghdad,'' she said. "The jet wasn't responding to any of my control inputs.''

That meant total loss of both the plane's hydraulic systems, which operate flight controls, brakes, landing gear and other key systems. As a final backup, the A-10 has a manual flight-control system, which works control of rudders, flaps and other control surfaces with mechanical cables and links.

What followed was an hour of worry, both in the air and on the ground.

KC said she and her flight leader ran through a series of checks, and she quickly decided that rather than eject over U.S.-held territory, she would fly the jet back home.

"There was no way I wanted to eject over Baghdad,'' she said. Even over friendly territory, she said, there was no doubt she wanted to bring the plane home.

On the ground, dozens of Pope maintenance troops and base officials gathered near the approach end of the base's runways, searching the gray morning sky for the A-10's distinctive silhouette. vApprehension mounted as the two-plane flight came into site miles off - followed by intense relief and enthusiastic applause as KC brought her plane to a near-perfect landing.

The rear section of her jet resembled a cheese grater, pockmarked with holes punched by Iraqi shrapnel. A one-foot chunk had been ripped from the leading edge of the plane's right horizontal stabilizer, revealing jagged edges of honeycombed outer skin.

Surveying damage.

An hour after landing, with the A-10 towed from the end of the runway to a shelter, hydraulic fluid continued its slow drip into pans laid on the concrete. Amazed maintenance troops gawked, took photos, clapped KC on the shoulder and marveled at the plane's survival.

"That was a gutsy call to land that airplane,'' said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Blackburn, chief of maintenance for the Pope A-10 squadron. Such extensive damage might have been ample justification to eject from the jet, he said - especially because the manual controls are much stiffer and less responsive than the hydraulic systems, requiring great strength and concentration.

"Of all the big old burly pilots here, that's as petite a pilot as we've got,'' Blackburn said. "I can't say enough good things about her.''

Despite two harrowing days, KC said she and fellow A-10 pilots will continue to take on their dangerous mission.

"Our mission has remained unchanged, and that's to support the troops on the ground,'' she said. ``If they're taking fire, yes, there are risks. But that's our jobs.''

Sources: AF Times, AP Wire, USAF Press Service

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