ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK -- The two Americans bailed out of a failing F-14 Tomcat fighter jet in the Iraqi desert, and when rescuers asked if they could walk, they didn't hesitate.
"I can run, just point me in the right direction," replied one crew member, a lieutenant commander nicknamed Gordo.
Gordo, the plane's radar intercept operator, and its pilot, a lieutenant who goes by Vinny, returned to their base on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk on Wednesday after a frightening night behind enemy lines and a dramatic rescue.
Their F-14A Tomcat strike fighter -- a versatile supersonic plane that dates from the late 1960s -- crashed into the desert in southern Iraq during a bombing mission at 1:50 a.m., after mechanical failures left one engine dead and the other slowly starving of fuel.
First fighter crash
It was the first confirmed report of a U.S. fighter going down in Iraq during the war, but it was the third Navy plane to be lost to accidents or mechanical problems in 24 hours. Pilots ejected safely from the other two planes as well.
Vinny and Gordo -- who asked that they be identified by their radio call signs instead of their names because they fear being identified from media reports if they are ever captured -- were on a mission that has become routine for U.S. fighter pilots in Iraq. Take off, fly into a strike zone and wait for commanders to assign targets -- usually dug-in Republican Guard artillery, equipment or command posts just south of Baghdad -- then attack them with laser-guided bombs.
Having dropped their bombs, Vinny and Gordo were preparing to rendezvous with a tanker plane that would give them the fuel they needed to return to base. Vinny noticed a problem with the left-side engine.
Like rebooting a computer, the pilot shut down the engine, then tried to fire it up again, but it wouldn't restart.
So the pair began making adjustments to equipment on board to reroute the fuel from a tank feeding the left engine to the right engine, which would let them fly safely to meet the tanker and, eventually, into friendly territory.
But the transfer system failed as well, setting in motion an ominous countdown.
"We pretty much knew it was coming," said Vinny. Sitting in the pilot's front seat, Vinny read out the dwindling numbers on the fuel gauge to Gordo, sitting in the radio and radar controller's seat immediately behind.
"I was just counting down, letting him know the fuel remaining," Vinny said. When the warplane got down to about 200 pounds of fuel, the right engine started to come down, the starter hiccuped.
That's when they knew: "It's time to go," Vinny said. "Gordo called 'Eject, eject, eject!' and pulled the handle."
The cockpit canopy exploded off and the two men were flung violently into the air.
"Once I was on the ground, I started shaking," Gordo said. "It was not a very friendly place to be."
The Tomcats routinely travel in pairs or with F/A-18 Hornets, the other main carrier-based strike plane. On Wednesday, another Tomcat was alongside the aviators in trouble, watched them go down and quickly radioed their position to helicopter teams on standby in Kuwait.
The second Tomcat then patrolled overhead, talking to the downed aviators via radio gear they carried with them when they ejected, reassuring them that help was on the way.
Moffit, the battle group commander on the Kitty Hawk, said the rescue team reached the downed pilots "fairly quickly." For Gordo, it couldn't have been fast enough.
Asked how long they spent on the ground in Iraq, he said, "I don't know. It seemed like forever, I know that."
When the rescue crew first found them, they quizzed Vinny and Gordo about who they were to "make sure there was nothing funny going on," before helping them to the helicopter, Gordo said.
Apart from an abrasion on his left hand, Gordo said he and Vinny were uninjured. The men said they would take some medical leave, but were ready to fly again whenever needed.
"We'll go tomorrow if they let us," Gordo said. "We feel fine, but discretion is the better part of valor, so we will hang low for a little while before we get back in the game."