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Persian Gulf pilots' dangerous mission

From Wolf Blitzer
CNN

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A file photo of the USS Carl Vinson.
YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
Wolf Blitzer Reports
Iraq

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Defense Department has released the names of the two U.S. Marine pilots who died when their F/A-18 jet fighters apparently collided over Iraq. The pilots are Maj. John C. Spahr, 42 years old, from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Capt. Kelly C. Hinz, 30 years old, from Woodbury, Minnesota.

They flew their planes from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on duty in the Persian Gulf.

When I first learned of that a few days ago, I was jolted because only a month earlier, I spent some time aboard the Carl Vinson. I didn't get to meet the two pilots who died, but I did meet several others.

Their mission is incredibly dangerous, even under the best of circumstances.

These aviators are the best of the best.

The planes on carriers like the Carl Vinson have a two-fold mission: combat support in Iraq and what's called maritime security in the Persian Gulf -- protecting the shipping lanes, especially the oil shipping lanes.

I met with several pilots after they had just returned from a mission over Iraq. Their nature is to play down the dangers.

I asked Navy Lt. Ian Paddock how he feels about doing this, potentially in harm's way.

"Well, we're not nearly as threatened as the guys on the ground. We're just there to support them ... I don't know that I go and say that we're scared. Yeah, there's definitely some apprehension, but it's not like the guys saw in earlier phases of this conflict," Paddock says.

Asked how he felt about flying over Iraq, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Ford says, "Supporting the guys on the ground -- they're doing all the hard work and we're just there to help them."

This is Lt. Cmdr. Ron Candiloro's fourth tour of duty in the region. He insists things are getting a little better.

"I would say they are not as dangerous because there is less of a threat. They still have the capability out there. We're not going to underestimate that. But based on the training we've received and the intelligence we get, we've minimized it to the point where we feel fairly secure at the places we're flying. We're pretty sure we're going to come back. But whatever it takes to help the guys on the ground ... That's what we're here for," Candiloro says.

They're "pretty sure" they're going to come back. But as we learned this week, that's unfortunately not always the case.


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