We've occasionally chided Air Force Times for being late on a story, but we'll also give them credit for an interesting read on women who've flown combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. That story, which was recently posted on the paper's website, profiles female pilots, navigators and enlisted aircrew members who have demonstrated their mettle under fire--and killed lots of bad guys in the process.
One of the more memorable vignettes in writer Patrick Winn's account is that of Captain Allison Black, an AC-130H gunship navigator who participated in a key mission against Al Qaida and Taliban insurgents in November 2001, during the early phase of the Afghan campaign. During that engagement, she earned the nickname "Angel of Death" from a key U.S. ally. As Mr. Winn describes it:
Now the target was a smallish province along the northern border. Bearded American soldiers, relying on the Northern Alliance’s knowledge of local terrain and Taliban habits, were moving covertly through the surrounding hills on horseback.
For weeks, the Army detachment had lived with Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a hulking and prickly haired war veteran thrilled to watch American air power cripple his Taliban foes.
Just 16 hours after Black landed at Karshi-Kanabad Air Base in neighboring Uzbekistan, she had been shuttled to her first-ever combat mission. It was off to a choppy start. Although the crew had successfully destroyed a bank of rocket launchers and several Taliban trucks, they were forced to evade anti-aircraft fire that pelted the Spectre’s steel belly.
“All they needed was a high-caliber [anti-aircraft] system to present a problem,” Black said. “We were definitely on edge.”
Dented but intact, the gunship flew on. Operational Detachment Alpha 595, from the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group, lit up Black’s radio as her plane neared its encampment. With Dostum’s help, the troops had learned of a nearby safe house packed with more than 200 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
Black began to chart the course. When her voice crackled over the soldiers’ field radios, Dostum was delightedly incredulous. A woman? Sent to kill the Taliban? “He couldn’t believe it,” Black said. “He thought it was the funniest thing.”
The Spectre neared and its cannons erupted. Unaccustomed to the Gatling gun’s mechanized snarl, the fighters confused the airstrike with a ground assault. Militants scattered into the fields, seeking cover in ditches and vehicles, although Black could see their heat-signature silhouettes from her console by the cockpit.
Dostum, hidden with the Army detachment several miles away, said the Taliban also believed a high-powered laser pointer used by Spectre operators to identify ground targets — a “sparkle,” in Air Force spec ops speak — was a death ray that turned everything it touched to flames.
As the hailstorm of munitions continued, Dostum grabbed his walkie-talkie, switched to the Taliban’s unsecured frequency and relayed to them the sound of Black’s chatter coming through Army radio.
He used the female pilot’s voice to taunt them as they bled.
“He said, ‘America is so determined, they bring their women to kill the Taliban. You’re so pathetic,’” Black said. “‘It’s the angel of death raining fire upon you.’” After circling the safe house environs many times — striking militants after they’d regroup in threes and fours — the Spectre had just enough fuel to return to Uzbekistan. The crew had expended all of its ammunition: 400 rounds of 40mm cannon shot and 100 rounds of 105mm Howitzer rounds. Black contacted an incoming gunship sent to finish off the remaining militants with a fresh load of ammo.
Among the other "killer chicks," in his piece, Winn introduces us to Major Melissa May, an F-16 pilot who goes by the call sign SHOCK, an acronym for “Scarlet-Headed Ovulating Commie Killer”