It is easy to forget, with all this talk of launching a war against Saddam Hussein, that a quiet one has been under way for the past 11 years right over his territory. It's a war that has produced few headlines, no diplomatic showdowns and no American dead from Iraqi fire. But in some ways this forgotten war is training the pilots who may have to take on Saddam better than any exercise over an Arizona desert ever could. Indeed, as President Bush hurled rhetorical thunderbolts at Saddam from a United Nations podium last week, the Iraqi leader's troops were busy firing live ammo at U.S. planes. "They shoot at us every day," Captain Patrick Driscoll said last week, hours after his F-15 dodged ground fire from Iraqi forces while flying over northern Iraq. "You can't let your guard down for a minute."
The mission is to patrol two U.S.-created no-fly zones, one above the 36th parallel and the other below the 33rd, in order to keep Saddam boxed in and unable to attack Iraq's ethnic minorities. When threatened by Iraqi air defenses, U.S. pilots are authorized to fire missiles and drop bombs on such sites, as they have done 323 times since 1999. The effort could have turned into a series of bloody clashes and perhaps even an excuse for a full-scale war. But despite some 250,000 sorties and a bounty on the pilots' heads--Saddam has offered $14,000 to anyone who bags an American plane--not a single one has been shot down.
What explains this remarkable record? Part of the answer is that U.S. aircraft generally fly above 20,000 ft., beyond the reach of Iraqi guns. At the same time, electronic-warfare planes jam the guidance systems of any Iraqi missiles threatening U.S. planes. The pilots believe that only a "golden BB"--a lucky shot--can force them down inside Iraq. They say the Iraqis are generally firing blindly, scared to turn on anything that emits radiation and might trigger a U.S. missile strike. "They're so petrified, they won't even turn on their microwave ovens," says Captain "Blade" Wilkins, an F-15 pilot who patrolled the southern no-fly zone from Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan air base last week. (Like many at the base, he masks his identity by using his call sign instead of his first name.)
Even more surprising, a U.S. warplane has never fallen into Iraqi hands because of a mechanical snafu. There's only one acknowledged instance in which a U.S. warplane lost power over Iraq and had to limp to safety. It happened on Nov. 10, 1997, when an oil line broke on Captain Erik Pettyjohn's F-16 while he was 30 miles inside northern Iraq. "I had visions of being a guest of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad," Pettyjohn told TIME last week. He saw himself being paraded through the Iraqi capital in manacles while his family watched the scene on TV. "The adrenaline kicked in when I doubted I was going to be able to make it out of Iraq."
But Pettyjohn did. He gently turned the plane north and slowly began climbing. He hit the red panic button near his left knee, jettisoning his two missiles and external fuel tanks to reduce drag and let his plane fly more easily. It was nearly seven minutes before Pettyjohn finally cleared the mountains that mark the border. In Turkey he glided to an unpowered landing, then rolled to a stop with 1,000 ft. to spare.