The hero airmen of Benghazi

A group of pilots scrambled to defend Benghazi at its darkest hour. These men, including those who lost their lives, are hailed as heroes. Last week they were honoured by the battle-scarred city they saved.

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BENGHAZI, LIBYA // The nerve centre of the rebels fight against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi might have been destroyed by a government onslaught if it hadn't been for a group of pilots who scrambled to defend the city at its darkest hour.

In Benghazi these men, including those who lost their lives, are hailed as heroes. Last week they were honoured by the battle-scarred city they saved.

It was a night marked by jubilant gunfire, while sleepy children peered through windows along the port city's Mediterrean corniche.

Rolling past these onlookers on the back of a cargo lorry, was the "Old Lady" - the affectionate name for a Russian-made Mikoyan-Gurevich fighter jet, better known as a MiG 23. The war plane is one of the four remaining aircraft that protected the city in sorties flown in heavy combat in February and March when Col Qaddafi's troops tried to rout the rebels by storming Benghazi. It was about to be enshrined as a monument in the city's Freedom Square.

As the plane was winched off the lorry and into position, it was guided by some of the pilots and rebel fighters.

"If it wasn't for these men Benghazi would have been destroyed," said Ali Mammoud, an engineer from a local petroleum company who had joined the early-morning crowd.

Fighter pilot Colonel Bubuker Ramden said all 14 pilots, 50 technicians and hundreds of ground crew from Benghazi's Benina Airbase defected the moment the revolution started and began carrying out regular missions in support of the rebel ground troops.

On March 17, Nato declared a no-fly zone over Libya but, in the days that followed, Benina airbase continued critical operations as Col Qaddafi sent soldiers, tank battalions and artillery in a final push to take Benghazi.

March 19 was the last all-out offensive before all aircraft from the Benina were forced to remain grounded by Nato. Colonel Fathi Werfalli, a 50-year-old combat helicopter pilot, said that final day saw some of the heaviest fighting for the small air corps.

"The whole day we carried out missions right up to 6pm when we were forced to turn back. We lost two planes and three pilots that day," Col Werfalli said.

A painting, commissioned to honour the airmen, illustrates the March 19 battle and the line of tanks snaking its way to the outskirts of Benghazi. Admiring the artwork, one pilot recounted that the line of Col Qaddafi's vehicles stretched all the way to the town of Gamens, some 50km away.

During the 38 combat missions that were launched from Benina beginning in early March the Benghazi crew destroyed tanks, combat vehicles, ground troops, oil tankers, weapon supplies and two warships. Their efforts crippled Col Qaddafi's eastern front line offensive. Two rebel fighter jets and one helicopter were shot down during operations, killing eight Benina pilots and gunmen.

Photos and paintings illustrating the missions, along with video displays, uniforms and a model of a fighter jet's cockpit accompanied the "Old Lady" to her place by the seaside on the edge of Freedom Square.

As the exhibition opened on June 15, squadron commander Colonel Khaled Hussein explained the specifications of the MiG23 on display to a small crowd. A fellow pilot politely interrupted the conversation, saying that although Col Hussein was too humble to say it himself, he is hailed as a "big hero" among the pilots.

"He stopped flying four years ago due to an injury, but when the revolution began he revised the flight tactics and went straight into battle," the pilot said.

Nine of Benina's 38 strikes against government tanks and ground forces were carried out by Russian-built Mi35 combat helicopters, of which the base has two. A third was lost on March 16.

Ismael Kuttep, 43, was the sole survivor of the four-man helicopter crew that was shot down over enemy lines. The impact killed three crew members including the leader of the helicopter squadron, Hussien Werfalli, 55, who had defected from the Sirt airbase to fight with the rebel forces.

Mr Kuttep said he fled the wreckage and managed to reach a safe distance just moments before the helicopter exploded. Moments later, two missiles hit what remained of the wreckage. As bombs fell around him, Mr Kuttep ran and crawled across the desert for six hours. Finally, he saw a car approach from the distant horizon.

"I had no idea if they were enemy or friend. The car had no flag so I hid in an animal cage," he said.

Hiding amid goats, Mr Kuttep overheard Col Qaddafi's soldiers discussing the crash and hunting for survivors.

Before long, he came across an old sheepherder from Chad brewing tea by a campfire. Mr Kuttep said the man did not know which side of the front line they were on. After a chat, the shepherd agreed to hide Mr Kuttep until a rebel ambulance crew arrived to collect him.

Although not injured in the crash, Mr Kuttep had deep gouges on his limbs from crawling over the rocky desert. He was taken to the mobile field hospital in Ajdabiya before rejoining his squadron for the next mission the following day.

Three days later, Mr Kuttep was shot in the head by gunfire during the squadron's last offensive in Benghazi. Once again, he survived without injury, his helmet taking the full impact.

"I feel both lucky and strong," he said as he proudly displayed photos of his shattered helmet on his cell phone. "If I get another chance to fly against Qaddafi's forces, I will not hesitate."

According to the International Institute for Strategic studies, the Libyan Air Force initially had an estimated 18,000 to 22,000 personnel and 374 combat-capable aircraft. Of the 13 military airbases in Libya, at least four are now within rebel-controlled areas. Most aircraft were moved to bases near the Col Qaddafi strongholds of Tripoli and Sirt when anti-government protests first began.

Hundreds of former government air force personnel have defected during the uprising. This influx included two senior pilots from Tripoli who flew their Mirage F1 fighter jets to Malta after refusing to follow orders to drop bombs on peaceful civilian protesters on February 21. Two more pilots ejected with parachutes after refusing to bomb Benghazi on February 23. Stories of government fighter pilots dropping bombs purposely off target in deserted areas are common among the rebels.

A visitor's logbook at the Benghazi exhibition reflects the public's admiration for the newly famous heroes of Benghazi.

"We thank God and thank you for your work. You protect us from Qaddafi's fire," read one of the hundreds of entries. "You protect our country and we are so proud of you. Go forward and don't stop. All Libyan people are behind you."