Dangerous Skies Over Iraq

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US Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo transport
AP

The C-130 transport is often called a flying truck, and that has never been truer than right now, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

The Air Force is flying in as many as 800 tons of cargo a day into Iraq – up more than a third since November. Every ton in the air is a ton that doesn't have to be hauled by truck over Iraq's dangerous roads.

Reducing the number of truck convoys is one way to reduce the number of Americans killed or wounded by roadside bombs and ambushes, which is why the U.S. military is relying more and more on airlift to supply the 150,000 troops in Iraq.

"Missions seem more critical than they did before," said Capt. Kurt Kresmer, as he prepared to fly one of those missions.

More critical and more dangerous: a C-130 makes an inviting target for the insurgents.

"They're obviously watching us fly in and out," said Kresmer. "Their tactics have changed. They're trying to get up small arms fire to hit us."

Today's mission is carrying equipment and soldiers from Kuwait into Balad, one of the airfields C-130 crews like the least.

"I still get butterflies in my stomach going into certain places," said Airman Ian Hughes, a cargo handler on today's mission.

Every member of the crew who can afford to take his eyes off the instruments keeps a lookout for ground fire.

With clear skies, it's a good day for flying. But does that make it a safe day for flying?

"It's a good point. The clearer it is the easier it is to see us," Kresmer said.

The best defense is flying high. "Only some of their more sophisticated weapons can reach up and touch us at this altitude," said the pilot.

When it's time to land, Kremser handles his cargo plane like a racecar, banking sharply to become as difficult a target as possible.

Another load of troops and all their gear delivered out of the reach of the insurgents – at least for now.