They swooped in low along the St. John's River and sent a roar of thanks echoing among downtown skyscrapers _ two squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets so glad to be home from war. In tight formation, they roared out over Cecil Naval Air Station, 400 feet high at 300 miles per hour _ a salute to wives and friends below.
And then the nine planes of Squadron 81 broke away and made another pass overhead.
This time, one Hornet peeled away and trailed out of sight. It was the "missing man" formation _ a final tribute to this unit's Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, who would not return from the gulf war.
On the ground below, family members and other Navy fliers cried as they remembered Speicher's loss. Moments later all rushed forward to hug those who did return.
For families of Navy fliers, partings and reunions are common, but this had been a hostile cruise _ eight months of brutal activity in which sailors died in accidents and fliers died in action.
And some say it was a war largely won by pilots like these who for 43 days pounded Iraqi troops and military positions virtually into submission.
These pilots were the first wave of thousands returning to this military city as the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and support ships return from the war. More than 30,000 people were expected to greet the five ships as they dock today.
m Wednesday, after the hugs and tears of reunion, the storytelling of what the pilots had done and the feeling and sights of an unprecedented air war began.
Lt. Terry Bowes, a 29-year-old pilot from Connecticut, remembers it all as an amazing routine.
When the fighting began, his squadron was on the carrier USS Kennedy. The Kennedy, like the Saratoga, was in the Red Sea.
Missions would start with detailed briefings. Targets were handed out, sometimes with detailed photographs, always with exact map coordinates.
After takeoff, Bowes would fly inland through Saudi Arabia with one thought one his mind: Get fuel.
The distance to targets in Iraq took his A-7 Corsair far beyond its usual range.
"They told us where the Air Force tankers would be, gave us a time to get there and we got there," Bowes says. "It amazed us all too. It was really like going to the gas station."
After in-air refueling, Bowes would head for the target, staying high to avoid the worst of the "Triple A" _ anti-aircraft artillery.
"It was amazing," he says. "You had to see it at night. You could look down and see the guns shooting up at you, and then you'd see the black and white puffs of smoke _ shells exploding around you. You'd drop (your bombs), look for your wing men and get the hell out of there."
On the return, Bowes would refuel again from the Air Force tankers and then fly on to the carrier, sometimes six hours after departing.
Landing pilots would head for their beds. Bowes slept in a bunk room with eight other officers. He would be heading for bed just as others rose for their flights.
"It was non-stop, you just kept going," Bowes said. "Every time you were just glad to make it back."
Not everyone did.
On the first night of action, Speicher did not return and word spread quickly. Triple A or a surface-to-air missile, it is presumed, downed his plane.
But in the tightly scripted plan of attack, there was little room for sorrow at the time.
"No one ever will forget Scott," Cmdr. Maurice "Moe" Vasquez said Wednesday. "It was a loss, a real loss. But at the time you had to think "press on for now.' You couldn't stop to think."
In fact, for many of these pilots, this homecoming _ the return to the routine of shore duty _ would give them the first real chance to reflect on all that had changed in the eight months they spent at sea.
They had dropped bombs _ more than a million pounds for each of the squadrons that returned Wednesday. Undoubtedly, they had killed.
But the pilots said the precision tactics used in this war made it easier to deal with the grim side of what they had accomplished.
Lt. Chris Adams, a 29-year-old pilot from New York City, said he was always under strictest orders to hit only the military target he had been assigned.
"Troops, tanks, ammunition bunkers," he said, "that's what we went after. It's wasn't hard to justify what we were doing."
If a target was obscured by weather or didn't appear as photos suggested, pilots didn't drop their bombs, Adams says.
"But we had excellent intelligence," he said. "We had good targeting equipment on board. We got what we went for. I have no problems with what we did."
Still, the Navy debriefed pilots to see if the impact of even more detached, high-altitude warfare took a hidden toll on pilots.
"I'm not sure what their conclusions were except maybe we need more liberties," a jubilant Cmdr. Mark Fitzgerald said. Fitzgerald's squadron was the first to hit Baghdad when fighting began in January.
Amid all the talk of success Wednesday, there was still some humility here as well.
Not all had gone well. Twenty-one sailors had died in a December ferry accident off Haifa, Israel. Planes were lost and fliers taken prisoner.
And Wednesday, pilots went out of their way to dismiss any suggestion that this was a war won solely by air power.
Pilot Bob Stumpf is a veteran of 16 years in Navy planes and 22 missions over Iraq. He hugged his three young daughters and said a few words of praise for the ground troops who swept through the desert so quickly.
"It was really a combined effort," Stumpf says. "I think the six months of embargo hurt Iraq pretty bad too. They import a lot. They couldn't last."
Said pilot Adams: "You can't take land with a plane."
Still, there were signs that some Navy personnel here thought these pilots were special heroes.
When ground troops returned to Fort Stewart, Ga., earlier this month, they were greeted with tape-recorded music, hot dogs and barrels of cold soda.
Returning pilots got a band, wine, finger sandwiches and chilled champagne.
Perhaps the difference can be attributed to the styles of the two branches. Navy mechanic Donny Brown of Buford, Ga., however, described a deeper significance.
"The way I see," Brown said, "these are the guys who really won it."