Posted: Dec. 16, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A military aircraft leaving Iraq two weeks ago with U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and three other senators aboard had to veer into abrupt and jarring evasive maneuvers after the plane's radar showed it was under a surface-to-air missile attack.

Biden, a Democrat traveling with Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel, was on a C-130 military transport, a cargo plane, taking off from Baghdad airport after dark at the conclusion of a trip to Iraq. He was sitting in the cargo section in a canvas strap seat.

"It's a lumbering flight. It's a big old bird. It doesn't take off like a Lear," Biden said Thursday during a telephone interview. "It went from that to Space Mountain."

The departure was scheduled at night, a standard security precaution, with the runway and cockpit in darkness, Biden said. As the aircraft spiraled aloft in a corkscrew pattern to avoid detection, it suddenly banked hard and flares fired from the plane to act as decoys against a missile.

It only lasted a minute or two. After the aircraft landed in Kuwait, Feinstein asked the pilot whether they really had been under attack. The pilot said his radar showed an individual missile was coming at the plane, but his job was to go immediately into evasive maneuvers, not to hang around and confirm it.

The evasive action, Feinstein told CNN, is "something else. I mean, you go up and down and sideways very fast. So we knew something was happening. We didn't know quite what."

It was another reminder of a dangerous war. The cargo plane also was transporting a flag-draped coffin attended by two military guards, Biden and Feinstein said.

Biden said he had not planned to talk about what happened, because he did not want to worry his wife and mother, but once Feinstein and Hagel mentioned the incident during news interviews, there was no reason to keep quiet about it.

Biden added it was not the first time he had been in a plane under attack.

About 10 years ago, he said he traveled with the United Nations to Sarajevo because of the Bosnian conflict. While he was leaving on a cargo plane, it was hit during takeoff by small arms fire.

Also on board was a unit of French paratroopers, commanded by a colonel. When she was told there was a United States senator along, Biden said the colonel went, "Eh! Eh!" -- as in, who cares?

Biden said he did not know whether the presumed missile attack on the Iraq flight was random or targeted because of the senators aboard.

"Everyone knew we were there," Biden said.