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The French air force was the first to go into action over Libya. And most of its many missions have been launched from an airbase on the French island of Corsica.
Eleanor Beardsley traveled there.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: From a runway wedged between snow-capped mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Rafale and Mirage jets roar into the sky, one after the other, their metallic skins flashing in the morning sun.
(Soundbite of jet planes)
BEARDSLEY: It only takes an hour and a half to reach Libyan airspace from Corsica - one reason the Solenzara Air Base has been a principal launchpad for French jets enforcing the no-fly zone.
French planes also fly out of bases on mainland France and the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle off the coast of Libya. Colonel Eric Bometon is second in command at Solenzara.
Colonel ERIC BOMETON: (Through Translator) We were just coming out of a joint allied training exercise for Afghanistan when the Libyan operation came up, so the base was ready and within 48 hours we were flying missions over Libya.
BEARDSLEY: Solenzara is used as a training ground for pilots going to Afghanistan because of its mountainous terrain and hot climate. Today, a pool of 50 pilots fly around 25 missions a day over Libya. Thirty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Wencker is captain of a squadron of Mirage 2000 bombers
Lieutenant Colonel PIERRE WENCKER: (Through Translator) Flying over Libya is not so technically different from flying over Afghanistan. The mission is the same: giving air cover and protection to people on the ground. In Afghanistan, it's coalition forces. In Libya, it's civilians.
BEARDSLEY: Pilots here won't talk about what they've seen, what they've hit or even at what altitude they fly, but they say they have an ever clearer picture of what's happening on the ground in Libya after gathering intelligence over the past 12 days.
The Mirage has used laser and GPS to launch their precision bombs. The Rafale is a multirole combat fighter able to carry out ground and sea attacks, engage in air combat and gather intelligence.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of top gun bravado on the space. The atmosphere here is very professional. The pilots talk only of their duty to carry out the mission. But in the nearby Corsican village of Solenzara, people said they are proud of the pilots.
The sound of the jets returning to base can be heard over the clattering of dinner plates in a local bistro. At least, all that plane noise is serving a purpose now, says local resident Michele Aulery.
Ms. MICHELE AULERY: (Through Translator) I was very moved when I saw Libyans on TV yelling, thank you, France, and thank you, Sarkozy. They felt hope and protected. I think we're doing the right thing.
BEARDSLEY: Aulery and her tablemates said they are glad France is helping the Libyan people, but they fear what will happen if the mission goes on too long. And even if it ends quickly, they say, overthrowing a dictator is relatively easy. The difficult part is what will happen next.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Solenzara, Corsica.
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