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Lieutenant-Colonel Sylvain Menard signals from the open cockpit of his Canadian Forces CF-18 fighter jet on the flight line at Trapani air base in Sicily on March 21.

The Canadian pilots steered their CF-18 Hornet fighter-bombers over the Libyan target with every intention of destroying it with their 225-kilogram smart bombs. But they saw something they didn't like and hesitated: Mission aborted.

"We passed," said the pilots' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sylvain Ménard - call sign "Gogo" - referring to a mission flown shortly after the CF-18s from Bagotville, Que., arrived in Sicily on March. 19. "The target we were investigating was really close to some buildings. We didn't know if they were military or civilian, so we did not drop on the target."

Returning from a combat mission with a full load of weapons is something no gung-ho pilot likes to do but it's happening often in this military action, one that pilots know is highly political and intolerant of "collateral damage," military-speak for killing civilians. The pilots say missions can be cancelled within seconds of a planned attack.

On Saturday, a warm, cloudless day in Sicily, two CF-18s returned with their bomb load intact. "We have very strict rules of engagement," said Lt.-Col. Ménard, 38, who said the Canadians are satisfied their attacks have caused no civilian casualties. "If we have any doubts, we will come back with the weapons. We are here to improve the situation, not make it worse."

That's not to say the Canadians have not been effective. As of April 2, the dozen pilots flying six CF-18s had flown 30 missions over Libya, typically in groups of two or four aircraft. Bombs have been dropped most of the time, hitting ammunition dumps and radar stations used by forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Ultra-restrictive rules of engagement set out by the coalition forces are not the only factor that separates this air campaign from the Canadians' last sustained air raids, over Kosovo in 1999, where the CF-18s flew about 10 per cent of the NATO strikes. The other is what Lt.-Col. Ménard (the only pilot who was allowed to be quoted by name) called "dynamic targeting."

That means the pilots on the Libyan campaign often do not receive their target instructions until they are well on their way to Libya, and that can add to pilot stress. In Kosovo, targets such as bridges and communications infrastructure were "pre-planned," that is, they were carefully selected before the mission, leaving almost no mission flexibility.

"Right now, we are much more flexible," Lt.-Col. Ménard said. "Our decision loop is much more reactive. Sometimes we go airborne and don't have a target [at first]... Any time you have to make decisions in the cockpit, that are not on a pre-planned scenario, obviously the work load is a little more important and may be more stressful because the guys need to make a decision and assess for themselves."

The strikes on at least one of the Libyan radar sites were not pre-planned, he said.

Stress, of course, is part of the pilots' life and the Canadians are getting plenty of it over Libya. Only one of the 12 pilots based in Sicily had flown combat missions in Kosovo. The rest are experiencing an air war for the first time.

Lt.-Col Ménard said the pilots have often encountered anti-aircraft fire on both night and day missions. At night, the pilots, using their night-vision goggles, can see the tracer bullets fairly easily; during day raids, the bullets are less visible. To protect themselves, the pilots try to fly higher than the bullets can reach.

He said the anti-aircraft fire hasn't scared him, though he admits "it's a significant event in your life when for the first time, you're shot at. ... It's performance-enhancing stress."

The Canadian pilots and their ground crew - about 170 men and women in total - have been in Sicily only two weeks and already they have a sense that the Libyan campaign might not be a short-term mission. When the Americans, who have dominated the bombing missions so far, pull back, as they plan to do this week, the French, British and Canadians will have to fill the gap.

The Americans had committed about 90 aircraft to the Libyan mission. Their withdrawal would leave 143 coalition aircraft, including the six CF-18s (a seventh is being used as a spare and has not flown combat missions), two Canadian in-flight Airbus refuelling tankers and two CP-140 Aurora long-range surveillance aircraft. The Charlottetown, a Canadian frigate, is also part of the Canadian mission.

Canada's pilots are working hard. Missions typically last four hours or more and require at least two in-flight refuellings because the CF-18s have relatively short ranges when they are fully laden with weapons. Pilots complain that the long flights are "hard on the butt."

At some point, pilots from the Canadian Forces CF-18 base in Cold Lake, Alta., will be rotated into Sicily. "We have a contingency plan to conduct personnel rotation to support the mission for as long as the Government of Canada wants us to be here" Lt.-Col. Ménard said. "We have no idea how long we will be here for. Do you have a crystal ball?"