WITH ALLIED TROOPS, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 17 -- Capt. Steve Tate, an Air Force fighter pilot, fired a radar-guided Sparrow missile into the darkness over Baghdad this morning, blasting an Iraqi jet fighter out of the air in a fireball of explosives.

"When the airplane blew up, the whole sky lit up," Tate told journalists in the first reported account of a downed Iraqi aircraft. "It continued to burn all the way to the ground and then just blew up into a thousand pieces."

Tate, leader of a flight of four F-15 Eagle fighter jets escorting Air Force bombers to Baghdad in this morning's massive U.S.-led air attack, said he was among the first pilots to reach the Iraqi capital.

Other U.S. F-15 pilots interviewed here today said that although some Iraqi warplanes managed to get off the ground, none of them sought to engage the U.S. fighters. Instead they headed north, presumably to seek sanctuary in a safer area or perhaps to regroup for a counterattack.

As American and British airmen recounted the flush of initial combat in the pre-dawn darkness, the air assaults against Iraq continued into the daylight hours, with the roar of fighter planes, bombers and refueling tankers filling the skies over numerous air bases throughout the Arabian peninsula.

Thus far, officials reported that only one U.S. and one British jet were downed out of many hundreds of missions flown by the multinational strike force. British news reports indicated that the force included British Tornado GR1 fighter-bombers, and Saudi sources said 150 Saudi F-15s and Tornados also took part. In addition, the Kuwaiti government in exile told Reuter that 12 of its planes destroyed Iraqi targets in an independent daylight attack today.

While overall details about the early morning strike remained sketchy, military officials allowed a handful of pilots and air crew members to describe their experiences to reporters.

Last night, at an air base in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Tate and other F-15 pilots raced down runways, followed minutes later by a "package" of bombers.

After one in-flight refueling, the pilots arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad just after 3 a.m. Iraqi time (7 p.m. EST).

Flying above the bombers, Tate said he detected a radar contact moving rapidly toward the tail of another F-15.

"My No. 3 {the other F-15} had just turned south." said Tate. "And I was headed northeast on a different pattern. I don't know if the bogie {an enemy jet} was chasing him, but I locked him up, confirmed he was hostile and fired a missile."

Tate, from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing of Langley, Va., described the aerial scene over Baghdad as "a huge blanket of Christmas lights."

"The entire city was just sparkling at us," said the 28-year-old pilot from Watersmeet, Mich. "With them shooting triple-A {antiaircraft artillery} at us, you see the concussions going off, the bombs going off, some fires."

Tate landed at his home base about 5:30 a.m. to the cheers of the maintenance crews that surrounded the plane. "I feel good," said Tate. "I never experienced this before. It's unfortunate that we've had to go to war, but I guess there was no other way."

Lt. Ian Long of the British Royal Air Force portrayed the predawn assault as "the scariest thing I've ever done."

"It was absolutely terrifying," said Long, who flew a Tornado fighter jet. "You're frightened of failure, you're frightened of dying. You're flying as low as you dare but high enough to get the weapons off."

Long said he drove his bomb-laden jet "very fast and very low" toward its airfield target, watching the sky to the right of his cockpit erupt into blasts of white and yellow antiaircraft fire.

"We were trying to avoid bits of flak," said Long. "We saw some tracers coming off the target down our left side. We tried to avoid that.

"As the bombs come off, you just run -- run like hell," Long said. "We could see other attacks going on at two of his big airfields out to the right."

As Air Force Col. George Walton raised his F-4G Wild Weasel electronic warfare jet over Baghdad in the early morning darkness, the skies exploded with antiaircraft fire in "one of the most fantastic fireworks demonstrations" he had ever seen. There was a lot of ground fire," said Walton after returning from his four-hour mission.

"We were shooting at the surface-to-air missiles {SAMs} around the perimeter of Baghdad. We fired at two SAMs, but I don't know if we hit both." Walton also said he believed he spotted at least one SAM that was fired at U.S. aircraft.

"Baghdad lit up like a Christmas tree," said the 42-year-old Texan, who led the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron attack on the missile site.

U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from ships and Air Force F-117 "stealth" fighters were said to be extensively used in the early morning attacks on the Iraqi Scud offensive missile sites and against Iraqi SAM batteries.

The F-15 pilots from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing said they were fired at from Iraqi anti-aircraft guns but were not aware of any sign that surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles were launched.

The 1st Tactical Fighter Wing's commander, Col. John McBroom, who participated in the second wave of operations against Iraq, said he was perplexed that Saddam Hussein's air force did not respond more strongly.

"It could mean several things," McBroom said. "It could mean that they were unprepared. It could mean that they want to wait us out. . . . I'm not exactly sure why he wasn't airborne. Whateve the reason, it made for a very uneventful, routine day. I know a lot of guys who are looking forward to matching up against Iraq."

McBroom added, however: "Just remember, this is only the first day of a war, not necessarily the conclusion of it. And even though he didn't come up much today, we know he has some aircraft, he has some pilots. We are still waiting for him to do that."

"I was surprised with" the lack of resistance, said Lt. Col. Don Kline. who warned against any letup in the pilots' concentration.

"It's going to continue until it's done and we need to be smart about it because, that's one thing, you can't get overconfident," he said. "It's almost like scoring an early touchdown or something, you get overconfident and they beat you 38-6 or something."

Another pilot, Capt. Gentner Drummond of Osage County, Okla., said: "We had no adversaries that ever came to engage us. Those that did get airborne for preservation went north.

"I think it was a preservation move," Drummond said. "If they sat on the ground they'd have been bombed. Had they flown in our direction they would have been shot down."

He said the F-15s maneuvered and released chaff to evade ground artillery and confuse possible missiles.

Capt. John Doucette of Langley, Va., said he could see the antiaircraft artillery "coming up, and thebursts. By the same token you could see the bomb bursts underneath the undercast, with . . . ripples underneath. You could see those two actions going on at the same time."

After he returned to base, Doucette said he was "flooded with an emotion, a sense of relief, a sense "I never experienced this before. It's unfortunate that we've had to go to war, but I guess there was no other way."

-- Air Force Capt. Steve Tate

of, 'I've done it.' "

Each of the pilots interviewed flew from air bases on the Arabian Peninsula at about 1:30 a.m. today (5:30 p.m. EST) -- only hours after they had been told that thier months of drills had ended and the first combat missions of Operation Desert Storm were about to begin.

"Hey Bud-man, hit 'em hard," shouted Air Force Col. Merrill R. "Ron" Karp, commander of the Air Force's 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, as he bade one of his F-4 pilots an emotional farewell at an air base outside Saudi Arabia.

The crewman of one Wild Weasel raised his fist in the air, thumbs up.

As the Weasels disappeared into the darkness toward Iraq early this morning, 30 Marine F/A-18 attack jets roared into the sky at 14-second intervals.

At the base, Marines unfurled two American flags that had not been displayed to avoid offending sensitivities of their Saudi hosts. Several of the pilots saluted the flapping flags before they sped off the runway, a fiery torch of burning fuel and exhaust trailing each engine.

Ground crews lined the taxiway, nylon bags containing chemical protective gear at their feet. Most were silent, clasping their helmets to their chests. A few crew members cheered and raised their fists skyward as the planes taxied past.

However, despite reports of early successes in the bombing operations, some Air Force officials today sounded notes of caution.

"It's not over yet," said the tactical fighter wing commander Karp. "There may still be a reaction" from Iraq.

U.S. military officials reported possible launches of Scud-B ballistic missiles from Iraq at about 3:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. EST), sending most military bases to heightened alert and prompting air raid sirens in Dhahran and Riyadh. But U.S. Central Command reported later today that none of the missiles was actually launched.

However, a small oil storage facility near Khafji was reportedly hit by artillery fire. According to a Saudi oil industry official and a Western diplomat, the facility -- owned by the Arabian Oil Co -- was burning, but the sources described it as a minor fire. Reuter reported that the shelling missed a 30,000-barrel-per-day refinery.

The oil industry source said there was no other damage to any Saudi oil facility and that crude-oil production was normal today, "as if there were no war."

Air raid sirens sounded in Riyadh and Dhahran, where U.S. military officials ordered reporters to don gas masks and take refuge in bomb shelters. In Dhahran, the air raid sirens sounded after a sudden blackout, news agencies reported.

Air raid warnings also sounded in "Just remember, this is only the first day of a war, not necessarily the conclusion of it. . . . . We know he has some aircraft, he has some pilots."

-- Air Force Col. John McBroom

the industrial city of Jubail, on the coast north of Dhahran.

The hotel staff at the Dhahran International Hotel, some near panic, herded 700 reporters and hotel guests into the hotel basement. Hotel officials struggled to keep order and one security officer shouted, "Sit down or you will be tried!"

Immediately afterward, at 3:50 a.m., a hotel security officer issued a gas "all clear," indicating it was safe to remove gas masks. But he warned the guests: "You should be aware that the early stages of an offensive is the most likely time for an attack" on Dhahran.

Correspondent Caryle Murphy in Saudi Arabia contributed to this story.