WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 17 -- Capt. Steve Tate's dogfight, at 3:15 a.m. today, may have given the 1st Tactical Air Wing credit for the first air kill of Operation Desert Storm.

Master Sgt. Robert Beggs, historian of the wing based at Langley Air Force Base, Va., said Tate's achievement "would continue the tradition" of 1st Tactical pilots, whose unit predecessors claimed the first downed enemy aircraft in both World War I and World War II.

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 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, 28, of Watersmeet, Mich. "And I was headed northeast on a different pattern. I don't know if the bogie {enemy jet} was chasing him, but I locked him up, confirmed he was hostile and fired a missile.

"When the airplane blew up, the whole sky lit up. It continued to burn all the way to the ground and then just blew up into a thousand pieces."

Tate landed at about 5:30 a.m. to the cheers of maintenance crews that surrounded the plane. "I feel good," said Tate. "I never experienced this before.

"The entire city was just sparkling at us," Tate said of Baghdad. "With them shooting triple-A {antiaircraft artillery} at us, you see the concussions going off, the bombs going off, some fires."

After his sorties over Baghdad, Air Force Col. George Walton talked of "one of the most fantastic fireworks demonstrations" he had ever seen.

"It looked awesome," said squadron commander Lt. Col. Don Kline, 42, of Dallas, who escorted the first bomber raid into Iraq in the predawn darkness this morning. "There were things going off all over the place. We saw bombs going off. You could see the flashes, parts of the overpressure, the concussions coming out. There were a bunch of explosions, quick as they were getting off, I couldn't count."

Another pilot, Capt. Gentner Drummond of Osage County, Okla., said his bombing run was "exactly like the movies. The ground fire, the artillery coming up. The air bursts below us. It was exciting."