DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 24 -- A Saudi fighter pilot shot down two missile-laden fighter-bombers apparently attempting Iraq's first air strike into allied territory, and clear weather enabled allied forces to resume a full slate of air strikes against Iraq and occupied Kuwait.

The thick clouds that had blanketed much of the gulf region for the past several days lifted this morning, allowing U.S. and other allied aircraft to fly more than 2,000 combat-support and bombing missions against the Iraqi Republican Guard forces and other military targets throughout the two countries, according to military officials.

In addition to a blitz against planned Iraqi targets, the aerial combat of the last 24 hours included some impromptu drama -- allies' encounters with Iraqi warplanes in the sky and their forces at sea.

In the gulf, U.S. Navy forces captured 51 prisoners after bombing an Iraqi minelayer in the northern Persian Gulf off Kuwait and subduing soldiers on a nearby island who fired on U.S. rescue helicopters on Wednesday, U.S. military officials reported today.

In the only reported downing of an allied plane today, an American F-16 pilot whose plane was hit by Iraqi antiaircraft fire managed to fly his crippled plane out of enemy territory and over the gulf, where he ejected seconds before his fighter crashed into the water, U.S. officials said. The pilot was rescued by a Navy helicopter.

The U.S. command said the improved weather conditions allowed intelligence officials to gather detail on the extent of bomb damage against Iraqi targets and to intensify aerial bombing attacks that had been curtailed significantly in the last few days. Warplanes concentrated on attacking the elite Republican Guard as well as communications and supply lines and Iraqi airfields, military officials said.

U.S. ground forces stationed in northern Saudi Arabia reported hearing the distant thuds of increased allied air attacks on Iraqi troops deeply entrenched across the border in Kuwait.

"We had several days of a drawback with the weather," said a U.S. Central Command spokesman, Lt. Col. Greg Pepin. "It has affected the targeting, but we've built in enough sorties to pick up for that."

He added, "The clear weather is helping a great deal on battle damage assessment."

Some Air Force F-16 pilots who have been blasting the Republican Guard near the Kuwaiti border with Iraq concurred, describing a panorama of devastation on the ground below them today.

"Looking at the ground and seeing the concentrations of troops and the craters in amongst them, the craters really stand out when it's clear," said Maj. Bobby Jernigan, 37, of Columbia, S.C., who led one of five strikes by his South Carolina Air National Guard F-16A fighter-bomber unit. "It's a black spot. There's a bunch of them out there, period. They extend from the border to as far north as you can go.

"You can see the spots where the B-52s {bombers} came through, because the B-52s carry a lot of bombs and there is a big, long swath of craters," he continued. ". . . There are areas of the earth that are just blackened circles that are 500 feet by 200 or 300 feet. That's probably where some cluster bombs went off."

While Jernigan said he believes the Republican Guards are holding up "badly, badly," senior military leaders cautioned today that the aerial bombardment, designed in part to weaken Iraqi troops in advance of an expected allied ground assault, is far from over.

Thursday also produced the first Saudi war hero and colorful tales of deadly combat at sea, a stark contrast to the video-game glimpses of bombs and missiles that have dominated the descriptions of the first days of fighting.

Officials and participants today described what began as a routine combat patrol by Saudi F-15 fighters over the sands of northern Saudi Arabia. At about 12:30 p.m. a U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane and two British warships plying the gulf alerted the Saudi pilots that three of Iraq's French-built Mirage F-1 fighter planes were streaking south over the Persian Gulf off the Saudi coast.

The Mirages were armed with Exocet missiles capable of seriously damaging large ships and devastating smaller ones. An Exocet fired from an Iraqi jet killed 37 sailors aboard the USS Stark in the gulf in 1987.

As the Saudis pulled within less than two miles of the enemy planes, "They started breaking in front" but couldn't maneuver fast enough to evade the two heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles fired by a Saudi pilot.

The pilot, the 30-year-old son of a Saudi farmer, fired the first Sidewinder and said into the cockpit radio: "First target, splash." Less than five seconds later, the same voice added, "Second target, splash." The third Mirage fired an Exocet before fleeing, but the missile fell harmlessly into the gulf.

In the course of five seconds, the flier, who identified himself only as Capt. Ayedh, became the first pilot of the war to down two Iraqi aircraft and the most celebrated pilot in the U.S.-trained Royal Saudi Air Force, which has flown only 1,000 of the 15,000 allied air missions in this operation.

"There were a lot of things indicating those guys were going for a target," said Ayedh in one of the many interviews Saudi military officials permitted him after he had returned to his base. "Every pilot is eager to shoot down an airplane, and it was my day. It was my first two kills. I feel great. I'm looking for more."

Hours before, another combat scenario unfolded on the gulf below. A Navy warplane dumped its bomb load on an Iraqi mine-laying vessel off the coast of Kuwait. A second minelayer, in its rush to evade another U.S. plane, apparently hit one of its own freshly laid mines, which exploded and sank the craft.

A British military spokesman said the crew of a British helicopter first spotted the minesweepers and was preparing to fire a missile at one of them, when the allied commander in the area called them off, preferring to try to capture the vessel. Had it been fired, the missile would have had a "devastating effect with major loss of life," the spokesman said.

Rescue helicopters from the guided missile frigate USS Curts roared to the scene, but as they were plucking Iraqi sailors from the water, enemy forces nearby on the tiny island of Qaruh opened fire on the American choppers.

After U.S. aircraft returned fire and peppered the island, the Iraqi soldiers surrendered. By the time the operation was complete, the rescue teams had gathered 22 prisoners from the gulf and 29 from the island. Three Iraqis were reported killed.

Although American officials were hesitant to claim that they had "seized" the island, exiled Kuwaiti officials in Saudi Arabia quickly dubbed the action the first liberation of Kuwaiti territory.

The U.S. military confirmed today that, on Wednesday, a Navy A-6 Intruder attack plane disabled an Iraqi tanker that U.S. officials said was being used to gather intelligence on allied flight patterns across the gulf.explosions, the ship was reported disabled. Another A-6 pursued an Iraqi hovercraft that tried to hide under an oil platform, officials said.

In addition to offering a look at past damage to Iraq and Kuwait, the better weather also enabled some U.S. pilots to inflict new damage. The South Carolina Air National Guard's Capt. Jeff Gurney, 32, flew his ninth combat mission of the war this morning, leading several F-16As in attacks against an airfield and two fuel depots. "I rolled in on one fuel dump and saw large fire and pillars of smoke going up to 20,000 feet," he said.

With the increase in missions, the skies above Saudi Arabia were filled with U.S. refueling planes. Jets loaded with bombs and missiles clustered around the tankers, drank their fill of thousands of gallons of fuel, then veered off to reach their targets.

Crew members aboard some of the tankers reported that the Iraqis have been transmitting crude but effective "white noise" in an effort to disrupt radar and radio signals throughout the gulf. "White noise is a cheap way to jam," said Air Force Maj. Andrew Lahaszow. "They also do stuff like playing music. We can change frequencies, but they can still scan and find out which ones we're using."