x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Swirling sandstorms blind pride of fleet

The suffocating haze of a sandstorm in the Gulf can humble even a nuclear-powered Nimitz class supercarrier.

The USS Abraham Lincoln during operations in the Indian Ocean.
The USS Abraham Lincoln during operations in the Indian Ocean.

USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN // The might of American naval power is no match for the forces of nature in the Gulf. The suffocating haze of a fierce sandstorm can humble even a nuclear-powered Nimitz class supercarrier, rendering redundant its wealth of advanced surveillance equipment and crew of war-hardened fighter pilots. So intense are the storms in the Arabian Gulf, that they can blur all visibility beyond half a kilometre. At times, the USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed in the Gulf with its crew of 5,500, has had to suspend all flights from its deck, including the sorties flown in support of US ground troops operating in Iraq.

On a recent trip to the Lincoln, sandstorms delayed two journalists with this newspaper from flying in to the 97,500-tonne aircraft carrier for over a day. "Most people here said that this is the worst year they've seen," said Rear Adml Scott Van Buskirk, the commander of Carrier Strike Group Nine, a flotilla centred on the Lincoln. Although he declined to quantify the impact the storms had on missions, Adml Van Buskirk conceded they did affect operations in Iraq. "If we can't fly, it could hold up our soldiers in Iraq," he said.

The haze is especially burdensome for pilots trying to land on the carrier's narrow deck. Even on the clearest of days, they must make constant adjustments to compensate for the movements of the ship. Not only does it bob up and down, it also rocks from side to side. Accidents during landings are rare, but low visibility makes aircrews nervous. For nearly two days recently, the Lincoln was deprived of supply planes coming from Bahrain, where the US Navy has its Fifth Fleet base, because of the intensity of the storm. On one afternoon in June, with visibility down to less than a kilometre, pilots returning from missions in their multi-role F-18 Hornets needed an extra voice in their headsets to guide them in.

"Normally, you don't hear two guys talking to the pilot," said Adml Van Buskirk. As one pilot made his final approach, a voice over the radio called out: "Call the ball." This was the Mini Boss talking, one of the crew responsible for directing activity on the flight deck; he wanted to know if the pilot could see the lights of the landing system. "Claire," responded the pilot, meaning he could still not see the deck. Just 15 seconds later, however, when the jet emerged from the haze, the pilot quickly adjusted its altitude and managed an abrupt, but successful, landing.

One part of the routine on board the ship will be familiar to every car owner in the Emirates. Every day, the crew members have to wash sand from the deck and clean it out of jet engines and off the aircrafts' windows. The Arabian Gulf, say crewmen, is impossibly dusty. "We have more problems keeping things clean here - the dust gets in everything we do," said Scott Ruttledge, a weapons technician who works on the flight deck.

During night missions, or "night ops", when pilots rely on instruments to guide their aircraft through landings, the storms still make their presence felt. "Today is the worst we've flown in, but we had to fly," said Keith Mims, the Mini Boss on board the carrier. "It's a nuisance - it gets in our eyes." Shortly after he spoke, the returning Hornets began their evening landings. The first jet bounced off the flight deck in a shower of red sparks and roared back into the air. It had missed the cable rigged across the deck to catch the hooks under the jets. "It's a bolter," called out Ryan Wiuff, 21, a crewman who works on lookout above the flight deck. "You can tell by the sparks."

That evening, four out of the five bolted, something that Seaman Wiuff had never seen before. Eventually, they were all safely down and the flight-deck crew breathed a sigh of relief. The US$4.5 billion (Dh16.5bn) ship and its crew of 5,500 had won another battle with the sand. @Email:hnaylor@thenational.ae