Here's a nice piece written in 2003 by a friend for his folks back home. 

I promised to talk about the "sandstorms" we encountered. I finally have time to keep that promise. Seems that supporting all those ground troops with our flights has kept me away from e-mail a bit. I have caught up, so here we go...

I had a mission that took us to the west coast of the Persian Gulf. I'd seen the news networks on the ship's satellite TV that there was a "big sandstorm" approaching from both up north in Iraq and to our west in Saudi Arabia. The news agencies typically will sensationalize things out here, so I didn't pay much attention to it.

Our weather brief before the flight mentioned reduced visibilities on the beach, but that wasn't uncommon as the winds had been blowing fairly hard over the past month. We refer to the "beach" as our divert airfields should we have a situation where landing on the ship isn't preferable. I realized before we took off that there was some windy and bumpy weather to be encountered on my flight as well as a possibility of some reduced visibility. No worries though, we are trained for this stuff and there wasn't anything to indicate that we would have any problems.

After my night catapult off the ship I climbed through some turbulence and got on top of what appeared to be a "haze layer" that was similar to what we have had for the several weeks prior. The moon wasn't very full so it was very dark... so dark that there was no horizon. We are trained to handle this so it didn't bother me or my wingman. As we conducted our mission, I could see that there was something interesting about the ground below. The oil rig lights and fires below were getting more and more dim, with a brown glow. Oil rig fires are normal as they are a process of burning off the unusable gasses from the "stuff" being harvested from the underground wells. I didn't think too much of this as the haze and some suspended dust from the dessert is a common weather pattern here.

Mission complete, time to return to the ship. We transited back home and did everything normal. Once on approach I could hear on the radio that the jets in front of me couldn't see the ship at the normal 3/4 mile 'ball call.' The 'ball call' is 15-20 seconds before you touch down on the back of the ship. The LSO (Landing Signals Officer) was having to verbally talk the pilots down to the back of the ship until they got close enough to see it. The LSO was able to see the light of the airplanes, determine glideslope and relation to runway centerline and therefore talk the pilot into the wires (arresting wires on the ship). The pilot is extremely busy controlling the airplane as well as looking at his instruments and typically doesn't pick up the ship in bad weather as quickly as the LSO can see the plane.

Once it became my turn to 'call the ball' we also didn't see the ship. We called 'CLARA,' meaning I don't see the ship or the visual glideslope reference. The LSO then gave me a good cadence of calls that told me where I was on the glideslope and centerline. I flew for about 10 seconds and then suddenly before me, I saw the lights of the ship. I called, "Ball" over the radio signifying that I saw my visual references and then trapped aboard the ship. I then said, "WOW!" to my right seater, signifying what an interesting ride that past 20 seconds had been. We then were taxied to our parking spot where we shut down the jet and got out.

Upon returning to the readyroom I had learned that the storm had just reached the ship and that each pilot returning had worsening and worsening conditions as each plane trapped. I was the last to land, so thankfully the worst was over... or was it? The next set of airplanes still had yet to land! Up to the LSO platform I went, to help my fellow LSOs land the next set of jets on the flight deck.

After flight operations were over and I had a chance to walk around the flight deck. I took a moment to feel exactly how eerie it was with all this sand suspended in the air. You could taste it in your mouth and could feel the grit in your teeth, not that I have ever purposely munched on a handful of sand before. My eyes were irritated by the sand and you could feel the sand sticking to any part of your body that might have a bit of moisture or sweat on it. It was as if there was a fog of sand that reduced visibility just like when ground fog sets in. I haven't seen anything this bad except for when the visibility goes to almost zero because of ground fog. On the flight deck, you could see where the jets had taxied as there was a slight tire track, as if a light snow had just fallen.

This was some of the most interesting weather I have seen besides my encounter with the thunderstorms out here. I am sure this region has more interesting experiences to offer. I know the heat, for one, is just around the corner!


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