PATROLLING THE GULF
Jim Hollander
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They say it's the most dangerous three acres of land on the planet Earth - and for good reason.US Navy and Marine F-14 and F-18 jets, laden with very high explosives, are catapulted off these atomic powered aircraft carriers as they carry out round-the-clock sorties patrolling the "No Fly" zone of Southern Iraq.

Last winter I spent six week shuttling from Bahrain, to two carriers, the USS George Washington and the USS Independence, then the oldest carrier at sea and proud owner of the Navy"s "Don't Tread On Me" flag. These ships are each home to some 5,000 men and women who work twelve-hour shifts seven days a week for about six months.

The pilots fly night and day and it appears to a visitor, that, like an ant colony, the rest of the ship's reason for being is solely to look after them and their machines. If the jets are not flying they are being serviced - anything from filling a tiny pock mark to changing an entire wing or multi-million dollar engine down in the hanger bay - and they are restocked with bombs and missiles, and are back in the air.

It's a swirl of activity on the flight deck, from fueling and arming to flight-ops and then retrievals, all carried out by various flight deck crews wearing different colored vests and communicating with each other and the pilots with intricate hand signals. The roar of the jets is overpowering and one can easily be blown overboard, or burnt to a crisp if the strict safety precautions are not precisely followed. A safety crew makes sure that no one steps over all the invisible lines that exist on that flight deck. These are very mean machines, maintained, equipped and flown by brave and highly talented, dedicated professionals.



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