Stormy weather

Even the mightiest military machine on earth still has to wait for the weather.

While heavy rains batter the air base, we are bracing for the brunt of a severe sandstorm, expected to hit around midnight.

Sandstorms come about once a week, and this storm appears to be larger than average. Winds are expected to reach a maximum of 40 to 50 knots by Tuesday night, according to forecasters on base. Winds that powerful kick up sand and can knock out visibility entirely.

Along with the skies over the desert, the mood here has also darkened following reports of American POWs, two of them pilots. "We know we can get shot down," said Lt. Col. "Shooter," who watched the TV footage of the imprisoned soldiers. "It strikes home; it strikes to the heart."

Sandstorms also sap energy from already-tired personnel on the base. The initial adrenaline of the first few days of the air campaign has begun to wear off. After a few days free of missile attacks, the "Alarm Red" sirens have sounded again three times in the past two days.

While missions were still being flown this morning, low-visibility conditions were expected to hamper air operations until Wednesday afternoon, when the winds are expected to die down. Even then, sand may still be hanging low in the sky for another few days.

"Out in the desert, it's like flying in a Ping-Pong ball. You don't have any frame of reference," said "Surge," a helicopter pilot with the 332nd Expeditionary Combat and Rescue team. Add a layer of dust hanging at 5,000 feet and targeting and spatial orientation become even harder.

When jet pilots cannot see the horizon, they can fall prey to what they call "The Hand of God." This potentially deadly spatial disorientation occurs when a pilot's senses say he's doing one thing, but the jet's instrumentation tells him something different. In this scenario, a pilot must put his faith in his instruments rather than his eyes or his own sense of balance. Some pilots can be momentarily paralyzed.

"It becomes a physical thing. Quite literally, guys get to the point where they can't move the stick," said Capt. "Doogie,'' an A-10 pilot with the 75th Tiger Sharks.

Generally, if visibility falls below one mile, planes will be grounded, although the wing commander can push that limit down to half a mile. Combat Search and Rescue operations will launch in virtually any conditions, however, if an immediate rescue is needed behind enemy lines.

Since "A-Day," maintenance crews have gone from turning around two jets a day to five or six. They work 12-hour shifts.

"People are getting tired. Tensions are getting high," said Senior Airman Rusty McRaney, an A-10 crew chief with the 75th Tiger Sharks. "We just keep going, we don't slow down." Today, lightning forced airplane maintenance crews off the air field. Weary crews waited out the electrical storm by playing of darts and taking a break.

The number of sorties continues to be ambitious. Yesterday, there were 269 sorties, and there were about 300 sorties on each of the prior two days. These missions targeted command and control infrastructure, and helped clear the way for coalition ground forces advancing from Kuwait to Baghdad.

"We don't really like [the bad weather] because we want our guys in the air," McRaney said.

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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