KUWAIT — By 11 a.m., thick clouds that had been rolling in all morning block out the sun. Forecasters dub it "the mother of all storms." They predict 50-knot winds, dust, rain, and lightning by midnight.
Not forecast is how the storm would symbolize the war's progress this week. Like the storm, the war gradually arrived after huge expectations. After the initial lightning strikes, the war slowed and darkened as we waited for the dust to settle.
But for now, Capt. "Saw," an F-16 pilot, is cleared for takeoff in the rain at 5:45 p.m. His wingman, Capt. "Thumper," follows him up into even worse weather ahead.
Pockets of lightning clouds greet them over the Iraqi border. A KC-135 skirts the bad weather and refuels them. When the gas plane turns around for home, the two "hounds of heaven," as their squadron is called, bound toward Baghdad into the howling weather.
"Hey, One, I think I just got struck by lightning," Saw recalls Thumper saying to him over his headset. She sounds excited.
"Is it just glow around the canopy (jet windshield)?" Saw asks. "It's just 'St. Elmo's fire.' I'm getting the same thing." The white-ish green electrical discharge known as "St. Elmo's fire" stretches from the nose of Saw's plane to the canopy. The cockpit glows.
"Oh, I've never seen that before," says Thumper in awe. Training missions avoid lightning.
When they reach their coordinates southeast of Baghdad, they contact the ground Forward Air Commanders (FACs) who coordinate airstrikes from the ground. A team of Army scouts needs help - an Iraqi military convoy is approaching. From the F-16s, all that is visible is thick clouds.
The FAC begins to relay coordinates and describe the surrounding landscape to the pilots. Saw and Thumper jot notes on the clipboard maps they each have strapped to their knees.
Suddenly, Thumper says she's being lit up by radar. A surface-to-air missile is locking on to the locations. Saw gets the same warnings and they both undertake a maneuver to evade enemy radar.
"You want to see the ground so you can see any missiles coming toward you," Thumper explains. "You feel extremely vulnerable at that point."
Over the next 25 minutes, the FAC continues feeding targeting information to the pilots as they dodge fire. Pilots say there has been no let-up this week in anti-aircraft artillery and missile fire from Iraq's substantial air defenses.
Saw plugs in coordinates and fires off a GPS-guided bomb. He isn't fond of this kind of attack since it's used mostly when ground forces are the only ones who can see the target. "Just dropping on coordinates for us is not very interesting," Saw says.
When they return to Kuwaiti airspace, storm clouds envelop the whole country. They fly at 48,000 feet, just below the jet's ceiling, to avoid lightning for as long as possible. Above, Saw admires the shooting stars through his night-vision goggles. But, he and Thumper must point their noses down into danger.
It's as if flashbulbs go off all around them. Wind buffets the planes. More static comes over the radio. Lightning may have struck Thumper's plane as she notices her radar warning receiver is dead. After 15 minutes of descent, they see the runway below. Fifteen seconds later, they have landed.
After his intelligence debrief back at the operations center ("ops"), Saw turns around and checks his mailbox. There's a white envelope with a "Thinking of you" card. It's from his older sister. She catches him up on news from home, including an illness in the family.
That night, before Saw falls asleep, he says a prayer of thanksgiving. He is safe and he prays that his family is, too.
The rain and the lightning are gone, but now the heavy dust has settled in. It looks like fog, except that it's dry. Your teeth and the inside of your nose get coated with grit.
Saw arrives at the operations center at 7:30 a.m. and begins to wait. Visibility is lower than half a mile, the lowest allowed for takeoff. But the storm could ease at any time, so Saw sits, anxious, waiting to fly.
Other pilots are waiting, too. They play Beachhead 2000, a shoot-em-up video game. Playing violent video games and watching war movies are common diversions on base.
"When you're not in the airplane shooting stuff, you gotta get your fix somehow," says Saw.
Still on call, the pilots eat Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for lunch. Then they kill more time: catching up on e-mail and just talking. Mostly they swap stories about what they've seen over Iraq, what they've bombed, how much fire they've taken.
During the talking, Saw - a senior pilot in the squadron - is looking for signs of fatigue.
"There hasn't been a single pilot who's had time to go to the gym or do laundry," Saw says. He wants to make sure they are at least getting enough sleep and that the back-to-back flights - six total hours of flying - each day isn't breaking anyone.
The news lately seems to indicate a longer war than expected.
"Everyone had in their minds the hope that the regime would crumble a day or two after the air campaign," says Saw. "But realistically, everyone knew this would take some time." However, he disputes the TV commentators who lament the "shock and awe" campaign that never was. "We have complete domination over the skies. We [fly with] complete impunity over Baghdad."
But Saddam Hussein seems to have survived and resistance stiffens all over Iraq. The guys are going to need this day of rest.
At 2:30 p.m., word comes that Saw's flights have been cancelled. Disappointed, he and Thumper head to the base's command center and study up for tomorrow's missions. Usually they only have time for MREs, but tonight they take a rare trip to the chow hall. "It was something on rice, I don't remember."
Both the first week of the war and the storm are behind Saw now. He's found his pace; his routine goes a lot like his day went today.
His roommate Major "Dewman," also an F-16 pilot in his squadron, wakes him at 4:30 a.m. Dewman has just come back from his nighttime sorties and will be heading to bed soon. Saw gets showered and dressed, puts a breakfast granola bar in his satchel, and then he and Dewman spend 15 minutes talking. It's the only time of day their schedules overlap.
By 5 a.m., Saw arrives at the base's command center and grinds some Starbucks coffee beans. He will have four cups of coffee by the time he takes to the skies.
Watching the news, Saw learns that the missing Apache pilots have been taken prisoner. It's the first time he sees the Al Jazeera footage of captured pilots, alongside what appeared to be dead bodies of Americans reported to have been killed by Iraqi militia.
"I was a little surprised because I thought that the sentiment of the Iraqi people would be a little bit more pro-military and pro-regime fall. I think it surprised a lot of people," says Saw. "I was disappointed that that kind of sentiment was out there."
After a 20 minute pre-flight briefing with Thumper, the two pilots head over to ops. Saw has a few minutes so he checks e-mail and drinks coffee. At 6 a.m., he heads in to suit up in his helmet and mask. Ninety minutes later, he's in the air.
His first mission that day lasts three hours. When he gets out of the cockpit he eats the vegetarian MRE. "Some sort of pasta, not so good."
By 1 p.m., he and Thumper are flying a second sortie. When they get to their coordinates, the ground forces have no target for them. They look around while they wait, but they find nothing. An unusual occurrence. After a couple of hours they are getting low on fuel and have to turn back.
"You kind of feel that you weren't successful," says Saw, speaking of coming back full. "There's a sense of disappointment on our part because we love to help them out. There's nothing better for a fighter pilot than to go out there and kill stuff."
By "killing stuff," he means "inanimate objects" - tanks, artillery pieces, and so on. As for any Iraqi soldier that may be sitting behind that equipment, Saw says, "You feel bad for that person and in particular because you know that a lot of these people are not necessarily loyal, not as committed to the cause that they're in. A lot of these Iraqis are probably doing it because there is a gun to their head."
But these are thoughts that may come after the mission is done. In the cockpit, training takes over.
"Warfare is a lot more sterile from an airplane," Saw says. "Our reality of the war is what we're seeing from 10,000 to 20,000 feet.... We're fortunate not to have to see it up close."
Even in the quiet moments walking around the base, Saw says, "You can't ponder that and accomplish the mission you're doing." He has long ago come to peace with the justness of this particular mission, and that's enough.
The captain isn't flying today. Instead he has rotated for today into the role of Top Three - the guy who coordinates the day's flight schedule.
On the TV at ops, Reuters reports that the US is calling a four- to six-day ground halt. Saw sees the stop as inevitable: armies need to re-supply. He worries about misinterpretation in the media.
"Just because the ground movement is stopping doesn't mean the air campaign is going to stop."
He's also frustrated that he never sees news about home. The news channels are only covering what's going on here.
Thumper, meanwhile, has an interview with Glamour Magazine. The commander has been trying to shield the female pilots from all the interview requests from media. Reporters may make a big deal about female pilots, but it's not an issue in the squadron, says Saw. "Thumper's as good a wingman as anyone else. I don't think of it as a gender issue at all."
Earlier in the morning, Saw called his mother. It was his first phone call in two weeks - the last one went to his wife. He wanted an update on his relative who had fallen ill. Almost every day, Saw e-mails home to let his family know he's OK. His mom still asks, of course.
"You know how moms are," Saw says. "She just wanted to make sure I'm eating right."
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 invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).