Dust storms on the waters
March 17, 2003
ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — The USS Kitty Hawk’s whistle started blowing Thursday as a dust storm quickly reduced visibility.
The storm coated aircraft on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier with a powdery brown dust, some of it creeping into the hangar bay.
It was the second storm to hit the Kitty Hawk since it arrived in the Persian Gulf at the end of February.
Every week to 10 days, the particles blow in from Iraq, creating a smoglike line along the horizon.
“It could impact us if it hit during a flying period,” said Cmdr. Ed Wolfe, head of the air department.
Wolfe is responsible for recommending whether planes should launch based on forecasts and other factors, such as availability of backup landing strips in Kuwait and Bahrain.
Last week’s storm lasted a few hours, long enough to cancel flight operations as crews began a cleanup detail. Wolfe said it was necessary because the fine dust can impair sensitive electronic equipment.
Sailors kept their faces covered with handkerchiefs as they wiped down aircraft. Seaman Apprentice Alberto Nava spent hours cleaning F/A-18 Hornets.
“It’s not nice, but we gotta do it,” he said.
Others battled wind gusts to hose down the flight deck.
“It’s a pain in the butt more than anything else because you gotta clean it up,” said Steven Cole, the leading chief petty officer for the carrier’s Meteorology and Oceanography Department, which gives daily weather briefings.
His crewmembers had just finished giving one another high-fives after being off by just five minutes with their first dust-storm prediction.
“Forecasting’s a challenge, it’s such a closed-in basin with mountains all around us,” he said.
Winds carry sand from the Mesopotamia Valley plain, turning it into a fine dust by the time it reaches the sea.
It’s typically hazy in the Gulf, with seven to eight nautical miles of visibility. Visibility hit a half-mile during a storm on March 7. On Thursday, visibility was at zero for four hours.
“The dust came pretty fast; it went from unrestricted to quarter-mile visibility in 15 minutes,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Moeller, a forecaster.