Onboard Uss Dwight D. Eisenhower In The Arabian Sea (AFP) May 30, 2010
The planes coming in from missions over Afghanistan for a night landing touch down with a thud, the runway so short and narrow that there is no room for error.
It's the deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a US Navy aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea that provides air support for coalition forces fighting Islamic Taliban militants in Afghanistan.
The floating airport, or the "city at sea" as its captain Dee L. Mewbourne likes to call it, provides nearly a third of air missions against the Taliban.
"We are providing almost daily support to the Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan," said the commander of the Carrier Strike Group Eight, Rear Admiral Phil Davidson.
"We are a critical component of the total fight."
The Nimitz-class USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is affectionately known as Ike, the nickname of the 34th US president after which it was named, and is home to 61 planes, including four squadrons of F-18s.
Of the nearly 5,000 personnel aboard, there are 1,400 air-wing staff.
Several times a day warplanes thunder on the flight deck before being catapulted into the sky on regular sorties, heading north across Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan.
They land with a thud, a sparking tail-hook scratching the deck in search of a trap wire that stops the speeding planes with a jolt, and the glowing fireballs of the plane's twin engines dying out in a split second. The "birds," as they are called, are home.
Between 55 to 60 sorties are conducted daily, said Captain Roy J Kelley, commander of the carrier's Air Wing Seven, with many heading to Afghanistan. Ike's previous deployment to the Gulf was between October 2006 and May 2007, also in support of troops in Afghanistan.
The jet noise during six-hour missions over Afghanistan is sometimes enough to scare the militants and send them scurrying, according to Lieutenant Nicole Johnson, who flies her F-18 Hornet three times a week on missions over the country.
"We make sure we've got all our basics covered" before taking out a target, added Johnson, 30, who has been flying an F-18 for about three years, and is on her second deployment to the region.
Kelley said his force's fire engagements represented only about 10 percent of what was used in the previous deployment. It is "significantly reduced," he said, as Eisenhower approaches the end of its deployment in mid-summer.
This appears to be a result of a change in strategy, "shifting from a focus on trying to kill the bad guys to make sure that we are doing everything we can to support the Afghan people and make sure that their protection is the number-one priority," according to Kelley.
Eisenhower's presence also "provides security and stability to this area of the world," said the captain, as his ship floated south of Iran -- a main US foe -- and near Gulf Arab countries that are the main US allies in the region.
"Our relationship with these countries has never been closer," the commander of the strike group answered cautiously to a question about Ike's role in providing protection for the oil-rich states in case of a showdown with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.
He insisted Eisenhower's encounters with the Iranian navy in international waters were "general routine" and that "there is no tension." That included an April incident in which an Iranian warplane flew within one kilometre (0.6 mile) from the ship.
"That's just another routine interaction ... no different if it was any other navy," he said in a windowless office, closed to daylight like most of the ship's compartments.
On the 1,092 foot (331 metre) flight deck, the blaze from the F-18s' engines adds to the hardship of staff already coping with a scorching sun and stifling humidity.
"When we left Norfolk (in the United States) it was snowing. We got here and it was like -- 'oh my God, it's hot,'" said one sailor.
The majority of the personnel run the "city" from the air-conditioned indoors, and those who want sunlight must volunteer for the twice-daily deck walk to clean the runway from debris left by the jets.
Ike will be replaced by the USS Harry S. Truman when it leaves in July.
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