Iraq Crisis: Armada of doom lies in wait for Saddam

Click to follow
Emma Daly, on a US aircraft-carrier in the Gulf, watches preparations for war

THE flight-deck of an aircraft- carrier, 60ft above the sea, is an awe-inspiring place to be, an absurd triumph of planning over common sense. Who would have thought that 4.5 acres of non-slip surface could act as runway to dozens of jet fighters, screaming on and off at over 100mph, aided by steam-powered catapults and heavy cables?

The menace behind Kofi Annan's peace mission is embodied by the USS George Washington and USS Independence, the carriers leading 18 sister ships of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet through the jade waters of the Gulf. If Mr Annan's mission fails and the US decides to strike at Iraq, a deadly wave launched at sea will signal the start of Operation Desert Thunder.

The first-time visitor can only stand, slack-jawed, as the ship's company, wearing colour-coded "float coats", or life-jackets, load missiles, clean windscreens or signal pilots during the 100 sorties the 70-plus planes fly a day. Take-off involves pinning the aircraft's nose to the steel head of a catapult. Engines roar, steam pressure builds, then suddenly a pin snaps and the plane is rocketed down the runway and towards the waters of the Gulf.

To save space, planes move around on deck with their wings folded back like flies or bent up at right-angles, allowing crewmen to manoeuvre them into tiny spaces, wing-tips touching, for storage on the runway or in the hangar below.

It is impressive enough to stand on the flight-deck and feel the power of the aircraft launching; it is positively awe-inspiring to fly off the ship under catapult power, even in a COD, as the small transport planes that bring in mail and visitors are known, and which does 0 to 139mph in less than three seconds; an F-14 Tomcat fighter will reach 175mph by the time it leaves the 310ft runway. Passengers in a COD, who sit facing the tail and firmly strapped in by a harness, are ordered to grip the belts across the chest, brace their feet on the seat in front and lean forward for the "cat shot".

Adrenalin starts pumping (particularly around the quaking body of the nervous flyer) and then, with a rush and a whoop from the crew, you are flung back in your seat by an overwhelming force (about 8 to 10G) - but only for a couple of seconds. There is a sudden release and the plane is climbing, smoothly and calmly, away from the carrier. God only knows what it must feel like in a jet fighter.

"Recovery" is another arresting experience: the shortest, sharpest landing you could have without actually crashing. Incoming pilots lower a straight bar with a shallow hook at the end and then aim for one of four steel cables stretched across the runway. The idea is to drop the wheels between wires three and four, so that the hook snags the third cable and drags the aircraft to a halt 300ft along the runway, which does not stretch the full quarter-mile length of the ship.

"You're basically trying to land in about a 10ft square area," said Lieutenant Greg Harville, a COD pilot who flew us off the George Washington. "The first few times it is terrifying."

Cables are checked each day, and each one is changed after it has caught 100 planes.

If a cable were to break - and it has happened - it would whip back and kill anyone in the way. The sounds of a landing, or "trap", reverberate throughout the 17-deck ship, but anyone passing the engine-room where the arresting gear operates is practically deafened by the screech as the cable rips out to catch 30 tons of jet fighter.

Of course, landing on the carrier doesn't just involve touching down. First you must survive the "carrier break", something aircrews explain to hapless civilians with some relish and which is supposed to slow the aircraft down. What this means is that, as you approach the ship flying low over the sea, the pilot yanks it to one side: the water appears at right angles as you hang in your seat, heart in your mouth, before it levels off for landing.

The fighters come in at about 145mph; the other planes slow down to 95mph or so - still quite an emergency stop. And everyone comes in on full throttle, because if you miss the wire, the sea looms large and extremely close and you had better be able to take off at once, known as a bolter. Thankfully, we only watched the night flights - launch and recovery continues as normal after dark.

Each carrier is loaded with 4,600,000lb of ammunition. The US armada in the Gulf carries 18,690 sailors and marines and 93 strike aircraft, along with planes that can listen to radar and radio and jam enemy signals. It includes the USS Guam, an amphibious assault ship carrying attack helicopters, and eight ships (including two submarines) that can fire Tomahawk cruise missiles, with a range of 1,000 miles.