SOMEWHERE NEAR IRAQ—This U.S. military air base near Iraq is so crowded that its air traffic controllers had to improvise a bizarrely zigzagging taxiway to keep the runways clear for warplanes landing and taking off.
So crowded that parking aprons are almost completely blanketed with scores of Air Force F-16s and A-10s, Marine Corps F/A 18s and Marine and British Harrier "jump jets," parked wingtip to wingtip.
"It's a traffic nightmare out there," the chief U.S. air traffic controller, Master Sgt. Keith Ercanbrack, warned 70 newly arrived Marine pilots. "Our biggest danger may be coming back to the field."
As the U.S. military buildup nears its zenith, the number of aircraft based here, one of the closest bases to Baghdad, has become formidable. The 3rd Marine Aviation Wing alone has nearly 200 aircraft divided among this base, another nearby one and ships offshore. The Air Force has rows of F-16s here, and the British are bringing in some 30 Harriers.
Space is short for people, too. The Air Force, which had built permanent housing here for those enforcing the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq since 1991, is putting new arrivals in canvas tents. Pilots and mechanics grumble that getting a lukewarm shower is "a matter of picking the right time," and lines are long at the PX. By evening, supplies on the shelves are thin.
Because the host Arab nation wants to keep its role as low-key as possible, a rare visit Friday by journalists required agreement to keep the base's name and location unpublished. But there is no doubt that warplanes based in this vast patch of desert will be at the heart of any campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"Look to the right and left of you. These are the boys you will be going to war with," one Marine lieutenant colonel told his pilots, all young men decked out in tan flight suits and shoulder-holstered pistols.
For now, missions consist of Air Force F-16s flying Operation Southern Watch (OSW) missions over Iraq and recently arrived Marines flying training missions.
OSW pilots have been flying about three missions a week ranging from one to four hours, but declined to say if they've encountered Iraqi aircraft or anti-aircraft missiles and artillery.
"It's what we do," said "Koss," a 39-year-old lieutenant colonel and F-16 pilot who arrived in December from New Mexico. "You make an effort not to make it routine."
Some pilots have been taking aloft U.S. flags as mementos for civilians back home, but the Air Force has received so many requests for such flags in recent weeks that the program has been temporarily halted.
"The tensions are higher, (there is) a higher focus and intensity." said "Koss" as he put on his flight gear for a training flight and removed his Velcro-backed unit patches—in case he's shot down and captured.
The OSW pilots' names, home towns and Air Force units could not be identified because of concerns about possible terrorist attacks when they return home, Air Force officials said.
Marine Corps F/A18C and F/A18D pilots began arriving here last month, and are spending time on training missions, studying their manuals and setting up their squadrons' computer-loaded operations rooms.
According to Ercanbrack, beginning next week, host-nation air traffic controllers at this base will limit their work to the day shift, with U.S. controllers taking over at sundown_an indication that the Americans intend to fly and fight mostly at night.
Some Marine pilots have already been assigned night duty to get them used to staying up all night and sleeping during the day.
Ercanbrack showed the pilots a map of the new taxiway—with so many left and right turns that it took up two slides—designed to keep planes heading for the parking areas out of the way of others landing and taking off.
He also ran through a series of complex arrangements on landing, takeoff and holding patterns, instrument and visual flight procedures and points for gathering on their return from strike missions.
They should try to bundle up into groups of at least four aircraft when they return, Ercanbrack said, to make it easier for the air traffic controllers to bring them down.
"We're so tight here that it's going to be one bottleneck after bottleneck," he warned. "It's going to be nasty out there, so I ask you to please keep your heads on a swivel."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AIRBASE