The island of Masirah is the location of a former RAF military airfield now belonging to the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) which has played a vital part in numerous middle-eastern conflicts since it was established. Masirah is an island approximately 40 miles long by 10 miles wide at its maximum point. On plan it is shaped like an hourglass, being five miles wide at its narrowest point. It lies approximately 15 miles off the Oman coast, to which it belongs politically. It is about 225 miles due south of Muscat and 400 miles southeast of Salalah.
In the 1930s Masirah became one of a number of unmanned staging posts between the RAF bases in Iraq and Aden. Masirah used to be considered one of the less desirable RAF overseas postings: hot, humid, dusty, nowhere to go and little to do when you had time off. The British withdrawal from Aden, the Arabian Gulf and the Far East left Masirah stranded as the very last RAF base east of Suez. In the 1960s and 70s there was only one runway. That runway was a mere 7,500 feet long which was just about long enough for VC-10 transport aircraft and anything smaller but barely long enough for the Mark 1 Victor tankers that I flew in the 1970s. The RAF had a base on the island until March of 1977 when it was closed down. There were facilities for a sea plane base in a bay south of the present base. At one time it was also used as a "staging post" by the old Imperial Airways (forerunner of BA of today) and was one of their stops between England and the Far East.
It is all different now. After the Iranian and other regional crises in the latter days of the Carter Administration, the US spent a lot of money on airfields in friendly countries in the mid-east. That build up proved essential to Desert Shield (the buildup to the war with Iraq). The apron at Masirah was significantly improved over 1979. Masirah is a thriving place with two full-length modern runways at right angles to each other, acres of concrete, modern housing and roads, and satellite television.
While its people may be embracing the modern world, Masirah has not forgotten that Alexander the Great's admiral, Nearchos named it in his log Serepsis. Between 321 and 324 AD, the fleet of Alexander the Great sailed all over the Gulf to locate the best ports for trading.
In the north of the island, near the military base built by the RAF, a Celtic cross was put up in memory of the shipwreck of Baron Inverdale and his crew in 1904. The island remained uninhabited until the military base was built needing a labour force, and the village of Hilf was born.
The RAF first became interested in Masirah in 1929 when they established an un-manned staging post on the island. Over the next ten years a more permanent, but still very modest, presence was established before a larger airfield was developed during the Second World War for anti-submarine operations and as an important staging post to the Far East.
Oman, perhaps the strongest supporter of the US presence in the Gulf, signed an access agreement with the United States in 1981, an unpopular time to do so. It hosts three Air Force pre-positioning sites with support equipment for 26,000 personnel as well as required equipment and fuel to maintain three air bases.
Oman's perceptions of the strategic problems in the gulf diverge somewhat from those of the other Arab gulf states. Geographically, it faces outward to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and only a few kilometers of its territory--the western coast of the Musandam Peninsula--border the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, sharing the guardianship of the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, Oman's position makes it of key importance to the security of the entire gulf. In its willingness to enter into strategic cooperation with the United States and Britain, Oman has always stood somewhat apart from the other gulf states.
In 1975 Oman offered use of Masirah island in the Gulf of Oman to the US.
In 1980 Muscat and Washington concluded a ten-year "facilities access" agreement granting the United States limited access to the air bases on Masirah and at Thamarit and As Sib and to the naval bases at Muscat, Salalah, and Al Khasab. The base was subsequently expanded and modernised to accommodate a new Omani Jaguar fighter squadron.
Masirah was the staging base for the disastrous American attempt to rescue their hostages from the Tehran embassy. The countdown to Desert One began in spring 1979 when a popular uprising in Iran forced longtime Iranian ruler, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, into exile. After months of internal turmoil, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, a Shiite Muslim cleric, took power in the country. On Nov. 4, 1979, just a few weeks after President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment, thousands of Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 hostages and demanding the return of the Shah to stand trial in Iran. American diplomatic efforts to release the hostages were thwarted by Khomeni supporters. At the same time, Pentagon planners began examining rescue options. MC-130s would fly Army Rangers and combat controllers into Manzariyeh. The Rangers would take the field and hold it for the evacuation. Meanwhile, AC-130H Spectre gunships would be over the embassy and the airfield to "fix" any problems encountered. Masirah was a couple of tents and a blacktop strip. It was the final staging area - the last stop before launching.
Since 1981 there has been an ongoing program to harden and upgrade Oman's key airfields, including the construction of hardened aircraft shelters (HAS), the lengthening and strengthening of runways, and development of extensive support facilities, ordnance depots and fuel dumps. The northern bases -- Seeb, Masirah and Khasab -- have been the primary focus of these projects. Seeb is the main transport and logistic base, collocated with the international airport, while Masirah supports air defence and strike/interdiction. Both host airborne surveillance over land and ocean approaches.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Military Airlift Command C-5s and C-141s brought cargo and people to Diego Garcia, mostly via Clark Air Base in the Philippines, but some via the Atlantic/Mediterrainian route (through Egypt to Nairobi or Mombassa, or via Jordan, Saudi and Bahrain on contract DC-8s). Then it was resequenced and flown to Masirah Island, off the East Coast of the Sultanate of Oman, where a USN supply ship crew would laboriously offload the aircraft, break down the pallets by hand, sling them under a helo and fly them out to the ship. Since there were no 463L pallets stockpiled at Masirah, the "retrograde" cargo had to be built up, again by hand, on the same pallets the inbound cargo came in on. In the early '80s the process took about 6 hours on the apron before the upload was complete. There was often a a U.S. Navy C-2 COD (for Carrier Onboard Delivery) waiting at Masirah for the people we brought in, if they were important enough for the carrier on station to need immediately. Later on, in '87-'88 the Navy used S-3s for COD, and flew direct from DG to the battle group, and so Masirah became a lonely, cargo only stop.
In January 1984, the VP-9 "Golden Eagles" deployed to Diego Garcia and maintained a detachment in Kadena, Japan. It broke new ground on deployment by becoming the first squadron to conduct operations out of Berbera, Somalia, and Masirah, Oman. Navy Patrol Squadrons operate P-3 Orion aircraft from permanent detachment sites in Manama, Bahrain; Masirah, Oman; Kadena, Okinawa and Diego Garcia.
The US-Oman basing agreement was renewed for a further ten-year period in December 1990. Although some Arab governments initially expressed their disapproval for granting the United States basing privileges, the agreement permitted use of these bases only on advance notice and for specified purposes. During the Iran-Iraq War, the United States flew maritime patrols from Omani airfields and based tanker aircraft to refuel United States carrier aircraft. The United States Army Corps of Engineers carried out considerable construction at the Masirah and As Sib air bases, making it possible to pre-position supplies, vehicles, and ammunition. Hardened aircraft shelters were built at As Sib and Thamarit for use of the ROAF.
In 1990-91 the Americans again used the base during the eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Oman declared its support for the multinational coalition ranged against Iraq. The facilities on Masirah became an important staging area for the movement of coalition forces to the area of conflict. At the height of the Gulf War, more than 3,000 U.S. troops were stationed at Omani air bases on Masirah Island, Thumrait, and Seeb International Airport near Muscat. Since then the U.S. military presence was mainly limited to two aircraft units -- a C-130 transport squadron at Seeb North Air Base and a P-3 maritime patrol detachment at Masirah Air Base.
The UK exercise 'Argonaut 2001' deployment from the UK to Oman for exercise Saif Sareea II (Swift Sword 2) included 6 Tornado F.3 and 7 Harrier GR.7 at Masirah.
The project to repair the main runway and taxiway for use by the Air Force Air Combat Command at Masirah Island MB is unique in that Air Force Red Horse Squadrons came to the Corps of Engineers, Transatlantic Programs Center (TAC) for help with the design. Normally Red Horse units do their own engineering work but the scope of the project was beyond their in-house capabilities. TAC has prior experience working in Oman. A program totaling approximately $300 million was completed during the 1980s, providing upgraded and new construction at four Oman airfields, including Masirah Island. The facilities are available for use by U.S. Forces with the permission of the Sultan of Oman. The project to repair the runway and taxiway included developing a set of plans and material supply specifications. In addition to the pavement repairs, significant interior drainage problems needed to be corrected. This project took partnering amongst the Corps to get the job done. The workload in TAC's pavement design department was too great at the time to perform the work so TAC partnered with the Omaha District. TAC performed the electrical and project management, Omaha District performed the civil and geotechnical design, the Transportation Systems Center and ERDC provided technical support and oversight. During the design process Red Horse members helped guide the designers in the quality and detail of the design products needed. In early 2001 Congress approved funding authorization for Red Horse construction effort. The Red Horse stockpiled materials in April/May 2001 to avoid the monsoon season, which makes for difficult barge delivery due to the high winds. Construction was slated to start at the beginning of FY02. The the 823rd RED HORSE Squadron was originally set to deploy to Masirah Island in October 2001 to head up a runway repair project it had spent nearly nine months planning. After Sept. 11, the the 823rd RED HORSE Squadron moved instead to al-Udeid, in charge of the ramp effort because he had experience with airfield construction and design. The first task was to divert ships carrying 148 pieces of equipment headed for Masirah Island to Qatar.
Fifty-two hours after they received a phone call with a deployment notificiation Sept. 25, the 65 members of the 27th Civil Engineer Squadron and 27th Services Squadron landed at a location in Southwest Asia. Photographs suggest but do not demonstrate that this location is Masirah, and the association with the 319th Air Expeditionary Group would suggest that this location is Masirah, since this unit is deployed to "Base X" in Oman. There is some confusion as to the deployment location of the 319th Air Expeditionary Group [with some suggestions that it is at al-Udeid in Qatar], but several Air Force publications include references to both al-Udeid and "Base X" that make it clear that these are two different locations.
The mission was clear, but far from simple: take the barren land and create a base capable of supporting aerial refueling operations. The KC-135s that would do the refueling work had been at the new base for three days when the Cannon airmen hit the ground. They had to play catch-up and build a base for people who had already arrived as well as the thousands who were on their way. At one point, the 319th Air Expeditionary Group's support squadron included more than 300 people, made up of engineers, communication technicians, personnel specialists and services specialists, all responsible for supporting more than 1,000 people. The land looked like 50 acres of empty desert terrain common in parts of New Mexico. The only differences were the 118-degree heat and 80-percent humidity. Working around the clock, the group put up 165 tents, 35 hardened facilities, and a dining hall that sat 400 people and served 4,000 meals a day. They built a 5.2-megawatt power plant, a water storage farm that provided more than 160,000 gallons of water and a fuel farm holding more than 1 million gallons. What was once barren land soon became a fully fledged operational base with services comparable to bases in the United States. It was accomplished in less than 30 days. It was a big job for a big mission. The deployed group made it possible to provide aerial refueling to fighters and bombers that flew into Afghanistan. The base had flown more than 1,100 refueling missions by 11 February 2002.
In March 2002 Vice President Cheney toured the air base on Oman's Masirah Island. Neither the United States nor Oman acknowledges US use of the base, but it is an open secret in the region that it has been used for bombing runs to Afghanistan.
In March 2002 the Omani Defence Ministry invited international contractors to bid for the contract to build a new military air base on Masirah island for the Royal Omani Air Force. The project, which is valued at about $70 million, entails the construction of runway facilities with the capacity to support fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Associated works will include the design, supply and installation of airfield lighting, air traffic control and hanger facilities. The UK's Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick has drawn up the masterplan.
On 07 July 2002 Marines from Task Force India boarded an Air National Guard C-130 transport aircraft at Masirah for their final leg into Afghanistan. The Marines provided security for the American Embassy, its personnel and mission in Kabul.
War Reserve Materiel (WRM)
USAF Prepositioned War Reserve Materiel (WRM) provides support to bare base systems, medical, munitions, fuels mobility support equipment, vehicles, rations, aerospace ground equipment, air base operability equipment, and associated spares and other consumables at designated locations. Responsible for asset receipt, accountability, serviceability, storage, security, periodic inspection and test, maintenance, repair, outload, and reconstitution of prepositioned WRM. Current WRM operating locations include Seeb, Thumrait and Masirah in Oman; Al Udeid in Qatar; and Manama in Bahrain.
Services under the War Reserve Materiel (WRM) contract are performed by DynCorp Technical Services at Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) bases at Masirah, Thumrait, and Seeb; Al Udeid, Qatar; Manama, Bahrain; and Shaw AFB, SC. DynCorp provides support to bare base systems, medical, munitions, fuels mobility support equipment, vehicles, rations, aerospace ground equipment, air base operability equipment, and associated spares and other consumables at designated locations. Responsible for asset receipt, accountability, serviceability, storage, security, periodic inspection and test, maintenance, repair, outload, and reconstitution of prepositioned WRM. This is a one year contract with an option to renew the contract. Total length of contract is seven years.
Services include maintaining war reserve materiel (WRM) stored in the Sultanate of Oman, State of Bahrain, and State of Qatar. In Oman, contract performance is on Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) government installations, and all access to the installations is controlled by the RAFO Security. In Bahrain, performance is in an area controlled by US Navy and Bahrain Port Authority. In Qatar, the Host Nation controls access to the work site.
War reserve materiel includes medical and munitions, warehousing of rations, and various other supplies. The contractor shall be responsible for performing all or any specifically designated portions of the functions accomplished under this contract during any wartime operations. Wartime operations are those actions, including contingency planning, which would be required to support current or any future United States Air Force wartime requirement. Emergency situations (i.e., accident and rescue operations, civil disturbances, natural disasters and military peacetime contingency operations and exercises) may necessitate the Contractor provide increased or reduced support as indicated below when required by Contracting Officer. Military contingency operations may necessitate military personnel assistance be provided to the Contractor. Should this occur, the Contractor will be relieved of responsibilities and accountability for the phase of the contract taken over by the military. Optional WRM sites may be exercised at any time during the performance of this contract. In the event the Government adds a new site to the contract, both parties to this contract hereby agree to negotiate in good faith the applicable price necessary to account for the change.
Masirah falls under the administration of the Sharqiya region. This is Oman's largest island and Alexander the Great made it his base, referring to it as 'Serepsis'. Nowadays, dates, olives, pomegranates and mangos are grown and the islanders' main occupations are weaving and making fishing nets. Masirah is accessed by a daily ferry service or by using Oman Air's domestic flight.
Masirah is only 65 km long and 15 km wide. Not many people live on Masirah; most of those are in the town of Ras Hilf where the ferry docks. Fishing is the principal economic activity on Masirah. Large fishing dhows moored off the southern beaches take in large catches which are shipped on to the mainland in large refrigerated chests and driven to the more densely populated north of Oman.
Stony wadis (wadi Ra'siyah) lead along secret trails to the center of the island or to the heart of the mountains found on the southern side (Jebel Ash Shabhah).
Many would question the reason for going to Masirah Island as there is already so much to see in Oman's varied and spectacular landscapes and historical sites. However, those who have travelled across the Wahiba to the sea must carry on further and take the ferry boat to reach this stretched out island, which looks like a 60 km long and 18 km wide oyster shell. In fact amongst its many wonders, it has many rare seashells, like the acteon eloiseae, and a coral reef full of promise. You can also see the largest concentration of nesting loggerhead turtles in the world.
The Gulf of Masirah has the most beautiful coral reefs in Oman. These reefs and those at Barr AI Hickman on the continental coast just opposite, which are formed by Brain coral, make up Oman's most spectacular reef barrier.
Masirah Island is host to all four of Oman's nesting species of turtle? One of the few sites where olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) are found in the region, Masirah Island also boasts the world's largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta). Loggerhead turtle populations are widespread, although some are known to have declined and others are suspected to have declined. The largest known nesting populations are those on Masirah Island (Oman) and in Florida (USA). A minimum of 30,000 females nest annually on Masirah. Between 6,000 and 15,000 females are estimated to lay in USA, the great majority of these in Florida.
Apart from the presence of a military base on the island, Masirah also has 8000 inhabitants who mainly live from fishing. Modern development is striding through Masirah Island with housing units, a hospital, a water desalination plant.
Thanks to a new hotel, tourists can now spend a weekend or a few days on the island and make the most of its attractions. However, camping is still the best way of discovering its soul and appreciating its unspoilt beauty.
Masirah is notable for being the former home to the British Eastern Relay Station (BERS) where the BBC programs were broadcasted to the eastern Gulf and the sub-continent on medium and short wave. This station was closed down, with the transmissions moving to a brand new station on the mainland of Oman close to the historic shipbuilding town of Sur. In February 2000 Merlin Communications signed a major contract with the BBC World Service for the replacement of their Masirah Island Relay Station. The contract required Merlin to manage the design and construction of a new short wave and medium wave transmission station at A'Seela on the mainland of Oman, as well as one short wave transmitter, and two short wave antennas at the existing BBC Thailand Relay Station. Work on site at A'Seela, Oman commenced in March 2000 and the MF building was completed in December 2000, and this was followed by the completion of the HF building at the end of February 2001.
Quality of Life
Things are stable and pretty dull on Masirah Island. The people who work here have nicknamed it "Moon Base Alpha". It is also called "Fantasy Island" because anything you need, want or deserve here is a complete fantasy. The supply of rock and dust is near record levels. The locals claim this is the rainy season becdause evidently it rained on this day 5 or 6 years ago. Rumor has it that a cloud was spotted this morning but it just turned out to be the natives trying to flee.
The wadi is in fine shape. No major structural problems but what was thought to be peeling paint was just wind driven sand. The exterior is really sandy too. Wadi refers to the local slang, which in rough translation means "crappy place where we keep the Navy". The wadi garden is the central area of the compound where the local horticulture is meticulously groomed and admired. These plants, bushes and shrubs receive daily care and generous amounts of water. In return they provide some of the most entwined, gnarled and erratic looking vegitation on Earth. As per the local laws of nature everything here is required to be sand color which includes the wadi garden. A curious quality of these Omani plants is that they all, no matter what kind they are, generate large quantities of the sharpest spikes and barbs known to man.
During "Wadi Ball" season, teams compete with only a few serious long-term injuries. Wadi ball is a hybrid between volleyball and football. Scoring is the same as volleyball and the net is identical. The difference is when the ball is served by the serving team, their forward players are allowed to cross under the net and tackle the opposing players. The serving players are required by the IWBC or International Wadi Ball Commission rules to return to their own side prior to the point being played out. A violation of these rules results in what is known as a sob or what is known in the American southern regions as an "S.O.B.". This is strictly enforced with penalties ranging from offending players being buried inthe sand to loss of teeth or small appendages. The ball itself is the same size and shape as a volleyball but is extremely ragged. This was thought to enhance grip by the ancient Wadi Ball designers. The Wadi Ball court is based loosely on beach volleyball except for the beach and sand part. The court is required to appear to look like sand but must consist of microscopic razor sharp corrals and barbs not exceeding 2 millimeters thickness. This is known as the "buffer layer". The buffer layer protects the grooved and craggy solid granite rock upon which the Wadi Ball court sits above.
A major difference between Wadi Ball and volleyball is that in Wadi Ball net play is highly encouraged. Players are expected to utilize the net for rebounds, blocks and reach overs. This likens the sport more to football, specifically in the field goal blocking sense. In actuality the net is more for keeping opposing players separated and at bay than for ball control. Wadi Ball is played both day and night. Day matches are played under the 21 billion candle power sun while night games are illuminated by three 7 billion candle power wadi ball spotlights. These lights must be set at eye level and also double as searchlights for incoming air raids.
The dining experience in Masirah, Oman is truly an experience. The Navy television commercials tout "the adventure starts here"; It is much the same with dining in Masirah, each meal begins a new adventure. The local fare is varied and colorful with green and blue being the most common hues. Occasionally there are brilliant reds and yellows but some don't mess with any of the attempts at Mexican dishes, as the cooks do not even know where Mexico is. The daily special offers a fine break from the published menu but is often pitted with various pitfalls and various pits. The food is really not that bad, as the abdominal screamers usually subside before the next meal.
Most of the crew's activity on non-flying days consists of greeting incoming aircraft. Planes are met by all aircrew, the maintenance department in its entirety and the complete operations staff. Support vehicles of all types are manned and ready many minutes prior to a plane landing. When the plane taxis in and comes to a complete stop all the awaiting personnel rush forward with intense enthusiasm and energy ready to lend a hand and greet friends, pals and colleagues. When it is discovered that the newly arrived plane is carrying absolutely nothing of interest or use to the folks on the ground, they scatter like peasants at the height of the black plague leaving the crew to enjoy a fine day of off-loading heavy and greasy maintenance parts.
Recently, there has been a movement afoot to improve the habitat and local environment. This effort consists of patrolling the perimeter of the Wadi and the adjacent areas for trash and the assorted debris. Since there have no supplies or other items that generate this trash, personnel spend most of their time generating sweat and language that qualifies as trash. While environmentalists claim that cleaning the surroundings is good for the Earth, others believe that rocks look just as good upside down and they don't seem to mind being covered with dust.
This little piece of paradise is also home to the famous Wadi-Lizards. The Wadi-Lizards are not a ball club nor should they be confused with the lounge lizards of less certain character. These little brutes are chameleons of various sizes. They have oversized heads, large claws and a long tail to match their long, ultra quick sticky tongues. With these tongues they feast on and other airborne snacks which come within their range. This trait is particularly helpful when the lizards are near your feet thus eliminating the need to carry a fly swatter. This may be the reason these creatures have adapted so keenly to the presence of certain individuals here at the Wadi.
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