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The Atlanta Journal and Constitution March 26, 2003

Swirling sand stalls troops

By Dan Chapman

Neither man nor machine was immune Tuesday from the sand swirling madly across central and southern Iraq.

It crept into the eyes and lungs of allied troops who tried, oftentimes in vain, to clean their rifles. Helicopters were grounded. Air controllers scrapped 85 percent of fighter and bomber sorties.

Tanks, personnel carriers and resupply convoys crawled across the desert, stopping every few hours to empty air and oil filters. Commanders recalibrated attacks on Baghdad, Nasiriyah and other hot spots enveloped in sand and dust.

Sand was another enemy Tuesday thwarting the quick-strike nimbleness of coalition forces. As usual, the infantryman suffered the most. For once, though, one of the best seats in the military theater was at the front of the convoy.

"They're driving across the desert, with huge clouds of dust and sand being kicked up into the air behind them," said Mitchell Zais, a retired brigadier general who commanded U.S. and allied forces in Kuwait in 1999. "If you're not in the lead vehicle, you're just sucking down huge amounts of dirt and sand."

Zais, now president of Newberry College in South Carolina, noted that for every hour that tanks and personnel carriers roll, they must spend at least two hours on maintenance. Changing filters and fluids is a ceaseless proposition in desert warfare.

The Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, which have already played crucial roles in this desert war, are particularly vulnerable to sand and dust. Grains of sand, both fine and thick, can render helicopters useless by clogging air-intake portals for the turboshaft engines.

In the short term, a helicopter may lose power and stall, said Lakshmi Sankar, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Aerospace Engineering. In the long term, a helicopter's rotor blades may be ruined by the pummeling of billions of sand particles, he said.

Still, helicopter technology is vastly improved since the U.S. miltary tried unsuccessfully more than two decades ago to rescue U.S. hostages held captive in Iran.

Wind, sand and mechanical problems doomed the military's attempt in April 1980 to free 53 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Eight crewmen died when an RH-53 helicopter slammed into a transport plane in the Iranian desert once the raid was aborted.

A violent sandstorm so jostled one helicopter that it turned back. A 200-mile-wide dust storm --- undetected by meteorologists --- further stymied rescue plans.

"When you have a sandstorm," warned Patrick Garrett, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a military analysis Web site, "you don't have air operations. Murphy's Law reigns supreme."

Zais insisted, though, that U.S. troops have learned from past mistakes.

"Our pilots are a lot more skilled today," he said, "and they have a lot more practice flying in the desert."


Copyright 2003, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution