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New airbase rises from the desert

PUBLISHED: 19:00 02 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:40 03 March 2010

FIRST it was just an airstrip and lots of sand – now in just over a week a huge bastion of Marine airpower has risen from the wastes of Iraq's western desert.

FIRST it was just an airstrip and lots of sand – now in just over a week a huge bastion of Marine airpower has risen from the wastes of Iraq's western desert.

And as British helicopters prepare to fly into the largest US Marine airbase in the country – after a little wait – they are assured a warm Marine Corps welcome.

More than 2,000 of America's toughest fighting force have set up a logistics nerve centre at Jalibah Forward Operating Base as its huge fleet of helicopters – Cobra gunships, Hueys, Sea Knights, Sea Stallions of the Marine Air Group 29 thunder in and out like grey armoured bees round a pot of honey.

Gunnery Sergeant Jeff Christie, who is usually based at Jacksonville, North Carolina, told how the aircraft, which include fixed wing Hercules transporters, guzzling more than 300,000 tonnes of aviation fuel a day – fed by a 62-mile pipe line which stretches back through vast tracts of desert back to Kuwait.

This mammoth lifeline for the American military machine, which is now pushing towards the capital Baghdad, was built in a mere nine days – and a hard-standing water pipe pumping fresh water from Kuwait is not far behind.

Helicopters from 3 Regiment Army Air Corps will this week base a forward arming and refuelling point (FARP) at the airstrip, which is surrounded by a sprawling city of tents.

Gunny Sgt Christie said: "We not doing this by ourselves – we've got some wonderful British help – and they will be welcome with open arms.

"We spent two and half months waiting on a ship to play so hitting the dirt and getting to do our part is all we've been waiting for."

British pilots have been using the base periodically to refuel but have had to wait for the USMC long line of aircraft to refuel first.

Now they will have their own refuelling teams on standby to keep their machines in their air.

But the amount of traffic that an airbase of this size generates does not come without its dangers.

Four days ago a Huey "browned out" – disappeared in the cloud of dust create dn landing – and crashed, exploding all the ordnance inside it and killed four people.

Gunny Sgt Christie said: "It was a shock. We don't want to have to accept it but we must march on."

A fact the Iraqi divisions around Baghdad and Basra who find themselves in the teeth of this awesome airpower may not live to regret.


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