US pilots flying missions over Iraq come to the region expecting a host of challenges, including swirling sandstorms and urban battlefields filled with a mix of enemies and civilians.
But Naval aviators from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman said one of the newest difficulties has been the least expected: navigating increasingly crowded airspace in a region that has experienced the world’s fastest airline growth in recent years.
The mix of US combat aircraft and planes from Persian Gulf airlines illustrates the growing divide between countries like Iraq and Lebanon, which are mired in conflict, and oil-rich nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar enjoying windfall revenue and surging investment.
Commander Bill Sigler, head of an F/A-18 fighter jet squadron on the Truman, estimated that planes flying off the carrier headed to Iraq were confined to one-fifth of the airspace available the last time he was in the region in 2002.
“You have to carve a strip out of the middle of the Gulf and that’s frequently below 15,000 feet [4,570m], which for us is like confining your car to the sidewalk,” Sigler said. “It does not give us much to work with.”
The Truman’s battle group ended its Gulf deployment this week and is returning to Norfolk, Virginia. It was replaced by the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Civilian air traffic in the Middle East doubled between 2002 and last year, the International Air Transport Association has said.
Pilots say the problem of crowded airspace gets even more difficult once they enter Iraq because of the layers of manned and unmanned military aircraft (UAV) and civilian planes flying in and out of the major cities — making it among the most crowded skies in military history.
“There are little UAVs, there are helicopters, there are bigger UAVs, there are airplanes, there are bigger airplanes, there are really big UAVs, there are really big airplanes, and there’s commercial air traffic over there,” said Rear Admiral William Gortney, commander of the Truman carrier group and a fighter pilot himself.
“It’s a real challenge,” he said.