March 27, 2011 / 12:43 PM / 6 years ago

France's floating frontline against Libya's Gaddafi

ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER CHARLES DE GAULLE (Reuters) - Dressed in a khaki uniform and protective helmet, a French pilot emerges from the Rafale fighter jet that just landed on the deck of the Charles de Gaulle carrier, back from another mission over Libya.

A dozen mechanics scramble to assess the plane: the fuel specialists wear red, the maintenance crew green and the on-deck traffic controllers wear yellow, barking orders that have earned them the French nickname “yellow dogs”.

A Hawkeye radar plane is next to land, soon to be replaced by another on the night flight.

“It never stops,” says a lieutenant.

The Charles de Gaulle is a week into its mission to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and protect civilians from forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The coalition air strikes seem to have helped the rebels turn the tide against his forces, but Gaddafi says they have killed civilians.

French forces said on Saturday that they had destroyed seven Libyan aircraft -- five planes and two helicopters -- in the western town of Misrata, where pro-Gaddafi units have mounted an assault to try to oust rebels.

FROM AFGHANISTAN TO LIBYA

The nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle is France’s only operational aircraft carrier. Its 2,000 sailors have had little rest since a previous mission supporting the decade-old campaign in Afghanistan ended in February.

A map of Libya has replaced the contours of Afghanistan on the walls and monitors of the carrier’s radar room.

“At least we’re being put to good use,” said Jordan, a quartermaster. It is business as usual for most sailors, he added, even if officers “up there” might be feeling the stress.

For now, officers are satisfied with the mission’s progress, though they are wary of Gaddafi’s ability to surprise.

“This isn’t a mission that is particularly problematic, aside from the fact that we have no room for error,” said the carrier’s commander Jean-Philippe Rolland.

As for the pilots, the mission has become almost like home.

“Getting into the cockpit is like getting into bed at night,” said a Super Etendard fighter pilot.

“It’s a place we know very well.”

Even at night, the Charles de Gaulle is abuzz with activity.

“It’s an airfield, an airport, an airbase, a city of 2,000 people, two nuclear reactors, all in a tin can,” a sailor said.

Although officers have the luxury of using the carrier’s lifts, sailors are forced to run up and down between decks.

In a world without windows, morale is kept up in recreation areas, where telephones, the Internet and television offer contact with the outside world.

“In four months on the Indian Ocean, I only had four people sent home for psychological reasons,” the chief medic said.

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