29 November 2014

Riding in Helicopters

Check another one off my Bucket List.

I spent the better part of two nights last week riding around on a CH-47 (Chinook) helicopter. They are the big hosses with two rotars. The video above describes their uses, and I did an able job telling the story, if I do say so. (The Chinook company first sergeant said so, too.)

For me, it was an experience because riding in helicopters is fun. To ride in one this big, at night, with the tail open, and on a combat mission was a privilege.

We take off from Bagram Airfield (BAF) at around 10 pm, a fly to a FOB to pick up the assault team. On this night, I wasn't sure exactly who the other passaengers were. It was near total black out, and in the green glow of the optical devices, U.S. special forces look uncannily similar to Afghans. About a company-size element composes the assault force, which means we have to fly in a formation of four Chinooks.

Four big CH-47s would be an intimidating sight for the enemy, except they don't see it coming. The moon is low in a cloudless sky, but without the night vision goggles by which the pilots fly and the gunners aim, nothing is visible. A 20-minute ride takes us to the mountaintop where the assault force disembarks and stealthily slips down into the villages.

This likely isn't a routine patrol, otherwise they'd do it during the day. More probably, though I can't be sure, these guys are on a combined operation to take into custody one or more bad guys.

As you can see in the video, good guys are pretty well crammed into the aircraft. These things can safely carry aroud 35 Soldiers. Times four and you get a force of almost 150. At this point you don't want to be the bad guy in the village in the dark.

It takes about 30 seconds to get them all off the birds and we fly back to the FOB, engines warm and ready to go. Since I add nothing to mission readiness, I take the nap of a lifetime. Despite the almost unbearable whine of the idling Chinooks, I get an exceedingly satisfying snooze wearing ear plugs. The crew chief hangs a cot across the hull and looks even more comfortable.

At about 3:30 am the blades begin to churn and we head back to our mountaintop rendezvous point. The Soldiers look the same in the green haze, but they are excited. Mission accomplished, it seems. Later I learn that detainees are carried back on one of the other birds. We arrive at BAF at 5:00 am.

What this says about the larger war is debatable. But in my experience, counterinsurgency has worked because we have dedicated Soldiers, reliable and fearsome equipment, and goals that are honorable and laudable. So if you ask this Soldier, we are winning.

And winning can be fun.

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