May 02, 2005

black hawk up



Objectively, a day trip from Balad to the Green Zone involves very little actual risk. Subjectively is a whole other story. Typically, I was nervous up to the moment that I actually sat down in the outgoing Blackhawk; then I started to grin.

It didn't help that the two passengers I flew out with were Airborne doctors who chatted breezily during the preflight about their recent patients; a "star cluster to the face" (don't know what that is, but it sounds nasty) and a piece of shrapnel that lodged on the inside of the victim's skull (without any brain damage). They talked wistfully about the "freedom birds", the airplanes that fly from Balad back to America, and the sad fact that they weren't on one.

To fly a Blackhawk from Balad, you sign up at the space-available tent, and at your appointed hour a minibus takes you out to the flight line, where dozens of helicopters, mostly Blackhawks and two-rotored Chinooks, await. After grisly conversation you climb in.

There isn't quite enough room to stand. The door gunners sit on padded seats behind the cockpit; a machine gun is mounted on a flexible arm in the open window in front of each them. The space between them is occupied by a rugged military laptop, from which various cables and wires run. Flaps and panels in the ceiling keep storage niches covered. Everything is painted black. Behind the door gunners are three forward-facing seats; behind that are two benches of five seats, facing one another. The seats are canvas and metal pipe, and the belt buckle is circular, with three apertures, for the side and two shoulder straps; to release, you twist its propellor-shaped top. The main doors slide open and shut, and are windowed.

They turn on the laptop first, which I found surprising. Its screen is touch-sensitive and seems to display some kind of map. Then the power, this sounds like an aircraft engine coming alive, and then the rotors start to turn, like fifteen-foot knife blades with the sharp edge away from the rotation direction, the last foot or so of each rotor bent back about thirty degrees, forming a vaguely swastika shape. A few slow rotations, then whop, whop, whopwhopwhopwhopwhopwhop and you better have your earplugs in by now because Blackhawks are VERY LOUD.

Taxi out onto the runway; hop up, then down again, standard procedure for some reason, in sync with the other Blackhawk next to you (they almost always travel in buddy-system pairs) and then up you go, like an angled elevator, the ground falls away. But not too far. They fly about 50-100 feet above the ground, at circa 240 miles per hour. It's 20 minutes from Balad to Baghdad.

From the air Balad/LSA Anaconda looks like a child's sandbox full of military toys. The area outside is much greener, a patchwork of farming fields fissured with canals and pocked with clusters of palm trees. Then villages, big L-shaped concrete blocks and crude brick buildings with thatch/mud roofs. Roads, smooth and modern, well-trafficked. Herds of goats flee from the helicopter noise. Lots of people wave; some keep their arms lowered and stare; some just ignore us1. We cross over wide muddy rivers, vast barren brown patches, more roads, towns, farmland. Not a lot of variety except that the size of the villages increases. On the way back, it was nearing sunset, and I could see street lights in the larger towns, fluorescent tubes mounted on hockey-stick-shaped poles.

A Blackhawk is a remarkably smooth ride. The whole aircraft vibrates, but it's a kind of soothing white-noise vibration rather than anything jarring. Both flights did feature a couple of sudden heart-pumping lurches though. On the way there we repeatedly banked sharply, sometimes by what felt like as much as 45 degrees (but was probably more like 30). I presumed it was SOP to do this, a kind of evasive action, but the flight back was pretty much a straight and level shot. I guess each flight crew has its quirks.

The ride itself is absolutely exhilirating, landscape zooming past and disappearing under you, like a dream of flying.

On the way out, one door gunner had a bag full of little Tyco stuffed horses, the size of my hand, white with a brown mane, beneath his seat. He placed one stuffed horse in the turret mount in front of him, presumably as a mascot. Midway there, as we flew over a village, he dropped another one out. A gift to Iraq? A sacrifice to propitiate Lady Luck?

On the way there we spent hardly any time over Baghdad, all I saw was a sea of buildings, a busy traffic-jammed highway, then bridges over the wide Tigris, and we were already descending into the Green Zone. The descent takes about five seconds; the landing is gentle, bumpless. On the way back, we spent more time over the city, flying from the palaces of the Green Zone, across commercial streets and areas full of entirely built-up two- and three-story buildings on palm-tree-lined houses, drab and sprawling, a bit like a characterless suburb of Cairo except not as built up. Beyond that were the inevitable shantytowns, one-story shacks, slums smeared across miles - Sadr City, I suppose. Fabulous and exotic, it wasn't. I can't imagine there'd be much reason to come to Baghdad if you hadn't convinced yourself you needed to conquer it.

1Yeah, I know, jarring perspective shift. It's a blog, whaddayawant?

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