- MY FIRST FLIGHT.
“BLOWTORCH 60 flight is clear to the north,” the radio cracked advising KAF tower that the section of two griffons and one chinook was proceeding outside of the control zone.
As part of my introductory flight, a Chinook was deployed to move some passengers. So my first flight in theatre was actually a mission day.
“Alright guys, let’s practice some tactical formation turns.” Chip announced over the radio.
“Tac Right!” the radio announced. The Chinook veered to the right sharply. This led to a sequence of three aircraft doing an organized ballet of twisting through the air. The sequences allowed the Chinook to avoid enemy fire while allowing the griffons to position for counter attack; all while maintaining formation defence integrity.
The chinook then completed some un-announced surprise turns. “Shakedowns shackle.” 26 called asking us to switch sides for better use of space and tactical integrity. I slid over over the the right side of the chinook while Grumpy avoided me and crossed under and behind to the left.
We twisted through the dessert sky east of Kandahar city for about 15 minutes practicing shackles and tactical turns until our rusty handling proficiency was back to normal after not flying for several weeks.
“Shakedowns, hate to break up all your fun but we have a task coming in, so time to go into Nathan Smith.” Blowtorch stated. It wasn’t uncommon for missions to come in once airbrone. Most missions happened that way. BLOWTORCH had to drop passengers and cargo into the city-central FOB called Nathan Smith. It named after one of the first Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
The scenery enroute was surreal. Brown ground, brown city and bright blue sky making for golden reflections off the mud walls in the city. The city was massive but lacked tall buildings. The tallest and only colourful building was a bright blue domed mosque which was part of the religious university. The remainder of the city was a series of walls, which formed a labyrinth of homes, roads, canals and courtyards; all made of mud which hardened into concrete-like strength. Outside of the main city were smaller villages of compounds along the green zones. The Arghandhab river flows towards the south. Canals, hand-build, veered off the river, which irrigated the vast areas of grapes, watermelons, pomegranates as well as easily seen marijuana and opium poppy fields. All of this was brown due to the dusty summer season. The only green areas outside the waddis were acres of marijuana that were to be harvested in November.
“Inbound Nathan Smith.” BLOWTORCH advised us he was on final approach.
“Two-five checks,” Chip acknowledged. “Two-six you go cover high, we’ll take low. Deconflict at 700 feet.” He further instructed Grumpy. This allowed each griffon to individually maneuver. The top griffon was not allowed below 700’. In case we lost visual with each other, it was ceiling or floor to separate us.
There were numerous tactical methods that could be executed to conduct escort operations and overwatch protection. Sometimes the situation developed that would require a different protection style so it was worthwhile to do a quick radio confirmation. Sometimes the biggest threat was the risk of colliding with each other – easily preventable with simple communications and deconfliction plans.
Once the Chinook was on the ground, the Griffon teams either climbed up to leave the area quiet to respect civilians around the FOB or operated in a distracting, aggressive manner to prevent Taliban from positioning for an attack. This depended on the briefed threat from Intelligence. Shakedown crews also looked for anything strange such as a dishka 51 calibre heavy machine guns, POL changes or rockets (RPG) teams maneuvering to ambush the chinook. In most cases, just enemy dickers were spotted. Dickers were Taliban positioned to report and/or strike if the conditions were favourable to attack the Chinook.
Our griffon team tailed BLOWTORCH into the FOB checking the flanks for any dickers. I saw nothing peculiar; but then again everything was peculiar. I was so hyped up from training and anxious from the past two days of incidents that I could not tell the difference what was normal and what was not. It was a very overwhelming situation.
In training we became conditioned that people with shovels were digging IEDs. But now that we were there, I realized almost everyone had a shovel. They were filling in irrigation holes for the winter so the waters from the river could be trapped in the fields. Additionally, a shovel over the shoulder looks remarkably similar to an RPG from a distance; and RPGs were not uncommon in the ANA (Afghan Army) or Police. So it became evident very soon to realize that an RPG (especially a shovel) was not necessarily a threat unless pointed at you. Everyone had weapons. The question then became what are they doing with them? Are they concealed or open? Are they shoulder slung or aimed? What is the behaviour of the person with the weapon?
As the chinook flared its speed to land at Camp Nathan Smith, Chip peeled off low level and flew around the FOB looking at anything suspicious outsie a quarter mile. Meanwhile, 26, with Grumpy, popped upto a much high altitude and observed the overall perspective. He maintained a position to protect us and maintain the potential energy to respond by diving in like a hawk, while concurrently being out of harms way to observe. Based on what he saw, he would call the Chinook and give the safest departure direction.
“Blowtorch lifting in 15 seconds southbound,” the BLOWTORCH 60 announced. 15 seconds gave us time to get quickly organized, assess the departure path and fly to arrive in a protective position as Blowtorch lifted away. When this was done well, the choreography would impress a crowd at an airshow. This ballet continued as we flew our griffons in behind Blowtorch as it cleared Nathan Smith’s walls; 26 diving in from above.
“That worked out better than expected. I guess you got a good demonstration on the first day.” Chip proudly stated admiring his smooth execution.
“Sweet.” I was impressed. We accelerated over the city at a low level escorting the chinook back to KAF. A short trip for BLOWTORCH today.
The radio sounded: “Blowtorch is clear to the south. Thanks, we can take it in solo guys, you can proceed with training.”
“Roger that.” Chip replied.
“25 this is 26, Ops cleared to the Reg for dustball and gunnery.” Grumpy announced from Shakedown 26’s radios. He was monitoring Freedom Operations frequency and I was monitoring Slayer’s air space. We then shared info on a common air-to-air chat frequency. The gunners from the Devil’s Infidel’s in the back of my helicopter vibrating with excitement hoping for a TIC every-time Slayer talked. However, there was no TIC for us yet.
“It’s good to be finished walkin’ the dog.” A voice stated over the intercom. It was a friendly rivalry between the two helicopter types. The Chinook could travel much higher and faster and often annoyed by our slow speed. Our retort to them bragging about speed was that we were “walking the dog.” It was just like having a big dumb dog on a leash constantly pulling us along; we always had to remind them to ‘heel’. Although formally it was stated as “Buster 10” over the radio; requesting them to slow down 10 knots. Some Chinook crew took that insult personally. However, the statement proudly bonded the Shakedown crews.
“Absolutely, time to practice for TICs!” An eager voice replied. “Let’s go shoot some shit.”
I aimed our section south and as we approached the Reg desert, we broke into single ship training, 2 miles apart. The threat was minimal in the Reg for single ship training. If an insurgent wanted to take a shot at a helicopter, he would have no place to hide so it would be a suicide mission. Most people who take out helicopters are not suicide bombers. They are specialists wanting to collect a bounty and esteem – it is not a job for a martyr thus not much of a concern to us.
I lined the griffon with the landing spot and slowed my approach.
“On final approach.” I called.
The dust began to rise behind like a surfer’s tidal wave. It approached the cabin and the right gunner called: “dust ball by the door.”
About 2-3 feet above the ground the ball of dark brown talcum dust entirely engulfed the helicopter; the dust rushed in the open cabin doors, up under my visor burning my eyes forcing me to close one eye. I held the controls smoothly as Chip called the radar altimeter and ground speed:
“20 feet, 10 feet, 5 knots…cough, cough.” Pooof!
The sky darkened as the griffon grabbed the ground. The dust matured into a cloud about 300’ in height, it blocked the sunlight. This talcum powder was NOT like anything I had experienced before. I could barely see the pitot tube on the nose of the helicopter. We waited for the dust to clear enough to depart.
I coughed and rubbed my eyes. “I can’t see a fuckin’ thing.” I coughed again.
Chip wiped his chin and cleaned dust from his visor getting ready for the departure. “Many FOBs are still like this so we have to practice. You did okay, let’s get a few more in.”
I briefed the take-off plan to the crew. “Alright guys, Its clear right, moving up.” I called my actions.
“Clear left, gun ready,” the left gunner called.
“Clear right, gun ready, skids free, move up,” the right gunner called.
“Standing by.” Chip answered indicating he was ready on the controls in case I lost control and needed assistance. The dust thickened and swallowed the helicopter again. I held my breath and looked at the instruments and went vertically to clear the obstacles and pitched the controls forward. 5 seconds later, the helicopter re-entered clear air and a bright sky. I climbed and turned around to see a thick ball of dust that resembled an explosion. I exhaled forcefully clearing the dust from around my mouth. I was shocked by the difference between the dust balls between Arizona and Afghanistan. It was significant. Arizona was grainy, this was moon dust. I looked over a few miles and saw 26’s similar dust explosions that lingered in the still air.
“That was nuts — my eyes are burning!” I announced.
“Yup” Chipper coughed out clearing dirt from his mouth. “Let’s do some more – pfft pfft.” He answered while blowing the dirt out of his microphone indicating he was also suffering but used to it. The gunners wore full face shields resembling storm troopers from StarWars, on so the dust wasn’t as bad to them.
We continued another twenty minutes taking turns at landing until our roles as the pilot flying and not-flying went smoothly. Once Chip was satisfied, he announced fun time:
“Shall we get some gunnery in?”
“Yes pulleese.” I hollered excitedly.
“Woo-yea!” The gunners responded. They finally got to have some fun shooting now that this ‘pilot shit’ was done.
“26, its 25. You ready for some gunnery?”
“That’s a big Romeo-Tango (Roger That),” 26 replied I could sense the smile behind the voice.
“Check that – We’re going to Texas Helo, call when your in position.” Chip commanded as the two-ship formation journeyed east to an isolated mountain where many of the coalition helicopter forces used as an aerial gunnery range.
I watched the other helicopter aim towards us from the right as we passed eastbound. He climbed and banked sharply over and behind us then drop into the left rear bout 100 meters away.
“26 is in.” Grumpy called indicating his helicopter had caught up and in tactical formation again.
“Steve, first thing we do is a fly-past to look for people. There are Bedouins living in the range, so we will just overfly a few times to make sure they get out of the way before we shoot.” Chip informed.
“What are you talking about, people live there?” I was perplexed.
Chip pointed to the ridge of mountains oriented southward. There was a deep cut from the sand edge of the dessert easily three hundred feet deep and two-hundred meters wide. At the lip when the sand wall levels out, the dessert continues for over a hundred miles west and fifty miles south to Pakistan. Often caravans of camels or vehicles could be seen slowly migrating across the rolling sandy hills just to the west side of Texas Helo.
“Over there, on the west floor are Bedouin tents.” He pointed. “They come out and collect the brass casings after we shoot – They sell it back to us at the KAF market in the art form of brass camel sculptures and stuff.” Chip added.
I was astonished. These groups of tents had been set up for several years. Women and children (WACs) were playing amongst the tents but they moved out of the way as we circled. It was a brass collection tribe. The hot brass casings from the helicopter machine guns would naturally fall quite close to them; if not on them at times. Bedouin children will playfully wrestle over collecting them as we fired thousands of rounds from directly above. The brass was sold to artisan merchants. These casings were often turned into brass plates, statues and other artifacts – and strangely enough, resold to soldiers at the KAF open-market on Saturdays.
“Area Clear. Bedouins clear – Target Brief. Target is the red boulder, 1 o’clock 1 km, marked by lead’s rounds. This will be a single pass, 1 plus 1, right gun attack, 200 meters, 200 feet high, All effects East.” Chip gave the fire orders over the radio.
“26, visual friendlies, tally target, check brief,” a happy tone responded from Grumpy’s radio.
Chipper continued internally: “Right gunner, copy brief and target?”
“Roger dat sir, tally target, standing by,” the FE Gunner acknowledged mechanically.
Chipper steered the aircraft to about 200 meters left of the targets and about 200 feet above the valley floor. As we approached the target, he commanded:
“Right gunner, are visual with 26 and the Bedouins?” Chip asked.
“Roger.” It was a last chance check just to note where the closest friendlies were in order to ensure no one got hurt other than the targeted red rock rapidly approaching.
“Cleared to Fire.” He commanded
Up until that point, the only weapons I had commanded was the C6 (M240). I knew it wasn’t going to be the ‘chug-chug-chug’ that I was accustomed to, but I never expected this. The initial noise spike painfully penetrated my skull.
Fifty rounds per second of 7.62 mm tracer volleyed off the painted rock target. It was a lava flow of light and a piercing noise so loud it overcame any cockpit communications. The smoke from the rotating barrels spooled out beside my head and filled through my cockpit window. The gunner stopped every 3-4 seconds for a quick communication break. If no one was yelling “check fire” then he continued blasting at the target. Out the left, young Bedouins were running towards the falling casings, fighting each other along the way. I looked right and saw splashes of ricochets from 26 joining our stream of bullets.
“Out of arcs.” The gunner stated checking his fire. This advised the pilot that he couldn’t accurately or safely shoot anymore and it was upto us to adjust or escape. At times he may yell “kick right or left” to twist the griffon in the air allowing for continued firing time.
“Same attack, left gun south to north.” He commanded to 26.
“Roger that.” Grumpy acknowledged from 26.
“You have better view, you have control Steve!” Chip stated.
I turned around to re-align on the target for the left gunner to fire. I aimed the helicopter just left of the Bedouins to not drop casings directly on them.
“Left gunner, Bedouins WACs right, same target, Fire!” I called.
“Visual WACs, tally target!” he replied.
“Out of arcs. Weapon safe.” Called left gunner as we passed.
“After this pass, we quit.” Chip advised over the radio. “The Bedouin WACs are too close now, they’re gonna take a ricochet. Let’s go to the Reg to finish up.” Chip made a safety call.
We proceeded out to the middle of the dessert to continue shooting; near an old dead lake bed where the sand was smooth.
“For fun, we’re gonna do a double gun, full forward fire to show you — just cause it’s cool.” He smirked. “Now keep your hands inside the window or they’ll get sawed off!” He grinned but was serious. If I stretched my arm out the open window it would be sawed off at the elbow in less than a second. With that in mind, I slouched and dipped my body behind my small armour plate on the left of my seat. Chip noticed and shook his head smiling at my expense.
We overflew the target. A piece of brush easily identifiable to both aircraft.
“Target brief, Reference east west lying Lake bed 2 km south?” He directed to 26.
“Contact lake.” the quick answer.
“Centre of lake south side is a prominent bush.” Chip further described.
“Contact bush.” Grumpy answered.
“That is the target.” Chip stated.
“Tallllleeee target.” Grumpy sang triumphantly.
“Dive attack from 500 feet, left egress!” Chip called over the radio.
“Roger that!” the acknowledgement.
We raced across the dessert floor at maximum speed and pitched up aggressively to 500’. 26 was 800 meters behind. Then dove towards the target re-accelerating.
“Gunners do you have the target?”
“Roger that sir.” They both replied.
The sound was deafening beside my head. Chip flew directly at the target and wiggled the peddles left and right steering the bullets across the target. The dessert floor exploded into a dust cloud with splashes of tracers occasionally bouncing off small rocks. I squeezed my helmet tighter to eliminate some of the noise.
He turned left hard at 200 meters away. The left gunner stopped firing but the right gunner continued suppressing until 26’s bullet stream matched his before stopping.
All I could smell was cordite and my ears rung.
“That’s bloody nuts!” I yelled totally overwhelmed with the smoke, fire, noise and dive-attack! “But so cool!” I couldn’t help but smile as I wiggled my jaws trying to clear the ringing in my ears.
“Ha-ha-ha” Chipper was laughing proudly. The other guys followed.
“Woo hoo, yee ha. Fuckin’-A!” the heavy French accent gleefully cheered from the back left.
“That’s why the Taliban call it the breath of Allah!” the FE on the right proclaimed. He laughed. “Are you okay up there Steve?” he asked mockingly. I smiled. I knew they were laughing at my shock.
“Dat’s why dey call us za Devil’s Infidels!” the left gunner proudly stated referring to the enemy’s description of them.
“It’s getting dark soon.” 26 advised over the radio. His smile could be heard through his voice.
“Roger that, let’s go to the FARP and head home.” Chip agreed as he directed me with his arm pointing in the direction to fly.
The FARP means Fuel and Ammo Replenishment. All the helicopters stopped and fuelled with the engines running so they could be ready for the next mission immediately without shutting down.
“You can lead us back, we’ll take number 2 and get some formation practice.” Chip advised to Grumpy in the other helicopter.
It was my turn to fly protection. I slipped in behind Grumpy and practiced maneuvering to cover lead to KAF. It was quite an orientation so far. The sun was setting in the west and the sky was a bright rusty-orange. It was beautiful considering the lifelessness. Yet, with such a hostile environment, there were villages and Bedouin towns every few miles all throughout the desert. The people here were rugged and able to make life survivable despite the harshness.
“Let’s grab some gas, food and brief. We have a mission later transfer tonight and we’ll do the familiarization again, but on NVG.” Chip concluded and briefed to all over the radio.
“Roger that. 26 out.” Grumpy responded.
“Shakedown 25, this is Freedom Ops, over…” the Squadron TOC was calling.
“Go for Shakedown 25.” I replied.
“Gas up and top your ammo, Pax at X-ray for GRACELAND are ready.” He informed us of our new tasking. As what would become normal, a mission came in while we were airborne. My night orientation was just turned into a mission as well…with Special Forces.