6. Night Flight Area Orient

NOTE: I had difficulty finding imagery so I selected from the internet those that best illustrated my story. Thanks.

  1. NIGHT FLIGHT ORIENTATION.
NVG mountains
An idea of whatt it looked like on a bright night.

“Freedom Ops, this is Shakedown 25 flight, at the FARP, estimating X-Ray in 15 minutes.” Chip advised over the radio.

Hasty mission changes were not uncommon. Actually, I preferred the hasty over the planned. The end state was always the same in Afghanistan but planned missions seemed pedantic. Hasty missions were given quickly over the radio. “You, go here and do this.” Simple. The tactical situations and enemy intelligence briefings were often speculative based on past events. Then intelligence would forecast future events based on their ‘sources’. Despite their efforts, often, they were like a bad weather forecast. Expect sunshine but get shot at or expect dark and gloomy and nothing happens. So from my experience, I preferred the ‘giddy-up’ style. Just give’er!

Since this was common, our single task days usually expanded into three, four or five task days as the tactical activity unfolded. With that in mind, we took a cooler with food to prepare for long days. The common load for the crews eventually became pop-tarts, water and RedBull. I remember having numerous days in which I was strapped to a cockpit seat for ten hours with a full ballistic vest, tactical weapons vest, pistol and ammo all on top of dual layer clothing for fire protection. The cockpit was rarely below 40 degrees celsius; leaving us soaked in sweat before we even lifted off the ground. And the only time we stepped out was at a fuel stop when we could pee on the berms, snooze in our seats, or stretch while waiting for their next mission; but the rotor never stopped.

Steve muscle pose or egyption dance
Egyptian yoga and FARP pee break.

“This is excellent, we can get the night training done too.” Chip stated. “And I can go home sooner!” He added with a sarcastic giggle.

“Alright guys, let’s goggle up while we wait.” He told the crew and subsequently hinted to the other aircraft with hand gestures.

Each team member prepared their individual Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and attached them to our helmets.

“25, after FARP, come to X-ray and pick up 2 passengers for GRACELAND.” The radio ordered.

“25 flight roger.” Chip responded.

GRACELAND was a Special Forces base. Apparently it was the former home of Taliban Leader, Mullah Omar who was ousted during the initial war. It was home now to Coalition Forces conducting special missions and training for local ANA.

NVG soldiers on walls
Examples of NVG – soldiers on lookout

“Okay guys, its pretty much dark and we are fueled up…so goggle up.” Chip stated.

The gunner passed me my google bag. I clicked in the NVGs to their mounts and strung the electrical connection to the battery pack behind my head. When I clicked the goggle tubes forward, the world was illuminated once again in a green glow. Even after all these years, I still think that technology is cool.

“On goggles left.” I stated letting the crew know I could see. I was still adjusting my focus on anything I could find that offered sharp contrast; a light post sufficed but it was not sharp, but good enough.

“Goggles right…left gun on goggles…right gun on goggles,” everyone sequentially advised.

“Two full throttles, complete the take off check and let’s go.” Chip commanded.

“KAF tower Shakedown 25 flight FARP to X-ray direct.” I asked over the tower.

“Shakedown 25, winds zero-eight-zero degrees at five knots, altimeter two-niner-niner-five, cleared air taxi direct X-ray.” Tower answered as we lifted the two helicopters sequentially east for the mile long short flight.

On arrival to the ramp, a couple of civilian looking guys with beards, long hair and jeans were waiting for the helicopters. I lifted my goggles to view them in the ambient ramplight. Not looking at all like soldiers, but obviously snake-eaters. A slang term often referring to the special forces. They often lived a harsh life surviving on minimal resources in remote areas doing their ‘business’; hence the descriptive nickname. These were most likely Canadians from JTF-2; a special counter terrorist organization that was ‘apparently’ employed in the Afghanistan area. There was no need to ask for a passenger manifest, there wouldn’t be one for the team – Snake Eaters travelled incognito.

“What the hell? Is that dude actually wearing sunglasses?” The right gunner sarcastically stated looking for an opportunity to crack a joke. The passenger, like most of us was wearing ballistic glasses and had probably broken or lost the clear lenses. I myself had gone through several pairs leaving only my ‘shaded’ lenses to wear. So I ‘got’ the sunglasses at night problem. However, it did make an opportunity to poke some fun.

“No way! Is dat Hollywood guy getting on here or on 26?” the left gunner’s french accent enquired.

“Here. Go get em.” Chip stated laughing at this stereotypical image.

The right gunner hopped out and escorted our passenger onboard. He strapped himself in like he had done it a hundred times. He didn’t flinch amidst the apparent jocularity of the Devil’s Infidels. He didn’t put on a headset just rose his thumb in the air, converted it to a karate chop which sharply chopped into the direction he wanted to go. I smartly replied with my own thumb up, and karate chopped in the proper direction mumbling over the intercom so only the crew could hear:

“Not that way Rambo…this way.” Followed by a few chuckles from the Infidels.

“26 is green to go.” Grumpy announced keying Chip to wind up the throttles.

As we flew past the airfield and cleared the security fence to the north, Chip called: “Fence out.”

I replied, “ASE, GUNS, LIGHTS, check”.

It was a standard checklist to prepare the aircraft for battle. I ensured the anti-missile flares were enabled, the gunners’ guns were enabled that external lights were blacked out. That only way we could be seen was with night vision devises.

Conversely, It was important to complete this checklist “fence in and fence out” on arrival to a FOB to ensure the flares and guns didn’t go off inadvertently. The ‘fence’ drill was a sort of last chance safety check.

The flares are devises designed to fool a heat seeking missile. Sometimes the flares would go off on their own. That was called a false hit. This was un-nerving as the loud bang of the flares going off implied a missile was coming to greet you. If a missile didn’t explode near the helicopter within a couple of seconds, it was a false hit and you could relax. After several hundred of these events, we became quite desensitized.

“So the plan is to drop off passengers, then goto the desert to experience the flares and then some more night gunnery and dustball work. After that, if we have some time, we’ll go hunt for IED planters for an hour.” Chip radioed the section.

“Roger that,” was 26’s response. “Hopefully Slayer will have some work for us tonight,” he added.

“Hope so, we’ll poke around Panjwai and try to provoke something,” he cockily added.

“What? Provoke?” I responded with naive concern.

Chip coached: “Just about every engagement helicopters have are do to prolonged observation. The Taliban are smart; they are not going to be shooting from obvious locations and make themselves overt. You have to find them, watch, then poke a bit.”

“Ohhhh K.” I reluctantly replied hearing some chuckles over the intercom. I was about to get schooled again.

Chip continued: “If you find a suspect, just observe. Let ’em know you see them and are watching. You’ll see. The innocent people will go hide but Taliban will saunter around watching you. Sometimes you have to get “in-their-face” and make them draw.”

“You got my attention.” I responded. “Maybe you gotta show me.”

“Yaaa…that’s what we’re talkin’ about! Call Slayer.” The gunner cheered over the intercom.

“I will, but we have to get the training done first.” I looked at Chip. His two goggle tubes staring back at me shaking left and right.

We approached the city, despite having very limited lighting, it was still very bright under the Night Vision Goggles. Chip pointed out the blimp cable. A tethered blimp with a camera attached was moored to Camp Nathan Smith and extended vertically to 3000’. It was difficult to see in the day, let alone the night. Once we located the line, we steered around it to avoid getting hung up; or chopping it loose. This had happened to a smaller version spy blimp a few months earlier (to another nation’s helicopter). Thankfully it was only an embarrassment vice a potentially lethal outcome.

Blimp over city
Black spec is the camera-blimp (I think) – tough to find imagery.
Blimp Kabul but same idea CNS
Kabul Blimp but more or less the same idea was in Kandahar City

“Slayer this is Shakedown 25 over Kandahar for C-N-S. Request airspace update.” I stated over the radio.

“Roger that Shakedowns. Shamus One-one is over the city at 5000′ going west to east on patrol; Shamus one-two will be following in five minutes. They are escorting a blackhawk to NATHAN SMITH. I gotta UAV blocked fifty-five to seventy-five. Stay below five.” Slayer advised.

“There’s lotsa hardware in the air tonight in this small space.” Chip sounded vigilant. Rightfully so. I was already looking and couldn’t see the Infrared flashers on the other aircraft due to the city illumination.

“26, you go in first, we’ll overwatch high to the north over the weapons ranges.” Chip briefed to our wingman.

We overflew GRACELAND on a low approach path then circled to a reverse course away from GRACELAND to see 26 behind us on approach. Then spiral climbed to a height out of small-arms range towards the north.

“You guys see those kiowas?” I asked the crew.

“I got the first set two o’clock by the prison up high.” the gunner answered.

“Visual.” Chip called. I could see him stretching his neck around to find the other traffic. Then we looked for 26 on approach. He was getting masked in the town lights behind him.

“26 is down…lifting in 15 seconds.” Grumpy’s crew called stating he had finished his insert.

“Sir you gotta come north, those kiowas are leaning this way.” the gunner called.

“26 its 25, lost ya in the lights.” Chip called over the radio.

“26, roger, we’ll climb north to a thousand.” Grumpy stated.

After the radio chatter I answered the gunner: “roger, looking for kiowas…adjust you approach a bit north Chip.”

“Check that.” he answered as the helicopter veered right on the westbound track.

“Left gunner, do you have him visual?” Chipper asked his gunner.

“Yup but he’s going to the left. He should be well above us.” He astutely informed.

“Roger. Dropping low on final approach into the FOB.” Chip stated.

“Check that. The other Shamus Flight is just coming over the ridge now as well. Clear.” I answered.

“Visual. No conflict.”

“26 Shamus one-two at your six one mile, same altitude.” I advised.

“Got ’em, visual. Thanks. Proceeding north.” He answered as Chip had maneuvered us onto final approached the wall.

“Clear the wall and below, clear to land.” The right gunner advised.

“The Shamus are clear now and 26 is high in overwatch,” the radio informed. Everyone focussed on landing duties. On touchdown, the stoic passenger raised his thumb and hopped out, adjusting his sunglasses as he disappeared into the compound. He didn’t have a clue that there were seven aircraft overhead and a steel tether all competing for the same few miles of airspace.

“Alright, that was busy. Is it clear now?” Chip asked.

“Yup…they are all east. Let’s go west.” I added. It was extremely confusing. Most everyone had eye’s looking out for helicopters amongst the lights of the city. Everything a blurry green. The biggest concern obviously trying to avoid a mid-air collision – which was not an unrealistic occurrence.

“Roger – moving up.” He announced as well all fell back into our take-off duties.

“25, we check your down and clear, maintaining high overwatch” 26 advised.

“Roger that – lifting.” I advised over the radio.

“26, roger, go north.” Grumpy called over the radio.

“Check.” We lifted the five and a half tonnes of helicopter into the air, as he reached the height of the west GRACELAND wall, he tipped the nose gently forward and started accelerating into the NVG made green environment.

BANG – BANG – BANG – BANG.

A loud explosive series of shot gun blasts went off just as they lifted over walls. My eyes enlarged. The side of the cockpit illuminated with bright light. Crap. I couldn’t believe this! We were being engaged on take off. All in my first few days in theatre. It was an opportune time for the enemy to hit a helicopter then follow with a ground attack in the confusion. They try that routinely; which is a reason the armed griffons were deployed in the first place.

“Is that a contact left near GRACELAND?” I called.

“Ahh Tabernac, colis,” Chip swore.

I immediately realized what happened. With the confusion of the aircraft doing the dance of death with other helicopters in the sky prior to landing, I forgot to safe the ASE flare dispenser. I forgot my first fence-in drill. On departure, the aircraft sensed a false missile attack that caused it to fire off a salvo of hot flares into the FOB. If they had landed in a fuel supply area, the mistake could have ended in an entirely different outcome.

Flares
Flares – not a griffon but you get the idea.

“Shit, I’m sorry…could of set off a fire works show if we hit a POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) pit!” I stated as we flew off towards the darkened ridge.

“I guess that’s one way to remember the fence drill from now on,” Chip added. “No problem, we’ll just have a little paperwork to do when we get back,” referring to an incident reporting system.

The gunners laughed as it wasn’t the first time. “No problem, notting caught fire.” a voice said from the crew. “Lets go find some action.”

I took control and steered the griffon into formation as we passed the west mountain ridge of Kandahar city.

Chip guided the tour over the main routes and FOBs enroute to the Reg Desert. The three main routes were Highway One, Hyena and Lake Effect. These were east west roads meandering through the Canadian Area of Operations (AO). Highway One being the main ring highway encircling Afghanistan and was cratered from IEDs.

“What’s that burning along the highway? Is that a blown up vehicle?” I asked referring to the bright plume of green light and subsequent specs of green around a dark hole.

“Oui. Look at the crater. You can see the thermal hot spots with the goggles. All the traffic is diverting around the highway…oh check out that truck!” Chip noticed.

A transport vehicle was laying on its side, almost cut into two pieces and still smouldering.

We were suddenly distracted by large plumes of light a couple miles to our left. Large balls of light were shooting into the sky illuminating the mountains. I was startled and started to veer away to the north. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s black illum…someone is firing Infrared Flares into the sky and observing with Night Vision Technology for movement in the area or along the mountain ridges.” Chip answered. “Look under your goggles.”

I lifted my goggles and saw nothing. Black. Dark. Then I looked through my goggles again and saw the IR fireworks show. It was like daylight to anyone on NVG; made it easier for special night missions to happen on the darkest nights. I could see friendly forces doing patrols. As well, I watched local people in their compounds going about evening activities, totally unaware of the covert activity occurring.

black illum.
Example of black illum flare. – Instant IR daylight

“That bright area is FOB WILSON, further south is MASUM GHAR and way to the south you can see another bright FOB..that’s SPER.” Chip pointed out.

“Got it.” I noted. The was area was foreign but seeing it for a second time made it more familiar already.

Chip continued: “If you look down highway 1 west for another 10 clicks, you can see some lights on the right. That is the American FOB near Howzie. All the area on the left is red, this is where the main fighting has been for our tour. Watch yourself in here.”

“Check that!’ I acknowledged.

“Eh, let’s go low and do some hunting boss.” A gunner’s voice excitedly rose from the back.

“For sure, why don’t you check in with Slayer and see if they need some help somewhere.” Chip suggested.

“Slayer TOC, this is Shakedown 25 Flight.” I stated over the radio.

“Go for Slayer.” was the reply.

“25 Flight of two Griffons, approaching your ROZ (Restricted Operating Zone) for an AO tour near WILSON. We’re available for support if required. We have two times dual dillon door guns, 16,000 rounds of 7-6-2, request into airspace and an update.” I stated proudly for my first real real check-in (for action).

“25 flight roger, Airspace is HOT, Guns are cold, I got PREDATOR at Angel 20, SHAMUS operating in airspace currently near Howz e madad, remain below Fifty Five,” he cleared over the radio.

“ROMEO TANGO, approaching WILSON now.” I advised.

“Okay, lots here in a few miles.” Chip stated. “1 RCHA from Manitoba is moving into WILSON, they have artillery support to about as far as Nakhoney.”

We approached MASUM GHAR, a FOB on a ridge that overlooked Bazaar e Panjwai about one minute south of WILSON. It was a small town nestled between two mountains. It acted as a strategic choke point for people travelling from highway one south to the lower Tarnac Valley and Reg Dessert.

Ma'Sum Ghar memorial
How we knew we flew to the right spot.

“The Lord Strathcona’s from Edmonton are gonna be here with the Leopard tanks.” Canada was the only country in this war that had armoured units in theatre. The Leopard 2 tank was one of the only weapons that could penetrate the mud walls that the Taliban hid behind.

Another 2 minutes south we came to SPERWAN GHAR.

“Okay, 3 PPLCI (Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), and maybe some artillery, also from Edmonton are moving in here.” Chip added. “Watch the tether here. It is a mini balloon with a camera a couple hundred feet. Just don’t go directly over the hill and you are okay.”

“Ha. Unlike doze guys last week that hit it eh?” the right gunner sneered in his french accent referring to a helicopter collision with the tether cutting the balloon lose; and also damaging the aircraft.”

“Everyone okay from that?” I asked.

“I think they just shit their pants but otherwise okay,” the right gunner answered.

“Watch the west of Sper, dangerous territory and lots of green space right to Howzie. Stay high or stay aggressive.” Chip stated.

Stay aggressive? I pondered that. Those words echoed in my head for the entire tour. And affirmations of the concept developed as I met more aviators in this role. As right now I did not quite know what he meant. It was more about attitude and spirit versus tactics and procedures.

We veered east to Salavat and Nakhoney. Unbeknownst to me at this time is that this would be my busy area this year and leave an impression forever.  The 1st Battalion PPCLI then eventually in April, the RCR (Royal Canadian Regiment) had the pleasure of working there. It would probably to become the deadliest area of the war during during 2009/2010 easily overtaking Howzie’s reputation and rivalling Helmand Province 150 km to the west.

Everything was dark unlit mud walls in Nakhoney. I could barely make out the roads. Ironically, I would eventually know this like the back of my hand: from steel-door to cemetery, to wadi west and south, to three hills, to the large grape-hut to even the specific Taliban soldiers that would taunt me over the next year. I developed feelings of responsibility to patrol here when I had the chance. I badgered the Operations Officer to allow me to overwatch whenever my primary chinook-escort task was done just for a chance to hunt the devil from Nakhoney who burnt permanent images in my head with his despicable acts of terror. I knew his hiding holes, escape routes, bomb emplacements areas and dicker-spots. I saw Canadian blood spilled and children used as enemy shields here. It was going to get ugly. I didn’t know that yet. As right now, it was just a dark void with a few pot lights spread about compounds.

Map - Nakhoney Area
Nakhoney Area

10 kilometres east was Dand, which was only 20 kilometres west of KAF, completing the loop. It was the southern cut-off from the Reg Desert to Kandahar City.

achmed the dead terrorist
That last paragraph was heavy – For levity, this is the guy I will recognize! (Thanks for Achmed Jeff Dunham)

“Contact! Tracer fire ahead. 4 kilometres. Should we break?” my heart pounded. This can’t be happening. First night in theatre and shots fired already.

“Naw, its okay! It’s just a wedding.” Chip stated calmly and veered gently out of the way.

“What the Fuck?!?!” I exclaimed. “Don’t they know there is a war going on?”

“Wedding…you’re gonna see lots of bullets going into the air when you fly at night. Sometimes its just a wedding celebration – or other times it could be indiscriminate fire in your general direction. Not necessarily at you but more just up.” Chip stated.

“Eez kinda like how they make a helicopter noise complaint.” The intercom added with a cocky giggle. “Kinda let you know dey don’t want you dere but dey dont want to fight you eider.”

Chip explained. “It’s not a threat, just note it and report it to Slayer…you’ll get use to it!”

I paused for a moment to metabolize that info in my brain. This wasn’t in the training plan is all I could think. I shook it off and radiod in.

“Slayer this is Shakedown 25 Flight”.

“Go for Slayer.”

“Slayer, we got gunfire into the air, not directive about 3 kilometers on LAKE EFFECT west of Dand, you got anything going on there?” I asked.

“Wait out.” Slayer needed a moment to investigate.

“Shakedown, this is Slayer, no friendlies in that area. Advisor stated that its probably celebratory, lots of weddings going on in that area this month. We’ll note the grid location and get the PRED (UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle high above with a camera) to take a look, Slayer out.”

MAP Canadian AO
General Canadian Area

“There ya go.” Chip concluded. “Let’s hit the dessert so you can see the guns at night; you already saw the flares!” he added to rub-in my embarrassing error.

The difference between night and day gunnery was that with NVGs, every tracer round looked like a laser beam shooting to the target. With every fifth round a tracer meant that there were ten lasers per second attacking the target. It looked like a combat sequence from a Star Wars film. And the ricochets looked like a fireworks starburst. This time the full forward fire was not as shocking. However, the plume of light from the gun barrels combined with the tracer light, blinded my field of view. So in addition to being def, I was also totally blind during the dive attack.

“Check fire – check fire.” Chip yelled. “Pull out and break left.” He added. I could see the ground rushing towards us.  As the gunners stopped shooting, I pulled back on the cyclic and looked back and saw Grumpy’s lava-like waterfall of bullets bounce off the target. Then I noticed movement in the desert below as I scanned my head left.

“Check fire guys! I see movement.” I called over the radio.

The waterfall of bullets stopped.

“What are you looking at?” Chip asked.

“I got’em, Bedouins over to the left 500 meters.” The left gunner stated. I tink dey are coming for the casings.”

Amazing! Even in the darkness these people were running across rugged terrain in the hopes of finding little brass pieces which represented income to their sustenance way of life.

dillon tracer
Dillon Media shot

“Well, let’s knock it off for now Infidels. I think we’ve accomplished all we can tonight. Let’s head back, check one final time with SLAYER and go home.” Chip radioed the team.

“Roger dat, how was Steve’s first day?” 26 cockily added.

“I think he’s been schooled.” Chip replied. I looked over at him through my goggles. An unfocussed green image of big grin looked back at me and I replied by silently holding up my middle finger. He laughed at me over the intercom.

This time, as we approached the fence of KAF going into the FARP, I called: “Fence in – Dont forget your ASE SAFE – GUNS – LIGHTS!”

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