9. 408 TASK FORCE FREEDOM – ROTO 8, OP ATHENA
MONTREAL route. It was a standard logistical resupply mission conducted by BLOWTORCH. I was in Shakedown 30 and 31. Our mission was to keep them from getting shot at. Basic training 101 – Keep your fire-team partner alive. It was no different in aviation. My fire-team partner was Shakedown 31. And BLOWTORCH 60? Well it didn’t have a fire-team partner. It just seemed to run quickly with it’s tail between its legs hoping not to get it’s butt smacked by a Taliban rocket. I say this entirely in jest but its part of a long, loving rivalry between pilots of varying feather.
I had been in theatre a few days and remnants of 430 Squadron, a few gunners and copilots, were still flying with the new 408 Squadron captains: Fender and myself along with a Blowtorch captain were commanding the three aircraft for MONTREAL route today. The Operations Officer and Commanding Officer were having their first day of command by quarterbacking the operations as the 430 management stepped aside.
The Commanding Officer ‘CO’, Skipper for brevity, had been in theatre for a week. Skip had been meeting with all the major players affecting our operation. He was a young, keen commanding officer with a dry sense of humour. It was not uncommon to see him routinely cycle around the rugged, dusty 10 km route from south-side to north-side KAF; spitting out the dust on arrival from between the teeth of his grin. He was a keenly aware person, easily recollecting detail from incidents as complicated as battlefield TICs to as unrelated as which DFAC omelet chef served the best yolk free breakfast. Today, Skip was over-watching our mission planning and pre flight launch authorization brief; he was taking official command.
“Shakedown 30 and 31?” Skip asked taking role call.
“Yes sir, and this is my crew. Fender? “ I pointed to the guys and asked Fender to answer the same.
“All here.” Fender answered looking at his team.
“Go ahead Scrappy.” Skip passed on the reigns to his Operations Officer.
Scrappy (a well suited nickname for these blogs.) This was his first in-theatre dispatch briefing in which he had full control. We called them “Ops-Walks”. All crew had to be walked through the leadership for the latest briefings on the threat and environment before flying. Scrappy was not a stranger to this as he had been to Afghanistan in earlier years in a tactical role. Scrappy was stalky and strong; organized and thorough; but feisty – yes he had a temper. He was both blunt as a manager yet respectful of experience and position. He did not like to be crossed. He was not one to use discussion to resolve an issue. His response to someone frustrating him was usually a covert physical ‘smarten up’ shot or kick to the shins when no-one was looking. And if you were fortunate to experience his playful side, it was not uncommon for him to follow up a few fine tequilas with “da boys” and embark on his version of UFC athleticism.
“Alright. Intelligence…go.” Scrappy directed to the Sergeant who pointed to the ‘bird-table’. It was a small table in operations that mapped out the entire AO and showed where all the FOBs were located.
“Along Highway One, several IED attacks overnight here and here.” The Int Sargaent started. “On a positive note, a bicycle bomber was getting ready near the prison and his bomb pre-detonated taking only himself out.”
The crowd of the a dozen onlookers chuckled. “Poetic justice.” Someone stated rhetorically. The sergeant continued.
“You have 3 Canadian patrols in these areas here, here and here.” He pointed to roads near Sperwan Ghar to Wilson. “The guns have been alive from Sper to the area here so I suggest you take the Reg Dessert route to avoid conflict with their artillery.”
“Roger, got it.” The Blowtorch captain stated. He would lead the formation. Shakedowns would picket the landing zones and protect him enroute. Picketing means going to check it out and do a quick look before the chinook lands.
“You are heading out to FOB RAMROD. It’s here in the middle of no-where. Few threats but you need to watch for infiltration from compounds here and here.” He continued to point out where previous assaults have occurred. “…and stay away from those locations while waiting.”
“That’s not what happens. Ya know Steve.” My French co-pilot interrupted, whispering over my shoulder.
“I know. Chip told me the first thing the base asks us to do while waiting is to go and probe those areas for any POL.” I answered. I was now getting the gist of things and it had only been a few trips. “Fore-checking.” I summated.
“Yes, fore-checking.” Fender joined into the interruption as he liked the hockey term.
The Int sergeant shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“I’m just telling you what I have to guys.” He added. He knew we were already keen to start poking and provoking. Basically help the soldiers in the FOBs to look at their problem areas while we are in the area…but it included some risk.
“I know you want to help the guys on the ground, just be careful.” Scrappy closed. “We are still getting use to things around here.”
Scrappy spoke from experience. He had operated the UAV in previous Afghanistan tour and had seen ugly things. He knew what risks were involved and was in his executive position for a reason.
“The threat is real!” He continued. “Out in BASTION earlier today a Chinook got hit. That’s only a few kilometres from where you will be. Pictures Sarge.” Scrappy raised his eye-brows suggesting the sergeant add some graphics regarding the threat.
A picture of a clean hole with 4 razor thin fin marks at the key clock angles was displayed.
“Wow! Did it detonate?” Fender asked.
“No. Brits got lucky. This RPG round went clean through the side of the helicopter, then a seat back and out the other side without exploding.” The Sergeant briefed.
Eyes in the room were large. He had everyone’s attention.
“And check this picture out.” He showed a picture of an RPG round sitting in the back of a chinook. Undetonated. Then a subsequent picture of a scraped helmet and a 4 inch diameter hole in the wind screen.
“Tabernac!” A gunner swore in astonishment.
The round had gone through the front window, off the helmet of the pilot and spun around like a hot potato in the chinook.
“They were on approach in Helmand province (about 100 km west) and this happened. They continue the landing into the FOB, completed an emergency shut down and everyone scrambled out racing the possible explosion. Fortunately, it didn’t. E-O-D later secured it.” The Int sergeant briefed trying to keep a professional tone but a few intonations surfaced from the near fatal misses of the day. EOD is Emergency Ordinance Disposal. They are specially trained to disarm and destroy explosives. If you saw the “Hurt Locker” it is basically like those guys.
“I guess it sucks to be a dog (referring to the Chinook)…Dat’s why we stay with the griffons and shoot back.” The French accent from a gunner cockily added.
The levity helped add a chuckle to the crowd, but not so much for the Blowtorch crew (Chinook).
“Alright gents. Time to get a move on. You got wheels up in 35 minutes….just take ‘er easy out there.” Skip added and left the room.
“Section brief guys, come over to the main briefing room.” The Chinook lead stated.
The three captains walked into the next room and stood having a quick chat.
“Okay, you know the route and the FOBs. The only one new is RAMROD. I will do my approach from this direction and exit this way unless you see anything.” He threw his map on a table and pointed near the FOB. “I have a large tractor load to take so I may be on the ground an extra 20 minutes. You have enough fuel?” He asked.
“Yes. I should be good. But they have gas there so if there are any delays, let me know and we’ll top up.” I added looking at Fender who nodded at the refuel plan.
“What’s gonna really happen is that we have extra time and this FOB always asks you to look around at this town here.” He pointed at a small village very close on the map. “They get rocket attacks and RPG attacks from here. They also have numerous IEDs in the area and are looking for an explosives factory in the town too…so expect you’ll be requested while we load.”
“Alright, got it.” I added.
“How you wanna do it?” I looked at Fender.
“Well, let’s go high and get an overview first then go into low-trail formation and poke at anything that looks interesting….the rest we’ll coordinate on the radio.”
“Sounds good….check in on the radio in 20 minutes?” I confirmed.
“Check.” The other two captains acknowledged as we walked out the door. The blast of heat and light shocked me back into Afghanistan climate reality as I left the darker, air conditioned building.
I could smell the dust in the air again and a few steps later beads of sweat started rolling down my forehead. It was only 34 degrees but with multiple layers of flight clothing on, it made your body heat up quickly.
I went to the armoury containers where my ‘go-bag’ and rifle were prepared and waiting. I quickly put on my armour and tactical vest. I put my bag on my back, picked up my rifle, loaded it and hoisted two tourniquets around my upper thigh. As I walked towards the helicopter to meet my crew, they slipped and fell around my ankles so my last 50 yard macho walk was a shuffle so to not lose my tourniquets under my feet.
I held arms out palms up. “What? What?” I barked at the right gunners shaking head. He laughed and continued feeding the ammo link into his Dillon gun.
“Okay let’s brief.” I ignored their me-directed humour.
“If we go down, 31 becomes our over-watch. Immediate drills are establish a fire-base around whatever main gun is working, you two are Right fire team.” I pointed to the right gunner and right seat co-pilot. “You and me, left fire team.” He nodded.
“Priority review…Fire base, Combat First aid, then first aid, then we grab gear and bound….rest we make up as we go. Check you gear, check your codes, any questions?”
Everyone nodded. Their faces became stoic. Eyes connected. They all knew what to do. A briefing was not required. But it set the tone. It was a reminder. There were individual rituals and there was a personal transitions that occurred. Everyone went through it at some point. Usually between the safe air-conditioned room with bravado and cocky banter to actually becoming the stoic warrior. And it was visible. Not every trip posed tremendous hazards. But every-trip had the potential of turning into a TIC, IED intervention, or responding to an attack on the chinook or yourself. There seemed to be an acceptance of mortality that had to occur for a person to get their job done. That is what I felt; and that its what I think I saw in everyone else’s eyes as we prepared to start the helicopter. We stopped becoming Steves, Fenders, Snapshots, Scrappy’s and became a focussed fire-team. Shakedown.