10. …Just RAMROD and back…

This entry is based on true events. However, the time line has been modified.  Characters and dialogue were fictionalized.

 

When pilots are away from flying for a few weeks, it takes a day or two to get past robotic skills and smooth again. It’s like any other skill; you get rusty and lack fluidity. Combine that with war stress, the threat of people trying to kill you and poor sleep due to poo-pond stench and it takes a little longer to get into the “groove.” But today I was feeling the ‘groove’.  I was in the aircraft, my scan and feel was normal and I started to relaxed again…vigilant yes, but relaxed (although my crew may have different opinions). I was ten kilometres outside the wire looking ahead to Fender’s aircraft. I was enjoying the beauty of the ruggedness. The image of the griffon helicopters against the jagged peaks of the mountains were surreal. The sky was intensely bright, piercing blue and captivating.

kandahar evening mist
One of the most beautiful of Wiggy’s shots over Kandahar

My glaze over the terrain was broken as shots of smoke bursting near Fenders aircraft.

“Breaking right, threat 10 o’clock!” Fender’s aircraft jaunted right following the Chinook who lumbered right while making the call.

doodle doodle doodle doodle …a high pitched tone and light illuminated indicating a missile threat left from our ASE gear.

“Do you see a plume left?” I yelled to my gunner. “I got nothing.” Referring to the potential missile coming our way.

“Keep the bank light. I gotta keep my guns on the ground.” The left gunner commented. “I’m lookin’ for plume…..Its just a false alert…no worries. But if you bank to hard, my guns are too high and I cant shoot back….fly the guns…remember?” He added to coach me.

“Roger that, fly the guns.” I repeated. I was beginning to get the hang of it.

My training kicked in and I turned left toward the threat. Realistically, we can’t beat the missile…that’s why the flares were there. We have to be smooth and let them do their job. However, if we can find the source of plume, we can shoot back and get the bastard before they send the next one.

“Counter left! 10’oclock. ASE alert! Looking!” I responded over the radio…after being coached.

“False alert.” The radio cracked with Fender’s voice.

“Roger that.” I answered.

“Yup…I am really starting to get annoyed by that.” Fender’s heightened voice transmitted. The veterans chuckled at us new guys again.

“You won’t even pay attention to it in a week from now,” the desensitized left gunner added over the radio with a chuckle inspired by his amusement to my over reaction.

“Check the impact at two o’clock, 5 kilometres.” Someone commented over the intercomm.

I looked over to the right and in the distance, explosions of dust were rising near the Salavat mountains; it was the artillery from the Canadian arty guns at Sperwan Ghar. They were firing as briefed at our Ops Walk earlier in the day, hence the reason for flying the Reg route.

“Damn! Someone’s having a bad day!” The left gunner commented as he stretched his head forward to look at the activity.

“It’s best stay out of the way and then check-in with Slayer on the return route, after we get rid of the dog.” Fender radioed referring to the chinook task as the priority.

“Roger that.” I replied.

“Woof – woof.” Another voice added sarcastically over the radio, obviously from Blowtorch inputting his displeasure with being referred to as the dog.

As we neared RAMROD, our formation of helicopters dropped off the high dessert and into the lower plains along the Tarnac valley. There wasn’t much of a valley; just a dried river bed scorched from centuries of heat. Most of the water was underground. Hundreds of miles of tunnels existed deep beneath the dessert floor where water supplies were sought. It was easily marked by water fetching tripods every few hundred meters stretching for dozens of miles.

reg dessert meets land
Reg meets the dessert.

“Ramrod is on the nose 5 kilos.” Blowtorch called. “Going straight in from here.”

“Check that.” I answered. “31 you got the base?”

“Check.” he answered as he called the FOB on the radio.

“FOB Ramrod, Blowtorch 60 inbound landing in 3 minutes, Shakedowns will stay airborne and loiter. Got anything for us?” Fender asked.

“Roger that Blowtorch Flight. I got a couple pallets to load. For the Shakedowns we had an RPG and SAFIRE from the South West earlier today. It seems to have quieted down, but can y’all put a little pressure on over there? Take a poke around please.”

“Blowtorch 60 Flight, roger that sir. The chinook is on final now. Shakedowns breaking off to the south. You got any friendlies we need to know about?” Fender responded.

“Roger that. Along Highway one to the north, we got an IED team along the highway, maybe just show a little support for them too. Otherwise, no-one else outside the wire.” The southern accent responded.

As we finished the conversation, Fender led our two helicopters around the FOB. We watched Blowtorch land as the dust exploded totally engulfing the FOB. We then focused our vision onto the small village of compounds west and the highway to the north.

“Blowtorch, wheels down.” The radio sounded. It was a confirmation that they were okay. Otherwise we wouldn’t know for several minutes until all the moon-dust cleared.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Blowtorch landing

“Check that.” I answered.

“Got some clutter on the Highway. Let’s check it out. High then low.” Fender stated.

“Roger that.” I answered.

“RAMROD, this is Shakedown, is there an IED ROZ? Any flight restrictions?” Fender asked over the radio.

“Negative. It is blown, they are just clearing wreckage right now and want to make sure no one takes any pot-shots at ‘em.” The FOB answered.

“Roger sir.” Fender answered. His aircraft was high above the highway, we could see a black scorch mark and a flipped vehicle along the road. Local traffic deviated into the dessert to bypass while several Afghan National Army and American military vehicles scoured and secured the smouldering truck.

Fender’s helicopter subtly dipped a wing and he began plummeting from the sky. Obvious he was going in for a closer look. We followed. Our mission at this point was to protect him. He was looking around for ambush sites that the American’s couldn’t see.  Our job was to simply protect him, our fire-team partner, while he did his job.

“Got nothing.” Fender stated as we flew a few orbits around the vehicle. We also looked into the mountains and nearby wadis for any possible dickers.

“Me either….Follow me, lets split it up a bit. I’ll stay low you go high.” I took the lead and veered towards the town.

Fender climbed high out of small arms range but stayed close behind to draw attention away from me. I turned towards the north side of the town and was really low off the deck, about 50 feet.

“30 this is 31, you got a couple guys just on the back side of the compound roof observing from behind those trees at 11 o’clock.” Fender advised.

“Check that, 11:00? 1500 meters?” I asked.

“Roger that.”

“Rolling in.” I steered the chopper directly towards them altering my course abruptly. Fender followed but more central over the small compound – he stayed high.

As we approached the trees and the wall of the compound. A head popped up to look at us. His eyes got big and he rapidly dove down behind the wall in surprise.

“Ha Busted!” the right gunner called out. “Contact FAM, 1 o’clock,” he continued. His voice was calm…this was normal.

“He just dropped off the wall and is scrambling into the compound.” 31 stated over the radio.

I popped the helicopter up and banked slightly to give the right gunner freedom to protect us with the gun. A man, maybe a boy…teenager ran into the compound. They all looked the same age from 15 to 25 it seemed; then they turned 40.

“I’m breaking it left down the wall.” I called.

“Them fuckers use kids to dicker too.” The gunner stated.

“How’s it look up there?” I asked Fender.

“Really quiet. Just that dicker. He’s gone. Probably a WAC.” Fender answered.

“It was a WAC…dicker no doubt.” I answered. “Let’s keep patrolling.” We rejoined a tighter formation and circled for more observation.

“RAMROD, this is Shakedown. You got a Dicker-WAC  on the wall, North east corner by two trees.” I reported then chuckled realizing how that sounded.

“Roger that. They have the kids reporting on all the activities while the fighters lay low…What’s the POL?”

“Pretty quiet. Don’t see anyone out.” I answered.

“Ya alright. Usually there is more activity than that. Maybe something brewing. Just keep a little overt presence if you can. We’ll see if the Cell-phone i-comm chatter is active. Y’all keep your heads-up.” The radio responded. The voice was different; probably the duty officer stepping up instead of the radio operator suggesting our vigilance was necessary.

“30 flight this is Blowtorch…we’re gonna be awhile. They just drove the forklift into the side of the chopper. Got some ribs damaged. We’re trying to get Scrappy on the Sat Phone.” The chinook called.

“30 roger, you broke?” I answered.

“Dunno yet, still seeing if we can fly it like this. Standby.”

“Check.”

“Fender, how much gas you got?” I asked.

“Maybe twenty minutes but no TIC reserve.” He answered stating he would have to go straight back and wouldn’t be able to fight along the way if we delayed much longer.

“Okay.” I paused. “Give him ten minutes then we will go fuel?”

“Roger that…they have a couple FARP (refuel) points available by the looks of it. Sounds good. I’ll advise RAMROD.”

Meanwhile in Operations.

“Sir, we got a TIC in Howzie Madad.” Shakedowns can be there in 10 minutes if we leave Blowtorch.” The radio operator informed Scrappy.

Scrappy was sitting on the bird table. When it wasn’t used for planning, he often placed the chair on the table and looked forward as if he was Captain Kirk on the Enterprise.

Initially it was for humour. But he soon realized he could monitor everything more easily from above all the staff-heads. People could still walk around in the crowded floor space so it became operationally practical. It looked funny but practical.

“Got it. I see on the text board that Shamus is responding. They have 30 minutes fuel. I expect our guys will have to swap in when they BINGO fuel.” He pondered. “Get Shakedown to refuel now and we’ll have them available to cover Shamus in 30 minutes when Blowtorch 60 gets back.”

The satellite phone rang. Scrappy hopped down and picked it up.

“Fuck…Blowtorch is damaged in RAMROD. Fuckin’ forklift damaged the bird….get me the Squadron Maintenance Officer (SAMEO),” he hollered waving the phone. Things were starting to get complex.

The Radio Operator (RADOP) picked up his phone and called the SAMEO. After a quick explanation he hung up.

“On his way Major,” he reported to Scrappy formally then continued onto the radio….”Shakedown 30 Flight, this is Freedom Ops. I need you guys to FARP up now. Another task possibly coming in.”

“Roger that.” He heard my voice acknowledge.

“Blowtorch 60, this is call sign 5 (SAMEO). What’s the matter?” Scrappy observed the SAMEO chatting on the satellite phone.

“Bulkhead ribs and ramp actuator? Roger. Is anything leaking? Does the ramp work?” He asked.

“Roger that. You guys feel comfortable bringing it home? If not or if anything structural, we can shut you down and get ya later.” He advised over the sat phone.

After listening and while rapidly researching a technical manual, he confirmed. “Okay, nothing is structural. Bring er back boys. Okay, Shakedown is fuelling…see you in 30 minutes.” He looked over to Scrappy.

“Scrappy, just bring it back. They described the damage to me and it appears superficial. Forklift twisted and the load damages some parts of the rear ramp and walls near the bulkhead. He described the damage and no systems were wrecked. They can bring ‘er home.” The SAMEO coached. “We’ll fix ‘er back here.”

“Roger that. I’ll dispatch them.” Scrappy answered and pointed to the radio operator who got on the radio.

“Hey check the text prompter…our guys just called in some dicker near RAMROD.” Scrappy rhetorted.

Time: XX:XX Shakedown 31 reports one times FAM dicker at grid XXXXXX 2500m SW RAMROD. Dicker ran into compound. Shakedown continues observing.

“Okay, I’ll close the loop with Ottawa.” The SAMEO concluded as he went into a side office to call his superiors in Ottawa.

“Let me know when they get airborne, I’m going to brief the boss.” Scrappy called to his radio operator who was monitoring the satellite tracker on the Chinook. “Hey, how much playtime does Shamus have?” he asked.

“About 25 minutes sir, according to their last check in with Slayer.”

A voice raised interrupting the office. “What the hell are you talking about?” a muffled and angry voice called from the next room. It was the SAMEO on the phone.

“It’s airborne now, I am NOT going to ground it. I know it’s not in the minimum equipment dispatch list…but I need it here to fix it.” Everyone stopped to listen to the rage.

“Jesus Christ! You want me to send a Mobile Repair Team half way to Helmand for a dent in the aircraft….do you have any idea what the fuck is going on around here? Get me your supervisor!” He paused. “I don’t give a fuck that it’s 11 pm over there. We’re in the middle of a war over here and shit happens…right now there’s a dicker on a wall ready to fire an RPG round into FOB RAMROD as soon as the griffons leave, so the Chinook is fuckin’ moving. Put this in your log and have him call me when he wakes.” Slam, the phone hung up. He walked out of the room and frowned towards Scrappy shaking his head.

“I better talk to Skipper, there’s gonna be shit storm coming from Ottawa. I’ll be fucked if some junior duty officer watching TV at a duty desk downtown Ottawa is gonna fuck up my day here.” He stormed out of operations.

AT RAMROD

“Freedom Ops, this is Blowtorch 60 Flight, skids up. Back in 20 minutes.” The Chinook lead’s voice called in.

“Roger Blowtorch out to you…Shakedown 30 Flight, I need you to escort Blowtorch to the KAF Control Zone then get back to Howzie. TIC in progress, Shamus has two-zero minutes playtime until refuel.”

“Shakedown 30 roger that. Re-task to Howzie. We’ll break off near Dand.” I called in. “Blowtorch are you guys okay solo from Dand?”

“Roger that! My machine is solid, damage isn’t affecting us at all.” Blowtorch 60 responded.

“31 checks.” Fender also acknowledged. I noted and empathized with his tone. Howzie had a bad reputation. Many helicopters came back from there with extra holes. It was the shit. The big game in town. There were more bullets flying there every day then the rest of the A.O.

“Woo-hoo. Alright. Last day in theatre and gonna get me some payback.” An excited gunner called over the intercom.

“Yaaaa, go Infidels!” The right gunner added.

I tried to add my excitement but at this point of the game it was more anxiety than excitement. We were going to Howzie. I looked out in the direction of Howzie. It was about 10 kilometres to my left and abeam, smoke was rising from obvious combat. The small silhouettes of the kiowa warrior choppers were buzzing in circles. Shamus 11 and 12.

My vet copilot sensed my newness. “Alright Cap…no worries. When we get to Howzie, the shit is all within a few hundred meters of the highway, but north of the highway is safe, dessert… I suggest getting a tactical talk-on from the north, maybe fly the guns into the threat area, and then…well we get into ‘er.” I nodded and held my thumb up.

The Chinook peeled off as we approached Dand. KAF was a few miles away and visual. He was on his own. Fender and I broke off towards WILSON northside of the mountains and climbed high.

“You guys be careful, Blowtorch 60 out and switching to KAF tower.” the chinook called.

“Roger that Blowtorch.” I answered then switched to Freedom operations.

“Freedom Ops, Shakedowns 30 Flight is breaking off from Blowtorch. You have them now. We are heading to Howzie.” I relayed my actions and intent.

IN OPERATIONS

“Shakedown, roger that. We’re monitoring.” The radio operator stated referring to the text board. As he turned he looked at the duty officer, “Better get the boss, Shakedown’s going to a TIC in progress.”

A few moments later, Scrappy and Skip entered the room with the SAMEO in tow. Additionally, in the hallway were a few fresh 408 co-pilots were being oriented – first day on the job. The watched as the 3 senior officers walked by dealing with one crisis as another rose.

“Welcome guys. Good to see you. Wait here we’ll chat when I’m done but Blowtorch 60 is damaged; Shakedown 30 and 31 are going into a TIC. Welcome to the war.” Skip stated matter of factly as he rushed by. Leaving their eyes-widened in awe-struck reality shock.

“Scrappy, mind getting your Enterprise chair off the bird table.” He jested as Scrappy cleaned off the table. The senior officers gathered around watching the UAV feed and text prompter for the pay-by-play.

This complexity of multiple activities would be the daily norm. Both Scrappy and Skipper would actually go flying outside the wire about once a week just to relax from operations stress. It was probably mentally easier to go get shot at than deal with the constant bull shit from the varying layers of headquarters and national command. I am sure there were many frustrated Colonels in Ottawa, trying to get feedback from our CO while enjoying their morning coffee only to be greeted by our radio operator, who would sarcastically state: “Sorry sir, he can’t come to the phone, he’s outside the wire getting shot at right now.”

“Update please.” Skipper asked as he stepped behind the bird-table.

“Roger sirs.” the radio operator started to brief. “We got Blowtorch 3 miles out estimating the ramp within five minutes.”

“Any problems reported?” The SAMEO asked concerned not knowing how the airframe or severity of the damage may have extended.

“No sir, all good…and Shakedown’s are enroute to Howzie to cover for Shamus while they refuel.”

“What’s the update for Howzie?” Skip inquired.

The radop looked over at the teleprompter screen and summarized: “IED, rocket and small arms attack from the south. American’s lost a vehicle and a platoon dispatched on foot south. They are moving slow due to the mine traps. Shamus put a few rockets down and pursued some FAMS into some compounds around here.” He pointed to an area near the FOB on the bird table.

Skip took a breath. “Who is out there?” he asked as he went over to the manifest list beside the door.

“Steve and Fender’s crew. They refuelled in RAMROD, should be good to sustain for awhile.” Scrappy added.

“They haven’t checked in with Slayer yet; I expect a text prompt and update shortly sir,” the radop stated.

“Okay – roger that. That’s why we’re here guys.” He paused looking at the SAMEO and Scrappy. “SAMEO with me. Scrappy, you have the helm. Call me when things calm or get worse.” He left the room and walked through the new copilots who were in the hallway listening attentively to the action. The facial expressions revealing a group polarity from fearful jaw dropping “wholly shits” to gritty excited “fuck yahs!”

Airborne near HOWZIE:

“Slayer TOC, Shakedown 30.” I called the airspace weapons controller in charge.

“Shakedown 30, Go for Slayer.”

“Hey Slayer. We are two times CH146, 8000 rounds seven point six-two dual Dillon door guns, sixty minutes playtime, ten minutes back from Howzie, request an an airspace update.” I replied.

“Roger Shakedown 30, my ROZ is HOT, Guns are HOT, Gun to target line is two-five-zero degrees from WILSON to Howzie. Two times Shamus call-signs on site, require BINGO fuel now. Check in with Shamus one-two on frequency four five point eight for your handover. Fires is controlled by my FAC (Forward Air Controller) same frequency Slayer three five.” Slayer ordered.

“Roger all that Slayer, switching over to Slayer 35 for the Battle Update Brief (BUB).” I responded.

We were just passing WILSON, we had 4 minutes to go. No one talked on the section radio nor the intercom, everyone just listened. TICs were very busy with fighting, artillery, mortars, infantry movement, and casualty evacuation (casevac). Everyone was on the radio. And everyone followed strict protocols. If protocols were screwed-up and nonstandard due to battle, then you just listened. Everyone had to know what was exactly happening before engaging with lethal force. Smoke was rising about 500 meters south of the FOB HOWZIE due to 2.75 inch rockets from Shamus. An American vehicle was burning on the road from an IED or RPG strike. Its was pretty obvious where the fight was happening. Now it was our turn.

“Shamus this is Shakedown, inbound two minutes from the north, ready for your Handover brief.” I called on the radio.

“Shakedown, roger that, we are visual with you. Egressing south of you to WILSON to refuel. Lotsa shit happening. Head over to the north of Howzie. Contact Slayer three-five for an update brief. We’ll be twenty minutes.”

“Roger that Shamus.” I answered as we went to the north about 1000 feet above the ground. Everyone could see the area well and could quickly orient to the fight.

“Slayer 35, Shakedown’s checking in.”

“Roger That Shakedown. I check your status from Slayer TOC. We got FOB HOWZIE. 200 meters south is twenty five dismounted friendlies.” he stated.

I looked frantically. The left gunner called it. “By the gas station, down the alley, visual.”

“Okay thanks, gott’em,” I answered. “Slayer 35, visual friendlies.”

“From the friendlies,  two hundred meters south is smoke. West of smoke 50 meters is a compound.” He continued to talk my eyes onto the target. I could see in my peripheral vision my entire crew stretching their neck to follow. Some holding thumbs up acknowledging they could see the target area.

“3 times FAMs last seen entering that compound. Shots still being fired towards my infantry. My plan is to advance friendlies on that compound. Mortar fire is under my command directly from WILSON is cold (not shooting currently). Your mission is to set up close observation over my friendlies on that area on an east – west pattern and be prepared to suppress that area while my guys move. All your effects to the South of friendlies…how copy?”

I then repeated back to Slayer as I rolled the helicopter and dove out of the sky towards the objective. “Slayer – Shakedown is visual friendlies. Tally target area. All effects south. Rolling inbound for overwatch.”

“31 checks.” Fender responded as he rolled in with me.

My face and hands tingled; and for a second I could feel my heart beat…but just for a second.

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