1 THIS IS WHAT WAR FEELS LIKE
January 26, 2006
Near FOB Normandy, outside Baqubah, Iraq
The helicopter blades stuttered over the palm groves twenty miles east of our home base of LSA Anaconda, also known as Balad Air Base. An LSA—logistics support area— is similar to a FOB, but much larger. As one of the largest military bases in Iraq, Anaconda was one of the main air hubs for supplies, troops, and equipment into and out of the country, which made it a very busy airfield—and a natural target for enemy rockets and mortars.
In the doorless cockpit of our Kiowa, the frigid night air swept in, making our faces feel frozen and brittle. On the outskirts of Baqubah, the lights of civilization gave way to a velvet-black desolation, a flat, vast desert peppered with primitive mud huts clustered in small villages.
Through my night vision goggles—NVGs—I could see the grainy, green outlines of trees, dirt roads, and open fields. At night, we always flew fully blacked out during missions, cutting any lights on the aircraft that might make us visible targets. In the darkness, the constellation Orion shone brighter than I had ever seen it before.
I was flying right seat in our OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, trailing above the leader of our usual team of two helicopters. Small and nimble, Kiowas operate like an airborne extension of the infantry. We fly low and fast, within eyesight of friendly ground forces—and the enemy.
FOB Normandy—a tiny base on the eastern side of our area of operations toward the Iranian border—had been pummeled with rockets and mortar rounds in recent days. We were flying a reconnaissance and security mission to investigate the source of the attacks, looking for any suspicious activity—rockets set on timers, people placing them, any signs of movement—but the lush, impenetrable canopies of the palm groves gave the insurgents protective cover.
Then the lead pilot found something, a possible bunker, maybe a cache of weapons. He wanted to take a closer look. My left seater, CW3 Chris Rowley—the pilot in command (PC) and the air mission commander (AMC) for our flight—told lead to pick up an outer security pattern, to fly above us to overwatch our position while we dipped down for a closer look. Through our NVGs, we could see the something was nothing but trash. The other Kiowa resumed the lead flight position. But just as we were falling back in as trail, a blinding flash of light erupted under our aircraft.
The aircraft lurched forward with a sudden, violent kick.
“Taking fire! Taking fire!” yelled Chris.
I immediately dropped a waypoint, a digital marker that records in the navigation system the grid coordinates where we were hit. Chris broke right, away from the road, and began jinking, darting erratically to become an unpredictable target.
“You good?” Chris asked. “It’s one hell of a rush, isn’t it?”
I wasn’t scared. I was pissed. Someone had just tried to kill me. We suspected small-arms fire—AK-47 rounds—but the concussion indicated it could have been something larger.
radioed Blane Hepfner, the pilot in the lead aircraft. “Hopefully there’s not a UXO rolling around somewhere in the back of your aircraft right now.” He was referring to an unexploded ordnance.
Thanks, jackass, I thought. He might have been messing with us, but he had a point. A concussion-type blast hit our aircraft, so it was possible that an RPG—rocket-propelled grenade—warhead had entered but not detonated. It was unlikely, but we had no way of knowing until we landed.
If we landed.
Even though neither Chris nor I was hit with a bullet, the aircraft may have sustained damage that could affect our flight between now and the time we were able to get the aircraft on the ground.
Chris and I looked at each other.
The flight controls felt fine. There was no restricted movement or feedback indicating that the rotor head, engine, or transmission had received any battle damage, but you can never be too sure. We decided to fly to the nearest U.S. base to set our bird down and do a damage assessment.
Getting shot at is almost in the job description for a Kiowa Warrior pilot. When you are at war, it’s not a matter of if you get shot at, it’s when, and whether you’ll walk away from it. Unfortunately, not everyone does.
I’d never been shot at before. Now I was in combat, and the reality of war hit home.
Someone is trying to kill me.
“Warhorse Base, Annihilator One-One, inbound for immediate landing to the FARP.”
The FARP—forward arming and refueling point—was where heli
copters landed to refuel and to rearm weapons systems, usually within the confines of a FOB or combat outpost.
We made a short final descent into FOB Warhorse, a tiny U.S. base in Baqubah, which was about halfway between where we had taken fire and our home base at Balad. Baqubah was only about ten minutes and a couple of miles from where we’d gotten shot at, but it felt like a lifetime.
Once we were safely on the ground inside the wire of a U.S. base, I lifted up my NVG and turned on the blue light inside the cockpit to give our eyes a break. I tightened my grip on the flight controls as Chris got out of the helicopter to do a walk-around to see if we’d been hit. The temperature and pressure levels on the instrument panel were still all in the green zone, indicating that a bullet hadn’t severed a critical oil or hydraulic line.
Chris was only gone for a minute before he came back and plugged his helmet cord back into the aircraft radio.
“Yeah, we got hit a couple of times with small-arms fire,” he said. “We have some damage in the aft electrical compartment, and I found an entry bullet hole on your side by the fuel cell.” Luckily, there was no indication of an RPG—or anything larger than small-arms fire.
There was only one problem—we still had to make it back to Balad. Should we fly home or should we shut down there on the refuel pad? If we did the latter, our crew chiefs and maintenance personnel would have to come out to Warhorse and either fix the Kiowa there or put it on a low-boy flatbed semi truck and convoy it back to Balad. But driving in Iraq is a very dangerous thing to do. IEDs—improvised explosive devices—are everywhere. IEDs were often the weapon of choice against U.S. ground troops and usually litter their travel routes.
“I think we can fly it back,” Chris said. “What do you think?”
I trusted Chris. An instructor pilot, my pilot in command of this flight, he was my stick buddy and had been to Iraq three years earlier,
during the invasion in 2003. He always asked me—since I was still a newbie pilot—what I thought about different combat scenarios or emergency or procedural situations and what decision I would make. This was why he was so good. He was constantly trying to get me to think for myself and not just blindly agree with my PC. We were a crew, and crews made decisions together.
“I agree,” I said. “I think we can fly it back.”
And so we did.
As our aircraft skids touched down at Anaconda and eased the helicopter’s weight onto the parking pad at Balad, I let out a huge sigh of relief. We had made it. Someone was looking out for us that day.
Our maintenance personnel assessed the aircraft and confirmed that we’d taken two direct hits. One 7.62mm AK-47 round had gone through the aft electrical compartment, where we kept our flight bags. The round had exploded on entry into the aircraft, sending shrapnel flying. I found a bullet hole that went through my flight bag, and I found shrapnel in our extra ammo magazines and flight gloves.
Another 7.62mm bullet had entered on the right side of the aircraft. It had pierced the fuel cell and continued its trajectory toward the cockpit until the armament control unit—the 12x12 computer box that controls the weapons system on the aircraft—finally stopped it about twelve inches behind my back. That was close.
After our damage assessments, Chris and I packed up our flight gear and called it a night. But I couldn’t sleep much. I was still riding high from knowing that we had cheated death. I’d never felt that kind of rush before.
But the deployment was still young, and the enemy was out there, waiting for us. And I’d be back, looking for them.