22 August 2010

Theatre Rotary: So Many Options!

Returning to the topic of travel, lately I've been venturing quite far beyond Phoenix's front gate, requiring more exotic forms of travel than soft-side or convoy.  Specifically, I've been running around the east on a diversity of rotary aircraft, mostly Chinook but also a Blackhawk and something that used to belong to the Russians but it now run by US civilians.

Flying in theatre is tricky.  Over the past few weeks, I have been denied, manifested, crossed off, delayed on tarmacs, completely bumped and left to wallow in my Kevlar...  It's a wonder I ever get out of Phoenix at all.  This is above and beyond my personal failings.  Once, even when I was finally able to manifest myself on a flight to FOB Salerno, well south-east of Kabul, I overslept my alarm, waking up at 0620 for a 0600 show time and packing in about 30 seconds.  I somehow managed to make it on my flight; it's a very good thing my B-hut in next to the landing pad.

Boarding is equally exciting.  The blades of the Chinooks spin so fast you can feel the heat of the them as you load through the tail, while the Blackhawk gunner actually had to help me board, as I was struggling to stay on my feet in the face of its downdraft.  Once I actually get in the air, however, most of my flights have gone remarkable smoothly (and will continue to do so, insh'Allah!).
Flying over Kabul

I really love flying by Chinook, as they leave the tail open and you get an excellent view of Afghanistan's dramatic beauty.  That said, I decided that the tail gunner possibly has the most terrifying job in the world - (s)he just hangs out at the back of the open hatch, sitting on an ergonomic pillow, legs dangling over the side.  Two of my flights have seen particularly tense moments, when all three gunners started shooting at...something.  I was initially inclined to stress out about it, but they were all so very nonchalant.  The tail gunner even took the time to toss his pillow further into the hold before continuing to fire.  I was also struck by the casual way he gathered up the spent cartridges and tossed them out the back.  All in a day's work, I suppose.
Shooting at...something

The ride on the Blackhawk was even more exciting, if less eventful.  I actually hitched a ride on a general's flight convoy (completely surreal and spiffy!).  This might sound ridiculous, but I was amazed at how much the Blackhawk moved.  It wasn't bumpy, really, but had lots of very smooth lateral travel; rather like how I imagine it would be to ride on a snake.  We also flew over Kabul at night, which was most excellent.  Seeing the city laid out like a carpet of light below me, I was struck by both its loveliness and sheer size.  It's huge!  Also, all of the massive wedding 'chapels' were lit up like matrimonial casinos.  Very strange, but still charming.
Night shot from the gunner's chair in the Blackhawk

Meanwhile, the civilian helicopter was by far the roomiest and most airplane-like of the bunch.  There was even a little gang-plank we used to board.  The comfort of the flight was due in part to the absence of guns.  I found the lack of weaponry more disconcerting than I ever expected I would.  I'm sure the soldiers I was traveling with were excellent shots, but I'd rather not test their marksmanship from the air.  Moreover, possibly in some sort of pre-emptively evasive maneuvers, the pilots banked a lot.  The G-Force was fun for a while, but I think I prefer the gunners.  Who knew I would like mixing violence with travel?  The things you learn.