BADAKHSHAN 5: THE WRATH OF KHAN |
April 18, 2012
It had been a brutal winter in Badakhshan. One of the hardest winters in years had descended upon northern Afghanistan, and the farthest northeastern province had taken the worst of it. Rugged and mountainous, snowfall had lain heavy upon the slopes and closed off the passes. Some valleys, accessible only by foot or by donkey, had run dangerously low on supplies; especially the Afghan Border Police. Several outposts were in dire need of airlifted supplies. With Afghan airlift capacity, their wait would be long indeed. COL Mollosser agreed with the 5th Zone commander, a brigadier general, to try to provide some needed sustenance to one of the hardest hit outposts. He got buy-in from the American general who controls air assets in the RC North. Thus began a saga that would span weeks.
Four previous attempts had been shut down by bad weather. Members of the team, interpreters and a few Afghan officers had gathered at the helicopter ramp on four separate occasions, cargo loaded on the Chinook helicopters, only to be told that the capricious March weather over Badakhshan was too bad to reach the target. In the meantime avalanches occurred, which only heightened the need for the supplies. The fifth time, we hoped, would be the charm.
It was bright and sunny at Marmal, but Badakhshan is far from Balkh Province. The weather here hadn’t stopped most missions; it was the visibility in Badakhshan. The weather at Marmal was so nice that energy was high as we waited for word, tons of cargo loaded and our personal equipment positioned near the aircraft.
Finally, word came; it was a go. We quickly loaded on the Chinooks and Blackhawk. The auxiliary power unit (APU) on the Chinook I boarded, a small gas turbine, filled the aircraft with a constant high frequency drone that forced us all to don earplugs. The aircrew ran through their checks and finally the starter motors for the main engines began to spool up the turbines. A high-pitched whine climbed higher and higher until it peaked and settled into a constant loud whistling roar. The gearboxes were engaged and the two massive rotors began to turn. The aircraft wobbled gently at first as the centrifugal force of the slowly turning blades pulled on it, finally turning fast enough to balance the forces.
My earplugs were the ear-canal-fitting earbuds of my iPod earphones. ”Don’t Tread on Me” by Alice in Chains filled my ears as the pilot pulled pitch, the engine noise and “whop whop whop” of the rotors grabbing air faintly noticeable in the background. It was the perfect music for the event.
Lifting off, the Chinook hovered out of its parking spot and turned towards the main runway. Our best view of the world around us was out the back of the massive chopper, over the ramp that was positioned level with the floor of the bird. Buildings and parked aircraft slid across our view as we “taxied” out to the launch position. We hovered twenty feet off the ground as another helicopter slid into view behind us, also holding a hover. It was the Blackhawk, floating behind us as if suspended by a thread, bobbing slightly a few feet up and down as we did the same.
After what seemed an eternity of hovering, we moved forward and began to climb. The runway and finally the whole airfield appeared in our view out the back of the aircraft as we climbed away and to the east. We were finally on our way. It was over an hour to our first refueling stop.
I had a machine gun crew with me. For this mission, my job was securing part of the LZ. We would move out and away from the aircraft and assume a position to defend the Landing Zone against anyone who took it upon themselves to threaten the aircraft or the operation. We were not expecting any problems, but we can’t just go out and lollygag around without being prepared for whatever may occur. SFC Brewster also had a small team on board, responsible for a different part of the “clock.” We divide responsibility for 360 degree security into a clock. I was to position my team at about 7 o’clock -- 12 being the direction the nose of the aircraft were pointed -- and Brewster had 5.
The others on the aircraft busied themselves with a number of things. No one went to sleep. Several of the guys pulled breakfast bars out of their kit and began munching. A couple of energy drinks came out and were quickly downed by the soldiers. Most didn’t want to drink too much because of the lack of “facilities” aboard the chopper. A full bladder on a long helicopter flight can be a challenge that only a Gatorade bottle and a bold spirit can resolve.
Long helicopter flights are boring. Once the excitement of departure wears off, there is really nothing to do but sit. Many people fall asleep. There is not always anything to look at, since the ramp door is not always open. It is always windy, loud and the ship vibrates. The sound changes, and when the helicopter hits turbulence, as sometimes happens especially at mountain ridgelines and passes, the ship pitches and rolls and the “whop” sound of the blades becomes pronounced. Sleepers will stir when this happens, and those who do not like to fly become agitated and visibly nervous.
Time becomes distorted, and other than quick glances out the bubble windows located behind some of the center-facing seats, there may be little awareness of the world around the helicopter. The music helped, and I bounced in my seat to the rhythm, happy to be airborne. I love to fly. The flight crew noticed my upbeat attitude and the door gunner looked back curiously for a moment to watch me enjoy the flight. I didn’t care.
The aircraft began to descend and maneuver, and it was clear that we were approaching somewhere that we intended to land. The landscape was fairly flat, with mountain ridges to the south and east. Kunduz. We circled and finally landed to refuel. Everyone must get off the chopper when it refuels. We all took our weapons, leaving our packs on the bird, and filed out the rear of the helicopter as the massive blades swung rapidly overhead. Everyone’s first need was to relieve their bladders, and once that was done we watched and waited as the fuel lines fed fuel to the heavily laden choppers. The whole process took perhaps ten minutes, and then we loaded back up and the bird moved to a pad to wait while one of the other birds finished refueling. The process completed, we took off again, a rotating view of Kunduz spilling into the rear of the open fuselage. We climbed towards the east.
Open plain gave way to steep ridges of bare rock. Some of the formations were truly impressive, massive folds of stone shoved into the sky by utter force of colliding tectonic plates. The Hindu Kush is still growing, still young as mountain ranges go. Snow had swept across the mountain faces, clinging where it gained purchase and throwing the nuances of the rock into sharp relief.
The crewman in the back of the Chinook would periodically lower the ramp until it was level with the floor if the aircraft, providing a better view if the changing landscape. He would often sit with his legs dangling above the tableau being reeled under the aircraft by the massive rotors spinning in counter-rotation above us.
The choppers beat across the sky, chasing the spaces that were absent of rock, winding through riverine passes while the sharp stone walls wound past. Villages could be seen wedged between the river and the steep slopes of the narrow valleys. Living communities, tucked away in the nooks of the living rock.
Popping ears and changes in perspective gave signs of an impending landing. The helicopter began to make a series of turns, banking so the landscape trailing away behind the bird slides and tilts in the aperture at rear of the fuselage. A large town -- a small city -- began to wind out behind the aircraft, tilting and sliding as we maneuvered towards the German Provincial Reconstruction Team.
The massive Chinook reared, nose high, rotor blades clawing and slapping the air. Our view out the back contained no sky, only the ground, and it drew closer. The big bird slowed, began to level, and settled towards earth. With a slight bump, the Chinook mushed into its landing gear and the straining against the gravity ceased. The aircraft seemed to sigh.
We filed off the lowered ramp, making our way to a small Hesco enclosure that contains a porta-john. We stayed clustered near this enclosure as German fuel trucks roll up to fuel the birds. This was Faizabad, capitol of Badakhshan.
After fueling we reboarded the aircraft which lifted and hovered to an area away from the fueling pads, settling to earth outside the walls of the PRT compound. The engines shut down. We needed to wait while a pair of Apaches flew to our objective and checked visibility.
A German vehicle, a small Mercedes SUV, stopped near the nose of the bird where COL Mollosser sat on the lowered ramp at the rear of the aircraft. Two Germans dismounted, looking around for someone to talk to.
“Colonel,” I called, “someone’s here to see you.”
“I’m a Colonel,” he called back, “I’m used to people coming to me, not the other way around.”
The German Major stepped to the rear of the Chinook where Colonel Mollosser greeted him much more warmly than his previous statement would have led one to believe. After what appeared to be a pleasant chat, the Germans departed, only to reappear a few minutes later.
Several pans were placed on the hood of the vehicle and we were treated to cannelloni and a type of German meatball.
Finally, word came back; let’s go.
Again the ritual of takeoff was performed and we climbed away into the mountain passes. This was to be a short flight compared to the flights to this point. Mountains framed our aircraft more tightly than before. Dramatic stone faces slid past, striations showing the tremendous forces rearranging the planet’s surface in super slow motion.
The crew chief sat on the pallet covered in bags of flour. He spoke into his microphone then leaned in towards SFC Brewster, shouting to be heard over the constant roar. Brewster shook his head. Turning towards me he shouted to be heard over the same howling noise.
“We’re turning around! We’re going back!”
“No way!” This must be a joke. We were nearly there.
“Yep, that’s what he said!”
The helicopters began to bank, turning around in a narrow valley. The Apaches, flying ahead, didn’t like the visibility. We were indeed turning back.
You could feel the team deflate like a tire in an old cartoon.
The trip now went into reverse. Back to Faizabad, refuel and then head westward. Again the rolling tableau wound out behind like a broad roll of painted paper. The other choppers hung in the sky, swinging left and right, in and out of the aperture view through the rear of the Chinook.
We didn’t stop at Kunduz. The trip back was quicker, but the noisy isolation of the Chinook overcame the waning enthusiasm in each soul and drove every soldier into his own thoughts. Some slept, most sat quietly in the windy noise, alone in the midst of the group.
Landing at Marmal was completely anticlimactic. Accomplishing this mission would have to wait for another day. The next day, we were back at work out at the Zone HQ.