Friday, January 11, 2008

A "routine" helicopter ride in Iraq

LSA ANACONDA, BALAD, IRAQ - You can feel the little thump through your feet on the metal floor as the flares fire from dispensers on the back of the Blackhawk helicopter. As the bright stars streak past your window, and the pilot begins to take evasive action you realize that there is nothing "routine" about a low altitude daylight helicopter ride over Iraq.

The flares job is to decoy heat seeking anti-aircraft missiles away from the helicopter. The flares are launched automagically when the computer thinks it detects a missile, and at the time I have no way of knowing if there is a real missile, or if this is a false positive. Has one of the door gunners has actually seen a missile? It's obvious we're not in Kansas anymore...

"How often do your helicopters take ground fire?", I ask Captain Andrea Ourada, a Blackhawk pilot with the Minnesota National Guard's 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion.

"Almost everyday", she replies matter of factly.

"And how often do they hit you?"

"Less than once a month. They aren't very good shots." She says with a grin.

Flying north from Baghdad on my first ride in a Minnesota National Guard helicopter I'm surprised by how low we fly. I can see farmers herding sheep and cattle, I can see children playing in their yards, and I am surprised by the number of Iraqis that wave at the helicopters!

On this ride John and I are just regular passengers because we haven't had a chance to meet any of the Minnesota soldiers yet. We just ran out to the running helicopter at Washington LZ in the Green Zone, and threw our bags onboard... not time for chit chat. On future flights we'll be wearing headsets so that we can hear what the crew is saying, and ask questions when they aren't too busy.

Late in the ride I see a group of US military vehicles parked along a road near a fire that appears to have started on the shoulder of the road, and spread to the ditch. I have no way to know for sure, but to my inexperienced eye it certainly looks like an IED explosion has caused a fire. I can only hope that it was a controlled detonation (meaning that the IED was detected and then destroyed by soldiers before it could do any harm).

As we hop out of the running helicopter on the taxi way in Balad, one of the pilots gives me a cheery smile and a thumbs up. Just another normal day at the office for him.

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Day by Day, by Chris Muir (updated daily)

Chris Muir is the cartoonist that I met in Kuwait. He spent two weeks in Iraq at the same time I was there in February 2007, and so thought it would relevant to showcase his work on my site. Here is a link to Chris' humorous travelogue of this Iraq trip: