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A day with the choppers

Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never seen.

At al Asad, one of Iraq’s biggest air bases, the skies had just gone red. On the runway that afternoon, the crew of the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, or HMH 464, was waiting for clearance to take off.

Unlike land routes that are vulnerable to roadside bombs and enemy fire, when it comes to helicopters and jets, bad Iraqi weather conditions present the greatest threat to safety.

“Landing in the desert can be very dangerous, it’s something we practice as often as possible,” said 1st Lieutenant and CH-53E helicopter pilot Joseph Garza of Texas, a former pharmaceutical sales worker before becoming a Marine Corps officer and pilot.

During landing, the helicopter kicks up a wall of dust as high as 150 feet. “After the first billow of dust rises you’ll be practically blinded,” said Garza, “and then there are a couple of seconds when things clear – that’s when you can land.”

Helicopters are the preferred travel method in Iraq because they’re the quickest way of getting from one point to another. You would think a big bird in the sky would make an easy target for those with hostile intent, and let’s face it, how hard would it be to hit something the size of a bus hovering in the air?

But in reality, a helicopter is more likely to be brought down by an even greater threat – complacency.

A busy schedule

Hailing from Georgia, 32-year-old Tim Dryden is in charge of maintenance, and has spent his Marine Corps career around the CH-53E “Super Stallion” helicopter platform.

Devil’s in the details: Every inch of this aircraft needs to be reviewed, as the cost of a small valve leak or an electrical shortage would mean certain death hundreds of feet above the ground.

The multimillion-dollar flying machines require a level of technical know-how that can only come through years of experience. Dryden is a chief warrant officer, a highly trained specialist, and a very busy man.

Throughout the shop, aircraft are at various states of assembly and readiness

“We want people to remain tense, vigilant,” Dryden said in the moments he took from his rigidly structured schedule. Marines and soldiers rely heavily on the supplies and transportation helicopters provide, and though these highly trained “devil dogs” are not kicking down doors, they are without a doubt among the most important Marines in Iraq.

“We work 215 days straight,” a full 7-month tour, he said. He wasn’t kidding either – in the maintenance shop I saw scheduling plans with every single square filled.

It’s not uncommon in Iraq to work 12- to 16-hour days. “Work” is so intertwined with the reason for being there that you simply can’t escape it. But of all the people I’ve encountered in my travels, I’ve never met a unit that had such enormous responsibility as the men and women who work in wing maintenance. (Though perhaps even more incredible was the Slushee machine someone had brought with them from back home!)

The weather is the No. 1 concern for air travel in Iraq, as helicopter blades can whip up a 100-foot-tall wall of dust.

“Attention to detail” – every Marine drill instructor will repeat that advice, but in the Marine wing, “detail” takes on a whole new dimension.

Each aircraft has a standardized schedule specifying when things have to happen. Dryden walked me over to the “shop,” a series of tarps that provided some shade from the heat.

Like the smartest kid in the classroom, Dryden answered every single question I asked. There were several helicopters in various states of maintenance – some had just finished flights, while others seemed completely disassembled.

Watching the mechanics, technicians and supervisors go through each aircraft was like observing a jeweler scrutinizing a diamond. Any defect could substantially bring down the gem’s value. For the young Marines of HMH 466, nicknamed the Wolfpack, the consequences of missing a detail were a bit more pressing than loss of money.

Home of the helicopters and the little-seen heroes of Iraq

To illustrate: In January 2005, 30 Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in a helicopter accident – the greatest loss of life in a single incident in the Iraq War. Initial reports said the Iraqi weather had brought down a Super Stallion, the largest and most powerful helicopter the military possess.

Dust is the deadliest enemy of a helicopter in Iraq. The fine particles will wear down rotors and seep into both engines and electronics. And in Iraq, dust is everywhere, turning vital mechanical fluids into sticky masses of gum.

Marines looked over wiring, fuel lines and hydraulic hoses. At each step, someone was signing off on forms that said they vouched for the quality of their job.

There were so many little valves, pumps and wires on the stripped-down frames of the aircraft, I wondered how anyone figured out what was important and what was not.

Of course, that was the wrong thing to wonder, because if any of this stuff failed during a flight, an aircraft would go down. The Super Stallion, a heavy-lift helicopter specifically built to pick up tons of cargo, would plummet to the ground like dead weight out of the sky.

“If a tool goes missing and can’t be found, all aircraft are grounded,” Dryden said.

Target Practice: Beyond dealing with all the details that are part of each flight, this Marine has to qualify with his .50 caliber weapon.

Under special circumstances he could delay maintenance, but the demanding schedule of flights versus the wear and tear on the equipment meant there was little room for error.

“I started off turning wrenches, just like these kids,” said Dryden. He discussed his time in the Marines and how a high school graduate became responsible for millions of dollars in equipment – not to mention the lives they transported.

A tour in Bosnia and multiple Iraq deployments have taken a toll on Dryden. Soldiers rarely complain about their personal safety, but they often regret the time away from family. With daughters and a wife at home, Dryden has missed birthdays, holidays, and most importantly, time with family. He voiced concerns of the frequent deployments discouraging some of the better Marines from re-enlisting. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this remark.

After his current tour of Iraq, Dryden was already planning a return to Cherry Point, N.C., where a full schedule of maintenance and training waited. And in less than a year, the Wolfpacks may be right back at it again, in al Asad.

The milk run

On this day, we were going on a “milk run,” the typical chores that made up the Wolfpack’s schedule: security, transporting troops or the extremely important delivery of mail.

The main objective was to pick up massive water containers and deliver them to bases in the middle of the desert.

Sgt. John R. Chelstowski on the “milk run” and just another day of work

Naively, I always thought the idea of piloting a helicopter was kind of easy. You pull the control up and down and the machine does the rest. Takeoff and landing are supposed to be the most dangerous part of flight for “fixed-wing” aircraft, but helicopters just lifted off the ground. What could be safer?

That was before I boarded the Super Stallion CH-53 and looked into the cramped two-man cockpit. A pilot had to be coordinated enough to deal with all the directions a helicopter could fly. The views from the front of the aircraft were spectacular, but also slightly disorientating.

“When visibility is bad and we can’t see the horizon, that is dangerous,” said Garza.

The powerful engines whipped us into the air. Within seconds, we were literally hundreds of feet up.

In flight, looking across the endless Iraqi landscape, I started to feel dizzy, like I wanted to throw up. The crew told me if you stared out the back of the aircraft through the open hatch, you lost your sense of direction and experienced the helicopter version of seasickness.

Fortunately, part of the mission included opening up the hatch in the belly of the plane and lowering a hook that would pick up the water tanks.

Moving heavy things is not as easy as it looks; the pilot has to calculate everything from incoming winds to the pitch of the helicopter blades.

Garza was scanning several charts to figure out what “torque” power the aircraft would need, while taking into account the outside temperature and angle of the helicopter blades. I realized how much everyone had to focus just to keep the flight safe. And that was before even taking hostile action into consideration.

While I was in Afghanistan, two rocket-propelled grenades were fired at our Chinook helicopter as we traveled from Camp Salerno to Forward Operating Base Gardez. I remember seeing the burst of flames in the beautiful Afghan mountainside. Time ran in slow motion as I waited for the impact. They both missed.

Over Baghdad, helicopters crisscross the city in the middle of the day, most of the time without any incident whatsoever. A couple of pilots have told me that they’ve noticed bullet holes after they’ve landed, but nothing during the flight. There’s very little “up armoring” on a helicopter.

The hell hole

Over Anbar, Sgt. John Chelstowski attached my harness to a bolt on the wall, so I could take pictures with less risk of falling to my death. The “hell hole” was a hatch that opened in the middle of the chopper’s belly. Chelstowski carefully watched over the cargo dangling from the cable. The weight was enough that I could feel the aircraft swaying to the swinging cargo. The view from so high up was breathtaking. I didn’t bother to mention that I actually had a fear of heights.

The best view, but with no air conditioning, body armor or shade, being in the cockpit can be anything but comfortable.

Passenger safety is, of course, a concern, but armed passengers can also be a danger. When troops file into the “birds” through the back opening, they point their weapons down so a negligent discharge, a bullet accidentally coming out of a rifle, won’t go through the ceiling and hit the blade.

The sun had shifted across the horizon as the mission was coming to an end. Despite the heat, wind and dust – raw elements commercial air passengers never feel when they fly – these Marines remained undaunted.

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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.

A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.