Thursday, December 27, 2012
Today, the temperature plummeted below freezing, and we are currently in the throes of one of the windiest, most miserable sandstorms it's been my misfortune to experience.
Universe, you win again.
Friday, December 07, 2012
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
I’m by no means diminishing the impact Hurricane Sandy is having on the East Coast; New York City actually looks like all the disaster movies that have been made about it. But it felt like Afghanistan decided it needed to change things up a little too. Today started off ‘weird’, as we all said coming into work: the winds were out of an unusual direction, there were clouds in the sky (might not seem like a big deal, but in a place where normal weather is CAVU [clear and visibility unlimited], clouds are a sign of impending doom), and rain in the forecast (no, not hurricane rain; but again, any rain in the desert is a big deal). I was leading the flight, and we briefed and got ready to launch on time with a wary eye on the horizons around us. It was hazy, but it’s been hazy before.
So, sitting in front of the rotary wing passenger/cargo ramp, as we were onloading our pax, clouds of sand started billowing in from the east. I thought it was looking sketchy, but my wingman assured me that it was just dust kicked up by a backhoe that was filling up HESCO barriers. Then the dust got thicker, and methinks “That’s a lot of dust for a little construction”. Sure enough, I could no longer see the line of aircraft only a few hundred feet away, and dash 2 could no longer see ME, sitting little more than 50 feet in front of him. It was our first haboob of the season! Of course, the weather decided to get crappy right when our full load of passengers and their three bags apiece had gotten completely settled; and we had to tell the guys to pick up the trash they had just manhandled on board and get lost.
From there, the weather kept teasing us: it got down to 200 feet visibility at our destination, but clear here; then it was garbage here, and clear at our destination. We finally got clear weather at both locations, ran out to our helicopters, lit off our engines…only to be told by the duty officer that our destination had, again, gone to 200 feet visibility. You can only play the weather game for so long before meeting diminishing returns; feeling our returns were sufficiently diminished, I canceled the mission and had the flight regroup at the chow hall for grilled cheese sandwiches. War is hell.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Things have been busy, to put it mildly. I’ve gone from eh, a little flying, to FML, flying so much I don’t know what day it is, what’s going on in the office, or which aircraft I have to do post-flight paperwork for. I’m now pretty familiar with most of the zones the AO has to offer, having been to them at least once and some more times than I really care to. They’re all similar, generally a square of dirt scraped away in one corner of the FOB with some river rock spread around to keep us from landing in a dust ball. A few, however, keep the flying interesting. One up north is by a dam; not on a dam, like we had at Haditha in Iraq, but next to it. The approach requires quick reflexes, as we descend rapidly from altitude over the lake, blow through a spillway barely wider than our rotor arc, and then make a hard decelerating turn to land on a little finger jutting out near the dam, with the terrain dropping away several hundred feet on three sides and the fourth usually occupied by our LZ security. It takes some practice getting the approach right the first time, especially at night when cultural lighting blots out what little terrain contrast we get through the soda-straw goggles.
Landing in the provincial capital is fun of a different sort. We call it the Death Star Trench Run: drop down to an open area in between two city blocks, fly at max speed at rooftop level to keep the s**theads from getting a bead on you, then honk the nose up and try to go from 120 knots to zero in five seconds or less to make the zone, which is right in the middle of the city. At that speed, you think you’ll be able to pull out in time? Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home, except here there’s a fair chance the womp rats will take a pot shot at you on the way in. Fortunately, Annie Oakley they are not.
It’s also getting colder, especially at night, which is a harbinger of the onset of the Brutal Afghan Winter and the end of Fighting Season. Thus far, having to put on a jacket and a few minutes of drizzle a couple of days ago is all the Brutal Afghan Winter has inflicted on us, but doubtless it will get a little more miserable before we’re through.
Otherwise, I’m keeping myself occupied when not flying. I finished volume 1 of Shelby Foote’s Civil War narrative history and Mark Owen’s No Easy Day (interesting book, though per DOD guidelines I’m not allowed to talk or speculate about it; yet there’s also no injunction against buying it, so I’m not sure what they’re hoping to accomplish. So I won’t talk about it, except to say that I would love to have the high-speed night vision goggles those guys get: four tubes with 120 degree field of vision, compared to our 40 FOV on aviator goggles). I’m slogging through Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, a work of historical fiction about the real Macbeth; very well written, but I feel like I’ve been reading it forever because the way the pages are formatted, there are more words than your average novel per page (no, I’m not complaining that there are too many words in the book; I just feel like I’ll read a lot, and only turn a page or two when I’m done, and it’s putting me behind schedule getting to the other books I brought). I’ve also been training for the Marine Corps Marathon Forward, where we will run twenty laps or so around Camp Bastion, which I hope to be able to actually participate in, since we can’t request to not be on the flight schedule to run it, it cannot impact our office duties, and if we break ourselves we’ll probably be standing a lot of duty. So we’ll see.
Well, time for chow. I need to leave the office before I go crazy from the steady stream of R&B tunes that my S-4 chief plays day in and day out. I don’t want to ask him to turn it off, because compared to the rap and angry death metal most shops play, his smooth music is a welcome change. But when I say ‘smooth’, I mean ‘smooth’ as in ‘my music is smooth, I’m smooth, and I want you to take your clothes off and be smooth with me’. Every day, I’m treated to choruses like “I want you so bad / You been running through my mind / All I see is your behind”, “Lose the panties and the bra / Imma start with a massage”, and “This one’s a baby-maker”. If this is an insidious passive-aggressive form of torture, it’s brilliant because it’s driving me mad with a Barry White melody. We should use this on the dirtbags in Gitmo.
Sunday, October 07, 2012
There was not much new for me in the days immediately following the base attack. I spent another two weeks on the FCF schedule, working to keep our birds in the air so that we could clean out the logistics backlog caused by days of not flying after the assault. Other pieces of information cropped up on exactly how the insurgents were able to get in, and what they were after. Most of it I can’t disclose; however, for those with the stomach, this piece by Michael Yon (http://www.michaelyon-online.com/false-sense-of-something-some-observations-and-thoughts-on-the-unfolding-wars.htm) has some interesting thoughts along with pictures that he grabbed from the ‘victory’ video released by the Taliban. Looking at those pictures was disconcerting: none of those guys will win an award for best drawing (even if they could, they won’t, because all but one are dead), but sure enough, there’s the airfield, and sure enough, there are our helicopters right where they should be. No one can predict the whims of Fate, but it’s chilling to think that, had the attackers made the simple choice of turning one way rather than the other after breaching the wire, that could just as easily have been our flight line up in flames, rather than the Harriers’. Anyway, they missed their chance, and should they ever attempt anything similar in the future, they will find us somewhat less unprepared. Since the attack made it obvious that on our side of the field, we’re pretty much on our own, the squadrons have hardened the flightline facilities so that any future attacker that manages to make it that far will run into a buzzsaw of obstacles and firepower. Not that they COULD make it as far again, since the base perimeter has been hardened too; but we’re no longer relying on the promises made by other from the safety of their bunkers over on mainside. Give us the tools; we’ll take care of ourselves.
In the last ten days, after swinging to one of our mission shifts, I’ve finally flown beyond the stretch of sand where we take our aircraft for testing. Unlike Iraq, where general support – hauling ass and trash – was the name of the game, here there are still a large number of tactical missions to support alongside logistical movements. I’ve primarily flown the GS anyway, since compared to the rest of the squadron that’s been here for two months, my delayed arrival still make me ‘new’, but it’s been good to explore this Helmand River valley that everyone’s been talking about. A few observations: one, this place looks exactly like the Marine base at 29 Palms. It’s uncanny actually: apart from the large river running through the province, the terrain and mountains look identical. On my first flight up into the lower Hindu Kush, I thought I might see some more greenery and maybe even snow. Nope; just more brown nooks and crannies. The river valley itself bears a passing resemblance to that along the Euphrates; on either side are long stretches of irrigated farms (the “green zone”, for future reference), and then it stops and turns immediately into desert. But population distribution is very different. Along the Euphrates, there were distinct towns interspersed between the farm zones, and the closer you got to Baghdad it turned into familiar urban sprawl. Not here. Here, each farm is its own little compound, with dwellings walled in from each other. There are a handful of larger communities scattered along the green zone, but by and large everyone is on their own. At night on the goggles the contrast is most striking: not the large blobs of lights of town after town along the Euphrates, but rather a scattered smattering of individual pinpoints, with any large blob denoting an American or coalition base. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the different social and tribal dynamics of Sunni Arabs and Pashtuns, but from simply flying overhead it seems clear that the locals aren’t big fans of having close neighbors.
The river is where most of our GS work is done. Up in the mountains, there’s other work. With the concerted effort over the last couple of years to drive the Taliban out of the population centers, such as they are, along the river, the focus is now to the north, in the mountains and isolated valleys where we have little presence and the insurgents can work relatively unmolested. There are coalition task forces dedicated to remedying this situation, and we frequently support them by lifting troops to places they can’t get otherwise. I flew one of these as well a few days ago. Working with these guys – not Americans, not Brits, but other Commonwealth members – was interesting. They’re not out here with much; as one of them put it, they only brought “good food, and the desire to kill bad guys”. They’re good at the latter. We dropped them into a known IED manufacturing area, and within a few hours they’d found lots of bomb parts, weapons, and left 4 dead bad guys in their wake. They left without a scratch on any of them.
Anyway, off to more flying. It’s good to be doing something besides testing the same aircraft for the same problems. Game on.
Monday, September 17, 2012
For anyone seeking more information on the events of a few nights ago, the two stories below are the most accurate I’ve read:
Maybe someday I’ll discuss it in more detail. But that will not be until I’m somewhere with a stiff drink in my hand.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
To hell with you. All of you. Everywhere.