Fighter Gymnastics – Cirque du Soleil cannot match the performance that US, British, Danish, Georgian, Jordanian, Afghan, Australian and other NATO and Coalition Force warfighters see every day when they ride in the indomitable machines that fly them from here to there. Pilots sit in their cockpits studying charts or flipping switches. At lift-off, we are strapped down in the rear of the aircraft, so we no longer see them at all. However, by “wheels-up” we have been guided by the skill and professionalism of the flight crew, who quadruple as baggage handlers, cargo wrestlers, flight attendants – and gunners.
In The Care Of Dark Strangers – Regardless of whether it is an Army Blackhawk or Chinook, an Air Force C-130, a British Merlin, or one of those big, ominous Marine helicopters that Hollywood loves to put in movies so much rising from obscurity; regardless, the routine is the same: Passengers are met at the tarmac by a crew-member dressed in flight-jump-suit with all the paraphernalia required for his/her job – to include special helmets with dark visors that completely engulf heads and hide faces. We are in the care of strangers whom we cannot even see. We are outfitted in our own required equipment, which for flight, means wearing body armor, helmets, and ear-plugs – and most people are carrying heavy instruments required to do their jobs, with most passengers being soldiers and marines on their way to or from the battlefield.
Following Through The Night – At night, the effect is magnified. Airfields are all but blacked out, so we approach and deplane at the instruction of dark phantoms who communicate mainly by hand-and-arm signals. Regardless of rank, they are in charge, and they set about bringing weary, deathly quiet passengers into the yawning cave that is the rear of most of these aircraft. (Blackhawk helicopters are much smaller, and do not carry heavy cargo, and thus do not have the cavernous doors. They load from the side. However, their crew/gunners are every bit as lithe and professional as described below.)
Soaking In The Heat – When time arrives to board, passengers form in a single line, and follow a crewmember across the landing zone to the rear of the aircraft. The engines are already roaring, and we stand in a heat-blast, waiting for final word to board – on a cold night, that heat blast can be welcome. On command by a hand-signal, we follow the person ahead of us to the lip of the ramp, careful to take the high step while not jarring the machine gun setting there. Rollers on the floor for cargo handling require stepping carefully. Inside, another crew member directs us where to put our carry-on bags – usually back-packs, and typically they go onto the center of the floor, and form a pile that is then strapped down.
Model Of Customer Service – After we are seated and secured, we gain full appreciation for these men and women of acrobatic prowess. As often as not, having guided tired strangers carrying implements of war through the dead of night lit only by isolated diodes, and having safely seated them within the dark holds of military aircraft, they now become cargo handlers, wrestling large crates and sling-loads of materiel into already cramped spaces. When they are done with that, the night has just begun…
Thunder – The noise of thunderous engines winds up. Meanwhile, these slender, lithe, athletic crew-members move into their respective positions. On Blackhawks, they swing themselves through incredibly small openings, strap themselves in, and pull their machine guns into position in front of them. For the duration of the flight, they will scan and cover every inch of ground with watchful eyes, poised to react.
Platform For Gunfire – On the larger aircrafts, gunners take up positions along the sides near the front of the plane. They have more room than their Blackhawk counterparts, but just like them, their real jobs now begin. At the rear of the aircraft, the crewman there transforms. He pushes a button, and hydraulic controls lift the ramp – not all the way closed – it remains open, and now becomes the platform for this very brave crewman to man his machine-gun, which juts out over the end of the ramp. As the aircraft taxies and begins its ascent, he straps a safety-tether just around his chest and back, just below his arms. It is attached to the ceiling of the aircraft so that he has full motion in every direction. Another line attaches to his helmet so that he has clear communications with the cockpit. Then, he sits on the deck of the ramp, facing into the night, legs spread on either side of the machine-gun, toes out over the lip of the ramp – and he peers through his goggles into the dark void, his hands guiding the gun in the direction of his line-of-sight.
Ground Routine – On landing, these incredible people once again become cargo holders, flight attendants, and ground-crew. With all of the flying I’ve done here and in Iraq, I have never seen one act impatiently or inappropriately. Quite the contrary.
Personal Attention – About 10 days ago, I made a night flight from a location up north. The aircraft was scheduled to make several stops over a four-hour journey. My destination was at the end of those four hours. At the first stop, the man who was the tail-gunner for this flight motioned for me to deplane. I indicated that my destination was further on, at which point he took off his face-mask, uncovered his ears, and yelled above the engine, “I know. We have some other stops we have to make. We’ll come back and get you.” I yelled back, “OK. I can stay or I can go, but please don’t forget me.” He laughed and yelled back, “Don’t worry, sir, we’ll make sure we get you.”
Mission Continues – I waited at the terminal for about an hour, and then received word that the big Marine helicopter was on its way back in. Once again, I lined up with passengers, and once again made my way through the dark to the back of the helicopter. The night was cold, and I basked in the heat of the engines. Then, the gunner came and got me out of the line. He guided me to the ramp, past the machine-gun, and into a seat near the ramp where I would not be soaked by dripping hydraulic liquid and condensation. Another crewman handed me a card.
That had been a long day. It had started early, been challenging, and I still had hours to go in front of me. Nevertheless, my tasks already seemed small before the physical and mental challenges faced by these magnificent crews for hours at a time, day after night after day after night, in a war-zone.
Personal Gratitude – I pulled a flashlight from my pocket and pointed it at the card. On one side it read:
YOU HAVE BEEN SERVICED BY HMH-
463 PEGASUS, FLYING THE OLDEST MOST
COMBAT PROVEN AIRCRAFT IN THEATER,
THE VENERABLE CH-530 SHITTER.
SUPPORTING THE INFANTRY SINCE 1944
On the backside of the card was the following:
CLOSEOUT ON TAP
REDEEMABLE COUPON FOR
ONE FREE ICE COLD BEER
AT HANGAR2, BAYSIDE
MCBH KANEOHE BAY, HI
The circumstances of travel prevented a proper thank-you, but I did my best. Those guys put a very big smile on a very tired face. I cannot say enough good things about them.
I still carry that card in a protected place in my wallet.