07 July 2010

Below boring altitude

Pilot: "Do you know where we are?"
Copilot: "We're in North Dakota."

Good to know. Our pilots had spotted a tower they didn't see on the map and wanted to mark it. They actually knew where we were, but they liked to BS in the front.

They also liked to fly. I didn't know a Huey could do 80 degree banks. It can. Right around the ridge. There musta been about forty feet of clearance from blades to cliff.

We flew out to a canyon on the northern end of the badlands. The flight out was uneventful - flat farmland. We flew along, fifty feet above the ground, flying around cows and farmhouses so as not to anger the farmers and flying over powerlines so as not to die. We were in completely uncontrolled airspace: no one had us on radar, no one had us on radio.

Deer jumped up and sprinted away from us. Calves ran; their mothers just stood their and swiveled their heads. Ducks spooked, and left trails of white foam on the water before they took off. Our shadow, blades chopping and sun shining through the doors, followed us across the ground.

We reached the canyon and headed for a place with some LZs (Landing Zones) set up on pinnacles. One of them was a patch of grass on top of rock, with a hundred-foot drop all around. We came in steep, and the crew chief leaned out of the window to guide the pilots in. The pilots couldn't see the ground - just the empty space over the edge of the cliff. The crew chief directed the pilots: "Ground in four, come back one on the way down." I looked out the back. The tail was hanging over the edge. Front: nose hanging over the edge. Sides: couple feet of space each way. Good landing.

The crew chief stood on the skid as we took off. We flew over the water, looked down and saw 4-foot fish silhouetted in the sunlight. We flew along the cliffs at the lake's edge, watching the layer of coal. We stayed low, fifty feet over the water, throwing it into tight turns.

We stopped at a Guard training area to practice tactical landings: come in fast and set it down. We hopped out to pee, and stayed on the ground to see what it looked like. They took off and went around, out of sight. Popped up over the trees before we could hear them, and had it on the ground in ten seconds. Awesome. We ran under the rotors to get back on.

The rest was pretty simple: just followed the highway back to base. Flew through the windmills. Those things are huge, four hundred feet tall, including blades. Takes seven trucks to get one of 'em out here.

Our pilots - one an '05 grad, one '07 - told us helos are pretty much the only real flying left in the Air Force: everybody else goes to 30,000 feet and obeys the Air Traffic Control, following their highways in the sky. These guys are always VFR (Visual Flight Rules). They stick close to the ground, go where they want, and actually maneuver their aircraft around obstacles. There's no auto-pilot. There's no auto-anything.

Seems like a pretty cool career. And, if you speak a foreign language, they might even send you to train Venezuelans to fight drug cartels. Or maybe fly with them. Or something like that.

"¿Tú sabes dónde estamos?"
"Estamos en Dakota del Norte..."

6 comments:

  1. I still get nostalgic anytime I hear a Huey. They were everywhere in Vietnam. They fought and they saved lives. I knew a pilot of one who lost his life when he was shot down. Sounds like you had a fun day. Are you thinking of flying one of these?

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  2. Sweeeeet.

    df

    pa

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  3. Choppers are certainly one place the metal meets the meat, a la We Were Soldiers and Blackhawk Down. They also do a lot of stuff you can't talk about.

    That said, some fixed wing guys can do some pretty cool stuff too. How many large aircraft put all four engines in full reverse thrust to do an assault landing, drop 30 tons of MREs to starving locals, or fly so low at 200 knots they're bank limited (so their wingtips don't scrape the ground)?

    You won't find too many A-10s (or even most fighters) at 30K (or on autopilot) either. AWACS? Tankers? Yep. But the guys doing the work these days are in amongst'em.

    While not every role is glorious (in the stereotypical sense), just ask the ground pounder what he thinks about the air support he's getting, whether an evac by a helo or some CAS from a fighter. It's all glorious to him. And that's one big reason why we do it.

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  4. Excellent points, JD.

    Love those A-10s, and if I was humping a SAW and a ruck, I know I would REALLY love them.

    :)

    The Pa

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  5. JD, A-10's would be on the short list, too, and maybe C-130s.

    But choppers are a lot of fun. Did you fly 16's? They're on your blog banner, right?

    Jim, I'm not sure the Huey will still be around when graduate pilot training. Global Strike Commander said a new chopper is his number one priority. Nowadays, Hueys only guard missiles and transport VIPs.

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  6. Yes, F-16s have been my primary airframe (though my helicopter flights were far more challenging in basic flying than any fixed wing aircraft I've flown). I will admit that A-10s were actually higher than F-16s on my preferences after pilot training, and I gave serious consideration to both C-130s and helos.

    Regardless, Proverbs 16:9 and Jeremiah 29:11.

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