Exerpt, Chapter 1
September 10, 2001
My left leg tingled as I shifted in the pilot’s seat. My lower back ached from the weight of body armor – Chinook cockpits were notoriously uncomfortable for such a long flight. I sighed as my Night Vision Goggles struggled to amplify enough light for a clear video. It was darker than I would have liked over the bayous of Southern Louisiana. I nervously tweaked the NVG focus, hoping to improve the picture. The moon, if it were up, would have helped, but it was nowhere in sight. A quick glance across the cockpit revealed my copilot Jason’s eyes reflecting an eerie green glow from his NVGs. “Damn, it’s dark,” he said to nobody in particular.
The dark cockpit was lit only by four multi-function displays on the instrument panel. My radar was on, augmented with Forward-Looking Infrared Receiver (FLIR). This was as good as it would get. So, I turned my attention to our front, scanning the horizon for navigation cues and hazards.
I was the flight leader of two Special Operations Chinooks and had a mission to finish.
I was mad about the last back-and-forth conversation on the radio.
I’d just argued with the Air Mission Commander riding in Chalk Two. He and I had distinct ways of doing things. He wanted me to abort the infil because he thought the poor weather would keep us from our intended target. He’d rather cancel than fail. I took a second look at my map. We would not have a problem – I was sure.
We’d butted heads before over similar circumstances. Joe Garst was a captain, and I was a chief warrant officer three. As a CW3, he outranked me. But I was the ‘Flight Lead,’ an influential leadership position in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). Years of experience, service, piloting skills, talent, cult-of-personality (ego), and decision-making put me at the front of our formation, not his seniority. I was goal-oriented with an attitude to match. I’d go over, around, or through any problem I faced to complete my mission – sometimes to a fault.
I’d gone toe-to-toe with senior officers before, and mostly, I got my way. Joe was a non-commissioned officer in Delta Force before attending flight school and working his way to our unit. His personality and attitude were every bit as intense as mine. Sometimes I think he just loved to argue because he never overruled me outright – this mission was no different – I’d gotten my way. As we pushed through the rain, the stress was all on me. If I came up short, Joe would never let me forget that he was right, and I was wrong. To say we were both stubborn would be an understatement. I was the proverbial immovable object, and Joe was the rock smashing against me. But the advantage was mine, with several thousand flight hours under my belt. Our disagreements might get my ass kicked someday over a beer, but in the air, we always worked things out.
I started planning for flight deviations as we penetrated the simulated enemy air defenses of the fictional country of Pineland.
Night flying can be challenging in the best of circumstances. Add thunderstorms and the complexity increases. I hoped the heavy rain wouldn’t derail our riverine infil. ‘Observer Controllers’ from the Louisiana-based Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) were onboard, watching our clandestine operation. JRTC provided a realistic free-play-training environment, allowing me to exploit the strengths of my specially modified Chinook helicopter. We couldn’t ask for a better venue to practice with our Special Forces brothers.
Jason did most of the flying. The affable copilot kept his head moving side-to-side and occasionally up and down scanning the landscape for unlit antennas and power lines. Windshield wipers stroked across my field-of-view like an inverted metronome. The visibility dropped to an uncomfortably low distance. So, I ordered my wingman to drop back and pick up two minutes of separation, keeping in mind we’d still need to rejoin before arriving on target. Several checkpoints later, I brightened the aircraft’s clock slightly – it was time.
Satisfied that we’d met our requirements to re-join the flight, I instructed Jason to reverse course using a standard-rate turn to the right. I frantically searched the sky for my wingman. The risk of collision was very real. We’d needed to see each other before getting any closer.
I pointed. “Over there.”
Emerging from the misty dark background at my two o’clock was Chalk Two. The MH-47E Chinook isn’t the most beautiful machine in the air, but it is one of the fastest and strongest helicopters in the world. The flat-black airframe made it more challenging to see at night, but the fuselage was big, close to fifty feet long and ten feet wide. It resembled a miniature space shuttle without wings, or maybe more like a greyhound bus with a pointy nose. The fuselage hung beneath two massive sixty-foot rotors at the front and back in tandem. The standard joke was that it looked like “two palm trees mating in a trash dumpster.” But as it banked in my direction, I noted how gracefully it maneuvered through the sky.
The radios were quiet, but the intercom chatter in our aircraft picked up as the joining black Chinook passed down my right side and circled behind me. Once in position, and in formation, we turned back along our next intended heading and accelerated to make our time-on-target – plus-or-minus thirty seconds.
I craned my neck to look back into our cargo compartment to see the “precious cargo.” A Special Forces Maritime Operations Team was asleep and sprawled over their motorized inflatable Zodiac. I divided the twelve-man MAROPS Team evenly among our two Chinooks, with each aircraft easily carrying a boat to insert. The rivers in this area cut through heavily wooded swamps and forests. And we were going to ‘infil’ our passengers at a pre-designated linkup location.