A day in the life of an Army chopper, lifeline for U.S. troops

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 17, 2009 

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The morning air at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan was crisp and clear, with a chill to it, and Sgt. Jeffrey Sherwood was excited.

Sherwood, the crew chief of the Army's workhorse CH-47F Chinook helicopter, wasn't excited about the day's mission. He was excited about his new thermos.

"Look at this thing," he said to anyone standing around who'd listen. "It's guaranteed to keep stuff hot or cold for 24 hours."

Today would be a good test for Sherwood's new thermos. The five-man crew of Flipper 12 had a long day ahead of them resupplying American troops along what's optimistically called the "Ring Road" from Kandahar through Zabul province.

In fact, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has few roads worthy of the name, and most of the ones that do exist can be highways to hell, planted with land mines and homemade bombs or ideally suited for Taliban ambushes. U.S., Afghan and NATO troops, moreover, are scattered around far-flung, often remote bases.

As a result, although they first flew in 1962, long before most of their crewmen were born, the big, lumbering Chinooks are the 18-wheelers of the Afghan war. Flipper 12 would make eight stops today, delivering passengers, mail, water and even Thanksgiving dinner supplies to forward operating bases in little-known places such as Nawbarhaz, Shinkay and Dehchopan, and to bases named Eagle and Wolverine.

The 3-82nd General Support Aviation Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C. runs the ring route daily and carries an average of about 2,000 passengers and more than 209 tons of freight a week.

Before they started to load their chopper, Sherwood and two other crewmen, Spc. Galen Cooper and Sgt. David Loisean, shoveled down breakfast as Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jimmy Valencia, today's pilot, gave a preflight briefing while he sat on the rear loading ramp.

As Valencia and his co-pilot, Capt. David Dunham, ran through their preflight checklists and started the twin-rotor Chinook's turbine engines, Sherwood and his crew positioned the cargo of pallets as they were loaded with a huge forklift.

Each pallet was put onto rolling skids, and the men then used brute strength to push them up the slight incline to their proper places on the chopper and strap them down to keep them from shifting in flight, especially important if Valencia and Dunham would have to take evasive action to avoid enemy ground fire.

It took about 45 minutes for the cargo to be loaded and secured in the helicopter's cavernous hold, but then the turbines spun up, and the Chinook took flight with a deafening roar.

The takeoff ended any attempt at conversation without the use of the chopper's tethered microphone-headset system, because the decibel level inside the aircraft was somewhere above rock concert.

Southern Afghanistan is ruggedly beautiful country, with sharp, jagged mountains rising haphazardly from the high desert floor. Sherwood had a panoramic view from the loading ramp, which was kept open. Cooper and Loisean had great views from behind their belt-fed M240B 7.62 mm machine guns on both sides of the chopper just behind the cockpit.

The stops came and went, with some cargo dropped off and new items loaded to be transferred between bases. Passengers also transited between bases, some getting on, some getting off, making Flipper 12 a flying bus.

Refueling stops were a necessity, because the mission was too long in time and distance for the ship's fuel tanks. Passengers were herded away from the aircraft during the refueling, then ushered back on minutes later to take off.

At one stop, a dust cloud propelled by the 70 mph-plus rotor wash blasted soldiers who were waiting to help unload a large volume of mail. They struggled to keep their balance and grabbed packages and bags as the hot wind blew packages and powdery sand through the air around them.

The crews talked about some legendary cargos. Not your mundane mail runs or MREs. A flight for a rescued bomb-sniffing dog, a duffel bag stuffed with more than $600,000 in cash for a special forces operation, the Afghan's coffin that soldiers had picked up and lashed to the hood of a Humvee. A big barbecue setup for soldiers at a distant base: near beer, ribs and all the fixin's. Romanian army rucksacks, looking like small refrigerators but heavier.

The long day was almost done when one more mission arose. A load needed to be moved from one base to another, so the crew opened the belly of the helicopter and maneuvered over a container that was too large for the aircraft's hold.

Carefully hovering, Flipper 12 picked up the container with cables and a sling and took off again.

Flying into the setting sun, some of the passengers were lulled to sleep by the beating of the rotors. Sherwood made himself an in-flight meal, the first of the day, tuna squashed between pieces of bread.

Landing back at Kandahar Airfield, the sun was 180 degrees from where it was when Flipper 12 took off seven hours earlier.

The twin turbines fell silent. Sherwood unscrewed the lid of his new thermos, poured himself a steaming cup of coffee and declared the thermos a success. Another day on the ring was over.

(Liddy is a photographer for The (Raleigh) News & Observer.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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