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Piloting a Black Hawk like playing hooky from work

Name: Mike Steiner

Age: 34

Rank: Chief Warrant Officer

Hometown: Plano, Texas

Job: Pilot and instructor of a Black Hawk helicopter, assigned to a medevac unit.

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CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait—Chief Warrant Officer Mike Steiner has an impatient smile.

He's sick of waiting. Tired of training.

"We are ready to go," Steiner said, standing next to a Black Hawk helicopter.

His eyes are filled with excitement, confidence and bravado. If there is a trace of uncertainty or fear about the possibility of going to war against Iraq, he won't admit it.

And it certainly doesn't show.

Steiner, a chief warrant officer from Plano, Texas, is a pilot of a Black Hawk helicopter, assigned to a medevac unit, based for now at Camp Arifjan, about a 30-minute drive from Kuwait City.

"We've been sitting around saying this is the big show," Steiner says. "This is our Super Bowl. It's got to be what football players feel like when they are waiting around for two weeks, waiting for the big game."

Just wanting it to start.

Steiner has been in Kuwait for three weeks, getting used to flying at night in high winds and sand storms. "Nighttime in the desert, it's the worst conditions for flying," he said. "When you are looking through night-vision goggles, you don't have depth perception. When you are over the sand, if you get over 80 feet you are on instruments; you can't see the ground. It's very demanding."

Steiner has been a pilot for eight years, flying Black Hawks and Hueys, but he's never seen combat. He's been in the medevac (medical evacuation) unit for a year and a half.

If there is a war, he doesn't think it will last long. "I think it will be a repeat of the last one," he says, throwing up his arms in mock surrender. "They don't want to die any more than we do. If I were on their side, I'd be surrendering."

Steiner was 10 years old the first time he rode in a helicopter. His family was on vacation in Missouri, and they came across a tourist stand offering helicopter rides. It probably lasted only 10 minutes, but he was hooked.

Steiner sat on the outside, looking down at the ground.

"It felt like a magic carpet ride," he remembers. "It was a little Bell 47. I was fighting my sister Sheri to sit on the outside because there wasn't a door."

The pilot gave him a card with a picture of the helicopter and his name on it. "I still have it in a box in a closet in my home," Steiner said.

Steiner, who is single, has flown helicopters in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Senegal, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and all over the United States.

"This is the best job in the Army," Steiner says. "You get paid to go play. I always tell people that being a pilot is like when you were a kid and you'd fake being sick so you could stay home from school. The rest of the world is off doing whatever and you are home, having a good time, doing what you want to do. That's what flying is. You get away from the bull."

In seven years he plans to retire, but he'll continue flying for a corporation or maybe a hospital.

When he's not flying, he likes to scuba dive for the same reasons he flies. He spent some time scuba diving in the Red Sea when he was stationed in the area. "It's beautiful water, crystal clear, lots of fish, lots of coral," he says. "You go under water and you can hover. It's just peaceful. Scuba diving is just like flying."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ILLUSTRATIONS (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+STEINER

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