9 Sep 2015

Brian DeToy Iraq Blog from 2010: Flight to Taji

So yesterday morning I decided I wanted to go up-country a bit and talk with some commanders and staff about certain aspects of leadership and leadership development. So, I got on our handy-dandy air portal and signed up for a helicopter (CH47 Chinook) flight out of a nearby airbase for 1930. At about 1830 SGM drove me over to the base and I found I had not been manifested. Didn’t matter, because weather had socked in all rotary flights since 1500; they went ahead and added me to the list of passengers. I also went over to the Air Force folks and signed up for a fixed-wing flight scheduled to go to the same place at 0200. SGM then left me and returned to Victory. I read a book, made a couple of calls on the free phones provided by the USO (but only got a hold of Mom and surprised her with my voice!) At 2300 the call came through that all rotary (helo) flights were cancelled across central Iraq for the night due to the weather situation. Lots of groans from all the folks on the flight line. I went back over to the Air Force and their flight was still a ‘go.’ At 2330 we manifested (about 40 of us) and we finally made our way to the plane about 0100 this morning. Besides my body armor, helmet and weapon, I only had one small rucksack so not much trouble. It was a C-130 Hercules (4 props), the old workhorse of Army-Air Force cooperation for decades. I have flown more in this aircraft than any other. Same old rigged jump seats, too. I sat down, strapped in and promptly fell asleep; the stiffness and height of the body armor makes a nice headrest. Sometime in there the engines started and revved and they raised the ramp. Suddenly, about the time we should have been taxiiing, I heard the crew chief yell – ‘We’re shutting down and everybody has to get off. Sorry about that.’ Really more groans now! Then, he turned to me and said, ‘Sir ,can you step up front for a minute?’ At the ladder to the cockpit, he whispered, over the engines, “Sir, we’re still taking you with us. Could you jump up into the cockpit so the others don’t see you are staying? I did as bid. Ten minutes later the other passengers had debarked and their gear had been off-loaded from the ramp. The crew all gathered in the cockpit – there were three young captains (two pilots and a navigator, all under 30), the crew chief and the airman. They informed me that the weather situation was such that they were not allowed to make the flight with passengers but, they figured, as a lieutenant colonel, I must be important enough to get to my destination. No argument from me. After some more talk about weather impacts (“The rules here say we can’t fly.” “But the regs say we can.” “And the charts and reports are at least 4 hours old.” “And I don’t want to spend the night here.”, etc, etc), with me as bemused bystander, the two pilots decided to return to the weather room and get the latest guidance. I remained with the other three and we talked college and sports; the airman is from Madison Wisconsin and is a rabid Badger! And the navigator is a Texas A&M Aggie all the way. He, by the way, was in favor of flying regardless of what anyone said – “I can get us there,” he kept repeating. Eventually, 0245, the pilots returned and told me “Sir, our higher in the UAE, has given us permission to make this night flight, under night-vision goggles, in this weather, and into a very short airstrip none of us has ever seen before, even in daylight. If I decide at the last moment, that I can’t make it, I am to abort and take this bird to Kuwait and not back here. Do you still want to go with us?” Now, I thought, who can pass up an offer of adventure like that?! So, I said “I need to chew some ass down in Ali al Salem anyway (in Kuwait), so if that happens I can make something out of it, as long as I get a flight back up here tomorrow.” No problem, the pilot told me. So, we were off. Again, these were all young guys and they were excited to be doing something new and a bit dangerous and, at least, interesting in this boring old war of theirs. The crew went through their checklists in their painstaking manner (thankfully) and at 0300 we revved and throttled those big engines and taxiied out onto the runway. I have never flown in a large plane cockpit before (several Cessnas but nothing like this). It was awesome! What a view; the nose of a C-130 has a ton of window and I had the cat’s perch. Watching these young men work, rumbling down the runway, goggled eyes scanning left, right and front, was pretty cool. True professionals. The navigator would stand and peer out from time to time. We took off quickly (a C-130 does not need much runway, and that is why it is so useful to us Army guys), and we banked off into the black. We reached our cruising altitude pretty fast and I had a perfect view of the giant city spread out before me. The liveliness of it, even at that hour, makes me think this whole endeavor will succeed. As we approached our destination camp, I kept a sharp eye back and forth between navigator and pilot. We did overfly the objective the first time. I don’t know if this was intentional or not. It was their first time to this strip and there was the weather. However, it is not usual to do this with enemy about. You don’t want to loiter around or do a slow lazy circle back in. But we did. I was OK with it. Not that I had any choice. We banked incredibly sharply, lots of Gs, and came into the airstrip. 500 the computer voice intoned, 450, meantime the navigator is calling it out too, 250, 200, the pavement is coming up real fast now, 100, 50, 30, 10, touchdown. Immediately, the engines kicked into reverse and the plane stopped almost on a dime. Great bird! We spun around in front of the Iraqi Air Force bays and I saw two pickups waiting. The crew chief gave me the thumbs up and I was released. I scampered down the cockpit ladder and out the ramp on the tail of the plane. I was met by a senior NCO on the tarmac who pointed me to the trucks. I walked over and found my good friend Major Scott Shaw. Ten years ago this very month, he and I had flown into the Sinai peninsula with our battalion (I was XO and he was my S-3 Air) for a six-month peacekeeping deployment on the Egyptian-Israeli border. He took me back to his office, filed some reports and then hit the sack at about 0430. Got up today (its all one long day now) and met with some officers in the late morning and afternoon. Met up with an old cadet of mine, Captain Megan (Noble) Andros, for lunch and then caught the late afternoon UH-60 Blackhawk flight back to my home base. Again, there was a screw up with the manifest, but my rank allowed them to put me on the list. In both cases, I did not say or do anything to ‘use rank’ or ‘push it.’ It was simply that I was the highest ranking person around both times and the folks ‘made it happen.’ Its funny – here in the Palace, there are a couple billion lieutenant colonels running around, while out in the sticks there are fewer and fewer; so it felt good to be one again. On the flight back, we came in over farmland between the fertile Tigris and Euphrates; at times my mind wandered as I was watching the pastoral scene and it was as if I was looking at an American farming landscape. Only a dirty brown home or stretch of poor irrigation canal would give it away. All in all, a very good day and quite productive. And I very much enjoyed my flight last night; glad to have been with those young guys as they did some new things.