(continued from part one)
The time of my arrival at the Range posed a problem: I had arrived at the time I was supposed to be departing to return to Liberty. As fate would have it, another pair of birds wouldn’t land until after lunch, so I wondered if I was ever going to escape.
Around 1300, the Cryptkeeper called from our TOC back at Liberty, informing me that I was returning at 1500. (A note about the acronym “TOC”: I think it stands for “tactical operations center” but I’m not sure and neither is anyone else. It’s an acronym whose original meaning has long since been lost and the acronym has now become the word itself.) At 1500, sure enough, a pair of Black Hawks descended and I presented myself to the lead chopper’s crew chief.
He asked where I was going; I said Liberty. He responded that they were going to Taji, not Liberty – fair enough, I thought, I’ll get on the next one (or be stranded there forever – whatever). He took my name and jabbered with his crew and (presumably) flight control for what seemed like interminable minutes. Finally, he motioned for me to hop on. I did so, and snapped myself in – at which point he motioned for me to get out. He scrawled on a piece of paper (vocals being impossible, with the roar of the engines, his crew helmet and my earplugs): “did u miss ur flight or did u get dropped off late?” I pointed to the latter. He nodded and directed me to the second chopper.
I dashed back there, feeling pretty ridiculous already – they had been sitting on the ground for almost ten minutes now, mostly on my account. The second crew chief yelled into my ear: “Why did you miss your flight?” I looked at him, confused. I tried to explain that there was no flight to miss but obviously he didn’t care. He continued: “My commander is really pissed at you right now!” he screamed – so fucking what, I’m thinking. “You’re going to have to do a million push-ups before you get on this chopper. You understand me?” What? I could do little but nod dumbly. He pointed to the ground. Incredulous, I set down my M249 and backpack and proceeded to push, body armor and all, under the screaming blades of the Black Hawk. I knew SGT P was watching me from about fifty feet away, and all I could think was, I wish he had a camera right now because I’ll bet I look like a total jackass.
After about twenty the crew chief gestured for me to get up and get on the bird. I was barely strapped in before the pilot slammed the throttle, launching us into the air. He threw the bird into an almost ninety degree bank while I could hear the rotor blades biting angrily into the wind, clawing hard to gain speed. OK, I thought, I know what the deal is – this pilot is going to try to make me barf as payback for being such a nuisance. But they’d get no such pleasure from me!
The Black Hawk climbed sharply, then began swerving from side to side as the pilot jerked the stick violently. The bird then dove sharply, lifting me from my seat slightly and tingling my stomach before bottoming out just above the scrub plain. A few seconds of level flight, then we were rocketing skywards, almost vertical, the g-forces grinding me into my seat. I could feel my blood pooling in my elbows and feet; having read about fighter pilots all my life I knew to tense my muscles to keep the blood in my head. Then weightlessness at the top of the climb – my backpack, sitting on the floor in front of me, floated up to chest height while I left my seat completely despite the harness strapped across my shoulders. The crew whooped and threw their hands up as if on a rollercoaster, and they looked back at me, smiling, to see if I was hurling my lunch across their cabin yet. I just grinned back at them.
The maneuvers continued for a few minutes, dives, climbs, steep banks – I was loving it, in spite of the crew’s playful malice. Once over the precincts of Baghdad, they had to quit their rambunctious flying and resume normality, but we were still making top speed, the windows vibrating with the fierce thrum of the rotor.
As we crossed the wall of Camp Liberty, the pilot flared the nose to bleed our airspeed, coming in low right over Pad 5, my dreamy trailer park home-away-from-home. As soon as the wheels touched the ground, the crew chief bellowed, “Get out of the fucking chopper!” I didn’t waste time dismounting, and as soon as I was clear, the birds took off again, leaving me a little weak-kneed from adrenaline but otherwise unscathed.
What a ride! Maybe I’ll get to do it again someday, though without the push-ups.