The company was waiting for flights out to training areas scattered across the back forty of Camp Ripley, a cluster of about a hundred of us with a full load of gear (less ammo). We had been there for hours, standing in the autumn breeze and cold spitting rain, complaining about the weather and wolfing down MREs in preparation for the long day ahead. A pair of Black Hawks sat on the tarmac in front of us, the rain darkening their green-brown hulls, their rotors drooping low like the wings of a hawk mantling its downed prey.
Finally, the first group loaded the birds and their engines started with a slow ascending whine. The whine grew to a roar as the rotors spun up, but instead of leaping into the air, they began to roll slowly across the asphalt. I had never seen a Black Hawk taxi like an airplane before, but that’s exactly what they were doing on a dreary Friday morning. How do they do it? A fixed-wing aircraft generates thrust parallel to the ground and so can drive around, but I didn’t think helicopters had that capability. Obviously I was wrong. Apparently they did this to avoid blowing debris in our faces as we waited our turn to ride (how considerate), and unlike in Iraq, they lifted off gently once they cleared our waiting area, floating above the trees almost dreamily instead of clawing skywards at full torque.
And the trees! Just before it was our turn to fly (I was in the last flight, naturally), the rain miraculously stopped and the clouds blew away, revealing a beautiful fall day. The camp is covered with trees and they were in full fall color, a riotous quilt of reds and golds and greens. I had the best seat in the house – the front left – as we skimmed the treetops and banked over the yellow grasslands at a smooth 120 knots. There is no better way to see fall colors than from a speeding helicopter.
Too soon, though, the ride was over – the pilots deposited us in a picturesque landing zone and we went prone in the knee-high grass as they roared away overhead, leaving us each with our fifty pounds of gear and a day of walking.
The rest of the weekend was largely uneventful – just long hours of walking under a heavy load. The weather was perfect, and various problems with the training meant that walking became the main training event. By the end, my shoulders were sore from the body armor and slung rifle and pack and combat lifesaver bag, but my feet were fine and I kept thinking that other people have to pay to walk around in a place like this, and I’m getting paid to do it. I saw a whole kettle of bald eagles circling overhead (eight in all), and deer and turkey and hawks and warblers, and for one stretch along the western border of camp our tracks were preceded by wolf prints, huge and improbable, following the same road we were.