By Phillip Sicard
Retired Navy Pilot, Phillip Sicard’s sharp wit and clever descriptions take us through his “Day in the Life” as a Defense Contractor in AfghanistanThe Rotor Break
The K-1200 sits in our hangar, a solitary, sleek, and sporty flyer among the bigger, fatter and unsightly 61s and Hueys. An insect like profile stares back as I approach, looking more like a truck sized dragon fly than a helicopter. I review the book…filters changed, flaps adjusted, fuel sample done…ready for preflight. Open the front end, battery not wired, fix that…open the door, circuit breakers need pulling…gotta tighten the collective as well….seat still smells from the last pilot’s bout with Mexican food. Move aft, and up. Open the engine cowling….fuel lines, linkages and safety wire…sprague clutch spinning one way, that’s good! Look at the blades…pin’s slip-marked and safety wired…servo flaps good…blades smooth and tight. Button her up and the crew chief is ready to go… sign the book, it’s time to fly…tow – taxi into position…two V22s land directly ahead, full tiltrotor mode, damn those things are impressive! I glide by, all sleek and quiet, they rumble past, chain guns cocked and ready, all whirs and engines…a C17 rockets by on takeoff and another 53 announces its presence with loud whomping authority. The aerostat winks at us, a monument to earlier and simpler times of helium flight, belied only by its array of belly mounted sensor gear and cameras. Dust devils dance across the runway, oblivious to the frenzied airfield action. Several dog sized jackals stop and stare from the black-water greenery…the unopposed “shit creek kings.”
Position the helo for launch and I’m ready to start. Jump in, strap on, glove up, helmet and kneeboard in place, run the checklist…radio ground and get the Scottish controller…a roguish Sean Connery like voice says ”Pass message” and “cheerio” as I’m approved for engine start. I do a last mental check…rotor brake – off, fuel flowing, engine cool…one last deep breath, and squeeze the start trigger…things start happening fast…voltage drops, engine warms, blades turn, gauges come off the pegs….a familiar lope kicks in as blades are whipped by centrifugal force, stop drooping, and become the all too familiar revolving wings. The engine purrs as a flick of my wrist and throttle twist runs it up to flight idle…1800 shaft horsepower now thrumming under my ass and over my head…I feel powerful! Wipe out the controls and check the blade track…looking good. Run throttle to fly, secure the door and the crew-chief departs, chocks swinging playfully over his shoulder. Talk to tower, “Circuits today?”, why thank you very much! I beep the engines up and slowly add collective while pulling my nose up…wheels get light and she leisurely rises…I’m airborne! It’s always a surreal feeling being airborne…like not real, only here I am, looking down at the pad, a 100 feet below. I pull power and dip the nose…quickly accelerate to 80 kts and turn to enter the pattern. I request a couple thousand feet to enter my maintenance flight. Today’s check flight involves an “autorotation”…not familiar? Wiki describes an “auto” as “a descending maneuver where the engine is disengaged from the main rotor system and the rotor blades are driven solely by the upward flow of air through the rotor system.” In real life, you have one chance to put it on the ground, save the aircraft, and be the hero. Today’s maintenance flight, thankfully, is pretty undramatic; my engine is working fine! The check is good and I return for landing. As I shutdown and the blades slow to a stop, I take a moment to ponder how very lucky I am to have this rewarding and enjoyable undertaking as part of my job. 25 days to go and an actual Christmas at home this yr!
The weather is turning colder, at least at night… the piss dance continues in my rack until I cant take it anymore and finally get up….taking a leak is now an adventure involving sweat pants, flip flops, and a jacket… ….I refuse to go the bottle route even though my body screams at me to remain in the warmth of the CHU…just cant get over the picture of room-mates catching me red handed, standing in the dark balancing my junk, flashlight in mouth, aiming for the small opening of a 12 ounce water bottle. In the back of my mind is the memory of a former co-worker at the last FOB, storing 18 of these piss bottles, a macabre shrine to pure laziness, as he boarded his flight home after being fired. Oh the shame! Flight ops continue…last nights engine start was comical…at the end of the runway, an enormous C-5, literally a behemoth of an aircraft, taxis for takeoff, all his lights on, turning directly at me…I feel like a small child facing down a tractor trailer…guess he would win this game of chicken.
A mortar explodes near the runway and rocks our flimsy compound as we all scramble for our armor. Clumsy attempts at donning gear quickly culminate with amused grins as we settle in the bunker and look each other over…helmets askew, velcro flapping, Marines whitefisting holstered weapons at the ready. The new guy talks incessantly, nervous energy propelling his continuous excited chatter, “Is it clear yet?” “was that incoming?”….the rest of us fire up cigarettes and insert dips, crouched in the bunker darkness, the occasional flashlight cutting the gloom, illuminating the choking airborne dust. The big voice finally booms out an “ALL CLEAR” and we resume the flight schedule. A half moon swings across the southern sky and dips over a highly visible and brightly lit Venus (Venus, the planet, you ask? theres an app for that)…almost in perfect vertical alignment. As I head to the parked aircraft, I’m startled by several very close and shrill screams…. Initial thinking Taliban… then realizing its the wounded screech of animals fighting. After nearly shitting myself, jumping 3 feet in the air, and checking my shorts, my heart descends back in my chest. I break out a flashlight and reflective sets of yellow eyes stare me down barely 10 feet away…just your basic Afghani jackels enjoying a late night tussle at my expense. I back away and into the relative safety of the cockpit thinking a rabies shot regimen would be just awesome to go through right now….and how surreal would it be to get taken down in a combat zone by of all things, a rabid dog wanna be? 30 days to go my friends!
Fob. This base was attacked previously and I need to conduct a safety assessment for the team. Can’t expect to send my people to a place that could cost them their lives or that I’m unwilling to endure myself. Meet at the airfield at zero dark thirty to catch the next V22. Some really tough hombres join us all kitted out and armed to the teeth. Board the aircraft in the dark and stillness of early morning. Zoom to altitude, crew members look eerie wearing skull face-masks…well it is almost Halloween. Pass over the desert landscape at a dizzying pace. I snooze. Too tired to worry about getting shot. Aircraft is dripping hydraulic fluid on my head. We pitch up noticeably as the Osprey flares for landing. Ushered out and rushed to the collection point under the whir of blades, exhaust and jet fumes. Check in with the Marines and find my tent. Sleep comes quickly though the cot is hard and the sleeping bag ripe. Wake-up and begin the assessment with a base tour. I miss water hours so make do with a baby wipe shower. I seek out the least filled shitter and take a deep breath for my daily constitutional…just never able to hold my breath long enough. Sand as fine and thick as moon dust, my boots and pants quickly covered with a fine powdery coating. Tanks, MRAPs, heavy trucks. Several helos. Visit the tower, the S6, prep for the retrograde op. Spirited attempts at Halloween decoration are everywhere…mini-pumpkins and garbage bag spiders seem slightly out of place, yet somehow completely in place. A couple of Marines with gloves flash leather and play catch with a baseball as my mind wanders to thoughts of the Red Sox in the series…another milestone event I’m missing. We come upon a card game with troops accompanied by the muttly bomb sniffing dog…the pup is super friendly…not realizing the utter seriousness of its work. Amble over to the sites of the recent attacks…mostly filled in craters now. Looks pretty benign. Visit Dustoff…the MEDVAC team, and climb in one of their cockpits…60s are nice, though will always remember them as that replacement for my beloved 46. An haboob hits unexpectedly…dust and rain fly at me sideways…now I look like a cinnamon dusted donut. The aerostat team struggles to recover the blimp. Marine grunts tussle with tent flaps. The storm intensifies. Can’t even see a few feet. And then it clears. Time for a cigar. A 1st LT with the cheesiest porn/deployment stache ever, debates Sake vs Soju…others chime in with discussions of football and the ever present themes of home, sex, and alcohol. Talk trails off..I lie back on a home made 2×4 bench, munching MRE brownies, and stare at the stars…as usual, the Afghani nights are crystal clear and free of light-pollution. The blinking strobes on the Aerostat the only man made interruption in the night sky vista. Its time to go to work…we visit METOC for weather, make calls for coordination and break out the gear. Super Stallions land and offload tri-wall after tri-wall of food, water and ammo. Its now our turn…track my helo inbound on goggles as it turns final…my vehicle operator brings her in smoothly and drops the load. Marines scramble out and hookup the outgoing load. Launch and departure to home. We debrief and I can finally relax. I settle into my cot and hope the internet connection holds…hello facebook friends.
Wake up. Still in Afghanistan. Darkness all around, the room smells of ass and feet…4 guys in a cramped space surrounded by unwashed clothes, too long worn boots, and the ever present aroma of a black water facility adjacent to our hooch. Step outside the door, blasted by heat and blinded by the near whiteout of the suns rays. Damn, forgot my sunglasses again…make my way to the showers, silently praying for semi-warm water…greeted by the ever present signs directing us not to defecate in the showers or masturbate in the porta johns. Finally dressed, off to the DFAC for the depressingly bad chow…drink my coffee and on to the hangar to preflight the helo. Dressed in Flak vest, helmet, backpack, and flight bag, all told, 70 lbs of gear weighing heavily on my old bones, I trudge off to work, God, I hate these rock beds that chew up my feet. Helo’s looking good, excited to be flying today. Tow the aircraft to its launch point, its 50 C in the cockpit. I’m literally dripping with sweat. Get my flight clearance, start up and lift to hover. The Brit controllers with their “crack on” and “pass your message” and “circuits”, have a vernacular that takes some time getting used to. I launch to my flight area, lulled into complacency, staring at the mountains and desert landscape…forgetting at times that this is a warzone and that men with bad intentions are down there and would love to tack my helo-scalp to their mud hut walls. I return to the airfield and scream down the runway at 100 kts and 10 feet as the assorted 53/Cobra/Huey/Osprey crews stare at me, not accustomed to seeing a pilot in that “unmanned” helo pass by towards landing. Its now night and the temps drop precipitously. Getting ready for the unmanned missions. We fly through the checklists and I launch the worlds most expensive RC helo with my playstation controller…this never gets old…we launch on our resupply to a USMC FOB. Heavy aircraft and gunships pass overhead. Flares and booms and smoke that remind me of 4th of July illuminate the night. Tracers and the staccato of crew served and automatic weapons chirp away sounding like a cold man with uncontrollably chattering teeth. The delivery is uneventful and the helo returns. We debrief and I complete the paperwork from another day in the ‘Stan. Sleep calls…its groundhog day, again, and again; I tick another day off the deployment calendar. Home is calling but duty is forefront…45 more days till boarding that flight for Dubai and home.
Phillip Sicard is a Retired Navy 46 Pilot. Post military he spent several years in Afghanistan as a defense contractor