By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent
Some people call them warhorses, others say they’re counterintuitive death traps. And when there’s a fatal incident – like Tuesday’s U.S. helicopter crash that killed at least nine American troops in a remote province of southern Afghanistan – the focus quickly turns to the part Herculean, part fragile war machines in which the crash happened.
I’m often asked what the scariest part of covering the war in Afghanistan is and I always immediately reply that it’s the choppers. For me, it doesn’t matter that during the past decade I’ve probably flown a thousand times in Afghanistan alone. There is no such thing as a routine flight and every takeoff feels like my first.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter crew chief from the 101st Airborne Division sits on the tail ramp of his craft used to transport U.S. and Afghan soldiers in Zhari District, southern Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2010.
Highs and lows
Can there be more exhilaration than catapulting from 100 to 12,000 feet in what feels like nano-seconds, inside a tiny Kiowa attack helicopter on a mission through mountainous Eastern Afghanistan? (You feel as if you’re inside that Cinerama classic “Seven Wonders of the World” – a 1950s Lowell Thomas mega flick, for those too young to remember).
And for sheer pain, try jumping off the rear of a Black Hawk Chinook, hovering about four feet above Earth, just as the chopper jerks backward. Instead of hitting the ground, I hit the steel tail of the chopper…tailbone first. This was supposed to be the launch of a complex drug bust in Nangarhar province. But, screaming in silence, I forgot the whole infiltration plan. Luckily the Taliban had fled just before we landed.
In fact, many of my highs and lows covering the war in Afghanistan have happened on or near choppers.
The most frustrating moment? Sitting for three days on a firebase in Kandahar and missing a story because, during combat operations, journalists are at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to getting a seat.
The most satisfying? Completing the last of seven chopper flights in the same day and getting the story: “Operation Hot Turkey.” It was a genuine U.S. Army combat mission in Kunar province, to deliver hot turkey to every single U.S. soldier on duty, no matter how remote the outpost, on Thanksgiving Day 2006.
There were harrowing moments, too. In April, 2006, the 10th Mountain Division and U.S. Marines launched Operation Mountain Lion in Kunar – the initial invasion of the Korengal Valley – billed as the largest helicopter insert since the Vietnam War.
NBC News cameraman, Kyle Eppler, and I flew in a Chinook, in the dead of night, from a firebase near Jalalabad. Unlike the soldiers, we had no night vision goggles – not that it would have mattered. That chopper ride was my worst, stomach-wrenching, roller-coaster nightmare, and I didn’t need to see just how close the Chinook was to the sheer walls of one cavernous ravine after the next.
We made it safely to our objective, a small mountain ledge overlooking the southern valley, but instead of landing, the Chinook chose to hover in the air while airmen threw all the cargo onto the outcrop below. In the chaos, we lost some important backup TV equipment, and, despite the near freezing temperature, I was boiling with anger.
But as it turned out, we had been lucky: A week later 10 U.S. soldiers died when their chopper tried to land on the same ledge.
War by air
Tuesday’s incident in Afghanistan’s Zabul province may remind us of how dangerous – and challenging – it is for the U.S. military to prosecute the war by air in a cauldron of sandstorms and inclement weather. But anyone who actually covers the war there will tell you there’s no safer way to do get soldiers and supplies from point A to B.
The vehicles themselves are kept in pristine condition. I’ve seen Black Hawks taken apart nut by bolt, cleaned, and reassembled, part of routine maintenance. The same goes for every other rotary vehicle in a war zone full of mountains and almost void of roads.
And then there’s the Osprey, the U.S. Marines and Air Force’s cutting-edge, tiltrotor aircraft – part helicopter, part airplane. Used increasingly in Afghanistan, the Osprey’s rotors fly vertically and horizontally – seemingly defying Newtonian physics. They can also achieve routine speeds of 300 mph, twice that of a standard helicopter, effectively cutting the battle space in half.
Last winter, I was amazed to fly from Kandahar Air Field to Camp Leatherneck, the U.S. Marines main base in Helmand province. In the Osprey it took us the same time it would have taken a powerful C-130 fixed wing cargo plane.
But, just three months later, an Osprey crashed – like Tuesday’s incident – in Zabul province, killing four and injuring 16. And like Tuesday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for downing that chopper, though an investigation leaned more toward pilot error.
Like other choppers in the war, the Osprey gets a bad rap – known as the “flying coffin” since the accident. But hundreds of Osprey fights have safely moved thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies since April.
A different way to view the world
Still, it’s not just about thrills and spills in helicopters in Afghanistan. There’ve been amusing moments, too.
On a so-called “battlefield circulation” with Brig. Gen. John Nicholson a couple of years ago, we found ourselves in a Canadian chopper flying over the beautiful Dahla Dam in southern Kandahar. It was late afternoon and the setting sun lit up the dam and its massive blue lake. But it was the hot-dogging Canadian pilots – clearly trying to impress the top brass on board – who were taking my breath away.
Nicholson – as relaxed as he would’ve been watching an NFL game on Armed Forces Television – saw my white-knuckled discomfort as the Sea Stallion careened left and right at breakneck speed. At one point he leaned into me and yelled on his headset, so the pilots could hear it, “This is just uncalled for. What a bunch of Canadian cowboys!!” The Sea Stallion quickly smoothed out and we began to really enjoy the view.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London who has covered the war in Afghanistan since 2001.