Day One…Mistake One…
In the spring of 2005, my crew took me out from home back to war. This time we were not headed to the relatively flat Iraqi desert, but to the very mountainous Afghanistan region. Like we did in Iraq, we were fortunate to have to live in country. The bad news was that Afghanistan was an hour or so away but the good news was that we didn’t get mortared every night. All things being equal, I was okay with the extra flight time.
We moved into the nice, little oasis of Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase in Uzbekistan. During this time, I was pushed out of shape emotionally but I immediately fell into love with K2. It was a small base that was run by the Army. I have no idea what they did there, but they did leave us alone. We had hard shelters made of shipping containers. They were a huge upgrade over tents. It was nice to have a hard walled, solid floor and a prebuilt cubicle as opposed to a flapping wall, dusty floor and sheet walls for privacy.
The bathroom connex box was right next door so no one had to make the 142 step walk of shame to shower or potty. The Uzbek Air Force occasionally flew their SU-27s and it was cool when they did because they flew a great low level air show over the base.
Richie found a coffee shop called the green bean. Every day before we went out to fly, I would stop into the green bean and get him a triple late’ with three extra shots of caffeine. I don’t drink coffee but the locals didn’t know that. When I walked in, they would start to make the drink to go. Shy Dog would always chuckle when he went with me to order the super strong coffee. But Richie was always happy with his piping hot coffee right before we started the engines.
Before our first flight, Shy Dog, Anita and I spent several hours in tactics, looking over the mountains of scattered information that we needed to know before we flew. I never understood why the important stuff couldn’t be put on a single document that would be easily accessed. It is the Air Force way so I didn’t try to fight city hall. We just learned it all. The nice thing, is that all of the important stuff did fit into a single five-inch binder that we called the Book of Knowledge. We worked out a system where Shy Dog would get the secrets, Anita would carry the Book of Knowledge and I carried Richie’s coffee.
Flying in Afghanistan was more difficult than Iraq in that the mountains really prevented us from flying a true low level arrival or departure. The threat was from shoulder fired ground to air missiles known most commonly as the SA-7. There were several variants of the missile and depending on where the missile was made. Russia, China and Iran were the most common producers of the SA-7 design. There were others that were more hazardous to us, the SA-14, SA-16 and SA -18 were newer technology and considered to be a real threat. As a general purpose, my philosophy was that any missile fired at us was the SA-18 and we reacted appropriately. Also, as a general rule I considered any take-off or landing that was not in North America as a tactical departure. Not that Uzbekistan was a dangerous place, but I wasn’t willing to trust them as much as I was willing to trust Canada.
The goal of every tactical approach was to fly to a point where we would pull the throttles to idle at altitude. Then we would try to fly all the way down to a very low level altitude of 100 feet or lower before pushing up the power again. I never strove to pull the power off and not touch it to touchdown because I didn’t want to be that close to the airport in the descent. I figured that we were more of a target there rather than dropping down twenty miles from the field and flying in from there. It was just a personal preference.
But coming in over the twenty thousand foot mountains into the valley where Bagram or Kabul were located, made things much more difficult to plan. In tactics prior to the first flight, we worked out or game plan and then we had the next two months to perfect it. It really helped to have Shy Dog and his experience on our side. By that time in his career, I don’t think he could have flown a “training instrument approach” but he was a fantastic tactical pilot. The reason he couldn’t fly an instrument approach was because he never had the opportunity to practice them. All things being equal, I would take Shy Dogs experience everyday and twice on Sunday.
One of the items of knowledge that we made a mental note of was that off the approach end of Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan was the base burn pit where they burned their garbage. The procedure was to turn off the missile warning system before passing over the burn pit so that you didn’t drop flares onto the people working there if the system sensed an incoming missile. That made perfect sense to me because no one wants a one-thousand-degree flare dropping on their head while they are working. That responsibility was Anita’s to flip the proper switches, but as Aircraft Commander it was mine to ensure it was done.
Flying out of altitude towards Bagram, I was really struggling to max perform the airplane while trying to get the “feel of old girl” as Scotty described it from years earlier. There really is a difference between flying low and feeling comfortable flying low. When you don’t feel comfortable, you are really dangerous because you are pushing your personal safety boundaries. I always found that it took me at least a couple of weeks to feel comfortable down low. When I had been out of the tactical environment for several months, it took much longer to feel safe flying at house top level.
Since this was the first flight, I was working much harder than I liked and 99% of my attention was focused on keeping the nose of the airplane out of the dirt. Well we forgot to turn off the missile warning system and sure enough, we got a false indication right over the end of the runway. I immediately knew what was happening because when the flares are ejected from their canisters, it really sounds like someone is hitting the airplane with a sledge hammer. Fortunately, we had passed the burn pit but it really is a bad feeling to know that you are pumping out several one thousand degree flares that are bouncing off the runway in every direction. That is a loss of cool points and the tower guy made sure that we knew that we were required to secure the system.
We shook it off and went out and finished the day without any other incidents. But the lesson had been learned, Anita always remembered to turn it off.
Until next time, keep on rockin.