Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Station

FOB Delta

It's been an eventful few weeks since the last update, so first of all I hope everyone had a nice Christmas and are looking forward to a happy and safe New Years. We had a relatively trouble free trip over, staying in Kuwait only long enough to recover from the trip over, go to the range to test fire all the weapons and take our in briefing.

The C-17 ride

So after three days we loaded onto a C-17 and flew into FOB Delta, in Al Kut, southeast of Bagdad on the Tigris River.

The birthplace of Abraham

We immediately got started on our environmental training and orientation flights. The environmental training is intended to be an exposure to dust conditions which can cause visibility problems when landing or taking off, but since this is the rainy season the dust at the training site was pretty meager. Since we normally train in the Arizona desert our company routinely operates in high blowing dust areas so we're in pretty good shape. Our local area orientation flights started as soon as we finished the environmental, and consist of flying along with the crews we're relieving to become familiar with our routes and the local procedures. Once these were completed we started flying regular missions, normally with one crew member from the old unit until we completely take over responsibility for the missions which will probably happen before you read this. We've been paying special attention to the way the outgoing unit does things since they've had a year to work the bugs out of their operation. We're planning on implementing much of what they've been doing in our procedures. Why reinvent the wheel?

Inside the CHU

FOB Delta is a relatively small FOB that is pretty well provisioned. The Army has gone with Containerized Housing Units (CHUs) to put people in, and since there are relatively few people here we're in one person CHU's. Kind of like a college dorm in a shipping container. Showers and facilities are in separate trailers nearby, and each "Pod" is surrounded by T- walls - concrete barriers designed to protect against shrapnel from rocket and mortar attacks. Right outside the door is a concrete and sandbag bunker should the need arise. The locals seem to like lobbing in an occasional rocket, although nothing has come close to anything valuable. Since a rocket or mortar draws a forceful response within minutes (sometime seconds) they're more interested in lighting the fuse and getting away than they are in accuracy.

CHUs from the outside - Note the bunkers

The CHU's have 220v power and air conditioning and are almost embarrassingly comfortable. Other facilities include a tiny PX and some fast food places, barber shop, internet cafe, gym and chow hall and a free laundry service, nothing further than about 3/4 of a mile away. There is an infrequently running bus around the FOB, but I generally walk anywhere I need to go. Some people have bought bicycles for a faster trip.

Our work area is about half a mile away and consists of trailers with their own bunkers and T-walls and huge "clam shell" tents used as aircraft hangers. There are a couple of Sadaam era bunkers here as well.
The office

The work day varies with mission requirements. Right now I'm assigned to the reserve mission which puts my shift from 3:00 am to 3:00 pm. We cover the early flights and act as an alert crew for any short notice morning missions. I'll be on this schedule likely for a couple weeks and then rotate on to days. My normal day consists of getting up at 2:00 to shower, shave, etc, walk down to the flight line and check the schedule to see which crew I'll be flying with and what aircraft is assigned. I'll check the logbook to make sure all of the inspections are in order and to see what outstanding problems exist, then go out and prep the helicopter - removing tie downs and covers, preflighting and getting my gear set up.

The line

By this time the gunner has brought the weapons out so we mount those and stow all the gear that gets signed out before each flight. I'll hang around with the pilots to run up the APU (auxiliary power generator) and we'll make sure the proper codes are loaded in the radios, as well as doing the preflight and control checks up to the point where we start engines. At that point the aircraft is "cocked" and we go into the operations center for our mission brief. Normally we have two aircraft assigned per mission. Once the mission brief is complete we have a crew brief, then generally go to breakfast. We'll usually man the helicopter a half hour before scheduled launch so we have plenty of time in case there are any last minute delays. It's always easier to wait for your time hack than it is to try to catch up. A typical mission will have us fly a ring route to several different FOBs acting as kind of an airborne bus route. We'll pick up passengers and cargo that needs to move around southern Iraq and usually stop for lunch at one of the locations, not to mention two to three refueling stops. These flights usually last somewhere between 3 and 5 hours.

Typical flight conditions - lots of smoke and haze

Once we're back we refuel and I'll do the daily inspection while the gunner returns the weapons and gear and the pilots debrief. If there are no new issues on the helicopter it usually takes about two hours to complete the inspections and logbook entries so the aircraft is ready to fly the next day. A daily inspection is good for 14 days if the aircraft doesn't fly, so we always make sure to do a daily after the last flight of the day. That way we find any problems that may come up, and the helicopter is ready to go for the next day's flight. At that point it's usually the end of the work day so it's time to go eat dinner and hit the internet cafe or PX for a bit. On days that I'm not scheduled to fly I'll do maintenance. We have Delta Company which is the maintenance company for the battalion located here, but their job is to handle major maintenance and phase inspections, much of the normal work the crew chiefs handle ourselves.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Saturday, December 05, 2009


We're close to finishing up at the mobilization station now. In November we completed our Mission Readiness Evaluation which involved a battalion air assault mission, more scenario training and briefings, a personnel recovery exercise and more gunnery (for those who had not yet completed all of the required exercises). The air assault mission was at night using night vision goggles where we put 10 helicopters into a relatively small LZ and inserted 90 troops in a simulated hostile area. This requires some coordination between flight companies to make sure the timing is right, but mostly the emphasis is on safety. Of the 90 troops most had never done an air assault, and many had never flown in a helicopter before. We spent some time with them before the flight to make sure they were familiar with what they needed to know and do, and mostly telling them to take their time. The exercise went flawlessly, even though the evaluators simulated a downed aircraft on the landing zone. This involved setting up security using some of the ground troops and sending our downed aircraft recovery team in who rigged the Blackhawk so it could be airlifted out by a CH-47 Chinook.

We didn't actually airlift it - once every thing was rigged and verified correct it was unrigged and flown back under its own power. Meanwhile we went in and recovered the troops we inserted, again all under NVG's and with no incidents. A good time was had by all. An aside to this mission was learning that a skunk has a three Blackhawk reaction time. As we were lining up to start the air assault we noticed a rather startled skunk trying to get out from under our rotor wash. As we passed over him the Chalk 2 (the second ship in line) saw him and applied a little power to mess with him a little. This caused the now annoyed skunk to do a face plant as he was blown over. Skunks being what they are this guy had enough and sprayed Chalk 3. Everyone (except Chalk 3) was pretty amused by this. We've since noticed a skunk hanging around the barracks, so we've decided it's the same one stalking the pilot of Chalk 2.

In the Personnel Recovery exercise each crew started in a helicopter out in the field and were given a scenario where they had been forced down and needed to move cross country to a pick up point. This exercise had us operating our survival radios, navigating, moving cross country in rough terrain occasionally encountering bad guys. This was quite frankly one of the best training exercises I've ever been in - the scenario was realistic and very little was simulated - we were even able to communicate with the real search and rescue people who monitor some of the high tech equipment we have. This is unusual since it involves using the real assets we would be dealing with in the middle east. While is was some what physical it managed to cover everything from combat operations to land navigation, communications, reacting to IED's, etc. It was also a nice workout.

Finally there were additional gunnery exercises for the people who had not yet qualified in all the required areas. Normally this is a timing issue more than anything else - while day firing can be done while in the training progression, you have to be fully qualified with NVG's before you can shoot with them, so we still had a couple of crew chiefs and gunners that needed the night portion.
The other big training push right now is "environmental" training, meaning desert operations and particularly dust landings and take offs. Our company was largely signed off on these already since we normally train in the Sunoran Desert. Some of the newer crewmwmbers in the company as well as the other two flight companies have been sending crews to New Mexico to get some practice in on the techniques.
With Thanksgiving we were allowed a short break to travel home and spend the weekend with family. A four day weekend followed that was all too short. It was great to spend some time with Her Accuracy. I also managed to get over to Quantum and get a flight in the R-22. It had been three months since I'd flown as a pilot so it was nice to see that while I was a little rusty, I hadn't forgotten anything. I plan to get flying in at every opportunity, the next of which will probably be during my R&R break sometime next year.

We flew back to Ft Sill that Sunday, and on arrival eight of us hopped in a van for the drive down to Ft Hood in Texas to attend a unit armorers school. This was a week long course covering maintenance and repair of small arms for the unit level. The course was pleasant and informative, and I was very impressed with Ft Hood. That's a proud installation and it shows, especially after all the exposure to training commands I've had lately.
We arrived back at Ft Sill after the course with very little left to do - some final work on the aircraft, a little currency flying, and final packing is all we have left to do.