This is a guest post by my friend Joe Spiggle, who is currently deployed overseas with the U.S. Army.
I’m riding on the ramp. It’s my turn because my crew chief and I decided that switching from the right gun to the ramp every other flight would keep us sharp and less complacent since we wouldn’t get comfortable in one position.
We’re flying out of the base right now, around 500 feet and it’s pitch black outside. At this altitude, all the warm air from the hot day has risen to meet the cold air from the higher altitudes that falls slowly to earth every night. It’s around 3 in the morning, and the moon has yet to rise. In fact, the moon will rise with the sun tonight; it’s going to be dark while we’re out doing business. The air is hot and stuffy where the warm air meets the cold in an impasse. I stare outside the ramp and look at our sister ship trailing behind us. She can’t be more than 50 feet away. It’s a tight formation on nights like this in case we lose each other in the dark. We always need to see the other aircraft. We navigate far from the base to a mountain range just outside the desert. It’s always eerily quiet like this. All the talk on the radios is just white noise in my ears. I comprehend all the military jargon that is being spit out, but I subconsciously store it for later use. The noise of the helicopter beating the air along with the constant whine of the engines creates this loud sound bubble. It feels like you’re stuck in this jello blob riding along on a plane of air. The entire world is green under the goggles strapped to my helmet. Seeing things outside the helicopter is easy, however anything within 15 feet is a blur. Over the years, I guess you get used to doing things half blind when you can’t see what you’re touching half the time.
Minutes pass while we are in route to the objective. It feels like years. I dangle my feet off the edge of the ramp, the only thing that holds me in the helicopter is a strap attached to my armor that runs the length of the ramp and bolts to the floor in the cabin. I’m literally being held in by a piece of fabric as I lean out to peer below me, always searching for something in the night.
Is it bad guys I’m searching for? I don’t know anymore. I just look out for anything. Maybe I should be searching for something more important. Little tents pass below us where the migratory natives have set up for the night. I like the idea of that. It’s simple. They just drive their herd of cattle around the desolate wasteland selling junk and animals to passersby. There’s no electricity, no iPads, nothing. Is that what being free is? Who knows. I have been told all my life to find something I love in life and try to get paid for it. I don’t know what that means anymore. Staring down at the people sleeping in their tents makes me wonder when I lost passion for things in life. Sure, I enjoy what I’m doing … but is it a lie I tell myself so I can wake up every morning and put my uniform on and go work like a good little brainwashed soldier?
I’m not in the mood for this sort of thinking right now. I have to be focused on getting the ground guys out of the area and bringing them back to the base. The campfire from the tents is hard to see now in the distance. “Bye, little simple people. Good luck, I guess.”
We are inbound to the landing area now. An aircraft miles above us lights up the landing zone with an infrared light. You can only see it under the night vision goggles. Do the men and women we are coming to pickup wonder if it’s a light from God sometimes? It sure as hell looks like it. Their salvation from the harsh climate of the desert. Just another day in the office for us in the helicopter. Under the green night vision the light looks just a bit brighter than everything else. That’s how it is at night. Everything is different shades of green. I’m starting to hate green a little more everyday. That’ll pass when I’m home. It’s dusty out, so I can trace the beam from the ground all the way up into the sky. I can see the aircraft shooting the beam from the window I’m staring out of. Nope. It’s not a higher being. Just some guy putting on a light show and doing his job. Maybe he likes it. I don’t care either way.
The ground comes up fast. It always does.
At this point I turn off all the sane parts of the my head like we’re all trained to do. It makes landing a 150 foot long helicopter in the dust much easier when you don’t think of how stupid it is. When we are just about to land, the dust sweeps up past the cabin and completely engulfs us. We are blind now for all intents and purposes. Welcome to what should be a nightmare. Landing a giant tin can blindly in the night covered in a dust storm you just created is as bad as it sounds. The troops pass below us and we pass them right as the aft landing gear touches the ground. Speaking of the ground. I always have it in sight. The visual reference to the earth is what keeps me from losing it every time we do this. You lose sight of good ole ground, you also lose your shit. Sure the pilots know what they’re doing, but they’re just as blind as me and everyone else in this pickup truck. The forward gear touches. Ladies and gentlemen climb on board and make it fast. Sure there isn’t any living creature around for miles, but I still hate sitting still in the flying box.
The team runs inside the pitch black cabin. It’s always a mess when they get in. They can’t see anything and just shoot for the front and find a seat to plant their butts in. Our trail aircraft is nearby. The rotor blades strike the air with such speed and force it creates massive amounts of static electricity. It looks like a halo spinning around the top of the aircraft. Maybe we are angels and that magic beam of light that tells us where to land is divine.
They’re all on board and seated safely. The ramp comes up and we take off into the night. I return to my spot on the edge of the ramp and stare out again at all the things we pass.