The Speed of Heat Excerpt

Chapter 21

Arabian Nights

No current obstacle data. Engine running offload not permitted during sand storms…Exercise extreme caution when landing/taking off Runway 15R/33L due to…bomb damage crater repair.

From the Airport/Facility Directory, Baghdad International Airport

Quick scan of the panels now. Fifteen thousand feet and descending at 2,000 feet per minute. Airspeed 260 knots. Oil pressures and temperatures good. Antiaircraft missile countermeasures on AUTO. The tiny green light on your helmet microphone illuminates your watch; it’s 0200.

A flash on the ground, just in the corner of your eye. Grenade? Car bomb? No time to think about it.

The Combat Entry checklist is done, but you touch the external light switches again anyway. Dear God, you don’t want to get shot down because you’re so tired you left a strobe on. 

You’re too busy to get scared, but your mouth is dry. It’s the air in these planes. Just another night in Iraq.

Major Mike Foley, navigator
I remember seeing things burning. Buildings burning and with the night vision goggles, you could see it for miles and miles away. You could tell where the war was being fought because you could see the explosions.

I also remember just being real careful. We had corridors to fly and I had to make sure we were doing that right. If you get too far off the corridor, you’re considered an item of interest to both the friendlies and the enemy. You don’t want everybody looking at you. Stay where you belong and the friendlies leave you alone.

Chief Master Sergeant Billy Gillenwater, flight engineer
In those environments, anything could have happened. The places we went, as low as we flew and the places we got into, you never knew when the Bedouin guy was going to pull out his SA-7 missile.

You could have crashed in the desert and ended up being The Flight of the Phoenix all over again. I tried to think about all those things. It’s not that I was trying to get myself scared or excited, but I just really wanted to be prepared so when it does happen, I’ve already thought about it.

No matter how much you prepare, in a combat environment, something will surprise you. It happened to loadmaster Dave Twigg on departure from Balad Air Base.

Master Sergeant Dave Twigg, loadmaster
We had about forty-five or fifty ground troops with their baggage pallet and a smaller pallet with their equipment. We were taking them to Balad. We landed at Balad; we got turned around and offloaded the troops. We onloaded about twenty people and some aircraft parts.

When we took off out of Balad, the sun had just started coming up, and I was sitting in the right door with the pistol grip in my hand to launch chaff and flares if needed. [Loadmasters  scan for missiles or other threats, and they can fire countermeasures to help decoy antiaircraft missiles away from the airplane.]

We had just broke ground and we were climbing through about 600 or 700 feet, and the pilot started a right turn on departure to pick up our course back to Kuwait. About the time he started this turn, I was sitting in the right-hand door with my nose about four or five inches from the glass, and the outside pane of glass cracked right through the middle, forward to aft. The sound was like a gun went off right in my ear.

When that thing popped, I came out of my seat at the door. I don’t know to this day what kept me from launching flares with that pistol grip in my hand, but I dropped the pistol grip. I came out of the door. In the blink of an eye I was standing forward of the troop doors with my comm button in my hand, and the first thing I yelled was, “Holy shit!”

About the time I yelled, Dougie Hilliard was sitting up in the engineer’s seat, and we had a TIT rollback on number three [Turbine Inlet Temperature rollback, an indication of a possible engine failure]. They had a real engine problem to look at, and I came out of the door, hollering on interphone.

I looked to my left and there was this sergeant first class Army guy sitting there, and all I saw of him was the whites of his eyes. They were as big as teacups. He saw me come out of the seat, and when he saw that, everybody else looked at me. I was standing there, my chest heaving, out of breath. Of course when I yelled into the interphone I must have yelled loud enough for the people around me in the troop seats to hear me because they all looked at me.

When I looked back at John Cox [another loadmaster], he was doubled over in his seat, laughing at me.

The rest of the crew kind of prioritized things. They didn’t know what had happened in the back when I came out of the seat and yelled. So the aircraft commander, Jim Powell, said real quick, “What’s going on back there?”

I said, “The paratroop door window just shattered in my face. It scared the hell out of me.”

He said, “All right, you’re OK. We got to deal with this engine problem now.”

I don’t know what the deal with the number three engine was, but the turbine inlet temperature rolled back, and then it came right back to where it was within limits. So we pressed on; we climbed out and headed back to Kuwait City.

As pilot Brandon Taksa relates, the strangest cargo could show up in your airplane.

Captain Brandon Taksa, pilot
One of the missions we flew into Baghdad was cash in small bills. The country was extremely unstable, and we were pumping a lot of cash into the country to try and stabilize it.

Thirty million dollars–I think it weighed, like, thirty thousand pounds, in small bills. It seems to me it was three or four pallets of cash. What’s the size of a pallet? Ten by ten feet on the floor, six feet tall, all cash. And we weren’t the only ones doing it. There were other airplanes flying that same amount of cash in. I think it was to pay Iraqi workers, to help stabilize their economy.

I think most of us have a souvenir of the Iraqi money. It had a picture of Saddam on it. Worthless. One of the basic needs of society is a way to trade, and we just brought in our money.

And then, sometimes NO cargo would show up in your airplane. Due to the inevitable miscommunications of war, crews would occasionally arrive at airfields to find nothing to carry. Fliers called it “hauling sailboat fuel” when they had nothing in the cargo compartment but air.

Technical Sergeant Kenny LaFollette, flight engineer
A lot of times you would get to a certain location and offload cargo, and you’d be waiting and waiting for outgoing cargo, and they’d come out and tell you they had nothing. You’d take off and continue your mission to another airfield. You’d land and they’d have nothing for you. You weren’t accomplishing anything that night. When you were empty, it was rather depressing.

Master Sergeant John “Ratman” Ratcliffe, loadmaster
What was funny was carrying sailboat fuel, as we called it. We’d get a mission, for example, “You gotta go to Thumrait.” [An air base in Oman.]

I’d call them up, “What do you guys have for us there?”


Well, we gotta fly it anyway. Air Mobility says we gotta fly it.

We’d say, “Hey, we’re going to get sailboat fuel.” We hauled a lot of that. That just boggled me.

Master Sergeant Les Morris, loadmaster
Our crew got to haul five senators. That was pretty cool because I got one-on-one time with U.S. senators, and they were real nice to talk to. I was talking to them face-to-face. They asked me my own personal opinions of what was going on and what could be helped and what things were going right. I got to voice my opinion and I thought that was a real cool thing.

They asked a lot about morale. Are things getting done in a timely manner? Personal stuff like, are you getting your mail, are you getting to contact home? There was a lot about the military, too, like how the C-130 works, and how the operations work, and how much do you fly, where do you go? I showed them all the night vision goggle stuff and the capabilities of our aircraft. They got a thrill out of that. Most of them had seen NVGs, but they hadn’t got to fly with them.

Senior Master Sergeant Roland Shambaugh, loadmaster
When the ground war was going on, we were doing the live stuff, flying low and fast. I remember the first time we went into Tallil, I had twenty-five thousand pounds of Meals Ready to Eat.

On another mission we hauled out half a company of the Third Infantry Division, and these guys had been in the fighting that took the airport. There were about forty-seven of them and they were coming back to Kuwait City to catch a plane home. They’d been there almost a year. The Third ID’s dear to my heart because my dad served in it back during the Korean War.

One particular young guy had a sniper rifle, and he looked like he was about eighteen or nineteen years old. He had notches cut in the stock of his rifle, and he was just as proud as a peacock of the contribution he’d made.

The day we went into Baghdad and brought these guys out, they had live grenades hanging off their web gear and they had live magazines in their weapons. They were all excited to come home, and I said, “Whoa, whoa, you guys can’t get on the airplane with live fragmentation grenades and loaded rifles.” They brought a big barrel out and they filled it with grenades and live rounds.

I recall them talking about how they thought some of the enemy troops might have been hopped up on PCP or some other kind of drug. They said in some instances it took several rounds to put them down.

I remember the looks on their faces. Most of the guys were young; they looked like they weren’t old enough to use a razor on their faces. Their attitudes were generally good. They all believed in the cause.

During the first several months of 2006, an intelligence specialist from the 167thvolunteered to fly with the Nevada Air Guard. Staff Sergeant Tony Dunnigan worked as a sensor operator on C-130s equipped with the Scathe View advanced surveillance system. Scathe View provides optical and infrared imagery to units on the ground, giving commanders and troops a bird’s eye view of what’s around them.

Tony likens the mission to that of the unmanned Predator reconnaissance drone, except the C-130 crew can more quickly move to different targets as priorities change on the battlefield.

Staff Sergeant Tony Dunnigan, intelligence specialist
We were supporting the guys on the ground. This program was supplementing the Predator with having a manned aircrew up in the air. We were retaskable, a little bit more than the Predator at the time.

I was an equipment operator in the back. We operated the FLIR [Forward-Looking Infrared] and also manned the radios. We could talk to the guys on the ground or other aircraft in the area.

The most fulfilling part of the mission was to help the guys on the ground, like convoys. Looking at places or buildings or whatnot to make sure nobody was going to jump them. We’d keep an eye on them and make sure everything was kosher in the area around them. If something came up, we could say, “Hey, check this out. It looks like something’s coming your way.” There were a few times when we saw something that was kind of out of the norm, and we called it in.

We were tasked to watch over our guys and the Coalition partners. They were very appreciative of us. They said it felt great to know there was somebody there to talk to and also to look down on them.

You were able to make out what was happening on the ground, but not in explicit detail because most of the stuff was at night. You were able to tell what was going on. With the equipment we were using we could see the flashes of gunfire. That’s how we were able to discern the direction of fire. Knowing the location of our guys and knowing the location of the bad guys, we were able to say, “OK, that’s not friendly fire. You need to pay attention to this area here.”

World War II aviators tell stories of flying when they were so tired they’d crush a cigarette and put tobacco in one eye so the pain would keep them awake. Fewer of us smoke now, but on those long night missions, one might see crew members slapping themselves or biting their lips in a losing battle against fatigue.

Flying through half the day and all the night might make tactical sense, but it hurts like hell. The rules said maximum flight duty period was sixteen hours. And that could be waived.

Master Sergeant Doug Ferrell, loadmaster
You’re very nervous. You’re very scared, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It may not be a missile that gets you. It could be crew fatigue that crashes the airplane because we were all tired. It was long days; it was hard days. A lot of times you’d be praying, “Please, just get me home.”

Lieutenant Colonel Mike McMillie, navigator
The low moments were coming back from missions, having flown a mission into the northern portion of Iraq, coming back through Kuwait to get some gas, and you’re just dog tired because you’ve been at it for sixteen hours or whatever the case might be. You’re halfway across the Persian Gulf and the sun’s coming up, and you’re absolutely tired as can be.

You’re thinking, “I just don’t have the discipline I need because I’m just so tired.” Very, very depressing.

Lieutenant Colonel Shaun Perkowski, pilot
When you get fatigued is when you start making mistakes. I’ve never seen fatigue called causal in an accident, but your judgment is affected when you get fatigued. I was always really cognizant of how long our day was going. It was always toughest when the sun came up. When the sun came up, the eyelids started going down for some reason.

Major Jeff Lane, pilot, squadron commander
There’s a couple challenges. One is physical stress and the other one is operational considerations. The stress component comes in. Just the long days–flying ten to thirteen hours every other day is a shock at first. You kind of get used to it after a few weeks. But duty days going up to eighteen hours–most people aren’t used to working that much, so that comes as kind of a shock.

Meanwhile, operationally, particularly when the war first starts, everything is not spelled out for you on the mission. So you go into a field that we’ve recently taken over, they may not have an operational tower, a radar, instrument approaches. There are limited procedures for coming in and out. So the crews and the aircraft commanders have to do some good preflight planning, and they need to think about what they’re doing.

Wartime flying tested us intellectually as well as physically. Navigator Steve Truax describes lively debates over how best to get the job done.

Lieutenant Colonel Steve Truax, navigator
We took our laptop computers there and by the time we were done, I was using some of the more advanced computer flight planning functions to help me to draw approaches and draw orbits and depict the restricted operating zones around different places. We had some discussions about tactics that were never resolved. We argued passionately about what was the best way to go into Baghdad, what was the best way to go into other places.

I formed strong opinions about what you should do, and part of that was predicated on not running into friendlies. Some people were so afraid of getting shot at that they were doing things that made it more likely they’d hit other airplanes or Army helicopters.

Friendly aircraft were a common sight during missions over Iraq. Down low, helicopter gunships fluttered along like lethal wasps. At middle altitudes, transport planes like our own C-130s droned through the clouds, along with fighters and tankers. Up high, the Stratofortresses rained destruction on an epic scale.

Master Sergeant John “Ratman” Ratcliffe, loadmaster
There was the night the B-52s flew over us. They were called Doom flight. Mark Ruckh was our navigator and he was a prior B-52 nav. We heard them call in Angels four-zero or something like that [40,000 feet]. They were way up there.

Mark said, “That’s Buffs out of Barksdale. They’re going in to bomb something.”

With our NVGs on, after we heard them, we could see a short time later the sky just lighting up. I don’t know what they were bombing, but they were bombing the crap out of something.

I saw it for only a few seconds. We were turning, and I looked out the troop door and saw it. I called up front and said, “You gotta see this.” It was just lighting up out there.

I also remember seeing a lot of tracers. I specifically remember one night, going to Balad, I saw a small amount of tracers going this way, and then I saw a LARGE amount of tracers going back. I thought, “Well, that’s got to be the Americans because there’s a lot more firepower.” Then, BOOM, something blew up.

Sometimes when you’re spring-loaded to look for threats, everything looks like a threat. Loadmaster Doug Ferrell describes his crew firing defensive flares in reaction to what they thought were heat-seeking missiles.

Master Sergeant Doug Ferrell, loadmaster
The one that sticks in my head was actually pretty funny. The Army had convoys that they were rolling out of Baghdad, and these convoys were extremely long. Intelligence had neglected to tell us that they fired flares at the head of the convoy to signal that they were ready to go. Then the back part of the convoy would fire flares to say, “Roll out.”

In Baghdad, anything coming up at you was considered hostile fire. As we circled into Baghdad, we saw what we thought was a missile coming up at us, and I heard the other loadmaster start screaming, “Break right, break right!”

As we turned and punched flares out, the C-17 that was taking off below us saw our flares go. He punched flares. We punched MORE flares and then we landed, scared to death, thinking we’d just been shot at.

The intelligence officer on the ground proceeded to come up and yell at us, “What the hell you all think this is? The Fourth of July?”

Lieutenant Colonel Rich “Robi” Robichaud, pilot, tactics officer
The mission that stands out for me the most, I would say, was not long after American forces had captured Tallil Air Base. There was still some fighting around Nasiriyah, about ten miles away. We weren’t the first C-130 crew to go into Tallil, but it was our first trip there. We went to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait and we picked up General Moseley, who was the CENTAF [Central Command Air Force] commander. He showed up on our airplane and said, “Let’s go to Iraq, boys!”

That’s the only word he said to us and he sat down on the bunk. It was about sunset then, so we all got down to business and started our engines. We had a couple of A-10 escorts that took off right after us, joined up on our wing, and escorted us all the way from Kuwait to Tallil.

We flew at 500 feet. It was total darkness. A lot of desert haze and low visibility due to blowing sand. There was no moon, no stars, and no cultural lighting, so it was kind of like looking at nothing, basically. The occasional nomad tent was out there, and when we’d see those coming, we’d stay a good distance away in case there was a bad guy in there who wanted to get lucky.

When we saw those lights, the A-10s would speed up ahead a little bit and check them out and make sure there was nothing there.

Squadron commander Jeff Lane also flew on the mission to transport General Moseley.

Major Jeff Lane, pilot, squadron commander
Probably the most memorable mission for me was when the war had actually started and I flew along observing with Robichaud’s crew. We flew General Moseley up to Tallil Air Base in Iraq, 300 to 500 feet at night on night vision goggles. When we were flying the low-level route up there, we could see the flashing lights of the battle at Nasiriyah.

Major Carla Riner, pilot
Everything looks the same in the desert. I just remember thinking over and over, there are no lights. There’s nothing to look at. There’s no cultural lighting from towns and cities. In the United States as an airline pilot, you’re pretty hard pressed to go somewhere where you’re not going to see a light. I remember flying over the Arabian Peninsula, where you cross over the water to Masirah, and you could not tell the difference between the sky, the water, and the land. It was all black until you saw the stars. It was just unbelievable.

From the author’s journal, 11 May 2003
Another all-nighter into Iraq last night. We flew empty to Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, where we picked up six all-terrain vehicles for the USAF Security Police.

At Al Jaber we parked next to a hardened aircraft shelter that had been hit by a bunker buster during the first Gulf War. The concrete building had a huge hole in the roof, and concertina wire had been placed around a hole in the floor. It’s hard to imagine that anything in that building could have survived.

We departed Al Jaber late in the evening and flew at relatively high altitude, 14,000 feet, until we reached Kirkuk uneventfully. We spiraled down to an NVG landing at Kirkuk and offloaded the ATVs with only about thirty minutes on the ground.

We were due for an uneventful mission and we got one. No tracers or missiles came up at us. However, we did hear AWACS clearing a kill box for some fighters; apparently the F-15s and F-16s were trying to light up something.

Master Sergeant Doug Ferrell, loadmaster
I remember a run into Numaniyah. We took three pallets of Meals Ready to Eat to the Marines. That was interesting because the flight was totally blacked out, on NVGs. The loading crew was on NVGs, no lights whatsoever. You could look underneath your NVGs and it was pitch black. You pulled them back down and you’d see vehicles behind the airplane. There were people everywhere; there were helicopters landing. It was incredible.

When you took off on even the most routine mission, you never knew what kind of circumstances you’d face. Doug describes how sometimes those circumstances required throwing the rules out the window–including the rule that says aircrew members should not give blood.

One night in Kuwait we landed and they had brought wounded in, and they were short of blood. We almost got to spend the night in Kuwait City because they were asking all the aircraft coming in, “Does anybody have O negative blood?” They needed it for a guy they’d just brought in. He needed blood desperately. So [aircraft commander] Karl Levy polled the crew.

I was the only one on the crew with O negative blood. They were actually going to take me off the airplane and plug me into this guy until they could get him stabilized. I had volunteered to do that. They finally came back and said, “We found somebody else. Go on your way.” But we delayed a half-hour in Kuwait to see how that would play out.

When you’re getting shot at, it’s easy to forget that flying has inherent dangers that have nothing to do with the enemy. Mechanic Travis Riley describes seeing a plane from another unit land at Masirah Island after getting hit by lightning.

Staff Sergeant Travis Riley, engine specialist
We saw it come in with no lights on except for one little one underneath the plane. We didn’t know what was going on.

When we talked to the aircrew, we found out they’d been struck by lightning coming out of Iraq. They wanted us to look at their plane, so we gave it a general look-over. They said they’d been shot at with two rocket-propelled grenades. One went under the wing and one went over the wing. Then they said it was even scarier getting struck by lightning. They said it shut off all the electrical equipment temporarily. Everything just shut down. They said it was probably only a minute or two, but it felt like forever.

It messed up a lot of avionics, but it wasn’t actually too bad. It didn’t fry everything. We worked a couple days on that plane. Day shift changed a radome on it. The engines were pretty much OK. Lightning hit the front and came out everywhere.

I felt sorry for that crew, getting shot at by RPGs and getting hit by lightning all in one trip. That’s a bad trip.

From the author’s journal, 16 May 2003
Returned early yesterday morning, around 1:30 a.m., from a night run into Baghdad.

At our first stop at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, we picked up fifty-two infantry troops from the Florida Army Guard. They’d been in Jordan for two months, and they were posting to Baghdad for an undetermined length of time.

After a max weight takeoff from Al Udeid, we had an uneventful cruise north. However, we could hear an AWACS plane coordinating fighters to provide close air support for ground units in contact with the enemy.

Once we began our descent into Baghdad, night had fallen and we were on NVGs. It happened to be Mohammed’s birthday, and once again Baghdad was hot.

Here and there we could see ground-to-ground tracers, along with the occasional fire directed upward. Usually, one projectile would rise to four or five thousand feet, then appear to burn out.

We suspected these were rocket-propelled grenades. Antiaircraft artillery would likely appear as a burst of several rounds, and a missile would go much higher. The fire did not seem directed at us–or at least it was not directed very well. Since most aircraft were flying blacked out, I suspect the bad guys were randomly shooting at the sound of planes.

A long, sleepy midnight run back to Masirah.

Lieutenant Colonel Steve Truax, navigator
As we were flying at night, sometimes we’d get on the same frequency with our other planes flying that night and talk. Especially as we were calling for deviations for weather and whatnot, we’d recognize each other’s voices and talk. You’d run into friends where you’d least expect it.

From The Speed of Heat: An Airlift Wing at War in Iraq and Afghanistan © 2008 Thomas W. Young by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.