Combat Airfield Etiquette for Dummies

It’s 9:45am as I write this, and I’m going on my twentieth waking hour following a 3pm wakeup, 2-hour gym trip, and 12-hour flight duty period, my sixth flight since I arrived to this sandy paradise.  I know a little narrative on my first flight is long overdue, so hopefully I haven’t forgotten too many details to share with you all.

For some reason my crew has been lucky enough to fly almost exclusively at night . . . I suppose it’s safer and quieter, but man . . . helmets and night vision goggles (NVGs) are heavy, and I don’t know if you know this about nighttime in a third world country, but it’s pretty stinking dark outside.  My body is also pretty well attuned to a standard circadian rhythm, which means 3:30am rolls around and no matter what I’m doing, I’m probably going to fall asleep.  There are periods of my night flights that I just straight up don’t remember.  Not that I’m completely asleep – we’re too busy for that – but I’m on autopilot (great wordplay, huh?) and it’s like I black out but still manage to get my job done.  It’s actually a pretty impressive talent when you think about it.  The other drawback to only flying at night is that I haven’t taken any pictures.  Almost everything I’ve seen has been green and black and tube-shaped . . .  On our last flight, though, we took off on our last leg just after sunrise, and the sight of our base’s valley in the morning fog against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains was breathtaking.

day mountains

What Google images says this place looks like.

night mountains

The gist of what I’ve seen so far.

Our first week here after the longest travel period of all time was a whirlwind; my entire crew was basically the walking dead due to a combination of really jacked up sleep schedules, jet lag, and this pretty awesome flu that 4 of the 6 of us (yup, including me) came down with the first week, and a fifth got it the second week.  We spent the first 3 days inprocessing, coughing, and reading up on all the craziness that is flying . . . wherever it is I am right now . . . and then day 4 we flew.  Or maybe it was day 3.  Last Sunday I was certain it was Friday night, so whether I know which way is up at any given time is open to debate.

Big picture on what flying here is like: long days; short, busy legs; and not a lot of flight hours.  The loadmasters really make their money, doing multiple offloads and onloads each flight with very little naptime in between during the flights.  Honestly, it’s exactly what the Herk is designed to do, since our range is bad but our ability to get into airfields that no other fixed wing aircraft can is incredible.  It’s a little depressing for the crew to put in a 16-hour day and log 3.5 flight hours (not an exaggeration, people), but honestly, it’s a great mission and I’m lucky to fly such a great plane in the exact way it was intended to be flown.

Our first flight was a long, busy day (night?), with many blog-worthy stories, but in the interest of brevity (snigger) I’ll just tell you one for now.  We flew into Bastion Airfield, which was the site of a complex attack a few months ago in which multiple Harriers (Marine Corps fighter jets) were destroyed and a handful of Marines were killed.  Needless to say, security is pretty tight there at the moment.  We landed in the dead of night, but since this particular base is quite a bit larger than some of the other fields we frequent, the parking apron is quite large and lighted at night.  We parked and shut our engines down to offload and onload, use the bathroom (the one on the plane hardly counts as more than a bucket . . . in fact, it is a bucket), etc.  We were carrying a Spanish pilot with us that night who has extensive combat experience in the Herk.  I was sitting in the cockpit getting ready for the next leg when he came up to the flight deck and said he’d seen two men not running, but sprinting (anybody seen Zombieland?  They were probably turning into f-ed up little monsters . . . if you haven’t seen it, you should, you won’t regret it) across the parking ramp.  This isn’t exactly a normal thing to do on any aircraft parking apron, much less one in a combat zone on a base that has had a recent deadly attack.  I got onto the radio and began to talk to the tower controller.  Bastion is a British-controlled field, and let me tell you, hearing words like “bloody” and “cheerio” over the radio really throws me for a loop.  Okay, maybe he didn’t say “cheerio,” but still.  It’s great to fly into a combat zone in the middle of the night and the tower controller still exudes the image of sipping on tea and indulging in a bit of crumpet.  I swear that’s what those guys were doing when we got there.

So I called on the radio and relayed what the Spanish pilot had seen happening behind the plane.  I couldn’t see anything from my vantage point in the cockpit, so I served as the middle man between the Spanish pilot and the tower controller.  I told the latter that the two men had seemed to run into the yard where all of the packing and palletizing of cargo happens, and not ten seconds later, an Apache helicopter (it has two rocket launchers . . . and missiles . . . and a big gun, for good measure) launched from the opposite side of the airfield.

apache.001

We waited, and soon the tower controller informed us that the two men appeared to be military.  Another pilot, British as well, came over the radio at that point, and I hope that when you read this part you’ll at least imagine the accents if you don’t actually speak the words out loud, because it’s just that good.

Pilot: “Never a dull day at Bastion.”

Controller: “Certainly not dull for the two men who were just apprehended.  They’ll want to find a better place to exercise next time.”

Me: “We’re all laughing pretty hard over here.”

So, in a nutshell, this girl got some dudes arrested for working out on an aircraft parking ramp in a combat zone.  You’re welcome, America.  P.S. Those guys are idiots.

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2 responses to “Combat Airfield Etiquette for Dummies

  1. whhhooooaaa! wishes you would have pre-empted w/ “everything turned out okay” but I guess you wouldn’t be blogging had it not! Anyway, your Mom is going to have to be careful when & where she reads your great stories (and I DO want to hear/read them) as I thought I was going to have heart attack. Just being a mom. Love you and so enjoyed your blog!

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