After spending the better part of a minute adjusting the straps on the four point harness I finally heard the last strap click into place. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and looked around the Blackhawk, taking a little comfort from the fact that I wasn’t the last one to clip in. I don’t know why Blackhawk harnesses are so difficult to latch into, but I can’t remember a single instance where someone didn’t need the crew chief to help them buckle in. As we were fumbling with our restraints the crew chief waited impatiently at the door, silently cursing our lack of manual dexterity. After watching for about a minute he gave an exasperated grunt and latched the last soldier into his harness, then stood back up and inspected all of our restraints. Satisfied that none of his hapless charges were going to fall out he muttered something that was lost in the growl of propwash and slid behind one of the low slung machine guns in the front of the bird.
The moment the crew chief settled into position the dull howl of the engines started to ratchet up until it was a throbbing shriek. The entire airframe seemed to bristle with power, as if the entire assembly were some great metallic predator ready to pounce. For a long moment nothing seemed to happen, then the pilot made some imperceptible shift on the controls and our Blackhawk dutifully leapt into the sky. Taking off in a military helicopter in a combat zone is nothing like taking off in a commercial airliner. The raw power that seems to course through the entire assembly is literally awe inspiring, as we took off I could feel my back muscles flexing to adapt to the vertical acceleration.
I had the good fortune of sitting in the seat closest to the yawning doors, which afforded a view that put most convertibles to shame. As I sat there watching the earth retreat under my dangling feet I felt like I was reliving some half remembered dream – a dream where I could just up and fly away from our graceless FOB. After a minute or two a sun bright flash caught my eye and choked me back to reality. It took a second to understand just what was going on, but when a second micrometeorite shot past the door I realized the automated flare dispenser was throwing out anti-missile decoys.
The flight over Southern Baghdad was nothing short of spectacular. From 500 feet in the air all the rot that clutters the streets seemed to melt into the background, and the settlements seemed to take on orderliness altogether absent from the ground. The farmland was criss-crossed with canals, dull concrete bulwarks that seemed to triage the fields themselves. On one side of a canal you might find the rich brown of tilled soil and just on the other side you might find dried pools of cracked and blistered mud. There was no order and no pattern to their arrangement, they just were. And through it all there was always the gentle curl of the Tigris in the background, reflecting the sun like a bright pane of shimmering glass.
I was so wrapped up in the flight I stopped keeping track of time. It didn’t help that the only clue that time was still following its steady course was the occasional hiss of decoy flares shooting out of the Blackhawk. And then all too soon the Blackhawk wheeled around and started heading back to the FOB. The pilot feathered the bird in and we all jumped out and started walking back to our barracks. I don’t think walking has ever seemed quite that slow.