I find myself compelled to tell a story. It’s supposed to be a story of leadership, ethics, diversity, collaboration, and motivation. The words strike me as odd when I think of war. Our lives depended on leadership. Our ethics were our allegiance to God, to the flag, and to each other. Diversity was a class where we learned it was bad to whistle at women and tell jokes. Collaboration only mattered when we were up to no good. The motivation was “to not die.”
I was the pilot in command of a medevac aircraft in western Iraq. And in typical pilot vernacular…
There I was….it was pitch black outside. There was no moon. No illume. Night vision googles weren’t worth much when there were no city lights and no moon or starlight. Our marines were fighting to the west and we got a 9-line, the official report of wounded. Business as usual. We ran to the aircraft, spun up and launched. The Marine Cobra was close behind and always a comfort. Cobra pilots have big guns and like to fight. Our medevac had basically no guns and red cross hairs on the sides, a popular target among bad guys.
We weren’t more than a few minutes off the FOB when the radio cracked and sputtered. We didn’t have good comms with our chase aircraft. A broken call came from the Cobra, “Are you okay?” This was not how aviators talked on radios and was alarming. My crew couldn’t see the Cobra behind us. Too dark. We couldn't raise him on the radio. Only silence. An emergency is the only reason the Cobra pilots would leave us to enter a fight alone. We briefly debated whether to turn back and look for wreckage. In the absence of information, I continued on. It was my call alone. We knew there were wounded ahead. We had no idea what was behind.
When we arrived at the LZ, there was a soldier on the ground trying to guide us in. There was fighting on the road surrounding the field. The field was dry and dusty and the soldier on the ground was basically in our way. We needed to figure out how to get the aircraft on the ground hastily and not hit an American in the process. Dust landings are no joke. Executed poorly means death to the entire crew. Dust landings in the pitch dark is stuff sad soldier movies are made of. My co-pilot was on the controls. He made his approach and lost sight of the ground before he could touch down. A go around was announced and executed. The LZ now was nothing but a cloud of dust. My co-pilot came around again, approached, and the crew chief called a go around. We’ve basically destroyed any chance of landing in this LZ.
The fighting on the ground was bad. The radioman wasn’t hiding his panic. We had to land.
I took the controls, determined to get the aircraft on the ground. I came in hard and fast. I had to stroke the struts as hard as they would go. We were not going to let this soldier die waiting for us to figure out how to get the aircraft out of the sky.
I planted the aircraft hard. My medic ran to the patient. My crew chief casually mentioned that he thought we hit something. My co-pilot was stressed because we were getting shot at. He was new. I called the radio operator and told him to hold off on the patient. We may have a problem. My crew chief returned with part of the concrete pole that I hit. Who puts a concrete pole in the middle of a field? I had gashed a 12-inch hole in the stabilator. I could see soldiers carrying a patient towards us. The radio operator was too panicked to hold the patient back.
I had no idea if I could take off. The stabilator wasn’t optional. Above 43 knots, a stabilator failure makes a Blackhawk nothing more than a lawn dart. My co-pilot was now less stressed about being shot at and helped me choose a place to crash if we couldn’t get forward flight. With a plan in place and a dying patient in the back, we took off. The stabilator stabilized in spite of the damage. The whole way home we watched for Cobra wreckage and never found it.
We got the soldier to the surgeon. The Cobra had sustained an engine failure and managed to autorotate back to the FOB. The only casualty that day was the stabilator.