Somewhere in the vicinity of Baghdad, 4 Navy HH-60Hs lift out of a FOB, their cabins packed full of SOF assaulters. As the birds lift, the engines whine, struggling to perform in the hot summer air. The targeted individuals are all members of an al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) cell, and tonight we know where they are.

The communications net crackles as the flight forms up and calls in to the mission lead. As soon as dash-4 is latched into the formation, the flight speeds up to cruise. The target is a short flight away, so mission lead is busy checking in and coordinating with the other mission players, from the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform that already has eyes on the target building to the Close Air Support (CAS) jet that is proceeding to a holding point a few minutes from the target until we push toward the insert. Everyone is moving into position.

As the comms roll in, we listen to ISR describe activity in the target area, trying to detect anything unusual or unexpected based on the intel. As I man the right door gun, the cabin full of troops is constantly trying to push me out the door as they try to stay comfortable in the limited space. There are 14 grown men wearing body armor and holding rifles trying to cram into a space not much bigger than a mini-van. It is what it is.

As we hit our last checkpoint before the target, and external comms go quiet as each aircraft maneuvers into their lane to line up for the Landing Zone (LZ). In dash-3, my pilots are twisting in the approach heading and verifying that the correct LZ checkpoint is selected. We quickly run through our unit-designed checklist for this stage of the mission.

An aircraft from HSC-84 lands in light brownout conditions.

An aircraft from HSC-84 lands in light brownout conditions.

With no moon out, the world is dark, even on Night Vision Goggles (NVG). “3 minutes!!” I yell at the chalk leader. We each take a few seconds around this point to mentally run through the approach and go back over the abort plan in our heads one more time, just in case. In this business, there is no time to hesitate or to stop and explain the next step again. Every crew member must automatically know their role and responsibility, especially in the event of contingencies.

As a flight crew, we are now scanning for unique intersections, houses, towers, or anything else that stands out on the imagery to help us verify our position in relation to the LZ. Cutting through the cultural lighting on such a low-light night makes this difficult as our night vision adjusts to the ambient light level. It leaves bright blooms of cultural lighting in the goggles with dark spaces in between them, and we are looking for a particular patch of dark space to land our flight of four H-60s in.