As the ground war continued to make huge gains in terms of defeating the remaining Republican Guard units of Saddam’s Army, we prepared to insert into Baghdad. As we sat on the tarmac of the desert airstrip, all I could think about was the fresh evening air and how it was all about to change.

It took about three hours after the huge C-17 cargo aircraft landed for us to finish loading everything onto it. We would be flying into Baghdad with two armored vehicles, a bunch of other gear and about 80 people. The plane landed around 10:30 at night and slowly taxied along the runway until it came to rest near a huge hangar on the airfield. We had all been waiting near the hangar for about two hours in advance of the flight’s arrival just in case the schedule changed.

I watched in awe as the aircrew guided the armored vehicles into the back of the aircraft and arranged them in alternating fashion to ensure their weight was balanced throughout the cargo hold. An army of about 15 people measured, double-checked, and finally chained the armored personnel carriers to the floor of the cargo hold. Each vehicle had eight chains on each side attaching it to the ramp via huge steel hooks.

It was a remarkable sight. I was not convinced the aircraft could take off with two armored personnel carriers the size of garbage trucks, 80+ people and about eight or nine huge military cargo boxes that were about ten feet in height stacked in rows at the back of the aircraft.

The C-17 is an amazing cargo aircraft that was designed for short takeoffs and landings as compared to normal cargo aircraft its size. I had flown on the C-17 from the US when we deployed several weeks earlier from the States. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, as the passenger seats in the cargo hold were sideways along the wall and were made of red netting that tended to make your legs numb after only a few hours sitting in them. The good thing was the cargo area was very spacious, with a high ceiling to allow helicopters, and other massive vehicles enough clearance for loading.

After the final inspections were complete, and the rear ramp closed, the loadmaster called for everyone to line up and begin entering the aircraft. The massive engines that hung like udders on a cow had been idling the entire time the aircraft was on the ground. Their huge turbo fans slowly turned inside the hulking metal outer bodies painted dark grey. The pervasive smell of jet fuel overwhelmed me as we took a long route with lots of clearance to avoid nearing the engine intakes on our way to the door. I was feeling a bit anxious as I slowly climbed into the metal beast that I had just watched the team fill to capacity with equipment and vehicles.

A bead of sweat laced with salt stung my eye as it slowly meandered down my forehead. I was out of breath from carrying my huge rucksack and an additional bag while trying to lug a 100lb Pelican case full of mission equipment up the stairs. Once on the aircraft, I stowed my baggage and tied it securely to the floor with a cargo strap. I took a seat about half-way down the side of the aircraft and readied myself for what was about to take place.

The aircraft was well-lit and the air was somewhat cool inside as we all sat, looking at the faces of the other people accompanying us on this trip into Baghdad international airport. There had been reports of ground fire and firefights still taking place at the airport, so this wasn’t exactly going to be a fun, leisurely flight with cocktails at 30,000 feet.