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.
Suddenly, the interior lights went dim and a blue light came on inside the aircraft. It cast a surreal and ghostly hue on the faces of the others. I repeatedly looked at the monstrous armored personnel carriers precariously chained to the floor and wondered if the chains would hold their weight in the event of any evasive maneuvers. This aircraft was not small, and if we took fire the pilots would have to execute some serious turns, subjecting everyone and everything inside to excessive G-forces.
As the engines came online I felt a cold chill race up my chest. I thought back to my flight a few weeks earlier, where a fire had broken out on takeoff, and I began to tremble a bit. I tried to find fear in the faces of those around but was unsuccessful. Hopefully my anxiety didn’t show either. I clenched down tightly and held my breath for a moment to obviate any further anxiety; it seemed to work momentarily.
As we slowly moved forward into the night I tried to avoid the what-if scenarios that I had become accustomed to since the beginning of this deployment. The aircraft slowly bounced up and down like a greyhound bus, straining under the weight of its innards. In spite of the hearing protection I was wearing, the jet engines perched directly behind me produced a calming yet painful whine. The pilots had only asked a little of the massive turbines so as to break inertia and get us rolling down the parallel runway. We began to slow and I felt a pull on my body as the aircraft maneuvered into its final turn before take-off.
A slight feeling of nausea overtook me as the engine noise began to increase and then returned to almost zero. We came to an abrupt halt, and the seatbelt sign flashed in the strange blue light. A few seconds later I felt a rumbling begin to spread over the aircraft and the high-pitched scream of the jet engines increased to a fever pitch. We didn’t move, we simply sat there as the engines grew louder and louder.
I wondered if something was wrong and leaned over to the guy beside me but it was pointless. Suddenly, my body was thrown to the left as the pilot released the brakes and the aircraft, engines at max power, sprung forward like an Olympic sprinter. As I tried to right myself from the sudden forward movement, I grew more and more tired from fighting the massive forces propelling the aircraft. I was finally able to bring my head back to center and sat in awe as we conducted a “max-power” takeoff in a cargo jet. It was awesome to think of the power of this huge metal bird throwing us down the runway and finally, somehow, breaking through gravity and slowly, ever so slowly, lifting off.
I didn’t even realize at first that the wheels had come off the ground. The take-off seemed to last forever under the massive amount of weight we were carrying and I wondered if the damn thing was going to make it. The entire aircraft seemed like a rollercoaster ride. I knew we were wheels up because the pilot executed a sharp left turn and I lost my sense of balance for a moment.
Having no windows to look through and no frame of reference, it was very easy to become disoriented. As the aircraft slowly lumbered through the dry desert night, it pitched and yawed every few seconds. With each orientation change I became nervous as I thought back to the huge amount of shit we were carrying in the cargo hold with us. I looked at the myriad chains securing the armored vehicles a few times and they seemed to have held up during takeoff.
The flight into Baghdad was only about 40 minutes. It was the longest 40 minutes of my life though. I had been up since six that morning and it was now about 2:30 am. I was exhausted, I couldn’t sleep. We were all expecting some gun-play upon our arrival so we had to remain alert. About 30 minutes after take-off the blue lights were switched off and the entire cargo bay was thrown into near pitch blackness, save a small amount of red light for use by the crew to navigate in the event of an emergency.
This wasn’t exactly the most comfortable situation I had ever found myself in, but at least we weren’t getting shot at, yet. Not surprisingly, as soon as the words formed in my head and I began to comfort myself, the entire aircraft seemed to flip on its side and began to turn in a tight arc to the left.
It felt like we were on a fucking roller-coaster at Busch Gardens, but not the cool kind. Not the kind where everyone is screaming and you get that cool adrenaline rush because you know it’s all good. This was the kind of rollercoaster ride where you sat sideways, couldn’t see shit, you smelled like shit, and at the end of the ride you got off in a warzone.
As my eyes became adjusted to the minute amount of red light being cast from the two bulbs in the ceiling, I felt the fear monster rise from the depths of my loins. The multi-ton armored vehicles in front of me looked like two ships on the ocean in the middle of a hurricane. They were moving back and forth, rocking from side to side, and pitching up and down with an uncanny resemblance to one of those bucking bronco rides you see in a bar. This cannot be good, I thought to myself. Hopefully, those chains weren’t made in China like everything else nowadays.
A few seconds after the pilot had conducted the first of many evasive maneuvers that night, two Rangers jumped from their net seats and climbed into the driver’s hatches on the armored vehicles. I don’t know what they were up to but I can only presume two things. They were making sure the breaks were on in case the chains broke, or they knew something else about what was taking place on the ground that I didn’t. In any event, neither scenario was anything to hope for.
For the next 10 minutes, some people were throwing up, and we were all getting thrown around as we roared closer to Baghdad international. Only after the flight would I find out that then we began to take ground-fire on short final and the pilots aborted the initial landing attempt.
My stomach wasn’t able to take much more.
My nerves weren’t able to take much more, either.
I hadn’t even seen any real action yet and had already experienced two harrowing adventures on airplanes where I was sure I was going to die. This one wasn’t even over yet. The engines screamed out in agony as the pilots asked more of them than they had ever asked before. The aircraft continued to move up and down, and then careen left and then right, when suddenly the engines went silent.
“Fuck! What now,” I thought. It felt like the bottom had dropped out on us and I began to float in my seat. Obviously, we were losing altitude very quickly and hopefully for good reason. Then as quickly as the engines had gone silent, they roared back to life and scared the shit out of me. It sounded like a huge explosion had happened behind me outside the aircraft.
It is very difficult to describe the physical sensations of being in the back of a massive cargo plane, taking enemy fire, and landing at an airport with only minimal lighting while sitting on a shitty cargo net for a seat. Oh, and add to that those fucking armored vehicles that looked like they were about to break free of their chains and fly around on the inside of the aircraft at any second. I finally resigned myself to the fact that, if I died, it would be quick and pretty much painless.
Seconds later, as the engines went silent for the last time, I prayed to God to just get us on the ground safely. Once again, as before, they came back to life with a thunderous roar and propelled us the last few hundred yards over the date palms and fields into Baghdad international airport.
Then I felt the rear landing gear contact the runway and the aircraft buckle under the heavy weight of its cargo. It was hard to make out, but I could just hear the faint sound of what was most assuredly a loud roar of applause from everyone in the aircraft as we landed safely. I guess I wasn’t the only one that was a little put off by our little adventure after all.
Slowly, the front of the aircraft lowered and finally the nose gear touched down. The pilots immediately applied the reverse thrust to bring us to a halt. This time I was thrown to the right from the force of the engines trying to arrest the aircraft from its speed after landing. Within a few minutes we had taxied over several hundred yards of very bumpy runway and came to a halt. The engines were still running hot and the aircraft was still blacked out.
The rear cargo hatch began to slowly open and for the first time, I saw Baghdad. I can’t explain how happy I was to see solid ground, even if it was in the middle of a war. Taking ground fire in a cargo aircraft while flying into Baghdad is not awesome. Just thought I’d throw that out there.
(Featured Image Courtesy: DVIDS/U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Dennis Sloan)