U.S. ARMY AVIATION BASE CAMP, Central Iraq— Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy Summerlin didn’t like the looks of things as his three-helicopter convoy of CH-47 Chinooks scudded low over the Iraqi countryside.
A day earlier, the crowds in the villages below had waved and cheered as they flew from Camp Udairi, Kuwait, carrying troops and supplies to the Army’s new aviation base camp south of Baghdad.
But on this day, March 24, the crowds seemed more tense.
Sitting in the cockpit jump seat of the second Chinook, Summerlin saw people twirling white towels overhead in imitation of helicopter blades. White pickup trucks would race ahead of them, whirl around and stop while their passengers got out and stared.
Then two men directly beneath ran over to a white Nissan pickup. One pulled out an AK-47 rifle, the other a hand-held rocket launcher.
“Somebody was pointing to the helicopter. I saw dust come off the ground in a swirl,” said Summerlin, 31, of Tuscaloosa, Ala. He knew that meant trouble.
“I yelled ‘Shoot those [expletive]!’” he recalled.
The Chinooks, from Company F of the 159th Aviation Regiment out of Giebelstadt, Germany, had flown into an increasingly ugly sandstorm a few minutes earlier.
Trying to avoid the weather, they drifted a few miles east of their intended course into enemy territory and were still about 40 miles from their destination.
The co-pilot — Chief Warrant Officer 2 Clay Rekow, 27 — turned the controls over to the pilot-in-command, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Helus, 37. Handling proved especially tricky because of the weather and because of the heavy sling load they carried beneath them: two containers of critical spare parts for 11th Aviation Regiment Apache Longbow helicopters damaged in a firefight the night before.
“I felt a shudder in the aircraft, and a big boom,” Summerlin recalled.
He couldn’t see what happened, but some of the crew in the lead aircraft did.
“The first missile had hit the sling load, exploding that stuff,” said Lt. Col. Jerry Pearman of Merrillville, Ind., the Task Force’s executive officer and a passenger in the first Chinook. “It probably saved their lives.”
They weren’t out of danger yet. A second missile ripped into the back of Summerlin’s aircraft, tearing a softball-sized hole.
“It opened up like a can opener,” said Staff Sgt. Michael O’Keeffe, 33, of Wakefield, Mass., the Chinook’s door-gunner. “Thank God it didn’t detonate.”
Two AK-47 rounds hit them, too. One penetrated an electrical panel behind Rekow’s seat, setting off whistles and alarms. The second pierced the left side of the aft ramp and caromed off a strut in the cabin.
A chunk of that bullet hit the cheek of a passenger, an unidentified soldier from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment in Illesheim, Germany. Sgt. Lance Reynolds, 29, of Hot Springs, Ark., the flight engineer, rushed to help him.
“[The wound] immediately started bleeding pretty bad. He was conscious, he was still up,” Reynolds said. “I reached up and grabbed a bundle of shop towels to stop the bleeding.”
With all three helicopters hearing gunfire and one hit, the convoy headed west toward open country — and an ever-worsening storm. The third one jettisoned its containers of parts, pulled up and disappeared. (The other crews later learned it had returned to Camp Udairi.)
Helus, with an injured passenger and not knowing his load was gone, hovered low and punched off what was left of his sling so he could better maneuver to the base camp.
Thinking of “The Wizard of Oz,” they tried to dump it directly on top of the gunmen so it would crush them like Dorothy’s house crushed the wicked witch. They don’t know if they succeeded.
Pearman, the mission commander, knew his lead bird had the last two containers of badly needed Apache spare parts. Since they weren’t hit, they decided to hang on to them as long as possible, or at least set them down in a safe place.
“The weather got even worse, and we weren’t sure if we were under fire,” Pearman said. “We were moving along, trying not to run into each other.”
Finally, the first Chinook couldn’t safely continue. The crew slowed its airspeed to 20 knots and dropped the containers from a height of 10 feet.
The Chinook then landed nearby, securing the load, setting up guards and calling for help. An hour later, a UH-60 Black Hawk from the 3rd Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment found them and escorted them to base.
Hitting a wall of sand, the last Chinook felt its way toward base, low and slow. Damage to the aircraft had affected its ability to brake on landing.
It limped to a stretch of pavement at the aviation base, landing hot and fast. Summerlin said the landing roll, normally 100 feet or less, stretched to a quarter mile.
A doctor from the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, jumped in the unit’s ambulance and headed to the helicopter with the injured.
Luckily, the bullet fragment had only nicked the soldier’s cheek.
“It was almost like a shaving cut,” Pearman said.
The close call left the “Big Windy” crew shaken but wiser.
“We expected maybe small-arms fire, but never rockets,” said Sgt. Kevin Ellison, 26, of Corbin, Ky., the crew chief.
“This was a little more organized than pot shots,” O’Keeffe added.
They said good crew coordination helped save their lives.
“Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Ellison said.
Added Summerlin: “If anybody hadn’t been 100 percent, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
— Steve Liewer is embedded with the 11th Aviation Regiment.