Theoretically, the terrain should be below the helicopter.

However, the view of Afghanistan outside the cockpit of Capt. Jeremy Brunet and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeff MacCauley’s CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter is brown. Treeless ridges in the foreground, brought into sharp relief by white mountain peaks just beyond. Everything is straight up, or straight down.

And straight ahead.

No fears, mate. You’re flying with Charlie Company, out of Bagram airfield in Afghanistan.

MacCauley is a 27-year-old with 850 cockpit hours. He flies with the skill and composure of the veteran pilot while spinning a David Letterman monologue a mile a minute.

His best punch line is that he wants to be a dentist when he grows up.

No, really.

Brunet is 30 years old, and as quiet and introspective as MacCauley is wound up. Going over emergency procedures during a pre-flight brief, he comments offhandedly, “We’re not going to crash today. I don’t want to.”

The air crew — flight engineer Spc. Jimmy Hammond and crew chief Sgt. Michael Socha — obligingly flies with the doors open and windows off so passengers can get photos.

Their aircraft is an old flying bus that pilots like to fly fast and low — so low shepherds on the highest ridges between Kabul and Gardez reputedly puzzle over mysterious lengths of tire tracks in the snow.

But in a country with few roads, and fewer secure areas, Chinooks are the safest, fastest way around Afghanistan. A truck convoy takes at least five hours to drive the 130 miles from Gardez to Bagram, for example. A CH-47 takes 45 minutes.

“We’ve been the only show in town for two years,” said Maj. Nate Gustin, commander of Company C, 159th Aviation Regiment of the Fort Bragg-based 18th Aviation Brigade. “No one moves without the support of this unit.”

“This place is made for us,” MacCauley said. The crew says the Chinook can leap nearly any mountain range in Afghanistan, which peak at about 21,000 feet, “and we still got plenty of stuff left over.”

Their CH-47 is the best ride in town for mail, medicine, ammunition and all the things it takes to fight a war at remote fire bases, observation posts and austere bases.

For humans, however, they’re horrible. Beyond noisy, they defeat earplug protection and vibrate passengers into submission. Cold air pours into unpressurized cabins. The exhaust barbecues you if you enter or exit the cargo doors while the engines are running.

The pilots and crews love them, mainly because they’re surprisingly fast. Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Lowman says he hates reading “slow, cumbersome” in every article written about Chinooks. “Actually, they’re fast and agile,” the pilot says. “That’s never reported.”

MacCauley and Lowman swear Chinooks are — in level flight — the fastest helicopters in the U.S. inventory. Yes, Black Hawks and Apaches can dive faster, but who wants to do that? In level flight, a Chinook can cruise at 200 mph, MacCauley said. “It kills the Apache pilots when they have to radio us to slow down.”

The company’s 14 aircraft flying high above the fray are largely masters of their own fates. They’ve got it made. And the pilots and crew dogs of Company C know they’ve got it made, despite their often-risky mission.

Sure, bobbing and weaving a 15-ton flying bus — often full of ammunition and explosives — through mountain passes, following the contour of the land to evade attack, is a dangerous way to make a living. So dangerous they don’t talk shop with nervous wives. “Nothing I could tell her would make her feel better, so we don’t talk work,” MacCauley said.

When they’re not being funny and ironic, aviators are mostly upbeat. And when jokes turn to smoking peasants who look too long at the aircraft, Spc. Jimmy Hammond shakes his head, saying, “You’re morbid, man. Killing people is bad.”

“We don’t kill people,” MacCauley said. “We drop off the people who kill people.”

Yet, Chinook crews routinely fly without hesitation into hot zones to evacuate wounded soldiers.

On Feb. 1, Lowman’s crew had to go pull out three Special Forces guys seriously injured in an accident, Lowman said. Two weeks ago, Marines near the town of Skhin hit an improvised explosive device, injuring one Marine’s leg. Staff Sgt. Robert Martin, a flight engineer, said his Chinook crew was in the area and dropped in for the rescue.

Later, the Marines told him doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center saved the man’s leg. “That was very gracious of them,” Martin said.

Pilots and crew dogs have a culture with its own lexicon, its own humor. Typically, when the front engine powers down, the blades dissect the helicopter in an X. If a blade stops directly in front of the cockpit, that’s a “beer blade,” where the crew goes out for a brew.

“The funny thing is, I’ve had more beer blades out here than anyplace else,” MacCauley said. “You know why? No beer!”

They — like all deployed soldiers — feel overworked and under-loved. Soldiers and supplies come on; soldiers and supplies go off. Crews fly around the clock.

For many, this is their second Afghan rotation, which will probably be extended.

“‘Go first. Stay longer. Come back last.’ That’s this company in a nutshell,” Gustin said.

Crew dogs fly every day. “I fly 30 days a month,” Hammond said. “We need more crew dogs,” MacCauley says, for once totally serious. “That’s all there is to it.”

Helicopters leak. Helicopters break. The crews’ motto is “if it ain’t leakin’, it ain’t flyin’.”

“They’re 50 years old,” Brunet said of the Chinooks, shrugging. “Of course they break.”

Company C crews get any sort of mission that takes the speed and huge lifting ability of the Chinook. Most of the time, company pilots fly 400-mile round-trip resupply flights connecting their base at Bagram to remote fire bases and observation posts around Afghanistan. They fly from Gardez to Salano to the most dangerous places, such as Skhin.

Soaring through Afghanistan’s mythical terrain — over ancient battlefields, Silk Roads and modern misery — is sometimes monotonous, sometimes wondrous. Some places are so beautiful, like Bamian, pilots still look out the Plexiglas and go, “Wow,” MacCauley said. “Bamian is the best ride in Afghanistan.”

“We fly over people — I don’t want to be so bold as to say ‘primal instinct’ — but people making something with nothing,” Gustin said.

“You’ll be at 3,000 feet, surrounded by sheer mountain peaks, no sign of civilization and you’ll see a guy with a herd of goats, and you’ll think, ‘Where in the hell is he going?

“Where did he come from?’”

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