Your flying time will be five hours, including a refueling stop. You’ll be touching down in some of the most scenic forward operating bases the 1st Armored Division has to offer. Forget about a bathroom, a meal, or even those pathetic bags of pretzels. Don’t even think about a cocktail. And flak vests are NOT optional.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Iron Eagle Express.

The “express” flight, although it’s more like a milk run, made its inaugural trip Tuesday night. It flew fast and low through the darkness, over towns, palm groves and “the green marshmallow,” as the pilots call the desert as seen through their night-vision goggles. The trip — from Baghdad to five forward operating bases, or FOBs, south of the city and back — is now taking place twice daily to move troops and supplies among 1st AD’s new area of responsibility.

“This is just another way of getting stuff where it needs to go,” said 1st Lt. James Yarborough, who was in charge of the manifest and making sure everything and everybody got to the right FOB. “If a part is desperately needed for the mission, this is a quick way to get it there.”

This is a new way for Yarborough to move stuff, however. He was formerly far more likely to be seen behind the windshield of a truck or Humvee rather than in the back of a Black Hawk. He’d only ridden in a helicopter a few times. But with the 1st AD’s move out of Baghdad to its far-flung, brand-new bases, the helicopter route makes sense.

“It’s 10 times easier,” Yarborough said. “Especially with all the [improvised explosive devises] out there.”

On Tuesday’s run, radar equipment was being dropped off, soldiers were being taken from one FOB to another, and others were being brought back to Baghdad. No new friendships were forged; conversation is impossible over the roar of the rotors. A hearty thumbs up sign is about the extent of interpersonal communications available.

The two Black Hawks on the express flew about 300 feet above ground — about 1,200 feet lower than they fly in noncombat areas. Most of the trip was in utter darkness. During the day in Iraq, helicopters fly even lower, about 150 feet above ground, dodging houses and power lines and sometimes dipping, one crewmember said, to as low as 10 feet above the ground.

“It scares the animals,” said one of the helicopter’s gunners. “The camels hop around, the sheep all run in one direction or herd together, and the cows pull at their ropes.”

But the lower they fly, the faster and harder it is to hit the target.

Each time before any mission, aviators get an intelligence briefing to help them plot their routes. The briefing describes recent activities in various areas, but can’t say for certain what awaits on a particular trip.

“They’re not prophets,” said Capt. Mason Thompson, who works in planning and operations and was along on the first trip to ensure things went smoothly.

Thompson wasn’t sure what the intelligence had been on the express’ first trip. But, he said, the briefings invariably include: “Small-arms fire is always a danger.”

In his year flying in Iraq, the gunner said he’d shot at one target: a man firing at the helicopter from his roof. It appeared the man wasn’t hit, the gunner said, but he did get off the roof when the bullets started coming his way. “It tore the house up,” the gunner said.

All was quiet, though, on the Eagle Express’ maiden voyage. The first base seemed composed only of a couple of trucks, a few tents and miles and miles of sand. There was no landing platform; the helicopter settled alarmingly for several seconds into deep sand that blew through the open doors.

Nothing was picked up or dropped off there, or at the second FOB. The Black Hawks would land, stay on the ground a few minutes, then lift off again. The idea was to keep to the schedule, Mason said.

“That’s what we advertise, so that’s where we go,” he said.

During the refueling stop, the crews gathered on the dark runway and talked for a few minutes. Chief Warrant Officer James Cook, one of four pilots in the two helicopters, said the pilots usually take turns flying and navigating “so one person’s not flying all night.”

Not so much because it’s tiring, but because it’s fun, he said.

“It’s like a pool table out here,” Cook said.

Although night flying is the safest in terms of avoiding attacks, it also is more challenging for the crew, especially when sand reduces visibility already constrained by the night-vision goggles.

“When people get here, they make mistakes,” Cook said. “Experience pays off in this environment.”

The helicopters landed safely back in Baghdad early Wednesday morning, and the soldiers who’d been brought back melted away into the darkness.

Yarborough was going to get some sleep, then get ready for the next day’s first flight and go again.

“It’s just another mission,” he said. “I used to do truck convoys at night. They’re 10 times scarier.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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