Chinook pilots, crewmen spend their nights flying in 'the green air'
November 25, 2006
COB SPEICHER, Iraq — To the naked eye, the natural gas fires of Kirkuk glow in the night like coals scattered in a vast, dark furnace.
Even now, miles away from the flames and hundreds of feet above the earth, the cockpit of Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles “Chico” Cantu’s massive CH-47D Chinook helicopter reeks of burning fuel.
“Lots of smoke at 1 o’clock,” Cantu warns his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Scott Ward, 32, of Encampment, Wyoming. Through the lenses of their night-vision goggles, the gas fires have turned night to day. The city and the clouds above it are bathed in a ghostly green sunshine.
It’s a surreal view of the world, flying with night-vision goggles, and some pilots and crewmen refer to it as taking off into “the green air.” In fact, Cantu and his fellow B Company, “Hill Climbers” see more green air than they do daylight.
As the heavy lift element of the Hawaii-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, the soldiers are responsible for transporting thousands of personnel and thousands of tons of equipment throughout northern Iraq. The “Lightning Express” runs, which link bases in Tikrit, Kirkuk, Mosul, Tal Afar and Qayyarah West, occur at night when the roaring Chinooks are all but invisible to the enemy.
“We move about 10,000 passengers a month,” said Col. A.T. Ball, commander of the 25th Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade. “That’s more passengers than a small commercial airline.”
On a recent Lightning Express run, Cantu’s Chinook lifted off from COB Speicher with a payload of bomb disposal robots, vehicle parts and roughly a dozen passengers and crew. For the next six hours, the crew would speed over mountain ranges, farmlands, and desert at speeds greater than 100 mph, loading and unloading passengers and material at each stop.
In the aircraft’s cargo area, flight engineer Spc. Jeremiah Belyeu, 22, of Houston, monitored the helicopter’s hydraulics and other instruments and rode herd on the passengers and cargo that passed in and out of the Chinook.
Bundled against the cold, door gunner Spc. Michael Lopez, 25, of Orange, Calif., and crew chief Spc. Hilario Beltran, 22, of Santa Ana, Calif., manned weapons and watched for hazards.
“Basically, we’re a crew,” Cantu said. “No one pilot is flying this aircraft. I’m not flying it. He’s not flying it. It’s all five of us. It’s a team.”
Among the hazards of night flying are dust storms, plumes from gas fires and massive power-line towers that rise as high as a football field is long. Cantu, 50, a Hawaii National Guard member and a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, used a map book and a small, portable computer strapped to his knee to plot the position of power lines.
Due to the amount of equipment hauled this evening, seats for passengers were at a minimum — bad news for would-be passengers who hoped to snag a space-available seat.
“When we don’t have any cargo, we’re loaded up to the gills with passengers,” Belyeu said.
On those occasions though when seats are scarce, Belyeau said some space-A passengers refused to believe that there isn’t enough space.
“I’ve heard every sob story you can imagine,” Belyeau said. “There’s just nothing I can do. If there’s 15 people who want to go and just one seat, we’re only taking one person.”