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An AH-64A Apache from the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, leaves an enormous cloud of dust after landing at a desert airstrip in central Iraq.

An AH-64A Apache from the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, leaves an enormous cloud of dust after landing at a desert airstrip in central Iraq. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

U.S. ARMY AVIATION BASE CAMP, Central Iraq — Many times a day here, an olive-drab helicopter moves forward fast and low, approaching its landing pad into the wind. Close to the ground, a cloud of dust rises and envelops the helicopter just before it touches down.

And the pilot says a prayer.

For those who fly Army Apache, Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters into this barren desert outpost southwest of Karbala, returning home to land in a dangerous dust cloud is the most frightening part of every day.

“It’s scarier than the fight,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Bob Fullerton, 39, a 13-year pilot who flies AH-64A Apaches for the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment based in Illesheim, Germany.

“I’ve flown over Nevada, California. This place is as nasty as any place I’ve ever flown.”

Lt. Col. Scott Thompson, the squadron’s commanding officer and a veteran of the first Gulf War, compares it to the Navy pilots’ legendarily difficult task of landing at night on a blacked-out aircraft carrier. He thinks “brown-out” landings in Iraq at night are even harder, because you can’t go around and try again.

“This place is brown-out central,” said Thompson, 42, of Bellevue, Neb.

“Those guys would freak if they saw what we have to do. This is the highest-difficulty maneuver in Army aviation.”

Takeoff or landing accidents in heavy dust already have destroyed or severely damaged four AH-64D Apache Longbows, including one from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment that crashed on takeoff March 23, the unit’s first day at this base camp. Only one has been lost in combat.

“You hate to survive the battlefield, then crash when you come home because you can’t see the ground,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jody Bridgforth, 36, a test pilot with the 7th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment.

The main problem is the ultra-fine dust that covers the central Iraqi desert. It is even finer than the sand in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brian Stewmon, 36, of Palestine, Ark., a Gulf War pilot who flies with the 6-6 Cavalry.

The heavy traffic of trucks and Humvees across the base doesn’t help.

“When we move around these aircraft with vehicles, it breaks [the sand] up,” he said. “It just gets worse and worse.”

The heavier the aircraft, the more dust the rotors kick up. Pilots of the Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, with their two enormous rotors, avoid landing in the desert whenever they can. They land on the paved road that runs along the edge of this camp.

There isn’t enough asphalt for all the Apaches and Black Hawks to do that, so those pilots use tactics to reduce the dust. Most of the time they will approach fast and low, into the wind.

“You try to stay in front of the dust cloud, so that it envelops you just as you touch down,” said Capt. Bryon Mace, 28, of Lakeville, Minn., a 6-6 Cavalry Longbow pilot.

If all goes well, the dust cloud stays behind them until the last few seconds. They roll to a stop, blind. If they are skillful and fortunate, the cloud dissipates behind them. If not, they crash down hard and probably damage the aircraft.

“In some ways, it’s just a leap of faith, those last five or 10 feet,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Bob Berdanier, a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot with the 3rd Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment from Giebelstadt, Germany.

“It’s a controlled crash,” added Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike Horne, 33, of Waterford, Va., a pilot in the same unit. “Some are not as controlled as others.”

Setting down safely takes strong crew coordination. Both Apache and Black Hawk pilots say it would be almost impossible without someone to call out ground references.

Crew members keep watch and report to the pilot as the dust cloud begins to form beneath the rotors, describing to him how it develops.

Sgt. Jeffrey Grout, 29, of Rochester, Pa., a Black Hawk crew chief with the 3-158 Aviation, said, “We kind of give [the pilot] a mental picture of where the aircraft is.”

The pilots land one at a time, and each aircraft must wait for the previous one’s dust cloud to dissipate. Over the radio, pilots guide one another left or right, forward or back.

“The guys on the ground are trying to help the guys in the air,” Thompson said.

Black Hawks have the advantage of a wider base, making them slightly more stable to land than Apaches, but they kick up more dust. Pilots can see the ground more easily because they have glass beneath their feet.

At night, though, Apaches are better off because their infrared goggles, which use heat instead of light to help pilots see, work better in low visibility. Black Hawk pilots’ night-vision goggles simply magnify existing light. They don’t help when dust has blotted out the moon and the stars.

“It looks like a snowstorm with your high beams [car headlights] on,” said Capt. Brian Twigg, 42, of Sayre, Pa., a 2-6 Cavalry troop commander.

“What we try to teach the younger guys is, when you hit that dust cloud, don’t hit the panic button,” said Berdanier, 36, of Pottsville, Pa. “It’ll clear out.”

To cut the dust, the 11th Aviation Regiment bought truckloads of gravel from local Iraqis and built 90-foot-square pads for its Apaches and Longbows. The pads are soaked with JP-8 jet fuel.

With the gravel in place, the helicopters are unable to roll to a stop. The pilots must approach steeply from directly over the gravel. Some dust still kicks up, but much less than on an unimproved pad.

“The pads have made a night-and-day difference, but it’s still the most difficult thing we do,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Stoddard, 32, of Bethel, Vt., a 2-6 Cavalry pilot. “This is going to be one of the major safety issues that come out of this war.”

— Steve Liewer is embedded with the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry.

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