Eyes in the Iraqi sky
Stars and Stripes June 3, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Soldiers patrolling Baghdad can’t see around every corner or over the walls surrounding every mosque and back yard.
But the airborne crews with the 1st Armored Division’s 4th Aviation Brigade can.
“If the ground guys get into trouble and can’t see the threat or where it went, we can pinpoint it from our angle,” said Lt. Col. James Schrote, a Black Hawk pilot with the brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment.
The Baumholder, Germany-based brigade arrived in Baghdad on May 22, with 2,000 soldiers, 18 Apache attack helicopters, 16 Black Hawks and 16 Kiowa Warriors.
The air armada has flown at least twice a day since then, learning the ins and outs of Baghdad’s urban terrain.
More than 6 million people live in Baghdad, many in densely packed neighborhoods that give great cover to bad guys. The aviators can see into many of those dark spaces.
Sometimes, division spokesman Maj. Scott Slaten said, the growl of a helicopter’s engine and whap of its rotors is enough to scare out the prey.
The Kiowas and Apaches also are equipped with sensors and optics that videotape things below.
“The limit is your imagination. We’re all observers looking for something,” said Schrote, who flew over a similarly treacherous city in Mogadishu, Somalia, from 1992 to 1994.
Brigade Commander Col. David Lawrence said the aviators will secure convoys, provide reconnaissance and back up ground troops for the division.
If ground troops get in real trouble, Black Hawks can drop a rapid-reaction force nearby to help out, Schrote, 45, of Alexandria, Va., said.
Coming from Germany’s relatively cool weather to the furnace-like temperatures of Iraq has been the biggest challenge for aircrews. They wear flak jackets with bulletproof plates, black helmets and carry other equipment that turns their personal environment into a sauna.
“It’s a good 40 pounds of junk,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Scott Miller, also a Black Hawk pilot.
“There’s no air conditioning. We’ve just got the elements,” said Miller, 38, of Westmont, N.J.
The omnipresent dust is another issue. It lowers visibility and could foul parts. Schrote said maintainers have to work double time to keep up with it.
Baghdad also has other dangers. Every building in the city is the color of sand, including water towers that can become dangerous obstacles, especially at night.
Haphazard power lines criss-cross neighborhoods, making landing zones tough to find. Night flying presents its own hazards, including an increased risk of ground fire.
Miller said crews already have seen tracers from ground fire during night patrols.
“I cannot tell you how difficult it is to fly in this environment,” Lawrence said.
On a reconnaissance flight Sunday, two Black Hawks flew from Baghdad International Airport, east across fertile plains, then north along the Tigris River over the heart of the city.
They could see the bombed-out buildings hit by Americans and the burned-out buildings damaged by Iraqis. They saw the green lawns and blue swimming pools of Saddam Hussein’s loyalists’ riverside properties. They saw little boys swimming in an irrigation canal.
They looked down at the ant farm-like streets and alleys of the poverty-stricken Thawra neighborhood, where they didn’t want to fly for fear of taking fire.
“I got a picture in my mind from the news that it was a beautiful city,” said crew chief Spc. Colin Osmanson, 22, from Missoula, Mont., “but it’s not.”