TIKRIT, Iraq — In the vast expanse of northern Iraq, where craggy mountain ranges and lush rolling plains compete for terrain with sere desert scrub, the surest way of getting from Point A to Point B to Point C in a hurry is by helicopter.
Whether it’s a platoon of Iraqi soldiers staging an air assault on the outskirts of oil-rich Kirkuk, a shipment of bomb disposal robots destined for Mosul, or a crowd of soldiers, translators and civilian contractors headed for duty in Tal Afar, Task Force Hammerhead is their ticket to both the friendly and unfriendly skies.
The newly formed 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment is the workhorse of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade, and its daily “Lightning Express” runs help ferry troops and loads of equipment throughout Multi National Division-North — an area slightly larger than the state of Pennsylvania.
“That’s a lot of area,” said Col. A.T. Ball, commander of the 25th CAB. “You’re not just going to go driving across that chunk of real estate and get anything done. You’re going to have to rely heavily on aviation operations.”
Much of that heavy lifting is done by the 3-25’s Company B “Hill Climbers,” whose CH-47D Chinooks can heft loads as heavy as 25 tons. While the massive, twin-rotor aircraft are far less sleek than the sporty Apache or Black Hawk helicopters, Chinooks are actually the fastest helicopters in the Army’s inventory.
Most recently, the helicopters were used to help ferry more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers to the outskirts of Kirkuk, where they cleared several villages of suspected insurgents and illegal weapons. The villages, roughly 20 miles south of the city, were reported to be a base of operations for local insurgents.
“Those missions are really sought after,” said Lt. Col. Michael Fleetwood, commander of the 3-25. “Pilots and crews like them because there’s a great sense of accomplishment. They’re tough and there’s a lot of adrenaline that flows. You don’t know what the landing zone looks like and you’re trying to capture bad guys and make this country a safer place.”
The majority of missions, however, involve the hauling equipment and passengers to bases throughout the north.
“That’s our bread and butter. We haul stuff. We’re cargo trucks,” said Maj. Adam Lange, executive officer of the 3-25.
Those missions are dubbed “Lightning Runs” in honor of northern Iraq’s Task Force Lightning and occur at night when the loud and lumbering Chinooks present a nearly invisible target to insurgents. Helicopter crews have reported a number of instances of hostile fire at helicopters since they arrived in Iraq several months ago, but the unit has yet to lose an aircraft.
“We’ve been very fortunate in that respect,” Fleetwood said.
Because they fly at night, Hill Climber pilots and crewmen see little daylight.
“We see the sunrise and the sunset, that’s about it,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles “Chico” Cantu, a pilot.
For much of their workday, Cantu and his fellow pilots and flight crew view the world through the shimmering green lenses of night-vision goggles — a world of ghostly shadows and bright infrared spotlights.
“We call it going out in the green air,” joked Sgt. First Class Geoff Hubbard, a flight engineer and instructor.
Last week, a number of Hill Climber pilots and crewmen lingered in the light of day after their mission when the 3-25 celebrated its first birthday. The battalion was created only a year ago as part of the U.S. Army’s restructuring.
“One year ago this unit was two guys on the ground with no equipment,” Fleetwood said. “One year later, here we are in combat.”
The unit is based at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii, and the birthday celebration featured a luau theme. Soldiers wore Aloha shirts, grilled steaks, threw horseshoes, played volleyball and competed in a back-breaking “Chinook pull” competition. Two teams of 10 soldiers each grabbed a rope and competed to pull a 16-ton helicopter over a finish line.
“Nobody got a hernia, so in the end it was very successful,” Fleetwood said of the celebration.