U.S. ARMY AVIATION BASE CAMP, Central Iraq — Fired-up and patriotic, the soldiers of Task Force 11th Aviation hoped to kick Saddam’s butt in the war’s first week.

According to V Corps’ original battle script, the two Illesheim, Germany-based attack helicopter units would star in the war’s opening night.

With a one-two punch, their Longbows and Apaches would knock out Iraqi army units in the southern part of the country, then jump north a few days later to put a hurt on the elite Republican Guard. By now, they would be knocking on Baghdad’s door.

“We are the tip of the spear on that first night,” Maj. Steve Wilson said shortly before the planned opening salvo March 20.

“There shouldn’t be any need to attack [from the ground]. We are going to obliterate them,” said Wilson, operations officer for the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, one of the 11th Aviation’s units.

But fate and Mother Nature conspired against the Task Force. On Friday, the 2-6 Cavalry was still waiting impatiently for its first combat while its sister squadrons, the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment from Illesheim and the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment from Fort Hood, Texas, were fixing helicopters battered by ground fire in their first engagement. All pilots are alive, but two are in enemy hands.

Cocky bravado has given way to grim determination. The unit now knows it is in a tough scrap, and its leaders are thinking up new ways to win it.

“We’re modifying our means and our capabilities,” said task force commander Col. William Wolf, “so we can continue the fight.”

The weather played havoc with the first night’s battle plan. A dusty haze hung over the Camp Udairi airfield late Thursday evening as the 6-6 Cavalry pilots climbed into their aircraft. They were to strike the targets first from the west, followed a short time later by the 2-6 Cavalry hammer blow from the south.

Lt. Col. Mike Barbee, the 6-6 Cavalry’s commanding officer, led the squadron across the border into Iraq, two UH-60 Black Hawks — one carrying Wolf, the other carrying the unit’s operations officer — trailing behind to guide the battle.

Twenty-five minutes into the flight, the squadron ran into what Barbee later described as a “wall of crap.” The dust grew so thick, he said, one of the Black Hawk pilots made an emergency maneuver and the other lagged far behind.

Barbee said the Apache pilots might have been able to continue through the fog, but he didn’t think the Black Hawk pilots could because their night-vision systems aren’t as good in such conditions. The memory of a Black Hawk crash last month that killed four members of the 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment during a sudden sandstorm stood fresh in his mind.

“It got kind of chaotic,” Barbee said. “That’s when I made the decision to turn around. It’s a tough decision — a lot of frustration, but the right thing to do.”

The decision irritated some 2-6 Cavalry pilots who saw their mission scrubbed before they even left the ground. But Wolf concurred with Barbee’s decision to pull out.

“We got ’em all back safe,” Wolf said. “That’s all that really matters.”

On Friday morning, six hours after the mission was scrubbed, all the soldiers in the Task Force except pilots, crew chiefs, and a skeleton staff of officers piled into trucks, tankers and Humvees.

The optimistic V Corps planners had expected the Task Force to move more than 1,000 soldiers over land to a patch of enemy-held desert deep inside Iraq, then get the camp running in time to support a Sunday-night attack.

But the convoy bogged down among the thousands of Army vehicles headed north on the country’s sparse network of rude desert roads. The soldiers arrived just before dawn Monday, March 24, after 69 grueling hours. They had slept little since leaving Camp Udairi.

The Task Force pilots, though, were already there. They flew up Sunday night and landed in the sand only hours after the infantry had cleared the area.

They hunkered down around their helicopters, pilots pulling out their M-16 rifles and setting up posts in the open desert.

“There was nothing here — except us,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Leonard Eichhorn, 42, of Stuart, Fla., a 2-6 Cavalry standardization instructor pilot. “We just rolled out our sleeping bags right on the rocks.”

All three attack units had been prepped for an air assault Sunday night on the Medina Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard in the southern suburbs of Baghdad. Planners decided to send the 6-6 Cavalry and the 1-227 Aviation, keeping the 2-6 Cavalry in reserve for a later fight.

The two squadrons drew small-arms fire from the ground almost as soon as they left their camp, and it built as they neared urban areas.

For the 1-227 Aviation crews, the fire was bearable until they got near their targets.

“They didn’t shoot at us going in. They waited until we were there,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Snyder, 32, of Belton, Texas, a 1-227 Aviation pilot. “Then the sky just lit up. There were tracer rounds all over.”

The crews managed to destroy several armored vehicles before they retreated, but one Longbow was forced to land. The two pilots of the downed aircraft were taken prisoner.

The rest of the helicopters limped home. But nearly all of the Longbows from the two units received damage to body or systems from gunfire. One 6-6 Cavalry pilot suffered a minor neck injury from a bullet that pierced his cockpit.

The task force quickly made plans to ship spare parts from Camp Udairi to fix the birds.

Those plans fell apart when the three Chinook helicopters sling-loading the parts containers had to drop their cargo Monday after encountering ground fire 40 miles southeast of the camp.

Now, with the other two units busy fixing their aircraft, the 2-6 Cavalry is eager to get into the fight.

All week, they have been held as “911 birds”: ready to go in an emergency. So far, they haven’t been used.

“We’ve been sitting and waiting,” said Maj. Carl Coffman, 38, of West Columbia, Texas, the unit’s executive officer. “The squadron’s spent six months here getting ready to go. We’re just waiting for our number to be called.”

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