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U.S. ARMY AVIATION BASE CAMP, Central Iraq — Chief Warrant Officer 2 Aaron Mitchell knew he’d had a close call when he could smell the bullet.

Mitchell and his back-seat pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tim McCray, were flying their AH-64A Apache low across the desert southwest of Baghdad when they started taking fire from what the Army calls “technicals” — small trucks with automatic weapons mounted on them.

A bullet hit just in front of Mitchell’s seat, punching a hole in the frame in front of his window.

“I could smell the carbon,” said Mitchell, 28, of Belfair, Wash. “It got our attention real good.”

Mitchell and McCray were among the pilots from the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, the Illesheim, Germany-based unit who finally saw their first combat Wednesday, almost two weeks into the war.

“I wish it wasn’t quite so exciting,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Scott Horsington, 34, of Syracuse, N.Y. “We’ve been here since October, and we’re glad to be doing our job.”

All three of the 2-6 Cavalry’s Apache companies saw action Wednesday, supporting the 3rd Infantry Division’s attacks on the southern suburbs of Baghdad.

The 3rd ID bulled through the Karbala Gap — a narrow strip of land southwest of Baghdad between the city of Karbala and a large lake, the Buhayrat Ar Razazah — much faster than expected, Army officials say.

“We really think we surprised them,” said 1st Lt. Mathew Feehan, 29, of Ottumwa, Iowa, who destroyed three tanks and two armored personnel carriers on his mission.

Maj. John Lindsay, Task Force 11th Aviation’s operations officer, said the 2-6 Cavalry’s sister squadron, the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, also has been on call to aid the 3rd ID.

McCray’s and Horsington’s helicopters, though, were the only ones in the squadron to suffer significant battle damage.

One other had to return to base after flying too low and skimming the lake on the way to the fight, causing damage to the stabilator.

Many of its aircraft were damaged after meeting unexpectedly tough resistance during the squadron’s first engagement of the war March 23, but its mechanics have repaired enough of the aircraft to field one troop of AH-64D Apache Longbows.

“It’s really miraculous, all the work they’ve done and rebuilt their combat power,” Lindsay said.

Apaches from the 101st Airborne Division supported the 3rd ID troops through the night Tuesday, and the 2-6 Cavalry rotated its three troops through the battlefield shortly after dawn.

The unit’s normal mission is to attack targets deep behind enemy lines, but it recently has been on loan to the 3rd Infantry Division to help with the offensive against Baghdad.

The Apaches saw little opposition on their first sorties of the morning, but that would change. They flew back and forth to a refueling point the 2-6 Cavalry’s fuel and ammunition platoon had set up in the desert near Karbala to save time.

Horsington and his front-seat pilot, Capt. Brian McCort, 26, of Elmira, N.Y., flew just one pass through the attack zone on their second run about 9:30 a.m.

They saw about five Iraqi men running away from them across the open desert, about 1,000 meters in front of the American lines, and started chasing them.

“The five guys turned out to be about 20. We flew right over them,” Horsington said.

“Then we got shot from the left and the right.”

A bullet believed to be from an AK-47 rifle broke the left-side rearview mirror just in front of McCort, then tore through the gas mask next to his left shoulder. He saw a little shower of blue from the mask’s filter.

Horsington said the ambush left the aircraft with bullet damage to the pylon, stabilator, tail and tail rotor. But the most serious damage — the one that forced him to turn his Apache back home — was a hit to the electrical system right behind his head.

“It happened really quick. It sounded like a flash in my cockpit,” McCort recalled. “He said, ‘Oh crap, we’re on fire.’ I said ‘Nothing good can come of this.’”

The cockpit briefly filled with smoke, and warning lights flared all over Horsington’s control panel. Luckily, the fire extinguished itself in a few seconds, and the pair flew home safely. They called in artillery fire on their attackers, though, and took out one anti-aircraft weapon before they left.

Horsington said he has flown in combat before, but nothing quite like the intense ground fire of this one pass.

“I was shot at in Panama,” he said, “but nothing like this.”

McCray and Mitchell tasted combat for the first time, and they lasted a little longer in the fight.

They saw several “technicals” on the ground and flew after them. The bullet hit in front of Mitchell on their first pass, and then a rocket-propelled grenade ignited one of the rocket pods on the Apache’s stubby wings.

McCray felt fire just outside his cockpit. It took several tries before he could jettison his two rocket pods and one missile pod. That left them with only four remaining Hellfire missiles and their 30mm gun, but they decided to stay in the fight.

“The ground fire wasn’t that intense,” McCray said. “It was the RPG that smacked us.”

On three more passes, they fired three Hellfires and destroyed three technicals, he said. On the fourth pass, their the gun jammed. So they decided to head home.

Next to Horsington’s and McCort’s, it was the most seriously damaged of 2-6 Cavalry’s Apaches. Sgt. 1st Class Peter Lizama of the 7th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment — currently attached to the 2-6 Cavalry as a technical inspector, overseeing aircraft maintenance — said he thought the helicopter could be fixed in two hours.

“It’s bad [damage] for peacetime, but for combat, it’s minor,” Lizama said.

“It’ll just take a Band-Aid to fix it.”

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