Iraq a different world after dark
March 8, 2008
BALAD, Iraq — Darkness blankets the desert in ways that most city dwellers wouldn’t understand. Street lights die where the towns end, and even on a calm night, dust can choke off all the starlight but for a small circle at the top of the sky.
Company A, 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, is just one of many units here in Balad that gets cranking up after the sun sets.
The unit runs regular night flights that the crews call “Echo missions.” That’s “echo,” as in the letter “e,” one of several routes named after letters. No deeper code here. On these missions, pilots and crews don their gear, pick up a load of passengers and start circling between the forward operating bases.
The darkness brings challenges that pilots don’t face during the day. If pilots don’t follow their instruments closely, they can find themselves drifting too high or low.
“You gotta be more cautious,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brett Henry, a 29-year-old pilot. “You get out there, over the open desert, you got no contrast.”
Crews initiate more conversations with pilots to keep them apprised of what’s outside, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Shawn Patterson, a 31-year-old pilot. Everyone stays alert for obstacles.
“You have to increase your scanning more,” Patterson said. “Every day they’re putting up more towers.”
Yet this same darkness also shields the helicopters from would-be attackers. Both pilots actually prefer these night flights because of the extra concealment they bring. Henry described how the helicopters seem to float along in a bubble of darkness on these night flights.
“You’re in your own world, pretty much,” he said. “During the day, you’re just an open, moving target.”
The desert nights are dark here in Iraq. But for American pilots, that darkness means security.
“We do own the night,” Henry said.