BASHUR AIRFIELD, Iraq — A few months ago, a Navy fighter pilot aboard the USS Lincoln in the Persian Gulf spoke of the “insanity” of landing a plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier at night.
“But you have to do it,” he said after one nighttime sortie, “You just have to do it.”
It is with that same spirit that members of the 86th Air Mobility Squadron have performed some nighttime madness of their own in northern Iraq.
During the first week of operations, every cargo plane that flew into Bashur airfield — all 84 — landed at night without the benefit of any lighting, due to security concerns. Equally remarkable was what happened afterward.
Teams of aerial porters — the people that handle the cargo — worked in pitch darkness with night-vision goggles, operating heavy machinery around pricey planes and soldiers laden with gear and uncertainty. Aircraft mechanics got into the act as well, marshaling planes around the ramp in the dead of night.
“That’s the beauty of our operation — night ops,” said Master Sgt. Paulo “Paco” DaSilva, the squadron superintendent. “Nobody else can do it. They don’t even attempt it.”
Certainly not on the scale demonstrated in northern Iraq.
The 86th Contingency Response Group came in “under the cover of darkness,” said Lt. Col. John Laub, the group’s deputy commander. “We have absolutely beaten the odds in terms of safety.”
Along with the 786th Security Forces Squadron, the aerial porters serve as the cornerstone of the 86th Contingency Response Group. (When it deploys, the group adds expeditionary to its organizational name.) While the cops cast a broad security blanket, the air mobility squadron establishes and maintains airfield operations.
In Bashur, aerial operations began the night of March 27, a day after 1,000 paratroopers and 20 airmen dropped into Iraq to help set the stage for a northern front.
Much of the 86th CRG arrived — with fighter escorts at the ready — aboard the first two C-17s to land in Iraq. The airmen had only one hour to prepare the way for a line of C-17s following in their wake. The flow, which was officially extended to daylight hours April 11, continued unabated for two weeks, until the 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy, and other Army elements began moving south to Kirkuk.
Those first two aircraft crews “stayed on track,” said Lt. Col. Mike Marra, who commands the air mobility squadron. “They were briefed that if they took fire to hold their position. I think that’s pretty gutsy.”
The Iraqis sent a not-so-friendly greeting March 30 when they lobbed a missile at Bashur airfield. It missed with some distance to spare, but it served notice to the airmen and soldiers assembling in the northeast that they were in harm’s way.
For Maj. Konrad Klausner, the squadron’s director of operations, the night before was memorable as well.
He recalls stepping out onto the ramp and seeing four C-17s, one C-130 and two helicopters, plus aerial porters guiding soldiers across the Tarmac. It was quite a sight, though one needed night-vision goggles to take it in.
“I’ll never forget that,” Klausner said. “That’s when I looked around and said, ‘Yeah, we’re at war.’”
“Basically,” Marra said, “we were working behind enemy lines.”
And they were working in the dark, marshaling and unloading planes.
During that first week, the squadron handled 84 flights that brought in about 3,000 troops and 6 million pounds of cargo.
“It’s never been done in combat,” Marra said. “We had never done [night landings] at that rate and at those numbers.”
Years in the making
For the 86th CRG, that nighttime capability has been three years in the making, though the use of night-vision optical devices dates back to the Vietnam War and the advent of monocular sniper scopes, said Col. Steve Weart, the group’s commander. Back then it was a tool of special operations personnel.
“And it wasn’t used extensively by special ops until 1979,” said Weart, who spent years in that shadowy world as a C-130 pilot. “It really got developed and accelerated by the Iranian hostage crisis” a year later.
While Operation Rice Bowl — more commonly known as Desert One, an attempt to free hostages held in Iran — failed, the use of night-vision optical devices, or NODs, intensified, first on land, then in the cockpit.
By the late 1980s, the technology had spread to conventional ground forces. Weart said it wasn’t until 2001 in Afghanistan that they became standard equipment for regular Air Force pilots in aircraft such as the C-17.
A year earlier, the 86th CRG, headquartered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, began to explore the possibility of issuing them to aerial porters and aircraft mechanics.
Master Sgt. Gerritt McCrory, a mobile aerial port superintendent, eventually drafted a concept of operations that became part of the training regiment initiated last fall.
“We did it taking baby steps,” McCrory said.
Others weren’t as methodical.
Several months earlier, at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a stateside air mobility unit quickly went to nighttime operations, but with disastrous results. There were several accidents, including one that killed a servicemember on the ramp.
“It’s dangerous,” Marra said. “There are a lot of moving parts at night.”
In contrast, McCrory said, the Ramstein aerial porters and crew chiefs took it slow.
An instructor was brought in to teach the airmen how to use, clean and care for the devices. Over several months, as the squadron found time between missions, the training escalated, from walking around and driving Humvees in open areas to marshaling planes and using forklifts. The training continued until February of this year.
“We’re just proud of the fact that we’ve done it on such a massive scale,” McCrory said of the nighttime operations at Bashur.
“Nobody else has been able to do it without bending something or hurting someone.”
Only two serious nighttime mishaps occurred, neither of which were the fault of the air mobility squadron.
In the first case, a soldier wandered off course, walked into a parked forklift and tripped, knocking out a front tooth. The other incident involved an Air Force cop, who was clipped in the head by the lid of a metal box, blown off by jet wash from an aircraft as it exited the ramp. He also suffered a broken finger.
Every 30 minutes
Those early nights of the deployment, when the moon was waning, was tough on both pilots and porters, said Klausner, who up until this week was working the late shift.
“It was as dark as could be,” Klausner said.
“It was raining. There was cloud cover. It was cold. Man.”
The operational window was also incredibly brief.
Typically, aerial porters take about an hour and 45 minutes to unload a plane, Marra said. At Bashur, the night crew handled two C-17s every 30 minutes over a three-hour period for the first four nights.
“That was due to the fact that escort packages [fighter and suppression aircraft] available to the C-17s were doing other things,” Klausner said, “like bombing Baghdad.”
As the bombs fell on the Iraqi capital, the airmen in the north were doing their own bang-up job.
On April 4, the day after U.S. forces seized Baghdad’s international airport, night operations at Bashur crested with the arrival of 18 cargo aircraft.
Exactly a week later, Bashur experienced its busiest 24-hour period.
‘A different world’
On that day, April 11, Iraq’s third largest city, Mosul, fell; the United States declared the Baath Party out of the governing business; and airmen at Bashur handled 21 planes.
“When you go from no operations to full bore, one plane after another,” Klausner said, “it was just incredible it was done safely.”
Among others, Klausner credits McCrory, Master Sgt. Marty Goins and Tech. Sgt. Rickey Puckett, squadron supervisors, with keeping the staff relatively fresh by rotating airmen on and off the night shift.
That was done, Klausner said, “to give them not only rest, but to give them the exposure and the training so that whoever we put on nights gave us flexibility.”
“The eye strain, the headaches was really tough on the aerial porters,” he added.
Experts say that one hour on NVGs equates to three hours of regular eyestrain. To reduce such strain, airmen working the night shift learned to flip them off every chance they got.
“We don’t want to be fatigued,” said Staff Sgt. Omar Perez, 29, an aircraft maintenance crew chief from San Juan, Puerto Rico. “There are too many things to look at at night.”
Perez refers to it as the “Green World.”
“It’s a different world at night,” he said, “a different world.”