I left London in the early evening of March 28th 2004, bound for The Shit
by way of Turkey
. As usual, there were a few favours that I had to do for a few folks that would take a few days. Ok.
This documents the trip inbound to Iraq. I still can't sleep much so I wrote this over two restless nights; about six thousand words, its rough, needs polishing, and, as always in this line of work, no regrets.
I know I've taken a vow to avoid profanity whenever possible, so all I'll say about this trip to Iraq is Holy Fucking Shit. You folks probably don't know this but the locals declared open season on civilian contractors. Oh man. It was fine there for the first few days and then Holy Fucking Shit. Some nasty stuff happened to a few contractors about 10 miles west of us in a town called Fallujah and all hell broke loose maybe one day later as US Troops went for payback.
I'll no doubt write about my time there this time but be forewarned : it's far worse then my visit to Afghanistan last summer, so excuse me if I take a while to sort through the experience.
Western media is difficult to find here in Istanbul and truth be told, after just getting our butts out of it we're not so eager to read about it or see it on CNN. I'm not sure if you folks are aware of this, but the situations getting pretty fucked up back there.
Even in Baghdad we were hearing small arms fire 24/7, sporadic clashes with insurgents were taking place within earshot, RPG strikes on vehicles within earshot (damn loud!), and we got mortared more than once. JC almighty fucking death raining down from above. There was a real fear on the part of The Marines there that the base we were on would get overrun at one point. You know you're deep in The Shit when soldiers start asking The Geeks what weapons they're qualified with. Oh man I gotta stop this shit.
You never should say never but I am never going back to Iraq. I know I said the same thing about Afghanistan after my first trip and I've been there three times but I am never going back to Iraq.
The flight back to The Real World was actually routine and boring after we managed to take off. That itself was delayed by almost five days since it was dangerous to try to drive to the airport, even in large and heavily armed convoys. The Insurgents were hanging out on the road to Baghdad airport, picking off convoys almost at will. Oh man what a trip this one was. Oh fuck I'll never forget this one as long as I live.
I'll be here for a few days with a friend. We're trying to make ourselves suitable to rejoin The Real World; the obligatory web site will be up shortly.
April 19th 2004
The Four Seasons Hotel
“Not to die but to be reborn, away from the lands so battered and torn…forever…”
Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland.
Everything's different in the cockpit
INTRODUCTIONS ALL AROUND
This was my third trip to Baghdad so just to try something new I asked the Crew Chief if I could ride in the cockpit. I'd heard that you could still do that on a military jet, and I'd also been told that if I ever got the chance to try it out I should, as it was one hell of an interesting experience.
Well, between my day job, holidays and favours I do for some folks that shall go unnamed I've flown several hundred thousand miles. I actually stopped counting distance once I got to four hundred thousand miles since no matter where you're going, no matter what kind of jet you're in and no matter what you're going to do when you get there, everything looks the same at 37,000 feet.
So I'd long ago decided that interesting is just what I needed to spice these journeys up a little. As exciting as some of these trips were once I'd arrived (an understatement, if there ever was one), I had long ago become rather bored with the flights themselves.
If nothing else I thought maybe I'd get a better view of the country looking at it through a wide windshield instead of peering out through one of those little portholes found in the rear of the aircraft; a wider perspective. Well, that's absolutely true: I did get a wider perspective, but not exactly in the way I thought that I might.
“Up to you” shrugged The Crew Chief. There wasn't any problem. Why would there be? This wasn't a civilian aircraft, where someone might try to hijack the aircraft September 11th style.
No, this was a United States Air Force cargo jet flying into a Forward Location, an Active Combat Zone, and everybody, absolutely everybody on that aircraft was armed. Try anything dicey up in the cockpit and they'd not only blow your brains all over the windscreen but they’d probably get a commendation for doing so.
The Crew Chief introduced me to the folks in the cockpit then left to continue preparations for take off.
C-17s have a three man flight crew consisting of the Pilot, and Copilot who fly the craft, and the Load Master, who is responsible for the aircraft's prodigious cargo. I took a spare jumpseat in the right rear of the cockpit next to the Load Master who was in his early 20s. He would prove himself to be a real talkative bastard .
Since this was a military aircraft I strapped myself in three times : thighs, lap and X-shaped across my chest.
“You ok?” The Crew Chief was at my side again.
“Yes Sir Master Chief, I'm fine thanks. When do we take off?”
The Chief started messing with my straps. “When he” a head motion towards the Pilot in the front left of the cockpit while he ratcheted me in TIGHT “says so”.
I struggled to take a breath “Ah there ya go – all better sweetheart?” The Chief slapped my left cheek a couple of times – and not gently – then left the flight deck.
The United States Air Force apparently wanted to make sure that no matter what the plane did, even if it turned upside down, you'd remain in your seat. You could have probably found looser fitting chairs at an S&M club. Later I would actually appreciate the tight straps.
Everybody was pretty busy but since they were professionals and had done this countless times before they kept up a light background chatter.
While the crew went through their pre-flight checklists we exchanged pleasantries. As has been my experience with the US Military before and since they all were genuinely nice guys, interested in where I was from, where I lived now, what I did there, etc, etc. Lots of good intentioned and lightweight questions totally dodging the obvious: “Why the fuck are you going to Iraq?”
The Load Master seemed convinced that the only reason I was on this flight was to find myself a new best pal so he kept up the chatter. He was constantly chomping away at some kind of sausage and was kind enough to offer me a bite. “Want some?” he politely inquired, pushing it towards me. My stomach twitched at the half chewed sight of his hospitality. With the exception of sushi I won't eat animal protein and this mangled, saliva drenched American meat food product manufactured to resemble a sausage was absolutely revolting. Now I've spent the better part of a decade living in Europe and while some folks might claim that's too long, at least there sausages are sausages.
“Naw, maybe later” I gulped.
Open mouthed chewing while talking “Okey dokey you just let me know pal” The Load Master also was responsible for helping to prepare the aircraft for take off so he turned back to his duties.
“APU online” The Load Master. “First time?” he asked, making marks on a paper checklist.
“APU confirmed” either the Pilot or Copilot.
“No Sir, this is my third trip to Iraq” He nodded appreciatively. “Let's see I've been to Afghanistan three times, Jordan, we were in Tehran twice and Egypt, and I've worked an awful lot in Africa, mostly Yemen and Sudan, but also Nigeria and surrounding countries, northern Africa as well.” I paused to think for a moment; this was going back years now. “A little trouble in Sudan and even more in Nigeria but nothing too bad” he nodded, indicating he understood the euphemism for being injured on a job. “I'm active anywhere in Europe as far east as Turkey”. Another knowing nod when I mentioned Turkey. Turkey was our back door into Iraq, via the vast United States Air Force base at Incirlik in the South East.
“Fire suppression enabled” apparently to no one specifically then he turned his attention towards me.
“No I meant first time in the cockpit?” he asked intently.
“Uhh yeah, yes it is – why?”
“Suppression confirmed” I think it was the Copilot.
“Previous flights routine?”
I recounted my experience last summer when the C17 that I was travelling to Kabul in took a SAM hit from the ground.
He shrugged it off like it was an everyday occurrence. I felt his shrug rather dismissive, and attributed it to the macho shit us civilians contractors working here sometimes get from these guys. That trip – first almost getting blown out of the sky and then later on the ground, especially later on the ground – wasn't routine to me at all.
He turned away from his checklist and made direct eye contact. “Everything's different in the cockpit” he said firmly.
“Uhh ok – hey I'm looking forward to it”.
Before he could respond the Pilot announced to no one in particular that “we were outta here!” and then everyone was working flat out checking instruments as that massive aircraft lumbered up into the sky. I kept my mouth shut and just enjoyed the view from the cockpit.
The take off itself was uneventful, This made perfect sense since we were leaving a United States Air Force base in Incirlik, Turkey. Turkey is part of NATO. Turkey lets The United States maintain an enormous airbase in the South West which is conveniently close to Iraq. So Turkey is a friendly place, and nobody expected any problems.
Our long gentle rise into the bright dawn sky was much like that of any takeoff, civilian or military. Several hours later we would land in Iraq. I thought back to my arrivals in Afghanistan which were compared by those who should know to landings on an aircraft carrier. Real nerve racking experiences, I didn't like landing at night, nor did I care for the way they had to land there. The C17 would make a sharp, almost vertical night time descent from the dark inky blackness of 7,000 feet – just out of the range of ground launched missiles – impacting on the runway a few short moments later.
The young cocky Pilots all laughed about these descents, calling them “controlled crash landings”. Take it from me,
landing in Afghanistan sucks.
But now that I was thinking more about my experiences for the first time I found it strange that we would be landing in Baghdad in broad daylight. I turned to ask the Load Master but he was on the radio, confirming details of our departure from Incirlik.
The first time I flew into Afghanistan the Summer of 2003 we were damn lucky; our C17 had been hit but the warhead failed to arm itself. Instead of blowing apart the engine and quite possibly taking out sixty or so people the missile created a HUGE HONKING HOLE in the wing of the aircraft.
I still lose sleep at night dreaming about that incident, frequently waking with a cold sweat. Needless to say, it wreaks havoc with my love life as most girls are unprepared to deal with nightmares and even less inclined when you won't talk about the cause. But an emotionally mature woman, well now that would be another story. She'd be prepared to deal with it. Not ask too many questions, just understand how it was. I found myself lost in pleasant thoughts about relationships that would never take place.
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
The ancient city below is slowly growing larger, gathering details. The Middle East is a strikingly beautiful place and I think that by looking down upon it from three thousand feet on a beautiful Spring day one is in a superb position to sense history.
I heard the Pilot grumble to no one in particular : “Where's the goddamn runway? Fucking beacons put us at gridpoint Charlie three niner so it ought to be…” he trailed off as he peered out the left side window.
“Ovuh dere” The Copilot helpfully pointed out. He spoke slowly with a heavy Texan accent that I found wonderfully refreshing and welcome after so many years of living abroad. He was a stereotypical character, even down to his boots and cowboy hat.
Although I've spent the better part of a decade living in Europe, I actually like being around Americans – the well behaved kind - while overseas, but I can't live in The United States any longer. The demands of my Secret Life have exploded since September 11th 2001. There are very few of us based outside the United States who have global mobility, as well as the resources, skills, career flexibility and lack of family or personal demands to pull off what they ask of us. You have to understand that sometimes I disappear for days if not weeks on end.
And I've come back fucked up more than once. Nothing too serious, but as well as The Firm tries to take care of you when on a job well, shit happens. Infrequently, but it does, especially these days. I live alone so nobody knows of nor asks questions about my trips and that's good.
Prague, Spring 2003, holy shit what a absolutely fucked up experience. Oh please dear God never anything like that again, please. So we don't talk about Prague. Herat, Summer 2003 – well, that was close but I didn't really get hurt. Dublin? Harare? Karachi? All pretty shitty deals in their own way. It's hard to make you understand what some of these trips are like without going into details, so I'll be brief.
Lagos, Nigeria, Spring 2003 : after a brief encounter with an anti American mob outside our Embassy there I was left unconscious in the road surrounded by United States Marines who – only after I had identified myself as a field operative in distress with a code phrase and password - exited the premises to help when they saw me attacked.
Meeting and greeting some of the strongly opinionated locals left me with a category three concussion, with a hemorrhagic stroke while on the operating room table added just to make things challenging for the medical staff. Evacuated to a US Navy Hospital Ship off the coast of Sudan, in a coma for four days, “unresponsive” as they later told me. During that time The Dark Whispers showed me things and asked me to go with them and I started drifting away. They later told me I was clinically dead for those minutes, the precious seconds I was drifting away. It was close, too fucking close for my taste.
So clearly there are some aspects of this job I could do without. However for the chance to pay back, to help. This makes it all worth it. I know some folks – if not most of you reading this – either don't understand or won't understand, but I'm a firm believer that there are some things in life that you just have to take at face value : a good friend offering monetary assistance when you're needy, firemen running back into a collapsing skyscraper in Lower Manhattan, someone feeding a stray cat.
Folks still do things for purely altruistic reasons; they're not looking for payback of any kind. I know it's hard for people to believe this today, folks are so jaded and callous today, especially those in the big American cities and you can call me an idealist but I still think that there is something in all of us that is honest and good and true and pure. Deep at heart in each and every one of us, as we pray or as we meditate or as we look at ourselves in the mirror each morning, it's there.
“Ah shit” The Pilot immediately began banking the plane, pulling back the on throttles controlling the four engines as he did so. The gigantic aircraft began slowing down sharply. Even though the US Air Force had an enormous presence here in Baghdad the airport still lacked most modern amenities, notably the sophisticated electronics that would immediately tell the Pilot where he was and where the runways were. For all intents and purposes, Pilots landing here were doing so by the seat of their pants.
More details were revealed, faster and faster as the aircraft continued to descend. This was exactly what I had hoped to experience up in the cockpit. From here you could see far better here where the aircraft was going, how they were planning on getting it there, the surrounding landscape and more.
I found the view of minarets and mosques breathtaking. Last year I was on holiday with a gal pal for about a week in Cairo. Unfortunately, it was interrupted by business and while she went back to the US I headed deeper into The Middle East. Yet another trip to a fucked up place, and yet another relationship fucked up by work. Anyhow, we spent the bulk of our time there in the Islamic Quarter, one of the oldest parts of the city. In spite of the problems I've had in some other parts of the Arab world, I never once felt threatened walking around those dirt streets.
Such a sense of history there. We'd see someone crouched down making a parchment or some other artefact, and instantly you'd feel that he was sitting in the same place his father had sat. Making the same items. As did his father's father before him. On and on for generations, for ages. So much history in that part of the world.
Since I started spending a lot of time in The Middle East I've been reading more and more about it. It's absolutely amazing, this entire world and civilisation that grew and flourished long before Western culture, then died away. But remnants are still present and you can go there and walk amongst them and remember. And if you're one of the very few that can't remember then you can imagine. I find very old cities in The Middle East very, very conducive to remembering what it was like to live there thousands of years ago.
A ROBOTIC ATTACK
The aircraft's gentle descent and my comfortable revelry was punctuated by two sharp jerks. Having flown countless miles in all sorts of weather to all sorts of places on all sorts of aircraft I knew at once that this was a very unusual feeling. It wasn't turbulence, which manifests itself as an up and down jerking, but rather two sharp jolts from behind, almost like a kick in the ass. Each pushed the plane forcefully, noticeably and abruptly forward. Immediately there was a shrill “WHEEP-WHOO-WHEEP-WHOO-WHEEP-WHOO” sequence that went on and on.
The planes cockpit - previously light by bright yellow lights - suddenly turned neutral red.
“MARK!” the Copilot shouted, pressing several lit buttons on the cockpits roof. The noise immediately stopped. He peered intently at one of the many flat panel displays mounted in the aircraft's dashboard “ECM automatic and sequencing Sir”.
The Pilot reached forward and flipped a couple of switches. “Got it” he quickly ran his finger down some kind of plastic card “Ok folks we're executing Alpha three seven today – call it in”. Both were very calm and very professional.
The Copilot tapped his headphones and started talking “Baghdad control Baghdad control this is USAF Flight 0311 from Incirlik – hostiles with smoking tubes at gridpoint Charlie. Three. Niner” speaking slowly and deliberately, he paused and waited for confirmation from the base.
I saw the Pilot push the aircraft's throttles forward as he twisted the control stick. The aircraft – previously making a gentle descent – accelerated and banked hard to the right. Both were sharp, violent motions, not the gentle babying movements one experiences on a commercial aircraft. Through the narrow window in the front I could the horizon tilting at an angle of roughly 60 degrees. I was absolutely amazed how at how hard they were banking the aircraft. For the first time on that trip I was glad I was strapped in so tightly.
“I say again Baghdad control this is USAF 0311 fired upon at grid point Charlie. Three. Niner we are ECM we are Alpha. Three. Seven. Baghdad control USAF 0311 fired upon at gridpoint Charlie. Three. Niner. We are ECM we are Alpha. Three. Seven”. When the base controller repeated what the Copilot said he seemed satisfied. With a rough jerk the Pilot levelled the aircraft. It was fucking brutal the way he moved that giant plane around.
“Time and distance?” demanded the Pilot, sharply wrestling the lumbering C17 through another 60 degree bank, this time to the left. C17s are enormous aircraft, the military equivalent of a civilian 747 both in terms of size and lifting power. The Pilot shoved four handles controlling the engines forward and the aircraft accelerated sharply, pressing me back in my seat again. The ground – previously sleepily drifting past the window – now was moving rather quickly.
“Forty seconds since acquisition missile is at two point three miles and closing”. The Copilot frowned at his monitor. “Still locked Sir”.
“Go manual” the Pilot.
“Going manual” the Copilot agreed, pressing several buttons on the cabins roof. I could see one of the dashboard mounted displays rapidly cycle through several different presentations.
“Dropping four in four ” the Copilot silently mouthed “one-thousand-and-one-one-thousand-and-two-one-thousand-and-three-one-thousand-and-four” then punched a red lit button four times in as many seconds, manually dropping additional flares to confuse the missiles.
As was later explained to me, the C17's ECM (Electronic Counter Measure) battle computers had automatically dropped flares as soon the missiles launch had been detected – that was the shuddering I'd felt and why the cabin lights had switched to red. But by some strange twisted logic, folks back home had programmed the computers to behave economically and to conserve flares. Clearly people on the aircraft didn't give a shit how many flares were dropped as long as the fucking missile went away.
“Time and distance?”
“Fifty five seconds since acquisition missile is at one point nine miles”. The Copilot cycled the dashboard mounted display through several alternative views. “Still closing still locked.” He paused several seconds before continuing “Sir this one's not going away”. From my perspective, both the Pilot and Copilot were remarkably calm, although my own tension level was starting to rise. Rapidly.
“Very well” the Pilot. “Going TFR call it in”.
The Pilot was switching control of the aircraft over to Terrain Following Radar (TFR), a computer based autopilot that would fly the plane roughly one hundred feet off the ground. TFR was a relatively old technology, originally developed during the Vietnam War but continually refined since.
The United States military had spent an enormous amount of money on this technology, using it heavily during the Gulf and Balkan wars to position attack aircraft deep inside enemy territory under cover of darkness at night. No human pilot would be able to fly less than one hundred feet off the ground in pitch black, but a properly programmed computer could easily do the task.
Now I'm going to let you in on a little secret here, a most exquisite deception. No, it's nothing sexual and no, it doesn't involve any heinous crimes. It's got to do with my background – at least what's publicly known. Like most people my public persona, what exists on paper and what can be easily verified by third parties is somewhat different than reality.
I've got a Masters degree in Finance. I teach Finance at a University in London. After one more exam I'll have a second degree in Management Accounting. I'm starting an MBA in perhaps eighteen months. I own and run a small Hedge Fund. I'm EMEA (Europe, The Middle East and Africa) Manager for a very old, very conservative, very discrete and very, very American financial institution that shall go unnamed. I've spent the past twenty years working in financial services, mostly investment banks. For all intents and purposes and in the view of the most observers, I'm a Banker.
I should also mention that I don't have a degree in Computer Science. But my secret expertise is, and always has been: computers.
I can program pretty much anything that's got a computer in it, using pretty much any language out there. Windows, Mac OS, Unix, Linux, voice mail, some oddball alarm system it doesn't matter – I hack it and I crack it; I'm an old school American computer hacker. I've been fucking around with computers in one way shape or form since the 1970s, and let's face it, Computer Science is an American science. We invented it. We dominate it. By anyone's standards, I'm a World Class computer programmer.
And those favours that I do for folks? Well you've probably already guessed but without going into details those favours that I do to no small extent involve computers.
So with nothing else to do I sat there in the C-17's jumpseat trying to estimate the complexity of the task at hand and hence the sophistication of the software now responsible for the safety of our collective asses. I found myself wondering about the folks that wrote these programs. I wondered if they were “studly” - a hacker term of respect - or “stupids” – that is ordinary wage earning programmers. Naturally considering the situation I found myself in this was beginning to concern me to no small extent. There was so much mediocrity in the field now, so many people these days were calling themselves “programmers”. And I was especially worried about how often bugs managed to creep into almost any computer system.
The Pilot pushed the aircraft’s control wheel sharply down. As the planes nose inclined a combination of ancient buildings, dark earth and vegetation filled the windscreen in front. The nose of aircraft was now at a forty five degree angle, pointing so far down I could feel myself falling forward. At once I not only understood but also appreciated the need for chest straps, as they were about the only things keeping me from falling out of my seat and onto the aircraft’s windscreen.
Details of the ancient city below us that previously had been slowly growing as we descended now grew rapidly – quite rapidly.
They were still trying to shake the missile, this time dropping in altitude as quickly as possible from three thousand to about one hundred feet. The theory was that flying low enough would cause the missile to lose track of the C17 in the general background clutter of objects found at that height. Since we were about to test that theory, I once again found myself thinking about the folks that wrote the programs driving the autopilot. I decided right then and there that if we got out of this in one piece, I would send those programmers an email pronouncing them “studly”.
“Time and distance?” the Pilot inquired tersely.
“One minute twenty since acquisition missile is at one point five miles and closing”. It was obvious that we were now in some brutal endgame.
Well, I generally like to be in control of my destiny so I have to tell you that at this point the tension was getting to me. As irrational as this might sound, if it wasn’t for the straps I probably would have stood up, thanked those gentlemen for their time and just left the aircraft by any means possible.
I think in retrospect that even though my summer 2003 experience in Herat was far worse in many physical ways I still felt I had more control over that situation.
In business like monotones the Pilot and Copilot were executing what clearly was a well rehearsed emergency routine involving us, the missile, and some folks back in Baghdad. The aircraft’s crew wanted to make sure that if the worst happened, someone would know where to pick up the pieces.
The C17 executed another sharp 60 degree bank then settled into level flight. We were moving at about six hundred miles an hour a little more than one hundred feet off the ground.
I briefly wondered what this might look like to folks down there, a dark enormous American military aircraft rocketing over suburban Baghdad at an extreme rate of speed, less than one hundred feet above their heads.
We were so low now that the autopilot swooped the aircraft up and down to avoid power lines, transmission towers and occasional tall structure encountered in suburban Baghdad. It was very much like being on a roller coaster but severely lacking in the fun element. As nerve racking as it was I have to hand it to these guys – they never lost their professional edge. And me? Well, I learned a long time ago in this business that if you can’t do anything yourself to change the situation just sit there, keep quiet and let other folks do their jobs. And get the hell out as soon as you can.
“Sir it’s off radar” the Copilot paused briefly to peer at a second monitor then continued “ECM’s lost it as well”. He got onto the planes intercom to someone in the rear of the craft “Is anyone still visual?”
“That’s a negative” came the reply.
They both were peering at monitors now while the autopilot flew the plane up and down, avoiding obstacles. “Where is the goddamn thing?” The Pilot. Overriding the autopilot, he grabbed the control stick, twisted the aircraft’s wings forward into the sun then savagely punched the throttles.
In response the aircraft made an enormously powerful, massive surge slamming us all back into our seats.
My attention was diverted outside the window. Only the largest details remained visible at this speed. The aircraft was shaking up and down now due to a combination of low altitude, high speed and turbulence caused by hot air rising off the ground below; this was by far was the roughest flight I’d ever experienced, military or civilian.
In recent years I’ve been on a lot of these trips, and one of ways that I distract myself is to listen to music. I always travel with an Apple iPod, a third generation model which can store roughly four hundred CDs.
Just that morning before I boarded the C17 I had been listening to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. In that in that instant as the crew attempted to locate the missile, as I watched numbers on the digital display tracking our speed push by faster and faster and as I got increasingly nervous about our chances a lyric fragment from one of his songs floated in my mind
“Not to die but to be reborn, away from the lands so battered and torn…”
Due to our speed the aircraft was violently shaking up and down now. I knew they’d done this before but couldn’t help but wonder if it would shake itself apart. Great, another thing that I couldn’t control to worry about.
“SIR WE ARE MACH POINT EIGHT NINE IN FIVE…FOUR…THREE…TWO…ONE – MARK!” the Copilot. There was so much background noise he had to shout to be heard. The aircraft was now travelling at it’s maximum speed, close to the speed of sound.
“HOW MANY LEFT?” the Pilot wanted to know how many flares were left.
“PUSH ‘EM OUT!” This situation was getting dicey; the plane was flying as fast as it could and as low as it could, we were just about out of flares and nobody knew where that fucking missile was. I was starting to get really agitated about these circumstances.
I sat riveted to my seat, waiting for that whistling sound I’d first heard in Afghanistan last summer when our plane had been hit.
Obviously, I have never been in a plane that has been shot down before but after Afghanistan I’ve had nightmares about the near miss, every fucking night I have nightmares, my dreams for some reason taking it to a morbid conclusion.
First there would be that shrill, distinctive whistling, followed by a brief silence and then in one flashingly brilliant violent instant the situation would be resolved once and for all. I have this nightmare all of the time now.
So while I was strapped tightly into that cockpit with three American airmen close to me and maybe sixty others in the rear all of us hurtling across the ancient Baghdad cityscape at some six hundred miles an hour less than one hundred feet off the ground the aircraft zooming up and down and up and down to avoid obstacles all the while shaking violently because of the speed being chased by a missile that was programmed to destroy us the tension got to me and my twisted sense of time kicked in and I could see it all in slow motion the Pilot grimly manipulating the controls the Copilot manually dropping flares I could see everything absolutely everything and then – The Sight - and I saw what would happen next everything that would violently unfold in the next few seconds in brutal brutal slow slow detailed filled motion I could see it all the missile impacting the side of the aircraft opposite me first slowly then faster and faster determinedly pushing it’s way into the cockpit like some unwelcome visitor who jammed his foot in your door and then slowly but forcefully pushed his way into your home the missile would come like this and it would come like this and it wouldn’t be stopped and it would come and it would make a hole in the plane and it would slither through that hole and wrestle it’s way inside and it would leer menacingly at me just inches from my face for a long long second before it detonated.
I was horrified by this premonition.
ONE LAST VIOLENT MANOEUVRE
But in spite of The Sight, my prediction didn’t come true. After some thirty seconds travelling less than one hundred feet off the ground at close to the speed of sound the missile ran out of fuel, dropping harmlessly to the ground.
This fact was announced by the C17’s battle computers as the lights in the cockpit flipped from neutral red to bright yellow.
Time for one last violent manoeuvre. The Pilot pushed the planes control stick upwards and then sharply right, and after maybe twenty seconds the aircraft gently settled back into the very same glide path we’d been traversing less than two minutes ago.
Now most military airports constantly use their runways; it’s only civilian facilities that carefully organise, orchestrate and otherwise slowly sequence flights in and out. Civilian life is all about that. Safety. Predictability. No tension. No terror. But at busy military facilities it’s quite common to see planes landing and taking off within seconds of each other. At a civilian airport due to safety considerations they will typically wait a minute or more between flights
Things were really happening in Baghdad as the United States and our Coalition partners continued to pour resources into the country and rotate war weary troops out.
So even as we were heading down towards the runway I wasn’t surprised it dense with activity. A large black shape rushed towards then rapidly past our plane with a buzzing roar. It was an AC-135 Spectre Gunship, bristling with attenae and the barrels of many, many weapons. Heavy, nasty weapons. The plane was followed closely by two smaller but rapidly moving masses. I could see they were Apache helicopter gunships, obviously in a hell of a hurry as each was inclined forward some thirty degrees as they accelerated to catch up with the rapidly moving AC-135. All three aircraft clearly had just been scrambled on an urgent mission.
“Sic ‘em boys” shouted the Copilot, emphasising his words with a wave of his cowboy hat.
“What’s going on?” I asked the Load Master.
“They’s headed after the bad guys, the ones that shot the missile at us” he fixed me with a toothy welcoming American grin. “Somebody’s gonna have a piss poor day”.
“Hey I gotta ask you something” I related my experience in Kabul, and the fact that the last two times I’d been there we’d landed at night.
“So why are we landing here in broad day light like this if they can just shoot at us?” He started laughing.
“Hey guys – you hear that? He want’s to know why we’re landing in broad daylight”
Laughter all around.
“What?” it seemed like a reasonable question but I found myself on the defensive.
“Son” the Pilot turned from some paperwork to explain. He was in his early thirties, but from his position as ranking officer was entitled to address me so. “We land at night in Afghanistan since in that country we know who the bad guys are, and we know where the bad guys are”.
I mulled this over. “So?”
“We got work to do there, and don’t want to be dodging missiles like we did today. Treated with proper respect their missiles are little more than annoyances anyway. So we get in quickly”.
“I’m still not following you” I lied because I could already see where this was going.
“In Iraq we don’t know who they are and we don’t where they are. So we land in the daytime to flush them out”. Laughter again. “And sometimes, like today they are dumb enough to take the bait” he finished with a big friendly American grin.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me. You guys do this intentionally?” I was incredulous.
“Absolutely the gods honest truth.” He crossed his heart for effect. “You weren’t at all worried by that shit back there were you?”
He paused to let that sink in. “Son” he continued “something like this has probably happened on every fucking flight that you ever made into a Forward Location. Why the hell do you think it’s called an Active Combat Zone anyhow?” He had a point. “Riding there in the back you just weren’t aware of it”. He turned his attention back to his paperwork.
“I told you everything’s different in the cockpit!” Laughing loudly, the Load Master reached over and punched me on the arm. “Was it good for you too?” More laughter. They were really enjoying my discomfort.
So I didn’t answer but turned to look out the window. The aircraft was shortly on the ground and stopped. While I slowly collected my stuff I mulled over what I’d been told. For some reason it disturbed me greatly to think that everyone on that plane had intentionally been used as bait.
Although I was still pretty wound up about the experience I managed to exit the aircraft without incident. But as soon as my feet hit the ground I started puking.
On my knees, I endured the laughter of the crew as they watched me puke my guts up all over the runway in Baghdad.
I write these journals during every trip to relive the stress and tension. Every fucking trip. It was a friends suggestion, and it helps. They also serve as a record, to keep track of my experiences. I think this is more effective than trying to document them long after the fact, when I’m retired and living somewhere in sunny southern Europe.
And, of course, there’s always the off chance that I might not get to document them. For one reason or another. So I write about them now. Fortunately I always travel with an Apple G4 PowerBook, so I can write when and where I’d like.
My friend and are are sitting here in sunny Istanbul as I write this on my PowerBook. It’s a wonderful day, quiet and peaceful. Birds are singing. A mother cat and her kittens are frolicking in the bushes maybe 100 feet away from us. The locals residents here are pro-western, friendly towards Americans and if you're very quiet and if the streets are perfectly still and if there isn't any noise at all...sometimes, just sometimes you can close your eyes and almost forget the absolute fucking hell that rages only 600 miles south and to the east of us.
April 6th 2004