Connie Mark Lane flies the CH-47 Chinook, the massive helicopter with two tandem rotors that hauls the largest loads of supplies and troops. Lane has deployed three times as part of Operation Enduring Freedom -- OEF -- to Afghanistan, where he has flown in both the desert south and the mountainous east.
The weirdest thing I ever flew? I guess, OEF-1, we carried a lot of donkeys for the -- for Australian special forces.
Flying out in RC [Regional Command]-East is like flying through the Rockies all day long. And then down in RC-South is more like Nevada -- you know, there are some big wide open expanses of high desert.
Both parts of Afghanistan are tougher than Iraq, where he has also spent a year.
The weather is a lot worse in, is a lot more dangerous in Afghanistan than it would be in Iraq.
You had all the bad sand and dust storms. Those are in both countries, but a little bit worse in Afghanistan, just 'cause of the fact that it's channelized through all the valleys.
It's also just about as dusty as it is in Iraq, if not a little bit more dusty. For some reason the dust there is more of a moon texture; it kind of stays in the air. So you have to come in a little bit quicker, or else you'll get enveloped in the sand and you won't ever see the ground. And you have to able to see the ground in order to land. So you have to stay in the front of the dust. And that's why most helicopter pilots in Afghanistan and even in Iraq still try to come in quick enough that they can be ahead of all the dust.
You can get icing on the blades and things of that nature. We have had helicopters set down in the middle of nowhere just 'cause of the snowstorms.
Sometimes you can go from one valley to the next and what seems to be good for legal weather isn't really legal when you finally get out there, and there's just no way to really know it unless you go out there.
Sometimes the way the winds are channelized through all the mountains, it's very difficult to actually -- sometimes you lose control of the aircraft due to the turbulence.
It's not like you can see it, you just have to fly enough there and get enough experience that you can kind of predict where it is and then just try and avoid it. Those people that haven't been taking notes or have not as much experience -- they'll get into it and aircraft can sometimes become uncontrollable
A lot of the strain on the aircraft is measured, or at least on a Chinook, it's measured on a CGI, which is an instrument in the aircraft that kind of -- oh what does it do? -- measures the stress on the aft transmission or the aft shaft. And it goes green, yellow, red; and some of those times you can expect to just go straight in the red for anywhere from like 20 to 30 seconds, and usually it doesn't go in there for more than maybe a second at a time.
A couple of times I've seen it where people get into it and then they refuse to fly for the next couple of days.
As bad as the terrain and weather are, there is also the threat from the enemy -- which has gotten worse over Lane's three tours in Afghanistan.
I would say that, [OEF]-1, the occasion of shooting was probably on the order of maybe once a week, maybe once every two weeks. And then I would say the occasion of shooting going on in OEF-3 was probably once every two weeks. And then probably the occasion of shooting going on in this last time was probably two to three times a day.
Most of it is just RPGs and probably AK-47s, or small arms, and then they do have the occasional high-caliber weapons. I've seen like 14.5 [mm] out there. And I've also heard reports of surface-to-air missiles that are out there as well.
During the 2008-2009 deployment, one of the Chinooks in Lane's unit was shot down.
All five people walked away, which was pretty fortunate. They kind of lost parts of a rotor blade after being shot with an RPG. I think the helicopter finally rested on top of a building.
The aircraft I was on was only hit once. It was actually just kind of pretty lucky. It was one round of 14.5 and it just happened to bounce off of the aft -- the aft transmission, a part of the aft transmission.
It had gone through so many sheets of metal and then by the time it hit the transmission, there was a sheet that goes around it, and then just hit it at a right angle where it just bounced off.
Along with the danger, the size and complexity of American operations have grown over the years.
I think there's a lot more bases. And I think that there's more people out in the populace, more presence with the locals. There's more, more servicemen there than there used to be.
There's so many different units that are out there. There's coalition units, there are SOF [Special Operations Forces] units, there is regular army units, there is navy units, there is air force units that all need to be moved. And just the communication or the amount of requests that are out there, not all of them get -- not all of them get approved, and a lot of them just show up at the -- at the landing zones and they just hope to get on the aircraft.
There are so many organizations that are out there, sometimes all of that information doesn't get to the right people and, you know, it's the pilots that are out there, that are actually getting to those FOBs [forward operating bases], are the ones that finally find out what's really on the ground truth.
Sometimes out in those little bases, there might not be five guys that have to come back, there might be 80 guys that need to come back. And you have to be able to either figure out if that's possible or not, if you have enough time, you can either move them right then and there or you can make them wait for another two weeks.
That's kind of an extreme case, but I would say routinely it could go anywhere from five -- you could plan on five and 20 guys would show up; you could say it was one pallet, one pallet of ammo, and all of a sudden it would be six pallets of ammo.
Conversely, you know, sometimes you were planning on -- you were planning on moving 80 guys and then all of a sudden there's only five guys.
It was a lot easier for like OEF-1 and OEF-3, but now in OEF-9, there are so many different bases that are out there. For instance I think when I was in OEF-3, there was only 11 or 12 bases we had to deal with, and all of them had a representative back at Kandahar, so we were able to do face-to-face. In OEF-9, for instance, this last time, I think we serviced close to 50, 55 FOBs.