The flight schedules of the helicopters are rarely adhered to. Sometimes they are early, usually they are late. You are directed to show up 2 hours before the scheduled flight; So far, the earliest I have experienced is about 45 minutes, so I keep an hour for myself & show up an hour before the scheduled departure time.
The waiting area on the Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) at FOB Sweeney is a patch of ground marked off by some big rocks. I shuffled out there with my gear at about 1000 for a 1106 scheduled departure. I shucked off my gear and sat down in the dusty, sun-drenched rocky dirt, pulled out my book and began the wait.
There are no porta-johns near the HLZ, so I made the decision not to drink much. But after an hour I decided it would be ok to do so because I was really getting thirsty, the aircraft should be here any minute & it is a short 15 minute flight to Apache – no scheduled stops today. I should have known better because soon Noon rolled around, no aircraft in sight & the bottle of water I drank was looking for an exit. I consider taking a chance running to the nearest porta-john, but told myself the aircraft would be here any minute and it was only a 15 minute flight, so no worries, I can make it.
Fifteen minutes later I started to think my plan was flawed and stood to go to the porta-john. Low and behold the aircraft appeared on the horizon. So instead of going for the quick relief, it was time to get all armored up, grab my ruck and get on the bird. Excellent – 20 minutes, tops, I would be able to use the bathroom at Apache – no problem, I can do that.
As I climb aboard an empty aircraft the crew chief directed me to the rear. Not a good plan for me, but I do as I’m told – he is the boss of the aircraft. It is an old civilian cargo helicopter with 2 rows of seats, back-to-back, running down the center of the fuselage. They have a few seats in the middle removed so there is an area for baggage in the passenger compartment. You can kind of see out the little square, scratched plexi-glass windows, but there is no fresh air in the rear of these helicopters. I am not pleased with my seat as the air is hot, stagnant and reeks of hydraulic fluid & exhaust gases. My stomach isn’t what it once was; I get a bit queasy fairly easily, especially in the hot, humid conditions as I just described. But, I will be ok – it is only a 15-minute direct flight…
We lifted off and started flying west…hmmm…my first clue things weren’t as they were planned; Apache is more northwest. Ten minutes later we were landing at FOB Wolverine and picked up a few people. No big deal, Apache will be next, it is only 5-10 minutes flight time from Wolverine. I can make it, no problem. But WTF, we get in the air and start flying northeast – that is NOT where FOB Apache is. I don’t like how this is going down & neither does my stomach or my bladder.
Soon we land at FOB Al Mesaak, completely bypassing Apache. Some folks get on, some folks get off. The aircraft is hot, humid, crowded with the nauseating smell of stale air. We lift off and head southwest. I tell myself we must be going to Apache now, in 20 minutes, everything will be ok – I can do this easy.
Unfortunately it turns out I was lying to myself because we again flew past any hope of landing at Apache and I watched, with increasing discomfort as the aircraft landed at FOB Mescall. The crew chief opened the door and we waited. No one got off and no one got on and we waited. Soon someone came running out to the aircraft, had a little chat with the crew chief and ran back the other way. The crew chief shut the door and we lifted off once more. Any hopes of going to Apache evaporated as we began our flight in the opposite direction. This was getting to be very uncomfortable…
It wasn’t too long before I deduced we must be going to KAF. Sure enough it wasn’t too long and we were landing there. The aircraft emptied out and I could see another large group waiting to board. Apache is a good 30-45 minutes by air from KAF – if there are no intermediate stops. I needed to do something to decrease my discomfort or it would be ugly. There was only one open window, in the front of the aircraft. As the other Soldiers moved to get off, I moved to grab that coveted seat before the new group could board. The crew chief gave me the old stink eye, but he would have surely been sorry had I not made that move.
The ‘fresh’ air was a welcome relief. It is funny to think I would consider the hot, dusty air of the rotor wash on KAF as fresh, but it really did feel and smell 100 times better than what I had been breathing for the last 90 minutes or so. Once we lifted off it was even better – no more dust, just a nice breeze streaming across my face. It tempered my queasy stomach and helped me ignore my unhappy bladder. As an added distraction, I decided to pull my camera out and see if I could get any decent shots since now I didn’t have that scratched, plexi-glass barrier in the way.
It really struck me how different the area in Kandahar is compared to Zabul. The buildings on the compounds all have domed roofs, instead of the flat roofs you see in Zabul. The fields are broad and expansive, almost similar to what I am used to seeing across the midwest back home (except for the mountain in the background). Crossing from Kandahar to Zabul is like stepping through a portal to another world. The broad green fields suddenly turn into expanses of rocky desert with little small patches of green tightly clustered around dried river beds.
I had stopped paying attention to the direction we were flying, so I had no idea where we would land next and I gave up guessing when I would finally see Apache. I craned my neck to see if I could catch a glimpse of the compass in the cockpit and we were on a solid northeast heading, I wasn’t sure where that would bring us. But it wasn’t too much longer I recognized the area near FOB Mescall and sure enough we repeated our earlier landing there. No one got off and no one got on…
In the air again I was concentrating on the landscape below, doing my best to ignore my increasingly impatient bladder…this was getting very uncomfortable, but at least I didn’t have the urge to barf anymore. I had now been on the aircraft for well over two and a half hours and no idea where we were or where we were going next. As the aircraft descended once more, I was shocked to realize it was Apache we were landing at…how in the world did I not recognize that 5 minutes earlier? I scrambled to put my camera away and grab my gear and exit the aircraft.
Woohoo! ‘Home’ again!