Sunday, September 11, 2005
Rigours of War
Rigours of war
InternationalShiby Chacko, Apache pilot, recounts Afghanistan experience
By Devasish Ray/Washington
Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan. It is pitch dark. Nearly 20 aircraft are fuelled up, ready to be airborne in minutes. First Lieutenant Shiby Chacko, 26, the only Indian American pilot belonging to the AH 64 attack helicopter battalion, is apprehensive. Flying at night is the most complicated element, more so in the unpredictable Afghanistan. Chacko scrambles to his Apache helicopter ready to escort the 20 aircraft flying in formation towards Asadabad.
"Everything, including supplies, is flown by helicopters and our job was to escort them," said Chacko. He also gave a cover escort to President Hamid Karzai who visited Bagram in an open convoy.
"It was like flying blindly at 12,000 ft. The night vision goggles did not really help," said Chacko, now on leave after having spent over a year in Afghanistan. "We were flying between mountains. My job was to escort these planes north of Asadabad and return." Chacko and all the aircraft launched a massive air assault. Apparently, they had sighted a high-value target. This mission lasted for more than a month. The ground forces were dropped off and they proceeded on foot, recovering a massive cache of arms and ammunition.
Chacko always had a passion for flying and he breezed through the course at the aviation wing of the military in record time. In January last year, Chacko’s battalion was called in to Fort Hood, Texas. Soon he was flying into Afghanistan in a C17 aircraft. His cargo was an Apache helicopter. "I was nervous about flying in high altitudes with full payloads, ammunition and auxiliary fuel tanks, which make the helicopter heavier by 1,235 kg," said Chacko. "You simply cannot hover in unfriendly temperatures at 5,000 or 10,000 feet, but must throttle up engines to the maximum." He had also heard of a few Apache helicopter crashes.
He drew comfort from the awareness that he was under great leadership. "Our people had gone in advance to scout the areas in Afghanistan," he said. The basic missions of Chacko’s unit were threefold: escort, deliberate missions and quick reaction force.
Deliberate missions, "based on solid intelligence", demanded that Chacko quickly swoop down on enemy targets in his helicopter and destroy them. The quick reaction force missions were a bit more demanding. "We were on a constant alert for two weeks before it was rotated to another unit," said Chacko. "We would have to be airborne within 15 minutes from different bases and generally give air support to our ground forces that come under enemy fire." Chacko said that unless they were being shot at they were not allowed to open fire.
One of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan was the Shkin air base. "That was a volatile area and the enemy used firearms and rocket-propelled grenades," said Chacko. "We used 30mm guns, and since we could not hover we used to dive down spraying them with bullets." Chacko’s helmet was mounted with a sight system, which had a monocle, and the guns were in sync with his head movement. The cross-hairs would pinpoint enemy targets helping him to engage the enemy more accurately.
Chacko has had a close shave. Coming in to land at one of the bases in a desert area, his helicopter was hovering and this kicked up a lot of sand. "This is called a brown-out, where you cannot see anything," he said. "We already had a malfunction and we both tried to get the copter on the ground. We hit the ground with a thud and because we could not see anything, we did not realise that we were still moving. There was a ditch on the side of the runway and the right gear flipped into the ditch and then the left. I hit the brakes hard and managed to stop inches away from the fence. We killed the engines and realised how lucky we were."
The land mines in Afghanistan laid by the Russian army are an aspect of war that riles Chacko. "It pained me to see the locals, especially children, who had been blown up by these mines coming for medical treatment to our base," he said.
Chacko has flown hundreds of missions and escorting is a key aspect. "Moving around in Afghanistan is done by aircraft. The roads are just trails," he said. "Everything, including supplies, is flown by helicopters and our job was to escort them. I even escorted journalists." Chacko gave a cover escort to President Hamid Karzai who visited Bagram in an open convoy. "He wanted to make a point, but I guess he drew comfort from the fact that my Apache helicopter was giving him that security cover," said Chacko, tongue-in-cheek.
So how did he relax? "We watched many movies and socialised with the interpreters who were Indian," said Chacko. "The Taliban and local warlords did not like the merchants in Bagram selling DVDs, jewellery and rugs to us and would force them to close shop."
Today Chacko is back, a veteran. He plans to continue being a pilot and will return if called to active duty. Now in the reserves he plans to go on a well-deserved vacation to Europe.
More than two years after the Taliban’s fall, about 15,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan. Their primary mission, according to Pentagon spokesman Captain David Romley, is to provide security and hunt down the remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda. POST-WAR RISKS: Marines in Afghanistan's Oruzgan provinceIn carrying out the mission, 126 service members have died since the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom, which followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As many as 77 have died in Afghanistan, and 49 in other countries, including Pakistan, as part of the campaign to hunt down members of al Qaeda. Two CIA officers have also died.
The rugged topography in Afghanistan poses different risks to the troops than those in Iraq. Five men died during a mission in November when their helicopter stalled as it climbed in mountainous terrain east of Bagram Air Base. Seven Marines were killed in March 2003 when their Hercules air tanker grazed a peak and caught fire in Pakistan. One Special Forces soldier fell 25 feet while descending by rope from a helicopter into an enemy cave complex.
"Urban terrain is about the toughest terrain to fight in," said Major Michael Stefanchik, stationed in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan doesn’t have a whole lot of urban terrain for terrorists to operate in. The firefight in Falluja [Iraq] will no doubt get more notice than the same type of engagement on a remote mountain in Afghanistan—though it is without doubt every bit as dangerous."
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