Excerpt from "Pamir 62: Heroes are Forever"

September 7th, 2013

The day started like any other recent Saturday morning. It was the new beginning of our workweek. Jumu’ah was, of course, still the student pilots’ day off for prayer, and as a result, Thursday had become a short workday and Friday was mostly off. But Saturdays had become normal training days by necessity with missing all the flying during the 100 days of wind.

I had breakfast at the Camp Estelle DFAC tent and got a cup of “starter coffee” for my walk back to the Team office. I printed off copies of the morning weather briefing sheet, the notices to airmen (NOTAMs), and a couple extra performance planning card (PPC) pages. I signed out my M4 rifle, grabbed my aviation body armor and then linked up with Dan and Lt. Col. Griffith to drive from our office up to the Phase One area of the air base. We got there just a little before 0700L.

Two Afghan lieutenants, Massoud Islamkhil and Mamoond, were flying with me that day.

Both were recent MD 530 flight school graduates and had been offered the opportunity to stay with the program in order to become a part of the first generation of Afghan instructor pilots. The three Army MD 530 Team instructor pilots shared in the task of flying these aviators to help them gain experience and flight hours prior to the instructor pilot course.

Both Afghans were waiting at the planning room in the academics building when we arrived. Lt. Islamkhil was wearing a new flight suit he said he had purchased while home on leave. It was different than the other ones the Afghans wore, but I complimented him on how sharp he looked. He was very proud of it. He had gotten married while on leave, and I joked with him about how proud his new wife must be to be married to a helicopter pilot.

Since he was flying with me first, I tasked Lt. Islamkhil with completing the PPC and verifying the weather brief. It was his first flight since he had graduated nearly two months earlier, and he was ready to fly again.

When the planning was complete, the two Afghan pilots and I walked over to the hangar to gather our flight gear from a makeshift locker room, and headed out to the aircraft, MD 530 tail number 182.

As we walked, Lt. Islamkhil asked me what seat he would be flying in, and after some thought, I answered that he’d be in the left seat, since that was the primary pilot’s seat. He seemed pleased with that. I knew he’d like being in the primary flight seat, but I was also thinking ahead to when I returned with him to switch him out for Lt. Mamoond.

Since it had been a while since Islamkhil had flown, normally I would have him sit right seat for the start sequence – only the left-seater can close the throttle completely. So in the event of a hot start sequence, from the right seat, I wouldn’t be able to react fully and abort the start. But, it was much easier at the end of one portion of the training flight to have the left-seater get out and the new left-seater get in. Otherwise, we’d have to shutdown, I’d get out and swap seats and then the other pilot would get in. It was mostly a logistical decision to have him sit in the left.

I secured my empty helmet bag, my rifle, and my “go bag” in the passenger compartment behind my seat. After a thorough pre-flight and crew brief, Lt. Mamoond walked over to the shade of the hangar as Lt. Islamkhil and I climbed in the aircraft.

We took off about 0820L and hovered out to join a closed traffic pattern at Shindand Air Base. We started with regular traffic patterns and visual approaches to the taxiway parallel to the runway, then modified the plan and went over to a dirt field within the boundaries of the air base called Training Area (TA) Horsley.

The pattern was pretty full, and the radios were busy enough that I thought they were distracting, so we departed directly from the TA to the south, then turned east toward the vicinity of Test Fire Area 5.

Test Fire Area 5 is at the end of the Hindu Kush mountain range and valley, an area where the USAF Mi-17s, US Army AH-64 Apaches and UH-60 Blackhawks sometimes go to test fire their weapons. There are no occupied houses or villages in the area, and only rarely are there any herders or livestock out there. It has a prominent ridgeline with some interesting rock formations and small pinnacles to land on.

Lt. Islamkhil was on the controls and enjoying being out of the pattern, flying at terrain flight altitudes with no other aircraft around. I started talking about pinnacle landings, and the need to be precise. He asked if he could land on one, and I encouraged him to do so, maybe start with a lower, larger landing area one first. His approach was pretty good for his experience level. As we sat on the ground, we talked about the approach and landing, and we decided to do more at the same spot. His subsequent attempts were better.

Our time was getting short, and it was almost time to head back to the air base to “hot swap” Lt. Islamkhil for Lt. Mamoond. As we sat there, one of my favorite pinnacles in TFA 5 was directly off the nose of the aircraft less than a mile away.

I said, “I have the controls,” and once I confirmed he had relinquished them, I did a normal takeoff and began flying toward “my” pinnacle. I was talking to him about wind direction and landing zone selection criteria. As we got close, I pointed out where I was going to land the aircraft, and even pointed out how we could see the skid impression in the gravely surface from previous landings I’d made there.

Everything looked normal. Nothing looked out of place.

I executed a wide left orbit around the landing spot so he could take a look at it. In such great weather, we had the front doors removed for our flight, and with the bank angle, I could also see the LZ through the left side.

I looped around to the south and began my approach to the north. I was announcing all my actions, talking about approach speed, rate of closure, angle, effects of the wind and keeping the intended landing spot in sight. Everything was looking really good as I finalized my approach to the tiny landing area.

As I smoothly placed the aircraft on the ground, my sight picture was a scan between out my door at about a 45° angle toward the toe of the right skid and back to between the anti-torque pedals through the Plexiglas chin bubble to the ground.