Captain Fritz says it's not unusual for memories of long ago events to spring to mind while piloting his helicopter.
One in an occasional series
NORTHWEST OF BAGHDAD - I am on standby for a mission today, and minutes after arriving in the squadron spaces we receive word that our flight has been activated.
We receive scores of assault support request forms and make our best effort to organize them into a plan for the day. A Marine Corps major from our sister-squadron with the call sign "Bam Bam" is heading up this short-fused operation, and he is visibly agitated as information drops into his lap.
Before long I am racing to the aircraft with my gear, and I join Bam Bam in the cockpit as he is already halfway through turning up the engines. We get the section airborne and head out to the test-fire area, where we are greeted by more scrappers waving their arms in anticipation.
I knew Bam Bam when he was a good-humored captain, but serving as the safety officer for seven months in the Iraq desert has evoked his angry side, and last-minute missions like this only add to the burden he carries.
As we turn to the west to start our seven-hour trip, he comments to me that he forgot to call his wife as is his preflight ritual. I didn't even realize we had phones that could reach the States, but I am too preoccupied with the Iraqi terrain as it passes below me to take much notice of his comment.
I begin to notice massive scrapings across the barren landscape and areas with thin green plants growing. Outside the larger towns like Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi, many Iraqis engage in subsistence farming, raising what they can from the land, which both sustains and isolates them. The most common crop out here is grass, which locals can raise by scoring the desert with plows and scattering seed during the rainy season. The grass is used to feed flocks of sheep, which the Iraqis then use for food and wool.
As I fly today, I can see these sheep and the various stages of operation - Iraqis pulling plows with a borrowed tractor, a flock of sheep being trucked from one grass location to another, and shepherds corralling sheep for safekeeping. In some places I can see giant dust clouds from miles away, and when we get closer, a flock of sheep is revealed as they move to better grass.
As I zoom past these people, they seem to take no notice of us at all. It is so hard to imagine anyone farming in this desert environment, but the sheep look healthy and robust from my elevated perspective. The sheep don't appear ill or weak as one may presume. In fact, they seem to move with a healthy gait, which only comes from adequate nutrition and water.
As I try to keep the aircraft straight and level while scanning the surface, my thoughts turn to my time at the Ohio State college of agriculture. I remember my animal science instructor, who spent hours impressing us on the hearty nature of sheep.
Spontaneous memories like these are an unexpected benefit of piloting, and I have often speculated on how and why they occur. Flying a military aircraft takes tremendous coordination and simultaneous problem-solving functions, and it is as if a different part of the brain is exercised during flight.
While not in use, the piloting part of the brain seems to hold odd memories that never have been accessed but seem to flood into the cockpit during a long flight.
As we approach the landing zone, most of my mind is dedicated to the execution of a particularly challenging landing, but another part of my brain is evoking images of my grade school bus driver and flashing the name "Mrs. Francis" as well as the first words of an apology letter that is 25 years overdue. I would have never thought of that nice lady's name on the ground, but the pilot's seat seems to open a window for random memories to pass right through.
I pull the last few feet of the landing out, and we are safe on deck in what looks like the set of a low-budget Mad Max sequel. Plenty of dust and sandblasting has weathered the tents and barriers of the forward-operating base, and it looks as if a hundred semi-trailers have been pieced together to make an entire town without streets or walkways.
The controller on the radio asks if we can carry 20 passengers with us, and we accept without asking enough questions.
Within minutes, a single-file line of Iraqi army recruits in civilian clothes approaches our aircraft, carrying garbage bags in lieu of luggage. I see one Iraqi drop his half of a cooler in the hot sun, which starts a shoving match under the rotor arc.
As pilots, we had been briefed that later in the deployment we would begin to carry Iraqi soldiers in an attempt to support their efforts, but I am suddenly faced with the prospect that I will spend the next two hours in a helicopter with my back to 20 people who claim to be interested in joining the Iraqi army.
These details have Bam Bam concerned as well, and soon he is on the radio attempting to verify that the passengers have been searched. When this cannot be done, we load the passengers and instruct the crew chiefs to charge their weapons and keep a careful watch.
The flight home is a quiet one. A nervous moment occurs when an Iraqi passenger decides to stand up and stretch his legs. The crew chief convinces the man to strap back in.
Before long we smell an unusual odor as one passenger gets airsick and others soon follow. Three, now four join in like dominos, up and down the double row of seats. Unable to see these events, we listen carefully as the crew becomes torn between rendering assistance and manning the door guns.
Suddenly, Bam Bam notices the fuel levels are lower than expected, and decides a headwind is to blame. His attention is now split between fuel calculations and transferring gas as we continue to burn our way home.
A warning light on the instrument panel illuminates, alerting us to a possible failure of a rotor blade. It seems that every time this light comes on it's a false indication, but the light troubles Bam Bam, who is seeing it all line up: the short-notice mission, the missed call home, the suspicious passengers, airsickness, low fuel, and now a possible system failure during what is likely his last flight in Iraq.
Tense miles pass, and within minutes we are safe on deck. After landing, we shut down and quietly congratulate ourselves for making it back.
It is only my second flight in Iraq, and at this time, I have no idea that I will come so much closer to disaster before the week is out.