When I arrived in Kabul on August 6, after travelling about 24 hours, I was met at the airport by the other crew, and was then told about the suicide bomber in the yellow Toyota, the theft of the police uniforms, and about a scheduled flight the next morning — in 11 hours — to fly south to a Forward Operating Base (FOB) 65 miles northeast of Kandahar to take photographs of a bridge along the highway. It was the first revenue flight of the contract.
“How can this be?” I asked. “None of the safety measures are in place.”
The other pilot shrugged, and tried to explain he had to do something to appease a very demanding customer, and was clearly ready to go home and leave this mess behind.
On the short ride from the airport to the multi-story crew house located a block off Chicken Street, the crew told me about their fact-finding mission to Kandahar that they had conducted only a few days ago.
The helicopter “Operations Manager” and the construction company’s hired security personnel had arranged a familiarization flight to Kandahar. They were anxious to begin flying to the Kajaki Dam and apparently had given the crew an ultimatum — fly to the Dam or lose the contract.
But on the day of the flight, the “Operations Manager” had disappeared and refused to answer his cell phone. The construction company security personnel who helped arrange the flight were also suddenly “unavailable.”
So the aircrew flew to Kandahar, entirely on their own, and were provided accommodations in the security company’s house, a gated multi-level home with loaded RPGs and AK-47s resting against each window ledge.
The security personnel, ex-pats from the US and South Africa, lavished them with drinks and an evening BBQ. But upon discovering that they were only on a “scouting” mission and were not willing to transport supplies and replacement personnel to the Kajaki Dam, the hospitality abruptly ended.
Wandering around the Kandahar Base, the pilots spoke with some ISAF (International Security Assistance) helicopter pilots and senior officers who chuckled when told of the plan to fly into Kajaki Dam. The military never went there without two armed escort helicopters — and they still didn’t like it.
To stay on schedule, the aircrew flew the next day to “Bastion”, a British military base deep in the Helmand Province. Upon landing they were held at gunpoint for 90-minutes until someone identified them as “contractors” come to meet with a Liaison Officer. On their way back to Kabul, they overflew the Kajaki Dam at 10,000 feet and took pictures.
I questioned the wisdom of heading into known combat zones unaccompanied by anyone with local knowledge or authority, without proper SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) in place, but the other crew clearly believed they had done the right thing.
“It was either that, or lose the contract,” they said.
I found that level of pressure on a new aircrew hard to believe, but I had to accept their word. Already, on my first day in-country, things were shaping up to be rather close to exceeding the “over-the-edge” meter.
The next morning, wearing black armoured vests, with another vest positioned underneath our seats, the other Captain and I flew south at 10,500 feet, which would give us about 3,000 feet above ground as we overflew Ghazni. One of our passengers pointed out where the South Koreans had been kidnapped along the highway — a narrow ribbon of asphalt snaking along the valleys and plateaus below us.
For this flight I flew from the left seat while the other pilot followed the map and pointed out areas that had been “identified” by our customer as safe zones—emergency-landing areas considered friendly. Some were Afghan National Army camps, some turned out to be abandoned construction camps. Others were simply non-existent.
Apparently the “expert” helicopter Operations Manager had brought a list of “safe zones” named Blue 3, Blue 4, Green 1, etc. When asked for the co-ordinates of these locations, he replied that he wasn’t “authorized to divulge that information” as the locations were top secret.
“Then the “safe zones” aren’t much use, are they?” said the pilot.
This only fuelled my speculation that we had been lured into something only Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame could have created.
We landed at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Base and offloaded our passengers, and then re-fuelled at a US Military Base. So far my senses had been bombarded with information overload. And more was to come. The other pilot had brought copies of a flight request for August 9 to review with me, and it became abundantly clear that whoever planned these flights knew very little about helicopter operations.
It was a PR flight for a clinic opening, and a local Governor was to attend. It was a fine program, except that to complete the flight we would have to carry 450 lbs more fuel than our machine was capable of holding. No one had thought of establishing remote fuel caches.
But even if we had been able to carry more fuel, the trip was impossible: the two remote sites were at 8,000 feet and the performance charts for the aircraft indicated that the maximum allowable take-off weight at 8000 feet with a temperature of 20 degrees was 9400 lbs., and with minimum fuel the number of passengers they wanted to take would put us at least 600 lbs over the allowable weight.
And these guys had operated a 212 for four years?
We worked on the program for several hours, changing routes, re-calculating distances and fuel burn, number of passengers. We sat outside the mess hall on a wooden bench where across the yard we saw a list of qualities written on the wall—devotion, loyalty, pride, honor, valor, fidelity, courage, and commitment. Reminders or gentle persuasion?
We watched sinister looking Rangers stride across the crushed gravel yard in their full camouflage, faces darkened and eyes like shiny marbles. As well, pink-faced newbies who had just arrived from the States, like frat-house boys dressed up for a costume party, awkwardly carried their M-16s and looked about for a shady place to rest.
Yes, we were definitely in a combat zone. And it was about to expand.
The day I had arrived in Kabul, our customer was advised by e-mail that a new aircrew had arrived, and my e-mail address had been forwarded on to them. I knew they received it because the very next day I received a “Mission Request” to fly to Kandahar and stay for three days to conduct flights into the Kajaki Dam.
As far as I knew none of the risk mitigation procedures required to operate in “high risk” areas had been implemented. We had no SOPs for entering military airspace, none of us had received any kind of Intel briefing, an overview of the projects we were to support, or met any of our primary customers. It was suspicious to say to least.
So I refused the trip to Kajaki Dam. I just couldn’t justify sending an unarmed, loud and slow civilian helicopter and crew into an area so fraught with danger.
And just to make matters worse, after making several changes to the August 9 PR flight so it would be feasible, we had an Emergency Caution Light illuminate while passing the Salang Pass at 12,600 feet—an altitude not well-liked by the Bell 212. The Emergency Checklist required us to return to base, and I’m sure the customers thought we had planned for this to happen.
We were summoned to a meeting the next day with the Deputy Chief Construction Manager.
“Tactical Helicopter” Kenny Holston 21 @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Kabul Crewhouse” photo supplied by Allan Cram
“Gunner’s View” Kenny Holston 21 @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.