The flight of two Blackhawk helicopters left LZ Washington, within the Green Zone, at about half-past ten (well after dark), and was flown above Baghdad both quietly and near-invisibly, with no external lights and with both pilots and crew viewing the nighttime landscape through their night-vision goggles (NVGs). We quickly passed over the Tigris River, and, though I was facing the rear of the aircraft in my seat on the helo’s right side (and laden with bags – with one on my lap, and one on the floor between my legs), I was able to clearly see the partially-lit cityscape of the Iraqi capital through large open window on my left.
Off to my left, one feature of the city’s silhouette caught me by surprise, though for a different reason than it did the last time that I flew from Baghdad. I saw what appeared to be a structure of some sort – as high as the tallest high-rise – which was burning like a torch, with an immense column of flame rising from its summit, and being directed slightly to one side by the wind. This caught me most by surprise because I saw this exact same thing in April, when flying out of Washington via Blackhawk for FOB Falcon. I remember thinking at the time that there was a building on fire – and dismissing it, of course, as a byproduct of there being a war going on 600 feet below us.
I’m still not sure what the flame is, but there is no doubt that it is not what I originally thought it to be, as no building can burn for nearly four months (let alone without losing its immense height). Interesting.
As the flight neared FOB Hammer (east-southeast of Baghdad), it took repeated single-shot ground fire from the fields below. The pilot of my Blackhawk rotated into a steep bank, allowing the right side gunner to return fire with his minigun – the sound of which was clear, but not overpowering, through my earplugs. Though I could not hear it, the tracer fire I saw from behind our chopper told me that the other helicopter had done the same.
We rotated in to the dustbowl that is FOB Hammer and I got off of the chopper, lugging my gear off the helipad, where I was met by 3rd Brigade’s Public Affairs Officer and by LTC Marr, the commander of First Battalion, with whom I was to be embedding. Once the helicopter had refueled, we climbed back on and flew fifteen minutes to Combat Outpost (COP) Cleary, where the Battalion headquarters sits, and debarked the chopper for good, safe and sound at a combat outpost just north of Salman Pak.
From there, it's off to Baker Company of the 1-15.