The first day that I shot at another human being, my gun jammed. I was standing “strip alert,” meaning that I hung out in the ready room bullshitting until, somewhere in Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley, the historic home of the Taliban, the infantry called for close air support.
When the horn indicating a firefight blasted, you dropped everything and bolted to the flight line. I was piloting an AH-1W Super Cobra, a workhorse of the Marine Corps’ aviation wing for the past twenty-five years. The aircraft is an attack helicopter designed for only one purpose—to save the lives of our friends by taking life from our enemies. The cockpit barely fits the two pilots, and we didn’t deliver mail, transport troops, or pick up the wounded. On that June day I would find out whether the training had been worth it.
I heard the low wrrrrrr as the fuel ignited and then the whoooooo as the turbine engine spun up. By the time the second engine was on line, my copilot had jumped in and buckled up. I passed him the controls and buckled my own harness. We put our hands up (and off the controls) so that the ordnance Marines could arm the aircraft without us accidentally firing off a rocket.
Seven minutes after the horn sounded, we were airborne and sprinting to the fight, the aging airframe shuddering as the fully fueled and heavy aircraft struggled in the hot high desert of Afghanistan.
The events of 9/11 occurred just as I was entering adulthood and I knew that this was going to be a much different war from the one that my father, a career naval officer, had trained to fight. While his generation was prepared to defeat communism through Top Gun-esque dogfights, I knew that the decisive battle against al-Qaeda wasn’t going to be won from fifteen thousand feet in the air, but by young men and women on the ground. I wanted to be a part of the fight. I had initially joined the Marine Corps hoping to be an infantry officer, but I found myself at flight school, and becoming an attack-helicopter pilot was about as close as you could get to the grunts without walking on patrol. Before I could fly combat missions over Afghanistan, however, I had to learn to keep the helicopter inside the box.
On your first day your instructor takes you to a concrete pad on which a large white box is painted. Your goal on that first day is to keep your TH-57 training helicopter inside the box while hovering. It turns out that this is more complicated than it sounds. The instructor begins the lesson by handing the controls to you one by one, eventually taking them back before you have the chance to kill everyone on board.
The cyclic, or stick, is the first to be passed over and is meant to be controlled deftly, not with brute force. Push the cyclic forward and the nose goes down. Pull back and the nose goes up. Move it left or right and the aircraft rolls left or right. When these inputs are performed correctly, the entire aircraft can be controlled with the delicate movements of the wrist and fingertips.
The collective, which controls the power, is a lever with a sandpaper surface rough enough to feel through your glove. Pulling up on the collective creates more lift and will cause the helicopter to go up. Coordinate that collective pull with a little nose down and the helicopter moves forward. Holding the collective in my left hand always provided a comforting tactile connection to the machine, and manipulating it allowed me to change the altitude of the aircraft by inches. It was while hovering six feet off the ground, rather than among the clouds, that I felt the clearest sensations of flying.
But the pedals are a bitch. While your hands are the stars of the show, creating the seemingly effortless symphony of hovering flight, your feet are working the pedals furiously, trying to clean up the mess created by the hands. Every collective pull or cyclic input causes an equal and opposite reaction in the aircraft, and it’s the pedals’ job to counteract these unintended consequences. Because the rotor blade turns counterclockwise (left), the torque causes the nose of the aircraft to turn in the opposite direction (right), meaning you must apply left pedal to keep the nose straight. Many of us therefore described the physics involved in helicopter flight simply as BFM, or “black fucking magic.”
Out of pure luck I picked up the ability to hover on the first day, which created a false sense of confidence that would quickly shatter. The instructor then directed me to maneuver the helicopter about the box, and I quickly found out that I wasn’t as good as I had thought. I pushed the stick down in an attempt to move forward, only to have the aircraft descend. At six feet off the ground, I overreacted by yanking up on the collective, shooting up and spinning right. A second too late, I mashed the left pedal and we snapped back, all the while sliding to the right and outside the box.
The instructor tried to be helpful: “Don’t overcontrol it. Smaller inputs.” “You’re squeezing the paint off the stick; relax.”
But it didn’t matter; I didn’t have the brainpower to both pay attention to his coaching and not crash the helicopter.
I didn’t know of anyone who was able to stay inside the box on the first attempt. Some could do it by the second day, and the vast majority of us did it by the third day. Anyone who couldn’t do it by the third day risked being dropped from the program.
My four years at an Ivy League university had left me ill prepared for the training techniques of the attack-helicopter community. I quickly realized that there was little room for an inquisitive mind in the cockpit—and asking “Why?” wasn’t really an option while winning a temporary battle against the forces of gravity. An old joke asks, “What’s the difference between a Cobra helicopter and a condom?” As it turns out, you can put two dicks in a Cobra.
The Marine Corps doesn’t encourage students to question their methods—two wars were raging and they needed pilots overseas. The training pipeline emphasizes memorization and repetition until flying the aircraft becomes second nature. It was only after you learned to fly the aircraft that you could learn to fight your aircraft. After learning to hover you were taught to land, then what to do when an engine failed, then to fly off your instruments in the clouds. Upon leaving the training command, you graduated to the AH-1W SuberCobra, learning to fly on a moonless night using night-vision goggles and becoming an expert in the weapons systems. The best became weapons and tactics instructors, directing the actions of other aircraft while at the same time ensuring the safe and effective delivery of their own ordnance in support of the grunts.
On that day in June, we left the airfield knowing only that we were supposed to fly northeast. With the collective drawn up to my armpit and pulling as much power as the aircraft would allow, we raced toward the battlefield. The blades struggled to get a bite out of the thin Afghanistan air, and the needles on my instrument panel were flirting with the red line that indicated danger as I asked for more. The transmission buckled under the pressure that I was putting on the aircraft; it wasn’t designed to work this hard for this long. We were risking a broken aircraft for a precious extra few minutes. It turned out to be worth the gamble—a Marine had been shot and we needed to escort a MEDEVAC helicopter, call sign “Pedro,” into the zone to pick up the wounded man.
The most confusing time during a firefight is often right after you check in, and it can take several minutes to orient yourself. Distinguishing between friendly and enemy locations is the most vital, and often difficult, task, and is even more complicated in Afghanistan given that every compound and tree line looks the same from the air. It’s up to the guy on the ground to talk the aircraft onto the right target. Add the fact that he’s often getting shot at or has a friend who is badly hurt, and you’ve got a stressful situation.
In this case the grunts let us know that they were taking fire from a tree line about 100 to 150 meters to the north. From the ground, a football field and a half looks pretty far. From the air, when you’re throwing rockets down, 150 meters seems very close. We took a couple of turns in a holding pattern just to make sure that everything was good.
The framework for every attack is identical, and we repeat a series of steps to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The format is called a “nine line” attack brief, and it’s standardized so that you don’t have to think when things get crazy. There are a million other steps that I’m thinking about as we prepare for the attack—ensuring that all my switches are in the right position, that I know where the target is, that I’m in a good position behind lead. Key pieces of information, like the target coordinates, are read back over the radio to the ground controller, or JTAC. There are too many instances in which friendly and enemy coordinates have gotten swapped and Americans have been killed because of sloppy procedures.
Lead to me: “This will be a guns-only attack.”
Me to Lead: “Roger, guns only.”
The 20mm cannon, a highly accurate but low-yield weapon, was perfect for the tree line in which the Taliban were taking cover. The stabilized turret fired high-explosive incendiary rounds that exploded on impact and were designed to take out lightly armored vehicles at a relatively pedestrian 650 rounds per minute.
In addition to being more accurate, the gun turret allowed us to remain relatively safe high above the battlefield. We positioned ourselves to come in from the south of the target so that any stray rounds would skip to the north, away from the Marines and toward the Taliban.
Lead to JTAC: “Apocalypse 58 in, heading northwest.”
JTAC to us: “Apocalypse 58 and flight, cleared hot.”
Ba-ba-ba-ba goes the 20mm, but a few seconds later the gun slows down and eventually stops firing. As the second plane in our two-aircraft section, my only job was to cover lead, and my fucking gun had jammed.
As we pull off, the JTAC tells us that we’ve got good effects on target and he wants us in again, same setup. Lead aircraft passes that his gun has also jammed, so he’s going in for rockets. We come around again and my front-seat copilot triggers down for gun again. Five rounds come off and then nothing.
Me to my copilot: “Going fixed gun.” (In this mode the gun is straight off the nose and fired from the back seat, requiring me to dive toward the target, leaving our altitude sanctuary.)
I tip in to orient the nose of the aircraft toward the enemy and trigger down. Nothing. I start to pull off, and the JTAC yells over the radio, “You’re taking fire! You’re taking fire!”
I squeeze off four rockets to suppress the enemy fire and pull off. Shooting rockets in the Cobra is as sophisticated as throwing darts at a wall. Now throw those darts while trying to balance on a ball and you’ve got about as close as you can get to shooting in a helicopter. Once you’re set up, you fire off one rocket, see where it goes, and adjust. This is all made worse since my heads-up display has failed. Awesome.
As we pull off and get back up to sanctuary, we find out that the MEDEVAC helicopter is inbound to pick up the patient and plans on landing in the field between the Marines and the direction of the fire. At this point they are nine minutes out, so we coordinate to put suppressive fire into the area when they are one minute away. At the very least, this will keep the Taliban’s heads down while the MEDEVAC helicopter is on short final, where it is low-and-slow and at its most vulnerable. With the jammed gun, I have just eight rockets left, two of the conventional-explosive variety, and another half-dozen "flechette" rockets, which saturate an eighty-by-eighty-foot area with more than a thousand metal darts.
Typically Pedro will give a one-minute call, but we ask for a two-minute call so we can set up to put fire down just before they get into the zone. We take a couple of turns and start to push for what we think should be the two-minute call. Nothing. Okay, another turn in holding.
Pedro: “One minute.”
Fuck! Okay, I guess they’re coming in. We push, and lead starts his tip-in for rockets. Just as he’s slowing down for the dive, I see the second MEDEVAC helicopter come in right under his nose. “Pedro’s under you,” I tell lead. Lead delays for a second or two until Pedro moves out of the way and then tips in and expends his rockets. Usually we train to do a twenty- to thirty-degree dive when shooting rockets, but because lead has to delay he ends up in something that looks to me like closer to a forty-degree dive. Steeper dives lead to more accurate fire, but they’re a little uncomfortable in a helicopter. I come in behind and put down a pod of flechette rockets.
By the time we pull off and I get my eyes back in the zone, the patient is on Pedro and they’re off. No more fire has come from the tree line.
After returning to base, we discovered that the lead aircraft had been shot in the rotor blade, less than thirty feet from the cockpit. Later in the deployment, my helicopter would be shot just under the front-seat pilot, and although the round didn’t penetrate the frame, it did hit a critical air tube, knocking out my airspeed indicator. Another aircrew member would earn a Purple Heart after a round hit the soft spot in his body armor and wounded him in the chest. All that, and we were lucky to have no one seriously injured during the entire deployment.
At the end of the day, the training had worked—flying an attack helicopter had indeed become second nature. I was able to use the extra brainpower to make more complex decisions in situations that weren’t as cut-and-dry as staying inside a small box. It wasn’t the flying that was hard anymore; it was the choice whether to pull the trigger.
While its consequences can be horrific, for many veterans war is the most important event of their lives. No amount of training, no matter how thorough or intense, can prepare you for that. It may be uncomfortable and difficult for people without this experience to understand, but combat can provide a level of excitement and purpose that is almost impossible to replicate back home. For some, there is nothing more thrilling than having someone shoot at you and miss. For most, there is nothing more rewarding than creating a bond with someone so strong that they would die for you without thinking twice.
I’ve never had a better job than those deployments, and probably never will. I miss it.
Mike Christman served in the Marines for nine years as an AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopter pilot and a Forward Air Controller. He is transitioning back to civilian life and will be attending the University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business. He was selected as a 2014 Tillman Military Scholar by the Pat Tillman Foundation.