The mission was to insert an infantry platoon covertly in the desert. For whatever reason, the grunt company commander was tagging along. Unusually, we were doing this mission in the daylight. The early morning weather was cool and calm. It was a beautiful day for flying.
We got the grunts arranged in the back and put the infantry captain in the jump seat just between and behind us two pilots. The flight engineer briefed up the passengers on seatbelt usage, emergency egress procedures, and the like. That bit was just like commercial airlines, only with way uglier flight attendants. As we got ready to spool up the airplane, I noticed that my infantry buddy had left his seatbelt fully extended and, therefore, worthless. I kindly suggested he cinch it up tight.
I had not worked with this guy before, and he was a bit snooty. He explained how he had done a great deal of flying before and was more concerned with being able to egress quickly than being secured in his seat. He went on to disparage my big 50,000-pound machine, even going so far as to call it a “pig boat.”
Here’s a pro tip, whenever mounting a military combat aircraft, never trash-talk the machine to the pilots. They might just take that as a challenge.
The Chinook is really fast. It is, in fact, the fastest rotorcraft in the U.S. Army inventory. The CH47D would hold 170 knots (or 195 mph) in level flight all day long. At three feet off the ground, that is a reliably wild ride. Blackhawks and Apaches were faster, but only in a dive. In a race, the big Chinook wins every time.
This particular bit of desert was as flat as Chuck Schumer’s personality. All the monotonous flatness was interrupted by a single big black 3,000-foot basalt mountain we called the Whale. I screamed toward the Whale as fast as the aircraft would go. When we got close enough to make our grunt buddy squirm, I torqued back on the cyclic and traded airspeed for altitude. In doing so, I pushed everybody down into their seats at about three or four G’s. That’s a lot in a big helicopter.
By the time we got to the top of the mountain, we were 3,000 feet higher but moving at a walking pace. I glanced over my shoulder to see my infantry buddy now with a happy grin on his face. He clearly believed he had survived his ride with the Hookers, the cool unit moniker we had stenciled on pretty much everything.
As we puttered along the top of the mountain at maybe ten knots, I kept the radar altimeter in the corner of my vision. It read three feet from the base of the fuselage to the hard rocky earth below. I had flown this route before and knew what came next.
The radar altimeter continued to read three feet before dropping precipitously beyond its 1,500-foot cutoff. The far end of the Whale ended in an abrupt cliff face that ran all the way to the flat desert floor below. When I was certain the tail of the aircraft was clear of the cliff, I dropped the thrust lever to the floor and shoved the cyclic into the instrument panel. We plummeted out of the sky like a greased anvil.
I took a glance over my left shoulder to see the infantry guy bounce his head off of the ceiling. For a pregnant moment, he was suspended in space like some kind of maniacal weightless flailing frog. Once we neared the desert floor, I popped the cyclic back and firmly returned everyone to their seats. As we resumed our position, screaming across the desert at 170 knots and about three feet off the ground, I noticed the young man discreetly cinching up his seatbelt.
Twenty minutes later, we disgorged our grunts and headed for home to do something similar all over again. I never saw that particular infantry guy again. I do hope he enjoyed the ride. Thrill-seeking lunatics of the world would pay a fortune for an experience not half as cool.
Here’s a dirty little secret not everyone appreciates. For all the sexy cool toys and undeniably dark missions, soldiers are mostly just glorified kids. They gave us the most amazing machines, and while we believed in our cause, in our hearts, we were just boys out having fun. It is a wonder any of us survived.