KUWAIT -- Outside of the Blackhawk, the sand rises up off the ground like a viper ready to strike. Instead of biting, the grains quickly disappear into the sky.
That does not make the sand harmless.
“It has the tendency to do some damage to the aircraft as far as breaking some windows,” said Dennis Cooper, right, the chief warrant officer piloting the UH-60 Blackhawk. “It was definitely challenging."
As he lands the aircraft, sand spins into a filmy brown sphere that shrouds the Blackhawk in dirt. Within minutes, 30 mph winds blow the sand away and only blue sky is left in the helicopter’s wake.
Helicopters kick up a lot of sand during a desert landing, something pilots and crews based in Salem, Ore., tried to prepare for during training this winter in the New Mexico desert.
But New Mexico isn't exactly Iraq.
Kuwait, however, is a lot closer to the genuine article.
“The sand is a lot more coarse, not quite the talcum powder that I’m used to,” Cooper said when comparing the Kuwait sand with New Mexico’s sand.
Cooper, a maintenance test pilot and instructor pilot on his sixth deployment overseas, landed multiple times in the desert outside of a military base in Kuwait, creating an encapsulating dust cloud over the Blackhawk.
Limited visibility requires pilots to rely on crew members and instruments to guide them out of the dust. Cooper and the other soldiers of the Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac unit based in Salem, Ore., will spend the next few weeks training to land in sand, adapting to the texture of the sand, the layout of the land and the high temperatures.
“I demo my technique and then I try to help the guys develop their own technique," Cooper said before letting the two other pilots take the lead. “It’s very awkward, and it’s just not a natural aspect of flying. You can become very disoriented very quickly."
The desert in Kuwait is flat, unlike the varied terrain in New Mexico, which is full of hills, plateaus and valleys.
Flying in Kuwait requires adaptation to intense heat that is foreign to soldiers from the relatively mild Northwest.
“We have to be accustomed to flying with all our gear on,” said Cooper. “We have a lot of windows and glass around us so you’re sitting in a greenhouse.”
Soldiers are constantly urged to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. It is over 100 degrees outside and15 degrees warmer inside the UH-60 Blackhawk. Salty sweat slides off the cheeks of the five soldiers inside.
Cooper keeps cool with a water soaked hanker-chief tied around his neck under his bulky Kevlar vest, but the breeze of the open windows provides the only real release from the exhausting temperatures.
In Kuwait, dust landing exercises are performed with two Blackhawks. That way, if one aircraft has a problem, the second one is there for backup.
Cooper attributes the success of the dust landings to the crew chiefs in the back.
“They are able to see, they have a better perspective of the terrain below us,” Cooper said. “Up until the point where we get down to 20 feet we are really relying on their judgments.”
Logging 22 landings today, Sgt. Jonathon McCully watched for hazards and obstacles while alerting pilots to the amount of dust, direction of dust and level of the brown out.
Crew chief are also responsible for inspecting aircraft, cargo, medic and passenger security.
“It makes what we’re doing here a reality,” said McCully after flying in Kuwait.
The view from the Blackhawk drives home the reality, too.
"It’s so desolate out there," Cooper said, "but I’m so amazed that out in the middle of nowhere there is a house where someone has dug a well and they have animals out there - no grass, no trees, just a building."
And a lot of sand.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly.
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