I have flown in CH-47 Chinook helicopters over Afghanistan, like the one shot down on Saturday, which killed 38 people, including 22 members of the elite SEAL Team 6. Believe me, it’s not a ride for the fainthearted. In addition to needing straps for rucksacks and weapons, you need one for your stomach.
It’s really very simple: the pilots up front do everything they can to minimize their bird’s exposure to enemy fire. How do they do that? By flying low and fast. It’s called a “nap of the earth” flight, where the helicopter becomes little more than an airborne toboggan, rising as it climbs a rugged peak, then precipitously diving down the other side. People on the ground can barely sense the chopper’s approach before it flashes by overhead and then disappears within seconds.
Valleys can make for good flight routes, unless there are Taliban down below. It’s always disconcerting to be traveling at up to 140 knots and see terrain out both sides of the chopper.
These kinds of flight profiles work well, except for one thing: choppers can’t fly quickly when taking off or landing. They have to slow down before entering a hover to land. Taking off presents the same problem, in reverse.
So at the beginning and end of every mission, there are several seconds when these helos are basically flying in slow motion. That’s not a problem if you’re taking off or landing at Bagram, the big U.S. military base north of Kabul.
But it can be deadly when you’re trying to insert Special Operations forces into the Tangi Valley to aid a Ranger unit that is under attack there. That’s the terrible reality the CH-47 pilots faced early Saturday morning: they had to fly low and slow to deliver their troops, but the enemy was awake, alert and already fighting when the chopper arrived on the scene. Even at night — especially at night — a Chinook makes a lot of noise as it prepares to land.
That’s when a Taliban insurgent down below — alerted to the CH-47’s approach by its engines’ roar — spied the chopper no more than a couple of hundred yards away. He apparently fired his rocket-propelled grenade, as he has likely done hundreds of times before. But this time its whoosh was followed by a boom as the grenade hit the helicopter, which exploded and fell to the ground.