Michael's Dispatches

Dark Night


23 April 2012

Last week there was a suicide attack on a police checkpoint in Afghanistan.  There were numerous fatalities and wounded.  All Afghans.

MEDEVAC flights can be extremely dangerous for many reasons.  Firstly, the fact that MEDEVAC is needed is often due to hostile action, and so the helicopters are being sent to contested territory.  Often, they fly from contested territory, completely over enemy territory, to other contested territory, and then back over enemy territory to a hospital.  The entire flight can be over dangerous ground.

Most of the CAT-A (very serious casualty) missions have no warning, and so the MEDEVAC crew has no chance to plan a route.  Routes are difficult to plan in active war zones.  Besides the inertia-laden obstacles such as mountains and antennas, and aerostat balloons tethered to the ground, there is typically a lot going on out there, such as artillery or airstrikes, or sudden missions that occur with little warning, which may involve low-flying aircraft.  It's a mess for the pilots to sort through.

Now add the weather, which in Afghanistan can present wild changes with practically no warning.   The area is famous for dramatic weather.  And so the MEDEVACs get a call, crank and fly over unplanned routes and through unpredictable winds, dust and rains, often with significant temperature differentials.  It only gets more dangerous from there.

Last week, the bomb detonated and the casualties were bad.  The moon phase for the night of the crash left practically zero reflection off the moon.  Even at brightest that night, it would be a tiny sliver.  And besides, it was overcast, and so nothing was coming through from the moon or stars, and there were no cultural lights below.  The helicopters might as well have been flying through a cave.

Image intensifying goggles will not work in complete darkness.  There are other instruments, such as FLIR, but the pilots will say that flying in such conditions is spatially disorienting beyond what you might imagine.  And it's not like they have time to get their balance.  As pilots have explained, it's reminiscent of being silted out during scuba diving, when you cannot even see which way the bubbles are going.  No idea which way is up or down when the water is moving back and forth and up and down.

During those inky times, the earth and sky might be invisible to the pilots, but the enemies can see them.  The enemy knows that our aircraft often use IR strobes and lasers, and so the aircraft can see each other's strobes, and so can anyone on the ground with some cell phone cameras (I learned this from studying the Taliban), or some cheap cameras that easily pick up IR.  The enemy has been known to mount these cameras on weapons in Afghanistan, and can make accurate fires even during so-called "red illum" (red illumination; too dark to fly under normal circumstances). 

In open areas, if you close your eyes and point to the sound of the helicopter, you will be very close to on target, and so even without optics, you might make a hit.

The enemy watches our helicopter routes and have had more than a decade to crack the codes.  I've even heard villagers talking about watching the routes and guessing which bases they depart from and go to.  In this way, villagers with cell phones can actually warn each other of impending trouble.  I've heard of them warning of rocket strikes because the GMLRS rockets have such long flight times.  We know in Iraq and in Afghanistan that the enemy tried/try to ambush helicopters, and one way they achieve this is by causing casualties by setting up an ambush along the predicted helicopter route, or by planting bombs where they think the birds might land.

It remains unknown what happened last week, but a shoot-down, or crash during evasive flying, has not been ruled out.

What is known on this mission was that the unarmed MEDEVAC was lead bird, and "chase" had guns.  The armed chase bird crashed on that pitch black night.  A shoot-down has not been ruled out.

Whether it was shot down, or crashed due to bad weather on a dark night, or some other reason, remains unknown.  But we know that one bird crashed and the only immediate support was an unarmed MEDEVAC.  This is a sort of nightmare scenario where the bird with guns is down, and the one with Red Crosses is still up.

The Taliban and associates often have talked about missiles, and occasionally missiles are fired at our aircraft.  I asked enemy spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (might be numerous people under same name) if they have anti-aircraft missiles, and if so what type.

Answer on 23 April 2012:

"Yes we hace anti aircraft missiles , which we are using in afghanistan and u can see in the news daily that we shoot helecopter etc.  about which isaf and nato says that this is just emergency landing . you think with u that every day thier helecopters are landing emergency .  which kind of missiles , I,m sorry this is secret think but for ur knowledge I want to say that these are hand made and our enginiors are making these ."


The Taliban often exaggerate.  What we know is that we lost four people and a helicopter and the war goes on.  Rest in Peace.

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