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Guitar Heroes

The Predator peered down on the terrorists planting the bomb. There were too many targets for one Hellfire missile, and it’s better to conserve the weapon when possible, since the Predator must fly far to reload.

A group of four Kiowa Warrior pilots were only a few minutes away from the enemy, but their helicopters were on the ground and the engines were cold, while the pilots were waiting in a building near the runway, playing Guitar Hero to pass the time.

A soldier interrupted the Guitar Hero session, telling the pilots to get in the air. Orders would come over the radio. The pilots abandoned Guitar Hero and raced out the door into the cold night to their OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, economy-sized helicopters that would make a Ford Pinto seem spacious. The pilots crammed two each into the two helicopters, strapping in, cranking engines, while radio chatter had already started. The pilots learned that the Predator had identified a target, which it would laser-designate for a Hellfire shot from a Kiowa.

Minutes after the first alert, rotors were chopping the cold air, the instrument readings looked good. The pilots changed the pitch of their rotors to bite the air and lifted slightly off the ground, backing out of their parking spaces like cars. After backing out, they stopped in a hover, and began to move forward, pulling away from the other helicopters. The Kiowa Warriors lifted into the sky over the runway, heading south, then east toward the lights of the city of Mosul only a minute away. They didn’t get far.

The pilots were about a half mile away from their parking spaces when the Predator relayed coordinates and the laser code to pilot CW3 Tom Boise, an ex-Special Forces soldier with previous experience in Iraq who seems to know a lot more about the war than most people, and the left-seater was Chief Warrant Officer 2 Carlos Lopez who, when I first met him, was wearing a uniform that said he is an Iraqi interpreter, which Lopez, with a slight afro, got made in order to play practical jokes on new soldiers who are set to arrive. Lopez introduced himself to me as an Iraqi interpreter. First I thought, “Why does a Kiowa unit need an interpreter?” And then, “This guy doesn’t look like any Iraqi I have seen.” Lopez must have seen the strange look on my face because he cracked up laughing. The pilots, when they aren’t killing terrorists, apparently are great practical jokers. Captain Brad Warr, an excellent medical officer I got to know in 2005, told me how the pilots stole the adult-tricycle he rides around base. What Brad failed to explain was how he had first stolen the pilots’ van, and then painted it pink and put hearts all over it. They might not seem like killers. . . .

Tom Boise was piloting and Carlos Lopez was in the left seat for this attack.

The target was about three miles away.

Lopez and Boise could not see the enemy, but the Predator could, and so they set up for a “remote” Hellfire shot, meaning they would fire the weapon “blind” in the direction of the target, and the missile would “lock” onto the laser reflection as it approached.

Besides the Hellfires, each of the two Kiowas carried seven rockets, for a total between the two Kiowas of fourteen rockets. Of the seven rockets on each Kiowa, three were 2.75” flechette rockets, and the other four were HE (high explosive). Flechettes are steel nails with little fins. Darts. Each dart weighs 60 grains, and there are a total of 1,179 darts per rocket. The flechettes sound plenty lethal, and they are, when they work. Yet something has been wrong with the flechette rockets; they have not been working well in Iraq. The flechettes launch but do not disperse into a pattern, making it difficult to hit targets. Each left-seater also had an M-4 rifle and they frequently lean out and shoot at bad guys.

Lopez programmed in the Predator’s laser code while Boise pointed the nose of his Kiowa Warrior in the direction of the target. With the laser code programmed into the Hellfire computer, the Predator lazed the target.

Bow hunters know that super-fast bucks can “jump” the bow. Sound travels about a thousand feet-per-second faster than hunting arrows, so a buck that’s a hundred feet away can get maybe 1/10th of a second head start on the arrow, but his reflexes must be instant. Slow motion video shows bucks can jump the bow at the sound of arrow’s release and just avoid getting hit. Combat footage shows that bomb-planting terrorists can similarly avoid Hellfire missiles. The launch noise of a Hellfire is loud and distinct. If the enemy is truly on his game, the split second he hears the Hellfire or sees the launch flash, he can run like a deer for cover. With a lot of luck, a very quick enemy—who absolutely does not hesitate—can just barely get away. Sometimes.

So pilots try to take the remote shot from down low, where the enemy cannot see the flash.

The Predator was lazing the target, invisibly marking the group of six men. Boise launched the Hellfire…


Shaking the little helicopter, the missile-motor temporarily blinded the night vision goggles, filling the cockpit with light. From up close, the launch appeared white, but from a distance the launch was orange and illuminated the Kiowa and the ground below as the Hellfire sparked away.

The missile climbed to about eight hundred feet, its cold eye scanning the ground ahead for the laser reflection. There it was. The eye acquired laser photons, the computer verified the code, adjusted flight controls, and pointed the warhead at the target. The Predator was striking the gavel for the Hellfire to deliver justice, but the terrorists apparently realized the verdict a fraction of a second too late. The detonation appeared silently on the Predator thermal, while seconds later the sounds of the explosion rumbled over the base. The remains of the terrorists glowed hot on the infrared imagery.

But there were “squirters” trying to get away. The Predator, whose pilot was back in America flying the UAV remotely, saw the squirters, and Boise pushed into the attack, swooping down low into the target area, launching three 2.75” flechette rockets and four HE rockets, which are plenty loud and must have been impressive to the terrorists, but not impressive enough because Boise and Lopez could see one still trying to run away in the dark. Boise pulled up close and from about 80 feet up was doing a tight counter-clockwise circle around the terrorist while shining him with the “Pink Light,” an infrared light invisible to the naked eye but very bright to the night optics. Someone else from up higher also had an IR light on the bad guy, but neither Boise nor Lopez knew who was shining the other light from above. Maybe it was the laser from the Predator, they did not know. I thought more likely that the bad guy was al Qaeda, and God was lazing him for Lopez, who flipped his M-4 from SAFE to BURST, and started shooting the terrorist that God was lazing. Thirty rounds later, Lopez had not struck flesh, though the bad guy must have realized that things were not going well. It was dark for the terrorist as the little helicopter orbited him and Lopez rained bullets down, but the terrorist was still bathed in bright IR light when Lopez jacked in another magazine and finally shot the guy to death. Boise turned the Kiowa back to the FARP, reloaded quickly, and ended up taking another Hellfire shot, and the Predator also had fired a Hellfire.

Total time from playing Guitar Hero to getting airborne and delivering justice was an astounding twelve minutes. Apparently at least five terrorists were killed, while at least one escaped, though he probably needs new eardrums and might ask for a raise before trying that again.

4 th Squadron 6 Air Cavalry Regiment

The speck in the upper left near the mushroom cloud is a Kiowa Warrior from 4-6. The mushroom cloud rose from an estimated 600lbs of explosives packed into a car that destroyed the “10 West” police station a few days ago. The explosion rocked the base here in Mosul.

The official moniker for the 4-6 ACR is “The Red Catchers,” which stems from their original purpose to spot Soviets if they ever surged and knocked over beers in Germany en route to an ever-ungrateful France. While the Red Catchers never went toe-to-toe with the Soviets, they are here now, literally flying overhead as these words are written. I call them the Guitar Heroes, and I see them flying over Mosul day and night.

The commander of 4-6 is Lieutenant Colonel Terry T.J. Jamison. Someone told me that LTC Jamison got shot in the head recently, and when I visited his office, I noticed a helmet with two bullet holes. Needless to say, I waited for an appropriate moment to ask the commander how he managed to get shot in the head, but I had to wait to hear that story, so you will too.

First, I asked him what all the killing was about. His folks were flying like bats and banshees all over Mosul, and there was far more helicopter coverage and fighting than I was used to seeing anywhere in Iraq. Did he have an extra squadron hidden around here?

In fact, most of Jamison’s helicopters are out in Tal Afar, over in Kirkuk or down at FOB Speicher near Tikrit. While his headquarters are in Mosul, Jamison flies around to those areas to check on his soldiers and their gear. He started with ten Blackhawks and thirty Kiowa Warriors, but lost one Kiowa and one Blackhawk in separate accidents. Unfortunately both crashes led to loss of life. The Blackhawk had a catastrophic mechanical failure. The Kiowa flew into overhead power lines, which is easy to do in Mosul, where the power lines are higher than elsewhere in Iraq.

Despite their losses—it’s amazing that 4-6 has not suffered more—and the fact that Jamison is working his crews far harder than the norm, morale among the pilots seems extraordinary. Perhaps morale is high because they are killing so many enemy, and their commander is right out there with them. (He did get shot in the head, after all.)

There is 24/7 helicopter coverage over Mosul. When they are not actually flying over Mosul, a team of four pilots stay on “RedCon 3” status, which usually means they should be able to go from initial alert to rotors turning in thirty minutes. But Jamison considers the soldiers on the ground his responsibility to protect, and so he enforces a five minute rule. The pilots who are on RedCon 3 have to wait in a room near the helicopters, and they’ve got only five minutes to get those blades turning after an alert. The ground-pounders here love the pilots. As for the pilots, they have three basic modes: combat, sleep, and RedCon 3. And so they have taken up playing Guitar Hero while on RedCon 3.

A hunter who doesn’t hunt isn’t a hunter, so the pilots fly ten days on, one day off.

During his first fourteen months out of flight school, LT Sickler logged about 1,065 hours, most of that at night, wearing night vision goggles. The pilots are averaging 130-140 combat-flight hours per month, not to mention the hours in the Guitar Hero room waiting for a call. All total, the forty helicopters in the squadron logged nearly 30,000 hours in their first eight months.

But it’s worth it. The Guitar Heroes in Mosul are devastating the enemy and saving many American and Iraqi lives. They got thirty-five confirmed kills in the month of December 2007, although it’s believed they killed many more. From August 2007 to March 2008, their intelligence officer says they have 115 confirmed, with only one collateral fatality caused by an errant missile. Great care is taken before the permission to fire a missile is issued. Since 2005, I’ve seen many enemy get away because commanders were being extremely careful to avoid civilian deaths and injuries. I’m just a writer and observer, but must say it can be frustrating even for me to see armed terrorists getting away, when I am thinking, “Take the shot for chrissakes!!!! There’s not a civilian within 300 yards!!!” Only once did I see a helicopter missile strike ordered that I thought was over the top, and that was a couple years ago. Yet, in reality, this ever-increasing willingness to let a few bad guys get away has played a huge part of turning this war around, and ultimately saving the lives of civilians and, paradoxically, Americans.

Back to the fight

The Guitar Heroes run two kinds of fights: daytime and nighttime.

They call night the “Hunting Shift.” During the Hunting Shift, pilots fly around for hours, way up high, often with a cup of coffee, waiting for bad guys to do bad things. The pilots stay far away from the targets so as not to spook them, and when the terrorists start laying bombs, they are given a Hellfire for their troubles, which I often hear being launched:



The daytime shift is totally different. Pilots call it the “Jihad Shift.”

During a Jihad Shift, the Kiowas sometimes start up high, but when the killing begins, they swoop down just above the rooftops. This results in truly close combat. One day, when LTC Jamison had the controls and 1LT Bob Sickler was in the left-seat. They were not expecting contact, and Sickler happened to be shooting some video for the kids, when suddenly machine guns opened on them. The guns were so close that it sounded like they were fighting in an alley. Sometimes the helicopters fly so low they knock antennas off rooftops.

During the Jihad Shift, pilots use fewer precision weapons. They swoop in too low and too close to the enemy, whom they often don’t see until the enemy begins firing from nearly point-blank range on the Kiowas. Hellfires are useless that close.

Pilots are not supposed to fly under 150 feet but are often at more like 20 or 30 feet, though I have seen some fly much lower. In 2005, I photographed a Kiowa and could read the time on the pilot’s watch (without telephoto). I asked an infantry commander if he thought the pilot would get into trouble if that photo were published, and he suggested not to publish it, so I canned it. LTC Jamison leaves the altitude to the discretion of the pilot in charge, but generally they have to be either very high, or very low.

The quick and the dead: Truly

During the Jihad Shift, the pilots’ only real defense is to swoop low and fast, point their rockets or .50-caliber straight at the enemy and squeeze the trigger, while often the left-seater is leaning out the door shooting an M-4 rifle. This is “Red Baron” stuff. The machine gun and rockets are locked rigidly on Kiowas, unlike an Apache where the pilot can fly a safe distance and practically just look at a target and think bad thoughts and the target bursts into flames. For the Kiowas to draw blood during the Jihad Shift, they have to take the same chances that mosquitoes take when they land on the back of your neck. In fact, the codeword the insurgents use for Kiowas is “mosquitoes.”

The Jihad Shift often results in shootout where two people in a tiny helicopter fight an enemy who is often better armed and waiting in ambush. The enemy actively tries to draw the Kiowas into ground-based ambushes. At least sixteen Red Catcher helicopters have been hit by enemy fire in the first eight months, often causing severe damage. But for serious luck and fancy flying, it’s a wonder that Red Catchers haven’t been shot down all over Mosul.

One day after a long mission, LTC Jamison was just coming down to a hover back at the airfield when mortars exploded nearby. Before touching down, he lifted straight off. The counter-battery radar gave Jamison and his left-seater, Chief Warrant Officer 2 George Siegler, a Point of Origin (POO) to the firing site about four kilometers away in the Al Uruba district of Mosul. Swooping in, Siegler spotted a mortar team through the Plexiglas under his feet, and a split second later about four enemy machine guns and two RPGs fired at once. Ambush! Three bullets struck the helicopter and one hit Jamison’s helmet. The flight helmets have no ballistic protection because Kevlar is heavy, and when you crash it can break your neck or even snap your head off. The bullet went straight through the back of Jamison’s helmet, through the Styrofoam and out the other side, missing his head by maybe an inch. Jamison told me it felt like getting whacked with a bat. “Just a little bat,” he said. Last year, a helicopter pilot in Mosul was shot in the head and killed.

Just as Jamison got whacked, he felt a strong blast come in from Siegler’s side. Jamison pushed the helicopter lower and started doing S-turns to break out of the kill zone.

Jamison asked Siegler if he were okay, but Siegler didn’t know. Jamison started patting down Siegler for blood while still flying low because oftentimes soldiers are seriously or even mortally shot and have no idea they were even hit. When Siegler saw bullet holes in Jamison’s helmet, he started patting down Jamison for blood. Jamison thought it strange because Siegler didn’t bother to tell him about the holes in his helmet, and Jamison didn’t know he had been helmet-shot. Meanwhile, Jamison had flying to do. The aircraft was badly damaged, almost no instruments were working. They flew back toward the base. The moment Jamison touched skids to tarmac, Siegler unstrapped and ran to another helicopter and started the engine. While those rotors were picking up speed, Jamison quickly shut down his broken helicopter, unbuckled, joined Siegler in the other helicopter and they flew back to the ambush site.

These pilots are fighting every day. They get into so many gunfights, rocket-fights (where pilots are launching rockets and the enemy is launching RPGs), and Hellfire attacks, not to mention flying so low the left-seater is shooting the little M-4 out the door, that it’s hard to know what fight the reader might want to hear about. It would take a book to explain half of them.

I watched video of a fight from 30 December 2007, where a Predator was tracking a black van that contained weapons and had just test-fired “a large-caliber machine gun,” which turned out to be an anti-aircraft gun (it’s uncommon to come across anti-aircraft here these days, and causes one to wonder where it came from). Other intelligence indicated that one of the bad guys was a High Value Target (HVT). The Predator folks handed the target to the Red Catchers for action. Unfortunately, the HVT was driving mostly through crowded areas, so the pilots did not want to take the shot. Instead, they followed him from a distance of several miles for about two hours. By keeping distance, they didn’t spook the HVT, but this also made it extremely difficult to track the van. (It might seem easy to track a vehicle from the air, but a video from my dispatch “Shadows of Baqubah” from 2005 shows how hard it can be. Often, when a UAV or other aircraft is tracking a suspect, soldiers can nail the target from the ground, but we have fewer soldiers in Mosul now, and it’s hard to do car chases in tanks, Bradleys and MRAPs, and the enemy knows all this.)

Eventually the van parked beside a car and other intelligence showed that they had planned this meeting. They also were in a perfect place for attack. Di Giorgio was pilot with Sickler in the left-seat and they were flying several miles away and higher so as not to spook the enemy. They laser-designated the van for the other Kiowa flown by CW3 Tom Boise with left-seater CW2 Susan Weathers. Susan programmed the laser code into the Hellfire as Tom dropped in low, too low for the enemy to see, and swam though the air like a crocodile toward the enemy. When they reached optimal range, VRROOOSSHHH!, the Kiowa shook as the missile climbed and scanned for the laser reflection. The cool eye caught the glint off the van, the Hellfire computer verified the laser code, adjusted flight controls and nosed straight toward the middle of the van. The car happened to drive forward right at this moment.


Everybody in the van was killed, but the car had moved just far enough away to escape the blast.

About twenty more enemy emerged from nearby buildings, armed with AKs and PKC machine guns, and tried to recover the blown-up anti-aircraft weapon. Apparently these guys didn’t realize they were under direct attack. The video shows them moving straight toward the impact of the first missile. The enemy used to do this often. After a missile strike, they sometimes think their cohorts had an accident (they accidentally blow themselves up all the time), and, not realizing they are under direct attack, they run toward the explosion, and then it gets worse. But through time, most of the less astute enemies have been killed, and so after the first explosion, they usually run away. Yet they often still run toward trouble, and these approximately twenty armed men rushed into the open killing zone.

Predator was still watching when Di Giorgio and Sickler got a radio call to kill them. “Roger,” diving in low, firing the .50-caliber, which stopped (possibly because of the bullets hitting the helicopter) and Di Giorgio banked hard left. Bullets ripped through the cockpit. One bullet punched through the pedals between the pilot’s feet. Another slammed into a seat. Another bullet popped a rotor. And one bullet tore through the belly of the helicopter, severing a wrist-thick skein of wires.

The last thing a lot of pilots hear before they die is the “Caution, Warning, and Advisory System.” Di Giorgio and Sickler heard it start blaring, reporting system failures. Electrical systems failed. Weapons failed. Engine pressure gauges failed. Radios failed, internal and external. The Kiowa was descending and there wasn’t much distance between them and the ground.

There is a latch on the seat-harnesses to lock when a crash is imminent. Di Giorgio and Sickler locked for crash. They were going down into extremely hostile territory, and the only immediate backup was another Kiowa. Unlike the old Pintos, Kiowas have airbags. The men prepared to crash.

But the motor kept going!

They could not communicate with the other Kiowa, and so they turned toward base. Meanwhile Sickler started tossing smoke grenades out the door to mark their path so that others could find them when they eventually crashed.

CW3 Tom Boise pulled his Kiowa behind Sickler and Di Giorgio. His left seater was CW2 Susan Weathers, a pilot who prefers the left seat because she likes to laser targets and shoot her M-4 at bad guys (more about Susan in a minute). Sickler and Di Giorgio were about to crash while Tom and Susan followed them.

The fight was far from over. The enemy might have shot Sickler and Di Giorgio’s Kiowa into submission, but there were more Kiowas on the runaway that were gassed-up, armed, and only needed pilots. Bob Sickler and Pete Di Giorgio’s bullet-riddled Kiowa made it to base, and no sooner did skids touch tarmac, than Sickler popped out of his harness and ran to another Kiowa and got the rotors going while Di Giorgio shut down his broken bird. Meanwhile, Tom and Susan were at the FARP gassing up and reloading weapons. While Tom and Susan reloaded, Di Giorgio flipped the last switch as the rotors kept turning, abandoned the shot-up helicopter and jumped into the one Sickler had cranked.

With Tom and Susan ready to get back into the fight, Sickler and Di Giorgio led the way.

Predator had kept its eye on the HVT who by now was speeding away in his car, maybe thinking he had escaped. When the four pilots were back en route to the target, the battle captain at the TOC gave the fight back to the Kiowas. They followed the car for about thirty minutes from a distance, and apparently the three bad guys didn’t realize they were being followed. The video shows the car coming into an open area. Susan lazed the car and launched a Hellfire. The missile barely missed, or barely hit; on the video the back tires seem to have flattened and the rear end appeared damaged. The car continued a short distance and crashed.

Three men dashed from the car, split from each other and ran away. Squirters like this often have a decent chance. I’ve seen quite a few escape helicopter attacks on foot. Enormous bullets crashing all around them, they literally run for their lives and sometimes manage to escape. Tom and Susan swooped low and Susan leaned out with her M-4 and shot one of the runners, who luckily for him, mixed in with a local family, so Susan stopped shooting. The other two died by gun and rocket fire. As one man was running, Sickler dived in and squeezed off a rocket, which flew into the terrorist’s back, exploded, and amputated his body.

Daily fights continued. Bullets snapping by or into helicopters, pilots killing bad guys on average about one per day. The pilots reminded me of the circus where the man throws knives at someone who stands there smiling like everything’s perfectly normal, as if in their spare time, they have the habit of standing around throwing knives by each other’s heads.

On 17 February Sickler was once again giving the enemy hell during a fierce, tight fight when he got shot in the leg. He has undergone multiple surgeries at Walter Reed, but I’m told he wants to get back here and is upset he cannot finish his tour. Bob Sickler probably needs a guitar to remind him of home in Mosul.

Susan Weathers, from Winfield, Kansas is so soft-spoken and gentle that someone might mistake her for a librarian. Yet when I asked her about shooting her M-4 out the door, Weathers seemed disappointed in herself for having “only wounded” the terrorist. I wanted to tell Susan that she shouldn’t feel bad for not killing the terrorist; it’s nearly as easy to kill an enemy by giving him a carton of cigarettes than shooting him with a puny M-4. But the timing didn’t seem right, so I just listened.

LTC Jamison told me that Susan already had been awarded an Airmedal with a “V” (a serious award for Valor) during a previous combat tour in Iraq. I later asked Susan how she got that medal. Seeming shy, even embarrassed, Susan recounted being in the left seat with CW3 Mike Zanders as pilot. They were south of Fallujah covering Marines under sniper and machine-gun attack. The Marines brought the helicopter onto the target —and apparently did a fine job because bullets started ripping past and striking the helicopter. A radio call came from the Marines: “Bountyhunter, we think you took fire.” Susan responded, “Yeah, roger, one of the pilots got hit.”

Susan had been a medic before learning to fly and shoot at people out the door. Mike Zanders was hit in the forearm, so Susan started bandaging him up while Mike kept flying. Luckily the bullet didn’t hit bone. Meanwhile, the Marines, realizing the pilot was hit, asked if the helicopter could continue the mission. It’s hard not to respect the Marines. After all, a pilot is shot and they ask the helicopter to stay on station. That’s why they win. Mike and Susan were ready to continue the mission, but command guidance told them to get back to base and land the aircraft. Mike was not hurt badly and returned to duty five days later.

Sickler and Di Giorgio were recently awarded “DFCs,” or Distinguished Flying Crosses, while both Tom and Susan received Air Medals with “V.” It’s hard to believe I get to write about people like them, and have a plausible excuse to meet them, and walk around and see where these Kiowas have been shot full of holes. (Which of course the mechanics work day and night to fix, and there’s another story worth telling.)

You’d likely have a hard time picking a Guitar Hero out of a crowd. They might look like ordinary folks, but appearances can be deceiving. These men and this woman are engaged in very dangerous combat, going literally eye to eye with the enemy and defeating him nearly every time. And it’s important to note that the enemy is a worthy adversary and this is not a turkey shoot. If you go to a memorial of a helicopter pilot, it will be because he or she saved us from ten other memorials. These pilots know the chances they are taking. They do it anyway, for which thousands of soldiers, and this writer, are grateful. Very, very grateful.

Sometimes I sit up on a hill and watch them in the air. The other day two Kiowas were screaming low right over the rooftops and doing hard turns. I couldn’t see the combat because they were too far away, but I knew they were toe to toe and there was plenty of shooting going on or they wouldn’t have been flying so violently. It’s scary watching them because I’ve met them and know they are mortals doing the work of immortals. At any second there could be a fireball. A “fallen angel.” I remember the call over the radio last year of a “fallen angel” down by Baghdad. All aboard had been lost.

More than Guitar Heroes

If I am down on the street and they pass overhead, I wave. In the dining facility, I step respectfully out of their way. All the time thinking, these folks are more than Guitar Heroes.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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