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Shot in the Dark: Blackhawk Down

MVI 9873-1000

Afghanistan is different.  Many Western city-dwellers have never seen the Milky Way, and some, when they go to Afghanistan, are taken by the stars, exclaiming that they did not realize that you could see so many without a telescope.  Away from the bright bases, the night sky in Afghanistan is like a movie, complete with more shooting stars than you can remember.

There is no electricity in most places, and where there is, the current trickles, creating scant light that flows up to reflect off of dust or clouds.  The Milky Way is so bright that it looks almost close enough to scoop out.  But even on the major bases, the Milky Way fades, and it can be too bright to realize how dark it is just a short distance away.  Flying over Afghanistan at night can be like flying over the Atlantic, with occasional discreet lights below, appearing like lone ships or oil platforms.

This leads to an awkward dynamic that I have failed to write about during the last six years.  The brightest areas in Afghanistan are our bases, and you can see them glowing at night from many miles away.  Afghans, who want electricity, do not understand why we have spaceships glowing in the desert while they never get a dribble of energy.  That is another story.

To keep things simple, the military likes to color code.  Flight safety depends on illumination, and so they classify illumination as Green, Amber, or Red.  Since there are few cultural lights in Afghanistan (and where there are, they are subject to suddenly going black), the pilots cannot depend on the bright lights of Las Vegas to guide them through the desert trap.  In Afghanistan, it is about the moon, the gear, and the team.

With “Green illum,” the moon is higher than 30 degrees and 25% or more illuminated.  Full moon is 100%.  Amber is 0 – 30 degrees moon angle, and 25% or greater moon illumination.  When the moon is below the horizon, it is always Red illum.  If the moon is less than 25% illuminated, no matter the angle, it is Red illum.

Combat troops sometimes complain about the moon angle being a factor in Red illum (because many missions are limited during Red), but the flying team knows what they are doing.  For instance, when the moon angle is low, there are shadows, and in the mountains the moon shadows can be deadly.  The pilots might go from great flying conditions to a patch of Red illum, or they might start a mission with good illum, and as the moon sets, it drifts into Red illum.  Or weather can roll in.

If they were flying like fighter jets from one big base to another, they could fly in just about any weather or light.  The jets are high, and they are coming into bright airports, and there is radar, and there are smart people on the ground to guide them.  But the helicopter pilots might have to land 20 miles from the nearest light.  There is no radar.  There is no air traffic control.  There may be a firefight.  The tracers are very bright.  Through the night vision gear, when the tracers race low over the earth, they are bright enough to briefly illuminate the path they trace over the ground.  Explosions start very brightly and then quickly become many sparks, and a second later just a glowing dust cloud.

And if matters could get worse, Afghanistan might have more moon dust than the moon.  Moon dust is a problem in broad daylight.  The particles are so fine that it literally splashes like water, and when you are driving and a pound hits your windshield it instantly blocks out the light, but then splashes off like water.  The moon dust is a most curious thing and the helicopters stir it up like a volcano, night or day.

The difficulty of the pilots’ job is hard to convey.

On the night of this MEDEVAC, it was below Red illum, and for any practical purpose of the human eye, it was utterly black.  The pilots had no light.  They have systems that can be used to fly in blackness, but those systems do not replace ambient light.  Their night vision goggles would be useless unless they used their own infrared (IR) light source, which of course the enemy can see.

Some troops believe that the enemy does not have night vision capacity, but they definitely can spot our IR.  For instance, the enemy has rigged cameras to weapons.  The little video camera sitting beside me can resolve a helicopter from miles away.  The enemy can tape a cheap video camera to a weapon and now they have a sophisticated night vision device (a cheap camera) mounted to an RPG or a machine gun.

The enemy uses this technique to spot IR lasers from our drones and other aircraft.  I am not giving anything away.  I learn these things by studying the enemy.  Even if the IR spotlight is off, the IR strobes will be on, and the birds will be visible for miles.  Flying low and slow is very dangerous, but then so is flying in Red illum.  Or flying in Afghanistan, period.

The faster you go, the darker it is, and with bad weather, there is only so much that America’s great gear can do.  It is just dangerous.  Very, very dangerous.  The job is not for everyone.

You likely will never see the enemy until he fires.  The moment that he fires, his weapon will flash very brightly and you can rip him apart in a few seconds if you have a minigun or a .50 caliber machine gun in your hands.  But the first shot belongs to him.  In this particular situation, the enemy can own the night until he fires.

The suicide bomber had detonated his weapon leaving 4 dead and 7 wounded Afghans.  There has been friction that we will launch MEDEVAC for our people under conditions where we will not launch for Afghan troops.  This would not be such a case.  The MEDEVAC launched into the darkness and the armed “Chase” bird followed into the night.

Both were Blackhawks.  In current configurations, most of the “Dustoff” MEDEVAC helicopters in Afghanistan can carry three litter patients.  In a different configuration they can carry six.  Depending on the state of the casualties, the armed Chase bird would also have to land, leaving Dustoff flying for cover.  Since Dustoff does not have machine guns (due to wearing the Red Cross), the Chase bird would be especially vulnerable while loading casualties.  The Chase helicopter can cover the Dustoff, but the Dustoff cannot cover the Chase.

Piecing together information from various sources, this is what seems to have come next:  The unarmed MEDEVAC was in the lead with the armed Chase aircraft  behind.  They appear to have been flying low and slow over a river.  They may have been flying using the IR spotlight but this is unknown to me.  An RPG hit the Chase Blackhawk behind a fuel cell, causing it to spin and to crash at high speed.  It burst into flames and the crew was probably lost immediately.  Blackhawks are partly made of magnesium, which burns very hot and brightly.  The bright fire washed out the MEDEVAC pilots’ goggles.  There was tracer fire from the enemy on the ground but the unarmed MEDEVAC could not land or suppress enemy fire.  They called for more help and circled low for about 20 minutes, but were never able to land.

We lost four Soldiers:

CW2 Nicolas Johnson
Sergeant Dean Shaffer
CW Don Viray
Sergeant Chris Workman

I do not know what happened to the seven wounded Afghans.

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