The halo often disappears when the helicopter ramp touches the ground. Again, the conditions are quite dark, but the excellent camera gear has tiger vision.
The British medical staff treats many wounded Afghans who often show up at the gate. In the photo above, Dr. Rhiannon Dart (right) observes as an Afghan patient is medically evacuated to the trauma center at Camp Bastion. The medics and Dr. Dart are especially respected for the risks they equally share here. The medical staff walks into combat just like the other soldiers—frequently side by side in close combat. Numerous times per week, their battlefield work, often under intense pressure in hot and filthy conditions, is the deciding factor on whether soldiers or civilians survive or die. I asked Dr. Dart if Afghan men have any reservations when being treated by a woman. She answered that when men are seriously wounded—which is about the only time she sees Afghans as patients—they don’t care if she is a man or a woman. During a mission last week, I saw an Afghan soldier walk by with a bandage on his hand. Dr. Dart stopped the soldier, asking him to remove the bandage. Contrary to harboring reservations, the soldier appeared relieved that she wanted—actually sort of politely demanded—to examine his injury.
The ramp lifts in preparation for takeoff and the halo begins to rematerialize before the helicopter lifts into the darkness and disappears. Soldiers call the medevac flights to Camp Bastion, “Nightingales” or “Nightingale flights.” Shortly after sunrise on the morning of 13 August, an element from this unit was ambushed nearby, killing three and wounding two others. Despite the immediate danger, the helicopter came straight onto the battlefield. After the initial ambush, and another successful ambush during the evacuation, the British soldiers did not return to base but continued with the mission. Later that evening they were twice ambushed again, sustaining more fatalities as two interpreters were killed. Soldiers asked me to go on that mission but I was busy assembling this dispatch. One of the killed soldiers, shortly before the mission, had looked over my shoulder as I selected the photos. Captain Mark Hale was killed while aiding a wounded soldier. Mark had particularly liked the next three images:
Night after night, helicopters keep coming. Last month a civilian resupply helicopter had tried to land at this exact spot but was shot down on final approach. Two children on the ground and all persons aboard were killed. The helicopter crews earn much respect.
Sometimes the halos appear like distant galaxies.
In motion, the halos spark, glitter and veritably crackle, but in still photos the halos appear more like intricate orbital bands.
Perhaps like the rings of Saturn.
The halos usually disappear as the rotors change pitch, dust diminishes and the ramp touches the ground. On some nights, on this very same landing zone, no halos form.
On another night, the helicopters return. The camera is jostled, accidentally creating a double image.
They keep coming.
What is this halo phenomenon called? None of the American or British helicopter pilots seemed to have a name for the effect. They provide only descriptions and circumscriptions. I asked many people, and finally reached out to Command Sergeant Major Jeff Mellinger (one of my “break glass only if” sources whom I ask when other means have failed). Jeff asked pilots, and came back with an excellent description from one pilot:
“Basically it is a result of static electricity created by friction as materials of dissimilar material strike against each other. In this case titanium/nickel blades moving through the air and dust. It occurs on the ground as well, but you don’t usually see it as much unless the aircraft is landing or taking off. The most common time is when fuel is being pumped. When large tankers are being fueled they must be grounded to prevent static electricity from discharging and creating explosions.”
But still no name. How can the helicopter halos, so majestic and indeed dangerous at times, be devoid of a fitting name?