Friday, August 10, 2007

Perspective: Bad day over Mosul

Above: A U.S. Army Kiowa helicopter provides security for soldiers as they patrol near Mosul in April.

Even before pilots Jason Anderson and Leif Neely were caught in a race against two ways to die, it had been a bad day in Mosul.

So many car bombs had detonated it was hard to keep track. Two bridges had already collapsed into the Tigris River when a huge explosion leveled a three-story building, creating a shock wave that buffeted the two little helicopters.

Then someone on the radio said their base was taking rocket and mortar fire.

The lead OH-58D Kiowa Warrior dipped low, flying just above the roofs, to see if it could find the enemy the hard way -- by drawing fire. Anderson and Neely, in the second chopper, kept it higher so they could watch for insurgents.

The low buildings, houses and mosques of the city, Iraq's second-largest, sprawled beneath them. It had been a violent place even before the U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad last winter pushed many insurgents north.

Neely didn't normally fly with Anderson, though both men were with the same unit based at Fort Bragg. But he had asked to come along as co-pilot so that Anderson, an instructor pilot, could check out his skills, an annual requirement. It was Anderson's usual Kiowa, and between the men, a fake shrunken head dangled where a rearview mirror would be. Across his face mask, Anderson had painted a zipper that made him look like a character in a horror movie.

The Kiowa inspired that kind of irreverence. It didn't command much respect from other fliers, though. They made fun of the tiny, low-powered chopper, which was based on a civilian model often used by local TV stations. Kiowas can be armed with an array of weapons, including Hellfire missiles, but even Kiowa pilots sometimes called them "flying beer cans."

Few military aircraft have less armor. And none flew lower; their job was mainly darting above infantry units to protect them. Which meant getting close to the ground, and the enemy.

On this day in mid-May, Anderson and Neely got too close.

Read the rest at the News Observer