This has been a wish-fulfillment year for me riding on cop patrols, shooting white water rapids, proposing to my girl. Today, I checked another item off of the lifelong to-do list, getting in a helicopter for the first time. Of course, flying over Baghdad was never part of the fantasy.Black Hawk helicopters run a regular route between the main American military bases around the greater Baghdad area. On a clear day, a pair of the copters comes here, to Camp Liberty, about every hour-and-a-half. But the days havent all been so clear, lately. So it took a full work week for the captain of the unit that Im with to secure us spots on the copter down to Ad Mahmudiya, twenty minutes to the southeast.I had heard helicopters flying off in the distance before. And I knew from the movies, I guess that, up close, they were beyond loud. I stuff foam plugs in my ears well before I can see the Black Hawks coming. All of the passengers do.Maybe the ear protection makes a difference. But, as the copters descend tail first onto Libertys makeshift helipad, I cant tell. A low-pitched, cyclical growl turns into a full-throated roar when Black Hawks touch the ground. It feels like Im back in New York -- on the subway platform, with a half-dozen express trains rocketing by.We crouch low and scurry towards the aircraft, the decibels mounting with every skittish step. Everything else is now inaudible, except for the whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp of air being sliced by helicopter blades.We step up into the Black Hawk. One of the gunners shows me how to stick the lap belt and two shoulder harnesses into a single, circular lock. And then we take off, the copter shuddering as we gain elevation.Baghdad is just as ugly from the sky as it is from the ground, with block after endless block of colorless apartment buildings and dilapidated factories. The roofs are covered with satellite dishes and trash.But as the helicopters bank southward, beyond the urban sprawl, a dusty beauty emerges. From a few hundred yards up, we see neatly-groomed farms and patches of palm trees. This could be central California, easily.The Black Hawk dips and sways. At one moment, were flying parallel to the ground. And then, the copter jerks to one side, rolling into a 45 degree angle. I grin. To me, this is fun.Apparently, I shouldnt have been smiling, the captain tells me after we land. Just about every time the Black Hawks fly, he says, insurgents take potshots at the copters with AK-47s. The chances of a serious hit are about one in a zillion. Nailing a Black Hawk moving at 150 miles per hour is tough, and a few bullets wont bring one down.But, just to be on the safe side, the pilots do pull a few of those crazy rolls. The gunners watch for trouble as they swing their 7.62 milimeter machine guns. And they fire off flares, the captain adds, to attract any heat-seeking missiles that might be headed skyward. I gulp.Before making the return trip, we have a few hours to kill at the small American outpost at Ad Mahmudiya -- or FOB Shithole, as the soldiers here call it, using the acronym for Forwarding Operating Base. Life for the few hundred troops couldnt be much different than the relative luxury and safety of the complex where Im staying. Soldiers are packed into converted shipping containers and concrete bunkers. Piles of scrap metal and shot-up cars litter the base. The PX and the operations center recently burned to the ground. Helmets and body armor are required wearing at all times.I sit behind one of the Black Hawks two gunners for the ride back. And this time, the noise is even worse, with a high-pitched whirr from the rotor, I figure joining the chomp of the blades and the roar of the wind passing over the the weapon. The gusts are so strong, its a struggle just to lift my arms to take a picture.The captain wasnt kidding. The copter does fire off rainbow-colored, almost iridescent, countermeasures a minute or two after we get into the air. But there arent any missiles to distract. The rolls are less intense. The dips are less severe. And were back at base just a short while later safe, sound, and wish granted.
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