Machines, Ancient and New

The decades-old Sea Knight helicopter has a few new tricks, these days: infra-red countermeasures, night-vision-goggle-compatible cockpit lighting and uprated engines. But it still looks and feels like a Vietnam-era machine.buffalo_front.jpgThe copter is so slow that the Marines fly routine passenger flights only at night. The Sea Knight's ramp doesn't fully close, so flying low over Baghdad at night, the cold wind sweeps in and chills my feet blue. Wobbling towards the Al Taqqadum air base, I can look out the back over the million lights and red gas flares of the hellish city.The helicopters aren't much to look at, either -- like anemic gray Chinooks is the best description -- but the 200 Sea Knights made for the Marines have performed well, lately. Attentive maintenance and prudent upgrades mean their reliability rates are better than ever. They've even been pressed into service as medical evacuation choppers, contributing to the multi-service medevac plan in battles like that for Fallujah. With their replacement, the troubled V-22 Osprey, due for a big budget cut, some Sea Knights might very well see 50 -- making them among the longest-serving helicopters ever.The Marines are infamous for using weapon-of-yesteryear, and the Sea Knights are among the most ancient. But on the ground at Al Taqqadum, the Corps' newest machines are on display. Outside a rec center I spotted an immaculate Buffalo IED-clearing vehicle parked next to a brand-new Cougar, one of at least two potential Humvee replacements alongside the Ultra AP. Marines swear by the Cougar. One story circulating Al Taqaddum is that one of the Cougar got blown up a few weeks ago by an IED big enough to take out an up-armored Humvee. While the Cougar took some damage and eventually got shipped out for study and repair, all four Marines inside survived.Just goes to show you: old weapons are adequate if you take care of them, but sometimes new ones are better than adequate. Sometimes they even save lives.-- David Axe

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