Magic Carpet Ride

14 May 2004

The sound I most associate with Baghdad, the sound that tells me right away that I am in a combat zone, is the beating blades of the various U.S. Army helicopters that patrol the skies of the Iraqi capital.  Hardly five minutes go by without the sound of a Kiowa, Blackhawk, Apache, or twin-rotored Chinook stirring the air and interrupting conversations for a few seconds.  “Hold on,” I say into my cell phone, “there’s a helicopter flying overhead.” 

I don’t recall seeing helicopters routinely in America.  Television traffic copters are occasionally spied during rush hour commutes.  These rare encounters are always exciting.  They often inspire those craning their necks on the ground to wave spontaneously and to wonder, “Am I on TV right now?”

It has never occurred to me to wave to one of the army helicopters flying overhead above the palms and blue-domed mosques of Baghdad.  The door gunners with their big, black sun visors coming half-way down their faces look very serious, in keeping with the sobriety of their mission.  Their sobriety deserves a like response, and so I act as if it’s no big thing to see a helicopter flying overhead.  But privately, I get a rush every time one of them appears out of nowhere and the shadow of their black bellies moves over and through me.

This past Easter Sunday, I was in Baghdad on the last day of one of my monthly return visits to Iraq.  Due to the discovery of several improvised explosive devices along the road from the Green Zone to the airport, I was “forced” to make the short journey to the terminal in a Blackhawk helicopter.  What a treat.  We lifted off smoothly and zoomed as if on a magic carpet over the rooftops, domes, and literally tens of thousands of tall, green date palms that give wonderful color to an otherwise rather dusty, run-down capital.  I’d only been on one helicopter ride before in my whole life; the first summer I was at West Point a New York Army National Guard unit flew every new plebe up the Hudson valley in old UH-1 Hueys for a ten minute joy ride.  Fifteen earthbound years later, despite the geographic location, my ten minutes in the chopper over Baghdad was a complete thrill.  While the black-visored door gunner in front of me scowled and scanned, I was happily taking in the fleeting scenery outside and every internal lever, switch, and knob.  Shortly after our arrival at the Baghdad International Airport, we learned that an Apache had been shot down just west of town.  Lucky us.

Just this week I was in Baghdad.  I hadn’t heard helicopters in the preceding three weeks I’d spent in Amman.  I’ve pretty much compartmentalized the war so that while I’m in Jordan I exist in a different headspace and pulse rate.  The beating blades of the whirly birds made me switch gears immediately; specifically the ones with the red crosses painted underneath, which I somberly watched lift off from the Ibn Sina U.S. Army hospital to go retrieve some parents’ nightmare.

Military choppers aren’t the only ones darting around the skies of Mesopotamia.  The Blackwater Security guys, who provide Ambassador Bremer protection, move in a loud buzzing advance of his motorcade in small, civilianized MH-6 “Little Birds.”  I was driving around Saddam’s former central palace grounds with a good Iraqi friend of mine, when this civilian air armada passed overhead.  Craning to get a good look, I didn’t notice the MPs in front me who were blocking the road.  “Stop the car!” they shouted, hands uncomfortably close to their weapons.  The recent announcement that Osama Bin Laden had put a bounty of 22 pounds of gold on Mr. Bremer’s head had perhaps made everyone involved in his security a bit more vigilant.  I stopped the car immediately and waited.  Sure enough, seconds later a huge motorcade came zooming by at a million miles an hour.  It was a flying wedge of armored humvees, cannon-topped military monster trucks, and two fortified black SUVs, one containing the VIP and the other presumably a decoy.

The noise now gone and “the package” safely on its way, the MP gave us the signal to proceed.  “That’s exactly how Saddam used to travel around,” my friend said.  “Though he didn’t have those neat little helicopters.”