A couple of days after I started flying a lot with my Aviation Battalion, one of the Crew Chiefs allowed me to use his flyer's helmet and one of his buddies arranged with the pilots of the aircraft to let me sit in the Crew Chief's seat during the flight. (That Crew Chief sat sideways on the seat where I’d usually sit, with the door of the aircraft open, and did his job from there.)
I’d done quite a bit of flying while I was in Iraq, and had had a few flights here in Kosovo up to this point. The opportunity to sit in that seat was a first for me.
Passenger seats in the aircraft have a four-point restraint system: two lab belts and two shoulder harnesses. In Iraq, the first time I went outside the wire via aircraft the Crew Chief belted me in, and once the aircraft began to move, I cinched each of the belts as tightly as they could go, I suspect. Having never flown via helicopter up to that point, and knowing I was flying off the relatively safe Post into what was a complete unknown to me, I was very aware of how hot the ambient temperature was, and that I was wearing full battle-rattle.
I was, in a word, terrified.
At some level I suspect my broken brain had the rest of me convinced that if I were just belted in tightly enough, that would help keep the aircraft in the air, or something.
Not very rational, but then, how rational was it to have joined the Army in my dotage?
What those belts did do, especially as securely fastened as I had them, was to keep me pretty much immobilized, and facing forward. There’s not much to see in a Black Hawk if one only faces straight ahead. If I happened to be seated next to a door, I had a difficult time looking outside the aircraft if I couldn’t pivot at all in my seat.
Not the best approach to that situation, I’d say.
Over the course of my time in Iraq, and the more than 150 flights I took, I pretty much always kept those belts as tight as I could get them, I’m ashamed to say.
The Crew Chiefs are belted in using a five-point restraint system which allows them to move forward far enough to stretch outside the aircraft through the hatch in front of them. (The extra belt comes up between the legs.) Crew Chiefs need to be able to see the helicopter’s wheels, for example, as the aircraft is landing. The only way to do that is to lean out of the window, which would not be possible with the other kind of restraint system.
It felt weird to face forward and be able to see outside the helicopter. I was very aware of being able to move forward in the seat, and toward the open hatch – especially when we were turning sharply to the left, and I was facing the ground while still looking straight ahead! It was exhilarating.
I did find myself hanging on to the seat or to the upper hand-hold much more tightly and often than my friends do, though!
Blessings and peace to one and all,
Fr. Tim, SJ