CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan – Marines are fond of saying, “Welcome to the suck.” I’m beginning to understand why.
Last night, a journalist with NATO TV, Military Times photographer Tom Brown and I caught our heavily anticipated flight to Marjah out of Camp Leatherneck, the Marine Corps’ major operating base in Afghanistan. We planned to land at Landing Zone Currier, which services 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, in northern Marjah. We hopped a CH-53 at Camp Bastion to leave Leatherneck around 7 p.m. under relatively clear skies, and began an easy-going flight.
Throughout the flight, everything appeared to be fine to the untrained eye. The crew with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, handled everything calmly, tested its machine guns and appeared to put the helo through a series of other routine checks. Not an eyebrow was raised.
Thirty minutes after takeoff, however, things deteriorated. The pilot, Capt. Pete Stachowicz, landed at Camp Dwyer, a planned stop along the way, and noted that his visibility had deteriorated to about a quarter-mile – far less than the five miles that had been predicted when we lifted off at Bastion. The crew quickly approached its passengers and told us that bad weather was coming, and that they thought it best to wait it out on the flightline. Meh. No big deal, we thought.
We were wrong. By 8 p.m., a sandstorm ripped through the Helmand River Valley, blasting the helicopter and everything else in sight with an onslaught of grit surpassing 40 mph. Since the CH-53 flies with its back hatch open, everything in sight was coated with a quickly growing layer of desert sand, and there was no end in sight.
At this point in the story, I’ll be honest: I was amused. If you’re going to go to Afghanistan, you need a few interesting stories to tell, and this seemed like a perfect one.
But the wind kept howling. And howling. And howling.
By about 8:45, the lights in the helicopter flickered, then came back on. The sand had apparently killed the helicopter’s primary electrical generator, prompting the flickering as the second generator came on, Stachowicz later said. While the helicopter can fly with just one, it is typically done only when necessary. That meant the Marines tethering the aircraft to the flightline and all of us leaving it in the raging sandstorm.
With the helicopter secured, I exited the back entrance of the helicopter behind a crew member into darkness, wearing my pack, sunglasses to shield my eyes and a headlamp to provide light in the maelstrom. The sand filled my ears, eyes, nose and clothing, the wind repeatedly snapping helmet straps against my cheek. After maybe a two-minute walk, we took cover in the alcove of the landing zone’s office.
At first, I blew it off. I mean, we’re in Afghanistan, right? Strange things happen. But the crew appeared frustrated by the incident, and said they never received a weather report indicating a sandstorm coming before they left Bastion.
“As soon as we got within 10 miles [of Dwyer]the visibility got worse and worse and worse,” Stachowicz said after we were under cover. “Then we saw a wall and got absolutely sandblasted.”
Once issued, the report for the storm said it would be of average length, about 30 minutes. But it continued on for more than two hours at Dwyer and other nearby bases, grounding dozens of flights.
There isn’t much else to add, really – I’m grateful Stachowicz and his crew were ready for the problem, and consider myself fortunate we landed when we did.
Oh, one other thing: I’m still waiting for that flight to Marjah. There’s always tomorrow, right?