Memories of Kosovo
A helicopter pilot recalls his peacekeeping tour of duty over one of the world's most strife-torn regions.
- By Jonathan Knaul
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 4 of 5)
When I arrive at Sheremet’s home, his family immediately invites me and my driver, Corporal Carlo Senegal, into their home. A single 30-foot-square room, which Sheremet and seven members of his family must share, serves all of them as bedroom, guest room, and kitchen.
While we sit and speak to his father in French, Sheremet’s older sister quietly pours coffee from a golden metal decanter into small cups that hold no more than a couple of ounces. But then, with this coffee, two ounces is more than enough. It is closer in texture to maple syrup than to what we know as coffee in North America. The coffee is very sweet, the taste is pleasant, and it warms me.
The room is cool and damp, and Sheremet’s father offers to light the woodstove. I decline, having noticed that there was no wood stored outside the house. After half an hour, Carlo and I prepare to leave. Sheremet’s father invites us to stay for supper, but they have little food, and we politely decline the offer. I also have a night mission that takes off in less than three hours.
Shortly after 7:30 p.m., Stéphane, Alain, and I are flying toward a map grid reference—the only information we have—where we are to pick up four members of a Swedish reconnaissance section. From the map, we can see that the landing zone lies in a narrow valley close to the border with Serbia. To add to the difficulty of the mission, it is a cloudy, snowy night with limited visibility in a region that is very mountainous. In these conditions, the performance of our night-vision goggles, which amplify ambient light, is significantly diminished. Canadian Forces rules allow us to fly when the visibility is as low as one nautical mile (a bit more than a statute mile) if we can remain 200 feet above the highest obstacle. Flying at the edge of our weather limits with a fuzzy picture through the goggles is very uncomfortable, like driving down the highway in a downpour. To get to the pickup zone, we have to wind through valleys to avoid the overcast, which is pierced only by mountaintops. It is important that we complete this mission. It is another sub-zero night, and the Swedish patrol will have to spend it outdoors in a high-threat area if we don’t pick them up.
Arriving in the vicinity of the grid reference, we see two flashes through the murk from a handheld light, indicating the exact location for pickup. There are no other lights available to wave us in; we are close to the border and the helicopter must remain blacked out, as must the people below. We circle once to get a good look at the landing zone. I can see that the LZ is in a tight spot. In the narrow valley, and with the strong winds prevailing from the north, there is only one option for the approach—from the south. We will have to fly over some electrical lines, and there are also lines on the left of the LZ and trees on the right. There will be no room for error, as there is just enough space in the LZ to fit one helicopter. I confirm the location with Stéphane and Alain and give an abbreviated briefing on how I will fly the approach. Stéphane gives me some tips; he has much more experience than I do.
Stéphane keeps his hands close to the controls as I make the approach. If I lose battery power to my goggles, I will be blind and he’ll have to take over. A hundred feet high and 300 feet away from the landing zone, the approach looks good, but I start to feel the embrace of the valley around me. Alain has the back door on my side open and his head is outside the aircraft. I can hear his voice shiver as he reports our proximity to obstacles. A soldier in a clearing is signaling to us with his hands, but I am barely able to make him out. Stéphane continues to coach me through the approach. Thirty feet high and 30 feet away from the LZ, the downwash from the rotors engulfs us in a thick, blinding snow cloud. Alain is still able to see the ground, but I lose all outside visual references. I immediately inform Stéphane, who still has the ground in sight on his side of the helicopter. Stéphane takes over and plants us firmly in the near-knee-high snow.
The four Swedish soldiers jump aboard our aircraft, each carrying a backpack weighing about 80 pounds. With the snow and added weight, the takeoff will be even trickier than the landing. We are tight on fuel, close to the Serbian border, and we cannot linger on the ground. Alain calls “Ready” and I commence the takeoff. Feeling the urgency to depart, I yank the helicopter off the ground. Instantly our aircraft is smothered in snow and all three of us lose sight of the ground. There is only one option, so our eyes immediately go to the instruments to keep the helicopter level and climbing—a tough transition to make rapidly when you have been looking outside for the past hour. The troops in the back are oblivious to all this; they’re just happy to be in a warm place. My fingers tense as I imagine the wires to the left of me and the trees to the right, which I can no longer see. Alain is unable to keep his head outside the aircraft because of the intense blowing snow. The seconds feel like hours, and a sense of frustration washes over me. I want to see outside and be reassured that we’re clear of the obstacles. Finally we break out of the snow cloud and find our aircraft in a safe climb out of the valley.
We still have to weave through more valleys to clear the clouds on our way home. Mindful that valleys are ideal places to hit electrical wires, my eyes strain to detect surprises. We are also low on fuel, and the doors start to close around us. Back in Canada this would not be as big a problem—we are in a helicopter and can land in any open field. But this is Kosovo, where there are reported to be more than 20,000 buried mines in the British-Canadian area of responsibility alone. Stéphane knows how to work the fuel-remaining numbers, and minutes later we break out of the mountains and into the lights of Pristina. We drop off our passengers at the Swedish camp on the outskirts of the capital. The weather is much improved between here and the Canadian camp, and we have enough fuel to make it back with a safe reserve.