Our pilot, Ataullah (Afghans frequently go by a single name), is middle-aged, and was trained by the Soviets. Flying for 26 years, first for the Soviet-backed Afghan government and later for several factions during the civil war, he has had a lot of experience being shot at. The copilot is U.S. Air Force mentor Lieutenant Colonel Percy Dunagin, a veteran of special operations. Dunagin’s wry humor and sharp eye suggest he’s ready for anything. The pilot and copilot communicate through a translator, an Afghan with chubby cheeks who looks anything but battle-tested. In the back is another mentor, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carl Cole, manning a Soviet PKM 7.62-mm machine gun in the heavy wind of the open doorway. An intense, no-nonsense soldier who believes being a Marine drill instructor is the perfect job, Cole is drooling-ready for a Taliban attack. On the other machine gun is a young, laid-back Afghan.
“Apache here in seven minutes,” Dunagin tells us over the radio.
The Apache, armed with an M230 30-mm cannon and up to 16 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, is our aerial guard dog. The Afghan air force is a “beans and bullets” operation: mainly combat-support missions. Today’s flight, ferrying materiel and troops around the country, is typical. Last summer, the Afghans took a step forward, using Mi-35s to provide combat escort for their Mi-17 transports.
“Gunny, see the Apache yet?” Dunagin asks.
Leaning out the door and craning his head around and up, Cole replies, “At 11 o’clock sir!”
As we begin our descent, Cole’s eyes dart over the terrain, which shifts from desolate desert to isolated mud-walled houses. The Afghan gunner is up off the floor now, with both hands on his machine gun. Our helicopter swoops into a British forward operating base, touching down on tiny concrete slabs surrounded by high blast walls. As the Apache circles overhead, Cole jumps out and races to several British soldiers. He returns and shouts into the radio, “Sir, they’re not here. Maybe at the airport.”
We lift off and scoot over the small town to reach the airport. Cole races out and returns with six Afghan soldiers. Then we shoot up and barrel out of Lashkar Gah. A few minutes later, the Apache peels off.
Flying north, our two helicopters crawl over the hacksaw-ridge mountains. In a natural bowl below is a pristine lake with green water. Although poor at maneuverability, the Mi-17 excels at high altitudes, which is crucial here.
On the backside of the ridge, we slide down to a desert plain and land at Tarin Kowt. The six soldiers disembark, and several Afghan soldiers arrive to unload the boxes of rifles into a truck.
Rolling down the gravel runway with 15 combat troops and gear piled to nearly the roof, our helicopter lifts and climbs. In five minutes we’re sailing over a mountain range with sharp peaks. On the other side is a near-vertical drop to a wide plateau. We touch down just outside a small base, and with engines running and blades churning up a vicious sand storm, Cole sprints off with the 15 Afghan soldiers following and soon returns with a dozen carrying large green bags and long poles. Fifteen minutes later, we’ve reached the next base, but we’re forced to circle for 20 minutes until two other helicopters take off.