All I can say is that today's ride made this entire Afghanistan trip worth the price of admission.
The day started slowly, with cold rain, mud, and a still uneasy queasy feeling after battling a persistent case of moderate GI illness. Blah. Yes, the cold weather and precipitation had draped the surrounding hills and mountains in picturesque clouds and misty blankets of snow. Yes, it was very different than familiar Camp Spann. But being sick, cold and away from my 'home away from home' was starting to wear thin on me. We dutifully packed and assembled much as we had done yesterday. The German Air Officer put it best "The Runway is under water". After having our luggage checked, we assembled three different times throughout the day.
#1, Good, you are here, report back at 1000
#2, There will be no planes today, perhaps we can get some helicopters report back at 1130- (the previous day getting helicopters meant less seats, so we got 'bumped' off the roster. The helicopters were reportedly old MI-8 Russian types which did not inspire confidence.)
#3, Report back here when you hear the loudspeaker announcement (Since we could not tell what was being said in German, we just shambled back to the assembly point with all of our gear when we heard any announcement)
Needless to say at this point I was feeling low and had mentally prepared myself for another day of trudging through cold mud and sleeping in a cold tent.
Imagine my suprise when the Air Officer instructed us to get into the Armored vehicles to meet the helicopters (I think he was feeling sorry for us). When we arrived I found an old friend awaiting me. The Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion is the veritable airframe that has transported innumerable Marines over the 30+ years of its life with the USMC. Here in the northern region of Afghanistan, the Germans fly a new and improved CH-53GS model suited for the harsh dust environment and able to provide heavy lift even to the altitudes in Badakshan. With typical German efficiency we had our luggage stored and secured.
I hope to always remember this flight. We flew Nap Of the Earth (NOE), which in laymans terms means as fast and as frightfully low as is humanly possible. The rear ramp was open so I had a good view as the hills and mountains of Afghanistan unfolded like a book or a travel brochure. The pilot seemed to almost scrape every hill, ridge and mountain as we passed over them. We were between 5 and 50 meters from the ground for the entire flight to Konduz. It is an intimate, unvarnished way to see and appreciate the land and people of Afghanistan. There were solitary farm mud huts, hillside villages, miles and miles of tilled fields to be seen. I really had a hard time convincing myself that we were in a country at war. We got so close I could probably tell you the gender of each of the thousands of goats we saw. We were so close you could smell Afghanistan: the fields, the livestock, the fires warming the houses and baking naan. Every now and then I could see the second helicopter follow in our wake, shadowing us along our route. Several times I looked out both sets of side windows and saw canyon walls on both sides. We streaked past snow covered meadows, mountain streams, and forbidding steep mountains. Even in the hinterlands there were women in burkhas. Occasionally as we careened over a ridge the goats and sheep startled and ran panicked to their shepherds. I saw a fox run for cover. There were many communal holes in the sides of the hills like rabbits or marmots might make. The speed was intoxicating and the view was phenomenal. It was the best way to see the real Afghanistan. Any amount of pictures cannot truly impart the feeling of exhilaration, thrill and wonder I felt during this ride.
Like any good ride, it came to an end all too soon. At the Konduz PRT we refueled and remounted the Stallion for a more leisurely trip over the desert. I saw some camels and a hawk on this leg of the journey. It was getting dark when we landed at Camp Marmol. Our luck further held out, there was a patrol headed for Spann as soon as we got off at the passenger terminal!