Flying with lights out, through narrow passes of the Hindu Kush mountains at elevations of up to 12,000 feet, the Apache pilot, Chief Warrant Officer James Reeves, had a lot on his mind.
It was Nov. 7, and one of the largest night air assaults by US forces in Afghanistan was underway in what Chief Reeves and his fellow pilots consider some of the world's most treacherous terrain.
With a mass of aircraft unloading ground troops on steep, sometimes snow-covered slopes and protecting them from above, Reeves had to avoid collision in pitch darkness. He had to be alert for enemy attacks. And all the while, he had to pay keen attention to the limits of his aircraft and his body in the thin air, knowing the slightest slip could bring disaster.
"This is by far the most unforgiving, harsh environment we've been in," he says. "There's less room for error everywhere."
The work of Army and Marine aviators is as vital to US operations here as it is perilous - a fact underscored by a crash Sunday that killed five soldiers. More so than in Iraq, helicopters are a mainstay and a vulnerability of military operations in Afghanistan, a land-locked country with scarce paved roads, jutting mountain ranges, and a growing threat of Taliban and Al Qaeda ambushes.
The crash outside Bagram Air Base is under investigation, with mechanical failure the suspected cause in spite of Taliban claims to have shot the craft down. The special operations MH-53 Pave Low helicopter was supporting the 10th Mountain Division infantry in Operation Mountain Resolve, now winding down in Afghanistan's northeast. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly referred to the MH-53 as being operated by the Army.]
Despite the risks, helicopters are critical to move troops swiftly, provide firepower for ground patrols, and ferry supplies to remote forward bases.
The necessity of air rather than ground transport is one factor that makes the US presence here relatively expensive. Military operations in Afghanistan cost about $1 billion a month, compared to $4 billion in Iraq where the US force is more than ten times larger.
"We've flown an unbelievable amount of hours in the last month - about what we would fly in five months back home at the normal operational tempo," says Lt. Col. William Coats, who commands the 1-130th Aviation Battalion of the North Carolina National Guard.
Indeed, the beating of rotors seems virtually non-stop at this fortified Soviet-built base north of Kabul, as Apache gunships, CH-47 transport helicopters, and UH-60 Black Hawks set off on missions around the country.
Maintenance teams work around the clock in 12-hour shifts, fixing snapped rotor heads and filters burned up from the stress on the aircraft, says Sgt. Kenneth Lavway, a crew chief from Randleman, North Carolina. The fine Afghan dust coats the helicopters, which require continual washing, says 1st Sgt. Andrew Ford.
For pilots, the rocky slopes make for delicate maneuvers so risky they aren't taught in training. During this month's operation, for example, Chinook pilots had to inch backwards and touch down with only one wheel pivoting against a steep mountainside, and then hover while they disgorged full loads of troops.
"You're only two feet from life or death," says Chinook Capt. James Clark of Spokane, Wash., who made the one-wheel landing on a ledge 3,000 feet high. Two feet was the distance between the 60-ft. rotor span and the mountain rocks and trees.
At another landing zone, Captain Clark faced the blur of blowing snow as he struggled to keep the craft steady while troops dropped into the waist-deep powder.
Near-vertical valley walls forced pilots like Clark to descend with little forward movement - raising the chances the helicopters would lose their lift.
Moreover, the high, cold air leaves the aircraft with less power and lift, giving the pilots little margin for mistakes. "If we get too slow, too low, or too steep in a turn we can run out of power and have no time to recover," Reeves says. The lack of oxygen also means pilots must limit their time flying at elevations above 10,000 feet.
Meanwhile, though enemy fire is infrequent, the risk is always there and some pilots have found bullet holes in their aircraft after missions. The helicopters carry either flares or chafe to divert guided weapons, but evasive tactics are their only protection against ground fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
"Every time you go out, you could be flying into a hornet's nest," says Chief Warrant Officer O'Neil Williams, an aviation safety officer. At the slightest mention of mishaps, Reeves and his comrades vigorously rap on wood.