The ambush began at 8 in the morning, as rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire shook the dirt at the small outpost on the Pakistani border. Taliban fighters had taken up positions on the mountainside overnight, sneaking in on a path known for ferrying suicide bombers into Afghanistan. I crouched behind a row of sandbags, 100 yards from an Afghan soldier who'd spent the previous night smoking hash. He was now shooting a PKM machine gun, laughing wildly while wearing only flip-flops, boxers, and a ripped T-shirt. Nearby, the infantry platoon of 20 Americans I was embedded with were firing their own weapons at boulders and cave openings, trying to hit an enemy they couldn't see.
The soldiers tried to call in artillery support, but because they couldn't pinpoint where the firing was coming from, their request was denied. It was another dicey shit fight on some worthless hill in Afghanistan: American troops under attack, wondering if this would be the time the Taliban would get the upper hand.
That's when I heard a thwump-thwump-thwumping – the distinctive sound of rotor blades. I looked over my shoulder, and two small helicopters were cutting high across the horizon. It seemed as if they were floating over the mountaintop, pausing like a pair of deranged hummingbirds ready to dart to the ground.
They came in hot – the first one swooped directly overhead, strafing the mountainside with .50-caliber fire; the second let loose with four rockets. With each boom, the Americans on the ground let out a hoot – enjoying a brief respite from the fighting to watch the fireworks show.
The Kiowas came around for a second pass. The whole strike took maybe three or four minutes, but when it was finished, there was no more firing coming from those mountains. The insurgents had either been killed or run away. Either way the Kiowas had put a quick end to the threat.
This wasn't my first encounter with the helicopters officially known as OH-58 Kiowa Warriors – just the most harrowing. During the five years I'd spent covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had often seen these tiny birds, each about the size of a Suburban, flying around. They aren't nearly as pimped out as the $32 million Apaches or as intimidating to look at as the workhorse-like Black Hawks. But they are wonders of precision, buzzing the landscape at less than 50 feet or zipping in and out of canyons and mountain passes like lethal mosquitoes. On more than one occasion while working in Baghdad, I had watched from my balcony as the Kiowas got scary-close while circling the hotel – probably providing security for a VIP or escorting a ground patrol.
It's this agility that has made the Kiowas and their ballsy pilots arguably the most vital air weapons of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. America's counterinsurgency strategy, erected on the notion that the best way to fight terrorism is by nation building in these countries, has put an emphasis on limiting civilian deaths and property damage. In this kind of war – one with no traditional fronts, no columns of tanks to take out, but instead groups of insurgents holed up in populated areas or craggy mountainsides – precision trumps brute force. That has translated into a significant scaling back on the use of artillery and "fast mover" aircraft like fighter jets and the more deadly Apache helicopters, which can fire from miles away.
With their ability to get in close to the enemy, the Kiowas, nearly discarded remnants from the Vietnam War, have emerged as America's modern-day cavalry. Not only are these nimble helicopters particularly useful in spotting roadside bombs – the number one killer of U.S. troops – they are one of the last high-powered weapons infantrymen can call on to bail them out when taking fire. "They pack a pretty good punch and are reasonably precise," says John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org. "If you were dealing with the Soviet Union, a 15-megaton bomb would suffice. But in Afghanistan, where you are fighting smaller enemy units hiding in villages, you need an aircraft like the Kiowa."
And you need a special kind of pilot – one willing to wage low-altitude gunfights on an almost daily basis. "Our job is to put ourselves between the infantry and the enemy," explains Chief Warrant Officer and Kiowa pilot Krystian McKeown. "If we aren't getting shot at, we're not doing our job."
Even other pilots have a grudging respect for the cowboys who fly Kiowas. "We're thinking they're crazy," says one Apache pilot. "They fly so low, sometimes 10 feet off the ground." Or, as Lt. Col. Scott Rauer, Kiowa product manager in Huntsville, Alabama, puts it: "They are a curious, aggressive, street fighter kind of guy. They are down there, eyeball-to-eyeball with the infantry."
Not surprisingly, flying a Kiowa is one of the most dangerous assignments of the war. According to U.S. Army stats, the Kiowa has the second highest crash rate among Army aircraft (the Apache is first). At least 35 Kiowas have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a combination of reasons for that: It has a single engine (with no backup), it routinely flies low (well within range of RPGs, AK-47s, and telephone wires), and the very nature of its missions brings it to wherever the action is. It is the most-used Army aircraft in the recent wars, logging some 600,000 hours of combat since 2001.