Kiowa Helicopters, America's New Cavalry
Credit: Chris Hondros / Getty Images

For the infantry who rely on them, they are a godsend. "The Kiowas are an amazing asset for us ground pounders," says Staff Sergeant Joe Biggs, who has served three combat tours and was with me on that mountainside on the border of Pakistan in October 2008. "They have saved my ass on numerous occasions."

My younger brother knows exactly what Biggs is talking about. He was an infantry platoon leader in Iraq, and during one fight in the Sunni Triangle, at the height of the surge in June 2007, his unit was taking heavy fire on the roof of a building as 30 Al Qaeda insurgents began to encircle them from below. That's when he called in the Kiowas. Arriving within 10 minutes, they decimated the enemy forces. "When you see those pilots in Afghanistan," my brother told me, "tell them I say thanks."

It's 3:30 in the morning, and Captain Stephen Irving is beginning his commute to work. Here at Kandahar Airfield, the pilot barracks – container-like white boxes that pass for apartments – are on the opposite side of the complex from the airfield itself, some five miles away. Irving, a Kiowa pilot, is joined by five other pilots in a white minivan, crawling slowly along the bumpy road. Very slowly. There's a 20-kilometer-per-hour speed limit on base, and it's well enforced. The temperature has dropped to a bearable 75 degrees; early morning is the only civilized time of day in Kandahar. Floodlights and kicked-up dust lend the black sky an eerie pinkish tint, giving the base the feel of an empty fairground after the carnies have cleared out.

Irving, commander of Banshee troop in the 2-17 Cavalry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, will lead today's mission: a routine patrol to check for roadside bombs, scout enemy movements, and be on call in case ground troops come under attack. The 34-year-old father of two from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is about as straight-arrow as they come. He doesn't even swear, which is an incredible feat in this environment where fucks and shits and motherfucking cocksuckers pass for verbs. He's on his third combat tour – one in Iraq, two in Afghanistan – and like a number of the Kiowa pilots, he started in the infantry before deciding there were better ways to travel during wartime. "For us, it's a way of life now," he says. "I have more memories of doing this than of my life back home."

Once they arrive at the airfield, he and his co-pilot today, Chief Warrant Officer Josh Price, walk out to their Kiowa, parked in a spot protected on three sides by concrete blast walls. Price has dubbed their bird "Gertrude." The mission is still five hours away, but the two go through their pre-flight rituals. Irving cocks his pistol and puts it in his side holster, then he and Price load up their M4 carbines with tracer rounds and strap them to the dash – not as a last resort in case they wreck, but because sometimes, at close range, they'll lean out the door and take aim at the Taliban. ("Some of these guys have confirmed kills just shooting the M4," a helicopter mechanic tells me.)

At a glance, the Kiowa looks like something a traffic reporter might use. With only two seats and one engine, it is tiny. The fuel load alone of an Apache is half the weight of one Kiowa. The armor plating is frighteningly thin, and the cockpit is so cramped, especially with the pilots' bulky body armor and helmets, that you wouldn't be able to fit even a suitcase behind their heads. The inside of the bird is straight out of a '70s action flick: lots of buttons and switches, a far cry from the glitzy electronic dashes in most modern aircraft.

The fact that the Kiowas have far fewer automatic piloting functions than the Apaches and Black Hawks is actually a point of pride. "I tell the other pilots we're the only ones who fly our aircraft anymore," says Kiowa pilot Captain Chaz Allen. "The rest of them are just pushing buttons." (Those pilots good-naturedly fire back, referring to the Kiowas as "flying lawn mowers." During his flight school, Allen recalls, the instructor showed a picture of the sexy Apache blasting a Hellfire missile and a Black Hawk gloriously swooping over water. For the Kiowa, he flashed a picture of a radio-operated whirlybird.)

Irving climbs up on the helicopter to look at the "mast-mounted site" – the distinctive big round ball sticking out at the top that adds to the helicopter's insect-like appearance. The most high-tech contraption on the aircraft, it's used for thermal imaging and daytime video monitoring, but even that function doesn't look that special – a green-screen monitor reminiscent of an Atari game. In this terrain, Irving tells me that he prefers to simply use binoculars.