With all the high-tech, superexpensive weapons at America's disposal (think Predator drones and F-18s), it's ironic that the military has turned to such low-tech (and relatively cheap, with a price tag of $10 million to $12 million) machinery. In fact, the Kiowa wasn't even created as an attack vehicle. It was introduced in Vietnam in 1969 as a scout helicopter, choosing targets for other aircraft. In 1991 it was given a better weapons system to increase its attack capabilities, but it was still seen primarily as a scout. Over the years, the military has flirted with scrapping the Kiowa a couple of times, including as recently as 2008. But instead the Army decided to embrace its combat potential, updating the .50-caliber machine gun to make it more accurate, and the helicopter can now handle up to four Hellfire missiles.
Other than that, though, it's still essentially the same machine that first flew over the jungles of the Mekong Delta. In fact, the last new U.S. Kiowa rolled off the assembly line in 1989, making the youngest bird in the fleet 21 years old. The average age of a Kiowa airframe is 39. "We'd be talking to Vietnam veterans," says Captain Clint "Birdman" Hooker, "and it's amazing how much being a Cav pilot hasn't changed a bit."
Neither have the kinds of guys who fly the Kiowas. When I first arrived at Kandahar Airfield, a number of pilots told me I needed to speak with Chief Warrant Officer Jeremy Woehlert. Woehlert, it seems, is a legend in the unit for his daredevil flying and his many brushes with death. He is 35 and on his fourth tour. It was on his second tour that Woehlert had his closest call. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, he was flying at about 20 feet off the rooftops when he ran into some power lines. He lost his tail rotor and landed hard, triggering the Kiowa's airbag. He and his co-pilot grabbed their rifles and waited for a Special Forces unit to show up. It was the longest 20 minutes of his life. "I was lucky it was an election day, and no one was around, because we were in a bad part of town," Woehlert says. He describes his third tour – up in Jalalabad in Afghanistan – as him being a "bullet magnet." On one occasion, after launching a rocket into a cave, he heard the ping of a bullet hitting metal. When he got back to base, he saw that the bullet had missed him by about a foot and cut through the cables powering the instrument panel.
In June, just two weeks before I arrived, Woehlert found himself in a major battle. He shot up a grape hut from which insurgents had fired at him, and when he looked back, he saw some 20 other enemy positions nearby opening up on him. "It was like the Fourth of July or some kind of laser show," he says. "I wanted to go back over and shoot – I don't like getting shot at without shooting back – but then reality kicked in: Don't do it, dumbass."
Only a few months into his fourth tour, Woehlert is already planning to sign up for a fifth. How does his wife back home in Tennessee feel about that? "She's the one who encouraged me to join the helicopters," he says. "She's real good with it. I tell her every time I get shot at." He worries that he might have a tough time adjusting to normal life once the war ends. It's hard for him to imagine a future without flying. "I live for that adrenaline," he says.
Woehlert is not the only one in the troop who has had close calls. One twentysomething pilot on his second tour has already crashed four times. The week before I arrived, another pilot had crashed after kicking up too much dust – called a brownout – and was now walking around with a bandage on his nose. There are so many ways to crash – brownouts, hitting power lines, getting shot at from above by insurgents hiding in the mountains, getting shot at by insurgents hiding in the thick grape fields, excessive heat (the aircraft doesn't work well once the air gets too hot), bad weather, a grueling schedule leading to mechanical failure – it's no wonder that some 35 Kiowa pilots have died during the current campaigns.
Because the Kiowas fly so close to the ground, Irving tells me, they are often used to gauge enemy and friendly areas, based on the reaction of the Afghans. Friendlies wave and smile, while hostiles throw rocks and show the bottom of the soles of their feet, an insult in the Muslim world. In fact, swooping in so low, so loudly, the Kiowas tend to freak the shit out of the Taliban. Irving and Price witnessed that in June when they were called in to aid an Afghan base that was being overrun. A car bomb had breached the gate, and two suicide bombers, following up on foot, tried to rush through. But when one of the bombers heard Price buzz in overhead in his Kiowa, he "paused and looked up," Price recalls. Likely fearing he would get shot, the insurgent detonated his bomb prematurely, his body evaporating into what Price describes as "a pink mist."
At 6:45 am, Lt. Col. Hank Taylor, the squadron commander, stands in front of a map of the surrounding area and goes over today's mission: Two Kiowas will scout for improvised explosive devices along Highway 1, which leads to Kandahar City, and will be available in case any American or Afghan troops need them. It's a garden-variety patrol, but for them that usually means getting shot at. A Black Hawk will follow with what is essentially a well-armed search and rescue team, in case they're needed, and I'll be in a second Black Hawk, so that I can observe the Kiowas on their mission – an unprecedented civilian look at them in action.
Taylor is about 6-foot-5, thick, and what folks in the military call a hard-charger. "Do your normal business," he tells the eight pilots gathered in the room. "Be safe. This is a combat zone out there, and there are people trying to shoot us down every day."
Taylor passes the brief over to Irving to get into the specifics. The briefing lasts 30 minutes, though years of information and training are compressed into shorthand and jargon, making the gist nearly indecipherable to an outsider. Here's how Irving begins, verbatim: "Twenty-three June, scouts weapons, two, UH-60, 0800 to 1300, QRF at the back end. Risk assessment? You signed? Maps? Primarily one change, call sign Hard Luck Two Three One. I have one of the new pilot packs, with new call signs, briefs, pod locations. Anybody tired? No. TAC charge. No change to that. No change to the EGI bridges, weight point loads, current as two-zero June. NVGS, should have them, spare batters. Camera. PCI on the camera. Data card, battery. Task work, lead scout aircraft nine-nine-six parked on Foxtrot One Long Knife One Two. Config is rocket-rocket."
In other words, they're ready to fly. Two hours later, the Kiowas are in the air, about 100 feet above Highway 1, checking out a few places where they think insurgents might place IEDs. We are a few hundred feet above the Kiowas, watching as they bob up and down, zipping above telephone poles, following the road, every few minutes hovering to get a closer look at a car or a gathering of people. After about 20 minutes of this, the birds turn east, away from the villages and into the mountains, swooping over terrain that's straight out of Star Wars – endless blood-colored meridian dunes, steep cliffs, rocky mountain faces. Soon the Kiowas take turns letting off rounds of both the rocket and .50-caliber into the craggy mountainside.
"They're doing a test fire," the squadron commander Taylor, who is inside the Black Hawk with me, explains over the radio headset. "They need to make sure their weapons are in working order."
We head back to base for refueling, then continue west, over the city of Kandahar and its outskirts: brick factories and farmlands of thick grape fields.
It's been about an hour since we first took off, and nothing has happened. I'm hot and tired and start to think this is just a dog and pony show. My head droops and my eyes close. I start to doze off.
"Troops in contact," Taylor suddenly yells over the radio.
I startle awake, dropping my pen. It rolls back under the Black Hawk seat.
Along Highway 1, connecting Kandahar to Kabul, a patrol of American soldiers have been ambushed. Irving and Price, flying the tail Kiowa, peel off in that direction, followed closely by the second Kiowa. Information about the enemy comes in over the radio: They are well-armed, with machine guns and RPGs.