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

Irving is about five minutes from the scene, but as he'll explain to me later, he is already thinking tactically: What is the best way to arrive without giving away his position? Usually it's flying very low to make it harder for him to be seen and heard from a distance, then popping up at the last second, because once the Kiowas are spotted, the insurgents usually flee. Two minutes out, Irving raises the ground troops on the radio. They tell him that they've pinned down the Taliban in an orchard, but they are still taking heavy fire.

Irving's mind is racing. Where will the friendlies be? What about the Taliban? How can he best take them out – or, as he puts it, "maximize ballistic effect"?

In the trailing Black Hawk with me, Taylor points to a puff of red smoke rising up. The soldiers on the ground have tossed a can of smoke to mark the Taliban.

"Five to eight insurgents, small arms and RPG," he says.

Since the soldiers have dismounted, Irving and Price have to be careful not to shoot at them by mistake.

Another pop of smoke, this time yellow. "My position is the yellow smoke," the ground unit, call sign Warthog, calls over the radio.

The two Kiowas dive down for a look at their target. Their goal is to "engage and destroy" the enemy, or if that proves impossible, to lay down enough suppressive fire so that the patrol can move on. Price has picked out the orchard where the insurgents are believed to be hiding. Irving grasps the control stick, moving the button to the right, switching from rockets to his .50-cal.

He speaks calmly over the radio. "Friendlies one o'clock low. . . Tally friendlies. . . . Turning left. . . Enemy in sight. Roger in sight. Roger clear to engage. . . ."

He presses the trigger. The recoil is deafening, bone-shudderingly loud as he fires repeated short bursts into the orchard. The Kiowa literally shakes inside, as does Irving's jaw. "Rounds were good, good effect," he hears over the radio from the infantry commander on the ground. That means he's on target, and he didn't hit any friendlies.

The insurgents have stopped attacking. For about five more minutes, the Kiowas stick around, making sure the American patrol can continue on.

"Two insurgents confirmed KIA" from the Kiowa fire, Taylor tells me. "Scout weapons team two engaged, disrupted the enemy. That's busy. Those friendly patrols are out there every day, and that's our primary mission. To allow them to do their mission."

The ground commander radios up to Irving: Thanks.

"Hey, man, my pleasure. You guys deserve the thanks for doing the hard work," he responds.

We return to base. Total flight time for Irving and Price: six and a half hours. They are drenched in sweat. During the course of the mission they drank nine 12-ounce bottles of water each. A few of the pilots on the mission go back to the barracks and later play a round of Call of Duty 4, while Irving heads to his office to do paperwork.

I ask Irving how he feels when he returns from a mission like that. "It's usually not until after the fight has died down and the tracers and RPGs stop flying that you actually get a chance to reflect on what just happened and how dangerous it really all was," he says. "I've found myself often thinking, Wow, that was a little intense. Those guys were trying to kill me."

His time to reflect doesn't last long. Insurgent rockets hit the airfield later that afternoon – no one is killed or injured, but one of the missions for the Kiowas in the days ahead will be to find out where those rockets are coming from. In all, most of the pilots will have to fly 120 to 160 missions over the course of their yearlong tour. That translates to about 600 hours, or 25 living days, in the air as flying targets. The Kiowas, too, will continue to take a beating, which is why in April the Army announced a new program to give the birds better sensors, updated cockpit displays, and 21st-century software. About the only things that won't get rewired are the badasses who fly them. And for the troops on the ground, that's all the better.