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US Army UH-60 Blackhawk in Afghanistan
The book War and Coffee by US Army UH-60 Blackhawk pilot Joshua Havill is a first-person account of being deployed to Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot with the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division in 2009, the most pivotal year of Operation Enduring Freedom.
With a Cold War perspective gleaned from nine years of US Navy Submarine Service, along with a civilian interlude, Havill re-entered the military in 2002 to pursue his enthusiasm for aviation. This checkered military career culminated with a year of flying Blackhawks out of Bagram Air Base, as he recalls in War and Coffee;
‘In the middle of winter, there were occasional days of fog or rainy mornings, which left the helicopters grounded. When the weather was good, there were a lot of quick trips down to Kabul or JBAD [Jalalabad], moving people back and forth. So it went; days and nights went by, more of the same, often just the daily routine with no significant activity to speak of. The quietness seemed to report that there were no benchmarks to hit, and no tactical goals, only a requirement for basic sustainment. There was no advertised measure of progress, only the abstract requirement to be there until we were supposed to leave. Very often the missions we flew were milk runs, just moving people, normal commerce.
‘On at least one such flight, a moment of levity ensued that would be repeated time and time again for much-needed comic value: Large white Russian Mi-8 helicopters with the NATO reporting name of “Hip” had several missions in Afghanistan. I don’t know if it was mostly cargo or people, but they flew often, huge white orbs in the sky, with Russian pilots. They spoke with a heavy accent, and their call sign was Vodka. The way it came across in deep, broken English, was oo-odd-kah. “Kabool Towah, zees eez Wodka. Pay-mishy-own to lond on vunway.” Then the tower would clear them to land on runway 29.
‘You could never miss them, neither the accent on the radio nor the blatant white beast, guzzling barrels of kerosene to lumber across the sky. For the tower controllers, they would have been unmistakable. No other helicopter was that visible, practically a mechanical cloud floating by.
‘Despite the irony that Russia had its own long and bloody affair with Afghanistan throughout most of the 1980s, we were then decades removed; Russia manned at least one proper hospital in Kabul and a field hospital outside the city in support of coalition effort, as well as providing limited generic logistical support. The Russian pilots were very friendly, of course. At combined stops, once everyone was shut down, they were just as eager to host a tour of these magnificent, tanklike machines as they were to sit in the cockpit of the Blackhawk. The cockpit of the Hip was extremely roomy, the gauges were easy to read, and classic Cold War-era faded green paint was a pleasant background color on the dashboard.
UH-60 Pilot pretending to be a Russian Mi-8 pilot
‘Blackhawk assault pilot Pete Latham was especially amused by the Russian aircraft. On descent into Bagram one day, he decided to play a joke on the tower. Achieving a masterful, heavy Russian accent, he called in with a comically loud voice, “BAGUDUM TOWAH! ZEES EEZ WODKA! LONDING VUNWAY TAH-DEE!!” The tower controller, looking toward the end of runway 3, didn’t see any massive white helicopters, just a pair of Blackhawks coming up from the south.
‘”Uuuh, Roger, Vodka; say again your position?”
‘With something surely premeditated, and to the delight of every pilot listening to the frequency, Pete came back on the radio and famously replied, “Bagudum Towah, zees eez Wodka . . . ZOOPRISE!!! I AM IN BLACKHAWK!!”’
‘Pete would forever be endeared in my heart for this level of wartime bravery. It became instant radio folklore, with enough copycat Vodkas calling international control towers with worse and worse accents that within days the joke grew tedious. That first one was magical, though.’
War & Coffee: Confessions of an American Blackhawk Pilot in Afghanistan is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Pinterest and Sgt Travis Zielinski / U.S. Army