Michael's Dispatches

A Few Helicopter Night Shots


American Blackhawks preparing to take off from BIAP (Baghdad International Airport).  Most troops who fought in Iraq probably have been to BIAP at least once.

American helicopters always fly at least in pairs, though most allies, short on helicopters, often fly solo.  In this photo, a Blackhawk in front of us prepares to lead the way.

Preparing for takeoff on a 'ring flight' around Baghdad.  The ring flight is a sort of aerial taxi service to the major bases around the area.  By a series of flights and driving, all bases in Iraq can be reached, though it might take days to get to and fro.

Flying over Baghdad on the night of 12 November 2008.  I’d planned to do a series of embeds but Army admin hassles caused me to leave Iraq and head to Afghanistan.

Slower shutter speeds in Blackhawk.

Nighttime in the warzones can be a bizarre world.  Sometimes the pilots fly with the cockpit instruments lit up, but at other times they switch to Infrared (IR) mode and fly wearing AN-PVS 15 night vision goggles.  If you ever use a pair of PVS 15s, you’ll might think your night vision exceeds that of a tiger and it probably does.  It takes time to adjust the brain to use nods (night observation devices); the binocular nods have a magical way of erasing depth perception.  You might never realize how much you love depth perception until it’s gone.  To overcome this new 2-dimensional looking world, the user focuses one monocular for distant vision, and focuses the other for up close.  In the beginning, you’ll likely stumble around until the brain adjusts, and then you’ll do fine.

As the pilots fly at night over the larger bases, the pilots flip up the nods, which turns off the nods.  The pilots often use bright running lights as if feeling their way over the ground.  The helicopters flying over dark bases and shining down bright lights creates a spectacle straight from “The Terminator.”

Liftoff from BIAP

As the helicopters reach the perimeter, off go the lights, the pilots flip down their goggles which turns them on, and Blackhawks roar into the darkness, blacked out, as the door gunners scan their arcs through their own nods, ready to return fire in an instant.  If an enemy fires up, even if he is not using tracers, his gun will appear like a strobe light to the gunner.  Our door gunners train extensively to hit ground targets while flying.  I have great confidence in the door gunners to suppress any sporadic ground fire at night.  The enemy on the ground can get off some shots at the dark helicopter, but the second the enemy pulls that trigger his position will light up like a disco.  The gunners, who always keep their hands on the guns, will return accurate return fire within just a few seconds.  The enemy can expect bullets to be hitting him, or closely around him, in well under ten seconds, and maybe even less than five seconds.  In fact, before his bullets even can reach the helicopter, the enemy might already have bullets coming back at him.  Within thirty seconds, hundreds of bullets would have rained in on the enemy positions.  This writer has great respect for the training and alertness of our door gunners.

During daylight, the pilots fly very low, while at nighttime they fly a bit higher.  Most combat soldiers, though, do not use the PVS 15s, rather the PVS 14 monocular which costs a fraction of the price.  It’s also smaller and more appropriate for most combat.  I use the 14.  Using the PVS 14 leaves one eye free while the other peers through the monocular that’s attached to the helmet.  The cockpit can appear to be blacked out when the pilots are running IR, but through the nods the instruments are well lit.

Photo: 50mm at f1.2; 1/13th second

Nighttime can be a special show when wearing night vision gear.  While helicopters might zoom low over the desert at night, pilots can see headlights or other lights miles before any enemy can hear the helicopter.

The soldiers use IR (infrared) lasers on their rifles, and so when a soldier squeezes on the laser switch, an invisible light saber illuminates whatever he wishes to illuminate.  He might fire the weapon, or just point out the subject to other soldiers.  From above, the helicopters and other aircraft can see the lasers flashing all over the place like a laser light show.  Sometimes you can see a Predator UAV or other aircraft using its IR laser from the dark skies.  You may or may not actually see the aircraft, but the laser will be clear through the gear.  Sometimes pilots use their lasers to point to targets or points of interest on the ground.  They might help you cross dangerous terrain by scouting ahead, or point to a man in the bushes who is very close.

Often you can see the soldiers down below, wearing “fireflies.”  Fireflies are IR strobes barely larger than a 9v battery.  I usually carry one, too, along with an IR chemlight (the Brits call them Cylums) in my pocket.  In case of separation from friendly troops, you can tie the chemlight to a string, crack it and spin it over your head for pilots to see.

Baghdad at 1/50th of a second

Baghdad at 1/13th of a second

Baghdad at 1/8th

Baghdad at 1/8th

Baghdad at 1/6th

Baghdad looking over door gunner at 1/6th

Baghdad at 1/6th.  I wondered if a very smart person, with all the engineering data and computers at his/her disposal, could figure out which sort of helicopter was used to take these photos, based on the light patterns.  Of course this was a Blackhawk, but would it be possible to backtrack off of these light signatures and make a good guess?

Baghdad at 1/8th

Baghdad at 1/8th

Many times in Iraq, the military would begin firing IR illumination through artillery pieces at night.  The “IR illum” works like other illumination, drifting down slowly under parachute, but it looks more like a candle in the sky unless you are wearing night vision gear, in which case night becomes day.

An entire book of night vision photos would show a face of war that few people see.  It’s very different than what might be imagined.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pat Patterson · 12 years ago
    Great shots Michael. I've done my share of night flights all over Iraq. You can really see the difference between areas of population and desert. Kirkuk is especially interesting with the bright orange illumination of the surrounding area from the flare towers buring off we//refinery gasses. On several of my day flights, the helos occasionally fired off MG bursts and/or missile countermeasure flares.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike King · 12 years ago
    Good thinking on the light pattern question. Sadly, it is not possible. While every helo vibrates differently, there is not a specific frequency of vibration for each bird. Also, rotor blade track and balance has more to do with the vibration than anything else. Vibration really depends on the maintenance guys and aircrew.

    I think the best way to ID aircraft is by sound. The two-blade Hueys sound differently than a four-blade Blackhawk or a six-blade Chinook. Also, the engines all sound different and emit a clearly identifiable whine. I have the hearing loss to show for my study of whirly-birdsong, but it is still music to my ears.

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