News: 'Sugar Bears' in Pakistan, on 'flight' and 'helping people'
Story by Spc. Reese Von Rogatsz
GHAZI AVIATION BASE, Pakistan – The fact that the pilots and crews of Task Force Denali’s Chinook helicopters love to fly cannot be denied. Ask what they enjoy most about their jobs and the answer is, invariably, ‘flight’.
Ask what they find most rewarding about their jobs here, and the simple answer is, ‘helping people’. For that is the mission – aiding the flood victims in Pakistan’s mountainous northern regions.
The CH-47 Chinook is a twin-turbine engine, tandem-rotor helicopter. It is the workhorse of TF Denali, providing lift and movement capability by carrying five tons of aid supplies or upwards of 100+ evacuees through the air.
Rumor has it that along with foodstuffs, blankets and construction materials – the ‘Sugar Bears’, as the soldiers of Bravo company are known, have also distributed stuffed teddy bears.
“The children are the best part of this mission, hands down,” said Capt. Travis Easterling, Bravo company commander, 1-52 General Support Aviation Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.
“Kids in the U.S., kids in Pakistan … kids are kids,” he continued, relating a recent experience at a landing zone in Swat valley where he observed local children play a version of hide-and-seek with the Pakistan military there.
They’d approach the aircraft and wave until the guards waved them off. And they’d run away, laughing. Then they would poke their heads out from around the corner to see if the ‘coast was clear’ and come up right to the edge where they couldn’t go any more, until forced to run away yet again.
“I gave a young girl on a helicopter a stuffed teddy bear,” said Sgt. Aaron Franks, flight engineer, Bravo company, 1-52 GSAB, 16th CAB. “She didn’t seem to know what it was. She smiled and looked a little scared, not sure if she should take it from me.” Curiosity won out, and she did.
“As a whole, this is one of the most rewarding missions I’ve ever done,” said Easterling, having deployed twice before to both theaters, Afghanistan and Iraq. In combat zones, you drop off soldiers and carry cargo, he explains. But it’s hard to measure from the air your exact effect and contribution in the grand scheme of things.
He goes on a bit, comparing combat and humanitarian missions, saying that in Pakistan, it is a different feeling knowing he’s here to help flood victims. He is able to actually see the village, the people and the children that he is bringing aid for or helping evacuate.
“You see more of a direct impact,” Easterling said.
For the professional development of the pilots and crews, whose experience levels vary greatly, he considers this to be a very valuable deployment due to the often demanding flying situations and environments encountered. In his words, out here, it’s graduate-level-flying.
“You are constantly operating at a very high altitude, very high temperature, and high gross weight,” said Easterling, coining the phrase ‘high, hot and heavy’ with regard to the three most dangerous conditions for a helicopter. “You really have to know how to manage the aircraft.”
The valleys present their share of obstacles. Winds that swirl upon hitting a mountain wall, landing zones that aren’t always marked, tight spaces which require precise control, to name a few.
According to the ‘Sugar Bears’ commander, these challenges have made for some very good pilots and some very good crewmembers in a short period of time.
Franks, who joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman and deployed once to Iraq, came over to aviation and has been flying for about a year and a half. A flight engineer, who might be called upon to fix the aircraft in flight in addition to performing routine yet crucial duties such as airspace surveillance and monitoring the airframe, he loves his job.
“Being in the air, seeing things from a different perspective, you see everything,” he said.
Comparing a regular destination for relief flights, Kalam in Swat valley, two months ago to Kalam today - he points out that where there was once a crowd of 300 or 400 hundred people in the tree line waiting for rations, there is now but a group of 40 or 50 sitting on the outskirts of the landing zone, waiting to leave.
He notes that the rebuilding of destroyed and damaged roads, bridges and homes has progressed significantly, an observation confirmed by other crews. Trucks and other vehicles are flowing along roads and established detours in ever increasing numbers. There are fewer people seeking movement by air and, at times, less relief supplies to transport.
The emphasis appears to be shifting toward winter stock.