Six huge rotor blades whipped the humid August air, lifting and holding the Chinook helicopter just a few feet off the ground. Inside the cargo-carrying giant, the pilots waited for the signal to move forward.
Fifty feet in front of the hovering helicopter sat a Humvee with thick cables attached to its frame at the front and rear. A soldier crouched on top of the Humvee at either end, holding a four-foot long metal rod with a circular eyelet at the end—looking like the loop end of a huge sewing needle. The eye is made to fit hooks attached to the belly of Chinook helicopters.
With a thumbs up signal from the flight engineer working with the ground teams, the Chinook tips its plexiglass nose slightly down and rose to 20 feet of altitude as it flew toward the Humvee. As the big bird approached, the soldiers holding the big cabled hooks begin to get blown around by the front rotor. A flight engineer, hanging his head and shoulders out of the “Hell Hole” in the belly of the Chinook between the cargo hooks, guides the aircraft slowly down to a hover six feet above the Humvee.
Like rodeo cowboys trying to lasso a longhorn in a hurricane, the soldiers on the Humvee stood up in the swirling air under the Chinook and swung their metal “lassos” toward the hooks on the belly of the Chinook. When the hook set, the ground crew jumped down from the Humvee and ran 100 meters away through the full Chinook wind blast. As they ran, the pilots slowly lifted the aircraft until the cables are stretched tight. When the flight engineer signaled that the load was set, the Chinook flew up and away with the 3-ton Humvee swinging gently beneath.
At that point, the Humvee circled the airfield underneath the Chinook, or the pilots simply went up 50 feet then lowered their cargo back to the ground. The up and down flight is known among air crews as an elevator drill. As soon as the cables were slack underneath the Chinook, the crew released the electric hooks. The cables dropped to the ground as the Chinook flew away. The air blast from the rotors is so loud that the hooks and cables fall without a sound.
Depending on the preference of the aircrew, the pilots made a slow circle back to their hover point, or they slid the 16-ton aircraft sideways 20 feet above the ground and flew backward before spinning the olive-drab behemoth in its own length, like a Smart car making a u-turn on a narrow street, making it look like some a mythic creature let loose in the middle of Pennsylvania.
The air crews and ground instructors for the all-day exercise were from Bravo Company, 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion which returned from a one-year deployment to Iraq in January of 2010. They trained more than 100 soldiers from 2-28th Combat (Heavy) Support Battalion.