CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 ERIC TUPA
Detachment 1, Company B,
3/238 General Support Aviation Battalion
Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan
“No-String 32, this is No-String 25!”
“No-String 32, this is No-String 25, over!”
“No-String 25, this is No-String 32. We are all OK. How about you guys?”
“No-String 32, No-String 25, crew are all OK too. We’re about one-half mile south of you, turning direct to Taji.”
“No-String 25, No-String 32 has you in sight. We’re coming up on your left.”
“No-String 32, 25, roger.”
So what is this conversation all about? This was the chatter after two CH-47D Chinook helicopters were actively engaged in Iraq. How did we get into that mess? Well, that’s another topic. The fact that both helicopters made it through that engagement without being hit was a testament to crew coordination, mental preparedness and, of course, a bit of luck. At that time in my career, I had little aviation experience. However, I believe the decisions I made that day saved me and my crew.
When I’m faced with high-stress situations, I sometimes tend to withdraw into a cave. I had to take precautions to avoid this while in Iraq. I took a cue from a physiological tendency of humans called muscle memory. In basic terms, muscle memory can best be described as performing a certain activity repeatedly with which the muscles become familiar over time. For instance, trained police officers draw and point their weapon where they want even before looking down their sights. Muscle memory thus becomes an unconscious process.
So where does this fit in with being involved in an anti-aircraft gun ambush? Within the first couple of months in Iraq, I planned in my head specific actions I would take in certain situations. The most likely danger for pilots was an attack from the ground, such as small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades or vicious AA fire. In my situation, we flew right between two truck-mounted AA guns that caught us in crossfire of large-caliber killing power.
Our mission that day was a “routine” resupply mission. We had flown this mission many times and the area was familiar to us. I was on the controls of the lead aircraft. About four minutes from landing, I heard our right-door gunner yell over the integrated communications system that we were taking fire. At the same time, he was returning fire. An instant later, I saw a tracer heading away from us into the nighttime sky. This is where my muscle/mental training came into play.
I had previously told myself that if I ever saw a tracer, I would try to catch up to it. I figured by the time I caught that bullet, I would be out of effective range of whatever shot it. My door gunner didn’t have time to tell me where the AA was; he was busy trying to suppress the attack. I immediately initiated my control inputs to catch that one bullet I saw. Of course, I knew I would never catch the bullet; however, it headed away from the gun that shot it. And that’s the direction I wanted to go.
If I hadn’t repeatedly gone through the action drill of “react to enemy contact” in my head, the outcome could have been disastrous. My actions were instinctive because I had practiced the maneuver time and again in my head. Whether you’re a Soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, risk is inherent in our warfighting duties. Winning in combat involves thinking, planning and performing better than the enemy. It also means trying to avoid the risks that can take you out of the fight, such as an enemy’s bullet.