One of the first little indications that something was wrong was when we attempted to start one of the Black Hawk's two engines. Try as we might, every time we attempted to press the ignition button to start the engines, we weren't so much as treated to the slightest light in the cockpit. Calling a maintenance test pilot to the aircraft, we furiously tried to come up with a back-up plan if we couldn't get the first engine started.
Many characters in fiction just have that amazing ability to make seemingly impossible objects work. Fonzie could operate a juke box just by hitting it. Han Solo could start up the Millennium Falcon just by banging on a few panels.
Apparently, maintenance test pilots have the magical ability to make a helicopter start by just jiggling the engine power control lever.
We made note of the fact that the test pilot gave a little wiggle on the power control lever, and after starting the second engine, we were off over Iraq yet again, zooming over the green fields and palm groves of Mesopotamia.
Our destination was a little combat outpost on the outskirts of a city that had been infested with al Qaeda prior to the Surge of 2007. Combat outposts differed from the massive forward operating bases--FOBs--that we were used to. FOBs, Super-FOBs and even more massive Contingency Operating Bases (COBs) were typically located far from urban areas, in keeping with the pre-surge strategy. They were isolated cities unto themselves, often boasting coffee houses, fast food restaurants, massage parlors, and massive dining facilities. Soldiers could go an entire fifteen months with scant interaction with Iraqi locals, and with never seeing an Iraqi urban area. The massive, isolated FOBs ran completely counter to counter-insurgency strategy.
During the Surge of 2007, the US pushed Soldiers off of the massive FOBs and into smaller combat outposts in the middle of the cities. While risky, the gamble paid off. American troops interacted far more often with Iraqi citizens, gaining the human intelligence they couldn't get from all of the unmanned aerial vehicles in the world. Together with local citizens, the Iraqi police, and the Iraqi Army, the US was able to stave off sectarian conflict and deal severe blows to the late al-Zarqawi's terrorist group, al Qaeda in Iraq.
We shut down the aircraft after meeting with two other Black Hawks in the small outpost. After shutting down the aircraft, we decided to compare notes, agreeing to link up to fly an ad hoc mission as a flight of four aircraft. We hopped back in the aircraft and attempted to start the engines again.
"If I remember correctly, we just have to jiggle the engine power control lever when we start it" said the other pilot.
She pressed the starter button and jiggled the power control lever, but there was no ignition.
"How exactly did the test pilot jiggle it", I asked. "I mean, did he jiggle it more side-to-side, or back and forth? I forgot to take note of that."
After five minutes of pressing buttons and jiggling the engine power control lever, we decided we were truly stuck. Sending the other aircraft to do a quick mission, we decided to call a dedicated maintenance crew and grab lunch.
Of course, someone needed to stay back and watch the aircraft while we rotated through the dining facility. I stayed behind as the others went to call for assistance and to grab a quick sandwich.
Combat outposts had a distinct feel that you never felt on the massive forward operating bases. A FOB was essentially a miniature Fort Drum dropped in the middle of a hot desert. You could look for miles and never see an Iraqi city--as far as you knew, you were in soverign, albeit austere, US territory. On FOBs, the greatest hazards came from potentially being run over by trucks--hence the incessant emphasis on reflector belts--or from tripping while playing a game of frisbee. On FOBs, you might easily see Soldiers pulling weeds out of the ground or renovating their work and living areas.
On a FOB, a Soldier's entire view of the war might be the path they took from their containerized housing unit to a hardened office building, and to a dining facility for meals.
Combat outposts, on the other hand, reminded everyone that they were in a distinctly third-world country, and were reminiscent of some of my experiences in the poorer areas of Latin America. Trash blew in from the local city, finally coming to a rest among the many layers of razor wire which circled the tiny outpost. The smell of burning trash wafted through the air. I strained my ears and heard an imam from the nearby city calling the faithful Sunni Muslims to prayer over a loudspeaker system placed throughout the city.
While FOBs might have massive dining facilities constructed by Halliburton (or by their new name, Kellogg, Brown and Root), this one featured an existing building which must have been built by the Iraqis some decades earlier. Additionally, whereas most FOBs relied on contracted labor from countries such as Nepal to run their facilities, this one was run by local Iraqis.
With our sister aircraft still having an hour until it was due to return, we climbed into a nearby abandoned guard tower and sneaked a peak at the nearby city. Before the Surge, this might be suicidal, and we still showed a degree of tactical prudence, but we were able to take in a view of a city which was once a stronghold of al Qaeda. And, while it was far from being cosmopolitan, it looked as if it was showing at least some sense of normalcy, with civilian traffic darting to and fro, and nary an up-armoured HMMWV in sight.
The others returned and brought with them a key bit of intelligence--it seemed that the malfunctioning engine starter had a simple work-around. With our sister ship arriving shortly, was worth a shot.
We determined, through maintenance test pilot channels, that a judiciously-placed ball-point pen, placed in between the two points of contact for the electrical circuit to engage, would allow the circuit to close and the ignition to start. Being stuck in a small post in the middle of the desert, we had little to lose by trying it.
With the crew chief delicately holding the ball point pen in place, my fellow aviator engaged the starter, and lo and behold, the ball-point pen trick worked. Indeed, the pen is mightier than the...ignition exciter...or something.
We joined our sister ship for the flight back home. On the way home, I took note of our digital kneeboard--a moving-map computer complete with text messaging features--and saw that we had received a text message from our home base.
"Is your maintenance issue fixed", said the text message.
I fiddled with the device.
"Started aircraft with ball point pen. Forget Chuck Norris, MacGyver rules"