They skim the wounded skylineof an angry city – tiny black wasps, fragile yet full of sting.
Bristling with biceps and gun barrels, they’re as much a part of the daily fabric of Baghdad as sandbags, checkpoints and black plumes of smoke.
They are Blackwater’s Little Bird helicopters.
As icons often do, they stir emotion. The Little Birds can symbolize all that’s right or wrong with the war. To the enemy, they are an evil to be struck from the sky. To an ally in trouble, their inbound buzz is the blessed sound of a second chance.
It can be much less complicated for the everyday soldier. For many grunts on the ground, Blackwater’s Little Birds fill two simple needs: entertainment and inspiration.
A Marine who writes for several online publications under the pen name Sgt. Roy Batty recently shared that lens. According to editor David Danelo at ON Point, a Web site focusing on military news, Batty is deployed to Iraq and writes regularly about life in “The Sandbox.” February’s column was devoted to Blackwater’s Little Birds.
When they come into sight, Batty wrote, he and his fellow soldiers “move outdoors, coffee cans and cigarettes in our hand, eager for the morning show.”
It does not disappoint:
“My heart leaps into my throat as the helicopter carves a sudden, graceful arc above the compound, heeled over on its side at an impossible 90-degree angle… seemingly only a few feet from the office windows.
“The tiny craft pulls out of the turn and pitches straight upward…. I’m cheering now, both arms outstretched in the timeless display of victory and strength, as I do every time I see them, and I am not alone.
“The Rock Stars of Baghdad are here again, and another show begins!”
Rock stars? In the controversial, high-stakes world of private security contracting, Blackwater’s men have been called plenty – everything from cold-blooded mercenaries to red-white-and-blue heroes – but nothing nearly so Hollywood.
Cue the Little Bird.
As Batty the Marine put it:
“You can’t help but feel like you are in a really good action movie every time you see these guys…. How could you lose when you have guys and toys as cool as these on your team?”
Blackwater officials say “operational security concerns” prevent them from discussing the company’s helicopter work. That’s not surprising. Hush-hush is at the core of a big chunk of Blackwater’s business: providing security in Iraq under a web of contracts.
A multimillion-dollar deal with the U.S. State Department puts the lives of diplomats and VIPs in the company’s hands, including that of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and just about every member of Congress who ventures into the war zone.
To do the job, the Moyock, N.C.-based outfit fields a private army of hardened men, weapons and vehicles. Wings and rotors are a critical part of the equation. None, however, turn more eyes than the handful of teardrop-shaped Little Birds that supply aerial surveillance and cover for ground convoys, ferry the occasional senior staff, and swoop in shooting when things get critical.
Stationed at LZ Washington, a landing pad inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, the Little Birds are just big enough for a four-man crew. They’re painted solid black with a single silver stripe. Tail numbers – customary for identification – are absent. Blackwater’s bear-paw logo is nowhere to be found.
It’s unclear if the company owns or leases the helos. It doesn’t matter. Everyone knows who flies them – thanks in large part to their trademark door gunners.
Positioned just behind the pilot and co-pilot, tethered by “monkey harnesses,” one gunner hangs out of each side of the cockpit, feet braced on the skids. With assault rifles at the ready, they dangle in mid air, scanning for the hint of an unfriendly move below.
It’s a good thing they’re strapped in. Their chopper was designed with maneuverability in mind.
With no heavy armor or built-in weaponry, its best defense is careening, erratic flight that’s tough for the enemy to draw a bead on. Five-bladed rotors produce a here-and-gone “whir” that sounds like a whisper next to the thunderous “whup-whup-whup” of the bigger two- and three-bladed choppers. A Little Bird can hug the terrain, duck into twisted alleys and head for the sun at 34 feet per second.
Ron Van Sickle manages the Hampton Roads Executive Airport in Chesapeake. He’s a chopper buff. He says there aren’t many Little Birds in this area – either in military or civilian use – but he gets worked up just talking about the nimble craft.
“There are prettier helicopters,” Van Sickle said, “but this… this is the ultimate grown man’s toy. Very fast, very slick, very quiet. By the time you see it, it’s too late. If you’re the enemy, you’re probably dead.”
The Little Birds are not invincible. Like all helicopters, they’re vulnerable to a single well-placed bullet from the ground, not to mention the surface-to-air missiles that sometimes turn up in the insurgent arsenal. Since May 2003, more than 60 U.S. choppers have gone down – seven in the last six weeks, most from enemy fire.
On Jan. 23, Blackwater lost its first Little Bird, and the lives of five contractors. Collectively, the men had spent roughly 80 years in uniform before going private. They were killed inside two Little Birds scrambling to cover a State Department convoy under attack. One door gunner took a bullet to the head. Four more were killed when their chopper went down under heavy fire.
Contractor deaths are often lost in the litany of war casualties. Not so with the Little Bird men. Ambassador Khalilzad, who is sometimes secreted across the city in a Little Bird, showed up at the Green Zone hospital morgue to pay his respects. Batty and his buddies grieved:
“We all reacted the same way when we heard the tragic news. Crestfallen faces, and an emphatic, disbelieving ‘No way!’… It wasn’t just a machine that fell out of the sky that day…. It was that sense of being part of something special.”
Blackwater’s “rotorheads” know the risks – and their aircraft – intimately. The company plucks many of its pilots from the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, where Little Birds figure heavily in covert warfare.
In Iraq, they are famous for pushing the chopper to its limits.
“They’re very impressive pilots,” said author Robert Young Pelton. “Completely fearless.”
Private contracting is the subject of Pelton’s book “Licensed to Kill.” He’s no stranger to the sound of war drums. “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” is one of his best- known works. In Iraq, he spent a month hanging out with Blackwater.
Its Little Bird pilots, he said, “do some of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. The most dramatic thing is when they fly at night, completely blacked out, wearing night vision goggles – and anybody who’s ever looked through a pair of those knows they’re limited.”
Pelton said the pilots were particularly fond of buzzing a rooftop terrace at Blackwater’s Baghdad compound, a popular off-duty spot for knocking back a few.
“We’d be up there drinking, in the pitch dark, and suddenly there they’d be, like 10 to 15 feet over our heads.”
Pelton says the military occasionally “yells” at Blackwater for such antics. So does the State Department.
“They’re sticklers for how things are done,” Pelton said of the government folks. “They look at Blackwater as cowboys. Show offs.”
It’s a different story when bullets fly, Pelton said.
“There’s not a single person over there, that if they were in a shootout, would not be relieved to see a Little Bird coming. It’s like, ‘Whew. Here comes the cavalry.’ ”
Dan Laguna says the Little Birds will come to the aid of any ally.
Laguna manages Blackwater’s aviation program in Iraq. His brother, Art, was among the five killed in January. An e-mail written by Laguna to his hometown TV station in Utah shortly after the attack provides glimpses into the operation:
“We are the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for just about everyone. The military takes too long to respond because of the approval they have to get all the way up the chain of command. I am the only one that makes the decision to go or not to go and we always go when someone is in harm’s way.”
Sometimes, that someone is the military itself. In recent testimony submitted to a congressional committee, Blackwater told of an incident that happened in October. Two Little Birds returning from a mission spotted an Army motorcade that had been hit by a roadside bomb.
According to the company, one helo landed so its crew could help the wounded while the other provided cover overhead. Even the Little Bird, however, is out of its element in Iraq. It was designed for low-elevation, high-speed scouting over the jungles of Vietnam.
When tapped for convoy escort in Baghdad, it’s often forced into a slower orbit over urban areas where the enemy blends in with a sea of innocents.
“When taken together, that’s not to the pilot’s advantage,” said Guy Ben-Ari, a defense industrial specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s a deadly combination. Literally. These aircraft were not intended to be able to withstand a lot of fire, and it only takes a moment to bring a weapon to bear.”
Based on a help wanted ad Blackwater ran earlier this year, the company only intends to ratchet things up.
Placed in the Sun Journal of New Bern, N.C., a town ringed by military bases, the ad stated that Blackwater’s helicopter work in Iraq is expanding. It sought pilots with service experience and mechanics to work 60-day stretches rotated with 30 days at home.
The company is already such a war zone fixture that its name has seeped into battlefield slang. When a soldier sheds his uniform to work for a private security outfit, it’s known as “Going to Blackwater” – no matter the new employer.
No doubt, the cool factor of the Little Birds helps. As Batty the Marine wrote: “The soldiers around me always say the same thing whenever Blackwater is overhead: ‘Man, I would do anything to have that job.’ ”
In the love-’em-hate-’em universe of hired guns, Batty simply admires the Little Bird’s contribution to esprit de corps in a place where morale tends to flatline fast.
Batty wrote that he didn’t see a Little Bird for a week or so after January’s crash. On the day they reappeared, he and his men were pushing through Baghdad in the remnants of a sandstorm. The blow had grounded the usual military choppers.
It was not a pretty scene:
“Eerie, off-world yellow…. Cracked concrete, ancient sandbags. Rusting hulks of forgotten car bombs. Skittish dogs on the sidewalk, ribs showing. Ragged Iraqi cops in mismatched uniforms… the usual smell of raw sewage and burning plastic.
“And somewhere above the crappy morning of yet another day spent on Iraqi roads, I could hear that delicious buzz again… here they came… skimming along the avenue, right in front of us, just barely above the broken streetlights….
“The rock stars were back, and the show would go on…. It was going to be a good day after all.”