The Last Journey

Article #19 “Helicopter Rides”


18 August 2010 Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan

In 1992, while living on the Big Island of Hawaii, I met a man that owned a helicopter company in Hilo, Hawaii.  I was looking to get my younger son Jimmy, a ride on a helicopter for his birthday.  At that time I had a bunch of hunting knives and was trying to trade for a helicopter ride.  No one would do it, until I came upon a man named Dave Griffin.  He had just come to the Big Island of Hawaii with one of his helicopters that he and his sister and his brother in law owned.  Dave is from Green Bay, Wisconsin and is a tough business man.  He is 4-years younger than me.  He hammered me hard for some of my knives and gave in to doing a trade for my son Jimmy who was turning 12-years-old.  Dave has a big heart behind all his gruffness.  I bothered Dave for a job for one week and on the 7th day, he said, “you can wash the (explitive) helicopters for $6.50/hr”.  I took the job.  My sons and I washed helicopters in the evenings on the tarmac at Hilo International Airport, in Hawaii.  That was the beginning of my plan.  Later, I became extremely involved in booking helicopter flights and learned quite a bit about ground operations.  Through Dave, my son Jimmy caught the bug to learn to fly helicopters.  Jimmy and daddy had many more free rides in helicopters thanks to my good friend Dave Griffin.  Today, W3 Jimmy Spiri flies CH47 Chinook helicopters for the United States Army.  That was my plan all along.


Some say that I come to places like Afghanistan just for the helicopter rides.  I will admit that I absolutely positively without a doubt, love flying in helicopters, and especially in the war zones.  Today was one of those days that I got to be a passenger in a helicopter flying over Afghanistan.  I never get tired of flying in a helicopter, no matter how greuling obtaining the ride may be.  But once in the air and feeling the rotors turn and the air whipping up against me, I feel at ease.  No matter how tired I am or hot or dirty, whatever the case may be, riding in an older helicopter is really a way to put me in a good mood.  I love it.

I watched in FOB Boris for almost two weeks, people try to get out via helicopter.  Due to weather and other reasons, some just get stuck.  It is not unusual to get stuck for over 1-2 weeks.  Today I needed to get to Salerno to satisfy my PAO’s request to get me to the southern part of the country in time for my next embed which begins with the Marines soon.  I had been waiting on some other things that would have kept me busy with the soldiers but it was determined that I should try to get to Salerno as soon as possible.  So, being the good embed that I am, I followed the directions of my PAO handler.  However, I did not have any information about when helicopters were to arrive nor did I know what to expect on the other end once I arrived.  But, I happened to run into Capt. Watson early in the morning and he told me he was going to Salerno on this day.  I immediately told him that they are requesting me to get to Salerno also and he said the bird would be in at such and such time.  Okay, now I had a plan developing.


The night before I managed to get things all squared away as I was preparing for one of two things that could happen.  Either I would participate in a scheduled event or I would fly to Salerno, or maybe both.  Either way I had to be completely packed and ready to go on a moment’s notice.  That’s the hard part always.  Due to some circumstances the event I was going to photograph got nixed.  Weather again.  So, next move was to push to get to Salerno which is the first step towards heading to the USMC.  I had become well aquainted with my surroundings and was set and settled, so to speak.  But, time goes by fast and it was time to move on whether I wanted to or not.  I did not want to leave, yet.


The first helicopter arrived early and was not going to my destination.  I had a choice to go to this particular destination and then onto Salerno from there, or I could wait and take my chances with the Captain who I knew was going to Salerno.  But, how many seats would be avialibale.  I chose to stay behind and two of the other pax got on the bird headed to Orgun E.  That’s the name of a place another FOB, bigger, but still out here in the sticks.  I figued I know approximately when the next bird would come but I had a feeling it could come early.  I decided to put all my stuff at the LZ and go back and forth between the LZ and my quarters.  At a certain point in time, I had staked out my place in the quarters in the event I got stuck.  But, I did not think getting stuck today would happen.  Each time a bird lands, some people get off and stay, which means, my spot in the quarters could be taken.  So, now I had to secure my spot in the quarters in the event I got stuck, and be at the LZ early, in case helicopter comes ahead of schedule. 


Sure enough, the helicopter was ahead of schedule and the other folks that were wanting to get a ride to Salerno were not at the LZ when the helicopter arrived.  I was there and the Capt came stolling up right as the bird landed.  We got on together and the helicopter lifted off.  The whole helicopter for me and the Captain, at this point.  Finally, I made a good call and it took me half a morning to get out.  That’s probably a record at Boris.  But then again, I listened to my PAO and the Captain.  And I was at the LZ early.  Things just happen that way sometimes. 


Now I’m in the helicopter, we’re flying away from FOB Boris and it’s just me and Captain Watson.  We had become friends.  I pretty much stayed to my own business in Boris and never bothered the Captain.  He had way to many things to concern himself and the last thing a Captain in his shoes needs is some whiny media person asking for this and that.  It soon became apparent that I had been befriended by the entire contingent there at Boris and this made the Captain’s life much easier.  He had read many of the things I’d posted and kept asking me, “what’s next?”

The told me they are reading my stuff and looking forward to what I write next.  It’s a compliment.  And it is why I push myself to write as much as I can, no matter what the circumstances are.  The soldiers actually appreciate it. 


The helicopter made two stops prior to landing in Salerno.  One was to get fuel in Orgun E, and pick up additional passengers.  Sure enough, two of the folks that got on that morning in Boris were now getting on this bird in this stop.  One of the passengers was my roommate, Durrel.  He smiled when he saw me and we all just laughed.  I took their photos on the helicopter as we now headed over the eastern Afghanistan landscape below.  The scenery is always nice from the helicopter view point.  I found myself looking out the window behind me the whole time.  The actual window had been removed and the air was blowing across my body.  It felt great and I liked being able to see.  Below were large square areas built by what looked like adobe walls with living quarters contained with in the walls.  Patches of green were all around but one could tell that usually there would not be this much rain.  It’s a harsh country, geographically as well as politically. 


We landed in Salerno.  I got off, took my bags to the pax terminal, called the PAO office and they came and picked me up in less than five minutes.  Now I find myself here in Salerno with not too much information coming my way, yet.  Turns out, CBS is swarming the place in the next 36-hours and from what I can tell from having been gone for the past two weeks, the population appears to have doubled.  I knew the push was on.  But, I did not see it happening this fast, but I had heard about it.  It’s no secret now.  Here comes the build up and all that goes with it.  I looked up my friend Anthony and we had a good laugh about things.  It’s always good to see a familiar face.  I went over to the bazzar and looked up my friend who fixed my glasses once before and asked him to fix ‘em up one more time.  They had been through the ringer lately.  Upon my arrival at the MOC (media operations center) here in Salerno, I was greeted by my friend, “Sword”.  We embraced one another and all the folks here that were not here last time I was here, watched these two strangers greet one another.  It was obvious I had made an impression here.  It was good to see Sword.  I would tell him that we would talk later and get together. 


Once settled into familiar surroundings at the MOC, I got my things put away for my temporary stay here at Salerno.  I could be out of here tonight or I could be here a few days.  Either way, I will make good use of my time here.  I walked to lunch around noon here and was facinated at how the population here had multiplied in just two weeks.  It’s crowded now.  People are coming.  The surge is on.  I miss FOB Boris, even with it’s IDF.  I never understand exactly what it is I am doing sometimes.  I just know usually where I’ve been and what it was like there.  I really don’t like to change things up.  One thing I’ve seen however in the Army is this….things are always changing. 


I’m not sure what it is about helicopters that so intrigues me.  Perhaps truth be know, I would have liked to turn the clock back and taken a job as a crew member on one of the birds I just came in on.  I remember the day vividly when Dave Griffin of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters said I could wash helicopters for him and earn $6.50 an hour in Hawaii. I figured then I would ride in his helicopters at least once in a while.   That was a while ago now.  I have a birthday coming up on Friday.  These days I’m not trading hunting knives for my son to get a ride on a helicopter for his birthday.  Now I’m recording history one sentence at a time in Afghanistan during the surge of the summer of 2010 and for that, I get to ride in a helicopter in the war zone once in a while with America’s finest at the helm.  Like son, like father.  Or is it the other way around?  I like to ride in helicopters in Afghanistan.  I probably would even wash one given the opportunity.


Jim Spiri Last Journey