by Will Grant
Five years ago, Blackwater had a very bad week. On January 23, 2007, one of the company’s MD 530F Little Bird helicopters was shot down in Baghdad while providing aerial support for an attacked convoy. That incident cost the lives of five contractors. A week later, Blackwater lost a Bell 412 helicopter north of Baghdad when a 7.62 round pierced the aircraft’s its gearbox. The helicopter and crew landed safely but the US Army destroyed the helicopter after determining that recovering it was too dangerous.
Insurance on the downed Little Bird was nullified by the war clause. The Bell 412, which is essentially a twin-engine Huey and more expensive than a Little Bird, was self-insured. Both aircraft were total and significant financial losses.
“I had to make the call to Erik [Prince] after that,” says Terry Key, site manager for Blackwater in Baghdad and then later head of aviation for the company. “And let me tell you, that was not a fun call to make. Erik was not happy… That was a rough week.”
Losing the aircraft was costly, but losing the men was the worst imaginable. And anyone in Baghdad at the time likely remembers the pall those wrecks cast over Americans there. Such are the stakes of operating in a war zone.
“When I was interviewing and hiring people,” Key says, “I always tried to scare them off from the get-go, because I didn’t want anyone going over there thinking this was an easy game. There were consequences to playing in that arena. When things were good, they were pretty good. But all it took was one bullet to change that.”
And one bullet was enough to ground the 412 and earn it a friendly payload of C4. But considering the amount of exposure the pilots and their aircraft endured, Blackwater Aviation had an outstanding performance record in Iraq.
“As long as a motorcade or convoy had aerial support, there was never an incident,” says Billy Briggs, who flew Little Birds for Blackwater and went on to become deputy project manager in Baghdad, and eventually project manager from Moyock, North Carolina. “We had one hundred percent success rate of every mission assigned to us.”
The people Blackwater was protecting usually worked during business hours, which meant 90 percent of the company’s missions were flown in daylight. And in an urban environment like Baghdad, discerning combatants from non-combatants while wheeling circles in a helicopter made for a split-second decisions.
Blackwater Little Birds were originally outfitted with Squad Automatic Weapons. But to avoid collateral damage, the gunners opted for smaller, lighter, more accurate M4 carbines. Little Birds always had a SAW on board, but the M4s allowed for more precise targeting and engagement. A spray of bullets from a SAW, the gunners feared, would likely injure innocent people.
“We never had any bad shots come off the Little Birds,” Key says. “Our gunners could hit a five-gallon gallon bucket at 90 knots going sideways with an M4 while hanging off the side of the aircraft.”
A sniper who had been with SEAL Team Six trained the gunners. He was a first-rate instructor, according to Key, and the biggest thing he taught the gunners was discipline: when to shoot and when not to shoot.
The Little Birds arrived in Iraq with Paul Bremer’s Blackwater security detail. The Department of State contacted Blackwater and asked if the company could muster some aircraft for the necessary urban operations. In a display of expediency characteristic of the private security industry, Blackwater had Little Birds in Baghdad just 60 days after the DoS’s initial request.
The military didn’t have the bandwidth to completely cover its all needs. So DoS wanted to use private aircraft to free up military assets in the area. And while Blackwater stepped up and delivered the goods at a crucial time, the military’s love-hate relationship with Blackwater and its pilots would continue for years.
Most notably, the military criticized the aerial acrobatics that the pilots and their aircraft became so famous for. Owen Powell, who was a soldier in Iraq and wrote, under the pen name Sgt. Roy Batty, waxes poetic about Blackwater’s Little Birds in an article called ‘The Rock Stars of Baghdad’:
“My heart leaps into my throat as the helicopter carves a sudden, graceful arc above the compound, heeled over on it’s side at an impossible 90 degree angle, roaring past the concrete edifice of the MOI building, it’s stiff landing skids seemingly only a few feet from the office windows. The tiny craft pulls out of the turn and pitches straight upward, soaring into the golden blue cocktail of another Iraq morning, a children’s toy rocket, heading skyward. 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!”
Clearly, Powell is impressed. But some of the military wasn’t so impressed, or so they let on. Most of the military pilots had never flown missions in a hostile, urban environment like that of Baghdad, and military regulations and mission profiles were also written for less-experienced pilots than those flying for Blackwater.
“Our mission profiles as a civilian operator were different than the military’s,” Briggs says. “We were able to fly profiles that the military couldn’t fly because of the way their operating procedures are written. We didn’t hire new guys; we tried to hire very seasoned guys who had certain amount of combat experience or night-vision goggle flying.”
The hate portion of the military’s love-hate relationship with Blackwater was shallowly founded, at its best—and just plain jealousy at its worst. On days when all military aircraft would be grounded due to bad weather, the Blackwater Little Birds would still fly. That made the military look bad. Blackwater contractors were also drawing higher wages than most military men, which had the same effect. And everybody wanted to work for Blackwater when they finished their military tours.
“We had a lot more friends than we wanted,” Key says. “Everybody knew who we were and wanted to work for us. People would try to rent the helicopters all the time to move their people because we were the quickest and easiest way to get people from LZ Washington to anywhere around Baghdad.”
The cowboy acrobatics that gave the military reason to complain were not for fun. Flying low, straight, and level was a good way to end up in the sights of an AK-47. So the pilots turned, and dove, and made themselves as hard to target as possible. And in order to keep buildings from blocking the gunner’s line of sight to the convoy they were protecting, the turns had to be that much tighter. To the military this looked like cowboying. To the Little Bird pilots, this was the only way to stay safe.
“The military would say, ‘hey you guys are cowboying out there,’” Key says. “But most of those guys had never flown an aircraft like that in that type of downtown environment. I was in the military for 20 years, and I was a Special Ops guy [with the 160th SOAR], and I’d never done that either. We kind of broke new ground new ground in that sense. I always had to explain that to the military.”
From running recon and relaying traffic information to VIP convoys to ferrying personnel to oilfields and evacuating wounded soldiers, Little Birds were a huge asset in Baghdad. And other than being eyes in the sky, one of the helicopters’ biggest contributions was deterring resistance.
“The show in itself was a bit intimidating,” Briggs says. “But that’s what you wanted. You were out there to protect people. Those aircraft came back with bullet holes in them plenty of times, and we wanted to intimidate.”
The Little Bird helicopter is aptly designed for such urban usage. It can land on a postage stamp, turn on a dime, and has excellent power margins. It weighs a scant 1,700 pounds empty, and about 3,100 pounds fully loaded with a crew of four and full tank of fuel. The five-bladed rotor of the Little Bird also gives it less of a sound signature than other helicopters with fewer blades on the rotor.
Little Bird helicopters continue to provide the function and role they were designed for. The UK has leased a handful of Little Birds for a quick-reaction force during the London Olympics this summer. The Iraqi military has looked into purchasing some of the aircraft, as has Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
You can still see Little Birds flying over Baghdad. DynCorps has a Department of State aviation contract in Iraq and uses the helicopters in much the same way Blackwater did, though DoS owns the aircraft and only contracts the operating personnel. And in an apparent effort to portray some normalcy to life in Baghdad, there are no more gunners hanging out the side with M4s.
If nothing else, the image of a Little Bird helicopter with gunners hanging out the side is an iconic image of Blackwater’s valuable aerial role in Baghdad.
“I’ll bet you can’t find any body who spent any time in Baghdad for whatever reason between 2004 and December 2009 that won’t remember the Little Birds buzzing over the Baghdad skyline,” Briggs says.
This post was updated on June 25, 2012.