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Welcome to Dustoff!

Veteran UH-60 Blackhawk pilot, author of Dustoff 7-3 Erik Sabiston, shares a story about helicopter pilots pulling rank—and prank.

For weeks now it seemed like new guy would never show. The scene had an air of an English foxhunt, the “gentlemen” clothed in T-shirts ringed with white circles from salty perspiration.  It was only 0900 hours in Tikrit, too early for lunch.  There was nothing to do but wait. A thick Bostonian accent cut the quiet, “He’ll be here before lunch, are you ready … Sir?”  It met with a huge smile and a slow, exaggerated nod north and south. “Let’s do this!”

The Company Commander was in on it. For that matter, so was the Battalion Commander. Most people in this corner of Iraq seemed to be in on it. All SGT Smith and Chief Jones had to do was keep a straight face. The two Soldiers put their tops on. They reached into the center of their chest and tore the Velcro rank and “last name” tapes off.  They exchanged them and put them back on their respective uniforms. “Alright, from now on you outrank me. You’re Mr. Jones the instructor pilot, and I’m SGT Smith, got it?,” Jones said. “Got it.” Smith said. Like a couple of star athletes they turned into the hallway and put on their game face.

When the new guy arrived, a friendly looking sergeant with a thick Bostonian accent greeted him. “Hey, Sir, I’m Sergeant Smith.  I’m an FI. I teach the other enlisted guys how to crew the helicopter. Chief Warrant Officer Jones is gone right now, but he told me to give you this test and to grade it for you once you finished. He’ll be back soon,” Smtih said. “No problem,” said the new guy.  After about an hour, new guy turned in his work and SGT Smith told him to wait in the room for a minute.

No sooner had new guy sat down than a rough voice bellowed out of the doorway with authority, “You’re my new pilot, right?”  “Yes, Sir, that’s me,” new guy responded. “Well, let’s see what you got. I need to run up an aircraft real quick; are you ready to go flying?!” Chief Jones said. “Sure thing! Let me get my gear,” the new guy said. SGT Smith followed the two officers, carrying all the equipment, as the pilots chatted. They preflighted the aircraft, put on their flight gear, hopped in the cockpit, and began to read from the large green checklist. The blistering Iraqi sun was pouring through the windows above them, and SGT Smith was hooked up outside to a cable, listening to the painfully slow start-up.

“For crying out loud Sir!!!” said Smith, “I could run this bird up faster than this kid!” “Watch your mouth, Smith; you may be a good mechanic, but you couldn’t even get the first engine started!” Jones said. “Sir, with all due respect, new guy is taking forever; I’m gonna melt before we get the big fan thingy spinning. LET’S GO!!” The nervous replacement looked across the cockpit to the senior officer. “Fine!” Jones said, “you think you can do any better? Get up here!” New guy’s mouth fell open. Before he could ask the question Jones told him to shut up and let the enlisted Soldier try, explaining that if he sat in the back it wouldn’t be illegal. For fear of his instructor new guy didn’t protest. He looked concerned as the cocky SGT hopped in like a cowboy vaulting onto a thoroughbred horse.

“Watch this, Sir!” Smith said. Within seconds Smith’s hands were flying across the cockpit, flipping switches faster than the new guy could identify them. The jet engines were soon hissing like snakes. Two minutes later Smith pushed the throttles overhead forward and helicopter was shaking with the power of the massive rotor blades, like a swarm of angry hornets. “Not bad, Smith, I guess I misjudged you.” Jones said, sitting in the back in between the mechanic and the new pilot. Then, while the new guy was still looking around, wondering what was happening, Smith pointed his finger toward the chain link fence. It was crowded with all of the Soldiers in the unit, watching. “Look over there, Sir,” Smith said.

Oh, new guy thought to himself, they’ve all come to watch me take off for the first timeThat’s pretty cool of them.

Smith reached down to the radios, while new guy watched the ever-growing crowd at the fence, and turned off the kid’s radio volume. Then Smith made a call to the control tower. “Speicher tower, Wings Two Niner is a Blackhawk in South East parking, request high hover to the right of runway Three Two Approach.” A Southern drawl chimed back, “Rrrrroger Wings Two Niner approved as requested.”

Without warning, Smith wrestled the controls out of new guy’s hands and rocketed them straight up into a cloud of brown dust.  “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!!!?” Jones screamed. “HE IS NOT A PILOT! GET THE CONTROLS BACK FROM HIM! HURRY!!!” The aircraft rocked back and forth like a wild bull, the two men locked in a fight to fly the aircraft, neither one willing to give back the controls.  “I told you I can fly, I can be a pilot,” said Smith smiling. “If you don’t get the controls back we’re all gonna end up in Leavenworth!” Jones yelled. Screaming from new guy drowned out the laughter from Jones, who by now was having so much fun that he had fallen down in his seat in hysterics.

Smith finally gave new guy the controls back, who quickly bounced the aircraft down hard. No sooner had they touched down than the commander raced to the side of the cockpit, ripping Smith out of his seat and making him do calisthenics in the hot sun. “You idiot, he’s not even supposed to be sitting in the cockpit! He doesn’t have wings; he is not a pilot!” the commander yelled. New guy shut down the helicopter and hobbled out, watching the scene unfold. “Chief Jones” went over to help “SGT Smith” up, only to exchange rank and nametapes once again.

“Hi . . . I am your instructor pilot, Mr. Jones, HE’S SGT Smith.” Jones told the now pale new guy.  And then he heard the crowd at the fence yell . . .

“Welcome to Dustoff!”

Erik Sabiston led his helicopter crew during a series of miraculous rescues on one of the most dangerous operations in the history of the war in Afghanistan. His new memoir about the experience is called Dustoff 7-3. 

Sabistongrew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia before winding up living off the grid in the redwoods of Northern California. Naturally restless, he moved from one job to another working as a door-to-door salesman, music teacher, and even a butcher, until he eventually found his calling as a Soldier. He currently teaches the next generation of aviators to fly and fight in the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Home is wherever the Army sends him and his wife, Tess, who still teases him about his fear of heights.