KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The impact was unmistakably sickening, its meaning instantly clear: we were crashing.
It had been a longer than normal flight into the depths of southern Afghanistan’s Panjwaii district.
Flying in a Chinook -— a giant misshapen cigar tube with rotors that a layman might think has no business being in the air -— is a strange experience, especially at night. It’s almost impossible to get your bearings as a passenger.
Passengers sit with their backs to the walls of the fuselage; the soldiers — just shadows really, some of them lit by the vague glow of a watch — are lost in thought. There’s apprehension at the operation to come.
It’s far too noisy for conversation, and the pensive mood is contagious, like an old Second World War movie, when the soldiers sit not knowing where they will soon find themselves. Seldom is it ever anywhere good.
At moments, a nervousness pulsed through me as the throb of the twin rotors strained through my body, and I wondered if the pilots could see the craggy peaks that seem to jut from the desert landscape without warning.
Chinooks make fast, unexpected turns. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re on the ground until the dim interior light goes on and your fellow passengers shoo you out down the rear ramp.
One dip made me wonder if we were clearing a mountain. A second dip came with a sickening, scraping thud. In a heartbeat, I knew we were crashing.
As we seemed to careen to one side, I feared we would hit rock that would pierce the hull just behind my head. We came to a halt almost immediately, and several minutes of frantic confusion ensued.
I knew I’d survived the crash, but struggled for a few instants to figure out where exactly I was in relation to where I had been seconds earlier. I’d been sitting on the side on which the Chinook landed and had come to rest half upside down, my head squeezed somehow into the seat webbing. I tried to lift my head to look around, but it was stuck.
It took a further few moments to realize my helmet had snagged. I wiggled frantically on it, not considering undoing the chin strap, until I could lift my head. For the first time, I could see some of the confusion and jumble.
With the unmistakable smell of leaking fuel came an alarming realization: If there’s a fire, I’m done.
Pushing back the panic, I tried to lift myself up. Again to no avail. I struggled, not knowing why I couldn’t get up. A soldier towered over me. I thrust my arm at him to grab and heard myself shouting just once: “Help!” It occurred to me I sounded pretty useless and desperate.
He did not take my proffered hand. Perhaps he was busy with someone else. Perhaps he was trying desperately to avoid standing on someone’s head. Perhaps he was trying to untangle himself.
It dawned on me that I had to get myself out. I took a deep breath and realized my backpack and water pouch, both of which were on my back, were snagged. I furiously wriggled my hands and arms free of the straps, and somehow found myself more or less standing upright.
Soldiers were pushing past to get out, or trying to lift the tangle of equipment and weaponry under which others were pinned. I spotted my camera, but as I made a move for it, I stepped on someone by accident.
For a few more seconds, I stood to one side as people rushed past. As soon as the space cleared, I grabbed the camera and carefully threaded my way to the only exit at the rear of the helicopter.
It is beyond surreal to step out of the chaos into the glorious moonlit Panjwaii night on what seemed like the finest beach sand possible. All around were the shadows of soldiers checking on one another before getting down to the serious business of securing the area and tending to the wounded.
I noticed wetness on my hand, and realized my nose was bleeding. There was a slight throb in my leg and arm, but no pain.
For the next while, I wandered among the knots of dark figures quietly conversing or talking into radios calling for help. Others set up a security perimeter in case of an insurgent ambush. There was almost no light beyond the setting moon and the occasional small red patch of a soldier’s flashlight. The only noise came from a second Chinook that had landed safely, but was off in the distance.
The black hulk of the wrecked chopper lay mute, like the carcass of a dead whale. Four soldiers were injured, one seriously — he screamed in disorientation and pain, thrashing about in the darkness as his colleagues held him down and tried to calm him.
The medevac chopper arrived. For a few heart-stopping instants, I wondered whether it, too, would crash, as the pilot seemed to have difficulty judging the landing. I moved back in case it veered and cartwheeled into us, but it took off again and landed safely elsewhere.
Soon, the injured disappeared in a blinding cloud of what seemed like moon dust. The second Chinook took off and the scene turned serene. Soldiers checked up on one another or smoked cigarettes. As the shock began to wear off, the chatter grew a little louder, more free.
“I survived a crash,” one young soldier said to me.
He seemed genuinely delighted. I guess we all were.