On a surprisingly chilly November day in Texas, I was checking my email in an internet café when I heard an anchor on CNN tonelessly report: “An army helicopter has crashed in Italy.” Instinctively I paused and looked up at the television.
Army Aviation 101: NEVER do this.
My brain immediately identified the familiar Blackhawk form (I can sketch it free hand, you know, with or without the extra fuel tanks)--except this one had a crumpled nose and detached tail boom.
I was instantaneously transported to a place that I religiously avoid: a place where his call to tell me he landed safely never comes and my worst fears are confirmed by strangers at a door that my five-year-old son will probably answer before I do.
I hate that place. I tried to turn away from live footage of the smoking wreckage as my chest tightens and my throat constricts. In a café full of strangers who had already lost interest in the story, I continued to stare at the TV, mouth agape, too shocked to cry--but I was sinking fast.
If I were more selfless (or a better liar), I would identify the feeling as empathy for another pilot's wife, but I think a more honest assessment would be fear—or panic… this sudden reminder of the possibility of becoming a widow under similar circumstances. My husband was a Blackhawk pilot for the United States Army. He was going to Iraq soon and although I knew it was going to be difficult when he deployed, the fear of being notified of his helicopter crashing already lived with us like an unwanted houseguest with nowhere else to go. It moved in a few years ago. What can you do with someone like that?
In fact, since 9/11, a third of all Blackhawk crashes occurred in non-combat zones. Every time my husband went through his pre-flight checklist, I swallowed a seed of anxiety that I refused to take root by sheer will alone. That seed comes from images like this on CNN.
How on earth did they get there so fast?
As the camera crews were being ordered to back away from the helicopter and its debris, it was reported that at least five soldiers were confirmed dead, but I knew that there would be no survivors. Just like I knew the pilots had to have been among the first to die from the condition of cockpit.
Oh my God. I’m going to cry. Please don’t cry, please don’t cry.
What I didn’t know—or understand really—was why. I couldn’t help but stare at the crash scene, studying its surroundings for signs of what could have gone wrong for this crew. I had to fight the urge to crawl on all fours to the television and touch the screen with my fingers, inspecting every pixel like a blind woman re-reading brail because she simply could not accept the message as accurate, correct, or true.
I could not wrap my mind around why this Blackhawk went down. It looked like it crashed nose first on a relatively clear day in the middle of a vast open and even field. I didn’t see any visible power lines nearby. When my husband was in flight school, I helped him study all his emergency procedures: auto-rotational or roll-on landings in the event of engine failures, lightning strikes, transmission problems, inadvertent bad weather, etc.
We used to joke that I knew those emergency procedures better than he did.
Clearly I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.
Something in the back of my mind was rattling about: something wasn't right.
This image, this event did not and could not co-exist with the world as I knew it. Although I couldn’t see it, I knew they weren’t just collecting bodies; they are collecting body parts. The rational person my husband married sparred with the crazy woman I kept locked in proverbial attic who was haunted by his off-the-cuff comments like "impaled by the cyclic," or "we called that pole the 'widow-maker'”.
Stop watching, Tiffany. Stop. Watching. NOW.
I had nothing to gain by watching any more, but I couldn’t stop and I was finding myself feeling increasingly angry at the anchors describing the scene. I wanted to yell at the television, “That is not a helicopter. THAT is a very, very large coffin in the shape of one.”
The feeling returned: something's not right here.
I shut down my e-mail, closed my laptop, and headed back to the house to grill my husband. How did this happen? What have you heard? (Translation: how likely was it this will happen to you?) Somewhere in the world these soldiers' families were being located by the Department of Defense for the worst news of their lives and here I was performing a postmortem on the crash that killed their loved ones. How horrible was that?
Once home, I cornered my husband in our kitchen, most likely overwhelming him with my thoughts and the information I had so far. When I finally paused for a breath, I started crying.
Stephen immediately put his arms around me. "Honey," he said quietly, "it was most likely mechanical failure."
From his tone, I was fairly certain he thought that was supposed to comfort me.
Instead, I was confused; and frankly, a little pissed. All that hard work in flight school, all of that studying and preparation, all of my husband's skills as a pilot and it can all be undone by a “mechanical failure?”
I stepped out of his arms. "Stephen, I KNOW there are mechanical failures.” Thinking momentarily that my husband must think I was a moron. “But you have emergency procedures for that."
I could tell he was thinking about what he should say to me. He had that cagey look people get when they don't know how much to tell someone when asked an uncomfortable question directly.
No kidding. I know that’s right.
"So WHAT happened? Your EPs always say the same thing: ‘find a suitable landing place,’ ‘land as soon as possible.’ THEY DID THAT Stephen. That field was a suitable landing place. Granted, I wasn't there, but I’m guessing they tried to land as soon as possible."
Stephen reached out to hold me again, "Baby, I don't know what happened yet. But you have to know that the Blackhawk is an extremely crash-worthy airframe."
I pulled away and stared at him. "Well, there are five dead soldiers so far and a deformed helicopter in the middle of an open field that beg to differ."
"Well, I mean, IF they lost their control of the tail rotor..." He suggested, reluctantly.
Now he looked like he was definitely keeping something from me.
I watched him suspiciously and waited for more.
Stephen sighed and straightened his posture. "Honey, you have to understand that we fly low to the ground. If you lose control of your tail rotor, the airframe is going to start spinning uncontrollably. They probably had very little time to try to save that aircraft."
Ah. There it was.
I get that feeling of enlightenment that makes you sick to your stomach because you are oddly less empowered as opposed to more so by your new-found understanding of the subject.
"Are you saying that EVEN IF the pilots have all the right conditions for the emergency procedures AND they follow those EPs, they could still dive the nose of that Blackhawk head first into the ground like this?"
The sound of my illusions crashing around me had to be heard around the world. My legs went weak, as though this sudden loss of naiveté took the strength--in spirit and body--that kept me standing with it. I walked out of the kitchen and crumpled onto a dining room chair.
Somehow, some way, I was okay with certain crashes; I viewed them as inevitable: mechanical failure too close to a mountain, being shot down, or running into a power line (notoriously hard to see). Crashes were an occupational hazard; I knew this when I married my husband. But there always seemed to be a way to prevent crashing in the event of those other emergencies. Always. With my head in my hands, I thought about how underrated a good false sense of security was. Ignorance is highly underrated sometimes.
When Stephen finished flight school and we got married, I avoided constant worry by choosing to operate instead on faith: faith in his abilities, faith in those damn emergency procedures, and faith in that stupid helicopter. But for the first time since that day, a sensation I have never known before was taking over my body--starting with painful contractions around my heart and spreading throughout the rest of my body: dread.
Stephen was kneeling next to me. "This was so rare, Tiffany. This was so uncommon. Chances of this happening are so unlikely... you have to realize that."
I didn’t even look at him because I knew that I had realized what I needed to realize, just not what he wanted me to realize. Folding my arms on the dining room table, I dropped my head and started crying again.
They say the only thing harder than being a soldier is loving one.
Truer words have never been written.
Copyright 2009-2010 Carissa Picard