Editor's Note: FNC producer Kathleen Foster and reporter Rick Leventhal are blogging about their experiences in Iraq.
Thursday, December 20
Traveling on a military aircraft isn't like flying Continental or JetBlue. Sure, the flight attendants are wearing uniforms, but they've got guns too, and so do most of the people flying with you.
There's no first or business class, and the coach seats are as bare bones as you can imagine — just a piece of canvas and a seatbelt. They usually leave the rear cargo door open, so it's cold and very noisy, there's no food or beverage service, no in-flight entertainment and you usually get dripped on by oil or grease. Like commercial transport, there are delays and cancelled flights, but the biggest difference is you can get bumped repeatedly, depending on your flight status, and journalists aren't very high on the status chart.
They recommend allowing two days to get on a military bird or plane in Iraq, and we're on day two now, keeping our fingers crossed that we'll actually make it out of Saddam's sandbox in time for the weekend.
Here's a condensed version of our attempts to fly so far:
Wednesday, December 19
1 p.m.: "Showtime" at the A/D ACG (arrival-departure aviation control group, or PAX terminal) for a 4 p.m. fixed wing C-130 ride to the air base at al Taqadeum (TQ).
We can catch a connection from there to Baghdad. At the check-in desk, we're told there's a transport helicopter leaving right that minute we can still get on. Our PAO (Public Affairs Officer, Cpt. Michael Armistead) races us to the flight line where people are boarding the huge CH-53, and begin unloading our ten cases and bags from his SUV into a "tri-wall" box (a storage bin that actually has four walls, not three, that can be loaded onto aircraft with a forklift).
Then, one of the grounds crew guys apologizes. "Too late," he yells over the engine noise. "The pilot doesn't want to pick up the tri-wall." Pierre the cameraman howls, we offer to drag the gear to the bird ourselves, but no luck. We pack up and head back to the A/DACG.
4 p.m.: Our fixed wing is cancelled. We book another fixed wing to TQ scheduled for 9:30 p.m. with a 1:20 a.m. connection to Baggers and head to the chow hall for dinner.
6 p.m.: Showtime for our 9:30 p.m. flight. We sign in and chill out on some cots for a couple hours.
8:30 p.m.: Our flight is called. We grab our gear, board a bus, and head to the flight line, where we line up in the near-freezing cold and wait for half an hour for our jumbo transport to land. We trudge out to the rear of the plane and stand in the hot engine blast for 10 minutes while they unload passengers and gear, then board and strap in to the canvas seats.
9:30 p.m.: The pilot makes an announcement. "The wind is too strong at TQ. We can't land there. If you're flying to TQ, you have to get off the plane. Sorry." They lower the ramp, we trudge off, stand in the engine blast again, then walk back to the edge of the tarmac and sort thru the pile of gear to find ours and head back to the A/DACG. We book an Osprey flight to TQ leaving at 4 a.m. and head back to the cots in the drafty warehouse terminal building. It's freezing, but I have a sleeping bag and pass out.
3:30 p.m.: Cpt. Armistead wakes us. The air control guys combined two Osprey flights and there's no room for us anymore. We head back to our "can" (sleeping quarters) that we thought we'd left for good and we go back to sleep.
11 p.m.: Armistead swings by our can to tell us there's a 5p C-17 flight direct to the military side of Baghdad International Airport, but we'll miss our connection to Amman, Jordan, and will then miss the Friday a.m. flight back to New York.
My producer Kathleen and Pierre take the flight anyway and hope for a different connection to Dubai. I stay to take a 9:45 p.m. flight to Qatar, which then flies to Kuwait, where I can catch a 9:30 a.m. Friday flight to JFK. I say goodbye to my crew at the A/DACG and head to the PAO's office to write this blog and check my email.
If I don't make it out tonight I may just enlist and stay for a tour or two.
Tuesday, December 18
When we found out 10 V-22 Ospreys were in use at the al Asad airbase, flying their first combat missions in Iraq, my producer Kathleen Foster and I started working our contacts to convince the Marines to give us access to the bird-planes for a story. We weren't the first to ask, but we were the first to get a thumbs-up.
Very few journalists have been near an Osprey since they landed here, and no TV news crews had been given access to the pilots and helicopter assault teams conducting raids with the controversial craft.
Well, we got the story and I got to ride in the jump seat in the cockpit during flight, reminding me once again just how cool my job can be.
I also experienced the back blast from the rotor blades while standing next to one of the birds as it landed. The force of the "dust-off" almost knocked me down.
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The Marines sent an Osprey for our trip back to al Asad from the recently re-opened border port at al Qaim, in far western Anbar province. I didn't know we'd be riding in one until we got to the landing zone at the main military base near Syria. It probably helped that we were traveling with the boss, Col. Stacy Clardy, battalion commander of RCT-2. I've known him since the start of the war in 2003 when I embedded with his unit, the 3rd L.A.R.
The Osprey is a Marine transport helicopter capable of carrying a couple dozen passengers. It has twin 38-foot tilt rotors that allow it to lift off and land like a helicopter but fly like a plane. The rotors begin tilting downward almost immediately as the Osprey is taking off, and the acceleration is pretty impressive.
The military spent some 24 years and 20 billion bucks developing the aircraft and lost 30 lives during testing and training. Time Magazine called the Osprey "a flying shame" but the Navy calls it "revolutionary," and the Marines I spoke with who are using it now swear by it.
It has very limited weapons systems on board but it's twice as fast as conventional transport helicopters and can fly twice as high if necessary. Its ability to get in an out of tight spots quickly makes it a valuable assest for raids or emergency evacuations.
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When we boarded the Osprey I sat down next to the colonel and got strapped in, but before we lifted off one of the crew members came up to me and told me to unbuckle and follow him towards the front. He showed me a jump seat attached to the open door of the cockpit, handed me a helmet and gave me a quick brief on how to strap myself in, then pointed me toward the front where I stepped in between the pilots. It had been a long few days, so I still didn't realize what was happening.
I said hello to the flight team and shook their hands and turned around to see the door closed behind me. That's when I realized I would have a front row seat for one of the coolest rides most people will never see.
The Osprey's dash has four big display screens, including color GPS maps and an infrared video display. I'm no pilot so I didn't recognize most of the other gauges, switches, readouts and gadgets, but suffice it to say there's a lot going on up there. I did manage to pick out the digital altimeter and speed in yellow lights and watched the numbers climb as we did, lifting off and heading almost immediately nose up into the clouds, angled steeply to roughly 10,000 feet at an air speed of 240 knots, 280 ground speed with the tail wind (more than 300 mph, according to the pilots). The Osprey can fly up to 25,000 feet but passengers would need oxygen. Instead, my crew rode with the others in back with the rear ramp open. The pilots warned me if people didn't hang on to their stuff it would fall out for sure.
When we leveled off I was able to talk to the guys over headsets about the differences between these 22s and the 53s they usually fly.
They raved about the Osprey's performance capabilities (I think the word "awesome" was used more than once) and said the cockpit gauges were comparable in some ways to a fighter jet. They were thrilled to fly them, they told me, they believed in the birds' future and weren't worried about the lack of a forward-facing weapon.
"That's being looked at now," the Major in charge of the helicopter-borne assault force told me on the ground. "But we have plenty of backup systems. When we go in, we go in strong," he said. They're using the Ospreys for missions involving reconnaissance, interdiction and disruption. "We're just beginning to explore what it can do."
Monday, December 17
We rode from Albu Hyatt to the town of Hit in an Armadillo, a seven-ton truck with heavy metal plates welded on the sides of the bed. It's angled upward, giving it a resemblance to the cute giant rats it's named after.
There are cushioned bench seats running down the middle, so you sit with your back to the other passengers, facing outward. I spent much of the hour-plus ride reaching above the armor plates to lift the canvas flaps so I could watch the scenery. There's lots of sand, and palm groves whenever the road ran close to the Euphrates River.
I had almost forgotten how dirty you get when you spend time in the desert. Marines call the sand here "moondust," because it's so light and powdery. When it's wet, it clumps to your shoes like cement. When it's dry it blows in the slightest breeze and gets all over everything. There's almost no point in taking a shower if you're going outside, since you'll be covered in dust within seconds.
Click here to watch an exclusive video — Kathleen Foster describes the messy substance that gets everywhere!
When we drive, it's often slow going, especially on "Tier 1" roads, where IEDs are most common. Even though the number of roadside bombs has dropped off dramatically in Anbar, the Marines are still careful, dismounting and sweeping along either side of the vehicles as we creep along, looking for telltale signs of trouble: fresh dirt, strange piles of trash near the roadside, anything with wires sticking out. Fortunately, on this day, there are none.
Today we visited the bridge in the town of Hit that was blasted in half by a suicide bomber on December 12. A 50-foot chunk is gone, but the steel supports are still standing, and our escort, Lt. Col. J. J. Dill of the 1-7 Marines, tells me the locals began cleaning it up the day after the attack and hope to have it repaired in two weeks. "They didn't ask us for money," he tells me. Instead, they went to the governor of Anbar, who gave them a check for $30,000.
We also took a walk through the open air market in Hit, which may sound pretty ordinary, but isn't. Our cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski (pronounced zak-sheff-skee, he claims), spends six or seven months a year in Iraq and was stunned. He can barely remember the last time he paused on any street for more than a few moments, and NEVER set up a tripod, because of snipers.
Today, he had all the time in the world to get whatever video he wanted, surrounded by locals shopping and going about their business. I had a small glass of Chai tea on the street with the colonel, who told me he'd take his flak and helmet off, if Marine rules allowed it.
There's no question in anyone's mind that the situation is night and day in Anbar, with 90 percent fewer attacks by some counts. Still, when I asked an Iraqi Police Investigator what he needed most, he said he needed the Marines to stay. Things are much better, he told me, but he's worried if the Marines leave, the insurgents will come back. An Iraqi Army Major told me he knows there will be more assassinations and bombings but "we have faith and will not waver."
"There is life and death, and we're not scared."
Friday, December 14
I still had my dog tag tied to the shoelaces of my boot, left there from when I first covered the war, so I tied it to the shoe I'm wearing now.
It has my name, Social Security number, "Fox News," my girlfriend's phone number and my blood type, just in case.
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I haven't gotten more than four hours sleep since I got here. The days are exhausting but filled with adventures. We're packing a lot in on the trip, traveling in choppers, MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, heavily armored and very expensive) and armored humvees, visiting bases and towns across the Anbar province, interviewing Marines and some locals too.
The progress they've made here is pretty remarkable. It definitely feels different, it's quieter. There are far fewer attacks. The guys all tell me the same thing: "We're winning."
When I meet Marines I'm always impressed by their intelligence, professionalism, character and attitude. They're polite and well trained and tough, but good humored too — only if they trust you enough to joke around.
When we hit the road, they're all business. Every mission has a brief, including the route, security procedures and the plan of action in the event of an incident. If something happens, they tell us we'll be protected. In essence, our instructions are to stay in the vehicle until told otherwise.
When convoys are rolling, all other traffic must stop. Most of the drivers in Iraq know this, and quickly pull off onto the shoulder as the lead vehicle approaches. If they don't know the rules, they learn 'em quick.
It's called "escalation of force." The gunner on top of the lead humvee with a gulf machine gun waves a red flag at approaching cars and trucks. If they don't stop, he shows a weapon and fires a flare. If they still don't stop he's supposed to fire a warning shot, preferably a tracer round so it's even more obvious. If they still don't stop, he puts a bullet in the grill. If they STILL don't stop, he aims for the driver's head.
One of the higher-ups conceded that some Iraqis are growing weary of the constant delays, but says it's the Iraqi army and police who insist on maintaining the security procedures. The IA and IP are being targeted more often than the Americans now, and don't want to take unnecessary risks.
We took the road north from Al Asad to Haditha, nicknamed "Bronze" by the military, passing some roadside markets selling fuel and food along the way. The locals weren't smiling and waving as we drove by, but they weren't shooting either. One officer I spoke with out west, Lt Col Pete Baumgarten, told me not a single one of his 1500 men have been shot at or targeted in any way since he got here in mid-October. No IEDs or RPGs or attempted suicide bombers. Nothing. He then knocked on wood, but says the change in tide isn't luck. It's local Iraqis growing tired of war and angry at the insurgents who've disrupted and hurt their quality of life.
Most important, Marines say the local Sheiks are on board. They're businessmen who saw their power and cash flow affected by thugs and decided enough is enough.
Later, we joined a foot patrol on the streets of Haditha and walked across the Bani Dahir bridge to the small town of Barwana, where 3/23's Kilo Company appears to be co-existing quite peacefully with the locals. There were smiles and waves and lots of banter with the little kids playing on the dirt streets. I spoke with a young Iraqi man named Raad selling animal feed who says the Marines make good neighbors and the convoys stopping traffic is a small price to pay for the security and stability he and his neighbors now enjoy. It was a stark change from the last time I was here, in April of '06, when attacks on the Marines were common and people were wary and uncooperative.
There are a number of Marines here on their second and third tours. Some were wounded.
Wednesday, December 12
12:45 p.m. — There's a sign on a door inside the Green Zone: "Suicide bomber-free zone. Absolutely no killing yourself for Allah beyond this point." It's supposed to be a joke, but I find myself hoping it's observed.
Things seem quieter so far than my last trip to Iraq, in early 2006, but there are still attacks. The sky over Baghdad is blanketed with thick black smoke from an oil refinery hit by a mortar two days ago.
It's apparently still on fire.
Mid Morning — After 25 hours waiting for a possible flight at CPIC, the military press office, we're told they've found us transport to al Asad, but the point of departure is back at the military side of BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). Since the army doesn't have room for all of our gear on a Rhino armored vehicle, we arrange for our private AKE security guards from the bureau to come pick us up.
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We strap on our body armor, load the vehicles with our 10 cases and backpacks and speed off down the road. It's a complicated trip involving lots of checkpoints and delays. At one turn onto a government controlled road we pass blue warning signs reading: "deadly force authorized."
Midnight— We pile up our gear next to an open hangar full of soldiers heading home for the holidays and search for someone to tell us where and when we'll be taking off. It takes a while, but we finally track down an army sergeant who makes some calls and finds our itinerary. A helpful member of the Air Force acquisitions a pick-up truck to cart our load of gear to the edge of the runway, where we stack it inside a small bunker.
He tells me we'll be leaving on a "dirty bird" at 11 p.m., after it drops off a load of detainees.
"Why do you call them "dirty birds" I ask.
"Cuz the guys smell so bad!" he tells me. "They clean 'em [meaning the birds], but they still smell."
He makes a face, but 'm grateful we'll finally get to Anbar. I hope.
Tuesday, December 11
Our Royal Jordanian twin engine jet looked like it was built in the 1950s. It was an F28-4000, painted white, with the name "Bella-Donna" written in English script on the nose.
We lined up on the tarmac outside waiting to board the stairs when my photographer Pierre said reassuringly, "I wonder how loose the rivets are from all the corkscrew landings?"
Later, my seatmate, an electrical consultant to the Army Corp of Engineers, reassures me. "It might be 20 years old," he says, "but RJ maintains it's fleet very well."
The plane is full of guys like him, experts in utilities, explosives, security. There are a handful of Jordanians and Iraqis, but most of the dozens on board are American.
I've driven between Jordan and Baghdad several times. It usually takes about 12 hours and the flight is just 90 minutes. Getting down from 22,000 feet is the key.
If you've never landed like a spinning top, this is your chance. It's not quite a Disney thrill ride, but it's a bit hair-raising and makes you appreciate the lazy slow descent common just about everywhere else in the world. The corkscrew approach, if you haven't heard about it, is designed to avoid attacks from RPGs and other arms fire. The pilot flies directly over the airport and then banks sharply, curving his way steeply to the ground.
Since I sat on the inside of the tilt, I was able to watch the airport approach almost the whole way down, gaining new appreciation for the words "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Baghdad International Airport."
It's a bit eerie on the ground as we exit the plane. The skies are clear, the weather is warm but not hot, there's a breeze and it's quiet. No whine of turbines at all. There's a large terminal building and plenty of tarmac but every gate sits empty. There's just a handful of jets parked here and there, a couple of security guards holding automatic weapons, and a minimal contingent of baggage handlers waiting to unload the cargo.
I remember baggage claim when I walk inside. The lighting, the furniture, everything is straight out of the 70s. I haven't been here in 20 months, but it feels much longer.
Later, after we collect our bags and hard cases and meet our security and gear up and head for the green zone, I see the first signs of change. They've painted colorful murals on the blast wall along airport road. Rainbows and flowers and smiling faces, topped with concertina razor wire.
Sunday, December 9
I'm on the way to Iraq to spend time at the al Asad airbase and to visit some towns in Anbar province. We flew from New York to Amman, Jordan first, where we're going to pick up visas and get required blood tests.
In Iraq, I'm going to visit Col. Stacy Clardy, who's now the commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 2 at the al Asad airbase. He was the C.O. of the unit I embedded with at the start of the war, the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion out of 29 Palms, Calif. We became friends then and stayed in touch. I'm going to profile him, then visit some of the surrounding towns in the Anbar province to see how things have changed since I was last there in April 2006.
But now, since it's Sunday, I'm hoping to watch football. There's plenty on television, but it's the sport Americans call soccer.
I try again in the middle of the night. Since we're seven hours ahead of east coast time, I'm hoping to catch a simulcast of the prime time game. No such luck.
I do find camel races on TV. There are no jockeys on the animal's backs — instead, a fleet of SUVs drive on a road alongside the grass tracks, with drivers presumably shouting encouragement to the prize thoroughbreds. The telecast features Arabic commentary, horizontal split screens and a running elapsed time clock at the bottom. I don't know what distance the race was, but some of the entrants galloped for more than 10 minutes. The winning camel finished in nine minutes, 41 seconds.
I also watched MTV Arabia, some of the film Species with Arabic subtitles and learned the weather for Turkey and cities across Russia and Europe.
Monday we give blood, get visas and pick up last minute supplies. Tuesday, we're booked on the 8 a.m. flight to Baghdad International Airport.
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Rick Leventhal has been a New York-based correspondent with the FOX News Channel since June 1997. You can read his bio here.