Baghdad Airport, On Final

Baghdad International Airport -- Using a shoulder-fired missile to shoot down a plane takes skill, and unless you have practice, training, or a very good weapons system, you probably won't succeed on your first try. Watch here to see a few mujahedin (Arabs, if I hear them correctly) down a helicopter in Chechnya:

I know little about weapons, but having flown into Iraqi bases a few dozen times, I've come to learn a bit of the folk knowledge of man-portable air defense. These Russians were very unlucky, and not only because they are now dead. Usually a successful shoot-down requires a few key conditions, which vary greatly depending on what weapon is used, and whether the weapon still works. (A Stinger that has spent the last twenty years buried in the sand in Afghanistan probably won't work.) The heat signature of the aircraft's engine exhaust must be distinct. It has to be close, but not so close that the missile won't have time to arm itself before impact. And the aircraft must not bank hard after the weapon has been fired.

In practice, these parameters mean that to shoot a plane down you should make sure to be right behind it as it takes off, to pull the trigger at the right time, and to ensure that the plane isn't planning any hard turns. And even if you get all of these conditions right, there's a chance the crew will survive. (I invite knowledgeable readers to correct any falsehoods I'm inadvertently spreading.) In 2003, Iraqi fighters shot a DHL Airbus 300, destroying an engine and the hydraulic system. After a few minutes of remarkable piloting, the plane landed roughly. The crew emerged from the cockpit unharmed and demanding whiskey. For years the plane sat in the corner of Baghdad's airport, its chewed-up wing a reminder of the dangers of a lucky strike. Here's video of the event:

All this is just background to explain, from what I stress is a layman's and non-pilot's point of view, the kind of landing I just experienced at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). I couldn't see out the windows of the C-130, so I have nothing but the highly misleading feel of the plane's movements to go on. But it felt like we did a series of shallow dives, stepwise, from our highest altitude, and then a bank at the end that brought us to a very short final and touchdown. It was like sledding down a mountainside that had a few fast falls, interspersed with flat areas, and then a little tight curve past a snowbank at the end.

My previous flights into Baghdad have been more straightforward, and on aircraft not built for combat maneuvers, such as 727's and rusty old An-12's. I also had more chances to look out the windows. We'd cruise to above the airstrip, then bank about as hard as I've ever felt an airplane bank, then spiral down to the ground for a few minutes. Doing a spiral over the airfield meant taking a path that would be difficult for a shoulder-fired weapon (especially an unsophisticated one) to follow us. It also kept us above the secure airfield, rather than zooming low and slow over the streets of Baghdad.

My company on this flight was a few dozen soldiers. A shaven-headed major eyed my press pass suspiciously from across the aisle, but others approached me curiously and told me their hometowns and stories. These stories are a first indication of how times have changed here. In 2004, the first U.S. soldiers I met were tense, confused men at checkpoint in central Kirkuk. I was in an Iraqi shared taxi, and the other occupants begged me to stick my head out the window and call out in English, so we wouldn't be shot. (One of the soldiers was crouching, his rifle aimed at the driver of every car that passed.) When I spoke to the soldiers they seemed utterly at sea, with only the vaguest notions of the city's geography. Later I met soldiers who didn't know the names of the towns nearest to their bases, and who would have been in a very precarious situation indeed, if for some reason they had to find their ways alone back from a city center to a familiar outpost.

Now, the unfamiliarity is gone, and most everyone trades in conversation the names of even smallish Iraqi towns. There is weariness, but not confusion. A Staff Sergeant Steele, from outside St. Louis, sat across from me and spoke calmly, even cheerfully, about all the places he had seen, and the reputations of each. This is a force that seems, in my few hours since leaving Kuwait, far more ready and more confident than it did five years ago.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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