The Kabul-ki Dance

Inside the cockpit with the pilots and wizzos of the 391st Fighter Squadron, the top guns of America's air war in Afghanistan
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One of the unadvertised downsides of being a god of the night sky, of delivering America's smartest bombs, of owning the twenty-first-century battlefield and then getting home in time to dine on surf 'n' turf and Häagen-Dazs and catch the latest episode of Friends, is the capability of the U.S. Air Force to record every word and image from the cockpit of your F-15 for digital playback. It's fine for showing off marksmanship and relishing derring-do; but some moments are not meant to be relived every time some wise-ass desk jock in the Mission Planning Cell, the MPC, cues up a certain audio file and punches a button on his keyboard.

"Holy shit! Missile launch!"

Heart in the throat, sphincter puckered, a trace of panic in the voice. It's a little embarrassing. It's the exact opposite of the purely utilitarian pilotese they teach in training.

"Holy shit! Missile launch!"

At war over Afghanistan, an Air Force captain called Snitch learned to live with the fact that his moment of genuine alarm had been preserved on audio. Snitch is one of the thirty-six crew members of the 391st Fighter Squadron, the Bold Tigers, a force of twelve F-15 Strike Eagles out of Mountain Home, Idaho. He is a slender, cheerful man in his early thirties, with brown eyes, short brown hair that looks as if it just came out from under a helmet, and freckles that still show under a dark tan. He grew up in Wisconsin, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1992, and spent two years in Alaska as an Air Force criminal investigator. Hence his nickname. (The fliers in this story asked to be identified only by their call signs, to protect themselves and their families.) Snitch is a backseater, a weapons-systems officer, or "wizzo"—and something of a laser-guidance artist, so he's plenty secure with his skills. He also has a good sense of humor. But Snitch was annoyed to have his moment of panic become a squadron joke—especially the hundredth time he heard it. The fear was certainly defensible. Snitch knows pilotese and speaks it with the best of them, but the first time you see one of those surface-to-air motherfuckers corkscrewing up right at you ... well, something primitive takes over.

For Snitch the joke was also a point of pride. Not many of the other guys had to dodge SAMs in this war. Besides, the joke was useful. It reminded the entire squadron, whose members saw this engagement as the greatest turkey shoot of all time, that there were real hazards up there, and that the long stretches of cramped, tense routine in the bubble cockpits of their jets, where even traveling at the speed of sound could get tedious, demanded an unflagging vigilance.

"Holy shit! Missile launch!"

It happened like this:

Snitch and his pilot, Slokes, had been airborne for hours, doing what the fliers of the 391st call the Kabul-ki Dance, circling Kabul with the full force of the U.S. air armada. They had completed the long night flight to Afghanistan, after traveling down the Persian Gulf southeast from al Jaber (none of the Air Force personnel would disclose the location of their desert base outside Kuwait City, but it was widely reported during the conflict), avoiding Iran's airspace, rendezvousing with tankers over the Gulf of Oman to refuel, making a sharp left turn at Gwadar to cross over Pakistan and the great jagged peaks of the Siahan Range, and finally making their way northeast to Kabul. On daytime missions this same flight would reveal hours of dusty red-brown mountain ranges, miles and miles of hostile nothing, a seemingly endless expanse of saw-toothed ridges, a country harsher and emptier than any they had ever seen. On nighttime missions like this one they flew enveloped in darkness, under stars and a moon that seemed close enough to dodge. When they reached Kabul, in east-central Afghanistan, they joined the scores of American warplanes operating at various altitudes. At 20,000 feet the F-15s waited for "fragged" targets from Boss Man, the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that choreographs the terribly complicated and dangerous dance of the modern air assault. A target is fragged when it is assigned to be hit. Depending on its importance and the potential for "collateral damage," or civilian deaths (and thus political fallout), getting a target fragged may mean running all the way up the permission chain to the White House. On that mission Snitch and Slokes had already hit several targets and were given another, time-critical one: a SAM site just outside the city that had unwisely lobbed a missile into the dark sky full of American warplanes, revealing its position and thereby sealing its fate.

Their Strike Eagle, a sleek two-engine jet, the premier precision air-to-ground attack instrument in the U.S. arsenal, was still carrying five 500-pound laser-guided bombs, called GBU-12s (GBU stands for "guided bomb unit"), and Slokes and Snitch were still eager for a chance to lay into something. To be sent home carrying bombs was the worst. With comic futility Slokes would plead with Boss Man, "Please, sir, can I ask somebody else?" Nobody wanted to face the three-hour flight back to Kuwait with packages undelivered—it made the flight longer and burned fuel like crazy; and to face the crew that had worked like dogs to ready the aircraft, load the bombs, and paint love notes to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar on the ordnance was a full-bore bummer.

Working with the AWACS coordinates, Snitch quickly located the SAM site in his target pod, and Slokes maneuvered the jet into the approach. They felt the familiar push of their backs into their seats, and the lurch of their guts against their spines, but both were much too busy to think about the discomfort. Snitch couldn't have said if the jet was upside down or right side up. His nose was glued to the green of his eight-inch target monitor. Manipulating the laser with his hand control, he cleared Slokes to "pickle"—release the bomb. The pilot pressed the button that gives the jet final permission to drop a bomb once it has calculated the perfect trajectory, and fractions of a second later the thing was off. Slokes banked the jet to the left as Snitch, gently nudging his hand controller, kept the laser zeroed; his pod stays fixed on the target no matter how the jet moves. The bomb hit "shack on," or dead center, and the SAM launcher vanished in a satisfactory black splash on the monitor. Job well done ... but then up out of the burning mess spiraled a missile that the GBU had evidently cooked right off the pad.

It was then that Snitch famously exclaimed, "Holy shit! Missile launch!"

Slokes immediately threw the jet off its course, and Snitch punched out some chaff and flares (the chaff distracts radar guidance, and the flares confuse a heat-seeker), after which ensued thirty weighty seconds—or, as Snitch puts it, "half the known age of the universe"—of listening to each other's nervous breathing in the headphones, waiting to be torn into oblivion, until the pilot of a trailing jet commented, in perfect pilotese, "It burned out co-altitude."

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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