Into the Vortex
A Navy pilot on touching down in Afghanistan
The heater in the EA-6B Prowler didn’t work all that well at 25,000 feet. In fact, what seeped out of the diffuser felt more like the memory of heat than actual heat. The trade-off, of course, was fuel efficiency—the engines burned less gas up high—which translated directly into distance. And we’d come a long way: eastbound over the continental United States, then across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea, and now the desert of Kandahar province. Wiping a hole in the frost on the inside of the windscreen, I saw Afghanistan for the first time: The Hindu Kush rolled west from the Himalayas, branching off to form a snowcapped horseshoe around our final destination, Bagram Air Base. Aside from being the biggest mountains I’d ever seen, they also seemed to be the newest, the most unfinished, as if, at any moment, those mountains might grow even taller and sharper peaks, whose spindrifts would twist even farther into the distance.
If I wasn’t fully prepared for the majesty of that landscape, it was probably because I hadn’t had time to prepare. During my 15 years in the Navy, I’d never heard of a squadron receiving as little notice as we had for that deployment. The call had come in early December, 2003, just a month before we were expected to arrive at Bagram. And no one told us when we were going to come home.
We left our home base in Oak Harbor, Washington, on the morning of December 29, in four Prowlers, crossing the snowy heartland to Andrews Air Force Base, just outside the nation’s capital. There, my dad treated me to a steak dinner—and told me to come back in one piece. From Andrews, we followed a KC-135 tanker across the gray Atlantic to Portugal, where we spent a somber New Year’s Eve. From Portugal, we flew to Italy, then on to the United Arab Emirates. All told, the journey would cover almost 11,000 miles.
In order to travel as far as possible between waypoints, we cold-soaked in the stratosphere for hours, at low power. Up there, strapped into my ejection seat, something like hibernation occurred. My heartbeat slowed, my extremities numbed. I was able to perform essential functions only.
With 1,500 flight hours under my belt, those functions were more or less automatic. And the act of flying itself had assumed a dimension greater than the sum of its checklists and procedures. Guiding a machine through the air, I’d learned, was a far more subtle endeavor than the movie Top Gun (which had inspired me to join the Navy) had led me to believe. For example, the feel of the Prowler’s two engines—how their harmonics overlapped, fell silent, then pulled apart and hummed—told me more than the gauges did. The vibrations passed through the metal airframe and into my bones.
Now, approaching Bagram from the south, with fuel to spare, we accelerated. The engines whistled a happy tune. Heat blasted from the diffusers. The windscreen cleared, and my fingers and toes thawed. We transitioned from a loose diamond formation into a tight left echelon. This put all three wingmen on the lead’s left side, in anticipation of our approach, which we’d been told was called the Whirlpool One.
The Whirlpool was a clockwise spiral from 25,000 feet all the way down to the runway. Thirty miles south of Bagram, I called the control tower to request the approach. In reply, the Texan manning the tower gave me the first of many lessons in the ever-changing nature of war.
“We don’t call it the Whirlpool One anymore,” he said. “We call it the Vortex Two.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“Vortex is counterclockwise,” the Texan said.
Our wingmen moved, one by one, from left echelon to right. I felt them slip under our hull. I watched them pop up on our right wing, so close I could read the frequencies dialed into their radios. Their faces, behind their tinted visors, appeared relaxed and ready.
Looking down from our perch over the runway, I saw a bulldozed pile of old Soviet fighters to the east and a line of concrete Soviet hangars to the west. Beyond the hangars, I saw the rows of new plywood huts that would become our homes. And I took another look at those strange mountains, which would soon become familiar enough to lead me home from anywhere, day or night. At the time, though, they still seemed raw and unsteady. I’d flown over other countries at war—Iraq, Bosnia—but I’d never set foot in one. I didn’t know how quiet the nights might be or how many I would spend there. I didn’t know how stable the ground would feel.
The only way to find out, of course, was to stand on it. So I kissed off our wingmen, signaling the beginning of our approach. We rolled a little beyond knife edge, and those mountains started to spin.