Ready to Kill
THE SCOWLING MAN DECLARED IT LIKE AN ORDER: "YOU DON'T FLY THIS."
He was in his 40s, a civilian. With his knitted brow and jutting jaw, Marine Capt. Katie Horner recalls, the man seemed half perplexed, half ticked off. About what, exactly, Horner wasn't sure at first. Looking back on it now a few years later, she remembers he was so insistent that passersby began to glance at him. The woman with him was tugging his arm.
Horner was a first lieutenant at the time, baking in the sun at an air show next to one of the Marine Corps' light attack helicopters, both she and the AH-1 Super Cobra on public display. The 29-year-old Texan is Nordic pale, with a small straight nose and a deadpan mouth. In her dark sunglasses, green flight suit and black steel-toed boots, her long, blond hair in a regulation knot at the nape of her neck, Horner is all about the mission. Her mission that day: Stand in front of the Cobra, talk to the public.
Sometimes people would ask about the helicopter. Both the Cobra and its slower, plumper cousin, the Huey, are relatively small helicopters that have seen combat since Vietnam and are used to attack targets on the ground. But while the Huey can also carry up to a dozen troops into an assault or a half-dozen wounded out of one, a lean-bodied Cobra can accommodate only two people and one purpose: to attack.
When Horner is strapped into the Cobra's front seat, merging herself with the helicopter, she has her hand on the controls of a three-barrel 20 mm turreted cannon that juts like a stinger from the aircraft's nose. Beneath two stubby wings just aft of the cockpit, she can carry rockets or missiles like armfuls of spears. During her two tours in Iraq, if Marines on the ground were in trouble, she could rush to their rescue at up to 218 mph, then spin around in a hover, bring herself to bear on the enemy and unleash enough firepower to blast through tanks and bunkers and disintegrate human flesh. She had the power to kill, and she used it.
At the air show, sometimes people would also inquire about the Cobra's pilots, as in, "Where are the pilots?" To which Horner would reply, "The pilot's right here." This, she says, is what set off the scowling man.
"You don't fly this," Horner remembers him insisting.
"Yes," she said, "I fly it."
"No, you don't."
"Uh, yes. I do," she said.
"But you just transport it." His tone dared her to contradict him.
"Yes," she agreed. "I fly it wherever it goes."