Army Capt. Jake Miller is used to the sneers. That he's a beans-and-bullets pilot, a guy who does supply runs. "In the rear, with the gear" -- the swaggering combat pilots apply taunts like that to the men and women who fly the lumbering CH-47 Chinook, a helicopter the size of a Metro bus.
But in this war, things are different. As U.S. armored columns and AH-64 Apache gunships press into Iraq, Miller and other Chinook pilots have been well ahead of them, dropping reconnaissance teams deep into Iraqi territory on stealth missions.
Miller and several other pilots returned to this temporary base in central Kuwait today after a nighttime flight so far forward they could glimpse something that looked like fireworks -- apparently, missile and antiaircraft fire over Baghdad. The teams of scouts they deposited in the countryside were soon providing information to advancing U.S. troops and calling in airstrikes.
Reporters with the U.S. military are not allowed to publish the location or other sensitive details of intelligence operations. But the accounts from Miller and other pilots from F Company of the 12th Aviation Brigade provide a window into a critical, hidden front in the Iraq war.
"That's as far as any Army aviation has gone yet" into Iraq, said Col. Raymond Palumbo, head of the 12th Aviation Brigade, referring to the Chinook mission.
Miller and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Westerbeck, offered a detailed account of the mission. They had been eager for action after weeks of training in the desert. So when the call came Friday night, they were excited. Miller, 26, of Salem, Ore., a West Point graduate, grabbed two American flags to carry on the flight, a present from his relatives. "I come from a pretty patriotic family," he said.
Miller said he was not surprised the Chinooks had been chosen to fly the scout teams, a job normally handled by Special Operations pilots. The Chinooks might be ungainly, but with their huge engines, they can fly as fast as the Army's standard troop-carriers, the UH-60 Black Hawks. And their cavernous interiors can hold much more.
Just before 8 p.m. Friday, the huvva-huvva-huvva of the Chinook's giant double rotors filled the air. Members of the reconnaissance teams climbed aboard, wearing camouflage uniforms and hauling 100-pound rucksacks stuffed with communications and survival gear.
For Miller, this was the moment he had long been waiting for.
The first 20 minutes of flight were much like any training run. Then, as they approached the Iraqi border, Miller reached up and switched off the helicopter's red and green position lights and the red anti-collision lights on the top and bottom of the aircraft. The pilots, along with crew members manning M-60 machine guns at the doors and back ramp, focused even more intently on the terrain.
Peering through night-vision goggles, the pilots caught sight of dark dots ahead. Bushes? Trucks? Only when they were nearly above one of the dots did they realize it was an Iraqi tank.
"It was like, 'Whoa, I hope that's dead,"' Miller recalled. The pilots quickly realized the tank had been destroyed.
It soon became clear they were flying over the remains of battle, although it was not obvious whether the fight was recent or had occurred during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. There were dozens of charred tanks and trucks in clusters of five to 10.
"It became real that there's something out there," said Westerbeck, 37, of Everett, Wash.
There was no sign of people in the desert, no hint of Iraqi or U.S. troops. The pilots had been warned that Iraqi radar might detect the helicopter's presence, but there was no sign that it did.
Gradually, the haze cleared. Through the night vision goggles, the ground looked like a green moonscape.
As they neared their objective, the pilots set down the helicopter in a cloud of sand and the flight engineer lowered the back ramp. One team of reconnaissance scouts raced off, and about 30 seconds later, the helicopter lifted off.
Miller said he had one thing on his mind: "How quick we can get off the ground again." No one wanted to be a target, or give away the scouts' location.
The Chinook flew for another 10 minutes and set down another group of scouts, closer to an inhabited area. The pilots could see lights and electrical wires. They quickly lifted off again, linking up with another helicopter that had also been dropping scouts. For 10 minutes, the two aircraft circled nearby, in case the reconnaissance teams ran into trouble.
Meanwhile, flashes of light began dancing across the distant horizon. The pilots gazed, rapt, through their night-vision goggles, "It looked like a green-and-white firework display," Miller said. The lights appeared to be U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles descending on Baghdad, and Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery rounds firing upward.
Westerbeck said he was struck by a sensation of deja vu. He had seen such fire before, on CNN. It occurred to him that people back in the United States were probably watching this on TV, "and I'm watching it live!" he recounted.
Soon they were heading back to their base. The tense quiet of the outbound flight was replaced by chattiness about the fireworks over Baghdad. Miller described a sense of relief as they approached the makeshift U.S. base. "Back in good-guy land," as he put it.
Within hours, the reconnaissance teams would be reporting on Iraqi positions. Word came back to this base today that Iraqi troops at one point passed within 10 yards of one hidden group of scouts, who called in a strike on them.