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Pilots hold choir practice close to hearts

To visualize the HMM 365 helicopter squad, think MASH meets JAG, with helicopter pilots and without the romance.

As far as I can tell the two most important things in this world are flying and choir practice. Flying being the reason for living and "choir practice" being the code name for a nightly game of poker that is the only thing to do while you're waiting to fly. Everything else is a slow, boring burn for adrenaline-seeking pilots who brag about being first into Afghanistan and hope to be the first into Iraq. They are family in a real way that has come from doing dangerous work together, being bored together and working through the breakups, divorces, death and other life passages that occur while they are deployed.

Barter here is big. There is a PX with a 15-minute wait to get in, but I think the troops are just buying things so they can barter with them. Maj. Tony, call sign SLUF, for Short Little Ugly (expletive deleted), is the "guy who can get things." He's scammed boxes of candy, a fridge and is as fond of sharing the booty as he is of acquiring it.

Because I lead a lucky life, I am in the same hooch (tent) as SLUF. Today's booty is Dentyne gum. Yesterday's was peanut M&Ms.

Choir practice serves several purposes. Primarily, it's a social way to pass the night. In the morning they can relive the winners, losers and best hands. In the afternoon if something robs the pilots of their missions, they can take solace in knowing there's choir practice after chow.

Capt. Brad is perfect. Not in a "Gosh, I hate perfect people" kind of way, but in a "Dang, what a nice guy, did you happen to notice he's perfect?" kind of way. His call sign is Jane, because he's good looking enough to be a girl. He'll tell you his call sign, but refuses to tell you how he got it.

Capt. John's call sign is D.J., for Dear John. The name came from a breakup letter he got from a girlfriend while deployed at sea. He explains that call signs aren't like in Top Gun, where they're supposed to be cool. No "Maverick" or "Iceman" here. These are based on shortcomings, embarrassing moments, or a play on their birth name. Other names include Noodle (first name Raman), Mad Dog (he's the commanding officer; they are an exception and get cool names), Palms (last name Rose), Sideshow (a pilot who's goofy like a sideshow), Ocho (a pilot missing two fingers), One Beer (a one beer drunk), Chunder (from an airsickness episode), Quato (the "ugly baby thing" from Total Recall), and Sweet Pea (a particularly nonconfrontational pilot).

At 1400 hours (2 p.m. in the civilian world) SLUF is giving a flight briefing in a dust-filled military tent. Most of the briefing is unintelligible pilot jargon to an outsider, except for the SLUFisms.

"Be careful when you see the water. Look how close we are to the Iraqi border," he says, using a laser pointer on a flight map. "We can get fired on here, legally, and I don't dig that so keep a eye out for the friggin' towers here."

A man enters the briefing and whispers in SLUF's ear.

"And keep your eyes on each other's eyes at the table during chow, cause the mission's canceled," he says deadpan, throwing down his clipboard and walking away.

A quiet communal groan fills the room. A sandstorm has canceled the mission and ruined the night.

"Choir practice at 1700," SLUF adds to soften the blow.

Times staff photographer John Pendygraft has been attached to the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 from New River, N.C. He sent this dispatch on Thursday.

Stay up to the minute

Go to our Web site to view the latest photo galleries, read online journals and hear audio dispatches from our team, which includes photographer John Pendygraft who is attached to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 in Kuwait; staff writer Wes Allison, who is with the 101st Airborne Division in Kuwait; and senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin and photographer Jamie Francis in Turkey. It's all available at www.sptimes.com/reports.

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