The MD-530 Experience
By Capt. Jason Smith
438th Air Expeditionary Wing
Writer’s note: This is a first-person account attempting to accurately describe what flight feels like in an MD-530 Cayuse Warrior helicopter. Although I’ve been in the Air Force for a very long time, I am not a pilot, and I’ve rarely touched the controls while flying. I’ve been a passenger on many, many fixed-wing aircraft. Most notably, I was once in the pilot’s seat of a B-1B Lancer going supersonic over an undisclosed ocean. When I started to write this account, I considered comparing the two.
They were both amazing experiences, but they are so different, a direct comparison wouldn’t be fair to the men and women who fly either for a living. My rotary wing experience is limited to a few UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook rides. Those few rides are the baseline for this story.
KABUL, Afghanistan – If you grew up in Western Pennsylvania, you’ll understand my next reference. If not, you should be able to insert an amusement park experience from your childhood and attempt to relive it.
I was scared to death of roller coasters. My mom would have to take me on the kiddie rides while dad took big brother and sister on the roller coaster. In an attempt to test my fear, which I didn’t know at the time, we would all wait in line together under the premise that we were just hanging out in line and as soon as it was our turn, mom and I would just exit rather than get on the coaster.
On more than one occasion, dad would try to convince me it would be fun and I should just ride as we got to the front of the line. After a few girlish screams and panic, mom would walk with me down the exit ramp of shame.
It was probably the summer of 1984 when I became a man in the roller coaster sense. On dad’s annual work picnic at Kennywood Park, I was having a blast riding everything except the coaster. Once again, we waited in line as a family for the Racers—dueling coasters that “raced” side by side. Somewhere in the line, dad’s approach changed from previous years. “It’s not scary at all, but I know you can’t handle it. So, when we get to the front of the line, you and mom should just leave.”
Challenge accepted! No one tells the young, arrogant me what I can’t handle. And no one tells me what ride I need to “leave.” I bravely climbed into the car beside dad. I was going to show him who was boss…right until the coaster cars started to slowly move.
I closed my eyes and screamed in absolute terror for the next minute-and-a-half or so. I cried tears of pain, horror and death until that ride ended…and then I cried some more. Luckily my heart was in good shape, because 30-plus years later, I remember the fear I felt that day. Oddly enough, I was fixated on that feeling through the cold Pittsburgh winter and wet spring. When the next summer rolled around, I could not wait to conquer my biggest fear – The Thunderbolt.
The Thunderbolt was a slightly revamped 1924 wood coaster that was named New York Times Number One in 1974. I vividly remember a commercial of Pittsburgh Steeler legend Jack Lambert riding the Thunderbolt in full Steeler gear with sports announcer Myron Cope beside him. Unfortunately, all I can find on Google is Lambert riding the Racers alone and then the Raging Rapids with Cope. Could it be my memory is wrong just this once?
Regardless, I conquered the Thunderbolt and became somewhat of a roller coaster thrill junkie. Every summer, I would anxiously await the Kennywood trip so I could get that feeling again and again. The first ride of the year always started the same way.
The night before the Kennywood trip, I laid awake thinking about all of the rides, but specifically the biggest and fastest rides. My stomach would get the butterflies and I would ride the rides over and over again in my head. I was physically worn out by the time we got to the park, but adrenaline would take over and keep me going all day.
So I finished up on the treadmill and was riding the exercise bike on some random Wednesday afternoon. “Too Fast for Love” (thank you Motley Crüe) was blaring in my headphones, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Becky Magoun walked right toward me. She walked right in front of the bike, and I realized she had something to tell me. I took the Crüe out of my ears, and she said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” Without hesitation, I told her the couple of events Tech. Sgt. Christopher Holmes and I had lined up for the next day. She said, “No, what are you (stressing the ‘you’) doing tomorrow?” I saw her semi-smile and knew what she was about to ask.
My face lit up as Magoun asked me if I wanted to fly on the MD-530 the next day. There was a time earlier in the month where I was scheduled to fly but had to take a rain check because of mission necessity. I didn’t think another opportunity would be presented, but here it was. I told Magoun I absolutely wanted to fly the next day.
The main point (there will be a secondary point later) of the whole roller coaster introduction was to deliver you to this moment. Just like a little kid so many years and stressful life situations ago, I laid awake in bed all night. The butterflies were attacking my stomach while I flew the MD-530 over and over again in my head. As tired as I was the next morning, it was the best night I had in a while.
I showed up early at the office Thursday (Aug. 25, 2016) morning ready to fly. I tried to eat a light breakfast because I have gotten sick on flights before. I typically hold it in, but I threw up a lot on a C-130 doing low level training once. If you’ve ever been really air sick, it’s a feeling that you avoid at all costs. This flight was “all costs” for me, so I went into it prepared to be sick knowing it would be worth it.
On the walk to the ramp and short stops at a couple locations to get all the paperwork and prep done for the flight, I don’t think I let my emotions show. I was extremely anxious. As a little kid in the roller coaster line, my anxiety came out as me jittering and talking a lot about anything. This situation was me and five other people who either fly the MD-530 all of the time or fly it often enough to not be nervous. I’m sure I was the only anxious one, and my silence and cold stare was a ruse to not show my nerves.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Matthew Decker was going to be flying my MD-530. We would be the third in a three-ship of Cayuse Warriors. Magoun was flying the first with Lt. Col. James Detweiler. Lt. Col. Bill Ashford and Col. Troy Henderson would flying the second ship.
The helicopters were all parked beside each other. I stood around and watched and took photos while the helicopters were prepared for flight. That included maintainers loading rockets into helicopters one and three. Helicopter two was set up to fire the .50 caliber machine gun.
When it was finally time to get in, Decker let me know the process. As you would sit in the MD-530, I was to be on the left side. First, it’s important to know that I was wearing my body armor with my 9mm pistol strapped to my chest. I was wearing a flight helmet and was holding a camera. The first step Decker showed me was to put my right foot on a peg outside the door and reach for a handle with my left hand. Once on the peg, I would put my left foot on the inside floor of the helicopter. Then, I would finagle my right leg up and around the cyclic (control stick) while lowering my body into the seat.
I got my legs in the proper position, but getting my back and head into position was not easy. I bent my head forward, and put my lower back up against the back of the seat. When I tried to sit back, my head was hitting the top of the door opening. I just wasn’t fitting. After wiggling and stretching in some unusual positions, I was able to lean forward toward the front of the chopper and slide my head inside. I had to stretch to the point of discomfort, with a tingling sensation in my neck, to fit. Decker then hooked up the wire on the back of the helmet for me. Finding room for the camera was not easy.
Putting the seatbelt on was a slight struggle for me also. It is a three-point harness where a strap comes over each shoulder and connects to a buckle similar to a standard car center seat belt. I connected the lap belt and couldn’t figure out where the shoulder straps plugged in. Decker let me know that the male end of the lap belt goes through each shoulder strap fastener prior to it being buckled.
Once I got the belt system hooked up properly, I tightened it. I have no doubt that I over tightened everything. Even sitting on the ground I had a vision of us banking and me falling out the side. There were no doors on the MD-530 (it has doors available, but it’s summer here).
The cyclic sits between the legs of the pilots on each side of the helicopter. The rudder pedals are where the gas and brake would be in a car, and there was a handle on my left side that would be similar to an emergency brake handle, but more complex. Just sitting in the helicopter prior to starting engine, I was a little claustrophobic. I was struggling to keep my feet flat on the floor and out of the way of the rudder pedals. I was also imagining myself small so I wouldn’t bump anything, but that wasn’t working.
My left leg was up against the handle on the left side, the outside of my right leg was tight up against the center console and the cyclic seemed to be touching the inside of both legs somehow. As Decker ran his checklist, he moved the cyclic in its full range of motion. I don’t think there was a break in contact between my legs and the cyclic. It ran from about the left knee up the thigh, across the crotch and then down the inside of my right leg. All the time, it was pushing my legs outward into the handle on the left or the console on the right.
I consider myself about 6-feet tall and 190 pounds of solid muscle. People who know me may see it closer to 5-foot, 11-inches and just 190 pounds of normal person material. Regardless of how I see myself, Decker visits the gym often. He is about the same height as me and is built like a professional wrestler. I realize he flies all of the time, but I was still impressed that he can climb into the MD-530 and get strapped in with relative ease.
Anyone bigger than Decker would have to consider other options for a primary job. We didn’t have the doors on, but based on the imaginary plane of the door opening that would’ve contained a door, I was crossing the plane with my left knee, left shoulder and left elbow. Closing a door would’ve only put me closer to the cyclic and center console.
Magoun called into the tower for permission to start engines. It was the moment I had been waiting for and was worth the anticipation. The engine sounded different to me with ear plugs and communication equipment in the helmet than it sounded to my bare ears when I had been on the ground with the 530s running. The typical helicopter noise which I would say sounds like machine gun fire wasn’t there. From inside, it sounded smooth, like the white noise an industrial floor fan would make.
We got permission to proceed to the departure taxiway. As the third ship, we were last, but I watched as the first helicopters lifted about eight feet off the ground, turned around and slowly moved about 100 yards toward the runway. Finally, it was our turn.
We lifted up and immediately moved backward. I was expecting an on-the-spot turn around, so the backward movement surprised me. It was smooth like reversing in a car, but a few feet off the ground. Decker then guided us forward over to the other two birds where we sat down.
Here is the roller coaster again. The thrill I was seeking on the Thunderbolt was always safe. Yes, accidents happen at amusement parks, but the rides are designed to give people thrills in an absolute safe environment. It dawned on me that we were about to fly into uncertainty. We were flying from a ramp at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, over Kabul and to a weapons range to shoot rockets and guns. We do everything we can to complete the mission and mitigate risks. Still, this was not amusement park safe.
The ascension was slow, but awesome. We took off in almost a fixed-wing way, but with different forces on the body. In a fixed-wing aircraft, the torque on the ground pushes you back in your seat while you move faster and faster until you feel the lift under you and then have stomach-drop when you realize you’re in the air. In the MD-530, we lifted up slightly as we slowly moved forward. There was no getting thrown back, or down for that matter, in the seat. It felt like a mall escalator to me as a passenger.
Once we cleared the end of the runway, I noticed just how high we had climbed. I could see what I thought was all of Kabul. It was smoggy that day, but the city went on as far as the eye could see. What I also noticed was the giant mountain in front of us. We moved closer to the mountain and Decker commented, “You’re heavy too.” The implication was that he could feel the piloting difference between me and a person lighter than me. I assumed the MD-530 had weight limits and as long as you were within the limits, it all felt the same. That’s not the case.
It could probably be related to the difference between driving a truck while hauling a heavy trailer versus not hauling anything. The truck is faster, more responsive and more maneuverable without the trailer. The addition of the trailer changes the way you have to drive.
We cleared one mountain and Kabul kept going. The city stretches further than I was expecting. There were some taller buildings, but most were two-story homes, not the concentration of skyscrapers you would see in a typical big American city. Almost every home had dirt colored walls on all sides of the yard. You can see some homes painted brightly that look modern towering over enclosed yards that are just concealing mud huts. The irony is that as each home looks walled off at the micro level, so does Kabul look segregated at the macro level by large, intimidating mountain ranges.
There were no sharp turns or stomach dropping experiences as we flew over Kabul. I was jittery because looking down on the city from that height with no door or windows between me and the ground was a lot to think about.
I noticed some kids waiving to us. How many times did I waive at helicopters as a kid just imagining that the people inside saw me and were looking at me with the same amazement at which I was staring at them? Kids, there’s no need to wonder anymore. Yes, we can see you. Yes, I waived back but am now unsure if you can see me. Yes, I looked down and wondered what you were doing at that particular moment when you stopped to waive.
Once we cleared another set of mountain tops, we were over a less congested area. There was what appeared to be a man-made lake surrounded by mansions and a small amusement park with a Ferris wheel and a few other rides. I didn’t see a roller coaster though.
As we got further from Kabul, there were giant areas of flat, bare ground with occasional green areas and large walls protecting homes and farm areas. Some of the walls contained obvious farm fields with just large tents for shelter instead of the many homes I saw over Kabul.
Over the open desert, I got the first taste of what I expected prior to flying. We moved into the second position in the formation so that I could capture some photos easier with a chopper in front of and behind us. Magoun started flying differently out here, and we were following her helicopter.
I was focusing on chopper one when she banked and broke hard left. We followed, and I got my first huge dose of adrenaline. It was similar to riding a very tall and fast elevator that drops quickly. But this is way more intense. In an elevator, you don’t have an outside frame of reference and you’re simply going down. This was going down with complete visual awareness of how far and fast while also going sideways. Thrill seeking accomplished.
We did more and more maneuvers as we approached the firing range. I told Decker prior to the flight that I’ve been known to get sick. He was courteous enough to check on me multiple times. I let him know I was fine, and we pressed on. I’m curious what he would’ve done had I told him I was sick. He let me know to puke outside the door or in a glove if I didn’t have a sick bag on me. I suppose had I asked, he would’ve taken it easy. By my logic, no one wants their drunk friend throwing up in their car, so that means no one wants their passenger throwing up in the helicopter they’re flying.
The range was wide open desert surround by giant mountains and more wide open desert. After some radio contact with range control, we were clear to practice firing. The first run was just to verify no one was on the range, but the second run got more exciting. Helicopter one flew in and fired a rocket at an old abandoned car. There was a fireball explosion and a plume of smoke and dirt that lingered while we made our first run.
Decker told me not to look right at the rockets. I had on a tinted shield, but didn’t ask why I shouldn’t look. I trust that he was giving me solid advice. We were flying toward the target but I wasn’t fully prepared for the rocket launch. I had watched video of launches and was expecting a certain noise and feeling. What happened next was totally different.
The launch was loud and startled me. It didn’t shake the MD-530 very much, nor did it push back the side from which it was fired; as I was expecting. It was fairly smooth, but a lot louder than it sounded on video. The pitch was deeper than it sounded on video as well. You can watch the video here for a comparison:
The third MD-530 followed us and made a run with the machine guns. I couldn’t hear the guns, but as it started firing, you could see smoke coming from the gun pods. Almost simultaneously, there were lots of large dust clouds rising from the ground where the bullets were hitting. The footprint of the damage was greater than I expected from a two-seater. However, I’ve been around .50 caliber machine guns before, and I don’t know why I thought there wouldn’t be carnage where the rounds were hitting.
After a couple of single rocket runs, we made some double rocket runs. There was a distinct difference in the feeling. When both fired, it almost felt like we were pushed forward a little bit. I’m unsure if Decker was pushing us forward to counter the effect of the firing or if the push was part of the firing. My most memorable part of the flight was about to happen though.
We went up high so I could get some photos of the other MD-530s firing from above. While waiting, I reached some conclusions. I was snapping photos of helicopter one as it fired rockets. I suddenly realized how high we were and how effortless it felt to sit in the sky and not even realize it. It was probably a combination of Decker’s skill and the aircraft’s specifications that allowed me to completely forget I was sitting perfectly still above a range that simulated battle on the ground. I formed two facts in my mind at this point that differentiate this flight from all fixed-wing flights. First, no doors or windows on the side gave me perfect vision and a greater sense of danger. Second, I didn’t need to move my head or eyes at all to stay focused on the ground. We were not moving at all…just sitting in the sky. If there was a way to measure movement, and if I were a betting man, I would wager that we were shifting no more than a couple of inches in any direction at that moment. But that too was about to change.
Decker had kept talking to me about what we were doing and what we were about to do until this time. I was having a tired daydream, imagining myself as Zeus in the clouds waiting to reign terror on ground forces. I hadn’t noticed the first chopper was clear from the range. I snapped back to reality when Decker lowered our nose toward the ground. I didn’t have time to process what was happening before we started dropping down and forward quickly toward the destroyed car on the ground. I was having a real roller coaster moment when Decker fired off two rockets. As we lifted away, they hit on each side of the car. “Nice shot,” said Magoun over the radio. And it was impressive that Decker was able to do all of that while I was trying to figure out if I was terrified or thrilled.
Our time at the range had come to an end, and we were headed back to Kabul. I assumed we would fly back the same route, but the pilots had planned for a slightly different road home. Decker told me the view was about to get better once we cleared a mountain peak. Although the MD-530 didn’t feel like it was struggling, these were some high peaks, and we weren’t too far off the ground in my amateur guesstimate.
Just over the next peak was in fact a view to behold. The all brown hills surrounded a valley of bright green. There were trees and fields in the tight mountain pass that included a narrow, flowing river. We headed into the valley, and the second best part of the flight was inevitable.
The speed of our travel became way more apparent as we got lower. There is a lot to be said for ground distance and reference of speed. We were zooming along the valley. It was tight turn after tight turn with me going side to side, anticipating the shape of the mountains just on either side of me.
If you have ever watched the show “Airwolf,” it was as cool as the chase scenes in that show looked. I was imagining I was Stringfellow Hawke chasing down some bad guys in an Mi-35. Our valley navigation probably lasted about 10 minutes, but it felt like time was standing still.
We cleared the valley and came out over Kabul. We went higher and slower. As Han Solo told Chewbacca, “Fly casual.” That’s how it felt. I didn’t have time in the valley to realize that I was starting to get sick. Once we were flying casual, I felt calm and better. Over Kabul, I noticed some modern things like many more shopping centers and tall business buildings. Areas looked more like a typical modern, world city to me than on the way to the range.
I saw the airfield and knew the experience was almost over. Much like taking off, we flew in a pattern toward the taxiway and slowly descended as we moved toward the parking ramp. Decker flew us in to the exact spot where we left. The touch down was extremely gentle. Again, I was thinking a large, heavy object with metal legs coming down on concrete would send vibrations through my body. It was a slight bump at best.
I saw Magoun around Forward Operating Base Oqab later in the week. She said something that helped me summarize the MD-530 trip. “I was wondering if there was something wrong because you were walking around looking grumpy. Since I told you that you were flying, you’ve been smiling.”
The smile is going to last a long time. Every time I see Decker or Magoun around the base, I smile now.
I’m not qualified to give an aviator’s assessment on airpower as it relates to the Afghan Air Force. Our mission at Train, Advise, Assist Command – Air (TAAC-Air) is to help the AAF build a professional, capable and sustainable air force. My opinion on the MD-530 is just that…an opinion.
The AAF has 27 MD-530s, and they fly combat missions daily. First, I learned that this airframe is very maneuverable and much faster than expected. That makes me think it would be hard for bad guys to flee if they heard or saw one coming.
Second, the MD-530 packs a bigger punch than its small stature would lead you to believe. Pick your poison, evil dudes - dual .50 caliber guns or dual rockets?
The MD-530 is an impressive aircraft. Equally impressive is the ability of the U.S. advisors who help train the AAF pilots and the AAF pilots who use this machine to improve their country.