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The Great Middle East Aviation Adventure

The following is a post by our guest blogger, LTJG Jeff Ryan who is currently winding down his deployment with the 2515th Navy Air Ambulance Detachment.

A helicopter from the 2515th Naval Air Ambulance Detachment approaches the USS Hopper (DDG 70) in the Arabian Gulf. Photo courtesy of LT Jessie Pamaran.

When my unit left San Diego six months ago we were well prepared for what we would face on deployment. But as I have seen over the past few months, there are some aspects of flying in the Middle East—from camel herds to Kuwaiti controllers– that you just can’t train for in California.

Herd Etiquette: There are two types of herds encountered on a typical flight here in Kuwait—camel and sheep. While we try to give both a wide berth at all times, depending on the urgency of a mission we can’t always avoid them.

What I’ve learned is that, given the choice, it’s the sheep you want to avoid. Camels are pretty stoic creatures, at least around helicopters, and are almost always oblivious to our presence. They’ll go about their business regardless of what is flying around them.

Sheep, on the other hand, are skittish creatures prone to panicking at anything. They will jump at the slightest disturbance, and have the unfortunate tendency to stampede at the sound of a nearby helicopter.  We try and keep a low profile here, so with the local Bedouins and their sheep in mind, we remain considerate of our woolen neighbors.

The Heat: Getting used to flying in the summer heat of Kuwait is not easy. Take a look at the weather section in the paper and look up where the hottest place on Earth is any given day. Chances are it’s Kuwait City. Over the past couple months the temperature has regularly been in the 120s, with a high of 127. Unfortunately for us, that is the temp outside the cockpit. Inside, it’s about ten degrees hotter.

I’ve burned my neck from the metal seat belt straps, burned my hands opening the door to the aircraft, and seen electronics in the aircraft malfunction simply due to the outside temperature. Along with several of my fellow pilots and crewman I’ve taken to placing a frozen water bottle between my survival vest and flight suit to stay cool while airborne. Even this isn’t usually enough, and within a few minutes of being airborne the bottle has completely melted. At that point I give up trying and just drink the water instead.

Air Traffic Control: Although our squadron is stationed on an American base, most of our interaction in the air is with local, Kuwaiti controllers. In the States a normal call would begin with something along the lines of “Good Morning, tower,” but here, to make friendly with the local controllers, the Arabic greeting “Salaam Alaykum, tower” is always a popular choice.

While the language barrier with controllers can be a hindrance at times, it has also proven useful to our mission here. Depending on a patient’s injuries, we are sometimes required to transport them to a local hospital in Kuwait City. The staff at the hospital speak only limited English, so the air traffic controllers have served as a relay between us and the hospital personnel. When we are en-route, the air traffic controllers—who are bilingual–will take information about the patient from us and relay it to the Arabic speaking staff at the hospital. Because of this, the hospital is much more prepared to handle the patient when we arrive.

And although we’re strictly business most of the time, there are some controllers who like to have a good time with the American pilots. When departing a base in southern Kuwait for our headquarters here in the North, a fellow pilot was recently instructed by the local controller, in broken English, to “pack a coat– I hear it is cold up there!”

From speaking Arabic over the radio to dodging Bedouin encampments (and their sheep), there’s always the chance for the unexpected anytime you fly in this part of the world.

Children run after a helicopter from the 2515th Naval Air Ambulance Detachment near Basra, Iraq. Photo courtesy of LTJG Dave Olsen.

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