JOINT BASE MDL, N.J. --
The sun was low over the pine trees when the team of battlefield Airmen emerged from the wood line and met up with us, each one armored in combat gear, carrying weapons and lugging 100 pound ruck sacks. Having already been in the field for more than 24 hours in freezing temperatures, dodging enemy patrols and scouting terrain, these Airmen were only beginning their mission.
The group gathered and silently fell into intervals as they hiked down a sandy path though the scrub pines, eyes searching for threats. The trees became thinner and suddenly we were in a clearing, which can be dangerous in a tactical environment. The team leaders picked out two spots, and gear was dropped as security positions were taken. As the Airmen lay prone, only the slight rustling of the tall grass could be heard as the reeds danced in the lazy breeze.
What sounds like a mission straight out of a combat zone was a typical day of training for the tactical air control party (TACP) specialists from the 227th Air Support Operations Squadron. These New Jersey Air National Guardsmen, as well as Army National Guard soldiers from the 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion combined forces for a joint training scenario that took them from Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Ocean Township, N.J. to the sprawling ranges of Fort Dix.
Radios crackled, breaking the silence, and in the distance, a low thumping could be heard. Within seconds, the source of the "whup, whup, whup" could be seen - a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, travelling nimbly at low level.
With a slight flair, the helicopter landed, casting dirt and debris in all directions. This was the "C2 Bird," short for command and control. A command crew would be providing over watch for the team on their mission.
Two more Black Hawks popped up over the horizon, and landed, one after the other in the clearing.
Shielding their faces, the Airmen headed toward the helicopters, splitting into two four-man teams, with each team boarding a Black Hawk.
Before long, we launched into the air and were zooming at treetop level for part two of their mission: a tactical air insertion to the front lines to coordinate and direct close air support from Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobras.
The shadow of our Black Hawk could be seen flickering against the shrubs that seemed like only feet below us, as the sun was getting even lower in the sky and golden light spilled into the helicopter cabin.
"Two minutes," called out the flight engineer.
"Two minutes," repeated the team, as each airman held up two fingers.
Pitching up on their tails, the helicopters dropped quickly into a clearing; within seconds the Airmen were out the door and on the ground taking up security positions and scanning the area for threats. As quickly as they landed, the Black Hawks were airborne again, in a wagon wheel overhead, providing coverage for the Airmen with their M240 machine guns.
The Airmen gathered their gear and jumped into a waiting truck. The vehicle took off, bouncing on dirt roads as the C2 Black Hawk glided sideways above us, keeping an eye on the way ahead.
Lower than the Black Hawks, two Super Cobras roared around as a pair, providing armed reconnaissance as the team moved from their insertion point to their destination.
The Super Cobras, from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773, were armed with an M97 chin turret Gatling gun, capable of firing 750 rounds of 20mm ammunition. The crew of two at times got so low that we could see the glint off their visors, as they turned to watch us.
As the red sunset began to fade into night, the Airmen took up an observation position overlooking targets, and broke out an array of devices to aid them in their mission. Night vision goggles clicked into place, attaching to their helmets, and low level green and red lights cast an eerie glow as several of the Airmen looked over maps.
In the world of night vision, infrared strobes pulsed on top of their helmets, alerting the circling crews to the position of the friendly forces.
One of the team leaders used an infrared pointer to paint an enemy vehicle, calling "Red Dog 7-1, this is Berserk, sparkle," as the helicopters roared overhead. The Super Cobras lined up for the shot, but the night remained calm except for the sound of their rotor blades. Not a shot was fired.
The mission ended as it had begun, in silence, as the TACP Airmen gazed out of the Black Hawk taking them home to Atlantic City Air National Guard Base. Atlantic City glowed brightly in green hues through night vision goggles. The Airmen returned to their squadron, taking off the layers of body armor and putting away weapons and radio equipment, making sure it was ready for tomorrow - because tomorrow they are doing it all over again.