The weather had finally broken, the stars aligned and we had a flight out set for around 0800 hours. Standing next to the HLZ (helicopter landing zone) outside of the COP, we admired the view of the valley below from the edge of an almost vertical 200 foot drop adjacent to the landing spot. It was like a miniature version of the Grand Canyon where, just three days prior, we were stumbling around in the dark along a path that ran right along the edge of the drop that none of us saw. No fencing, no handrails, no warning (especially at night) of what was waiting if you drifted right hauling your gear up the unlit path. Insert dark humor here to ease the sense of nervousness at that thought as we stood waiting for our ride.
Our ride appeared as it popped over a small ridgeline and set down in front of us. Greyish blue in color, it is like the French counterpart to our Blackhawk but a little roomier on the inside – the Eurocopter Cougar.
The pilot was very good – we flew in the valleys and along ridgelines, real “nap of the earth” flying. I enjoyed the ride even though I had to turn my head around to see out the small window behind me. After what seemed like ten or fifteen minutes, we landed and joined up with the rest of our crew who had made it there a couple of days earlier. There was a lot of work to do to set our site up but we were ready to get started. The COP was small but our site was bigger than I expected. Hesco barriers, wire frames filled with dirt, formed the walls around our site and the perimeter of the COP, making it look similar to a prison yard which was easier to imagine in later weeks as I used it for exercise to get into shape.
We overlooked a valley where wadis (riverbeds) that ran throughout it created green areas with trees, bushes and irrigated plots where local farmers grew their crops. Small villages with homes made from dirt and clay were scattered throughout the valley. It was a big contrast from the surrounding mountains and hills that bore little plant life due to the altitude and lack of a water source. Most of the surrounding landscape was brown rocks and dirt but it was still a scenic area. Maybe I felt that way because living on a peninsula without any noticeable topography makes you appreciate mountainscapes when you see them.
Over the next couple of weeks, we worked to ready our site for deployment of our system. We kept busy so it went by fast. Learning how to deal with the French to get what we needed was a lesson in diplomacy and culture immersion. The French Marine unit was grateful to have us there and helped us out whenever they could. We had a good working relationship with them and they were eager to have us up and running so we could watch over them.
I was able to get to a nearby mountain that overlooked the base and valley to take care of some things and get a good view of our area. The winds whipped at me standing on the summit, but I was able to get some pics.
We were close to finishing our setup at this point and were ready to inflate our baby- just had to wait for a good day.