South of Heaven is the searing memoir of Flores's year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan. One of his missions was featured in a segment on the Military Channel's My War Diary program. The segment was based on the rescue of an American Convoy in the Tagab Valley in Afghanistan. The video and audio footage of the actual battle that he shot with his own equipment was used in the production. The final week of his rotation in-country was a true test of his faith and his daughter's faith that he would return home unharmed.
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South of HeavenMy year in Afghanistan
By Daniel Flores Sandra Parisi Kilisz
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Daniel Flores
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStorm Brewing
Lisa When you marry a pilot you have to be willing to take whatever time you can get and get used to him being gone a lot. He was gone a lot before we were married so I was already used to the strange hours, but when I got pregnant, right after his crash, I became more concerned about his absences. I went into labor when he was flying in the Sam Houston forest and I had to wait until he got home before I could go to the hospital. We had a system in place so I could alert him if he was flying. Using my cell phone I sent him a 911 message so he knew that he had to land and get home.
It was early spring in Southeast Texas, and the battle of the change of seasons was in full swing. There was a looming squall line of severe thunderstorms in the northwest and, several miles away, the night ignited with lightning. A thin layer of clouds had developed at about 1,000 feet over the airport. Looking straight up, you could see the stars overhead; but when you looked out across the sky, you couldn't see above this thin layer.
As an Apache helicopter pilot, I had to remain current and proficient in my skills. I was required to have three take-offs and landings at night, every 90 days, in order to just remain current and be legal to fly. Currency was not the main goal; proficiency was. In order to remain proficient in the art and science of flying, and shooting, in eight tons of high-performance war-fighting machine, I had to fly as often as possible ... to have it become second-nature and a natural reflex. I had to be able to fly without thinking about the need to hit this pedal, look at that gauge. I basically needed to be "a natural", so I could perform at my best when in battle, and not be worried about the basics of flying. Flight school was over, training was over; this was the real deal.
It was Monday, March 6, 1995, and I was flying the Apache helicopter in the late hours of the evening. My good friend and co-pilot, Johnny, and I had been given orders to fly six more hours of Night Vision System (NVS) time, before we would meet all the prerequisites to shoot live ammunition. NVS is the primary means of flying the Apache at night. It uses strictly infrared energy, so it doesn't need any light at all; it only detects heat. The integrated sight system basically tells the aircraft where my head/vision is pointed, so it can move the infrared camera and weapons in the same direction. The image is projected onto a small Helmet Display Unit (HDU), which is an eye-piece over the right eye.
We were preparing for the live-fire gunnery which we were to conduct in a few weeks. A gunnery is required by the Army, in order to maintain currency and proficiency on the weapons of the Apache. It is basically a shooting range where ammunition can be fired, but not at live targets. Real ammo is used, but they aren't combat loads; so they don't explode like the real thing. We had already flown four hours of NVS time, performing various gunnery scenarios in our training area over East Texas National Forest land, and had returned to our home base to refuel and try to finish up the rest of the flight time, as needed. Earlier that day, I had done a full eight-hour shift at my civilian job as a petrochemical worker, before making the long drive to fly this mission. I was not looking forward to finishing up the flight, then making the long drive home, where I would try to get some sleep, before getting up early the next morning and doing both jobs all over again. However, that was the life of a Warrant Officer flying attack helicopters in the Army reserves. I was young, and it was the hottest attack helicopter in the world, and someone was actually paying me to fly! This left little room for me to complain.
My wife had expressed concerns about my safety while flying helicopters andairplanesinpursuitofthisgreataviationdream-job;butIwouldreassure her by describing all of the safety equipment that was incorporated into the aircraft. This discussion would usually turn into a description of how the missiles are capable of defeating any known enemy tank in the world; how the 30mm gun could fire 650 rounds per minute, with each bullet being able to punch through four inches of steel, and kill anything within several feet; or of the vast array of different types of rockets that we could carry, ranging from multipurpose sub-munitions to a Flechette Round, which holds several thousand 2 inch steel nails. They could cut through steel, or the human body, with no problems whatsoever. I would jokingly tell her that, if something were to happen to me, then she would win what we call the "Army Lotto". The Army Lotto is the soldiers' nickname for the Army's life insurance plan for our survivors. If you "maxed out" your elections for life insurance, then your spouse, or whatever beneficiary, would get a huge check of $200,000 to cover the loss of their loved one, who died fighting in defense of our country. The joke was just GUN PILOT bravado coming out of me. I knew that surely nothing could ever hurt me.
After getting more fuel, Johnny and I jumped back in and fired up the aircraft. We both agreed we would stay in the traffic pattern at home base, in order to avoid getting caught in the coming storm. After a few traffic patterns, using our NVS, fatigue was starting to set in. The helicopter can be flown from either the front or back seat. Mission-wise, the pilot-in-command, who does most of the actual flying, is in the back seat and the majority of the shooting is done from the front seat; but, there are controls in both positions, to fly or shoot with. I was on the controls of the aircraft, flying it from the front seat.
Most of our flying is done at speeds much slower than our airplane brethren. We're in a helicopter, and can land vertically if we want; but for emergencies and limited power conditions, we can also make a straight landing, just like an airplane. I was making a right turn, to set myself up for a normal, hovering landing at the approach-end of runway 14, and made my usual radio calls on the local traffic frequency, letting anyone in the area know of my intentions. This airport had no control tower, so it was up to each pilot to announce, to anyone listening, his actions—whether he was landing or taking off, and on which runway.
I was in the traffic pattern for runway 14, looking out to the right of the aircraft to begin my descent, as I approached the end of the runway. We intentionally leave the runway lights off, whenever we are landing on a specific runway; because, when you are using the Night Vision System, they can be distracting. Also, it prevents the newer pilots from cheating, and not relying solely on the NVS. All at once, the radio crackled to life. A Learjet announced that he was on a four-mile final approach, to the same runway I was landing on. I called back on the radio, to make sure that the Learjet knew of my intentions. Johnny got on the radio, and tried to make contact with the Learjet also, with no success. We never heard from the Learjet again.
I suddenly got an uneasy feeling. I was making a standard helicopter approach, at around 40 knots of airspeed. The Learjet was somewhere behind me, doing close to 150 knots. Doing some quick math in my tired brain, I was thinking, "This guy is about to run me over!" Johnny attempted several more calls, with no success. As I was making my final corrections to land, I asked Johnny to take the controls, because, "This guy is probably going to ram us from behind." Johnny quickly took the controls, and made a right 45-degree turn to exit the runway. I knew that this Learjet was going to land right behind us, and I was going to see him out my left canopy any second passing us by, as he used up the remainder of the runway. The hair on the back of my neck was standing up.
I made a quick scan of a taxiway that crossed in front of us, using my Night Vision System, to make sure no traffic was in the way. I told Johnny, "It's clear in front." I used my right hand to grab the left side of the Optical Relay Tube (ORT) Fire Control Handles, to help me twist my body around to the left, to see out the canopy. I knew that I would see that Learjet passing right behind us, as we left the runway. At this point, I felt like I was in a dream. I found myself looking at the Fire Control Panel directly in front of my face, about 6 inches in front of me, to be more precise. I started wondering, "Why this is happening? Why am I bent over forward, and STARING at THIS panel?" I knew we were still flying, because I could feel us moving about in the air, as if in a hover. I felt like I was getting vertigo, which is a sensation of flying in one attitude but believing you're actually in a different attitude. I wasn't on the controls, so I told myself that I needed to stay away from them, until I figured out what was actually happening.
I took a long blink, and now I was holding the two Fire Control Handles, and my whole body was shaking back and forth, gently. There was no sound. I started to wonder how I drove home, and how I got into bed, next to my wife. I even thought about where I parked my Jeep. I took another long blink, and opened my eyes, and now I was shaking sideways, a little more violently than before; but I was still wondering, "How did I get home, and where did I park my Jeep?"
I took another long blink. As I opened my eyes again, my attention was grabbed by the Master Caution Warning Panel blinking in front of my face. What I saw illuminating was the "Low Rotor RPM" warning light. I remembered, from my training, that this was really not a good situation to be in; so, as loudly as I could, I voiced a warning to Johnny, and then I took another long blink.
I opened my eyes, and now felt my body shaking violently, sideways. I was now trying to convince myself that this was just a bad dream; and, any second now, my new wife of six months would wake me. I took another long blink, and my eyes were forced opened by what was now a severe, sideways shaking of my body. I was wondering what was happening, and if it would ever end. Up to that point, there was no sound, so I started thinking that it was a really bad nightmare, and surely my wife would feel my violent shaking and would wake me up.
Sound started to slowly come back, and I could hear something thumping the ground around me. As the noise grew louder, I began to realize, "Oh God, we're crashing!" The thumping sounds were the main rotor blades, impacting the ground all around the stricken aircraft.
As all of this was happening, I remembered several Vietnam era Cobra pilots telling me, "If you ever get in a crash in a Cobra, and if you have the presence of mind and the time to do it, make sure you duck your head down and to the left!" This is because, like the Apache, the front seat pilot normally gets his head cut off by the rotor blades flexing down and slicing through the front canopy.
I don't remember if I ducked my head or not; I just remember getting shaken so violently that the last thought going through my mind was, "Is this ever going to stop"? Then everything was quiet. I was still sitting in the cockpit, and I slowly opened my eyes and looked up through the canopy glass, which was cracked like a spider web. The stars were so bright and beautiful. They gave me a sense of peace, since they were the only thing that made sense at that moment.
I felt the cool night air gently blowing on my right side. I looked up and over to my right, and saw a dark figure standing there, looking down at me. He was talking to me, talking in that gibberish that sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher, "Wah-wah-whaa, wah-waah...." All I could think was, "Who is this person talking to me, and what is he saying?" I closed my eyes. I then found myself in a "push-up" position, halfway out of the right-side canopy, with my hands in the warm, soft dirt. I saw a pair of feet, one on each side of my head, and all I could fathom was, "Oh, shit, I've been caught; now what do I do?"
Johnny took hold of me by the shoulders, and lifted me to my feet. I cried out in pain as he pulled on my right shoulder. I stood up and could see, in the distance, the lights to our hangars; but it was the shredded rotor blades of our helicopter which framed the lights that I took notice of. I asked Johnny, "What happened?" I heard the same response as before, that Charlie Brown gibberish that I couldn't understand. Then a wave of pain shot through my already trembling body.
Days later, Johnny told me that he had no clue how long we had been in the helicopter, and that it looked like no one was coming to rescue us. We needed to walk back to the hangars, across the middle of the airport. Johnny was worried that I would collapse at any moment, due to possible internal injuries, and he was feeling nauseous. Neither of us felt we could cover the distance back to the hanger; but he also knew that, if he didn't keep me on my feet and himself going, there was no telling when we would be found. We made it the entire distance to the hangar before we were discovered by a mechanic who had driven his tractor towards us, thinking that our aircraft had broken down on the taxiway.
The Army's Accident Investigation Board concluded that the cause of the accident was "pilot error", although they never officially explained the sudden, un-commanded tail rotor inputs, or the two flight computer "black boxes" which failed. They also never openly disclosed "why" there had been a rash of similar episodes, of "un-commanded flight control inputs", throughout the entire Army's fleet of Apaches. Subsequently, all the inventories of the Apache Flight Computers were inspected for a known anomaly, and a certain software number, and were then replaced.
As for me, I had no clue as to what had happened. I could only put together bits and pieces of the crash sequence. It took me months to recover from my physical injuries and, as I would later find out, years to realize the psychological injuries I had sustained.
Chapter TwoWar Preparations
Lisa I always had so much confidence in him as a pilot and I never thought anything bad would happen. After his crash though, things changed. Whenever the phone rang late at night, I immediately would think something had happened to him but I never tried to stop him from flying. I knew that flying is what he loved to do and I would never have wanted to take that away from him. All I would do is say a prayer and hope everything went well.
At one o'clock in the morning we waved at the bus that was taking Daniel away from us as his journey to Afghanistan began. It was a surreal experience and it didn't really hit us that he was going to be gone, in a war zone, for a year. We spent that night in a hotel near the base before driving home the next morning. Over the next couple of days small things would come up and I realized fully that I couldn't call him. It took our daughter about a month to really notice he was gone because for her whole life he was always in and out. For her, it was like he was on another trip at first. Our son asked constantly, "Where is Dad right now? When will he call? When will we know he has made it there? When will we get an email?" I tried to go on with life as usual but during that first month family and friends were calling incessantly asking if we had heard from him and whenever anything came on the news I would get a ton more calls. It was a constant reminder that life as we knew it was no more.
I was the second born son of four children of Mexican immigrants and grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Houston, Texas. My dad worked two jobs and my mom worked full time in order to provide for us. I was your typical kid that rode skateboards and BMX bicycles. I played Army in the backyard when I was young but I never dreamed that I would actually join the Army.
I started college without any idea of what I wanted to major in but I eventually earned my Associates degree in Design drafting. I then transferred to the University of Houston, still unsure of what I wanted to major in. All I knew was that I needed to continue my education.
One of the courses I took was an ROTC Survival course. The Instructor of the class was a Special Forces Sergeant First Class. One day I was setting up small snares for animals, in a local park, as part of the class when he came over and asked me what I wanted out of this class. I told him I really didn't know; the class sounded like fun and it was outdoors instead of in a classroom. He suggested to me that maybe I should look into the Army to gain some maturity and get the College Fund. This way, he said, that once I figured out what I wanted to do with myself, I would at least have the money to pursue it.
Excerpted from South of Heaven by Daniel Flores Sandra Parisi Kilisz Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Flores. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Storm Brewing....................1
Chapter 2 War Preparations....................7
Chapter 3 Hindsight's Everything....................36
Chapter 4 The Homecoming....................54
Chapter 5 Fight's On....................75
Chapter 6 Go Guns....................93
Chapter 7 Apache Rescue....................102
Chapter 8 Unknown Battles....................119
Chapter 9 Jurassic Park....................129
Chapter 10 Something's Wrong....................147
Chapter 11 Answered Prayers....................168
Chapter 12 Moving On....................180
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