by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
On Aug. 12, Iraqi air force general Majid Ashour was at the controls of a Mi-17 transport helicopter, bound for Mount Sinjar to supply Yezidi refugees fleeing Islamic State’s bloody onslaught across northern Iraq.
Ashour was in charge of the airlift effort delivering aid and evacuating civilians from the besieged mountain. He also insisted on personally flying missions to Sinjar.
The Aug. 12 flight would be Ashour’s last.
While trying to take a load of evacuees off the mountain after dropping off aid, Ashour’s helicopter crashed. It’s unclear why—it could have been a technical problem or pilot error.
The crash made headlines because two New York Times journalists—reporter Alissa Rubin and freelance photographer Adam Ferguson—were on board the copter and both sustained injuries.
Miraculously, Ashour was the only fatality. The New York Times’ story about the incident claimed—incorrectly—that a Kurdish Peshmerga crew was flying the helicopter. In fact, the Iraqi air force has been responsible for moving aid to the mountain and people off it.
And as Ashour’s death demonstrates, it’s a dangerous responsibility. I learned that firsthand when I rode the Sinjar Express in December.
Although thousands of refugees made it off Mount Sinjar in a highly publicized exodus—some escaping by air, others fleeing on foot to Syria with the help of PKK and YPG fighters—thousands of refugees remain on the mountain. It’s hard to know how many. Estimates range from 2,000 to 8,000 people.
The route the PKK had been using to evacuate refugees and resupply their forces was captured by Islamic State this fall.
Now the only way to get on or off the mountain is via an Iraqi air force helicopter.
Those who remain on the mountain are a mix of refugees who were unable to escape and those Yezidis who refused to leave. Many Yezidi volunteer fighters stayed behind to protect sacred shrines from militants bent on desecrating them. Along with the Yezidi fighters, there’s a force of PKK guerillas and a detachment of Peshmerga troops.
Relations between the groups can be touchy. Although the helicopters are here to help the Kurds, they answer to commanders in Baghdad. Some of the Peshmerga tell us that Baghdad has occasionally grounded the helicopters during disagreements between Kurdish and Iraqi leaders.
With the war against the militants raging across Iraq, demands on Iraq’s helicopter fleet are wide-ranging. There is only a handful of helicopters supporting refugees and troops on Sinjar. Sometimes they have to divert to assist Iraqi troops fighting in other areas.
And to make matters worse, the winter weather in Iraq’s mountainous north often disrupts flight plans.
For five days, the refugees and fighters on the mountain have had to wait for flights. Bad weather in Erbil and on the mountain and the re-tasking of the Iraqi air force Mi-171E helicopters to other operations have conspired to deprive Sinjar of air support.
A scant number of the Mil copters sustain life on Sinjar, normally flying around three sorties a day.
My little group of journalists arrives at a base near Erbil that’s bustling with activity. Cars carrying bags of supplies and fighters hoping to return to the mountain are queueing at the entrance, waiting their turn to be searched. We grab a quick cup of local chai before driving down to a parade ground that doubles as a landing zone.
We are not alone. Fighters, political representatives and media are all waiting for the helicopters to arrive. The flights to the mountain will be packed. A Peshmerga fighter organizing the passenger manifest takes our names as we ferry our equipment to what we guess will be the best spot to leave it.
It doesn’t take long before we hear the distinctive sound of the helicopters. They land on the parade ground and switch off their engines.
Peshmerga fighters begin to load mattresses, tents and food into the helicopters. Other fighters returning to the mountain shoulder their gear and weapons and make their way up the rear ramps of the Mi-171s.
It’s clear that these helicopters do more than just haul supplies to Mount Sinjar. They sport rocket pods on their sides for combat missions.
One of the aircrew, a gunner named Azad, asks where I am from. I say British and Azad smiles and points to a name tag on his flight suit. He tells me that the name is that of an American sergeant—the instructor who trained him.
The sergeant had died in a crash back in the United States. “He was my friend,” Azad says before going back to work.
This isn’t the only sign of the Americans who trained them. All of the pilots and aircrew wear American-style uniforms and sport American patches.
The fighters usher us to board our helicopter. The door gunners don their body armor and helmets, checking that their microphones work and that their M240 machine guns have free movement before clipping their masks to their flight helmets.
We take off.
On the move
As we fly, the gunners constantly scan the ground for any sign of danger. One of them removes his mask and asks if I would like to sit in the cockpit.
Of course I would.
I change places with the flight engineer, who flashes a thumbs-up as I clamber in to the seat between the pilots and don a set of headphones connecting me to the intercom system.
One of pilots, in very lightly accented English, tells me how to use the press-to-talk switch on the floor.
Haze obstructs the horizon. One of the other two helicopters is visible to our left, some distance away. The dashboard of our copter looks worn and very Soviet, albeit with some newer components bearing English lettering.
The Mi-171E is a modern version of the aged Russian Mi-8, which debuted in 1977. This version comes with engines rated for high temperatures—a must-have in Iraq.
One of the pilots points out a settlement to our left. It’s Rabia, a border town now in the hands of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish YPG. He tells me that we are flying just over the border with Syria in order to avoid the heaviest concentrations of militants.
We cross the border back into Iraq. The ground below us belongs to Islamic State. The crew chatters on the intercom in Arabic. The towns below look abstract—mere combinations of lines and squares from this distance.
“Sinjar in front,” someone says. One of the pilots points toward the ridgeline looming in the distance.
As we get closer, we see a huge mushroom cloud of smoke rising from an area near the base of the mountain. A pilot reaches for the controller of the copter’s infrared camera in order to examine the area.
Nothing out of the ordinary is visible on the dashboard display.
Coming in for a landing
An audible warning sounds in my headphones. “Main rotor speed warning,” a woman’s voice says. It’s part of the aircraft’s automated systems. The warning sounds twice before a pilot makes some adjustments to his controls.
As our helicopter nears the mountain, we can see the lead copter come in for a landing. We circle low, following terrain contours as we await our turn to offload.
The pilot flares on approach, slowing the 12-ton machine to a hover and gently placing it atop the mountain.
A group of Yezidi fighters huddle together as the main rotor wash blows debris around the LZ. As soon as we stop, the door gunners begin throwing supplies from the starboard side door.
But there’s a problem. As soon as the doors open, almost before the helicopter has come to a halt, the Yezidi fighters run straight toward the aircraft. They try to force their way in, without waiting for the crew to finish offloading supplies.
The aircrew frantically resist, but the onrushing Yezidi overwhelm them.
Three fighters make it onto the aircraft and sit on the floor panting with exhaustion. Their desperation and disorganization work against them. Because they squeeze together and fight to climb in, only a small number get on board before the helicopter takes off.
If this was a scheduled pickup, there’s no way it could be going to plan.
The crowd at the door almost stops me getting out, but a gunner motions to me that they need to leave and that the time to exit is now. Fighting against would-be passengers, I throw myself out of the door—basically attempting to crowd-surf Yezidis.
It doesn’t exactly work out. They part like the Red Sea and I land flat on the ground. A few of them help me up and apologize.
Almost as soon as I’m on my feet, the tempo of the blades increases and the helicopter rises away from a group of Yezidi fighters who didn’t make it through the door.
The copter crews didn’t have time to offload all the supplies. We see our Mi-171E in the distance, hovering 50 feet above a road, jettisoning the remaining items including several refugee tents.