U.S. Pilots Fly Low for Safety in Iraq, Face New Risks

U.S. military helicopters have typically been the safest way to travel in Iraq -- they fly low, are extremely fast and by the time they can be heard from the ground, they're gone.

But a series of recent crashes is raising new worries about their safety. In the last two and a half weeks, five U.S. helicopters have gone down in Iraq, killing 28 Americans.

The helicopter that went down today was flying northwest of Baghdad in the volatile al Anbar province. The military said the aircraft may have suffered mechanical failure but witnesses in the area say it appeared the helicopter was shot down.

The military has not ruled that out, and for good reason. Since Jan. 20, five helicopters have gone down including today's which killed seven soldiers.

Military Workhorse

The CH 46 helicopter has been around since the Vietnam War and is the workhorse of the Marine Corps.

It's used to transport troops, cargo and is employed for medical evacuations. The Marines generally fly at night which is safer because insurgents can't target the helicopter, but there are always exceptions.

For the past two days ABC News has flown extensively throughout al Anbar province in Marine Corps helicopters, accompanying the commanding general of the Marines in Iraq from Ramadi and Fallujah to Rutbah in the south.

The pilots said they were keenly aware of the increased threat to aircraft all over Iraq.

"We just always evaluate the threat depending on where we're going -- route of flight, profiles that we fly … just to make sure that we're doing things as smartly as possible," said USMC pilot Alison Thompson. "And trying to evaluate if there's some common denominator that we see repeatedly happening that is causing the aircraft to go down."

So far the common denominator in these attacks has been anti-aircraft and machine guns hitting vulnerable parts of the aircraft. Ironically, pilots have been flying low to avoid surface to air missiles, increasing the danger from smaller arms.

Specialist Matthew Eckerson has been shot and battered by IEDs during his two tours and said he has been hit hard by the loss of their fellow troops.

"A couple of pilots that I spoke to every day went down the other night," he said. "Everybody went on like it was a normal day but my lieutenant and I talked about it and we were like, 'Man, these guys are a part of us.'"

And, the fact is, with ground travel exceedingly dangerous, the military cannot afford to stop flying.

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