Tag Archives: Surveys

A Day in the Life: Surveyors at BIAP

Me at Breaktime

On a survey mission, 2003.

” A 51 Tango is a hell of a soldier…!” was part of a cadence we sang at survey school in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  And it’s true.  51 Tangos are a unique breed of perceptive, eccentric, innovative soldiers who must be kept busy or else we will mastermind elaborate pranks to terrorize each other.  Luckily we were busy with many survey projects during OIF 1!  Sadly, I do not have detailed notes about the projects from my deployment, but I remember enough to piece together the image of a typical day for a surveyor at BIAP.  When my company arrived in the summer of 2003, my survey team of 3 was absorbed by the Battalion’s much larger team, and we became part of a great adventure.

The Battalion surveyors were not the only Tangos we encountered; there were also surveyors at the Brigade and Group level (the corresponding levels of hierarchy for Army units).  More surveyors lived across the road in neighboring engineer battalions, so the potential for collaboration on engineering projects was tremendous.  We were only limited by the hours of the day, our own energy levels, and the parameters given by our OICs (Officers in Charge).  We were very lucky because the OICs had clear foresight of missions that needed to be accomplished and they trusted us to do our jobs without micromanaging us.  To that end, we were free to roam around BIAP unsupervised and explore areas in which most other soldiers had never set foot.

My beautiful picture

A surveyor on top of rubble in a bombed palace.

A typical day for a 51T would start after breakfast with a pow-wow in the Battalion survey office.  We would receive our mission for the day or simply plan to continue a mission that had not yet been completed.  After packing up necessary equipment and MREs (because we would likely be out all day) and checking the vehicle for operational readiness, it was time to load up and leave camp.  The early days of deployment included many topographic surveys and blueprint development for new camps, roads and such.  Surveying is tedious work under often strenuous environmental conditions, so we welcomed distractions such as fields full of unexploded ordinance or bombed out palaces that demanded further exploration.  We took every opportunity to walk through the abandoned palaces, assessing the damage and puzzling over the immense luxury of the interiors and the bizarre murals painted on the walls.  Saddam with a mermaid?  Okay.


Surveyors had the best view at lunch time: high up on a palace ledge!

Lunch breaks were an opportunity for adventure too.  At one remote camp we took a cool dip in a broken water bladder, which could no longer store water, but was a perfect mini swimming pool!  We packed our PT uniforms at the direction of our NCOIC and when lunch time came around we hopped into the “pool” to cool down and wash the day’s worth of grime off our arms and faces.  After we dried off it was back to work.

We also “crossed the wire” on occasion, or left the secure area of BIAP, and ventured out into what was sometimes referred to as the Wild West, to buy things other Tangos (who weren’t on the mission that day) had requested: cigarettes, soda, ice, even Black Market items.  This errand was usually run at the end of the survey mission, especially if we needed ice.  The kibosh was put on our errand running a few weeks into the deployment when it was deemed far too dangerous for soldiers to be crossing the wire and buying items from the roadside stands.  Before that happened, we could get funny cigarettes and even smoke apple flavored tobacco from hookahs with the Iraqi market people before heading back to camp!

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

KozakWe spent as much time as possible exploring, and we could brag that we stepped into palaces and abandoned buildings that most soldiers never set foot in.  We climbed over rubble heaps and perched on majestic window ledges to get the best views.  But survey missions weren’t all fun and games.  We worked very hard, standing in the unforgiving sun, sweat dripping into our underwear, shooting points and pounding stakes as fast as we could to prepare sites for the earth movers.  It wasn’t funny when the tripod refused to level and it was 120 degrees in the shade; then by the time we did get it leveled the Geodimeter experienced a malfunction wouldn’t work for the rest of the day.  Or there were days when we would go out to a site where we had smashed fingers pounding in a half mile of stakes for a new road only to discover that an equipment operator had run them all over because he thought that the stakes indicated, “that was where I was supposed to drive”.

Kracker in Hole2

Although we did have a few run-ins with equipment operators who did not understand our use of stakes, a few patient explanations (and a few screaming fits) set things straight and our rapport with the earth movers was quite copasetic.  Aside from traditional survey, we also squeezed in quality control of concrete at the BIAP airport on occasion.  This meant a rare treat: a visit to the gorgeous airport and a chance to work with Iraqi civilian engineers, both a challenge and a learning opportunity.  On top of all this we had the soils lab for our geotechnical team.  Surveyors who exhibited a particular interest in working with soils were given the opportunity to spend time in the lab testing soil characteristics, sometimes late into the night depending on the nature of the tests.  We collected a wide variety of soil from BIAP sample zones and ran as many different tests as we could in the lab to make determinations about the cantankerous soil underfoot.  Working in the soils lab gave us the chance to get dirtier than we had ever anticipated, and there were many spontaneous mud fights when nerves got a little frayed…

Me and 'Kraker Jack' trying to kill each other with mud.

Me and ‘Kraker Jack’ trying to kill each other with mud.

As the typical survey day drew to an end we would return to the office and drop off equipment, recharge batteries, do PMCS on the vehicle, and sit around to BS before dinner chow.  Conversation would take the same turns.  What did we miss about home?  Who were our significant others back home and what did we miss most about them?  What kind of food were we craving?  Who deserved the latest prank and what kind of prank should it be?  Did we have time to do a prank before dinner?  We passed around a cigarette or a bottle of soda before chow time, talked a little about nothing, and tried not to think about the fact that we were all just a bunch of scared kids in the desert.  Just a typical day for a team of surveyors, some 51 Tangos.  A 51 Tango is a hell of a solider…


It was a good day of surveying…

Copyright 2014.  All photographs are the property of Georgeann Van Delist and http://www.bloggingpioneer.com.  Use and/or duplication of any material from this site is strictly prohibited without express permission from the site owner and author.

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Survey Notes from Badghdad

Dirty Deeds

After U.S. troops occupied Iraq, who do you suppose was instrumental in developing the infrastructure to support the camps and Forward Operating Bases?  It was the 51 Tango, the survey engineer!  Tangos surveyed timeworn sites to which no known maps existed, trod ground on which no previous American engineers had ever set foot, and created sense and order out of chaos so that camps, airstrips, helicopter pads, schools, clinics, roads, canals, and civilization itself could be built up and maintained I ran into my former Tango drill sergeant from Fort Leonard Wood while I was waiting to depart Kuwait, and being able to discuss real survey missions with him was incredible because he was simply the best role model a buck sergeant could ask for.  Now a Sergeant First Class with a large team, he proudly described what his surveyors had accomplished and affirmed his hopes for the Tango legacy in Iraq.  He also gave me a challenge: to be a pioneer in engineering by making improvements wherever I led my team to leave Iraq better than I had found it.  “That is what Tangos do; we are the vanguards of engineering and the ones who make projects possible.  Do something new and make me proud!”  A remnant of my old survey journal shows evidence that my team did indeed pioneer the engineer field with projects such as innovative topographic surveys of roads, the ground breaking of Camp Victory, courtesy of my National Guard unit and my survey team, and my personal pride and joy: the establishment of the first military soils testing laboratory in Iraq.

My beautiful picture

Establishing benchmarks on a survey expedition at BIAP.

13 – 19 July 2003

Tasks included:

  • Topographic survey of West BIAP Road (it will become a five lane road).
  • Survey for airfield and helicopter pad projects.
  • Quality control of asphalt and concrete work at various locations in roads and at Iraqi Airways site at the airport.
  • Escorting of civilians on and off BIAP.Kozak
  • Support tasks for HQ platoon.

Notes:  Have observed not to chastise Iraqis publically.  Compliment their work and then suggest how it can be improved.  Do not be surprised if they listen politely and then do the exact opposite of what you suggest.  Concrete on a slump test should be 4-6 inches to pass.  Smooth stones in concrete are a NO-GO!  Nothing should be mixed in with concrete (ie: concrete bags, plastic bags, debris, any foreign matter) as it will create voids and weaken the concrete.  Soil must be wetted cautiously as too much water will create a soup that must dry for several days before work can continue.  Iraqis do not understand this, and often do not heed our warning (see all above).  Spongy, soft spots in the dirt work mean that there is a pocket of wet, soupy soil underneath and this will cause problems in the future.  Iraqi engineers say “It’s good!  Cover with asphalt, it will make stronger!  Yes, the plastic bags good!  Make everything stronger!  Very good!”  They think that a strong surface will actually reinforce the weak soupy interior.  This is not true.

Silhouettes of soldiers and civilian workers on a road project.

Silhouettes of soldiers and civilian workers on a road project.

20-27 July 2003

Tasks included:

  • Continued topography of West BIAP Road.
  • Design work on camp shower pad.
  • Support tasks for HQ Platoon.

Notes:  We haven’t done any “real” surveying in a while!  Now there are plenty of projects.  Got a “new” laptop for the section, but the CD drive is out so it already needs to be serviced.

My Tripod

Leveling the tripod to start a survey project.

28 July – 05 Aug 2003

Tasks included:

  • Topographic survey of Battalion motor pool.
  • Support tasks for HQ Platoon
  • My surveyors were added to the guard duty roster with tasks to include guarding the BN TOC, roving guard, and guarding the West BIAP Wall.

Notes:  Am considering having weekly survey pow-wows to gauge my team’s ideas, opinions, desires for future missions, etc. and get an impression of how their morale is holding up.  I also want to ensure that they are getting the information that they need to complete their various missions.  Since attitude [of troops] reflects leadership, I’d like to see if there is more I can do to be a positive role model and leader here.

Kracker in Hole2

Collecting samples from layers of soil at a BIAP road site.

06-13 Aug 2003

Tasks included:

  • Finished topographic survey of intersection on West BIAP Road.
  • Found elevation points on intersection.
  • Finished drawing of intersection.
  • Started survey of Zone 5 and found previous boundary established by another engineer battalion using a GPS and Geodimeter to shoot boundary.
  • Established three corners and used previously established corner as fourth.
  • Provided the Platoon Sergeant for 2nd PLT with the elevations of Zone 5 for earth work.
  • Met with leadership of a neighboring battalion and discussed setting up a geotechnical facility on BIAP, then formed a team of four technicians with overseers from two different engineer battalions.

Notes:  Rough week, but all turned out fine.  We decided to have weekly AARs to discuss survey issues that we encounter through the week.  Daily supervised PMCS of our vehicle, known as X2, has been implemented since we use the vehicle constantly.

13-20 Aug 2003

Kracker in Lab

Running tests on soil in the laboratory.

Tasks included:

  • Setting up of the soils, asphalt, and concrete (geotechnical) testing facility at the old Military Intelligence compound.
  • Took soil samples from perimeter road and began first tests immediately.
  • Took inventory of soils set, noted shortages, and listed additional equipment needed for the lab.
  • Did a perimeter survey of Zone 4 for 2nd PLT Sergeant.

Notes:  Fun, fun, fun! I LOVE soils!!  We had a Tango meeting; all the Tangoes on BIAP got together to combine talents.  I did not know there were so many of us here at one time.

20-27 Aug 2003


Lab equipment neatly organized on homemade shelves.

Tasks included:

  • Soil testing.
  • Took more samples along perimeter road.
  • Worked on getting AC, electricity, refrigerator, etc. hooked up.
  • Surveyed along perimeter road and replaced control points that had been knocked over (cussed out heavy equipment operators that we suspected).

Notes:  Red Phase guard duties included front gate guard duty, OP2, TOC duty, RTO.

27 Aug – 2 Sept 2003

Tasks included:

  • Surveyed along perimeter road to check control points.
  • Soil testing.
  • Traverse survey to tie perimeter road into paved road.

Notes:  I hate this place!

My beautiful picture

Taking an informal width measurement of a canal: “It’s as wide as I can stretch my legs!”