Mom Flew Helicopters in Desert Storm (Part 2)

 In Bessie Coleman, First Gulf War, women pilots

Air Assault: A Battalion of Chinooks Launch

Last week’s post concluded with these two paragraphs:

On January 15, 1991, the United Nations gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait. He didn’t budge, and on January 17, U.N. forces led by the U.S. attacked Iraq. Desert Shield had become Desert Storm, and a five-week air war ensued.

Calhoun, her crew and all of Alpha Company continued to watch and wait. On January 21, the 18th Aviation Brigade got the word to move by ground and air to set up near Rafha for the push north. Then on February 24, the ground war erupted, and Calhoun and the 18th went into action.

Capt. Vicky Calhoun Picks Up Her Story Here

“It was an air assault, not an airborne mission,” Calhoun explained. “In an air assault, we land the troops rather than drop them. Our whole battalion—40 CH-47Ds— provided support for the 101st Airborne as it began its attack. With us were Apaches, Cobras and Blackhawks. We began lifting the 101st into what became Forward Operating Base Cobra, 93 miles into Iraq and halfway to the Euphrates River.

“We flew more than 300 helicopter sorties, ferrying troops and equipment. It was the largest heliborne operation in military history.

“The mission was to reposition supplies to the north so that the 101st and the 82nd ground troops could move on Baghdad. We’d go up with the supplies and then come back to get more. We moved thousands of gallons of fuel in 500-gallon blivets* slung under our Chinooks.” * [Blivets, a military term for rubberized bladders used by various air forces for holding fuel at temporary locations, usually small airstrips. Once drained, the bags would go flat and be easily stored until required fair assaultor use elsewhere.]

“Our Sling Load Was 10 Feet Off the Ground”

“We flew at 120 knots—which is very fast and very dangerous—and our sling load was only about 10 feet off the ground.”

Asked whether they were shot at during those operations, Calhoun said: “At night, you can see the tracers. During the day you can’t really tell if you’re being fired on until it hits you. Ours was a daylight operation. Our routes were planned over unoccupied areas, where the ground troops had cleared the way.”

The peacetime crew of a Chinook is four: pilot, copilot, crew chief and flight engineer. But in Iraq they needed a fifth crew member, a door gunner.

“We Needed the Bravos — Trained Infantrymen”

“By then I had become the adjutant,”[personal assistant to the commander]. Calhoun recalled. “My job was to help the battalion commander with personnel and administrative problems. I thought we should bring in 11 Bravos [trained infantrymen] to ride that position rather than use our mechanics. We needed the mechanics fresh to work on the planes when they returned to base. The infantrymen were what we needed.”

Calhoun and her fellow Chinook pilots flew daytime sorties continuously during the 100-hour ground war. “We kept the daisy chain going,” she said.

A cease-fire was declared on February 28. The next day the battalion lost one of its seven women pilots, Major Marie Rossi, commander of Bravo Company, whose helicopter hit a microwave tower in northern Saudi Arabia.

“The Worst Moment of the War”

“The sun was setting and the crews were on the way back from their missions,” said Calhoun. “Dusk is a very dangerous time.” Of the crew of five, only the door gunner survived. For Calhoun, that was the worst moment of the war.

By March 5, it was all over—four days of combat and four days of aftermath. Having been in Saudi Arabia from the beginning, the 18th Aviation Brigade was among the first units to leave.

After Calhoun returned to Fort Bragg in April 1991, she had time to reflect on her experience.

“In 1989, the commander could handpick who went to Panama, and the women were not selected,” she noted. “A year later, in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the whole unit went—the men and the women. Though women still were not assigned to combat units, that was a huge change.

Finally, the Women Were Flying

“Army women in Desert Storm flew utility and cargo aircraft. The women flying medevac helicopters were moving casualties. Several other women and I were flying the Chinooks on troop-carrying and supply runs. Air Force women flew tankers and transports, but not fighters and bombers.”

“Still, it was a beginning.

“It’s the demographics that are in our favor,” said Calhoun. “We have a volunteer Army now. Women are 50 percent of the population. If we’re going to bring in recruits at the volume we need, we have to open positions to women. It has to do with that, not gender.

“In Desert Storm, women were allowed to do combat support and combat service support. Then into the 1990s, the Air Force let women into fighter aircraft. That helped erode the Army argument that women couldn’t fly combat aircraft.”

Now Army and Air Force women have flown combat aircraft—Apache and H-53 helicopters, A-10 Warthogs and F-16s—in the Second Gulf War and in Afghanistan.

NEXT WEEK: Conclusion, Part 3

Sarah Byrn Rickman is the author of nine books about the WASP, and serves as editor of the official WASP newsletter. For more on the WMA, visit womenmilitaryaviators.org.:

See Sarah’s books on Amazon.

Vicky Calhoun’s story originally was published in the March 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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