The First Gulf War
Army Chinook Pilot Looks Back on Her Service
Part I: The three part story of one Desert Storm helicopter pilot.
Captain Victoria Calhoun sat on the “ass end” of her CH-47D Chinook helicopter—parked nose to tail with Alpha Company’s other 15 choppers. The night was clear, the stars looked close enough to touch. As cold crept up the arms and legs and down the neck of her Army-issue flight suit, she drew her Army-issue blanket closer around her.
At 3 a.m., the deep-throated roar of F-15s firing up shook the night. Their rising thunder was matched by the rising flow of adrenaline coursing through the captain’s blood. Then came the takeoff blast as the jets roared skyward, their engines glowing. Hundreds of fighter-bombers were on their way to bomb Baghdad.
Desert Storm Had Begun!
“This is it,” Calhoun thought. “This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is why I’m here.” It was January 17, 1991, and the First Gulf War, Desert Storm, had just begun.
In 1980 Calhoun, a freshman at Mary Baldwin College, an all-women’s school in Virginia, signed up for Army ROTC through nearby James Madison University. Majoring in biology, she graduated in 1983 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. She entered the Army just as opportunities were opening up for women.
A flight school slot, followed by four years in Germany learning to pilot the Chinook in combat-support missions, earned Calhoun her captain’s bars. In 1989 came her hoped-for assignment to the home of the famed 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.
Fort Bragg Is Where It’s Happening!
“I wanted to go to Fort Bragg because if anything was happening, it was happening at Fort Bragg,” Calhoun said. She was assigned to the Battalion Operations Section as the training officer and assistant operations officer.
“We already had people down in Panama*,” she explained.
*[The United States Invasion of Panama, codenamed Operation Just Cause, lasted December 20, 1989 to January 31, 1990. Panamanian leader, general, and dictator Manuel Noriega was deposed citing racketeering and drug trafficking.] Source: Wikipedia
“The planes down there were C models. I had a lot of CH-47C model, night-vision-goggle time. Enough to be sent there—if I had been male. I volunteered repeatedly to go to Panama. What I didn’t know at that time was that my boss, the S-3 operations officer, didn’t want women to go.”
Wanted: Combat-Related Time and Experience
Like all soldiers, Calhoun was motivated by a desire to do the job, be part of the team and make a contribution. Advancement in the military is equated with combat-related time and experience. Women need it to move up in the ranks, just as the men do. The pathway up appeared to be blocked.
Then on August 7, 1990, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
“We got word the 18th Aviation Brigade was going to the Persian Gulf,” Calhoun said. “‘Are the women going?’ my boss asked. ‘Absolutely,’ the battalion commander said after a long pause. ‘We can’t do this without them!’ I sensed that, while we anxiously awaited his answer, he was mentally reviewing all the women and where they worked—including our battalion S-2 and me.”
Only a Handful of Women Helicopter Pilots
One of a handful of women helicopter pilots in the Army, this time Calhoun was going where the action was: “I was the first woman from the brigade into Saudi Arabia—13 days after the operation started. Our advance party flew in on a C-5 with two UH-1H Huey helicopters.
“When we got to Dhahran, the brigade commander had to negotiate with the Saudis to get our aircraft in there. Right then our helicopters were being disassembled back in North Carolina, put aboard ship and sent to the Persian Gulf by sea. We had to build a heliport for them, and to do that we had to show the Saudis how many planes were coming.
I drew a map and used paper cutouts of helicopters to illustrate the numbers. Then we began laying asphalt—three miles of it! When the planes arrived, we offloaded them, reassembled them and parked them on the new heliport. Chinooks take up a lot of space.”
Buddies: During Desert Shield, the Women Bonded
While the politicians played a global game of chicken, Calhoun and the rest of the Desert Shield brigade waited. November came and went. December segued into the New Year. And still they waited. Calhoun and six other women helicopter pilots who were sharing cramped quarters in a compound in Dhahran bonded. Like men have done over centuries of warfare, they became buddies in the traditional Army sense.
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.
February 24 — the Ground War Was On!
On February 24, the ground war erupted, and the 18th went into action. Desert Shield was over. Desert Storm had begun.
Sarah Byrn Rickman is the author of nine books about the WASP, the American women pilots who flew in World War II, and serves as editor of the official WASP newsletter.