A U.S. Army Chinook pilot looks back on her service in the First Gulf War.
Captain Victoria Calhoun sat on the “ass end” of her CH-47D Chinook helicopter—parked nose to tail with Alpha Company’s other 15 chop- pers. 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 green khaki 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.
“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 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 and, in 1989, an assignment to the home of the famed 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C. “I wanted to go to Fort Bragg because if anything was happening, it was happening at Fort Bragg,” she said. She was assigned to the Battalion Operations Section as the training officer and assistant operations officer.
“We already had people down in Panama,” Calhoun explained. “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.” 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.”
One of a handful of women helicopter pilots in the Army, 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.”
While the politicians played a global game of chicken, Calhoun and the rest of the 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 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. Then on February 24, the ground war erupted, and the 18th went into action.
“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. 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.
“By then I had become the adjutant,”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 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. Army women in Desert Storm flew utility and cargo aircraft—like the women flying medevac helicopters moving casualties, like me flying the Chinook 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.
Vicky Calhoun wasn’t the first woman in an Army helicopter, though she was one of the earliest. How did she get along with the men with whom she flew?“I once heard a woman speak on the four roles of women: daughter, wife, mother or sister. When I joined my Chinook unit in Germany, I was young, 24 years old. I was no threat to those seasoned men. The unit in Germany took me on as the daughter. I had 40 fathers. They taught me how to fly, and they took care of me.”
After serving 20 years, Calhoun opted for retirement in 2003, having finished her career as a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Pentagon. Most of the first wave of women military fliers had already retired by then, and now the second wave—Calhoun’s generation—was making the move as well.
In her second career, Calhoun became a government contractor, once again working almost exclusively with men. “I had the same struggles as a retiree that I did as a woman entering the military,” she said. “Proving myself. There aren’t many women doing this work.”
It’s been said the clothes make the man— or in this case, the woman. Calhoun has learned that lesson well: “My uniform gave me credibility—my ribbons, my awards, my rank. All those things speak miles to people. I no longer wear a uniform. A woman in our culture has very little credibility when she walks in a room. Now I’m just another woman, not LTC Calhoun. The guys in my unit in the Army knew I would pull my weight. They trusted me. The corporate world is very different. It’s a new team and a new game. I started over, and I had to earn my credibility all over again.”
During flight school Calhoun joined the fledgling Women Military Aviators (WMA) organization, formed in the early 1980s, when young women serving as military aviators needed a social and mentoring meeting ground. Seeking guidance, the new organization turned to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II—the first women to fly Army airplanes. Together the two organizations got the fledgling group off the ground. After retiring from active duty in 2003, Calhoun took command of the WMA, serving as its president until 2007.
In April 2011, Calhoun joined the U.S. Army Cyber Command as a civilian employee. She is now involved in a new and different kind of combat: cyber warfare.
Sarah Byrn Rickman is the author of four books about the WASP, and serves as editor of the official WASP newsletter. For more on the WMA, visit womenmilitaryaviators.org.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.