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Former Combat Pilot Brings Message of Courage to VMI

Speaker at VMI during CLE series

Amber Smith, former U.S. Army Kiowa helicopter pilot, addresses her audience during the Center for Leadership & Ethics (CLE) 2023 Courageous Leadership Speaker series April 13 in Gillis Theater. -VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

LEXINGTON, Va. April 19, 2023 — Virginia Military Institute welcomed Amber Smith, former U.S. Army Kiowa helicopter pilot who flew into enemy fire in some of the most dangerous combat zones in the world, as she closed out the Center for Leadership & Ethics (CLE) 2023 Courageous Leadership Speaker series April 13 in Gillis Theater. 

The theme of this year’s speaker series was “Courage of Convictions,” and according to Col. Dave Gray, director of the CLE, Smith is demonstrative of that theme. Smith is one of only a few women to have flown the Kiowa warrior helicopter, whose mission is armed reconnaissance, and requires its pilots to stay low, fast, and perilously close to the fire. She deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the elite 2-17 Cavalry Regiment, part of the legendary 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, where she rose to Pilot-in-Command and Air Mission Commander. She is a fourth generation military family member, and author of the book, “Danger Close: My Epic Journey as a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan.” She is a former deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense. 
 
Smith began by sharing that her aviation journey started long before she entered the military. She grew up as a tomboy on a rural alfalfa and timber farm in the state of Washington. Her father had a grass airstrip he used to fly his L-19 Bird Dog, a Vietnam era plane, giving her early exposure to aviation.

“I absolutely loved the challenge of it. I loved the adventurous nature of it, and I even loved the danger of it. You could say aviation is in my blood,” she said.

Her great-grandfather was a lieutenant in the army and served in the Battle of Verdun, her grandfather was in the Army Air Corps in WWII, and flew the aerial route between Northern Africa and Europe, and went on to fly some helicopter prototypes, her dad was in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper, and later became a commercial pilot, and her mom was a civilian pilot.

“I grew up thinking that all that exposure to aviation was normal, and every family sat around the dinner table while their dad explained how to recover from a stall,” she quipped. 

In high school however, she focused her energy on competitive gymnastics. Once she graduated, she went to the University of Washington where she put her gymnastics skills to work, and became a cheerleader for the Huskies. At that time, she was ambivalent about what career path to pursue, but a devastating event happened that caused her to immediately make a decision: The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. 

“Mark Twain said that the two most important days of your life are the day you're born, and the day you figure out why. For me in that instant, watching the twin towers fall, it became crystal clear. I wanted to serve my country, and the best way I could do that was by using my aviation experience and become a pilot. I enlisted in the Army, and was able to finish college while in the military. It was the perfect program for me, but it had one very significant catch: I had to become a helicopter pilot, and not an airplane pilot, which was my preference.” She was apprehensive about pursuing that route. “My dad always said that helicopter pilots are crazy, and that a helicopter has millions of parts rotating rapidly around an oil leak, all waiting for metal fatigue to set in,” she joked.  

An opportunity to ride in a helicopter came when she attended an airshow in Olympia with her parents. For $60, she was able to go on a 20-minute flight. “That's the best $60 my parents ever spent on me. I landed and could not stop smiling. I knew that helicopters were for me.”  

In flight school, she was selected to fly the Kiowa warrior helicopter, one of the most sought after helicopters. The Kiowa is a lighter sight reconnaissance platform, which carries a 0.50 caliber machine gun, and a rocket pod carrying between seven and 14 high-explosive rockets, as well as Hellfire missiles. It only has two seats, one for the pilot, one for the co-pilot. 

“What makes the Kiowa so special is its mission, which is providing direct support for ground forces. We provided aerial security, hunted for improvised explosive devices, and provided real-time actionable intelligence. We were able to find, fix and destroy the enemy. No two days were alike. One day we were scouting for the enemy, and another we were searching for roadside bombs ahead of a convoy. We also observed artillery fire, and escorted medevacs carrying wounded soldiers. Frequently we would get called upon to take out an enemy target. All this we did at extremely low levels, within eyesight of the enemy and within range of their weapon systems. We prided ourselves on being able to respond to a call from ground forces in minutes, with nothing but a call sign, a frequency, and a grid to get us there. The Kiowa definitely breeds a different type of pilot,” she explained. 

Smith confided that when she arrived to her first duty station straight out of flight school, she was terrified of failing. It was the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, a very historic and heroic legendary unit established during WWWII, and on which the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers” is based.

“I was a 22-year-old woman in a unit that had seen very few female pilots, (which were still very rare at that time,) and some people didn't like that. I knew I was getting judged and tested every day. Some people there were just waiting for me to stumble and fail. I knew I had to work hard and show them that I was part of this mission-focused team, just like they were, and would remain for the long-run. I used my fear of failure as motivation. In those moments of doubt, I would regroup, re-adjust, refocus, and keep going. I didn’t make excuses, I made changes. I pushed through those hard times, and it made me a better pilot, and a better leader, and it sent a message to the entire team that I was trustworthy and could be counted on when things got difficult.” 

Smith shared that she is proud to have worn the Screaming Eagle patch on both her left and right shoulders, and to be a part of that legacy, and the unit became her band of brothers and sisters. “I had some of the craziest experiences of my life with those people. You definitely develop unique relationships with those who serve alongside you. It's a family, which includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the fun times, and the sad times.”  

The following year, she was deployed to Iraq. She was flying a multimillion dollar helicopter, and was responsible for making life and death decisions very quickly. In addition to being a good pilot, she had to be a good decision maker and a good communicator. She compared her year in Iraq as "drinking from a firehose." It tested her mentally, physically, and emotionally. To encourage her, Smith’s father sent her a poster depicting a cartoon heron attempting to eat a frog, but the frog had its webbed hands tightly wrapped around the bird’s neck to prevent it from swallowing. The caption read simply, “Never Give Up.” She taped the poster to her locker as a constant visual motivation.

“Every time I walked out the door to head on a mission, I would tap the poster as a reminder, that no matter how terrible things got, I would never give up,” Smith said. 

January 2008, she was deployed to Afghanistan as a combat veteran air mission commander with an entire war under her belt. But this war and this enemy was different. They weren't as intimidated by helicopters, and the terrain was more hazardous. Smith cautioned her audience, “All new exposures give you opportunities to learn and grow. When you get comfortable in your job, you get complacent, and complacency kills in aviation, and it definitely kills in combat.”  

Smith shared a lighter story. Toward the end of her year in Afghanistan, she had a scheduled night off, but her name was put back on the flight schedule for that night. “I gave some pushback. I wanted to enjoy that night off, but was told that I would be happy about being placed back on the flight schedule, although I wasn’t told why.” The next day, she and the other pilots went to their hangars, curious about their mission. They were finally told that they had been selected as an armed Kiowa team to fly aerial security for President Bush in Air Force One. “We got to watch Air Force One come into sight under our night vision goggles, and it was an incredible honor to be selected for that mission. It was an incredible way to finish out my final mission in Afghanistan,” she said. 

She acknowledged that her journey as a small town farm girl, to flying multimillion dollar helicopters in combat, and leading missions was not easy, but that it was an incredible ride. “I made some wonderful friends, and unfortunately lost some due to the realities of war. I engaged with terrorists, the Taliban, and al Qaeda. I've been shot at, I’ve been in firefights, and had some extremely close calls. Those experiences in the military have had a lasting effect on my life,” she declared.  

After leaving the military, she entered graduate school and studied writing for two years. “I found out that I wasn't a horrible writer. I was just intimidated by it. I didn't hate it, I actually loved it, and had a passion for it,” she remarked. She has had articles published, which led to analysis and commentary, then the publishing of her book.  

To the cadets she gave closing words of wisdom, “The road less traveled is not an easy one, and it's definitely not for the faint of heart. You're going to hit roadblocks, you're going to hit potholes. You're going to have people that try to run you off the road. But if you make the decision to take some risk, and go that route and stick with it through those hard times that you will face, you will learn exactly what you are capable of, and that it will be more than you ever imagined.”  

Marianne Hause
Communications & Marketing
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 

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