Women At War

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Brown’s ship trailed the lead aircraft, flown by Chief Warrant Officer Three Mark Teeden, a veteran pilot at thirty-eight, and Chief Warrant Officer Two Chris Wallace, 26 years old and fresh out of flight school. The two aircraft flew over open fields and came to a dam they regularly used as a checkpoint to let headquarters at the airfield know they were inbound.

“Pegasus Ops Whitewolf Zero Six is a flight of two KWs inbound, currently at the dam,” Brown informed the airfield. As the lead aircraft started to cross the Euphrates River, Brown and Sumner, less than 500 feet behind, moved from the right to the left, varying their flight pattern so as not be a target. When Teeden felt the explosion he could not see it because Kiowas have no rear view. He broke hard to the left and then back around to the right to vary its flight pattern. 

Sumner put his aircraft into auto-rotation, an emergency technique pilots learn in flight school designed to keep air flowing through the rotors so the blades will continue to turn. At the same time, 

Sumner carefully lowered the collective to slow the blades. If he reduced the speed of the blades too quickly, the aircraft wouldn’t have enough lift and would smash into the ground. He was also pushing 

the cyclic forward to gain more air speed. 

Sumner strained to keep the helicopter steady. Otherwise, the vibrating aircraft could gain forward motion and flip over when it hit the ground. Brown kept asking herself, ‘What’s my next step?’, then went on to the next thing as though everything was occurring in slow motion. 

Right before they hit, with the aircraft still shaking out of control, Sumner pulled up on the collective at the last second, flattening the blades, which helped cushion a jarring landing. The aircraft fell slowly to the plowed field and landed slightly on the back of its skids. Then the momentum of the fuselage pushed the aircraft slightly forward. If they had been any higher when they were hit, the helicopter would have disintegrated.

By the time the pilots in the lead aircraft came back around, Brown was on the ground. Teeden identified the position of the downed Kiowa and radioed the airfield and reported a “lame duck,” code for a downed aircraft. Wallace switched to an emergency frequency and waited for Brown to radio him.

When the aircraft rocked forward, its rotor blades hacked at the ground, promising to fly apart and slice the pilots to pieces. Both put their hands over their heads. 

When the blades stopped spinning and the pilots uncovered their eyes, sand filled the cockpit. We made it, Brown remembers thinking. Neither had been injured. They shared a smile.  

But black smoke billowed from the engine and flames licked the pods holding rockets that could explode at any second. They hurriedly crawled out of the cockpit. 

Brown ran with some effort toward a large irrigation ditch near the field. The equipment she wore amounted to three quarters of her entire body weight. In addition to their helmets and desert flight suits, made of the Nomex, the same fire-resistant material fabric worn by firefighters and race cardrivers, Brown wore 30-pound Kevlar-and- ceramic armor and a 45-pound survival vest. Everything Brown needed to survive over a twenty-four-hour period was tucked somewhere in one of her vest’s many pockets: flares, smoke canisters, water purification tablets, razor blades, a mirror for signaling, flash- light, matches, knives, candy, wet wipes, toilet paper, and a radio. Longer-term survival kits, including pup tents, were kept in the aircraft.

Sumner joined Brown, crouched in bushes not far from the aircraft. Each firmly grasped a 9mm pistol. They needed distance between them and the Kiowa. 

In the sky, Wallace and Teeden circled around a second time. When Teeden did not see the other Kiowa in the air, he scanned the ground for smoke and assumed the worse. Then, as he continued on his flight path and looked down 150 yards from his turn, he saw the aircraft sitting upright, smoking. If Brown’s Kiowa was on fire, and the pilots were still in the aircraft, he and Wallace could pull them out. He started to tell Wallace to look for a place for them to land when they spotted Brown and Sumner running. 

Wallace immediately attempted to call Brown on UHF and VHF frequencies. “No luck,” he said in frustration. The four pilots were like family, having flown as a team for the past 120 days. Pilots working stateside went their separate ways after work. Not so in combat overseas. Pilot teams walked together to chow, the showers, and even the phone. They ate, worked, and slept near one another. When a team member received mail or a package, they all shared in the excitement. 

The three others knew all details about how Brown and her husband, Jason, who was a Kiowa pilot stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, were restoring a house built in 1921: painting the interior walls white and turning three small rooms into one large one. The lives of the four Kiowa pilots depended on that kind of closeness and knowledge of one another.

While Teeden and Wallace could not pick up Brown’s mayday calls, a nearby Air Force A-10, specially designed for close air support of ground forces, did hear her. 

From the air, Wallace spotted two Iraqis, who were fleeing the crash site and then jumped into a ditch, about 200 yards up the river from Brown and Sumner. Teeden decided against firing on them, because the suspects were fleeing the area and were not firing on them. Rules of engagement stated that firing was permissible if you were in direct fire.