Wartime Chopper Pilot Looks Back On Life, Death And Being “Danger Close”

Amber Smith remembers the first time someone tried to kill her.

That was part of the job description, after all. You go to war to fight, to kill — and yes, to be a target yourself. But although it’s one thing to know intellectually that someone will be seeking your death, it’s a different matter entirely when the bullets start flying.

On this day, she was piloting a Kiowa Warrior helicopter in Iraq — a type of chopper that has since been retired, but one that Smith came to know as well as she knows her own body. It was, in many ways, the body she occupied throughout the war.

And now it was under attack.

Hovering over a field of palm groves in the middle of the night, she scoped out the land for enemy combatants and weapons caches. Flying over such an area was risky, given the cover it offered the enemy. So when the blast hit her chopper, Smith had no way of knowing where it had even originated.

“It was like a concussion,” she said, speaking before an audience at the Heritage Foundation. “And we lurched forward.”

That kind of reaction from your chopper is not good news. For a moment, silence. In the dark of night the chopper had been thudded in a brilliant flash of white light, and it seemed that it would simply drop from the sky, now nothing more than a hunk of metal falling rapidly, killing all those on board.

danger close

“But we kept going,” Smith said.

Amazingly, that chopper managed to thunder forward and Smith lived to tell the tale.

This was just one small piece of a larger story told in Smith’s new memoir “Danger Close: My Epic Journey As a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In a presentation hosted in part by the Network of Enlightened Women, Smith explained just how much grit and determination it took to survive as a combat pilot, while also offering a template for how young women in modern America can serve their country and achieve success on their own terms.

Smith’s story, however — which is the first ever war memoir written by a Kiowa pilot who served in both of our nation’s most recent wars — began with humble beginnings, on a farm in Washington state, where Smith and her two sisters first learned to fly small single engine planes.

Sure, that is somewhat unique for a young woman, but nothing about that suggested Smith would go on to fly hundreds of combat missions in a war-zone. At the time, it just seemed like a fun and interesting pastime.

Later, as a college student who watched on live TV as the second plane hit the World Trade Center buildings, she began to draw a connection between those flight lessons and combat. If her nation was under attack, she thought, then why not join the ranks and do her part?

This, more than anything, is the story of “Danger Close.” It’s a story of duty, a call to serve.

“I just wanted to do my job,” Smith said. “I knew it was inevitable to get shot at, to possibly die, and while I didn’t go looking for it, I knew that I couldn’t back away from it.”

And for other women thinking of possibly taking a similar route, Smith did not mince words.

“It’s by no means easy, and you should not expect a cake walk or a fun time,” she said. “It’s all about working hard, being tough, being able to keep going. You have to want it more than anything else.”

Combine that lesson with any of life’s challenges, though, and Smith said there’s nothing that can hold you back.

Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.