Danger Close: My Epic Journey as a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan

Image of Danger Close: My Epic Journey as a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan
Release Date: 
September 5, 2016
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

"This country owes many thanks to her for her service."

As interesting as military history may be, it is even more so with respect to the current emphasis on allowing women to assume combat roles in our armed forces. It is a new dynamic to consider in contemporary conventional and asymmetrical warfare.

To be sure, women have had a significant presence in our military for at least a hundred years and, in many cases, we couldn’t have accomplished what we have without them. In this day and age of ostensible equal rights for equal responsibilities, it is understandable and commendable that women should and want to be part of our combat elements, though no one wants to see a casualty in any form or, for that matter, gender.

In this case, author Warrant Officer Amber Smith has provided an essentially autobiographical memoir of her time as an army helicopter pilot, training and serving here at home in addition to deploying for one tour in each combat theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with the air cavalry component of the elite and legendary 101st Airborne Division.

As a Kiowa-type helicopter pilot, with accompanying co-pilot, these soldier-aviators are tasked with providing immediate low-level and close air support for ground troops with their available munitions in the form of rockets and .50  caliber machine gun. With the emphasis on low-level and close, these can be very dangerous missions, considering the possibility of enemy small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. As it was, one female pilot was wounded in the foot by ground fire.

Indeed, the book’s title is a definition of and reference to ordnance delivery in very close proximity or “PI” (as in probability of incapacitation) to friendly ground troops being given such air support.   

Smith recounts her early days learning to fly from her father, joy at finding her niche flying helicopters, and the rigors of training necessary to succeed at her chosen profession. In the event, her two sisters also became military aviators in their own right, with, as she says, at least one of the sisters being deployed at all times. 

At the same time, she progressed, with training and experience, from co-pilot to pilot commander (PC) and, finally, air mission commander (AMC) who commands all aircraft on a specific mission. Having successfully accomplished all of these, she earned the esteem and respect of all of her air cavalry comrades.

Unfortunately, somewhat limited ordnance and fuel capacity sometimes restricted time “onstation” for an aircraft so sometimes relays were necessary for the provision of air support to ground troops. Also, there were the concomitant losses of friends, killed in action or otherwise, to go with the ever present fears, doubts, and uncertainties that one would survive one’s own tour of duty.

This book is an up close look at contemporary military helicopter operations. The text includes many of the acronyms and jargon of which the military is so fond. Fortunately, all of the terminology is defined for the benefit of the reader by the author.

Additionally, and interestingly, the reader gets to “see” what Smith experienced on her combat missions through the “recreated” dialogue in the text between herself and others with whom she served. Her thoughts and feelings regarding her military service and experiences, her country, and family provide a look not just into her state of mind but the mindset of all who serve far from home.

Thankfully, the author emerged physically unscathed from her two deployments but, between them, found herself dealing with the difficulty of reacclimating to life on the home front, fearing a car bomb in every vehicle she passed, an IED in every pothole, and wishing she was wearing her M9 personal sidearm.

Currently, Smith is an analyst on TV and radio networks providing commentary on national security, military operations, and foreign policy. She speaks to multiple audiences, veterans organizations, at public events, and on Capitol Hill and has written for various publications.

This is an extremely interesting and readable book and even, it can be said honestly, somewhat hard to put down at times, considering the unique and extraordinary perspective of an American female combat aviator. Hopefully, Smith’s commitment to providing her experience will motivate all of our female warriors to do the same, even if just for their own families and personal peace of mind.

This country owes many thanks to her for her service.