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A wounded warrior returns to flight

A wounded warrior returns to flight

Tammy DuckworthTammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth couldn’t stand the idea of staying behind. Although she had recently completed a stateside assignment at an Illinois Army National Guard helicopter unit and could have remained at home when the group got orders to deploy to Iraq in 2004, she didn’t just volunteer to go. She insisted on it.

“You’ve got to take me with you,” Duckworth, then a captain and UH-60 Black Hawk pilot, told her commanding officer. “I don’t care what assignment I get—but you’ve just got to take me.” The idea of living in safety and comfort in Illinois while her peers and the young soldiers she had helped train shouldered the burden of a yearlong overseas tour in a war zone was out of the question.

Duckworth, then age 36, got her wish. She became an assistant operations officer in charge of mission planning for 44 helicopters, mostly Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks, based at a sprawling U.S. military installation at Balad in central Iraq. She also flew missions that covered all parts of the war-torn country.

On November 12, 2004, she had been flying all day with Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, a veteran pilot who had flown Black Hawks in the same region during the first Gulf War 13 years earlier. Their final scheduled stop for the day before returning to Balad was at Taji, a busy air base in a fertile, palm-tree-lined area north of Baghdad. In an effort to get U.S. forces off narrow streets where they were vulnerable to deadly roadside bombs, the U.S. Army increasingly relied on helicopters to whisk them between dozens of military installations.

By the time Duckworth and her crew arrived at Taji, however, their passengers had already caught a ride on another helicopter, so they lifted off and flew toward their home base as low and fast as possible. Traveling at treetop height meant less exposure to ground fire, but the thick vegetation along the Tigris River provided numerous hiding places for insurgents, and helicopters were far from impervious to it.

Duckworth had logged about 200 flight hours in Iraq before being woundedDuckworth had logged about 200 flight hours in Iraq before being wounded.

Milberg was flying when Duckworth looked down into a date palm grove and saw a barrage of gunfire coming at them. Almost instantly, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the right side of the helicopter, penetrated its metal skin, and exploded beneath the instrument panel in front of Duckworth. The violent blast instantly and permanently destroyed both her legs and nearly severed her right arm. Her armored seat was knocked back with the front, right corner sliced off, while the cockpit filled with acrid smoke.

“My right leg was vaporized, and the left sheared off where it hit the instrument panel, but I didn’t realize I was hurt at the time,” Duckworth said. “I was more concerned about our helicopter. We’d lost all our avionics and flight instruments, and that’s something that almost never happens in a Black Hawk because the systems are so robust. I knew we’d been hit but I didn’t realize how severely, and I was doing everything I could to help [Milberg] fly the aircraft.”

Many of Duckworth’s military flight instructors were Vietnam veterans, and as the Black Hawk’s engines lost power, she let their training guide her. “I could hear every instructor I’d ever had telling me, ‘You’ve got to fly the aircraft!’” she said. “It was as if they were all right there on my shoulder.”

The Black Hawk and its four occupants touched down in an open field. Two had been injured by the initial blast, and Duckworth’s wounds were by far the most severe, and almost certainly fatal. She was losing blood at a furious rate, and without medical intervention she’d expire within an hour—but she still wasn’t aware of her condition.

“I remember reaching up and trying to go through the emergency engine shutdown procedure,” she said. “That’s the last thing I can recall before losing consciousness.”

Like a bird I’d strap to my back

Tammy DuckworthGetting a fixed-wing pilot certificate will allow her to share cockpit duties with her husband, a longtime GA pilot, and could serve as a stepping stone toward her ultimate aviation goal of flying helicopters again.

Duckworth didn’t grow up around aviation and she has no early memories of wanting to fly. The daughter of a career U.S. Army officer and an Asian mother, she grew up in Indonesia and Thailand before her parents moved to Hawaii when she was 16. She graduated from high school there and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Hawaii. She came to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for a master’s degree in international affairs and joined the Army ROTC program.

In Washington, she met Bryan Bowlsbey, also an Army ROTC student and a private pilot. Bowlsbey took her flying in a Cessna 150, encouraged her to pursue Army aviation, and the two married in 1993, the same year Duckworth went to flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama. Bowlsbey learned to fly as a civilian but less-than-perfect vision disqualified him from military flying.

Aviation appealed to Duckworth because it was the only army specialty that allowed women to serve in front-line combat units. She wanted to lead soldiers, and as a leader, she wouldn’t accept being exposed to less physical risk than her soldiers. She worked at an aviation unit for one year before starting flight school, and her enthusiasm for flying soared. “I can’t describe how much I loved it,” she said. “It’s hard to believe there was a time in my life that I didn’t dream about flying. As I gained experience, the aircraft became an extension of me, like a bird I’d strap to my back.

“It’s hard to believe there was a time in my life that I didn’t dream about flying. As I gained experience, the aircraft became an extension of me, like a bird I’d strap to my back”

“I came to love being part of a crew and multiship formations,” she added. “You get to a point at which you’re thinking and acting as one, even though you’re five different crews. Other than leading soldiers, flying an aircraft was one of the most rewarding things I’d ever done in my life.”

What crash?

The medical evacuation crew that carried Duckworth to a military hospital expected to retrieve a body, not a living patient. Her fellow soldiers did what they could, but her body was limp and broken with two limbs missing and one mangled. Nearly half the blood in her body was gone by the time she arrived at Balad.

Medical teams made heroic efforts to keep her alive, however, and they loaded her onto a specially equipped C-17 that flew her to Germany, and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She was unconscious for nine days—and the emotional low point of her near-death experience took place during that time.

Although unconscious, Duckworth was aware of the conversations taking place around her. She heard one member of the medical staff ask another about the nature of Duckworth’s injuries, and the answer shocked her. The leg amputations, it was said, were the result of a helicopter crash.

Duckworth was less concerned about her physical disfigurement than the word “crash.”

“I was indignant,” she remembers. “I didn’t mind so much about my injuries, but I was really mad about the crash part. I clearly remembered our landing, and it was a good landing. What crash were they talking about?”

But the more she thought about it, the more she questioned her own memory. Maybe she had crashed. Maybe the Black Hawk had rolled over. Perhaps some of her fellow crewmembers were injured or dead as a result. “If I had hurt my crew,” she thought, “then maybe I deserved to lose my legs. Failing as a leader, failing as an aviator—it comes with a price.”

When she emerged from the nine-day coma, Duckworth was morose about the harm she believed she had caused her crew. Her husband was at her bedside and tried to console her, but without success.

“I was crying about the crash to my husband,” Duckworth said. “He kept telling me we hadn’t crashed, but I didn’t really believe him. Finally, he showed me a photo of our bird sitting in a field in Iraq, as pretty as she could be. The picture convinced me that everything he’d been telling me was true. We landed our aircraft, and the crew was safe. I hadn’t let them down.

“I’ve been fine ever since.”

Just something to overcome

Tammy DuckworthFlight instructor Ben Negussie says his first disabled student has raised the bar for everyone else.

It’s a clear winter day at Manassas Municipal Airport in northern Virginia, and Duckworth is working toward earning an FAA fixed-wing pilot certificate. She already had obtained a third class medical, soloed a Piper Cherokee in 2008, and she retains the instrument, commercial, and rotorcraft certificates from the military.

Today she’s flying a Piper Cherokee with Ben Negussie, a former airline pilot and veteran instructor at Dulles Aviation. Negussie has never taught a disabled student before, and he holds Duckworth to the same standards as other students.

“I don’t go easy on her,” Negussie said. “If anything, she’s raised the bar for everyone else. When someone complains or makes excuses about long hours at work, or being tired, or having a bad day, I think of Tammy Duckworth. She never complains. She’s always willing to learn. She works hard, asks questions, and constantly seeks new information.”

Tammy DuckworthDuckworth performs the preflight inspection from a wheelchair and prefers the low–wing airplane because she can see and touch more of it on the ground.

Duckworth wears one prosthetic leg—the left one—when she flies, and she uses it to alternately press the left and right rudder pedals. (The Cherokee has a hand brake.) The prosthetic itself is covered in Army camouflage print, and Duckworth attached a “Fly Army” sticker on what would be the shin. She wears a bright pink left shoe because it’s easy to see when she looks down in the shadows under the instrument panel to see whether the foot is properly positioned on the correct rudder pedal.

She performs the preflight inspection from a wheelchair and prefers the low–wing airplane because she can see and touch more of it on the ground.

A Black Hawk noisily flies over the airport on its way to Washington, D.C., and she looks up as soon as she hears the distinctive thump of its rotor blades. “That’s my bird!” she calls out enthusiastically as it goes by. Then, more quietly, she adds that the sight of the proud and powerful helicopter “almost breaks my heart.”

Duckworth is a major in the Illinois Army National Guard but her injuries preclude further military flying. She’s been back in the Black Hawk simulator and can still operate the controls just fine. She’s no longer capable of performing other required duties, however, such as carrying a wounded fellow soldier on her back, and that makes her “non-deployable” in military parlance.

Cherokee preflight complete, she backs her wheelchair up to the rear of the right wing, lifts herself onto it, and shimmies into the left seat. During an hour-long stage check in preparation for an FAA checkride, she performs a series of steep turns, stalls, and emergency procedures. Her flying is steady and disciplined, but joyful, too, as she points out a bald eagle in flight, laughs at her mistakes, then works to correct them.

“Adding full power all at once goes against all of my instincts and training,” she says. “If you did that in my former aircraft, it’d be a disaster. That’s not an excuse. It’s just something to overcome.”

Her toughest stumbling blocks in fixed-wing flying are habits she must “unlearn” from helicopters. When Negussie faults her for being too slow to add full power in a stall recovery, she accepts the criticism without argument. “Adding full power all at once goes against all of my instincts and training,” she says. “If you did that in my former aircraft, it’d be a disaster. That’s not an excuse. It’s just something to overcome.”

When Negussie points out she’s too high on a simulated engine-out approach, her eyebrows arch. In a helicopter, the approach would be too low. She looks at Negussie sympathetically and laughs that he’s got a tough job trying to break her deeply ingrained habits from military helicopters.

“What do you mean we can’t rip around 10 feet over the treetops at 120 knots?” she asks with mock astonishment—a trace of Hawaii pidgin inflected in her voice. “You telling me there’s something wrong with that?”

Returning to the airport at Manassas, the ATIS reports clear skies and calm winds. “Smooth air,” she says with feigned horror. “Damn it! Now I have no excuses!”

Finding her way back

Duckworth ran for Congress in 2006 as a Democrat in Illinois’ overwhelmingly Republican sixth district and narrowly lost. She worked for the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs before being appointed in 2008 as the Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

She keeps an extremely busy travel schedule, speaking with veterans and legislators around the country, and she’s an advocate for providing the best possible medical care for veterans. She credits Milberg, her fellow pilot, for landing their aircraft safely in Iraq (he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and she received an Air Medal and Purple Heart), and the crew meets periodically for reunions.

Duckworth’s hectic work schedule cuts into her flight training time. But she and Bowlsbey, a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps—and an instrument-rated private pilot with about 500 flight hours—enjoy flying together, even though their totally different aviation backgrounds can make it a comedy.

“My husband is an avid GA pilot who flies for the pure pleasure that flying brings him,” she said. “The satisfaction that I got from flying was accomplishing a mission and being part of a crew. I’ve only flown as a crewmember so it can be pretty amusing when my husband and I fly together, because I’m always calling for checklists and doing the challenge and response. He’s used to being up there solo and doing everything for himself.”

Bowlsbey is a longtime AOPA member and subscribes to many civilian aviation magazines, while Duckworth gets multiple military flying publications at home. “Between us, we’ve got just about the whole aviation spectrum covered,” she said.

Bowlsbey said his wife makes no secret of the fact that she longs to fly helicopters again someday. They’ve already researched a method of adapting a Robinson R-22 helicopter for flight without pedals.

“We’ve got to find a way to get her back in helicopters,” Bowlsbey said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that, eventually, she’ll make it happen.”

March 18, 2010

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