Allan Kelly, Army pilot and Duluth father of four, knows exactly what happened aboard the Chinook helicopter carrying Brian Williams over the Iraq desert in 2003, and it’s not the version that the NBC anchor adapted over the years and has now recanted.
But Kelly, 44, who was one of three pilots aboard that day, won’t join the fray lambasting Williams for his disputed version of the story. Instead, he just wants the truth to be told.
“I’ve held positions as an officer in the military,” Kelly said by phone Monday evening. “I understand sometimes we are held responsible for other people’s actions, and we are all the time responsible for our own actions. Whatever Brian Williams may or may not be guilty of or what he may or may not have said, that’s a reflection on him. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. I went over there as part of a volunteer army. I did my job, and part of my job was to take Brian Williams and his crew on a mission.“
Williams’ story about traveling on the U.S. Army helicopter at the start of the Iraq war changed gradually over the years until Williams said the aircraft was hit by gun and rocket fire and forced to make a hasty landing. He said the pilot of the craft was wounded in the attack and received a Purple Heart.
Kelly said his aircraft didn’t take enemy fire. Neither did the Chinook that was just ahead of them as they flew in formation across the Iraqi desert in March, 2003. But as they flew into a sandstorm, Kelly said, emergency calls came over the radio — an Apache aircraft had been shot down.
A Chinook that left a base in Kuwait about 30 minutes ahead of Kelly’s crew in a separate formation was taking enemy fire — bullets and a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, hit the aircraft, Kelly said, forcing it into an emergency landing. An Army captain, riding as a passenger on that Chinook, was hit in the face with shrapnel.
Kelly said his crew landed safely possibly 15 to 30 minutes later after navigating through the sandstorm that dropped visibility to the point that they sometimes lost sight of the other Chinook in their formation. No one was hurt.
Kelly, who spent 17 ½ years in active duty and is now in the National Guard, remembers most of that day “pretty vividly — not in a video-type format but in 35 millimeter snapshots, if you will,” he said. “The flight was a pretty big emotional event. You’re flying, and the weather goes really bad. And then Chalk 1 disappears in front of us and we have a couple aircrafts at different times calling in for help because they’re getting shot down.”
Kelly said his crew spent three days at the desert camp with Williams and his two other NBC colleagues.
“We were sitting around talking about cars and I was complaining about the poor service I got at a Saturn dealership,” Kelly said. Williams commented about the poor service he got at a Mercedes-Benz dealership, Kelly recalled.
“I realized we’re from two different worlds. He’s a millionaire and I’m just a grunt,” Kelly said. “We’re not from the same neighborhood.”
After Williams’ story was disputed by soldiers who pointed out that the anchorman’s helicopter never was attacked, Williams apologized and then voluntarily took himself off his top-rated broadcast, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” for an unspecified period that started Monday.
Kelly’s phone started to ring and messages flooded in via Facebook and Twitter about the Williams kerfuffle. The Duluth dad, who is studying computer science at the College of St. Scholastica, had not been following the news story.
“But if people from the networks are going to be calling me about it and ask what happened, I kind of want to do it in an unbiased manner,” he said.
“I’m telling the story from my point of view on the aircraft that I was on and I’m trying to make sure I don’t point any fingers or take any swings toward someone else that was involved in the mission.”
“I always prefer people to be honest,” he said. “But how they choose to behave, it’s not a reflection of me and it doesn’t bother me.”
The Washington Post contributed to this story.