Iraq War Stories: Flying in the Dark

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Interview reported and produced by Shanna Lewis

Colonel Christopher Petty was a target when he served in Iraq. You see, he’s a helicopter pilot and his job was to fly soldiers into battle and to fly out the wounded. He was in charge, commanding 70 pilots who did the same thing. Colonel Petty lives in Parker and joins us to share his “Iraq War Story.”

To hear more of our series visit Iraq War Stories.


Iraqi War Stories Interview with Colonel Christopher Petty, Beth Petty and Michael Petty

December 8, 2010


This is Colorado Public Radio and Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner.

Colonel Christopher Petty was a target when he served in Iraq. You see, he’s a helicopter pilot and his job was to fly soldiers into battle and fly them out if they got hurt. He was in charge, commanding 70 other helicopter pilots doing the same kind of work.

Colonel Petty lives in Parker and he joins us to share his Iraq War Story.

COLONEL CHRISTOPHER PETTY, U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot: These were during the dark days of the Iraq War, if you remember, back in ’06 and ’07 and so, you know, casualties were at their highest rate. Helicopters were literally getting shot down and so it was a pretty intense, pretty intense time for us.

These missions would consist of roughly eight to 10 helicopters, Blackhawks, Chinooks and we’d have a couple of Apache gunship escorts.

Warner: How many troops would be aboard one of these helicopters?

Christopher Petty: Each helicopter would fly with four crew members and, in the case of the Chinook, five crew members and then the passengers on back would be either 10 in a Blackhawk or up to 50 in the back of a Chinook. So on a typical night where we would launch one of these large missions--

Warner: And you would do this at night.

Christopher Petty: Yeah, these were all at night.

Warner: The cover of darkness.

Christopher Petty: That’s right. That’s a big advantage for U.S. forces and gives us the element of surprise on the enemy, which was crucial back then.

Warner: I understand the cover of darkness, but from my experience, helicopters are not quiet. Isn’t that a dead giveaway?

Christopher Petty: It could be, except by the time you hear the helicopters, you really don’t have a lot of time to react. If they’re flying straight at you and they’re flying at, you know, 110, 120 knots, which is roughly 140 miles an hour, by the time you hear them and they’re landing in your backyard, you might be able to run a block or so, but the infantry guys would be on you pretty quick if that’s what you do.

Warner: And so the troops being transported have firepower in the air or is it that they-- they really get into action on the ground?

Christopher Petty: They really get into on the ground. You know, the firepower that we take with us in the air is primarily to protect the movement along the route. If somebody’s engaging our formation of aircraft, we could have an attack helicopter, like an Apache, actually suppress that target, so we can continue on our route.

Warner: Was it often that you needed that support?

Christopher Petty: It wasn’t often, but it did happen.

Warner: When you’re being fired on at night, what is the indication of that?

Christopher Petty: Well, every weapons system that I’ve seen has what’s called tracer rounds. And most people are familiar with that, but every third or fifth round mixed into a belt of ammunition is-- has a phosphorus tip and it glows. So it glows at night so you can see where you’re firing, but you can also see fires coming at you.

Warner: How quickly would you deposit troops and have them go into a fight?

Christopher Petty: It depends. It depends on the target and, really, what’s happening on the objective. Most of the time, our troops would disembark the helicopters quickly, because every landing zone that we went into we assumed there was going to be resistance, enemy fire coming back at us or something, which didn’t happen all that often.

But it’s always the assumption. So the infantry would get off the helicopters quickly and I’m talking 10, 15 seconds and we’re pulling off the ground again, and then they go right to business, because they have a certain house that they’re trying to capture someone inside or question somebody inside. So they’re definitely moving to objectives quickly.

Warner: This is a somewhat morbid question, Colonel, but did you have a sense, I am depositing people in place who may lose their lives in this battle?

Christopher Petty: It did cross my mind. You know, obviously, the risk is always there as a soldier and that’s what these infantrymen were there to do and so they understand the risks, as we did flying them in and out. So, yeah, it crosses your mind, but it doesn’t really interfere with what you’re doing.

Warner: It doesn’t stay there?

Christopher Petty: It doesn’t.

Warner: There’s probably not a lot of room for it in these situations.

Christopher Petty: Right.

Warner: How do you fly? Do you fly differently when you are vulnerable? Do you fly higher? Do you lift off more quickly? Are there tactics you develop?

Christopher Petty: Yeah. It’s interesting you ask that question, because we did evolve our tactics as we were there. We started flying lower at night as we went into it.

Warner: Lower?

Christopher Petty: Yeah, we were flying lower at night, which, because of the daytime profiles, everyone was flying low, because you’re less of a target, window of opportunity, for someone on the ground to shoot at you, if you fly by them low. They don’t see you very long.

But what we found is the hazards at night in Iraq were towers and wires and all kinds of things sticking up from the ground were more hazardous than the enemy fire. So we moved our altitude up and took advantage of just the sheer fact that it was pitch black out and we eliminated that non-enemy hazard so we could actually get to the objective.

Warner: Did you learn that because of accidents?

Christopher Petty: Well, yeah, other people’s accidents, not ours, thankfully. But it just made sense. It’s a common action/reaction adaptation cycle. So you learn, you adjust, you try to get smarter as you go. And that’s what we did.

Warner: I feel like a lot of the news we heard back here at various points during the war was about soldiers who had lost their lives in helicopters during transport. Did that touch your unit?

Christopher Petty: Yeah. It touched my unit obliquely. We lost a helicopter in a sister battalion that we were working with every day. Everyone on board was killed; it was shot down. And that was a tough time for everybody because we knew that crew. I still remember a couple of those crew members today, good friends. But the interesting thing about that and the surreal nature of the warfare itself was, you know, we picked up their missions that night so they could have a ceremony and honor the fallen as we picked up right where they left off. So it’s just-- it’s amazing how the machine keeps running.

Warner: What was the tensest mission you fly?

Christopher Petty: Probably the most memorable, maybe because of the intensity, was a big air assault up north in the city of Mosul. And it was a long distance flight for us from just north of Baghdad up to Mosul.

Warner: How many miles would that be?

Christopher Petty: Boy, it was about, I’d say 110 miles, 105 miles, somewhere in that ballpark. But it’s a long flight at night. And the weather was kind of skosh. It was a little less than desirable. And it’s dark out. So the formation’s, you know, doing funny things. It’s nerve wracking as you’re flying along in the black when the weather starts deteriorating.

And we made it up to Mosul and then our passengers came on C-130s.

Warner: This is an aircraft.

Christopher Petty: Yeah, a C-130, an Air Force aircraft.

Warner: Right.

Christopher Petty: And so we transloaded passengers up at the airfield and then did the last jump into the objective areas in the city of Mosul.

Warner: You were almost the shuttles.

Christopher Petty: Yeah, we were the shuttles to, you know, the last bit to the objective. And, you know, with eight helicopters going to different landing zones in the middle of the city, you know, soccer fields and backyards, it was harrowing. It was nerve wracking.

Not only did we think the enemy threat was high, but I watched these helicopters out my front. You know, as we hit the release point, the helicopters tend to go to their own individual landing zones. So it’s a ballet in the sky. Everyone has preprogrammed GPS coordinates. You hit your point and everyone starbursts out to their LZs, their landing zones.

And I’m watching these helicopters, some of them quite big -- you know, the Chinook -- going into a little soccer field in the middle of the city and I just see a huge brown cloud of dust and I’m thinking, my gosh, I’m going to lose a helicopter out here tonight just for brownout. Because I’m seeing these huge clouds of dust around me with these helicopters going in ahead of me.

Warner: Just kicking up the dust?

Christopher Petty: Kicking up huge clouds, yeah, and you can’t see. So it’s very, very nerve wracking. And we lose a lot of helicopters every year, just because of brownout.

Warner: Especially in the desert.

Christopher Petty: Yes, exactly. You know, so we’re putting these helicopters into very small, very complicated landing zones in the city environment and now I get all the brownout clouds everywhere, not to mention I’m always thinking about enemy fire and I’m thinking wow, if we pull this off tonight, this is going to be really something. And we did. You know, it all worked out fine. But there was a lot of close calls that night.

Warner: You must feel so exposed?

Christopher Petty: Yeah, especially in that environment, because you’re now flying slow. You’re flying over a city. You’re flying into a known hostile area, because that’s the whole purpose of you going there and so, you know, the thoughts of Blackhawk Down are popping through your head. You know, not to a distracting level, but, you know, it’s always on your radar.

So that was probably the largest, most complex, most nerve wracking air assault mission of the time I was there. And everybody made it home safe and, you know, it was very successful.

Warner: And what is it like to be in the middle of one of those brownouts? Because your helicopter would have been going through something similar?

Christopher Petty: Yes. Yes, multiple times in Iraq. It’s really one of the most scary, quick, things that you have to go through. We train for it. I tell my wife that, you know, imagine yourself driving down the highway at 80 miles an hour and an 18-wheeler kicks mud on your windshield and you’re blind and you’re going 80 miles an hour, you know, three feet away from this big truck.

You know that feeling you get. It’s a moment of panic. Now put that in three dimensions when you know you’re floating right above the ground and you’re drifting and your mind starts play tricks with you immediately and it’s a very harrowing, you know, 30 seconds or so.

Warner: And a reason you lose helicopters?

Christopher Petty: Yeah, it really is. You catch a wheel and you flip. It happens quite a bit, actually.

Warner: Are you wearing night-vision goggles at night?

Christopher Petty: Yes. Yes, we are, always.

Warner: And so visibility in that case is probably even weirder.

Christopher Petty: Yeah, it’s much weirder. Your visual cues are very different. You just don’t have the depth perception that you do with normal vision. And then anything-- any light catches on that cloud of dust and makes it worse.

Warner: So even the brownout you’re not seeing clearly?

Christopher Petty: Exactly.

Warner: How did you get into this, flying helicopters?

Christopher Petty: I went to West Point and I branched Aviation, so I did some time on active duty and then I got out when the Cold War was over. It didn’t look like a bright, exciting future and then I was just drawn back to the National Guard and, over time, I became a full-time Guardsman and my number came up and we got the call to go to Iraq.

Warner: Most of your missions had to do with dropping troops off. I realize that’s an awfully lame way to put it.

Christopher Petty: Yeah, air assault missions.

Warner: Air assault. Another function of your unit was to evacuate people who had been injured.

Christopher Petty: Right. That’s the Army’s medevac mission and that was a large portion of what we did. We had medevac units separated into three aircraft detachments spread out into five different forward operating bases around Iraq. So those guys kept busy, as well.

They’re on a short leash. They respond within eight to 10 minutes of a call from the ground forces if they have an injury. They launch in eight to 10 minutes and they are on a specific grid coordinate picking up an injured soldier. It’s really impressive how quickly they do that.

Warner: Essentially, you’re acting as the ambulance in that case.

Christopher Petty: Yeah, exactly.

Warner: And is the aircraft equipped with enough equipment to keep soldiers alive who are in dire straits?

Christopher Petty: It has a basic package of emergency care on board -- you know, a defibrillator and intubation tubes and just basic things, but the medic in the back, who’s part of the crew, their job is to keep that patient stable until they can get to the next level of care.

Warner: Are they most often successful?

Christopher Petty: Yeah, they really are. They do incredible work. They really do.

Warner: Colonel Chris Petty of Parker is our guest today on Colorado Matters. He commanded an Army Aviation Battalion during the surge in Iraq. Colonel Petty joins us as part of our ongoing series, Iraq War Stories and after a break, we get the view from back home. Petty’s wife and one of his sons share their experiences. You’re tuned to Colorado Public Radio.

(short break)

Warner: You’re back now with Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner. Our series, Iraq War Stories, continues today and our guest is Colonel Christopher Petty, who led a battalion of 70 helicopter pilots in Iraq. He’s a pilot himself and he flew missions mostly at night to deliver troops into battle and to evacuate them if they got hurt.

Well, Colonel, in the study with us, listening to you tell these stories, is your wife, Beth, and one of your sons, Michael, and they’ve heard this stuff, huh?

Christopher Petty: They have.

Warner: We wanted to get a sense for what it is like for the family back home, thousands of miles away when this kind of work is being done, dangerous work. How did you deal with that, Beth?

BETH PETTY, Wife of Army Helicopter Pilot:

I had a great support group back home and the Family Readiness Group for Colorado was awesome and they were there, you know, if you ever needed them. One of the things that I felt most fortunate about was, because they did night missions, during the day when I’m trying to raise four teenage boys, my husband’s out doing all the missions. So I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.

And then at night, when I go to bed, he’s sleeping during the day over there. So it was nice to know that each night, and because he was the commander, he got to call me or somehow get in touch with me and let me know that he was down for the night and going to bed, which was the same time we were going to bed.

Warner: Was that a daily ritual?

Beth Petty: Yes, it was. I was very, very fortunate that, you know, there was maybe only two days that I can think of that I was not in contact with Chris.

Warner: What was the stretch of time?

Beth Petty: Many months. He was gone a total of 20 months, but actually in combat for 12 months.

Warner: Michael, do you remember looking forward each day to that quick check-in.

MICHAEL PETTY, Son of Army Helicopter Pilot:

Yeah. With technology nowadays we could like video conference with him, which was a really big thing for us while he was gone, because we could see his face and know that he’s all right, not just a phone call. I just remember that was a huge thing that helped me get through it while he was gone.

Warner: I can imagine listening to these tales and thinking, on the one hand, this is all so adventurous, why is it that it has to be my dad or my husband doing this? Did you have those thoughts, Beth?

Beth Petty: Yeah, I did, but, you know, this is what he was meant to do. I mean, he loved his career and he totally believed in what he was doing and he’s a very strong, faithful man and he was very confident, which helped us a lot. And so, yeah, I did often wonder why me, but, you know, everything’s for a reason.

Warner: Michael?

Michael Petty: I just remember at first, when I was 12 years old and he left, I thought it was so cool to have my dad going to war and I just used to brag about it. Then every night seeing helicopter crashes coming on the TV, it started to worry me. I didn’t think it was so cool after that. So I just wanted him back.

Like it really humbled me to see like all the helicopter crashes on TV, just every night. Just hoping he was all right.

Warner: Were there rules you placed on yourselves about what you would watch on television or-- so as not to worry yourselves?

Beth Petty: To be honest -- and I hardly watch television, anyway -- I didn’t want to see all the news, nor the newspaper. The only time that I was ever glued to the TV was the 32 hours that I didn’t know if-- the helicopter that he spoke of that went down was part of their sister battalion or whatever and so for it was almost 36 hours, everything was shut down, no contact, and those were the two days that I didn’t have contact with him and the Family Readiness Group called and said, one of the aircrafts went down. We don’t know who it is.

That’s the only time and I sat glued the entire time to the television until I knew that it wasn’t him.

Warner: Michael, do you remember that stretch of time?

Michael Petty: Yeah. I mean, I was only 12, but it definitely hit me and-- but it definitely helped to have three older brothers to distract me from it and I know it definitely distracted my mom, because without all four of us kids, she wouldn’t-- she would definitely be glued to that television and worrying a lot more. But she had to take care of us and take care of herself. So she did a good job with that and I was just glad that he got through it and it wasn’t him.

Warner: Were you aware, Colonel, at that time that your family was in this kind of information black hole?

Christopher Petty: I was and that was tough, because it wasn’t just my family. It was the whole battalion. And so I felt for everybody. I was the commander. I couldn’t get the word out. I still snuck the word out, as best I could, on a satellite phone, but it was the least I could do. You know, we had to get the word, at least to our families, that it wasn’t our battalion. That was a clamp-down from the brigade, but I really had to get something out quickly that-- to let our battalion know it wasn’t our folks.

But that was a really tough time. I felt for them.

Warner: This is part of a series called Iraq War Stories and it’s a series that we really started because of the declaration of the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. What does that milestone mean to you?

Christopher Petty: The milestone, by itself, I don’t think means a lot to me, personally. You know, the whole endeavor means a lot to me and this is just a new phase of that endeavor and so I’m really hopeful that this is all-- this is all worth, you know, the blood and treasure. And I think it will be. You know, I’m an optimist.

When we can look back in 10 years, in 20 years, and say the United States of America made a significant difference over there and Iraq is a better and more stable country, that will mean a lot to me.

Warner: Are you glad that you were a part of it?

Christopher Petty: I am. I’m honored that I was called to lead in it. As a professional soldier, it was fulfilling. And certainly in a certain sense, you know, there’s great loss, there’s great tragedy. It’s a tough, mixed bag, the best and worst of humanity comes out in war and-- you know, I’ve seen the best and the worst.

So an interesting life experience. And, you know, the guys I served with, I’ll have a special bond with them forever. You know, I just-- I hope it all works out in the end.

Warner: Is it odd to come back and, you know, having flown these incredible helicopters in these incredible conditions and, you know, go down I-25 in your pickup?

Christopher Petty: It is a little weird. I mean, it’s been a few years for me now, but I can remember the first couple of months coming back and just going, wow, this is pretty boring here. I mean, you know, because that life was exciting and you couldn’t keep up with the tempo of daily operations and you come back here and, you know, for a couple months you’re thinking, wow, this is all there is here. It’s really a strange transition.

Warner: Is that hard to hear, Beth?

Christopher Petty: I didn’t mean the love and fulfillment, I meant the excitement of daily life, you know, just keeping up with the tasks, every day.

Beth Petty: Yeah, it took him about a year to get back to the normal, the family and life back here.

Warner: What was that year like?

Beth Petty: It was tough. The first six months was like the honeymoon all over again. Then the next six months, we were deciding, you know, he’s back in the family, the leader of the pack, which I had been. So it took about another six months for everyone to get back on the same level of how we run our house and how things go while he’s home.

Warner: How was that adjustment for you, Michael?

Michael Petty: It was definitely a big change, because I know my mom’s a little bit more of a pushover than my dad, so we could get whatever we wanted while he was gone. But then when he came back, it’s definitely changed a lot.

And I can just remember this one time we drove to church, my dad decided to drive, and he definitely was a different driver the first couple of months back, because he was not a good driver.

Warner: Maybe a little on the fast or aggressive side?

Christopher Petty: I just think it was out of practice in driving. You know, I hadn’t really driven a car for a year.

Warner: Not that good at it any more?

Christopher Petty: That’s right. That’s right.

Warner: Are you glad he went, Beth?

Beth Petty: Yes and no. I mean, there was probably the toughest year and a half of my life, but it also gave me a chance-- I have a bond with my children that I don’t know if a lot of mothers have that with their sons, but I’m close to all four of them and it just made me stronger and more of an optimist. My husband’s always said, you know, I’m more of a pessimist but now that this has all happened and we got through it, you know, I try to be more of an optimistic person.

And my family is much closer. And having teenage boys, you know, I’m proud of them and, you know, I’m proud of myself for doing what I did while he was gone.

So yes I am. And he’s very proud and I’m proud of him for what he did, over there.

Christopher Petty: It’s interesting, because I tell a lot of soldiers now who deploy, because we’re still sending a lot of soldiers back and forth to Afghanistan and Iraq, and I tell them, a weak marriage it will break, a strong marriage, it will make stronger. It really well.

Warner: Well, Colonel, Beth, Michael, thank you for being with us.

Christopher Petty: It’s a real pleasure.

Michael Petty: Thank you.

Beth Petty: Thanks for having us.

Warner: Colonel Christopher Petty commanded helicopter pilots in Iraq. He and his family live in Parker. This conversation is part of our series, Iraq War Stories. It marks the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. You can hear all of the conversations in this series at our website,

Well, thanks for spending some time with us. Shanna Lewis produced today’s show. Sadie Babits is our senior producer. David Fender is the audio engineer and I’m Ryan Warner. This is Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio.