White Salmon Sisters Flying The Afghan Skies

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – They never planned on being pilots and Afghanistan was the last place they expected to see each other, but that’s just what happened for two sisters from White Salmon.Air Force Capt. Kelly Smith and Army Chief Warrant Officer Amber Smith grew up in a family rich with aviation ties. Their grandfather flew in the Army Air Corps as a lieutenant colonel during World War II and a commercial pilot after that. Their grandmother and mother were flight attendants. Multiple others in the family became commercial pilots, including their father, uncle and a few cousins.”Just growing up around it so much, I think we all loved airplanes,” Capt. Smith said. “We loved being around airplanes, going up in airplanes, hearing about them.”However, both went off to college with no intention of going into aviation. Capt. Smith studied English and journalism at the University of Arizona and Chief Smith became a cheerleader at the University of Washington.”I think each of us, at one point, started to rebel,” said Capt. Smith. “I know I did. I said I wasn’t going to be a pilot.”That quickly changed. During her freshman year, Capt. Smith began to notice the A-10s and C-130s flying into Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.”It looked interesting and at that point I decided I didn’t want a desk job,” she said. “So, I started flying my dad’s little Cessna 150 when I was home the summer after my freshman year. After I soloed, I decided this is really fun.”Capt. Smith transferred to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and became a flight instructor after graduating.Chief Smith turned to aviation after two years of college.”It came to a point where I had to declare my major and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Chief Smith explained. “Flying had always interested me so I went and got my private pilot’s license in a fixed wing.”Their father had encouraged them to look into the military for flying opportunities. Capt. Smith jumped first, enlisting in the California Air National Guard shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.”[Sept. 11] hit me pretty hard because I had been planning on going to the airlines and interviewing that December,” she said. “I’ll never forget looking up with all my friends and seeing all our flights cancelled. It was almost like seeing my career go up in smoke.”After graduating from basic military training at Lackland AFB, Texas, Capt. Smith was selected for the pilot board, got her commission and became a C-130 pilot for the 146th Airlift Wing in Channel Islands, Calif.”I always liked the C-130s,” she said. “I happened to meet this girl whose father is one of the colonels in our unit. He introduced me to everyone in the unit and I got to see all the planes. I thought it was really cool – I decided that was what I wanted to do. I had discovered something that I was really excited in.”In 2003, knowing that she wanted to fly, Chief Smith enlisted in the Army. She chose her airframe, the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, almost by chance.”I think you should pick an aircraft based on the mission, but I didn’t really know much about any of the missions,” she said. “I actually liked flying the TS-57 [in Army flight school] and thought helicopters would be similar – little did I know. I ended up getting Kiowa, which was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I’m really glad I got it – it has an awesome mission.”Fully qualified on the Kiowa, Chief Smith was stationed with the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky. In late 2007, her unit deployed to Forward Operating Base Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Not long after deploying, Chief Smith began to receive e-mails from her sister, Capt. Smith – whose unit would be deploying to Bagram Air Field. They would be in different services, different locations, assigned to different units, but they found a commonality in their mission in Afghanistan – aiding troops on the ground.”We have two completely different missions, but we both take care of the ground troops,” said Capt. Smith. “The C-130s do a lot of airdrops and it’s fulfilling because you are getting the beans and bullets to the guys on the ground.”Chief Smith agreed.”I love [the Kiowa] mission because we work in direct support of the ground units,” Chief Smith explained. “It’s awesome to help them because they are the ones with boots on the ground.”Although not at the same base, the two sisters got the opportunity to see each other in May when Chief Smith’s commander allowed her to fly to Bagram for a two-day visit.”I loved the day that Amber came to visit,” Capt. Smith said. “She came and got me up in the morning, we walked to the PX [post exchange] and got coffee, pizza, and massages. When you’re back home, you can have girls’ day – it was kind of like that, but Bagram style.”Capt. Smith also got the chance to see Chief Smith when she flew C-130s down to Jalalabad. Their favorite moment came out of one of these trips.”We were taking off out of Jalalabad, Amber was on approach and we heard each other on the tower radio,” Capt. Smith recalled with enthusiasm. “That was the coolest thing.””I thought, how often in our lives is that ever going to happen – in combat,” Chief Smith said.Fellow pilots soon heard about the sisters.”Everybody I work with knew my sister was here so whenever they would hear a female voice on the radio they would tell me that they heard my sister on the radio,” Chief Smith said.”Me too,” added Capt. Smith. “Whenever guys in our unit would fly down to Jalalabad and hear a woman on the radio they would tell me they heard my sister. I have to tell them that there are other female pilots out there – we aren’t the only ones.”Good news came for the two when Chief Smith’s unit relocated to Bagram. Although Capt. Smith redeployed back to California in mid-July, the sisters spent a few weeks together.”The past two weeks that I’ve been here we have probably seen each other more than we have in the past five years,” explained Chief Smith. “We are hardly ever together – it seems like somebody is always gone.”Capt. Smith and Chief Smith have each deployed twice and both agree it is easier being deployed together. Chief Smith went to Iraq in 2005 and Capt. Smith to southwest Asia shortly after.”Here, we are both pilots and have the same type of intel,” explained Capt. Smith. “It was harder for me being home when she was in Iraq because I didn’t know what was going on. I had never been deployed, and that’s scary. I can see why family and friends worry because they don’t hear about stuff.”As the older sister, Capt. Smith, 31, added that she doesn’t worry about her little sister, 26-year-old Chief Smith too much.”Here, I get worried, but Chief Smith is a really, really good pilot – you can just tell she is,” said the proud older sister. “There is always that lingering fear – when things happen and I haven’t heard from her. But it’s not like I’m constantly worrying. I think I would be even more worried if I was stuck at home without a clue as to what was going on.”Despite the fact there have been a few days the sisters have not been able to see each other or talk to each other because of work, they both agree having each other makes it easier.”Just knowing that you have that other person who is here for you – not just a friend, but family is really nice,” Capt. Smith said.It may be easier on them, but it’s not easier on their parents.”I think they are handling this deployment better than the last one,” said Chief Smith. “Last time, none of us had deployed before, so it was like their first deployment too. They are doing better with it, but they’ll be excited when we are all home. They always say, ‘Be safe and we can’t wait to see you,’ but they are very supportive about it and very practical.”Capt. Smith agreed.”We are very, very fortunate because our mom realized from the get-go that it would be harder on us to know that they are worrying about us all the time,” she said. “So she does a good job of reeling my dad in when he would start whining about how worried he was. That would make it harder on Amber, for example, when she’s not only worried about whatever her job is but she’s worried about making sure mom and dad are ok.”Capt. and Chief Smith aren’t the only ones their parents worry about. Younger sister Lacey, 25, is an Army Chief Warrant Officer and flies the UH-60 Black Hawk. Her unit, A Company, 101st Aviation, replaces Chief Amber Smith’s unit this winter.Chief Amber Smith expects a few weeks of overlap with Chief Lacey Smith, just as she has with Capt. Smith. This will be Chief Lacey Smith’s first deployment.”Amber and Kelly have given me great info about what all the different places are like,” Chief Lacey Smith said. “I am really looking forward to our upcoming deployment.”Like her sisters, Chief Lacey Smith looks forward to supporting the troops on the ground – and the flying.”I chose Black Hawks because of their mission diversity,” she said. “I’m not one for shooting things up, but love to have guys like Amber buzzing around us. Plus I love being able to meet and help soldiers.”