Face of Defense: Pilot Overcomes Injury to Succeed
By Spc. Emily J. Wilsoncroft, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP STRIKER, Iraq, Mar. 21, 2008 When Army Chief Warrant Officer Fred White sits down at the controls of a Black Hawk helicopter, he looks just like any other pilot in his battalion. He wears the same flight suit, the same helmet and the same air of confidence – the only difference is that at the end of the day, his wrist might be a bit sore.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Fred White, a Black Hawk pilot with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, demonstrates the preparations he makes before a flight March 18, 2008, at the 3rd CAB flight line in Baghdad. White lost two fingers in a 2003 roadside bomb blast and overcame his injuries to become a pilot. Photo by Spc. Emily J. Wilsoncroft, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
White suffered injuries that led to the loss of the first two fingers on his right hand in a 2003 roadside bomb attack in Iraq.
Now an aviator and communications officer with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, White was not always a pilot. He enlisted in the Army in 2001 as a cavalry scout.
“I always wanted to be in the Army,” he said. “Cav scout seemed like a cool job. I knew I didn’t want to be infantry, but I did want to be in combat arms.”
During the second year of his enlistment, White’s unit became attached to 3rd Infantry Division for the initial push up to Baghdad from Kuwait in the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“There was a lot of fear and uncertainty when we originally crossed the berm,” he said, “but after that, it became more of a daily routine.”
The routine included route clearance, convoy security, vehicle security, observation post setup and maintenance – “pretty much anything that needed to be done in Sadr City,” as White put it.
On Sept. 5, 2003, the routine was disrupted.
“We were pulling security for the engineers that day,” White recalled. “We were on our way to the site, going down Highway 5.”
As the convoy passed under an overpass, it was hit by a remotely detonated 120 mm mortar round.
“It blew up my truck,” he said. “I was the gunner, and the blast threw me against the back of the turret. … My driver took shrapnel in the side of his neck; the (vehicle commander) lost his left thumb and his right eye.”
White -- who was hit by shrapnel in his hands, legs, face and buttocks -- lost his fingers as a result of the attack.
For many soldiers, that would have been the end of the road as far as a military career was concerned. But White, who fully recovered from his injuries after less than a year, decided he wanted to be a pilot.
White said that although the doctor had cleared him medically, the ROTC medic said he wasn’t fit for the Army. “So I (turned in) my warrant officer packet and was picked up for flight school.”
Although there were some who tried to tell White he wouldn’t make it through flight training, he said, his injury didn’t hold him back at all.
“Flying is more of a mental thing,” he said. “You have to be physically coordinated, but a lot of it’s in your mind. You have to think three-dimensionally to maintain control.”
One of the controls in the helicopter resembles a joystick, he explained, on the front of which is a radio control that functions through a trigger-type mechanism.
“I just sewed up the first two fingers on my glove and changed my hand position,” White said, demonstrating how he wraps his wrist around the control. “I was set on proving the people who doubted me wrong, and I adapted so I could succeed.”
White’s battalion commander, Army Lt. Col. Alex Covert, was quick to note the young warrant officer’s success.
“Fred is an above-average UH-60L Black Hawk pilot,” Covert said. “He has flown over 150 hours in combat under the harshest conditions flawlessly.”
Aside from White’s skill as a pilot, Covert also lauded his perseverance and devotion to his military career.
“I cannot describe in words what it takes for a young soldier, … wounded in combat, to not only continue to serve his country, but to take the initiative, become a warrant officer, an outstanding Army aviator and serve as a (battalion communications officer) in combat,” he said. “His selfless service is clearly an example for others to follow.”
White plans to stay in 2-3rd Aviation Regiment, based at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., for at least the near future.
“All the experiences I’ve had in the Army have led me to where I am right now,” he said. “I have no regrets, no resentments. I know I’m lucky to still be here, and I appreciate that.”
(Army Spc. Emily J. Wilsoncroft serves with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Office.)