Duluth pilot recalls infamous flight with NBC's Brian Williams

By Brady Slater It's not every day a Duluth resident winds up in the middle of the national conversation, caught up in the rotors of the national media. For an Army helicopter flight made with "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams in 2003, All...

Allan Kelly describes the helicopter mission in Iraq in 2003 at the center of the controversy surrounding NBC's Brian Williams. Williams was on board the Chinook helicopter co-piloted by Kelly at the time. Bob King / Duluth News Tribune

By Brady Slater

It's not every day a Duluth resident winds up in the middle of the national conversation, caught up in the rotors of the national media.

For an Army helicopter flight made with "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams in 2003, Allan Kelly, 44, is there right now, in the middle of the whirlwind.

"I want the truth to come out," Kelly said at the kitchen table of his split-entry home in Piedmont Heights. "It's one of the reasons why I've agreed to all of the interviews."

Since last weekend, Kelly has been ferried by media outlets into Minneapolis twice, interviewed on CNN and by Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity, featured in metropolitan newspapers and even received a call from NBC News.


Whether NBC's call was for a story or part of its own investigation of Williams, Kelly did not know. He had a hard time understanding the caller.

"The woman had a husky voice and said she was getting over bronchitis," Kelly said.

Williams pulled himself from "NBC Nightly News" broadcasts earlier this week, and on Tuesday night the network announced he would be suspended without pay for six months. For years, Williams had said he was aboard a Chinook helicopter in Iraq that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire in 2003's U.S. military advance on Baghdad.

Williams has since recanted his erroneous versions and apologized to viewers. Others, like Kelly and the other pilots of the helicopter in which Williams was actually riding, have worked to set the record straight. The debate over whether Williams should maintain his prestigious job -- now a matter of whether he should return after the suspension -- has been raging for days.

"I hope he gets a second chance," Kelly said. "Nobody is without redemption."

Kelly didn't try to explain what Williams was thinking when the popular anchor began altering his narrative through the years.

But Kelly did recall their shared flight, and it was harrowing enough. Kelly was one of three pilots aboard the Chinook, and he is quick to say he was not one of the two pilots at the controls as they raced across the desert. They were part of a two-helicopter formation, trailing another formation in front of them.

"We were sitting back 15 or 20 minutes behind them," Kelly said.


They heard the attack over their headset radios.

"We didn't know what we were getting into," Kelly said.

Suddenly, "Chalk 1 disappeared right in front of us," Kelly said, describing a sandstorm that forced the aircraft carrying Kelly and Williams to begin to taxi in circles, hoping to avoid a mid-air entanglement of the massive twin rotors of the two Chinooks.

Some people have speculated that Williams may have overheard the assault take place as a way to help explain his later false tellings of the events. Kelly couldn't recall whether Williams was wearing a headset.

"We're talking about an individual who is not a crew member or aviation savvy," Kelly said. "Who knows what he was thinking."



Who is Allan Kelly?



Much ink has been spilled and digital bits spent on Williams. His story in its many iterations is just a search engine away. But Kelly? He identifies himself as a single father with four sons spanning ages 12 to 22.

The two youngest live part time in Kelly's home, which is kept relatively immaculate save for the laundry piled up in unseen places and the Christmas tree that remains up -- to the chagrin of Kelly.

With his time split between his boys, duties at the Vineyard Church, the pursuit of a computer science degree at the College of St. Scholastica, monthly weekends at the Army National Guard in St. Cloud and summers spent driving big rigs for a local construction firm, Kelly stays busy.

When asked if he's just squeezed in his 15 minutes of fame, Kelly balked at the characterization.

"This has just been one of those things -- weird is the best way to describe it," he said, before nodding to the barrage of stimuli faced by one of his sons. "I'm more worried about my 15-year-old."

Kelly wondered aloud how news outlets tracked down his phone number out of the blue, and used photographs he thought were only behind the private wall of his Facebook account.

"It means one of my friends shared it," he said with a chuckle.


Kelly moved to Duluth in 2009, leaving the Army behind as he encountered what he called a family emergency that brought him here. Born and raised a Michigander, he's in familiar territory in Duluth.

"I like falls the best," he said.

And he's among friends.

Casey LaCore is an associate pastor at the Vineyard Church, where Kelly serves in its children's ministries. He leads large group story times on Sundays, and has taught kindergarten and first-graders in the past.

"He has a great servant's heart," LaCore said. "He would do anything we asked him to do."

LaCore wasn't surprised to see the tact with which Kelly has approached Williams' crisis.

"He's a man with a high-quality of character," she said. "He's not someone who makes disparaging comments about anyone on a whim as many people do now."

Kelly expanded on that thought, when he said, "You can disagree without calling someone a liar."




Kelly in the military


Kelly said even as a child he appreciated flight, but he didn't learn to fly until later in life. When he first joined the Air Force in 1992, he became a photographer. He once toured with Army General William Crouch, taking pictures of the now retired four-star general on his various travels.

Kelly began developing his flying acumen when warrant officers would give him manuals to study and then quiz him the following day. He left the Air Force to transfer into the Army's flight school in 1999.

He's currently on the National Guard's list to learn the cockpits of the newest Chinooks, which feature glass computer monitors versus the older models filled with gauges.

Kelly called a humanitarian mission into the mountains of Pakistan "the most beautiful flying I've known."


He's been to Iraq twice, Afghanistan, Korea (twice) and Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

During the mission with Williams aboard, their helicopter finally emerged from the sandstorm to be grounded for three days awaiting fuel. Williams conducted some reporting, Kelly recalled, but also shot the breeze with the enlisted folks. Kelly believes that it's Williams' life in the limelight that has people gunning for his job now.

While committed to the truth, he wouldn't think of disparaging Williams.

"I'd be the last person on the planet to judge him," Kelly said. "I've got my own peccadilloes that keep my hands full."

After Williams was whisked away by another military convoy in 2003, presumably, Kelly said, headed toward Baghdad and further war reporting, Kelly and his outfit of transport carriers retreated. He took over the Chinook and piloted it back to safety -- never to see Williams again.

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