While looking into Brian Williams’s questionable account of a 2003 helicopter ride in Iraq, the media stumbled onto another airborne adventure that seems to have grown in the telling. On Saturday, Ace of Spades highlighted a 2007 interview with a student at Fairfield University in which the NBC Nightly News anchor recalls that during the Iraq incident he “looked down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us and it hit the chopper in front of ours.” In the same breath, Williams mentions that during Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006, “there were Katyushka rockets passing just beneath the helicopter I was riding in.” But in the actual footage, and Williams’s earlier descriptions, it appears that the rockets were nowhere near his helicopter.
Williams frames the story, at the two-minute mark in the video below, as an incident he barely survived:
I’ve been very, very lucky the way my life has turned out. I’ve been very lucky to have survived a few things that I’ve been involved in. At a reception a few minutes ago, I was remembering something I tend to forget, the war with Hezbollah in Israel, a few years back, where there were Katyusha rockets passing just underneath the helicopter I was riding in. A few years before that you go back to Iraq and I looked down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us and it hit the chopper in front of ours. And I’m so fortunate to be sitting here.
But in footage of the flight shown in a July 2006 Nightly News report, Williams doesn’t appear to be in serious danger. He says his crew is flying in “a Black Hawk helicopter at 1,500 feet” with a high-ranking Israeli general, and learns from air-traffic chatter that there is “activity on the ground right below us.” (There’s a quote from the pilot in the accompanying blog post: “They’re having some shelling right now,” the pilot says. “They landed about 30 seconds ago.”)
While surveying the Katyusha rockets, which landed in the uninhabited countryside, Williams notices a fresh launch trail. “From a distance of six miles, I witnessed a rocket launch, a rising trail of smoke, then a second launch, an orange flash and more smoke as a rocket heads off toward towards Israel,” he says.
Williams recounted the incident in several interviews in the weeks following it. Here’s what he said in a July 19, 2006, appearance on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann:
What a bizarre sight and feeling, Keith. You’re at an altitude of 1,500 feet above the deck. And when you think of the fact that these missiles are landing and rolling and exploding and causing fires exactly 1,500 feet below you, and that some of them are made to go further, simple math would tell you, perhaps there are safer helicopter rides to go on.
It was a fascinating view of this war, of what has happened, of the damage they’ve done. The railroad depot, the coverage of that strike, I happened to be watching while packing for this trip. And the notion of the jet age is just strange enough, and the places we go for a living, strange enough. You never think that just days later, you will be doing a tight circle looking out the gunner`s door down onto the hole made in the roof by that Katyusha rocket.
And this is how the incident was described in a Hollywood Reporter story on reporters covering the war:
On a mission with Israeli generals in a Blackhawk chopper over northern Israel, Williams saw Katyusha rockets launch and stream white smoke past him before exploding on a hillside. “They lack the accuracy to hit the chopper we were in, but it was quite a vantage point,” Williams said after he landed Tuesday.
As the Washington Post notes, the story became more dramatic by August, when Williams appeared on the Daily Show. “Here’s a view of rockets I have never seen, passing underneath us, 1,500 feet beneath us,” the anchor says. “And we’ve got the gunner doors on this thing, and I’m saying to the general, some four-star: ‘It wouldn’t take much for them to adjust the aim and try to do a ring toss right through our open doors, would it?’” He concludes by telling Jon Stewart, “Anytime you want to cross over to the other side, baby, travel with me.”
Williams’s shifting account of his Israeli helicopter ride isn’t quite as bad as suggesting he came under fire in Iraq or potentially making up a story about seeing a body floating in Hurricane Katrina floodwaters. Obviously, all reporting from a war zone is dangerous, and following the helicopter ride, Williams and his crew did hear air-raid sirens and scramble into a bomb shelter in Haifa. However, it does not appear that Katyusha rockets were “passing just underneath” Williams’s helicopter, or that he was lucky to escape with his life.