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Pilot says Brian Williams’s chopper sustained small-arms fire, not RPG fire

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In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper this afternoon, Rich Krell, the pilot of the Chinook helicopter that carried NBC News’s Brian Williams and a crew during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, said that it did indeed sustain small-arms fire, but was not a hit by rocket-propelled grenade. Krell told Tapper, “We took small-arms fire. All I know is one RPG was fired. It struck the lead aircraft, which was what we call six rotor discs in front of me.”

When asked whether Williams would have been aware of the bullets hitting Krell’s Chinook, the pilot responded, “He would have been aware of it because the activity of the crew. The door gunners were returning fire.”

These revelations limit but by no means eliminate the credibility problems faced by Williams stemming from his mis-telling of the episode in recent years. Just last week, Williams reported on air that the helicopter carrying him “was forced down after being hit by an RPG.” He also told David Letterman in March 2013, upon the 10-year anniversary of the event, that “two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”

Those are the most embellished versions of Williams’s story. In the immediate aftermath of the coordinated helicopter movement in the Iraqi desert, Williams, on March 26, 2003, filed two reports to NBC News: One to the NBC Nightly News, which left a murky picture of just how much enemy fire Williams’s crew sustained, and a longer, more specific piece on “Dateline” that clarified the RPG’s target: “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground.”

In a 2005 profile in the Los Angeles Times, Williams is quoted as telling an audience at an event at the Council for Foreign Relations: “I guess the combat was three days underway when the helicopter I was flying on was shot at,” he said. Based on Krell’s account, that recollection squares with the facts.

However, there’s some discrepancy — conflation? — in reports about the episode. Yesterday, Stars & Stripes reported that Williams’s Chinook “took no fire and landed later beside the damaged helicopter due to an impending sandstorm from the Iraqi desert, according to Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the aircraft that carried the journalists.”

In his apology on NBC News last night, Williams focused on the RPG dimension of his fiction: “I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.”