In was shortly following when SOFREP opened its doors in 2012 that we published an article about the stealth helicopters used to transport SEAL Team Six for Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that killed Bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan. Now it appears that key elements of our analysis are being confirmed, along with additional details about the politics revolving around the use of said helicopters.
In 2012 we wrote about the stealth helicopter that crash-landed in Bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout:
After consulting with experts in the field of rotary-wing aircraft, it seems that the most likely cause of the crash was due to a phenomenon known to pilots as “settling with power,” with atmospheric conditions potentially playing a role as well. Helicopter pilots will almost always attempt to land while facing into the wind, however, the pre-determined approach into the objective in this case may have actually given them a downwind landing. If the rotor wash pushed from the rotors down to the ground comes back up and pushes into the descent path of the helicopter, it can then make the aircraft unstable. This is how settling with power can destabilize a helicopter. The rotors essentially created a vortex of dead air space that could no longer generate lift.
The rotor-blade system needs clean, that is, uniform, air to produce lift. If instead it gets un-uniform air, such as air previously disturbed by the helicopter’s own rotor wash, then the pilot could be in for some trouble.
At this point, the pilot would have begun to lose control of the aircraft from self-induced turbulence. Without lift and maneuverability, he would have to conduct a controlled crash as a last resort. As we see in the pictures, the tail-rotor section split over an outer wall of the compound. Did this obstacle also disrupt the air flow from the main rotor system and destabilize the aircraft? Maybe.
In Sean Naylor’s new book, “Relentless Strike,” his sources come to the same conclusion. “The cause of the crash was a phenomenon called vortex ring state, or settling with power, which occurs when a helicopter’s rotors cannot get the lift required from the turbulent air of their own downwash.” (Naylor, 399) As we speculated three years ago, a SEAL Team Six source confirms in “Relentless Strike,” “that air bled through that chain link fence” (Naylor, 399) at the rehearsal site at Harvey Point, North Carolina, which is a CIA facility. “But in reality the compound had those solid walls,” the SEAL Team Six operator continued, “and that bad air just came right back up into the rotor blades and that thing just lost power.” (Naylor, 399)
Interestingly, Naylor also reports that there was a lot of consternation during the planning phase of Neptune Spear about whether or not the stealth Black Hawks, which were untested in combat conditions, were suitable for the mission. The aircraft were much more difficult to fly than the 160th’s main helicopter, the MH-60 Black Hawk, and were unstable when the pilots had to hover in place. Apparently, the stealth helicopters were part of the plan sold to President Obama, and their use was clearly not open to question.
“David Cooper, Team Six’s command master chief, put this view to McRaven early in the planning process,” (Naylor, 395) bringing up to Admiral McRaven that they should plan for alternate methods of infiltration. In fact, SEAL Team Six and the Ranger Regiment had been standing by, deployment after deployment, in Bagram, Afghanistan, with troops committed to waiting for the green light to capture or kill Bin Laden. To this end, the SEALs constantly trained in High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) military free fall as their preferred infiltration method. It was not to be. “McRaven found Cooper’s argument disrespectful and pressured Van Hooser [SEAL Team Six’s commanding officer] to fire his command master chief, which the Team 6 commander refused to do.” (Naylor, 395)
Meanwhile, during training sessions at Area 51, it was discovered that 160th Special Operations aviation pilots could defeat Pakistani radar stations without the use of the untested stealth Black Hawks. The larger workhorses of 160th, the MH-47 Chinook, could mask themselves behind the hills and ridges of Pakistan as they infiltrated Abbottabad airspace. “Two days before the mission, Colonel John Thompson, the 160th commander, made a final effort to dispense with the stealth Blackhawks,” (Naylor, 398) in an 11th hour appeal to Admiral McRaven. “McRaven went off on him,” a SEAL Team Six source said. “Embarrassed him, belittled him…I felt bad for the guy.” (Naylor, 398) McRaven denied any such event occurred.
SEAL Team Six sources rail against McRaven in several chapters of Naylor’s book. How much of it is genuine animosity over tactical issues and how much of it is a matter of longstanding grudges between the admiral and members of the Dam Neck-based counterterrorism unit is hard to discern. There has been some bad blood between certain SEAL Team Six operators and the former JSOC commander for many years over various issues stretching back to McRaven’s service in the unit under Dick Marcinko, who eventually fired McRaven for what was described to this author as McRaven’s refusal to participate in “mutually compromising behavior.”
At the end of the day, one of the stealth helicopters crashed due to the aforementioned settling-with-power issue. That fact greatly compromised the mission and associated cover stories when the intact tail section of the helicopter was broadcast on television the next morning. Still, the pilots of the 160th and the SEAL Team Six operators did their job with great professionalism and took out America’s most wanted. As for the stealth helicopters, we’re told that despite the crash, that they have not been retired but have gone on to be used in an additional two countries since the Bin Laden raid.
(Featured image courtesy of wired.com)