During that fight, an MH-60L Black Hawk helicopter with the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) was brought down after being hit in the tail rotor by an RPG-7. It was the second Black Hawk downed that fateful day, and all aboard, except pilot Chief Warrant Officer Three Michael Durant, were killed. Their call sign was Super Six Four, and their story lives forever in the annals of American military history.
The lone survivor of the Super Six Four crew, Chief Durant, is, of course, the best person to tell her tale. Most of the following information was obtained during his interview for The Year in Special Operations: 2008 Edition.
As part of Operation Gothic Serpent, Super Six Four and her crew had finished their mission of inserting Rangers into downtown Mogadishu. Following this, Durant led his flight north of the city, where they remained as part of a contingency force. Supposedly, their work for the day was done. But unfortunately, that ended up being far from the case.
A call came over the radio that a Black Hawk flying over the city, Super Six One, had just been hit in the tail rotor by an RPG and was going down. With Six One down, Six Four was called to take her place and provide fire support for the downed craft.
The Fog of War
With one Black Hawk down and scores of friendlies and locals converging on the crash site, the fog of war began to set in. Durant armed his crew chief’s guns. He explains the situation:
“So, we’re having a heck of a time sorting out where everybody is. We’ve got these mini-guns that’ll fire over 4,000 rounds a minute. We don’t want to just go crazy, hosing down the countryside until we know where all the friendlies are. So, in the end, we never fired a round. And I don’t regret that at all. We never had sufficient understanding of the tactical situation to do it. I armed the crew chief’s guns, but we all talked about how we weren’t going to shoot until we all agreed we had it all figured out, because there were just too many friendlies down there.”
The pilot shortly had a new set of worries because an RPG struck his aircraft immediately after his third fire support orbit. As he explains it:
“I was flying the helicopter and it felt like a speed bump, like when you’re going too fast in a parking lot. It hit the tail, just below the tail rotor, and it blew the gearbox apart. The tail rotor didn’t leave the aircraft immediately, but it decided to go pretty quickly, and when it did … we started to spin violently. We were in a flat spin and the only way to stop it is to shut the engines off. And when you do that you’re not much better off. You have more control but you no longer have engine power, so we hit the ground in a partially powered spin, a spinning flat condition, and the only reason any of us survived is we landed on the wheels.”
As it turned out, all four crew members (pilot Michael Durant, co-pilot Ray Frank, and crew chiefs Tommy Field and Bill Cleveland) survived the crash. But, to quote Durant, “…if we had not landed on the wheels, we’d be toast.”.
A Bone-Crushing Impact
Still, the crash had enough g-force to snap Durant’s right femur in half and crush a couple of his vertebrae. He had been knocked unconscious by the impact.
Co-pilot Frank had injuries similar to Durant’s. The crew chiefs were hurt much worse because their seats were not built as well as those of the pilots. Durant commented on their condition:
“Now, I will tell you I don’t think the crew chiefs would have survived or how long they would have lasted. They probably would have died within minutes. But they were alive when we hit the ground.”
Delta on the Scene
Ray Frank pulled himself out of his seat and took a position in the doorway. Delta Force operators SFC Randy Shughart and MSG Gary Gordon arrived on the scene as he did that. They had volunteered to be inserted on the ground specifically to assist the crew of Six Four.
Durant and his crew had been on the ground for approximately ten minutes when the operators arrived. He was beginning to come to and regain his bearings.
When asked what the operators asked him once they got to the site, he replied:
“Not a whole lot. They asked me what my injuries were. I remember that. I told them I thought my leg was broken and I thought there was something seriously wrong with my back, but I had no idea what. And together they lifted me out of the cockpit and … I just remember … it’s a testimony to them … of their unit and their training … and everything about the whole community. They were not stressed. They knew I was hurt and they were taking their time to make sure they weren’t hurting me worse while they got me out on the ground. They put me in a place where I was somewhat concealed and gave me my weapon and then moved off and did the same with everybody else. I could tell they were trying to figure out how to get out of there. Because they basically had four litter patients.”
After being pulled from the wreckage, Durant said that the only crew member he saw was Bill Cleveland, which was only out of the corner of his eye. He reported that Cleveland’s pants leg was covered in blood and that he could hear him moaning.
Durant lost track of Frank after he was pulled from the aircraft, although he figured he had been placed to its left side. Regarding the condition of Tommy Field, Durant could only say, “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to Tommy in terms of what they did with him or where they moved him.”.
The injured pilot reported a light small arms fire for about 15 minutes. “Mostly one-on-one exchanges,” he said. What he didn’t realize was that word was being passed down through Somali channels that a lightly defended American helicopter had been shot down in the city. The location of the crash site was given, and soon, large groups of people (including several supporters of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid) made their way towards the downed chopper.
The amount of fire that Six Four was taking increased exponentially, and after taking out multiple aggressors, Gordon was mortally wounded. Chief Durant explained what happened next:
“Then Randy came back up around the nose of the aircraft and he was almost out of ammunition and I was already out of ammunition and he asked about weapons in the aircraft. The crew chiefs had M-16s, so I told him where those were and he came back out and he gave me what I believe to this day was Gary’s weapon. He made a quick call on the survival radio and we were told that a reaction force was en route, but what we didn’t know was that it was going to take 7 hours to get there.”
Dozens of furious armed Somalis were on the scene now, and he likened the situation to being on a weapons range with an entire company firing simultaneously.
Shughart was quickly killed. Durant didn’t know it at the time, but the angry mob had also killed the rest of his crew. Aidid ordered that the pilot’s life be spared so that he could be used for propaganda purposes.
A Furious Mob Takes Their Revenge
Some members of the angry mob began stabbing and hacking the bodies of the dead American aviators with knives. Others in the crowd pulled and tore at the dead men’s limbs and removed their uniforms.
In a disgusting display of barbarism, members of the rabid mob took turns dragging the naked corpse of crew chief Bill Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu. Women were screaming curses at the dead soldier, and the men were shouting, laughing, and spitting on him.
The violent crowd spared the life of Black Hawk pilot Michael Durant, but they still beat him severely. Supporters of Aidid quickly removed their new prisoner from the scene before he could be injured any further.
There is an odd twist to the story at this point. While being removed from the crash site, Durant was forcefully taken away from Aidid’s followers, the Somalis who had first taken him prisoner. This rival clan held him for 24 hours, and Aidid had to pay a ransom to have him returned.
Throughout all this, the young pilot was repeatedly told that he would be killed. In describing his removal from the crash site, Durant recalled, “This femur fracture was just over-the-top painful, and what they did, they had stuffed me into the back of this car, threw a blanket over me, and then sat on me.”
Leave No Man Behind
Durant was in constant pain and under fear of death while held captive in his cell, but as a member of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the famed “Night Stalkers,” he knew he would not be left behind.
His fellow SOF aviators reinforced this point to him by flying around the city repeatedly, announcing from loudspeakers, “Mike Durant, we won’t leave you behind!”. This is illustrated in the clip below taken from the movie Black Hawk Down.
Footage from the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, sourced from YouTube.
After eleven days in captivity, Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid released the beleaguered pilot to the International Red Cross. However, he required immediate medical attention, and the Army evacuated him to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he underwent numerous surgical procedures to repair his femur and vertebrae.
Durant says the most challenging part of the ordeal happened following his release by the Somalis when they informed him the rest of his crew hadn’t survived.
Seven years after his retirement in 2001 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4, Michael Durant was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame. He had served for 22 years in the Army (thirteen of them as a Night Stalker), accumulating over 3,700 flight hours. In 2003, he published a book entitled In the Company of Heroes, in which he writes about his military career and his time in captivity.
Mr. Durant was the founder of Pinnacle Solutions, a highly successful engineering services company located in Huntsville, Alabama. The company specializes in the development of hi-tech aircraft flight simulators. He served as their President and Chief Executive Officer through 2022.
Durant and his wife, Lisa, reside in Madison, Alabama. She is also a former Army aviator. They have six children and three grandchildren.