The 6 August, 2011 downing of Extortion 17 has continued to make international headlines years after the terrible tragedy. This continued attention is due primarily to the magnitude of loss of life—30 American servicemen, 8 Afghans, and 1 American military working dog. Unfortunately, as is often the case with media reports on the war effort, news outlets omitted crucial facts, repeated erroneous information, and asked misguided questions. Furthermore, due to the timing of the shoot down—just three months after the successful bin Laden raid—and due to Extortion 17 carrying an immediate reaction force built around Gold Squadron of DEVGRU, absurd conspiracy theories emerged and continue to proliferate. Here’s a list of each, with brief explanations / corrections.
While this is the only list of its type ever compiled, each point is covered in much greater detail in THE FINAL MISSION OF EXTORTION 17. For the full story of Extortion 17, including much more in-depth detail on all aspects of this article, please read my just-released book, “The Final Mission of Extortion 17” available nationally.
- Extortion 17 was an MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne): This was an early error that some continue to repeat to this day. Extortion 17 was a conventional CH-47D Chinook, and part of Extortion Company, a unit composed of an admixture of soldiers from active Army, Army Reserves, and Army National Guard. Some also occasionally erroneously state that Extortion 17 was a UH-60 Black Hawk or the 160th variant, an MH-60.
- Extortion 17 was a “clunky,” antiquated “Vietnam era,” poorly maintained helicopter: Like virtually all D model CH-47 Chinooks, Extortion 17 was re-manufactured from a previous model Chinook. This is also the case with all D and E model 160th MH-47s. With continued inspections and phase maintenance regimens, all Chinooks—and all aircraft in the Department of Defense, for that matter—are kept at essentially brand new working order. There were no maintenance or other mechanical issues with Extortion 17 whatsoever, and the maintenance logs prove it.
- Extortion 17 was flown by members of the Air National Guard: Extortion 17 was piloted by CW2 Bryan Nichols of Bravo Company, 7-158 AVN (a Kansas Army Reserve unit) and CW4 Dave Carter of Bravo Company, 2-135 GSAB (a mix of Colorado and Nebraska Army National Guard). The Air National Guard had absolutely nothing to do with the Extortion 17 story.
- Extortion 17 was a huge, slow, “barn door” helicopter unsuitable for special operations missions: The Chinook is the operationally fastest helicopter in the United States Department of Defense. While the rated top speed of a UH-60 Black Hawk is higher, when loaded with troops and cargo (and the Chinook can carry much more than a Black Hawk), the CH-47 flies much faster. Furthermore, the Chinook is hardly the largest helicopter in the U.S. Military – all three primary variants of the CH-53, the D, E, and now K, dwarf the Chinook in size.
- Extortion 17 was unsuitable for Afghanistan due to high altitude: The CH-47 Chinook is the most capable high altitude helicopter in the U.S. Military due to its powerful turboshaft engines and large rotors. Chinooks have rescued climbers on Mount McKinley (highest mountain in Alaska, the United States, and North America at 20,310 feet above sea level) many times near the summit of the peak.
- Extortion 17 was unarmed, making it unsuitable for special operations missions: Extortion 17 had an M240 7.62mm medium machine gun mounted on its right and left side, with the flight engineer armed with an M4 carbine on the loading ramp in the rear. Each M240 was manned with each gunner continuously scanning for threats, as is standard for all troop inserts and extractions. The right door gunner actually fired back at the RPG shooters just after they launched their rockets.
- The pilots and crew of Extortion 17 were inexperienced: Nothing could be further from the truth. CW4 Dave Carter (posthumously promoted to CW5), the pilot on the controls of Extortion 17, was one of the most experienced military helicopter pilots in the world, with over 4,000 hours in the cockpit. He had not only supported as a pilot, but helped plan a series of JSOC raids in Iraq during the Surge. CW2 Bryan Nichols was also an extremely skilled pilot. The three crewmen, Specialist Spencer Duncan, Sergeant Alex Bennett, and Sergeant Patrick Hamburger, had been hand-picked for such missions by senior leaders in Extortion Company due to their skill levels and experience.
- This was a special operations mission, so why wasn’t it supported by the 160th? Extortion Company, the conventional aviation unit to which Extortion 17 belonged, supported over 90 percent of all special operations missions in their area of operation. The unit which they replaced also supported over 90 percent of special operations missions in the area. Extortion 17, a conventional helicopter flown and crewed by conventional Army aviators, was no operational exception in supporting a special operations mission. The modern U.S. military has special operations units working hand-in-hand with conventional forces regularly.
- Extortion 17 did not have gunship support: While it flew unescorted into the Tangi Valley, two AH-64 Apache gunships and one AC-130 orbited its intended landing zone. Each scanned the area around the landing zone for potential threats. Extortion 17 was hit less than a half mile from its intended landing zone. The rocket-propelled grenade round that downed Extortion 17 was fired from a point even closer to the intended landing zone, which was a location well within firing range of all three gunships—so Extortion 17 flew with gunship support when the enemy fired upon it, but those enemy had been unknown to any of the friendly forces, in the air or on the ground. The enemy combatants happened to be in the right place at the right time to hear the approach of an unknown American helicopter, and took it down with a lucky shot of opportunity.
- Extortion 17 was overloaded: Extortion 17 was well within its passenger and cargo capability. Chinooks frequently carry more people and more total weight than Extortion 17 carried during its fateful flight.
- The immediate reaction force Extortion 17 carried should have been flown in two helicopters: Senior JSOC and aviation planners both agreed that the best course of action was to put the entire strike force into one helicopter, Extortion 17. They made this decision for a number of reasons: They chose a landing zone far from the initial infil landing zone to be flown to from an entirely different direction to maximize surprise. They also loaded all into just Extortion 17 to mass the force on the ground as quickly as possible. They also loaded all into Extortion 17 because the chosen landing zone, had never before been used and for that reason would maximize the element of surprise should any enemy be lurking, could accommodate only one Chinook. If they did a sequential landing, with a second Chinook landing after Extortion 17, then the enemy would have been alerted and could set an ambush. As fate had it, unknown enemy fighters heard Extortion 17 approaching and took a shot of opportunity.
- Those onboard Extortion 17 burned to death: None of the autopsies revealed any smoke inhalation. To the contrary, due to the massive forces generated by the catastrophically imbalanced rotor systems of Extortion 17, all died within a quarter to a half second of being shot.
- Restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) led to the downing of Extortion 17: In order for any American or coalition forces to fire upon suspected enemy personnel in Afghanistan at that time, those suspected enemy personnel must first display hostile intent, and friendly forces needed to positively identify (PID) that hostile intent. No friendly forces—in the air or on the ground—even knew of the two enemy fighters who each shot at Extortion 17, so therefore could never have positively identified hostile intent. The only realistic way for American forces to have eliminated all potential threats in the Tangi Valley would have been to use a large nuclear warhead like the W88, which would have also killed the American forces already on the ground. The enemy fighters were by chance in the right place at the right time, and got a lucky shot.
- Countermeasures available at the time of the shoot down of Extortion 17 could have prevented the tragedy: The only countermeasures effective against rocket propelled grenades are so large and heavy that they are only suitable for large ground vehicles like MRAPs. Despite ever greater technology, training, and tactics, techniques, and procedures, enemy luck will never be completely eliminated from the battlefield. The enemy simply got lucky.
- After the shoot down, gunships were restricted from firing: Within seconds of the shootdown, one of the Apache gunships fired at the point from which one of the pilots saw the RPG originate. The Apache fired a total of 70 high explosive 30mm rounds at that point and area immediately surrounding it.
- During the initial raid against the mission’s intended objective, “LEFTY GROVE,” three fighters “squirted” and were the ones who shot down Extortion 17: The three were tracked by two Apache gunships to a small compound over a mile from the location from where the enemy fighters shot at Extortion 17. Once at that compound, they did not leave until after the shoot down. They could not have shot down Extortion 17 from that compound. Furthermore, they were unarmed during their movement to that compound and so could not be fired upon as they did not demonstrate hostile intent.
- Extortion 17 was equipped with a cockpit voice and flight data recorder, a “black box,” but it was washed away in a flash flood and never recovered: The CH-47D Chinook is not equipped with either a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder. To do so would require that all flight, cargo, and engine controls be rewired to route through such a device. While Extortion 17, like all CH-47D Chinooks, didn’t have a cockpit voice recorder, its transmissions over “battle net” that night, a single frequency common to all aircraft, were recorded by two Apache gunships, but those were the only recordings made. The two Lycoming engines on the CH-47D do have data recorders, but only for diagnostic and maintenance purposes of the engines.
- The enemy fighters who shot down Extortion 17 fled toward Pakistan: The enemy fighters actually fled in the opposite direction, farther west into Afghanistan.
- The enemy fighters who shot down Extortion 17 were members of the Taliban: They were members of a Haqqani Network cell.
- The Colt Report, the official investigation report which concluded that all measures taken prior to the shoot down were tactically sound and that the tragedy resulted from a lucky shot was a “cover up”: This is complete and total nonsense. All measures were tactically sound, the pilots and crew were absolutely capable, and the enemy fighters who shot down the helicopter simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. While the conclusion of the Colt Report was absolutely accurate, some details, upon re-examination of gun tape of one of the Apaches, proved incorrect:
- The Colt Report stated that while eight enemy fighters were fired upon at the Lefty Grove compound, not all were killed: Some have speculated that because the Colt Report stated that three enemy survived, that these three may have been those responsible for the shoot down. A careful re-evaluation of the gun tape of the Apache that fired on them revealed that all eight were killed. The Apache fired upon the eight with its “Area Weapon System,” or “AWS.” This is a 30mm chain gun that, during that engagement, fired high explosive fragmentation rounds. This is an eminently effective anti-personnel weapon, one that when combined with the Apache’s night visualization system (TADS/PNVS – Target Acquisition and Designation Site / Pilot Night Vision System, a long infrared (thermal response) forward-looking system that can be slewed to the gun) is typically 100% effective, as it was during that engagement.
- The Colt Report stated that the RPG shooters fired from a “turret” or tower in a small village: The only living American to actually witness the shoot down, an Apache pilot scanning for the approach of Extortion 17 through night vision goggles, visualized the point of origin to be a bluff to the west of the small village. This is where the Apache pilot fired immediately after the shoot down.
- The Colt Report stated that after the shoot down, an Apache gunship fired suppressive fire in the vicinity of the visualized point of origin of the RPG fire: The pilot fired at what he felt the exact point of origin to be, with the intent of killing those responsible for the downing, not suppressive fire.
- One of the conspiracy theories that emerged in the wake of the shoot down was that “mysterious Afghans” aboard Extortion 17 either set off a suicide bomb or took control of the helicopter: The Afghans were not mysterious at all. They were well vetted and known to those of the immediate reaction force. Virtually all combat operations conducted by American forces at that time were “combined,” meaning that the American personnel on the ground were combined with Afghan personnel with the overall goal of turning over all warfighting efforts to the Afghans. No bomb residue was found, and no blast pattern was found in the wreckage. Some have noted a possible aberration due to a list of names on the flight manifest. There is no merit to this – members of the strike force would never, ever, ever allow unknown Afghan fighters to board an aircraft with them. They were all well-known to the members of the strike force, despite names used on the flight manifest.
- Another conspiracy theory stated that the downing was in revenge for the recent bin Laden compound raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan: There would be no way for any enemy fighter to determine who was onboard Extortion 17, where they were headed, or when they were headed that way. Enemy fighters fired on helicopters all the time during Operation Enduring Freedom. When the opportunity availed itself, fighters would launch rocket-propelled grenades. Only a fraction of a percent of those fired actually hit the target. Extortion 17 was one of only a handful of helicopters shot down with an RPG.
- Another conspiracy theory stated that all the bodies were cremated, and that some ashes were mixed: Subsequent to the crash and fire, all bodies were recovered and returned to the mortuary affairs office at Forward Operating Base Shank. At that point preliminary identification was conducted, and this was extremely thorough. All bodies were positively identified and carefully placed in caskets. Bodies were identified using dog tags, tattoos, and other uniquely identifying means. Positive identification was confirmed with DNA testing once returned to Dover Air Force Base. No bodies were mixed with any others. Only the remains of those service members who specifically requested cremation were cremated, as is standard Department of Defense practice.
THE FINAL MISSION OF EXTORTION 17: Special Ops, Helicopter Support, SEAL Team Six, And The Deadliest Day In The U.S. War in Afghanistan available from Amazon.
Featured image courtesy of DVIDs