Stealth Hawk Down?

Bin Laden gets face-shot

When the Osama Bin Laden raid went down, there was a flurry of news reporting, many initial reports stumbling over themselves as both the media and the White House struggled to get their stories straight.  Who executed the raid?  How was Bin Laden killed?  Who is Seal Team Six?  Our readers already knew the answer to that last one, but you get the idea.  From what I gather, and we don’t have the whole story even today, is that the actions on the objective were fairly straight forward.  Maybe there were one or two terrorists who had armed themselves, but it doesn’t sound like that slowed ST6 down much, if at all.  Everything was kosher until they began to exfil off the objective.

What happened next would reveal a previously classified aviation program to the world and potentially create an international crisis.

160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s Secret Helicopter

From a training event with 160th back in 2006

As a member of 3rd Ranger Battalion and 5th Special Forces Group, I flew with 160th numerous times in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  I’ve seen 160th pilots do some amazing things with their aircraft.  They put us down on roof tops, they’ve had the co-pilot lean out of the helicopter and deliver fire support with an M4, and I’ve even been on a MH-60 as the pilot navigated his helicopter between power lines with surgical precision to insert my ODA on an objective.  I have nothing but respect for these guys, and it surprises no one that it was 160th that successfully conducted the OBL raid with the SEALs.

While I was in Army Special Operations, I heard nothing, and I mean not even a whisper of any secret helicopter projects.  Not even a rumor about stealth helicopters.  This goes to show how tight the Army’s OPSEC was around this project, and with good reason.  As we now know from the wreckage left behind in Pakistan, at least one stealth helicopter was on the mission, but probably two or three as that is how many helicopters would be needed at a minimum for the raid, and having one stealth helicopter and two non-stealth MH-60’s flying in formation together would kind of negate the purpose.

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In this case, the stealth capabilities of these helicopters would be needed to insert a Ground Assault Force into the target area while evading Pakistani radar stations during this cross border operation.  Bin Laden was living near a Pakistani military base in Abbottabad, a town filled with active duty and retired military officers.  Who would’ve thought…

While 160th is based at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, it turns out that there is also a element of the Special Operations aviation unit located off-site called Echo Squadron.  The exact location of Echo Squadron will remain undisclosed due to OPSEC considerations.

Stealth Hawk Down

Stealth Hawk tail section

While it appears that one helicopter landed inside the compound and extracted successfully, another crash landed.  This forced the ST6 operators, pilots, and any flight crew to initiate the destruction plan.  More than likely they popped some thermite grenades inside the downed Stealth Hawk and cross loaded onto one of the other aircraft.  This is another reason why you never have just one bird on station for a mission like this, if one aircraft goes down, you have men stranded on the ground.  But why did the crash happen to begin with?

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 phenomena 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 down wind landing.  If the rotor wash pushed from the rotors down to the ground, then comes back up and pushes into the decent 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, than 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.

What is it?

Artists rendering of the Stealth Black Hawk

As pictures of the wreckage began to filter out to the media from Pakistan, the main question became: What the hell is it?  There was speculation that it was an entirely new type of helicopter cooked up deep inside some black budget Special Access Program at Area 51.  Others made the observation that it was more likely a highly modified MH-60 helicopter.  I pulled the following picture off the comments section of an Aviation Weekly article not long after the OBL raid:

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Stealth Hawk/UH-60 comparison

As you can see above, the main rotor system of a conventional Black Hawk does look an awful lot like that of the wreckage left behind in Pakistan.

Aftermath

While the OBL raid was an overwhelming success, it also exposed a Top-Secret helicopter program.  Certainly this was something taken into account by both military planners at JSOC as well as political leadership in Washington, DC.  They would have worked a risk mitigation strategy and determined that the intelligence justified the raid even if it came at the expense of compromising a classified program and certain Special Operations Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures.  I think I join the vast majority of Americans in agreeing with this decision, but let’s also examine the negative effects.

Within weeks the press was reporting that Pakistan was letting officials from the Chinese government look at the wreckage of the Stealth Black Hawk.  Some experts, optimistically in my opinion, have weighed in saying that the Chinese will be able to reverse engineer the stealth helicopter technology in a matter of months.  I’m not so sure. The Clinton administration initiated a series of technology transfers to China and we’ve all heard about Chinese hackers engaging in industrial espionage.  It seems that it was only relatively recently that the Chinese built a functioning stealth fighter.

Chinese J-20 Stealth Fighter

At any rate, it seems beyond a shadow of a doubt that at some point countries antagonistic towards the United States will reverse engineer stealth technology, it’s just a question of when.  As for the Stealth Black Hawk (the official designation of this aircraft remains unknown) you can be sure that 160th combed over every piece of intel and technical detail when working up their After Action Review to avoid a similar incident in future operations.