Prince 51 sheeted west 60 feet above the blacked-out compound wall on a hot cushion of thinning rotor wash. Assaulters on the right side of the aircraft saw the third story of the target building flash by in the darkness with its strange, high-walled white balcony.
The MH-X Silent Hawk’s gray tail rotor skidded left before the secret aircraft pivoted back east toward the open section of the compound known as “Courtyard Alpha”.
The nose of the stealth helicopter reared up slightly to decelerate. The SEAL assault team inside opened doors and rotated aluminum arms outward that held the fast ropes in preparation for their slide down to the courtyard.
The pilots of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment who fly the aircraft known as the MH-X (the actual name remains classified) were already fighting to maintain control of the heavily loaded helicopter.
The controls felt mushy, as though they had less and less influence on the aircraft’s flight. The quiet, scimitar shaped rotors pushed hot, dry air downward into the compound where the architecture of the buildings, with their many walls, played havoc with normal lift.
It had been practiced many times at a place called the Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity facility in Perquimans County, North Carolina. This facility belongs to a proxy of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was used by the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Unit referred to as “Development Group” or “DEVGRU” to rehearse this raid. Civilians and journalists refer to them as “SEAL Team 6”.
But the fences surrounding the Harvey Point mock-up were chain link, not concrete. Their aerodynamic characteristics were different than the solid walls in Abbottabad, and this made a difference.
The Silent Hawk began to sink rapidly. The pilot applied cyclic and collective inputs coordinated with his pedals to maintain control. Flying a helicopter in the best of conditions is like balancing on a beach ball. Add the “hot and high” weather conditions, the darkness, the load inside the aircraft and limitations from modifications to make the helicopter “stealthy” and controlling the MH-X was like holding an angry snake. Sooner or later you have to put it down.
Pilots in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) undergo training that is so extensive and dangerous only the most determined, experienced and qualified aircrews, from support and maintenance to pilots themselves, qualify for the unit. The “Night Stalkers” are based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They conduct training operations around the United States and internationally. The extremely limited number of aircrews trained on the secret Silent Hawks are said to operate at Nellis AFB in Nevada and come from the 1st Battalion of the 160th SOAR.
The pilot of the MH-X Silent Hawk makes a quick decision: it is better to use what control he has left to make a semi-controlled landing than to try to fly out and make another pass- even if he could. The element of surprise must be maintained. Speed and violence of action are critical.
Inside the compound Sheik Osama bin Laden, codename “Crankshaft”, is just becoming aware that something is not right.
The SEALs in the helicopter realize this descent is different than rehearsals. They pull back inside the aircraft in anticipation of a crash and rollover of the helicopter that will shatter composite rotor blades into deadly shrapnel and spew hot hydraulic fluid and explosive aviation fuel into the walled compound turning it into a canned fireball.
It’s happened before.
In an elaborate raid to free 52 U.S. hostages in Iran on 24 April 1980 a U.S. helicopter slammed into a C-130 refueling aircraft at a secret desert refueling point in Iran. The resulting fireball killed 8 U.S. personnel and doomed the raid.
The MH-X sinks as the cushion of air beneath it becomes chaotic and lift is reduced in what helicopter pilots refer to as “Vortex Ring State” or VRS. Making a play for the large open courtyard to the west codenamed “Courtyard Echo” Prince 51 attempts an emergency landing at a faster rate of descent than normal.
Suddenly the mission resembles another previous U.S. special operations mission called Operation Ivory Coast, the raid to free U.S. POW’s from the Son Tay prison camp near Hanoi, North Vietnam on 21 November 1970. The primary difference was that a helicopter was purposely crashed inside Son Tay prison camp to insert a U.S. Army special operations team in 1970. The crash landing at Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan is not planned.
Prince 51 almost makes it inside the compound.
A high wall at the southeast edge of Courtyard Echo strikes the bottom of the sinking MH-X Silent Hawk in front of its stealthy five bladed tail rotor. The helicopter teeters on the wall while its nose falls until it hits the ground, the pilots holding the aircraft upright so it does not roll to either side, a remarkable piece of airmanship typical of the Night Stalkers.
There is little hesitation. The SEAL assault team leaps from the damaged MH-X as it balances on the nose and tail boom, delicately avoiding rolling to either side.
The skies around Abbottabad, south to the Arabian Sea and west to Afghanistan are alive with aircraft supporting the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. A total of 16 helicopters including two of the secret “MH-X Silent Hawks”, four huge MH-47E Chinook heavy lift helicopters, four U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and four AH-64 Apache attack helicopters support the operation, most held in reserve near the Afghan border as a contingency for refueling, fire support and rescue.
Above Abbottabad nearly silent aerial robots criss-cross the sky at varying altitudes with electronic, infrared eyes zoomed in on the action. A secret RQ-170 Sentinel drone is joined by a giant RQ-4 Global Hawk and supported by an MQ-9 Reaper armed drone.
On board the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) in the North Arabian Sea a contingent of several FA-18 Hornets are loaded with armament to support the operation if needed. Farther outside the area of operations E-6A Mercury command and control aircraft, E-3 Sentry surveillance aircraft, KC-135 tankers, C-130 transports and a V-22 Osprey fly or wait in support of the raid.
In total at least 30 aircraft are directly tasked with the mission to apprehend Bin Laden.
It’s been five years since Operation Neptune Spear and much about the raid remains classified. There are no published photos of either of the two so-called MH-X Silent Hawks.
It is unknown if the aircraft has ever been used again. Following the loss of the MH-X in the Bin Laden raid, only one may remain.
Our concept of what the Stealth Hawks may look like, and the depiction of them in the Hollywood movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is crafted by aviation writer David Cenciotti and brought to life by artist Ugo Crisponi. Cenciotti is an experienced aviation journalist who used photos of the wreckage from the remaining helicopter parts left behind in Abbottabad to extrapolate possible design features based on other “stealth” aircraft concepts like the F-117 Nighthawk.
Numerous books have been published about the raid since Neptune Spear on May 1 and 2, 2011 but none of them are truly “official” accounts with some of the earliest ones being highly speculative.
Author Sean Naylor revealed that early in the mission planning members of the SEALs favored a High Altitude High Opening or “HAHO” insertion of the assault force into Abbottabad instead of the Silent Hawk insertion in his recent book Relentless Strike: The Secret History of the Joint Special Operations Command. Naylor quoted an unnamed Navy source as saying, “We did so many downed helo drills that [the operators] were just sick of it.”
It is likely the repetitive downed helicopter drills contributed significantly to the mission proceeding as planned following the hard landing of the first MH-X.
The second MH-X Silent Hawk performed its infiltration and exfiltration from the target according to plan based on the published accounts. An MH-47E Chinook heavy lift helicopter did fly from the Forward Area Refueling Point (FARP) inside Pakistan to the objective to help recover the assault force. Bin Laden was killed during the raid by SEALs and his body recovered, flown out on the remaining MH-X after the first one was destroyed in place by a significant amount of explosives placed by the SEALs.
Ironically, the tail section of the MH-X that protruded over the south edge of the wall of the compound fell to the ground and did not burn when the detonations occurred. This section remained intact and made for famous photos in the hours following the raid before the Pakistanis retrieved it. According to Reuters and ABC News the Pakistanis allowed a Chinese team to inspect the tail wreckage before it was returned to U.S. authorities. Hopefully it has been preserved.
Follow-on accounts of the raid to apprehend Osama bin Laden have been mixed in tenor and authenticity. Many media outlets, movies, documentaries and books have attempted to report how the Bin Laden raid, referred to as “Operation Neptune Spear” in reference to the Trident on the Naval Special Warfare qualification badge, was actually conducted. Most have been subdued rather than celebratory.
The mission and its outcome partially closed a long chapter in world and American history but was not a definitive end to the Global War on Terror. Osama bin Laden had grown old and his effectiveness in planning doctrine and operations was likely diminished, instead handed off to a succession of rising terrorist cadre underneath him. He remained partially as a figurehead in addition to his diminishing command role.
In a sad epilogue to the mission a CH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying special operations personnel from the unit that conducted the Bin Laden raid along with others was shot down on 6 August 2011 at 0239 local in the Tangi Valley of Wardak Province, Afghanistan.
Everyone on board the Chinook was killed. It was the largest single-incident loss of Naval Special Warfare personnel in history. According to published accounts “15 members of the Navy’s ‘Gold Squadron’ special operations team died in the incident with a total of 38 personnel and one military dog killed.
From a historical perspective Operation Neptune Spear can be counted as a successful operation for several reasons. It accomplished its primary objective of neutralizing Osama bin Laden. The primary mission objective was achieved despite setbacks during the operation. No casualties were sustained by forces conducting the operation although the loss of the MH-X helicopter and compromise of its secrecy are significant. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama garnered perception among many that this was a significant advancement in the Global War on Terror and sent a clear message to insurgent groups that the U.S. was willing to incur risk to prosecute its agenda in the GWOT and was sufficiently competent to make that risk pay off tactically if not strategically.
Five years after the raid history is still deliberating on how truly effective it was, largely since the Global War on Terror grinds on in a new phase across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan with almost no end in sight.