navy seal helicopter what happened on America’s deadliest day in Afghanistan On a moonless night, an Army Chinook helicopter swept low within the Tangy Valley, a reel of forbidding terrain in eastern Afghanistan teeming with Taliban and located just 35 miles south of Kabul’s capital.
Among the 38 occupants within the Chinook were some of the most highly trained and battle-seasoned fighters in the U.S. military, including 15 commandos from the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the system that three months earlier had killed Osama bin Laden. Their target was a Taliban commander responsible for ambushes and other attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces.
Missions like this 1 to insert or remove an assault force will be the military exact carbon copy of an ideal 10 in the Olympics — equal parts skill, experience, and daring.
Flying low, the pilots have to maneuver a machine weighing as much as 50,000 pounds over mountains, under cover of darkness, in swirling wind and dust, wearing night-vision goggles. Then they have to stick the landing. At any moment, they could come under rocket attack.
Despite the chance, operations like they were taking place with such frequency in Afghanistan, they just made news when they produced a spectacular success, just like the bin Laden mission. Or when something went wrong.
The Texas commander
Justin “Buddy” Lee will never forget that night six years ago. Lee is 36 now, a civil attorney in Dallas, a world from Afghanistan. He grew up in Tyler, went along to Texas A&M, joined the Corps of Cadets, and stared in shock at the headlines that two planes slammed to the World Trade Center and another to the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. That same day he obtained a medical waiver he needed to pursue an Army commission — to serve an eight-year hitch before likely to law school. A junior, he was ready to fight; nevertheless, the war will be over, he figured before he even got out of college.
Lee earned his wings at Fort Rucker, Ala., then deployed to Pakistan, where he did humanitarian missions, understanding how to fly into and out of mountainous terrain.
In 2006, he was called into Afghanistan, where he turned 25. He would eventually do two tours and become commander of a Chinook unit during his second deployment in 2011.
His unit called itself “Extortion Company.” One of his true Chinooks, flying under the call sign Extortion 17 (“one-seven”), was tasked with the special operations mission the night of Aug. 6. He knew the pilots and crew members aboard Extortion 17. They indeed were elements of his command. He would not have hesitated to fly with some of them.
Nothing tests the capabilities of a young helicopter pilot like flying in the extreme conditions of Afghanistan.
“So a lot of the war is fought in areas where these helicopters need to fly at high altitudes,” where the nothing can strain the performance of the engines and rotor blades, said Ed Darack, writer of the recently published book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17: Special Ops, Helicopter Support, SEAL Team Six and the Deadliest Day of the U.S. War in Afghanistan.
A typical combat mission in Afghanistan leaves little margin for error, requiring Chinook pilots to land on tiny, makeshift sites on mountain slopes where any tree, bush, or rock could be hiding an enemy fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
The workhorse in Army aviation, the tandem-rotor, heavy-lift Chinook helicopter is used for carrying troops, equipment, supplies, and even the mail. The Chinook is often used to help in disaster relief, delivering food and water after earthquakes and floods.
Its mission is to transport large teams of elite assault troops, including Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, to and from the battlefield in combat.
On such missions, the Chinook pilots nearly always fly at night, wearing night-vision goggles, or NVGs. While the goggles are a lot better than nothing, they turn everything green, distort depth perception, and limit peripheral vision.