The stealth helicopters used within the 2011 bin Laden raid

A decade in the past yesterday, the US carried out probably the most well-known and shocking navy actions of the 21st century: the covert raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on Might 2, 2011. 

To get to that location from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the SEAL workforce (and a canine) flew in two helicopters, a visit of some 90 minutes. These choppers, as former president Barack Obama describes in his new memoir, A Promised Land, have been “two Black Hawk helicopters that had been modified for stealth.” 

That the US employed stealthy helicopters that hadn’t been beforehand acknowledged to exist till that day was fascinating even for individuals who don’t think about themselves to be aviation geeks. Much more thrilling was that the wreckage of considered one of them was left behind after it crashed. 

“After I assume again to these 10 years, it’s a outstanding peak behind that black curtain of US protection functionality,” says Tony Osborne, the Aviation Week bureau chief in London. 

Ten years on, right here’s a glance again at what we find out about these helicopters—and the science of stealth plane basically. 

What’s a stealthy plane? 

Trendy-day planes just like the F-35 are generally known as “stealthy,” however extra technically, they’re known as “low observable.” 

The phrase refers to a number of completely different targets. Plane designers need a low-observable plane to be invisible to an adversary’s radar. Plus, they’d prefer it to not create an infrared signature or an excessive amount of acoustic noise. They’ll additionally think about digital warfare. Low-observable plane ought to have the flexibility to jam an enemy, and likewise not actively ship out indicators that enable it to be tracked.

So whereas there are numerous methods to consider what stealth means with completely different plane, “normally radar is the best precedence,” says Peter Westwick, creator of the e-book Stealth and an adjunct professor of historical past on the College of Southern California. 

For its half, radar works by bouncing radio waves off the item; then a sign boomerangs again to an antenna. Ideally, a low-observable plane received’t return a helpful signature. 

After radar, a typical secondary aim could be to attempt to mitigate the infrared sign emanating from that plane. “Stealth plane, the main focus is on the radar, however they will even have options that can cut back the warmth signature from the engine exhaust,” Westwick says. Maybe an plane’s exhaust might exit above its physique, the place IR cameras couldn’t see it, for instance. 

And whereas it looks as if a distinctly fashionable concept, Westwick notes that the roots date again to the 1960s and 70s, and an consciousness of US plane susceptibility. “Soviet radar techniques positively put American plane at a significant drawback—and this was made clear each by the American expertise in Vietnam, after which by the Israeli expertise within the [1973] Arab-Israeli warfare.”

Improvement of stealth plane within the US really started within the 1970s, famously leading to Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk assault plane after which later, Northrop’s B-2 bomber. Alongside the way in which, Lockheed created a prototype of the F-117 known as “Have Blue,” and Northrop made a bizarre-looking plane known as “Tacit Blue.”

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In terms of low-observable plane, form is vital. As Westwick examines in Stealth, the defining characteristic of the angular F-117 was its aspects, or flat panels. Northrop was identified for leaning right into a curvier strategy for flying machines. 

The F-117 defeated radar through the use of a faceted design, which basically isn’t a robust aerodynamic strategy. Aaron D. Allmon II / US Air Power

Both manner, the differing design mentalities had the identical aim: to maintain the radar returns low. (Radar-absorbent supplies play a key position, too.) Plus, curves benefit from being extra aerodynamic than aspects just like the extremely angular Nighthawk had. “You’re nonetheless attempting to ship [the radar waves] off in one other course, however you then’re additionally attempting to make the airplane extra flyable,” Westwick says. “Flat plates are very inefficient aerodynamically—there’s a cause why birds’ wings are curved.” 

Low-observable helicopters are arduous to make

The Nighthawk after which the B-2 Spirit have been the primary low-observable manufacturing plane, and right now, the US navy flies fighters like F-22s and F-35, each of which have our bodies that seem curvy; so does a rendering of the forthcoming B-21 Raider bomber from Northrop Grumman. Aspects appear passé.  

However helicopters, with their large sides, large swinging prime rotor, and smaller tail rotor additionally twirling round in one other orientation, pose a fair larger problem. Whirlybirds are loud, in-your-face machines, and trying to retrofit one to be low-observable could be arduous. “It’s very tough to make an plane stealthy—in actual fact, it’s very tough to do it after you’ve designed it,” says Osborne, of Aviation Week. “To make a helicopter might be doubly so, as a result of helicopters are inherently non-stealthy.” 

[Related: Senator Tammy Duckworth on why AI should never fully replace humans in the cockpit]

Todd Harrison, who directs the aerospace safety challenge on the Middle for Strategic and Worldwide research, sees it the identical manner. “Helicopters, basically, are by no means going to be as stealthy as one thing just like the B-2 bomber,” he says. 

The stealth helicopters used in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden are still cloaked in mystery
The B-2 bomber. A curvy flying wing is aerodynamically environment friendly and stealthy. Devin Doskey / US Air Power

But it surely could possibly be useful to only be much less observable, or much less loud, than normal. “Stealth is just not a binary factor—it’s not that you just’re both stealthy or not,” Harrison says. “In actuality, it’s levels of stealth.” 

Photographic proof supplied a tease of the design of the helicopters used within the raid, and other people dug into it instantly in 2011. As a result of one of many Black Hawks crashed—the workforce blew it up earlier than they departed—a bit of the tail remained. 

Taking a look at that {photograph} within the current day, Osborne feedback that a couple of modifications from a regular Black Hawk are clear. One is that it seems to have had extra tail rotor blades than a Black Hawk’s typical 4. A further blade or blades would let that rotor spin extra slowly, however nonetheless obtain the efficiency the helicopter wants. “However for those who sluggish it down, meaning it’s quieter,” he says.

He additionally notes the presence of further easy, cover-like materials. “They’re hiding all these intricate elements of the tail rotor gearbox,” he says. “All these odd little rivets—the place the tail wheel would come down on the Black Hawk—all these areas the place radar vitality might get caught, after which bounce again out, they’re all disappeared.” 

[Related: Senator Tammy Duckworth describes the day her Black Hawk was shot down]

“It’s a unique development technique,” he provides. “It’s not rivets—it’s easy, slab-sided surfaces.” That, plus radar absorbent materials, might assist dial down the radar return, and tweaks like the additional tail rotor blades might have made it acoustically quieter. 

The stealth helicopters used in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden are still cloaked in mystery
An everyday Black Hawk helicopter in Louisiana in 2019. Patricia Dubiel / Fort Polk

In the end, all these modifications—and it’s not possible to know what the remainder of the chicken appeared like—have been doubtless designed to assist it dodge radar and be as quiet as attainable. (A tradeoff could have been that it was heavier.) It might not have been a totally stealth helicopter, however it could have been a stealthier one. 

Black Hawks right down to be sneaky 

Black Hawk helicopters are made by Sikorsky, which is a part of Lockheed Martin, and Doug Birkey, the chief director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Research, sees a attainable connection between a canceled Boeing-Sikorsky helicopter program known as Comanche and the retrofitted helicopters of the raid. “The thought with the Black Hawk was that they took components of that information, they usually utilized what they fairly might to a Black Hawk—when it comes to shaping and coatings—to attempt to cut back its signature.” 

The stealth helicopters used in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden are still cloaked in mystery
Trendy stealth fighters, just like the F-22 and F-35, look a lot smoother than the F-117. Savanah Bray / US Air Power

That, plus following a cautious route into Pakistan that they’d discovered upfront, would have helped. In the end, contemplating shapes, coating supplies, and different modifications would have helped make the helicopter extra low-observable, nevertheless it wouldn’t have been really stealthy. “They have been simply shopping for down the danger as a lot as attainable,” Birkey says. “And I feel loads of it in all probability got here out of Comanche.” 

Reached for remark, a Sikorsky consultant referred In style Science to the US navy. A public affairs officer for US Particular Operations Command instructed newsonthecloud by way of e mail that “we don’t [have] any releasable details about these plane.”

Final yr, The Drive—a sibling web site to In style Science—printed what it calls “the primary photograph ever of a stealthy Black Hawk helicopter.” 

It might have appeared like a Transformer 

The helicopters in all probability weren’t the one flying machines making use of low-observable tech. As Mark Bowden says in his 2012 work The End—a radical journalistic account of the mission and occasions previous it—a drone known as the RQ-170 Sentinel performed a key position, too. It had a “high-powered lens, which would offer a stay video feed of the assault,” he notes within the e-book. That drone is much less of a secretive entity than the helicopters, to make certain, and the Sentinel was identified for flying out of Kandahar, Afghanistan. 

[Related: I flew in an F-16 with the Air Force and oh boy did it go poorly]

Within the decade for the reason that raid, different written accounts of the mission have appeared past Obama’s account and Bowden’s reporting. In No Simple Day, Mark Owen (his actual title is Matthew Bissonnette) writes about his background as a SEAL and collaborating within the mission. He notes that in his helicopter, they “sat on the ground or on small camp chairs bought at a neighborhood sporting items retailer earlier than we left.” Taking the right seats out was a approach to make the chicken lighter. And Esquire has an extended, unhappy piece in regards to the man who shot bin Laden—in it, the SEAL refers back to the helicopter as resembling a “Decepticon.” 

Lastly, there’s a twist on the usage of low-observable plane within the raid. The everyday understanding of stealth is that it permits one nation to keep away from an adversary’s detection, however one thing completely different occurred with this incursion. “Why did we use stealthy helicopters?” asks Harrison, of CSIS. “It wasn’t to cover from bin Laden—he didn’t have radar. It was to cover from our companions, the Pakistanis.”

“Generally, you employ stealth to cover out of your companions,” he continues, “as a result of you could not be capable to belief that they’re not going to leak what you’re doing, or they will not be proud of what you’re doing in the event that they knew about it upfront.” 


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