The August 6 helicopter crash which killed Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Jesse Daryl Pittman, 27, of Willits, and 37 others in Afghanistan was caused by a rocket-propelled grenade exploding against the rear rotor of their Chinook helicopter, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Central Command.
From the moment the grenade exploded against the rotor blade to the helicopter’s crash in a fireball into the creekbed about 150 feet below was less than five seconds, says Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt, who headed the investigation. “I assess that the injuries sustained by all 38 personnel would have immediately incapacitated them and were most likely rapidly fatal.”
“I have determined that this mission, and the tactics and resources employed in its execution, were consistent with previous U.S. special operations missions and the strike forces selected to execute the mission were appropriate,” says Colt. “For the families, friends and fellow warriors of the fallen, American and Afghan, the loss of these selfless and courageous men was a tragedy from which this report can provide little comfort. I offer my deepest condolences personally and on behalf of my investigative team, to all of those who mourn the loss of these brave men.”
While the report did not fault the use of the Chinook helicopter loaded with troops for this particular mission, it did critique the failure of the task force commander to “reallocate the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to ensure surveillance coverage for ongoing (Ranger-led assault force) and the inbound” SEAL mission. The report also suggested that use of overhead aircraft prior to a helicopter insertion should be better coordinated to avoid giving the enemy an early warning of “imminent ground operations.”
Military intelligence had identified the likely location of Qari Tahir, a senior Taliban leader in the Tangi Valley section of Wardak Province, Afghanistan. A special operations task force was assembled to capture or kill him during the night of August 5 and 6. The first assault team was comprised of a U.S. Army Ranger platoon and an Afghan partnering unit. A second Immediate Reaction Force built around a troop of U.S. Navy SEALs was designated to support the operation if necessary. The high-risk nature of this operation required advance approval from higher level commanders at headquarters.
Two Chinook CH-47D helicopters airlifted the first assault team to a landing zone near Tahir’s suspected compound. This force was supported by two Apache attack helicopters, an AC-130 gunship and a “relatively robust team of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.” The Ranger’s mission was to secure Tahir’s suspected compound and gather intelligence from any detainees and items. The Rangers landed at 10:58 p.m. August 5. As the Rangers were engaged at the compound, reconnaissance aircraft detected groups of individuals fleeing the area.
One suspected Taliban group of eight men, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and RPG launchers were spotted leaving the area, walking single-file to the northwest. One Apache helicopter engaged this group, killing six, and scattering the rest into the bush.
A second group of suspected Taliban fighters was being followed by reconnaissance aircraft while the Rangers cleared and secured the compound. During the course of the night the group grew from two to 10 people. This group took refuge inside and around a building about two kilometers from the original target compound. The target of the entire operation, Tahir, was believed by U.S. commanders to be amongst the splinter group.
The Rangers had fully secured their compound by 2:45 a.m. August 6 and were interrogating detainees.
The special operations task force commander had been monitoring the growing splinter group of suspected fighters and decided to augment the 17 Navy SEALS by adding five Naval Special Operations support personnel, three Air Force Special Tactics Airmen, an interpreter, seven Afghan soldiers and a military canine. This brought the Immediate Reaction Force to 33 men plus the five man CH-47D crew. “According to the aviation task force commander immediately responsible for the helicopter support, an informed tactical decision was made to load all personnel on one aircraft because the IRF commander wanted to mass troops quickly, and to mitigate the increased risk to a second helicopter approaching the landing zone.”
Both CH-47D choppers left the forward operating base at 2:22 a.m. The lead copter carrying the IRF had a very experienced flight crew; one of the pilots had more than 719 hours of combat flying time and 4,600 hours of total flight time. Both choppers flew into the valley by a different route than used earlier by the Ranger mission. They were fully “blacked out” using no lighting or external beacons. The trailing chopper stopped six minutes out from the landing zone and began circling at a predetermined holding point, while the lead chopper proceeded on.
The doomed CH-47D approached the landing zone from the northwest, descending to about 100 to 150 feet from the ground and slowing to about 58 mph. Unknown to the task force, a group of Taliban fighters were housed in a two-story mud building 721 feet south of the landing zone. A Taliban fighter hiding in the second story fired two or three RPGs rapidly at the helicopter. The first grenade missed and the second exploded on a rear rotor blade, blowing off 10 feet of blade. The helicopter spun rapidly with first the rear rotor then the forward rotor separating from the fuselage. The main fuselage dropped into the creek bed below and became “engulfed in a large fireball, causing multiple secondary explosions of fuel and munitions until the aircraft burned out several hours later.”
Investigators have determined the Taliban were in a “heightened state of alert due to 3.5 hours of coalition air operations concentrated over the northwestern portion of the Tangi Valley.” The report says, “The shoot-down was not the result of a baited ambush”.
The crash happened at about 2:38 a.m. August 6.
The Ranger assault force was immediately tasked to move rapidly on foot to the crash site, arriving there at about 4:12 a.m. Recovery efforts were hampered by secondary explosions coming from the wreckage. The Rangers established a security perimeter around the crash and searched the area for survivors. A 20-man Pathfinder team arrived within minutes after the Rangers secured the site. Pathfinder units specialize in downed aircraft rescue and recover. By 10:38 a.m. all 38 men and the military canine had been accounted for.
A ground convoy made its way past a number of improvised explosive devices to the crash site to help recover the remains and other evidence. All of the remains were en route from the crash scene to a secure base via ground transport by 4:25 p.m.
That afternoon a flash flood swept through the crash site with four to five feet of water, washing wreckage more than 600 feet downstream.
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