On 6 August 2011, a U.S. CH-47D Chinook military helicopter operating with the call sign “Extortion 17” (pronounced “one-seven”) was shot down while transporting an Immediate Reaction Force attempting to reinforce a Joint Special Operations Command unit of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the Tangi Valley in Maidan Wardak province, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan. The resulting crash killed all 38 people on board – 25 American special operations personnel, one pilot and two crewmen of the United States Army Reserve, one pilot and one crewman of the United States Army National Guard, seven members of the Afghan National Security Forces, and one Afghan interpreter, as well as a U.S. military working dog. At 30 American military personnel killed, the shoot down of Extortion 17 represents the greatest single-incident loss of American lives in Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan, surpassing the sixteen lost in the downing of Turbine 33, a 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) MH-47, during Operation Red Wings on 28 June 2005, which previously claimed that title.
After US intelligence services discovered a possible location of a senior Taliban leader by the name Qari Tahir in Tangi Valley, Wardak province, Afghanistan, a mission to apprehend or neutralize him was launched on the night of 5/6 August 2011 from the forward operating base in Logar Province. It was led by a platoon of 47 U.S. Army Rangers with a troop of 17 U.S. Navy SEALs kept in reserve in case of need. The Ranger platoon was transported to the area via two CH-47D transport helicopters (one of them was the accident helicopter) and supported by two AH-64 Apache helicopters and an AC-130 gunship as well as additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft (ISR). The mission was deemed high risk.
- 22:37 local time, 18:07 UTC/GMT/Zulu time the two CH-47D helicopters carrying the U.S. Army Ranger platoon departed the forward operating base.
- 22:58 5 August 2011 (Afghanistan Local time), 18:28 UTC/GMT/Zulu time the two CH-47D helicopters successfully landed and disembarked the Rangers at the designated location near the compound where it was believed Qari Tahir was located. The helicopters then successfully exfiltrated and returned to base. As the Rangers approached the target compound ISR aircraft observed several people leaving the compound.
- 23:30 one of the two AH-64 Apache helicopters observed and engaged a group of eight Taliban fighters some 400 meters northwest of the target compound killing six. A second group was observed by ISR aircraft as well but was not engaged.
- 01:00 6 August 2011 a group of Taliban fighters (who fled the compound shortly before the Rangers arrived) which initially consisted of just 2 people had by now increased in size to 9–10 fighters. The group then split into two groups, three Taliban fighters took a position in a stand of trees while the remaining 6–7 men entered a building located some 2 kilometers from the target compound. Believing that Qari Tahir may be in the group the special operations task force commander and the Immediate Reaction Force commander decided to employ reserve forces (U.S. Navy SEALs) in order to engage this group as well.
- 01:50 the Aviation Brigade Commander approved a new landing zone which would be used to infiltrate a 17-man Navy SEAL team (the landing zone had been examined for a previous mission but never used).
- 02:00 special operations task force commander and the Immediate Reaction Force commander determined that the Navy SEAL team should be supported with additional elements increasing the size of the team to 33. It was decided to use both CH-47D helicopters but the entire team would be transported in a single CH-47 with the second remaining empty in an effort to mitigate the risk of a second helicopter approaching the landing zone.
- 02:22 – 02:24 6 August, local time, 21:54 UTC/GMT/Zulu time, 5 August, the two CH-47D helicopters (one of them carrying the SEAL team) took-off from the forward operating base
- six minutes prior to reaching the landing zone the empty CH-47D left formation (as planned) and the CH-47D carrying the SEALs proceeded to the landing zone alone. The helicopter entered the valley from the northwest unlike earlier that night (during the U.S. Army Ranger platoon insertion) when it entered from the south. The helicopter flew without external lighting and made its last radio transmission stating it was one minute away from the landing zone. The helicopter then descended to an altitude below 150 feet (>50 meters)and slowed to a speed of 50 knots (58 mph, ~90 km/h) as it approached the landing zone.
- 02:38 – 02:39 August 6 local time, 22:9 August 5 UTC/GMT/Zulu time the helicopter was fired upon and shot down by a previously undetected group of Taliban fighters. The group fired 2–3 RPG rounds from a two-story building from a location some 220 meters south of the helicopter. The second round struck one of the three aft rotor blades of the helicopter destroying the aft rotor assembly. The helicopter crashed less than 5 seconds later, killing all 38 people on board. Some 30 seconds later one of the AH-64 Apache helicopters in the area reported: “Fallen Angel”. Some sources state that at the time of the shootdown the two AH-64 Apache helicopters were engaged in tracking another Taliban group and were thus unable to provide surveillance (of the landing zone and infiltration route) as well as fire support to the inbound CH-47D helicopter carrying the Navy SEAL team.
- 02:45 the Rangers secured the initial compound and detained several people and then began to move (on foot) towards the crash site
- 04:12 U.S. Army Rangers reached the crash site but found no survivors. Several minutes later a 20-man Pathfinder team (specialised in downed aircraft rescue and recovery) arrived at the site as well.
- by 16:25 all of the remains were taken from the crash site via ground convoy and transported to Combat Outpost Sayyid Abad
- in the afternoon of 6 August a flash flood swept through the area washing away parts of the wreckage. The CH-47D airframe does not contain “black boxes” (allegedly only the MH-47 variant is equipped with a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder), though they are often erroneously discussed/referenced in the media.
- the recovery of wreckage from the crash site lasted until 9 August 2011
Subsequent reports stated that on the night the U.S. military helicopter had been delivering reinforcements to personnel of the 75th Ranger Regiment, another special operations unit engaged in a night raid on a compound to kill or capture a senior Taliban leader. During the battle US forces observed a small group of Taliban trying to flee the scene. The group probably contained the commander and a few of his bodyguards while the remaining Taliban fighters offered resistance in an effort to buy the group enough time to escape. In order to prevent this US forces called in for support.
Other reports alleged that the Taliban had laid an elaborate trap for U.S. special operations forces, luring them in with false information. A senior Afghan government official, speaking anonymously, said that Taliban commander Qari Tahir had fed U.S. forces false information about a meeting of insurgent leaders and fighters waited for the helicopter from both sides of a steep valley: “The Taliban knew which route the helicopter would take. That’s the only route, so they took position on either side of the valley on mountains and as the helicopter approached, they attacked it with rockets and other modern weapons. It was brought down by multiple shots.”
Thanks for reading and watching, Mark