There are lots of surprising claims in Chuck Pfarrer’s new book, SEAL Target Geronimo, a supposedly inside account of the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound — and none more surprising than this. The former commando-turned-author Pfarrer insists the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment possesses not one, but two stealth transport helicopter designs. The stealthier of the two was held back from the mission for fear of one crashing and giving up its secrets, Pfarrer claims.
That was a perfectly valid fear, it turned out. The outside world became aware of the 160th SOAR’s stealthy choppers after one of them crashed inside bin Laden’s compound, leaving behind an intact tail rotor, pictured, whose design elements point to reduced sonic, infrared and radar signatures.
In the days following the raid, aviation journalist David Cenciotti produced a digital mockup of the new copter. Danger Room revealed the chopper’s nickname: “Airwolf.” And ace Army Times reporter Sean Naylor spoke to a 160th SOAR source who unveiled the Airwolf’s origins. The radar-evading rotorcraft were modified UH-60 Blackhawks with angular fuselages and the special “hubcap” tail. Naylor reports that Lockheed Martin built four or so of the tricked-out birds around the year 2000 before the contract was canceled.
Pfarrer’s account contradicts Naylor’s. According to Pfarrer, the bird that crashed was called a “Stealth Hawk,” and it was the older of the two secret chopper models. The newer copter was called a “Gen-3? or “Ghost Hawk,” Pfarrer claims. “The Ghost Hawk helicopters were among the most highly classified aircraft possessed by the U.S. military” and “were even quieter” than the Stealth Hawks, he writes.
Pfarrer describes a pair of Air Force C-5A cargo planes transporting two Ghost Hawks (and presumably the Stealth Hawks, too) to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, where the SEALs and the 160th pilots were based. All four secret choppers were slated to participate in the raid, but at the last minute the White House ordered the Ghost Hawks yanked. “It was deemed too much of a risk that the Ghost technology would fall into enemy hands,” Pfarrer explains.
So just the two older Stealth Hawks flew to Abbottabad … and the rest is (previously reported) history. Pfarrer’s description of the chopper crash differs somewhat from other accounts in the technical details. But the broad outline, as far as stealth aircraft are concerned, is the same.
Still, there are good reasons to doubt Pfarrer. The author insists his book is based on interviews with SEALs who were on the bin Laden raid. But the Pentagon claims no SEALs spoke to Pfarrer. And some of the technical specs Pfarrer cites for the stealth choppers seem implausible. Leaving aside the author’s exaggeration of the helicopters’ ability to evade detection — no rotorcraft with big, spinning blades is “invisible to radar” — he describes the Stealth Hawk as carrying 20 people in the cabin. That’s unlikely, considering the added weight of the stealth modifications.
Finally, this niggling detail: Pfarrer has C-5s delivering the high-tech copters to the NATO airfield at Jalalabad. But the runway at that facility is probably too short and narrow for the giant C-5, America’s biggest airlifter. In December, the Air Force announced the first landing of the much smaller C-17 at Jalalabad. If a C-17 touching down warrants a press release, you can safely bet no C-5s are paying visits — whether or not they’re carrying secret helicopters.
Does the Army possess another stealth helicopter? Maybe. But you shouldn’t take Pfarrer’s word for it.