- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author’s note: This chapter documents the never-before-revealed final minutes of Extortion 17’s fateful mission into Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley. The book reveals, for the first time, the full story of Extortion 17, including the backgrounds of the pilots and crew, information on the mission, the region, and answers a number of unanswered questions. It also reveals how American forces identified and hunted down those responsible for the downing, in a decisive, dramatic strike. This is a section of the chapter where Extortion 17 is shot down, recreated to the very second in never-before-published detail, for the first time. “Pitch Black 45” and “Pitch Black 70” are AH-64 Apache gunships.
At 2:39:25, the fighters each fired a shot in quick succession as the helicopter flew past a point almost due north of them. Flying 1.29 miles east of Extortion 17, Randell saw an explosive flash of light as powerful charges dispatched each of the rockets. Alex Bennett, manning the right-door gun, saw both flashes, and he immediately aimed and fired his M240. A stream of brass casings fell onto the Green Zone below as Alex loosed dozens of 7.62mm rounds per second into the location where he saw the bursts through his NVGs [night vision goggles]. The first rocket, fired by Ayubi, screamed toward the Chinook at 262 mph. “I saw a bright flash, followed by a comet-like stream of sparks leaving the RPG shot,” Slasher 02’s aircraft commander said, the explosive launch pulling his attention away from the IRF LZ [initial reaction force landing zone]. The rocket flew harmlessly past Extortion 17 and crashed into the Green Zone after traveling 350 to 400 meters.
“There’s another explosion. There’s another explosion,” Randell said to Sievers in Pitch Black 45 at 2:39:46, just as the two flew past the top of the Peninsula.
“I saw a flash. You see a flash?” Quiros asked Robertson in Pitch Black 70, also at 2:39:46.
“They’re bein’ shot at!” Robertson replied. The second RPG, dispatched by Chupan less than a second after his partner fired, flew toward the approaching Chinook. As Bryan and Dave calmly piloted Extortion 17 toward their destination and as Alex returned fire against the attackers — the pilots and crew functioning seamlessly and, in the worlds of John Edgemon, “in the spirit of highest valor” — the rocket sailed harmlessly between the blades of the forward rotor system. It then entered the pathway of the aft system just as Ayubi fired a third round, but by the time that third rocket reached his target, the target was gone.
At 2:39:47, after flying 217 meters in just under two seconds, the second round struck one of the clockwise-spinning aft rotor blades, the detonation blowing 122 inches — more than 10 feet — off the airfoil. Within one rotation — less than a quarter second — the asymmetric gyroscopic forces generated by the imbalance ripped the rear pylon off Extortion 17. The forward rotor system then hurled the fuselage into a violent clockwise spin. The abrupt lurch generated 100-plus g-forces, painlessly knocking unconscious and killing all 39 onboard in less than half a second. Extortion 17 plummeted onto the Green Zone as its forward pylon tore away, the mass of wreckage erupting in a fireball just north of the Logar River. The third RPG round sailed into an orchard.
“They’re down! They’re down!” Randell yelled to Sievers at 2:39:54. “Holy — ! Get over to it!” Randell said.
“You on it, Randell?!” CW3 Robertson transmitted to Randell from Pitch Black 70 as Randell and Sievers turned the TADS/PNVS system, a night-vision targeting device, away from the IRF LZ and toward the village of Hasan Khel. At 2:40:10, Juy Zarin and Hasan Khel swept into view of Pitch Black 45’s sensor. Between the two villages on the pilots’ screens and in their monocles was a billowing white streamer rising into the night — flames and hot smoke from the burning wreckage of Extortion 17.
Excerpted, with permission, from The Final Mission of Extortion 17, published this month by Smithsonian Books.
Photo credit: Smithsonian Books