The Army talked about but never followed through on any plan to install voice and flight data recorders on one of its main war machines, the CH-47D Chinook helicopter — such as the one that was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011, killing all 30 U.S. service members onboard, including 22 members of SEAL Team 6.
The lack of these basic, post-accident investigative tools has stirred consternation among some families of the SEALs and other troops who perished in the crash, which was caused by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade.
The top officer who investigated the crash called the lack of voice/flight data “critical.”
To some families, the issue became a mystery driven by the military’s own investigative file. It contains the transcript of an interview with an Army officer who led a post-crash salvage mission into the Tangi Valley. He said he was briefed to remove the flight recorder, or black box, but could not gain access to the smoldering cockpit.
To some parents of the fallen, it raised suspicions: If U.S. Central Command could not find the black box, what other gaps exist in the investigation?
Answering a query from The Washington Times, the Army confirmed that the Chinook “D” model — airframes refitted in the 1980s and early ‘90s — never were equipped with voice and flight data recorders.
Some parents ask why the military in Afghanistan would use the conventional D model for special operations missions, as it did Aug. 6, 2011, without installing the best equipment.
“That further shows you how dilapidated that aircraft was that night and I would also say, as a father and American citizen, look at the way the senior leadership is allowing them to operate,” said Billy Vaughn, father of Aaron, a Navy SEAL who died that night.
Mr. Vaughn and his wife, Karen, are among the most outspoken critics of the mission. He wrote a book about the investigation titled “Betrayed.”
“It is a further indictment of the negligence and the reckless way that they are forcing our war fighters to have to try to get a job done,” Mr. Vaughn said. “You know the SEALs: If all they have is a bicycle, they’re going to go.
“I think [senior leadership has] taken full advantage of our special operations, their fearlessness, to give them crappy equipment to work with.”
Voice and flight data recorders are installed in all 61 MH-47 Chinook models, which are especially configured for special operations troops such as SEALs, Army Rangers and Green Berets.
The MHs are flown by specially trained pilots in the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or “Night Stalkers,” to insert troops into dangerous situations. The CH-47s are flown by conventional pilots.
‘The logistical burden’
The Aug. 6, 2011, downing of the Chinook helicopter — call sign Extortion 17 — marked the worst casualty day in the war and the worst mission loss in the history of Navy special warfare.
Although it is known why Extortion 17 crashed, data recorders could have provided additional information about cockpit conversations.
Army budget documents dating back to the 1990s indicate that the service discussed a long-range improvement plan that included putting recorders on the Chinook D model.
“There’s a lot of guys out there that have brought forth the question, ‘Why don’t all Army aircraft have voice and data recorders?’” said a Pentagon official who has spent a career dealing with Chinook issues.
The official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, said the argument for not having them on the D is twofold.
First, in the early days of the war, the Army began plans to put into service a new Chinook — the F model, which has a modern digitized cockpit that contains voice and flight data recorders. Officials questioned the cost of spending more money on the D model, whose cockpit avionics would have to be altered to accommodate a black box.
“The argument is the logistical burden to care and feed for the data and all the maintenance,” said the official. “But let me tell you, at the end of the day that one box, which is not that expensive and not that hard to integrate onto the aircraft, it tells all about what happens inside the cockpit and the health of the aircraft itself when you have a catastrophic event.
“And if you don’t have one of those, you can go years and never understand the reason for a crash or an event. But when you have a voice and data recorder, in days, on most aircraft accidents, you can tell exactly what happened.”
Second, the Army in the early 2000s could not envision a 12-year-long war in which the conventional Chinook and its high-flying capability would be used to augment the MH special operations fleet. By 2011, commanders were surging forces and there were not enough MH models for all commando insertions.
At its heart, the conventional Chinook is a transport helicopter, not the best vehicle to insert troops into a hot landing zone.
A fruitless search
The lead investigator for Extortion 17 expressed dismay that the CH-47D Chinook had no recorders.
“We do need to talk [voice and data recorders], though, because it’s critical. This one didn’t have one,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt said during an interview session.
Gen. Colt is a former Night Stalker, a unit in which all Chinooks, as well as Black Hawk helicopters, have recorders.
According to transcripts of that interview session, Gen. Colt’s team talked with members of the Army Pathfinder team who arrived at the crash site to retrieve the bodies of 30 Americans and eight Afghans. The team’s other chore: Recover sensitive avionics components.
It was that session that seeded so much suspicion into the minds of some parents.
The platoon leader said he had been briefed on where to find the Chinook’s flight data recorder. But at the scene, he could not find it in the smoldering cockpit. That afternoon, a rainstorm flooded the dry streambed where the wreckage sat, washing some parts 300 yards downstream.
The platoon leader told Gen. Colt: “Sir, in this case the first night we went, we looked for the flight recorder, but because the way the fire had burned down, we were told to look for the flight recorder. I think this is actually the only time we hadn’t been successful in recovering that, by the cockpit near the pilot seat on the left hand side and we got as much as we could, but it was still smoldering at that point. And then, after the flood came in, we looked again and we also — we briefed the human remains team and the downed aircraft assessment team, as well as everyone else who was working on the stretchers, to look for the flight recorder in any of the wreckage. But to my knowledge no one — we had a couple, I guess, false alarms — but we could never actually find the actual flight recorder.”
What bothers some family members is why no one on Gen. Colt’s team corrected the platoon leader and told him the Chinook did not have a recorder.
“He said he was instructed to find the black box and knew where to look for the black box when he testified,” Mr. Vaughn said. “In the room with him were military people, a lot of them helicopter people. I found it very odd that no body in the room corrected him and said, ‘Mr. Pathfinder leader, the CH-47Ds don’t have a black box on there.’ I find that very odd.”
Douglas Hamburger, whose son Patrick, an Army National Guardsman, died in the crash, remains skeptical.
“It is extremely hard to believe that a multimillion-dollar aircraft is not fitted with voice and flight data recorders,” Mr. Hamburger said. “If that is the case, why did the official investigation by Gen. Colt’s team mention that the black box was seen on the floor by the pilot’s seat, but it was too hot to enter and retrieve it? Why did they make such a big deal about it being washed away in a flash flood? Why was it mentioned that this was the first time the black box had not been retrieved in a Chinook crash? What is the truth?”
The Pentagon official interviewed by The Times said a possible explanation is that the Pathfinder soldier assumed, or was told, he was salvaging a special operations MH Chinook, which has recorders.
Families say that as far as they know no military official has attempted to find out why the salvage team believed a flight recorder existed.
Garry Reid, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, was asked about the platoon leader’s testimony at a House subcommittee hearing last month.
“Sir, I can’t speak exactly for what the commander thought. I have seen the transcript where he talked about looking for it,” he said.
Mr. Reid said, for that particular mission, there was no difference between the survival capabilities of the CH-47D and the MH-47. The helicopters have no countermeasure to defeat an unguided rocket-propelled grenade, he said.
According to ArmyAirCrews.com, there have been 11 fatal crashes of Chinooks in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The UH-60 Black Hawk sustained four fatal crashes, none the result of rocket-propelled grenades.
The Dutch fly CH-47D models. According to a paper presented at an aeronautical symposium in Canada, the Netherlands equipped its D’s with voice and flight data recorders and has begun buying F models to accompany its fleet of 11 CH-47Ds.