The stealth secret's out on copters used in raid

A tractor trolley carries the wreckage of a helicopter near the wall of the compound where U.S. forces shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

File/Mohammad Zubair/AP

The wreckage of a modified Black Hawk helicopter is seen beside Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, revealing some of its stealth technology.

LOS ANGELES -- When a U.S. military helicopter was destroyed in the backyard of Osama bin Laden's compound, it left not only a pile of smoldering wreckage but also tantalizing evidence of a secret stealth chopper.

The quest for a helicopter that can slip behind enemy lines without being heard or detected by radar has been the Holy Grail of military aviation for decades, and until this week nobody had thought such a craft existed.

But aviation experts are now convinced that the Pentagon may have developed such an aircraft. They say the U.S. military went to extraordinary lengths to protect its new technology by destroying a helicopter that had been damaged in the raid, either during the initial landing or in the subsequent evacuation.

A section of the craft also survived intact, and photos of it leave no doubt in analysts' minds that the U.S. had modified a MH-60 Black Hawk into some kind of super-secret stealth helicopter, the likes of which have never been seen before.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta has said that the only helicopters used for the operation were Black Hawks, and he acknowledged that one of them had to be destroyed.

While stealth jets are designed to evade radar, stealth helicopters are built to be quiet. Some experts have concluded that the military and CIA may have succeeded in their decades-old quest to develop a helicopter without the ear-splitting thump-thump-thump that has signaled the presence of rotorcraft from miles away.

Maj. Wes Ticer, a U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman, declined to comment.

Aerospace analysts say the surviving tail section appears nothing like that of the standard $30-million Black Hawk chopper made by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Connecticut. Notably, the tail rotor was partially covered by a plate or hub, possibly part of a noise-muffling system.

"What we're seeing here is a very different type of design than what we normally see in rotorcraft," said Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "It appears that the military went to great lengths to reduce the radar and acoustic signature of the helicopter."

The tail section hints at what other modifications might have been made to the far more important main rotor.

Farhan Gandhi, aerospace engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University and deputy director of the Penn State Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence, said tremendous advances in helicopter noise reduction have been made in recent years.

"You can never have helicopters make zero noise, but there is a tremendous possibility to make them much quieter than they are now," Gandhi said.

To reduce noise, rotors can be slowed down. Advanced computation has enabled engineers to refine the shape of rotor tips. Research is being conducted into active controls that can make minute changes to the shape of rotors many times per second as they change position.

"The technology has been lab tested and flight tested, but it is not on any military aircraft that we know about," Gandhi said.

Jeff Eldredge, a University of California-Los Angeles aerospace engineering professor and acoustics expert, said helicopter noise is extremely complex and requires many approaches to controlling it.

"The idea of a stealth helicopter is something of a misnomer," he said. "It is very unlikely this is a helicopter you wouldn't hear coming."

But any reduction in noise could provide tactical benefit.

The idea of quiet choppers is not a new one. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army and CIA developed what could be considered a stealth helicopter for the first time.

In the 1980s, the Pentagon worked on developing a classified stealth helicopter along with the F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft and the B-2 stealth bomber, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a website for military policy research.

No one knows for sure who worked on the modifications on the Special Forces' Black Hawks or how many of them exist, but at least one may have been destroyed.

The Pentagon said the chopper experienced a mechanical "malfunction." A senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the helicopter couldn't get lift because of the 18-foot-high walls surrounding the compound.

The wreckage, some of which was carted away by the Pakistan military, has raised worries that key technology could be revealed to other countries, said Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, a military and aerospace consulting firm.

"There will be fears that the technology may get into the wrong hands," Grant said.