Pentagon & Congress

Exclusive: Legendary special operations aviator reveals bin Laden mission details for the first time

It was just 30 seconds into the mission to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011 when special operations Chinook pilot Chief Warrant Officer 5 Douglas Englen heard the call of “Black Hawk down” come over his radio.

Black Hawk 2′s pilot alerted Englen — the pilot in charge of the air operation that night — that Black Hawk-1 had just crashed inside the 9/11 mastermind’s Abbottabad compound.

Englen, the air component planner for Operation Neptune’s Spear, was pissed off.

His crew in Chinook-1 and another crew in Chinook-2 had been setting up a refuel site for the two Black Hawks, about 30 miles to the north. But his Chinook immediately went straight to the objective area, to pick up the ground force and the aircrew. Meanwhile, the other Chinook stayed at the refueling site.

“We just went into contingency mode,” said Englen, talking about the raid, and his life, for the first time in an exclusive interview with Military Times. “Didn’t know the severity — if it was crashed with casualties? If it crashed in civilian area? All we do is minimize our time and get there as quick as possible," Englen said.

Local residents watch ongoing demolition of the compound where al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden was slain last year in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012. Pakistani security forces began demolishing the compound where bin Laden was killed in a covert U.S. raid last May in the garrison town of Abbottabad, police and witnesses said. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)
Local residents watch ongoing demolition of the compound where al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden was slain last year in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012. Pakistani security forces began demolishing the compound where bin Laden was killed in a covert U.S. raid last May in the garrison town of Abbottabad, police and witnesses said. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

Englen had studied the area around bin Laden’s compound for months. He knew exactly where everything was; he didn’t need a map. When he flew over Abbottabad, it felt as familiar as flying over his hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.

He could see where the police lights were, where the commotion was happening. Blue police lights don’t show up in night vision goggles, so Englen looked under his goggles to see those blue lights.

From getting the call, Englen was there less than 10 minutes after the aircraft crash. As he came in fast to pick up the ground force and air crew, he saw the downed helicopter.

Just as Englen was about to land, the team master chief told him over the radio to break away. The fuse was ready to blow up the crashed helicopter.

“I was probably 100 feet from the aircraft when it blew up. It pushed our aircraft to the side. I had to actually fly away, make a tight circle and come back in, and land under the mushroom cloud. I landed to the east of the compound, right next to it. I mean like, right next to it,” Englen explained.

Before they'd left the States, there were some ground force team members who'd said, "I don't think we're going to make it back."

Englen figured some ground forces were worried because they’d only been read-in two and a half weeks before the mission, and didn’t have the full aspect of what was going on. He’d had months of planning and knew everything about that part of Pakistan and the area around bin Laden’s compound.

He also knew the ground forces had to trust him and the ground force commander.

“We literally just needed them to be on the objective, which they did phenomenally well. But what scared them was: ‘We’re going into this place, what are our odds of making it back?’ I never thought that. I never thought that we weren’t coming back,” Englen said.

Some people may have thought he was being cocky or arrogant, but cockiness was what had earned him the nickname “Stud Muffin” when he first arrived at the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or SOAR.

Not coming home was never an option.

Back home

Englen’s wife Tina, his high-school sweetheart, was worried.

“I just knew, that God knew, I wasn’t going to be able to raise these kids without Doug,” Tina confided in an interview.

Having four children to keep her mind off the dangerous mission became her saving grace.

“They were just as worried. So, if mom was worried, they were worried. If mom wasn’t worried, they weren’t worried,” Tina said.

Tina was raised in the church. Her grandmother always told her that faith would get her through life.

She prayed to God —“Go ahead and take Doug and use him, and do what You need to do. But, I’m going to need him back.”

Night Stalkers don’t quit

Look up the Silver Star citation for CW5 Douglas Englen for that night — the citation is so blandly generic that it looks like he didn’t do much. Which is exactly the point. For years, the special operations aviator flew figuratively under people’s radar back home, while flying literally under the enemy’s radar downrange.

Englen flying MH47 on training exercise. (Courtesy 160th SOAR)
Englen flying MH47 on training exercise. (Courtesy 160th SOAR)

In reality Englen, who just retired as the senior warrant adviser to the secretary of the Army and most decorated aviator in the Army, led the air component for the bin Laden raid, one of the most famous military operations in recent history. 160th SOAR aviators rarely speak about their missions or careers, because the majority is spent supporting Tier 1 operators on covert or clandestine operations.

When most people think of the bin Laden mission, they think of SEAL Team 6 and the CIA’s Special Activities Division members, shooting its high value target, code named “Geronimo.” What they may not realize is the majority of duration of that mission belonged to the special operations aviators.

While the risk was high for the ground forces during the 38 minutes they were actually on the ground at bin Laden’s compound, the risk for the helicopters during the rest of almost four hours of flying was extreme. And, of course, one of the MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters crashed.

"We're the ones that are penetrating into a sovereign nation. We're the ones that have to elude the air defense, early warning network. We're the ones that have to make sure we can get the ground force in, where they need to go. Loiter, for up to an hour, in an area that could shoot you down at any time, they possibly could think it's an aircraft from India," Englen said.

And getting back safely was even more difficult because, by then, the Pakistani military was alerted. “We absolutely can get shot down on the way back, which means we have to evade,” Englen said.

CW5 Doug Englen documents his last flight in the Army. This photo shows inside the back of MH-47, a space for maneuver of ground forces & equipment. (Courtesy of Doug Englen)
CW5 Doug Englen documents his last flight in the Army. This photo shows inside the back of MH-47, a space for maneuver of ground forces & equipment. (Courtesy of Doug Englen)

Englen is sharing his story for the first time — and possibly the last, since he lives by the “quiet professionals” code, and avoids discussing his life in the shadows. He’s only venturing into the light because former CIA Director Leon Panetta and retired Navy Adm. William R. McRaven — the overall commander of the bin Laden mission — encouraged him to, calling him “an American hero.”

He is, without a doubt, the finest Army aviator of our generation. Doug pulled my fat out of the fire more times than I can think of,” McRaven said at a speech at Murray State College in February, a month before Englen retired.

“There truly are few people of this 9/11 generation that have been as heroic and as courageous as Doug Englen,” McRaven added, without revealing any specifics.

The bin Laden operation is merely one of numerous classified missions he’s participated in which the public knows little about.

“I’m telling it to you,” he told Military Times recently, “because there’s never been an accurate air piece conveyed on what happened that night."

Not only was Englen the MH-47 (a special operations version of a Chinook helicopter, a multi-role assault aircraft) pilot, he was also the flight lead, which means he’s among the top 10 percent of the aviators in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

"That means you're in charge of not just your aircraft, you're in charge of the flight: responsible for the flight planning, execution, and orchestration. Think of it as a music conductor. But, you're also writing the lyrics for the song, playing the song, and you're orchestrating the song," Englen explained.

The 160th is the only rotary wing precision special operations aviation force in the entire Defense Department. It originated after the failed Iran hostage rescue attempt in 1980. The primary reason 160th aviators are “special” is their selection process, realistic training and resourcing. They are the best of the best. They take pride in supporting the elite: working with special operations forces of all branches on classified missions.

Englen always wanted to fly helicopters. As a child, he went to an Air Force Academy football game and crawled all over the helicopter static displays, and was hooked.

He bootstrapped his way up. He saw combat as a door gunner during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Then he went to flight school. As a crew chief, he was in one of the first helicopters in Bosnia in 1995.

More than 90 percent of Englen’s career has involved Tier 1 missions.

Englen has more than 7,000 flight hours. About 4,500 of that was under night vision goggles. In Iraq and Afghanistan alone, he flew more than 2,500 missions. His 34 deployments translate to six years and nine months’ worth of combat time downrange, away from his wife Tina and four children.

That number does not include all the other operations and training missions away from home.

TASK FORCE SWORD

Operation Neptune's Spear was not Englen's first time in Afghanistan. His 160th SOAR air crews had been going after Osama bin Laden since the beginning.

During the longest helicopter assault in U.S. history, Englen’s was the first helicopter into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, on Oct. 19, 2001.

“The flight lead was left seat, I was his copilot in the right seat,” he recalled.

160th SOAR Chinook
160th SOAR Chinook "Crazy Horse Airlines" Co. Task Force Sword 2001. (Same air crews who fought Haditha, Iraq, 2003.) Doug Englen back row, left, "goofing off," hugging soldier. (Courtesy of Doug Englen)

While Task Force Dagger and the Green Beret "Horse Soldiers" flew in from the north, Task Force Sword and the Tier 1 commando elements flew in from the south.

"When we're a top tier, you don't advertise what you do, you don't follow up with what you do, and that's why you don't see books and movies about TF Sword," he explained.

Task Force Sword was a combined, joint interagency special operations task force run by Joint Special Operations Command, to conduct direct action missions in southern Afghanistan. It included special operations forces from the United Kingdom and other government agencies.

While the “Horse Soldiers” made headlines later, little was reported about Task Force Sword missions. Missions like “Objective Rhino” and “Objective Gecko” did make it into the news, however.

Tom DiTomasso, a retired lieutenant colonel and former Army Special Operations Command squadron commander, was at Objective Gecko and praised Englen and the 160th SOAR.

"They continue to be the premier standard for SOF aviation,” DiTomasso said. “They are both great pilots and great fighters. I witnessed their commitment to us first-hand in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Consistently put themselves in harm's way to make sure we are covered on the ground. They are not normal pilots. Trusted them completely. As a commander, there are no others that I would want on an objective.”

Rescuing Karzai

Only a few days following Objective Gecko, Englen (under a senior flight lead) rescued Hamid Karzai from the Taliban. Karzai later became the president of Afghanistan.

“We flew all the way from the Indian Ocean, off the USS Kitty Hawk, all the way through Pakistan, all the way through Afghanistan. Probably less than a hundred miles from ‘Triple Nickel’ (Special Forces ODA-555, which along with ODA-595 became known as the 'Horse Soldiers’), and rescued Karzai, because he was surrounded by hundreds of Taliban,” Englen said.

His Chinook picked up Karzai, along with members of other governmental agencies, and repatriated him elsewhere within Afghanistan. It was almost a full moon, and Englen incurred 38 bullet holes in his Chinook.

"I used to love the moon,” Englen said. “I hate it now. I didn’t know if the aircraft was going to hold together, because we still had five hours to fly to get back to the USS Kitty Hawk. It held together, thank God.”

Iraq

In Iraq, there were also several high-profile missions the public knew little about.

Englen was on nearly every special operations insertion in the two weeks prior to the “Shock and Awe” campaign on March 19, 2003.

Among other missions, he infiltrated Top Tier members, along with British and Australian special operations in Al-Anbar, near the Syrian border, to deal with H-3 and H-2 Air Bases.

"Haditha Dam was a big one. I was leading," Englen said, of one the legendary battles in Army Ranger history.

The 160th brought AH-6 helicopters — the light helicopter gunship based on MH-6 “Little Bird” — and defensive armed penetrators, the MH-60L modified attack helicopter that looks like a Black Hawk, and one Chinook to that firefight.

Englen and a crew of six was flying that one Chinook.

“There’s at least a dozen missions that I thought, ‘There was no reason why we should have come out of that alive,' ” he confided.

Haditha Dam was one of those.

“We rescued the Rangers when they were protecting the road going into Haditha, and a lady suicide bomber, pretending to be pregnant, blew up the checkpoint,” Englen said.

Ranger Joe Harosky’s friend Russ Rippletoe was killed in that vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) incident, along with three other Rangers.

"It was a suicide mission,” Harosky said. “Vehicle stopped and the woman acted like she was pregnant, feigned that she needed water. Russ was giving her a bottle of water, when the VBIED detonated.”

The Rangers never gave the clearance for Englen to come in.

"They said it was too hot, and we just went in anyway. I knew if we spent another minute holding, these Rangers were going to die. So we went in, and I've never seen so many bullets coming our way, hitting us, going over the top of us, below us," Englen said.

Throughout his career, Englen never got scared when bullets hit his aircraft. Instead, he always became angry.

"Take a baseball bat and hit the side of your car — that’s what a bullet sounds like inside an aircraft,” he said. “It’s horrible. And, when it starts ricocheting inside, it’s even more horrific. I would just get pissed, because I knew that we had young kids on mini-guns getting scared, and if I got scared, they would freeze. I had to remain calm.”

Harosky, the Ranger, was with 3/75th Ranger Regiment and at a blocking position further from the dam.

"TF 160 was truly amazing at Haditha Dam,” he said. “Especially their support firing directly into trench lines in front of us that had enemy personnel in them. They would fly in line with the trenches while strafing them.”

“The DAPs — defensive air penetrators — were just unleashing. We saved most of the Rangers’ lives. Some we didn’t, because they were burnt too bad,” Englen said.

“Haditha Dam was one that I knew we were going to get hit, we’re going to get hit. I just knew, it’s either that, or they’re going to die,” he added. “I had one of the best special operation aviators ever with me that night without any hesitation in the heat of battle. I owe my life to him, the crew owes their lives to him."

Chasing Soleimani

During those Iraq War years, Englen was involved in a number of missions supporting operations out of Mission Support Site Fernandez operations, which was near Baghdad. Those missions involved British special operations and multiple Tier 1 organizations from the U.S. From Samarra to the Yusufiyah triangle, the list of operations the public never knew about was long.

Twice between 2013 and 2016, Englen was in hot pursuit of Iran’s Quds Force leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. But their order was “capture only.”

"It wasn’t ‘capture or kill,’ so if we couldn’t guarantee a capture, then we couldn’t take it to the next level,” Englen said. “But we were minutes behind him and his vehicles in Iraq, and we could’ve gotten him. But our rules of engagement was, 'capture only.’”

Soleimani was killed in an airstrike at Baghdad Airport this past January.

Though the global special operations never ceased for Englen and his fellow 160th aviators, the one the public always wanted to know about was the famous bin Laden mission.

UBL

Englen had gone after bin Laden three times prior to Operation Neptune's Spear.

The first time was in Tora Bora in 2001.

"I was not the flight lead,” he said. “Al Mack, who has publicly disclosed his name, gets the credit for that. But for me, that was some of the nastiest flying you could think of.”

This undated file photo shows al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. (AP Photo)
This undated file photo shows al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. (AP Photo)

The second time was in the Shigal Valley, northeast of Jalalabad, in 2006.

Englen’s MH-47 Chinook was supposed to be the contingency force, but ended up being the primary aircraft to put the first guys in to go running after bin Laden.

“We actually crashed a helicopter,” Englen admitted. “It was one of our 160th Black Hawks. They did a great job crash landing and not hurting anybody.”

The MH-60 Black Hawks were supposed to fast-rope the assault group onto the rooftop of a mud building.

“So, you can imagine that amount of time, before one Black Hawk, another Black Hawk, a third Black Hawk — in and out — can’t make it in there. All of the sudden, ‘Hey, we need you to put the contingency force, the QRF [quick reaction force], as the primary assault force’,” Englen explained.

While Chinooks can be a little slower, in this case his was the only helicopter with the power to hover over that building and drop a rope down so the ground forces could rope onto it.

“Bin Laden was there. He was there, but it took (us) so long to get in,” Englen stated. “With the noise in the valley, he had an early warning network, and he was out of there. I’d say, two or three minutes before we got in there. And that’s just enough.”

(A Pennsylvania National Guard Chinook, CH-47, slung-loaded the crashed MH-60 Black Hawk out of there, so nobody would be the wiser about that nighttime special operation — though some “famous daytime photos” of resupplying the ground troops later went viral. The photos show a National Guard Chinook with its back wheels on the rooftop of that same mud building “hanging there.”)

Another daylight PA NG CH47 resupplying ground troops. Englen's 2nd UBL attempt was at this compound during darkness prior with his MH47. (Courtesy DOD)
Another daylight PA NG CH47 resupplying ground troops. Englen's 2nd UBL attempt was at this compound during darkness prior with his MH47. (Courtesy DOD)

The third time Englen went after bin Laden was between the Khost Bowl and the Tirah Valley in Afghanistan, right next to Pakistan, in 2008.

"We went after him there, and sure enough, it was another extremely dark night. I mean, he's very savvy, and eluded us once again," Englen said.

They had other attempts against bin Laden.

“But the administration, from 2008 on, would not allow us to cross the border (into Pakistan) to go get him,” Englen said.

Until 2011, when they got the approval to go for Operation Neptune’s Spear.

Lead up to the UBL raid

Englen had just trained 160th crews on electronic warfare: deep-insertion attacks against an enemy threat with an air defense network. Their aircraft had just been fitted with new equipment, which he helped certify.

“I was selected because I knew that type of environment very well. Not only that, the ground force commander — I had rescued him numerous times throughout the globe. We already had an extremely close relationship, and trust and loyalty. So they brought me on the team,” Englen said.

Due to operational security concerns, only a few people were involved in the planning of that mission.

"We had to keep it down to such a minimum, because we didn’t want to leak it out in our own (special operations) community,” Englen said. “Plus, we didn’t know when we were going to do it. So we had to make sure that we didn’t ‘suspend’ (hold) a group of the elite ground force and air crews for three, four, or five months at a time, and not utilize them.”

Those few planners worked for nearly four months at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

“We hung out in the print shop of the CIA because it’s a little outside of the main building,” he said. That was to alleviate exposure to other individuals of Special Operations Command regularly visiting the agency.

“We didn’t want to run into one of them, and have them ask ‘What are you guys doing here?’” Englen added.

They did not bring in the rest of the air crew, and the rest of the ground force, until two and a half weeks before they executed the mission.

Every other day, Englen assisted in briefing CIA Director Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He briefed President Barack Obama twice, though McRaven briefed him more than that.

“In the situation room, the vice president approached me with off-topic discussion. I’ll admit (it) was very distracting,” Englen said.

These were high-level, the overall concept of what the risk and probability was: all the things the president would want to know to make a decision.

"It truly is a decision brief each time, but you have to go through the concepts. Sometimes the president would ask details. Sometimes he would ask, ‘Where are you landing?’ Sometimes he’d ask, ‘How are you planning on doing that?’ Or about the air crew. You’d have to explain that, ‘This is our concept, now,’ Englen recalled.

McRaven would speak 90 percent of the time.

“We really wanted to do this (mission), and make sure we are the absolute professional,” Englen said. “That’s what Adm. McRaven is, just the true professional, true leader — and here I am getting side-barred with the vice president.”

Turns out, Vice President Joe Biden pulled Englen to the side every time to make small-talk. He was genuinely interested in Englen and his family back home.

"He was really concerned, you know, ‘You’re gone a lot. How’s this on the family?’ He was asking those types of things, ‘How many kids do I have? How long you been in the service,’ etc,’” said Englen. “They were genuine, thoughtful questions, but were kind of off-topic. Finally I just politely asked him, 'Sir, if you don’t mind, I have to pay attention.’”

The plan called for using four aircraft: two Chinooks and two Black Hawks, which are a little bit quieter. They emit a smaller signature from a radar standpoint.

"The use of Black Hawks was to get them (the ground forces) quickly roped into the objective,” Englen said. “The Chinooks were the ‘smack down force’ — the extra assaulters, extra gas in case anything were to happen — like an aircraft crash. That was the No. 1 planned contingency: a Black Hawk crashing.”

Once they got the word to proceed with rehearsal, that's when they brought the rest of the ground force and the air crews in.

Meanwhile, on the home front…

Back home, Englen’s wife Tina started putting two and two together, because her husband was gone for months during the lead-up. She didn’t know who the exact person the special operations aviators were going after, but knew there were three or four targets for which this intense focus was needed.

“I knew this was definitely a little bit different, because of the hours of training, how much he was gone, and how he was ‘taken.’ I mean, he was taken out of an award ceremony, like, ‘You come now.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Hey you’re going to have to catch a ride, I got to go.’ I’m like, ‘Crap. I’ve got to find a ride home,’” Tina recalled.

Over the course of his career, and their marriage, Doug Englen never shared much.

“I didn’t ask a lot, either. In this community, it’s kind of good to be ignorant, because what you don’t know, doesn’t hurt you. We (the spouses) were always imbued with, ‘Just support them,’” Tina said.

Tina didn't know when she'd hear from her husband again, during those busy months away from home. Once, when he'd called to ask how she and their four children were doing, her washing machine was flooding water out their front door.

“I just literally sat down in the middle of the water and talked to him,” she recalled, not saying anything about the chaos at home. ‘”We’re fine, we’re good, everything’s great, couldn’t be better.”

"The fact that I didn't have a washing machine, and I'd have to re-carpet the downstairs, was not important," Tina said.

The fact that her husband had called was.

Living on post at Fort Campbell, home of 160th SOAR, was “always trying,” she said. “Everyone (in the special operations community) worried if they didn’t hear from their spouses.

“If an aircraft went down, and you didn’t hear anything. Or if somebody’s husband didn’t come home. Somebody was always planning or doing something for those guys. And you just always hoped that you weren’t the one that they were planning for,” Tina said.

“I knew what he was doing was big. The last thing he said to me was, ‘I will not be able to talk to you until I’m back in-country.’ So, I just glued myself to the TV, and tried to read between the lines of anything being reported, if I could,” Tina said.

Of course, there was no news until Obama made the announcement about Neptune's Spear.

Sterilizing

“This was a ‘do-or-die’ type mission,” Englen said. “The mission was to ‘kill/capture’ him. And, if we are shot down, we had to make sure we were sterile.”

“Yeah, it’s a weird term,” he added.

Sterile meant no identification, name tags, unit patches, family photos. No wedding rings. Nothing personal, in case they were taken hostage.

“I had some money on me, and a few cigars for bargaining (with captors), but that was it (besides his M9 pistol and M4 rifle),” Englen said. Their SAR (search and rescue) plan was in effect.

“The thing is, you get into this level of operation, it’s not the standard SAR. It’s multiple layers of search and rescue and recovery,” he added.

Englen and his fellow special operations aircrew went to their helicopters for final checks that they had nothing personal on board. Their wedding rings, and everything else, went into their kit bags to stay behind.

“We have guys that know where our kit bags are at, in case something were to happen,” he said.

Many operators wrote letters to be delivered to their loved ones back home, should the worst happen. Englen refused to. He’d never done that throughout his entire career of dangerous missions.

“No, I felt like it was a jinx. Plus, I always felt like it took you out of your frame of mind,” he said. “A lot of guys wrote letters. A lot of people asked why I didn’t. I just didn’t. It wasn’t an option to not come home,” he added.

Back home, Doug’s wife Tina worried, as she had throughout his career. But she refused to think about him getting hurt, and leaving her and their four children.

Tina closed her eyes and ears to the possibility and prayed a lot.

“I just knew he was going to come home. Because I really couldn’t do it by myself, so I knew he was going to come home,” Tina said.

Infil

Behind the scenes, there was friction between the Black Hawk crews and the Chinook crews. Englen, being the planner and flight lead (i.e., the boss), had recommended infiltrating first with the Black Hawks. The Chinooks would be there as the backup.

Air crew competitiveness ensued.

“We went back and forth. I said, a different airframe should be first in there, versus myself (Chinook pilot). To be completely unselfish, I’d rather pick the right tool for the ground force, versus it always being myself,” Englen explained.

The primary plan was for the Chinooks to give the Black Hawks gas on the ground in Pakistan, out in the middle of nowhere. The Black Hawk crews would “get the glory” of being on the objective for this historic operation getting bin Laden, “which was totally OK."

“They’re walking out. And, I’m like, ‘Hey, good luck guys. See you when you get back.’ And they say, ‘Just give us gas, bitches,'” Englen laughed, realizing they had a small chip on their shoulder.

That was the famous last quote of the pilot that crashed that helicopter.

Into Pakistan

Black Hawks Lead and Chalk-2, with the small surgical force, flew out from Jalalabad 45 minutes ahead of the Chinooks, since they were “flying along the route.” Chinooks Chalk-1 and 2, with the “smack down force,” basically flew straight to the refuel rendezvous site inside Pakistan.

Crossing into Pakistan was emotional for everyone.

“You know, it’s almost like there’s a road sign, ‘Stop, take a picture of Welcome to Pakistan.’ Even the crew members in the back, were like, ‘We’re in, right? Pakistan?’ And I’m like, ‘Yep’,” Englen said.

The deeper they flew into Pakistan, the more it felt like “metropolis United States,” with power lines, towers, cultural lighting. The contrast was stark: they were in a completely different country, much more prosperous than Afghanistan.

"You could see lights coming off and on,” said Englen. “You could tell that we are waking up Pakistan, because this is not normal. An aircraft flying at roughly 11:30 to midnight is not normal, because they (Pakistan military aircraft) don’t play at night as much as we do. In fact, at all, sometimes.”

While the local populace was aware something was up (and began tweeting and calling 911), the special operations aviators weren’t getting indications that the Pakistani military or the Air Force was keen on what they were doing.

“But, it’s paramilitary, so we just knew that eventually they would. We made it to the objective without really causing too much of a ruckus over the 911 calls. (But,) once we crashed the aircraft, within the first 30 seconds of the mission, then that’s when we really woke up that entire valley,” Englen said.

On the objective

Hearing “Black Hawk down” over the radio changed everything.

Englen’s single Chinook raced across Abbottabad to pick up the ground force and air crew, arriving within 10 minutes of the call.

As he landed under the mushroom cloud of the exploding Black Hawk, the flight lead and planner was pissed off.

“I think crashing a helicopter on one of the most important missions of our generation, and later being asked by the director of the CIA (Leon Panetta), ‘Why the hell did you crash?’ I think that’s enough said,” Englen stated.

“It was hotter than expected for the MH-60 crews, and it had more fuel than expected. And they’re throwing on more last minute ground force. So, that (Black Hawk) crew — that had the famous last words to my two MH-47 (Chinook) crews before leaving Jalalabad of, ‘Just get us gas, bitches’ — had miscalculated, and came into that courtyard and lost effective lift,” Englen explained.

“Now, in retrospect, we could have done it with two Chinooks, the entirety. And more than likely — I don’t want to ever second-guess anybody —but in this condition, we would not have crashed, because we (the Chinooks) have the lift,” Englen said.

On the objective, his crew chiefs on the ramp, hopped out do a head count.

"They've got to get the headcount right, to make sure (we've) got the right amount of fuel. Plus, remember, we had people already on board, and this 800-gallon fuel tank inside. So there wasn't a whole lot of space (on board)," Englen explained.

While they were loading up inside, the Chinook was vulnerable.

“There’s nobody to protect us (the aircraft and crew) while we’re on the ground. Ever. When we’re on the ground, it’s just us,” he said. “So just hit the stop watch.”

They were on the ground for probably a minute and a half. It sounds like nothing. But for special operations aviators of the 160th, that’s an eternity.

“We like to be 10 to 15 seconds. Because, I mean, how long does it take operators to run on the back of a Chinook? That’s how long it should take,” Englen said. “But when they’re having to deal with grabbing things and carrying things (like bin Laden’s body bag, and everything seized from the compound), it changes everything.”

The mini-gunners, or door gunners, were scanning. They kept an eye on their sector. They saw civilians from the neighborhood around the compound come in from the right side towards the commotion, and kept an eye on them.

“It’s a little bit different of an environment. There is no ‘enemy’ in Pakistan, other than those that were inside the compound. So, even if we were shot it, it would be hard to even return fire. Not this type of objective. The rules of engagement are much different (than Afghanistan),” Englen explained.

“Ok, we’re loading the last guys,” the crew chiefs communicated with Englen, who started pulling a little bit of pitch.

“I had to anticipate and load the engines. Because I knew we were going to be extremely heavy,” Englen explained.

Turbine engines are running at a constant speed — about 6,000 rpm (revolutions per minute). If they are loaded too quickly, they can bog down a little bit.

As soon as the last ground force was on the aircraft, the crew chiefs came in right behind them and ramped up.

"When we pulled out, I yanked the guts out of the engines and we were at max power. I mean, we were at the maximum weight that the aircraft could hold," Englen explained.

Exfil

Englen’s Chinook headed back to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, while the remaining Black Hawk (Chalk-2) headed to the refuel site about 30 miles north of Abbottabad.

The other Chinook had set up prior to the Black Hawk coming in, shutting the aircraft down and running the fuel hoses out.

“So, that’s time for the Chinook to get there, time it to shut down, time to refuel, close up the refuel hoses, start the aircraft and head out. It takes a little bit of time,” Englen said.

That meant they were sitting on the ground vulnerable inside a sovereign nation, after invading its airspace and assaulting a compound. The Chinook was on the ground for probably 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, Englen’s lone Chinook on its way back was engaged three times by a Pakistani F-16. Because he’d anticipated and planned for that, he was able to defeat and evade the fighter jet.

“It was as an electronic fight. A missile never left the rail. So I was able to evade him electronically. That’s all I’ll say. But, he was searching and hunting for me, and three times came very close to actually launching a missile,” Englen said.

He'd done that before with other fighter jets on other missions.

"That's why we were picked for this mission. And, I was one of the few who trained 160th crews how to do that," he added.

Regardless, they were still jinking and jiving, flying nap-of-the-earth.

"We pulled every technique and tactic out of the book. And it worked," he said.

The risk was different, depending on who you asked.

On the actual bin Laden compound, the risk to the ground force was high (which is why comparisons were made to it being like “just another night in Afghanistan,” where operations occur multiple times a night).

While the risk to the airframes was fairly low on the objective, it was extremely high during the other nearly four hours of flying.

"It was not typical. That risk would be typical of the early days of Iraq, when we had air defense and we had to use electronic warfare tactics," he said.

Nevertheless, crossing back into Afghanistan was an unusually good feeling.

“We felt safe,” Englen said, “Which is a totally weird thing to say about (a war zone) in Afghanistan.”

Exhuming UBL

As soon as they landed at Jalalabad, a C-130 transported the team and Englen to Bagram Air Base to help exhume the body of Osama bin Laden.

"Take it out of the body bag, inspect and take samples and things like that, to verify," he clarified.

They put him back in the bag, and took it out to the Marine MV-22 Ospreys.

“We had a gunny sergeant who was pissed off like you wouldn’t believe. Because they were out there running — full rotors turning for like two hours waiting for us,” Englen said.

The Marine air crew hadn’t been read into what they were doing there, or where they were going. As Englen and ground force members brought the body bag out to them, they expressed some frustration.

He tried yelling at me, you know, just, ‘What the F, why are we here, what’s going on?’” Englen recalled.

Englen just put his hand on that Marine gunny sergeant, and pointed at the body bag.

“'You know who that is?' I said. And, he looked at me, and I go, ‘That’s Number One.’ And there, he just snapped a salute, immediately changed his tone,” Englen said.

The Osprey air crew immediately pulled the ramp up, and off they went. They flew with an escort, all the way up to the USS Carl Vinson and buried bin Laden in the North Arabian Sea.

Breaking news

Stateside, there had been speculation about the delay between the time all the TV networks broke into prime time programming — with the surprise announcement that Obama would be addressing the nation shortly — and the president actually walking to the podium, nearly an hour later.

Many speculated that the delay was because most of the media were at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and it took time to assemble them back at the anchor desks. There were even reports of some media members being slightly tipsy from the party as they reported the breaking news.

In reality, that delay was because the special operators were reveling at Bagram.

“I’m one of the ones who wrote the report that delayed Obama by about 45 minutes,” Englen admitted.

Oops.

"That’s because I was joking around, we were high-fiving and celebrating, and so was the ground force commander,” said Englen. “Then a senior officer looked over and says, 'Hey, jackasses. The president’s waiting on your executive summary.’”

He had kept the details in the executive summary regarding their special operations air piece to a minimum, careful about providing contextual data.

Minutes after they finished the report, Obama walked down that famous hallway in the White House to the podium to tell the world the news: The United States had conducted a raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.

Prom night

Back home at Fort Campbell, it was high school prom night for Englen's daughter.

Englen’s wife Tina had just opened up a bottle of red wine, and sat down to watch “CSI” on TV, to relax from all the prom drama that day.

“Remember how dramatic you were at 16, 17 years old? So, I’ve got this teenager, going over-the-top that her hair wasn’t going (right), huge Cinderella dress wasn’t going, shoes were horrible, ‘I look fat,’ 'everything sucks,’ and on and on,” Tina sighed.

The couple’s son Chris had come down from their local college to fill “the dad role,” since Englen couldn’t be there. He’d pinned his sister’s corsage on, and was there to support her before driving back to his dorm.

Englen shows daughter Alex a MH-47 cockpit simulator at NASA Ames Research Center. Englen teaches pilots vertical lift, tiltrotor & coaxial there. (Courtesy of Doug Englen)
Englen shows daughter Alex a MH-47 cockpit simulator at NASA Ames Research Center. Englen teaches pilots vertical lift, tiltrotor & coaxial there. (Courtesy of Doug Englen)

One of Tina’s girlfriends had come over to see about going out for dinner before the teenagers headed out for all the prom parties on post.

“She told my daughter, ‘Do not go out and drink, and make your mom work harder tonight. Your mom doesn’t need it.’ And I was like, ‘Thank you, somebody tell this child to be good tonight,'” Tina laughed.

Before he’d left, Englen had told Tina, “Stay local. Don’t go anywhere, be home, just stay home.”

Tina had put their other two children to bed, and was hoping for a minute of calmness before her daughter came home from prom. She’d literally just sat down when the news bulletin interrupted “CSI."

“Mom, mom, mom!” Tina’s son called immediately from college.

“Chris, I got to go. I don’t know what’s going on,” Tina replied.

“Is this dad, is this dad?” he asked.

“I don’t, I don’t know, let me...” Tina hung up, because the live feed picture of the White House with the empty podium came on. Anchors and reporters filled time on air waiting for the president to come out. She thought she heard someone say there was a concern about a helicopter down.

Her son called back.

“I just said, ‘Stop calling me, I need to watch TV. When I know something, y’all will know something, give me a minute.’ And he just was crying on the other end of the phone, ‘This is our dad, this is my dad, this is my dad.' All I could say was: ‘I know, baby. Maybe. Let me figure it out.'"

Chris had his whole dorm floor watching the TV in the common areas.

All the prom parties at Fort Campbell High School stopped. Everybody focused to what was happening on TV.

“We just sat there and watched TV, like the rest of you,” Tina said. “As I’m sitting there watching the television, trying to figure out where Doug is, what’s going down — I’m worried: ‘Am I going to get a knock on the door,’ (from a uniformed officer and the chaplain)?” Tina shared.

They lived on post, and everyone was excited. People outside were running up and down the street with air horns.

“I had gone out to see who was shooting the horns off, and I couldn’t tell if my phone was ringing or not. I came running back in, knocked my knee on the door, about fell into my living room, and sure enough, my phone was ringing. It was Doug,” Tina shared.

All she heard between the ruckus outside, was: “I love you, everything’s good, and I’m coming home.”

Englen was the only one able to call home.

Right after Englen dropped the body off with the Marines so they could fly it up to the Carl Vinson and had written his executive summary report, he received approval to run inside real quick to call his wife.

They’d been together since meeting in high school in 1987. He knew she and their four children would be stressed.

“I knew it was prom, and when this hit the news, they’d connect the dots. But the news, ‘There is a helicopter crash,’ they’d think the worst. A quick phone call just to hear my voice, and tell them everyone’s OK, I knew that was all that was needed,” Englen said.

“It was enough,” Tina confided. “We didn’t even get to say goodbye, the phone had disconnected. Probably 20 seconds later, the announcement came from the White House that he was killed, bin Laden. Obama was there in the hallway, saying it.”

Neighbors came over, asking if she’d heard from her husband, since news had spread of a helicopter down.

“In our (160th SOAR) community, the first thing is, is everybody OK,” Tina said.

Her daughter came home, worried, from prom in her huge ball gown. She wanted to be with her family to see what was going on.

“She knew I had heard from her dad, so I said, ‘Go. There’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can change. This is your prom night, go. Go have fun, I’ll see you later.’ So she went back out,” Tina recalled.

But, not before telling her mother, “Why the hell did I want a Cinderella dress? I couldn’t move in it. I couldn’t get in and out of the car.”

Strangeness back home

Two days after arriving home, Englen was at Jiffy Lube with Tina, getting an oil change. On the TV in the tiny lobby waiting room, the news was all about the killing of bin Laden. Three gentlemen waiting, in their mid-20s, were absolutely convinced it was a conspiracy.

“I’m just sitting there, smiling, because they thought that it never happened. They thought it was just a publicity stunt for propaganda, for campaigning for Obama. They thought Obama staged it, like putting that on the news to boost his numbers,” Englen laughed.

Tina looked at her husband.

“They have no idea, do they?” She’d whispered to him.

“No. And I’m not here to explain it to them,” he’d chuckled.

While Englen was amused, Tina was bothered. She’d heard one of the men saying: “The soldiers that took part in this (conspiracy), should be shot, too.”

“They made a comment like that, and you know, I’m sitting there in this little, tiny waiting room, and I can’t believe that guy thinks that. And, that he thinks what my husband did, is horrible,” Tina recalled.

The aftermath

In the days that followed, Englen smirked at the media coverage. Especially when random helicopter pilots and aviation consultants offered their expertise on what they thought happened on the mission.

Almost all of the news coverage was about the SEALs, which he was perfectly fine with Folks really did not need to know about what special operations aviators do — period.

Some of the officials who'd been in the White House Situation Room during the operation later released details from the intelligence side, and some of what the SEALs had done.

For instance, former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, said that the ground forces had been “met with a great deal of resistance,” and bin Laden had used a woman as a human shield.

“But nobody — probably because my executive summary was so vague — there was no contextual data to say, ‘Here’s what happened on the air side,'” Englen speculated.

He was relieved details about his 160th SOAR’s air piece never really got out.

Presidential visit

Three days after the Jiffy Lube incident, President Obama came to Fort Campbell to congratulate everyone on that operation. No family members were allowed.

“Nothing very glamorous at all. There’s really no pictures, either,” Englen said. Then again, the 160th SOAR, like the rest of the special operations community, is accustomed to having their award ceremonies behind closed doors, so information about sensitive missions doesn’t get out.

“He (Obama) told me, ‘We need to keep you around.’ And, all 24 ground forces that were on the objective that night made me an honorary member of their team. They basically said, ‘If you weren’t there, it would’ve been different.’ So it made me feel good,” Englen shared.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Adm. McRaven told him they were putting him in for the Distinguished Service Cross since he was responsible for the entire air piece. The rest of the air crew would receive Silver Stars. But Englen turned it down.

"I volunteered for that. But we all crossed that border. We all flew at the same time. Those crews took no less risk than I did," Englen told them. So, he was awarded that Silver Star with that non-descript citation for that operation, along with the rest of the air crew.

“I just kept a low profile, just morphed back into the ranks. Some asked, ‘Where’ve you been the last several months?’ In fact, nobody even within the unit (160th SOAR), really knew about it afterwards,” Englen added.

More honors

Four months later, Englen received his second Silver Star (for that same year) in Afghanistan.

This time his Chinook was in a huge firefight rescuing 7th Special Forces Group ODA-7223 in Panjway after it hit an IED. Their Navy EOD tech lost his leg and needed medical evacuation. But daylight was upon them and the firefight was too hot for the MedEvac to fly in, and there was no close-air support.

“I couldn’t wait any longer,” Englen said. So he and another Chinook went in with the risky approval from a 160th BN commander at Bagram.

“We went through about 8,000 rounds of mini-gun fire protecting the Chinook on the ground, trying to pick up the injured EOD guy. Killed probably 30 or 35 insurgents. We got shot at with absolutely everything: RPGs, RPK, AKs. That day, they missed,” he added.

The only easy day was yesterday

In the nine years since Operation Neptune’s Spear, Englen lived with a healthy sense of paranoia about potential threat to his family, while still flying missions in war zones.

“We worried that we were going to be on al-Qaida’s top 10 list because of this, just as if we would look for them,” he said.

“Look what happened with Extortion 17 (most of the 38 people on board the fatal Chinook shot down in Afghanistan were special operators). That was a ‘stake a claim,' so there’s always a target for certain individuals, so we stay quiet. Right now, I’m just telling you the story, because there’s never been an air piece conveyed on what happened that night,” Englen reiterated.

He also read the books released by two former SEAL Team members on the raid.

“They really didn’t talk about the air piece. I think if they did talk about the air piece, we (160th SOAR) would have come out and said, ‘No, they’re completely wrong. We’re not telling you how it’s wrong, just that it’s wrong,'” he said.

As most military families can attest, transitioning out of the service is a big adjustment.

“Keeping this house was always my job. You know, I didn’t put an ad in the paper to hire somebody to join me in running it, so it’s odd to have Doug home,” Tina chuckled.

Sometimes, she’d forget he was back, since he’d been absent so often in their marriage.

“When he started being here, I was eating dinner without him. He’d walk in the door, and say, ‘What we having for dinner?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, whoops, I’ve already eaten. Sorry, just not used to you here’,” Tina admitted.

“I know he has the same feelings, because all of a sudden, he’ll say, ‘I think I’m going to the gym,’ and I’ll go, ‘Oh, you’ve had too much of me, gotcha,'” Tina laughed.

It was also a bit shocking for Tina, when attending her husband’s retirement functions, to hear he’d been shot at.

“We would go to these awards events and I was like, ‘You did what?’ Now, he’s very good at warning me ahead, so I’m not shell-shocked in front of everybody, and trying to keep on a smiley face,” Tina shared.

“I didn’t know any of that, really, during the whole all of those deployments. I didn’t ask, he didn’t tell,” she added.

New mission

That is, until now.

After retiring earlier this month, Englen donated the small U.S. flag from his body armor to the 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero in New York. He wore it on all of his more than 2,500 missions, including the bin Laden mission.

He contemplated going back to flying, until his friend Congressman Mark Green (who'd been an Army special operations flight surgeon with the 160th) said, "Why don't you take on a new mission?"

Englen sought the counsel of Panetta and McRaven, who encouraged him to run for local office in his home state of Tennessee.

Doug Englen, left, and retired Navy SEAL Adm. Bill McRaven in February 2020 at Murray State College speech. (Courtesy of Doug Englen)
Doug Englen, left, and retired Navy SEAL Adm. Bill McRaven in February 2020 at Murray State College speech. (Courtesy of Doug Englen)

So he threw his hat into the ring as a Republican running for Tennessee State Senate District 22.

It was a little bit of a surprise to his wife.

“I thought retirement would be the time for us to take some walks and spend some time together. But, I’m on board because I love him,” Tina laughed.

However, being in the public eye will be a huge change for them. Plus, in the SOF community, there’s always criticism against any operator who talks about their former career. Especially if it appears to be for personal or financial gain.

“I asked them (McRaven and Panetta), saying, ‘This is what I’m considering doing.’ And they’re like, ‘It’s wonderful. Why are you worried about them (the SOF community)?’ And I said, ‘Well, because I don’t want them to think I’m being egotistical, or cynical, or trying to make money off this,'” Englen explained.

McRaven looked at him and grinned.

“You realize, by you being concerned and asking that question, you know you’re not,” they’d said.

With their blessing, he’s shared here the story of the air component side of the bin Laden mission, and his experiences which personify all SOF warriors and their unconventional work.

Once, then done.

“I want my experiences to explain who I am, so people know they can believe in me. Then transition to getting work done for my community," Englen said. “The things the military and especially SOF taught me — I’ll use to problem-solve some of the issues in the state that I live in.”

“I reached every level in the Army, so I must do it — take on this new mission. That’s what’s motivating me. I want to serve the people."

The 160th SOAR’s motto, “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit,” still applies to Douglas Englen.

He’ll be inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame in April.

Reporter Alex Quade covers U.S. special operations forces on combat missions. She’s received two national Edward R. Murrow Awards, and the Medal Of Honor Society’s Excellence in Journalism Award. Among her documentaries are“Horse Soldiers of 9/11,” narrated by actor Gary Sinise, and “Chinook Down,” investigating the fatal shoot-down of a helicopter in Afghanistan. Alex was supposed to be on that helicopter. Hollywood released a film about Alex’s coverage of special operations forces, called “Danger Close.”

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