Trying to get in sync amid the chaos
By Mark Bowden
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
November 21, 1997
Sixty-one going down.
Just like that. Elvis’ voice was oddly calm, matter of fact, as if his Super 61 Blackhawk were coasting in for a landing instead of spiraling down from the impact of a rocket-propelled grenade.
The crash sent a wave of alarm through the embattled American soldiers on the ground. Frantic voices crackled over the radio net.
Durant and his copilot, Ray Frank, listened to it all as they circled barren land north of Mogadishu in Super 64, a Blackhawk helicopter just like the one Wolcott had been flying. They had two crew members in back, Bill Cleveland and Tommie Field, sitting and waiting behind silent guns. For years they had done little but prepare rigorously for battle, only to be stuck here in an oval flight pattern over sand, a good four-minute flight from where Wolcott had gone down. The city ended abruptly and turned to scrub brush, and beyond there was little to the blazing horizon but stubby thorn trees and dusty bushes, cactus, goats and camels in a hazy ocean of sandy soil.
Durant was certain that Wolcott and his crew would not have to wait long for help. There were more than a hundred American soldiers on the streets just blocks away. There was a convoy of heavily armed humvees, and a swarm of helicopter gunships overhead.
As Durant swung Super 64 back toward the city, he saw Chief Warrant Officer Keith Jones‘ Little Bird move over the crash site and descend. Another Blackhawk with a 15-man rescue force was about to rope its men in.
Then Durant got the radio summons to take Wolcott’s spot in the orbit over the target. Moving in fast and low over the city, Durant caught glimpses of the action by looking down his chopper’s chin bubble into the swirling clouds of dust. The tight, boxlike perimeter that had been drawn up for the ground troops, with Rangers firmly holding the four corners around the target building, had completely broken down.
It was hard to make sense of the scene below. The crumpled Blackhawk was in such a tight spot between houses that Durant couldn’t see it. Between the crash and the target building he saw Ranger columns moving up the dusty alleys, crouched defensively, taking cover, exchanging fire with swarms of Somalis running along parallel alleyways.
Durant flipped a switch in the cockpit to arm his crew’s weapons, two six-barreled 7.62mm miniguns capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute. He warned them to hold fire until they figured out where their own people were. Durant fell into Wolcott’s vacant place in a circular pattern opposite his friend Mike Goffena‘s Blackhawk, Super 62, and tried to get in sync with it.
The idea was to maintain a ”low cap,” a sweeping circle over the battle area. On the radio Durant heard that the search-and-rescue helicopter had been hit, but had managed to rope in its rescue team and was still flying. Elvis and his crew surely would be rescued.
Durant’s seat was on the right side of the airframe, and he was flying counterclockwise, banking left, so mostly he was seeing sky. It was maddening. When he leveled off, he was flying so low and fast that the view down through the chin bubble was like peering down through binoculars. Flashing fast beneath his feet were rusty tin roofs, trees, burning cars and tires. There were Rangers and Somalis darting everywhere.
With the roar of his engines and the radio din, Durant could not tell for sure if he was being shot at. He assumed he was. He was busy trying to orient himself to the ground while listening to the radio and varying his airspeed and altitude, trying to make his Blackhawk a more challenging target.
It was on his fourth or fifth circle, just as things were starting to make sense below, that he felt his chopper hit something. It felt like an invisible speed bump.
It hit hard.
WHEN YOUSUF DAHIR Mo’Alim heard the helicopters come in low, he grabbed his M-16 and quickly rounded up his 26-man militia. They had two bazookas, two RPGs, and a more modern Russian antitank weapon. They ran, some barefoot and some wearing sandals, fanning out in groups of seven or eight and moving toward the place where they had seen the helicopters descend and where the shooting was now fierce.
The sky was infested with helicopters. Mo’Alim’s fighters tried to stay together in the crowds of people moving toward the battle, knowing the Americans would be less likely to shoot at combatants surrounded by unarmed civilians. The fighters wore sheets and towels thrown over their shoulders to cover their weapons, and they carried their automatic rifles stiffly at their sides in order not to be seen by the helicopters.
But they were seen. The radio net was jumping with reports tracking them:
You got about eight or nine guys running up. . . . They do have weapons.
Be advised there are women and children in the area.
There are people moving across the street. As soon as you guys get off target they slide across the street hiding their weapons under their robes. They are moving toward the target.
Mo’Alim and his men were veteran fighters, guns for hire, mostly, although everybody in Mogadishu was now fighting the Americans for free. Since the United States had attacked the Habr Gidr leadership that summer and targeted its warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the clan militias and hired guns had stopped fighting one another and turned on their common enemy. Some had begun calling themselves, in a play on the word Rangers, ”Revengers.”
Mo’Alim, a skeletal young man with hollow cheeks and a wispy goatee, had organized an irregular militia for hire from among the men in his village, a labyrinth of dirt paths around rag huts and tin-roofed shanties just south of the Bakara Market. Men such as Mo’Alim and his crew were called mooryan, or bandits. Sometimes they were called dai-dai, or ”quick-quick,” for their jumpy nerves. They all chewed khat, a bitter green plant that acted as a stimulant.
Now, as the rotors of the circling Blackhawks beat overhead, Mo’Alim’s fighters encountered Rangers in a humvee just south of the target house and Olympic Hotel on Hawlwadig Road. As they crept up and fired, a helicopter swept in over the rooftops and opened up, killing the eldest of Mo’Alim’s squad, a 40-year-old man they called ”Alcohol.” Mo’Alim dragged Alcohol’s body off the street, and his squad regrouped a block farther south.
It was there that one of Mo’Alim’s men knelt in the road and took aim at Durant’s Blackhawk circling overhead. He dropped to one knee in the middle of the road and pointed his RPG at the back end of the helicopter, which was flying at rooftop level.
”If you miss, I’ve got another round!” Mo’Alim shouted.
The man fired. The grenade hit the Blackhawk’s rear rotor. Big chunks of it flew off in the explosion. And then, for a few surprising moments, nothing happened.
Chapter 7: Super 64 goes.