Helicopter pilots review Zero Dark Thirty

I went to see Zero Dark Thirty with a couple of my friends, which is to say with a couple of helicopter pilots (since virtually all of my friends have ratings it seems). We were super-excited to see the helicopter scenes but they ended up looking like someone had pointed an iPhone at an 8-year-old’s elementary school diorama.

Comparing the movie to the Wikipedia page on the operation, it seemed reasonably accurate. The helicopter stuff was horrible, though. A pilot, just before the helicopter crashes, says “We’re losing power.” If the problem had been settling with power or vortex ring state, as officially explained by the government, it seems very unlikely that the pilot would have said that. None of the three of us were satisfied with the helicopter action in the movie or the explanation of the cause of the crash. Further, the replacement helicopter shown was another Blackhawk whereas in real life it was a Chinook.

Speaking of vortex ring state… I’m surprised that there has never been an investigation into the loss of the $21 million Blackhawk during that raid. A theory about the walls of the compound causing vortex ring state has been put forward, but much simpler problems such as being too heavy to hover out of ground effect and/or hitting the tail rotor on a tree or wall are the cause of a lot more crashes. The standard way to get into settling with power is descending relatively fast while not moving forward much, e.g., if you were trying to land in a confined area without giving the folks on the ground a long opportunity to take a shot at you.

It has been nearly two years… why hasn’t a aerodynamics grad student done a simulation of whether or not the walls of the compound could significantly contribute to a settling with power situation? This seems like a great master’s thesis topic!

[Update: I ran into a Blackhawk pilot, who had also served in the Army’s test flight program, and he said that no part of Army helicopter training ever mentions the possibility of terrain shape making settling with power more or less likely. As far as he was trained and had experienced, the only factors in settling with power were the standard ones that civilian pilots are taught to avoid, e.g., moderate vertical sink rate with little to no forward airspeed. He said “It was hot and high and probably they were too heavy.”]


  1. Jim Howard

    January 22, 2013 @ 11:30 am


    I liked the movie, but was also disappointed in the aviation aspects of the film. I noticed the same unlikely pilot comment. I’ll give the movie makers a pass on that, if the movie pilot had said ‘ring state!’ that might have have distracted and confused a lot of viewers.

    I also noticed that right before the raid they had the stealth helicopters parked out in the open in daylight. That would never happen! You don’t want to see your super secret black aircraft on Google!

    I’m sure the crash has been investigated out of the wazoo, but keep in mind that this helicopter was and is ‘black’. We don’t know that it had anything in common with a Blackhawk other than the tail rotor configuration. It’ll be a few more years before we really even know what kind of helicopter it was.

  2. Jim Howard

    January 22, 2013 @ 12:46 pm


    One other thing just occurred to me wrt the helicopter crash.

    It’s my understanding that there were many raid rehearsals conducted at a full scale mock up compound located in the United States.

    This mock up a chain link fence to simulate the solid concert wall that surrounded the real compound. This solid wall combined with higher than expected outside air temperature may have contributed to an unexpected loss of lift.

    I wish the movie had spent some more time on the military preparations for the raid. I particularly wish they had mentioned the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment who flew the helicopters. These Army pilots and crew members were just as important as the SEALs to the success of the mission.

  3. philg

    January 22, 2013 @ 1:46 pm


    Jim: Yes, I have heard about the chain link versus concrete wall theory. Suppose that I were to try that at Hanscom Field to explain an R44 mishap. Normally I land the helicopter on the ramp, which is relatively clear of obstacles. But if I land after 8 pm when I am pretty sure that all of the mechanics have gone home (and therefore won’t be annoyed by the shut-down noise), I land right next to the hangar, which is the length of a city block and about 40′ high. This dramatically changed the airflow around the helicopter, which is why my helicopter got stuck in the vortex ring state and crashed. I should not be investigated by the NTSB and FAA but in fact celebrated as a hero for managing the inevitable collision with the ground that was caused by the presence of the solid hangar doors and exterior wall.

    Would the FAA believe this story?

  4. Alvin Jones

    January 22, 2013 @ 4:39 pm


    The conspiracy theory is that OSB died many years ago from health issues, the operation was just a PR stunt, that all the SEALs involved were then killed a staged helicopter crash, and the books and movies released since then are just disinformation.

    Sound crazy? This comes from Steve Pieczenik, the guy who wrote the CIA training mauals on psych warfare and was the inspiration for Jack Ryan character in Tom Clancy novels.

  5. Alvin Jones

    January 22, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

  6. philg

    January 23, 2013 @ 1:26 am


    Alvin: Thanks for that. Why aren’t there any cheerful conspiracy theories? Maybe we should put one forward.

    Sample 1: The federal government has not been running budget deficits every year of more than $1 trillion, saddling our grandchildren with a crushing burden of debt. Tax revenues have actually far exceeded federal spending and the government has been using the extra money to mine gold in Australia and then bring it back to Ft. Knox via submarine and then special AMTRAK trains. Our grandchildren will not be paying taxes in order to repay Chinese bondholders but rather they will be installing solid gold bathroom fixtures with their share of the booty that we are wisely accumulating for them.

    Sample 2: There is not some large group of people in Asia who are better-educated and harder-working than the average American. It is not economic to design and manufacture electronics in Asia. There are secret underground organic LED factories in New Mexico where all of the stuff that Samsung and Sony are pretending to produce is actually made. It is shipped over to Asia in the middle of the night by black helicopters that have trans-Pacific range. We’re just trying to make people in Japan and South Korea feel good about themselves.

    But neither theory gets us any closer to why nobody has put forward an analysis of how some clutter on the ground caused a vortex ring state (and why in the previous 60 years of aerodynamics professors publishing papers and textbooks on helicopters apparently nobody has published anything on the interaction between terrain and vortex ring state).

  7. Steve E

    January 23, 2013 @ 11:01 am


    Hi Phil

    I’m one of your friends w/ a helicopter rating and I didn’t get the invite.

    What’s going on? I had to settle going to the movie with a Fixed Wing guy!

    I agree, the aviation parts were a bit disappointing. Overall, the movie was good but a little less than expected given the hype

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