Deep in the Sahel, as Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya exploited instability in Chad to expand its territory, a daring operation took place to obtain one of the Soviet Union’s most advanced attack helicopters. It was a complex plan involving Chadian rebel groups as well as French and American soldiers and spies, but it worked.
A Libyan Mi-24 Hind had been abandoned in a forward base not far from the frontier between Libya and Chad that had now been secured by Western-backed Chadian rebels. Though the helicopter was now in friendly hands, it was going to be a challenge to remove it from dangerous territory so close to the threat of Libyan fighter jets.
Absent a pilot who could be recruited to defect and fly the machine to friendly territory (as Iraqi MiG-21 Fishbed pilot Munir Redfa did in 1966), getting the machine out was going to be complicated, and it required some unorthodox thinking.
Youtuber Mark Felton gives a great account of the plan to exfiltrate the Soviet helicopter to somewhere where it could be examined and ultimately shipped back to the United States for closer analysis. Felton explains that after giving the Chadian rebels a cool $US2 ($3) million and some Stinger missiles, the CIA made plans to use a secretive Army helicopter unit’s dual-rotor Chinooks to lift the Hind out.
Though extensive lift testing was performed, there still were some doubts about the Chinooks’ lifting ability. Just a few years earlier, the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, an attempt to free hostages in Iran, cast doubt on the American Army’s heavy lifting capabilities. Still, they went forward with it.
In the dark of night, two Chinooks would take off towards the abandoned Libyan base, a C-130 Hercules accompanying them as a tanker. They would arrive and take apart the helicopter and, parts in one chopper and helicopter body slung underneath the other, they would take off again to return.
Ultimately, the plan was a success. The partially disassembled helicopter was slung under a Chinook and carried all the way back to safety in southern Chad. Though a sandstorm threatened the slow-moving heavily laden aircraft of their return, the helicopter was eventually loaded onto a C-5 Galaxy for transport back to the United States.
But why was it necessary to pull off such a plan for one helicopter? As the United States and the Soviet Union squared off in a multitude of proxy conflicts across the globe, nothing was more important than finding a technological edge. Any little insight into the inner workings of their adversaries’ military strategy and equipment was invaluable. With a Mi-24 in hand, Western countries could develop weapons and tactics to take them down.
And while the Cold War is over, the importance of examining the equipment of adversaries (and protecting advanced weapons from falling into their hands). It was precisely for this reason that Navy SEALs destroyed their damaged helicopter during the raid on Osama Bin-Laden’s compound in Pakistan, though apparently some parts of the destroyed helicopter were secreted out for analysis in China and Russia.
While no word of how those parts were removed from Pakistan, it’s doubtful that such secrecy would have been needed. Still, if it were, how would we know?