CIA Put The First Mi-17 Chopper It Flew Into Afghanistan After 9/11 In A Museum You Can't Visit
The Agency put it on display, but not for the public, to mark the anniversary of the start of its operations in the country in 2001.
The CIA has retired a particularly storied Russian-made Mi-17 Hip and put it in the collection of artifacts in its internal museum, prompting the release of various images and information. The helicopter is the very first one Agency pilots flew into Afghanistan as part of the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
USA Today was first to report that the Mi-17, which features a black "91101" on its tail in reference to 9/11, had arrived at the CIA's headquarters in northern Virginia on Sept. 26, 2018, which also marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Agency's effort in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., codenamed Jawbreaker. Pictures show the helicopter was, and may still be, sitting in a parking lot at the CIA campus in Langley.
We don’t know if there are any other helicopters or planes in the Museum’s collection, which is not open for public tours and is popularly known as the “best museum you'll never see.” At the time of writing, we had not received a response from the CIA about whether the Mi-17 was the first complete former Agency aircraft to go on display.
"The helicopter isn't emblematic of 9/11,” CIA Museum Director Robert Byer told USA Today. “It's emblematic of our response.”
After the 9/11 attacks, CIA field officer Gary Schroen put together the Jawbreaker team. His past experience included making some of the first contacts with local “Mujahedeen” forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and leading an effort to kill or capture Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s.
Similar to those efforts, Jawbreaker’s primary mission would be to make contact with elements of what was then known as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, a collection of various groups loosely connected by their opposition to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The CIA personnel would then liaise with those fighters and help pave the way for follow-on American forces.
The Jawbreaker team initially deployed to neighboring Uzbekistan and subsequently moved Mi-17s into the region to support their operations. The CIA chose the Russian helicopters for their capabilities in Afghanistan’s so-called “hot-and-high” environment, its rugged and relatively simple design, and because the Taliban were operating similar types, making it easier to avoid detection.
The helicopter that is now in the CIA Museum carried a black-and-green camouflage scheme similar to those the Taliban was flying at the time, as well as a large white “607” on the side of the fuselage. Crews eventually added the less visible black “91101” on Hip’s tail.
Though it has not given specifics, the CIA says it further modified the helicopter to be able to conduct low-level, nighttime insertion, extraction, and resupply operations. Pictures of the Hip from Afghanistan show that it is equipped with what appears to be a nose-mounted weather radar, found on many Mi-17s, and satellite communications antenna, which is far less common for these helicopters. The tail is covered in a variety of other non-standard aerials, too, which are likely associated with high-frequency radios and other communications gear.
“There's not a single officer within the organization at that time who wouldn't have eagerly taken my place,” Phil Reilly, a senior CIA paramilitary officer who served as Schroen’s deputy during the Jawbreaker mission, told USA Today. “It was nerve-wracking, I have to be honest, because there were so many unknowns.”
When the helicopter left Uzbekistan for Afghanistan the first time on Sept. 26, 2001, there were still concerns the Taliban might try to shoot it down. There were also fears that the Mi-17, which came off the production line in 1991, might not make the trip.
“One of the things that held my attention all the way through was the hydraulic system for the tail rotor leaked,” another Jawbreaker team member, identified only as “Doc,” explained to USA Today. "This is the problem with flying a used helicopter. It's kind of like wondering if it's a lemon with a used car.”
In one instance, CIA pilots flying the helicopter had to abort a mission after it became apparent the fuel filters had clogged and thankfully made it safely back to base. Fuel supplies, in general, were problematic and in one case pre-positioned stores turned out to be so old that the fuel had coagulated in the drums and was full of harmful debris, forcing CIA personnel to strain it through their socks.
The CIA’s Mi-17s, including 91101, continued to support the Jawbreaker mission into 2002. Schroen estimates that his team handed out $350,000 in cash on the very first night to North Alliance representatives so that they could be new equipment and cold weather clothing for their forces. The team had a total of $2.5 million to dole out as appropriate during that initial trip.
Jawbreaker personnel also began sharing intelligence with Northern Alliance members, especially about there whereabouts of Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda members. Using GPS equipment they mapped out the disposition of friendly and hostile forces so that U.S. military combat aircraft, including B-52s, would know where to strike.
They also helped U.S. Army Special Forces A-Teams, the first of which arrived in the country on Oct 19, 2001, link up with Northern Alliance Groups. The Jawbreaker personnel, along with additional joint CIA-U.S. military teams, continued to liaise with local forces and American special operators through the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.
Subsequent reviews of that debacle have concluded that the U.S. military’s decision not to commit more of its own forces to that campaign enabled Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda members to slip safely into neighboring Pakistan. Bin Laden would remain there in hiding until American special operators from SEAL Team Six killed him during a raid on his compound in May 2011. The CIA had been part of the interagency effort to find him that led up to that operation.
91101 continued flying in Afghanistan until 2012, according to the CIA. We don't know whether or not it continued to serve the CIA’s paramilitary elements in other locales after that, but it only arrived at the Agency's headquarters this year.
The exact size of the CIA’s Mi-17 fleet in 2001, or at present, is unknown, too. An official U.S. military picture from March 2002 shows another one of the Agency’s Mi-17s, with the U.S. civil registration code N353MA, in Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda. That aircraft also features a satellite communications antenna on the tail.
In December 2001, Russian authorities arrested contractors working for a company called Maverick Aviation who were reportedly in Siberia attempting to purchase additional Mi-17s on behalf of the Army’s secretive Flight Concepts Division and the CIA. The firm had flown a Boeing 737 kitted out as a luxury aircraft to the city of Petropavlovsk, but two members of the crew did not have valid visas. The 16 passengers reportedly had tourist visas.
That information emerged as part of a subsequent U.S. federal government lawsuit against employees of Maverick over fraud and mismanagement of the deal. The court had instructed the two defendants, who appealed their convictions, that they could not mention the CIA, Afghanistan, or 9/11 in any context during their trial.
Mi-17s continue to be a common sight in Afghanistan’s skies, though maybe not for much longer, at least with the Afghan Air Force. The U.S. military is helping the service with a program to replace the Russian-built Hips with American-made UH-60A+ Black Hawks, an entirely separate saga you can read about in more detail here.
Unfortunately, 91101 looks set to get hidden away again. We may never get to see her again, that is unless the CIA decides to open its museum up to the public.
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