ZERO DARK THIRTY
The Stealth Black Hawks
One of the most daring aspects of the U.S. mission in Abbottabad was the use of a top secret, experimental flightcraft that had never been deployed in this kind of situation: Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters modified with stealth technology to allow them to approach undetected by the compound's security or the Pakistani military. Although conventional Black Hawks have had a long history of military use in treacherous, closed-in areas in Grenada, Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans and most recently Afghanistan, the untested stealth equipment made the Abbottabad mission even more unpredictable once it was in motion.
The precise design parameters of the stealth Black Hawks remain undisclosed, although various sketches and photographs emerged after the raid. To design the film's four replicas, production designer Hindle worked with several sources familiar with the better-known stealth fighter jets. Like the jets, the stealth Black Hawks are known to utilize high-tech materials for their skins; employ flat structural angles that defy radar; and use sophisticated noise baffling.
"No one really knows for certain what they look like up close," says Hindle, "but in addition to the photographs and drawings you can find on-line, we spoke to a number of avionics and helicopter experts, and we came to our own conclusions as to what they would have to look like. In the end, there are not that many options. You still have the basic Black Hawk fuselage, and on top of that are the modifications to make it quiet and avoid being seen by radar."
The replicas were manufactured in London out of steel and fiberglass, then shipped to Jordan to be assembled for the shoot, which made for interesting logistics. "We shipped them in three-piece containers," Hindle explicates, "and they took forever to arrive. A bunch of stealth helicopters that no one's seen before were not a fun thing to get through Customs in Jordan!"
To give audiences a sense of the Black Hawk crash that nearly upended the mission, Bigelow and Hindle decided to hang one of their freshly-built replicas from a 200-foot crane, mounted from the top, so the whole thing could rotate and spin, as a helicopter really does when it is going down. "It could articulate and spin both the actors and the cameraman," says Hindle. "Then we had wind machines everywhere to kick up debris and we shot the crash as much as we could live."
In addition to the replicas, the film used two working Jordanian Black Hawks that flew live into the compound for the shoot -- then had a "stealth look" added with CGI in post-production. The filmmakers wanted to penetrate not only the helicopter but also the experience of the SEALs flying into this erratic, dodgy situation. "We give the audience a true sense of what it was like to be one of those soldiers trapped essentially in a low, slow flying bus without any of the normal agility and speed that a usual Black Hawk has," sums up Boal. "Your lights are off, and all you've got is the inky darkness of Pakistan. You see what a feat it was that they made it."
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