Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series called “Rewind: Where are they now?” It catches up with people who stumbled into the headlines and then faded from view.
Helicopter pilot Mike Durant became famous after being taken hostage in the Battle of Mogadishu
Now, 23 years later, the family man talks about his experience in Somalia
He says it helped give him strength to start a company that employs mostly veterans
“I can hear them coming … they are on their way and they are going to kill me.”
Sitting in the cockpit of his downed Black Hawk helicopter, Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant looked to the sky and tried to come to terms with his imminent death.
With each passing moment, his fear built until the crowd descended on him, ripping off his gear and beating him mercilessly.
They broke his nose, eye socket and cheekbone, and Durant was certain they were going to beat him to death.
But just when his chances for survival seemed bleakest, he heard it.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
The sound of gunfire rang out from somewhere in the crowd, and the beating stopped. At that instant, a man emerged from the mass of Somalis surrounding the battered pilot and proclaimed that he would be taken prisoner.
“That’s the turning point where I went from being another American fatality to (realizing) they wanted to keep me alive and brought me into captivity,” Durant said.
Fast-forward nearly 25 years, and Durant, now 54 years old, stands in the kitchen of his Huntsville, Alabama, home, quietly flipping pancakes with his wife, Lisa. The youngest of his six children, Michael, 11, sits at a table, waiting to eat breakfast before school.
During the day, you can usually find Durant at the office of Pinnacle Solutions, the company he owns and operates that specializes in building military training simulators.
Three to four times a week, he heads to Huntsville’s Municipal Ice Complex after work to lace up his skates and play hockey on an organized team.
At first glance, there is little to suggest that the Durants are any different from most American families. Family photos and sports memorabilia line the walls in their home. Michael, dubbed by his siblings as the “Golden Child,” plays hockey, like his father, and hates to be late for school.
But if you look closely at the personal effects that fill a glass case in the living room, there are three medals, lying side by side on the bottom row.
Distinguished Flying Cross.
Distinguished Service Medal.
The subtle way that these prestigious military awards are displayed in his home is perhaps a reflection of Durant’s self-image today.
While he fully embraces his experience in Somalia as a pivotal part of his journey through life, Durant admits that he wants people to see him as more than just “the ‘Black Hawk Down’ guy.”
If given the choice, Durant would prefer not to talk about being shot down and held captive for 11 days. But he said he has an obligation to tell his story and share his unique perspective.
‘You feel somewhat invincible’
Made famous by the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down” and his own book, “In the Company of Heroes,” Durant piloted a Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.
His Special Operations aviation unit was deployed to Somalia in August 1993 to assist U.S. forces that had been engaged in the country for roughly eight months. The year before, President George H.W. Bush had ordered thousands of U.S. troops into the war-torn country, leading a United Nations effort to ensure food supplies for starving people.
The unit’s overall goal was to capture the leader of a Somali clan named Mohamed Farrah Aidid and provide security for relief organizations that were giving aid to the hungry in Mogadishu. At the time, Somalia was being ripped apart by clan warfare after the downfall of its former strongman ruler, Mohamed Siad Barre.
That summer, Durant and his team of U.S. soldiers conducted several successful operations, capturing around two dozen Somali warlords.
But everything changed on October 3, 1993, when his elite helicopter unit was tasked with providing air support for ground forces as they hunted two of Aidid’s senior militia leaders in the country’s capital.
Along with other armed opposition groups, Aidid’s forces were instrumental in driving out President Barre and spearheaded the effort to challenge the U.S.-led NATO presence in Somalia at that time.
Durant was riding a rush of adrenaline as he climbed into the cockpit of his helicopter that day, a feeling he compared to playing in the Super Bowl.
“We’re flying Delta Force and SEAL Team Six into the target … I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “When you first dream about getting involved in in military aviation, you put that as the highest level you could ever achieve.”
Confidence was high as the team of U.S. Black Hawks flew in formation from the United Nations compound on the outskirts of Mogadishu toward the city center.
“You feel somewhat invincible,” Durant said. “I mean, even today when I look at the videos of us flying in formation, it’s pretty intimidating.”
The operation was intended to last only an hour or two, using an assault force made up of 19 aircraft, 12 vehicles and 160 men.
Circling high above the targeted drop area, Durant and his three-man crew could see a battle begin to escalate below. U.S. ground forces had engaged Somali militia members and armed civilians who were loyal to Aidid and controlled the urban interior of the city.
As the firefight raged, Durant flew his aircraft into a tight orbit around the combat space to provide fire support for the U.S. troops below.
Suddenly, a man stepped out from a doorway and fired a rocket-propelled grenade toward the slow-moving helicopter, hitting its tail and sending Durant and his crew spiraling violently toward the ground.
The Black Hawk spun an estimated 15 to 20 times from about 70 feet in the air and crashed into a shanty area near where the main battle was taking place.
“I think in my mind, I died,” Durant said, thinking back on moment the helicopter hit the ground. “But somehow we didn’t.”
‘We are alone, we are surrounded’
When Durant regained consciousness after the crash, he immediately knew the situation was dire, but he did not panic.
“It’s like coming out of a deep sleep,” he said. “I remember regaining consciousness and thinking, OK, what do I need to do?”
Realizing that he could not exit the helicopter, as his back and leg were badly broken, Durant pushed away the debris blocking the windshield to get a better view of the situation. He found the personal weapon that was lying next to him and prepared to make his final stand.
“We are badly injured, we are alone, we are surrounded and there are really no reinforcements left to come to our aid,” he said.
But just as he had come to terms with his fate, two Delta Force operators, Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart, suddenly appeared at the crash site.