Osama bin Laden’s final night began with a group of four helicopters slicing through the night skies over Pakistan, making their way toward Islamabad from a U.S. base in northern Afghanistan. The mission, approved by President Barack Obama on Friday morning, had been set for early Sunday local time but was delayed by poor weather. Pakistani officials did not know they were arriving. The small, elite force flew low and fast, using terrain-following radar to hug the folds and valleys to avoid radar detection. It was after midnight when the team of U.S. commandos descended on the al-Qaeda chief’s Abbottabad lair.

About two dozen Navy Seals and CIA enablers swooped down on the suburban compound in a pair of choppers, leaving a second pair lurking nearby in case they were needed. They came under fire almost immediately, giving U.S. forces all the justification they needed to amp up their firepower. Helicopters can be ungainly machines, easily downed by rocket-propelled grenades or a flurry of small-arms fire. In addition to the choppers, heavier guns – perhaps AC-130 gunships – were likely on station overhead to rain down suppressive fire as U.S. forces moved in aboard specially outfitted CH-47 and UH-60 choppers.

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