When a U.S. military helicopter was destroyed in the backyard of Osama bin Laden’s compound, it left not only a pile of smoldering wreckage but tantalizing evidence of a secret stealth chopper.

The quest for a helicopter that can slip behind enemy lines without being heard or detected by radar has been the Holy Grail of military aviation for decades and until this week nobody had thought such a craft existed.

But aviation experts are now convinced that the Pentagon may have developed such an aircraft. They say the U.S. military went to extraordinary lengths to protect its new technology by destroying a helicopter that had been damaged in the raid, either during the initial landing or in the subsequent evacuation.

A section of the craft also survived intact, and photos of it leave no doubt in analysts’ minds that the U.S. had modified an MH-60 Black Hawk into some kind of super-secret stealth helicopter — the likes of which have never been seen before.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta has said that the only helicopters used for the operation were Black Hawks, and he acknowledged that one of them had to be destroyed.

While stealth jets are designed to evade radar, stealth helicopters are built to be quiet. Some experts have concluded that the military and CIA may have succeeded in their decades-old quest to develop a helicopter without the ear-splitting thump-thump-thump that has signaled the presence of rotorcraft from miles away.

Maj. Wes Ticer, a U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman, declined to comment.

Aerospace analysts say the surviving tail section appears nothing like that of the standard $30-million Black Hawk chopper made by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Connecticut. Notably, the tail rotor was partially covered by a plate or hub, possibly part of a noise muffling system.

“What we’re seeing here is a very different type of design than what we normally see in rotorcraft,” said Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. “It appears that the military went to great lengths to reduce the radar and acoustic signature of the helicopter.”

The tail section hints at what other modifications might have been made to the far more important main rotor.

The idea of quiet choppers is not a new one. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army and CIA developed what could be considered a stealth helicopter for the first time.

In the 1980s, the Pentagon worked on developing a classified stealth helicopter along with the F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft and the B-2 stealth bomber, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a website for military policy research.

No one knows for sure who worked on the modifications on the special forces’ Black Hawks or how many of them exist, but at least one may have been destroyed.

A military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the helicopter couldn’t get lift because of the 18-foot-high walls surrounding the compound.